Matchstick Men &Thingamyjigs: 5 Picture Books That Influenced Me
Sara Baume was born in Lancashire and grew up in County Cork, Ireland, where she still lives. She studied fine art and creative writing and her fiction and criticism have been published in anthologies, newspapers and journals such as the Irish Times, the Guardian, The Stinging Fly and Granta magazine. She has won the Davy Byrne's Short Story Award, the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize for Literature, an Irish Book Award for Best Newcomer and the Kate O'Brien Award. Her debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Warwick Prize for Writing and the Desmond Elliott Prize. She has received a Literary Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A Line Made by Walking, her second novel, is a profound meditation on the interconnectedness of wilderness, art and individual experience, and a powerful exploration of human frailty. It focusses on Frankie, a twenty-something artist, struggling to cope with urban life, who retreats to the rural bungalow on 'Turbine hill' that has been vacant since her grandmother's death three years earlier. It is in this space, surrounded by nature, that she hopes to regain her footing in art and life.
Exclusively for Foyles, Sara talks about the importance of art to her and her writing.
My second novel, A Line Made by Walking, is named after an important work of art by Richard Long, one of roughly seventy artworks described at intervals throughout its ten chapters. In addition to these descriptions, there are photographs embedded between blocks of text, one for each chapter. They are all of imperfect quality; their presence is intended to be enigmatic. Their inclusion is a nod, with respect, to W.G. Sebald. The great German writer, who died in 2001, often integrated slightly mystifying images into his unclassifiable books. Some of these were photographs he had taken himself; others were clippings or postcards he found by chance.
A number of years ago, Five Dials journal published a piece entitled ‘The Collected Maxims of W.G. Sebald,’ as recorded by David Lambert and Robert McGill, two of the author’s former students at the University of East Anglia. The ‘maxim’ I remember most clearly was: Read books that have nothing to do with literature. It happened to reach me at a time when I had been reading – worriedly, hurriedly – as much literature as possible to compensate for never having, officially, studied it. Sebald’s advice reminded me that I have looked as often, if not more often, to art and artists for insight and guidance, as to writers and writing.
The following are five ‘picture books’ which have been subtly, yet significantly, influential.
The Paintings of L. S. Lowry: Oils and Watercolours, with an Introduction and notes by Mervyn Levy, Book Club Associates, 1978
This monograph was in my grandmother’s house when I was a child, and found its way to me after she died.
‘I am a simple man, and I use simple materials,’ Lowry said, and despite being regularly disparaged by critics for such simplicity, he continued to paint into his eighties and stopped only when he believed he’d said, in paint, all that he had to say. Lowry was an only child, and never married. He worked as a rent collector for most of his life, tramping the city streets by day, and then taking to the easel by night.
His canvasses are typically stuffed with people and buildings, and yet, they exude loneliness.
Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts by Vladimir Arkhipov, FUEL Publishing, 2006
A gift from my mother when I was an art student. In her eternal perceptiveness, she identified the similarity between the folk artefacts in this book and the contraptions I was trying to build in the sculpture department.
Arkhipov explains, in the introduction, how his collection of ‘thingamyjigs’ began in 1994 when he spotted, in the house of a friend, a hook made out of an old toothbrush. This publication brings together eleven years of collecting and over two hundred photographed objects, each accompanied by the story of their inception as told – always candidly, often hilariously – by the Russians responsible.
A TV aerial made out of forks, a toy train made out of a beer can, a string of rosary beads made out of white bread, ash, spit and thread – all together a vivid portrayal of what life was like in the Soviet era.
‘The most interesting visual traces left by creation’, Arkhipov concludes in the afterword, ‘are those that have not been subject to conscious aesthetic assessment by their creators...’ which was, in hindsight, an interesting message to receive as I was about to set out to try and be an artist.
Catalogue of Documenta 12, Kassel, Taschen, 2007
Kassel is a small German city on a river – the Brothers Grimm lived and wrote there for over three decades.
Every five years since 1955, it has played host to one of the most significant events on the international art world’s calendar: Documenta. The summer after I graduated, I travelled to visit the twelfth incarnation of this sprawling exhibition. That year, it was remarkable for its lack of a designated theme – the work took every shape, hailed from every continent, dated from the 14th century to the present, and the curators left it up to audience members to make their own connections.
The experience was singular; it showed me art as a form which lives – uneasily, yet relevantly – in the real world. I carried it all home with me between the covers of this catalogue.
Another Way of Telling by John Berger and Jean Mohr, Writers and Readers, 1982
This is the book I turn to when I’m struggling with words.
Berger needs no introduction, and Mohr, a Swiss photographer, was his friend and collaborator of many years. The most recent re-issue, published by Bloomsbury in 2016, includes the subtitle: A Possible Theory of Photography. It’s a book in five parts, about the meaning of and in – and outside, and around –photographs. Now that they are easier to take and more difficult to avoid than ever before, Berger and Mohr’s understated deliberations remain intriguing and salient.
Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances by Arne Glimcher, Phaidon, 2012
Agnes Martin’s paintings are incredibly spare, to the point of there being, sometimes, practically nothing there at all. She often destroyed those which she considered to have – in some sense – failed. Martin lived into her nineties, and as she became frailer, her friend, dealer and author of this book, Arne Glimcher, was called upon to slash the ‘failed’ canvasses at her request.
I had to leave this monograph behind in Iowa City, in a library comprising solely of art books – such a vast selection that I was daily overwhelmed. I was based in the Midwest US on a long residency, and Martin’s life and work and words spirited me through a lonely spell. Her resistance to commentary made those explanations that she did, tentatively, offer, exceptionally radiant.
‘Artwork is’, Martin said, ‘a representation of our devotion to life.’
Author photo © Thomas Langdon
T V Aerial made out of Forks by Vladimir Arkhipov courtesy of http://www.redoctobergallery.com/?p=499
L S Lowry's 'The Lake', 1937, courtesy of http://www.thelowry.com/gallery/work-by-ls-lowry-places