Picture: Literature is a new collection of works on display at Williams College Museum of Art that illustrates famous literary narratives. Although this exhibition primarily features American artists, the source material comes from a wide range of cultures and time periods. The exhibition is as dynamic in its presentation as the art is itself, with depictions of the subjects of literature ranging from photographs to videos and from sketches to expansive portraits.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe. I am a man of substance … ” The words are engraved on a placard, framed and fixed on the wall as part of a work by Glenn Ligon that was completed in 1992, and its deep reflective theme represents the tone of the Picture: Literature exhibition. Ligon draws inspiration from the novel I Love Myself written by Zora Neale Hurston, an African American woman who wrote primarily in the early 20th century. An adjacent placard says, “I do not always feel coloured. I feel most coloured when I am against a sharp white background.” The words are black against a white background, yet fade further and further into obscurity as they blur into a nearly solid black block.
A similar work in the exhibit is Tim Rollins’ work based on Harriet Ann Jacob’s book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This particular work of art is composed of pages taken from the real diary of a slave girl and punctuated with multi-colored ribbons. These ribbons symbolize the Johnkannaun Festival, a celebration that included bright ribbons. These gatherings were always held right before slave auctions. In addition to these reminders of a dark period, however, is an illustration of Huckleberry Finn and Jim on a log raft in Mississippi. In spite of their crazy misadventures, the moment depicted between Jim and Huck is tender, with Jim helping Huck to stand up in the raft.
In a more modern interpretation, there is an intriguing five-minute video by American artist Patty Chang based on the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The short film depicts Chang herself drinking from a fountain and totally transfixed by her own image in the fountain.
A work based on the Indian myth of Nala and Damayanti also explores the relationship between man and the divine. This story tells of a princess who has to choose a husband among many eligible suitors. She turns to the gods to aid her in this difficult choice. It is one of the more colorful depictions, replete with elaborate illustrations of Indian attire and ornaments. Another religious aspect of the Hindu Indian culture also becomes a part of the exhibit, with framed colourful words from the ancient document, Bhagarata Purana, which has 14,000 Sanskrit verses.
No American exhibition of literature is complete, however, without reference to famous Western authors. Samuel Beckett of Waiting for Godot fame has simple yet elegant illustrations of a coat, stone and a cane. These characterise one of his main protagonists in a book that never managed to get published. Similar illustrations from the 18th century newspaper Herald Weekly are also featured in the exhibit. They reference great works of Shakespeare, including Richard II, King Lear, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The essence of this exhibition is the exploration of imagination. Beyond the themes and analysis of how each work relates to the literature on which it is based, there remains a simple common trait: All literature can be imagined and illustrated. Picture: Literature reminds the viewer that image and the written word are not so different as they may seem.