Doodle bugs

Brushes with greatness
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  January 2, 2008

Every teen mag worth its weight in heartthrobs can tell you what your notebook doodlings reveal about your personality — arrows equal aggression; boxes, self-centeredness; eyes, a wish to be alluring, and so on. Through January 15, an exhibit titled “The Writer’s Brush,” at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square, offers visitors a chance to analyze the images — not the words — that were sketched, painted, inked, etched, and doodled by some 120 writers. The works featured in the show (which is running in conjunction with the publication of a book by the same name by Donald Friedman), aren’t, for the most part, notebook scribblings, but accomplished paintings and drawings — some consistent with the writers’ written work, some quite at odds.

Of course, e.e. cummings — sensual lower-case love poet — paints swirling images of naked women; Jazz ($12,500) is a portrait of a pregnant woman in full swoon. Annie Proulx, chronicler of lonely, sparse, and unforgiving geographies and characters, paints exactly as one would imagine: watercolors of mountain ranges, ripped out of a notebook. Naturalist Annie Dillard uses ink and slate-blue watercolor to do a small portrait of a cottage. Bukowski, that bawdy sod, draws D.H. Lawrence pissing in a urinal with Buk himself hidden in the stall. And Victor Hugo’s tiny, soot-colored cityscape, Paysage ($85,000), seems the perfect home for urchins. Work by Borges and Tennessee Williams (a hybrid beast, and two naked men, respectively), echo both men’s writings and lives.

Other works are less consistent with the writer’s written oeuvre. If someone were to say that J.P. Donleavy, author of the naughty Ginger Man, dabbled in the visual arts, I’d picture buxom women, pint glasses, randy gentlemen — not a purple, egg-shaped bird in Florida–esque pastels. And from poet Louise Glück, whose lines often explore the dissolution of love, I’d expect more fraught visual interiors; her still life — roses, a fork, a spoon, and pear — is all tranquility.

It’s fair to say that Elizabeth Bishop was a better poet than she was a painter. Coxcombes for Oscar ($25,000) is a one-dimensional pastel of red flowers in a vase on a table. Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s much-copied portrait, Freud, is, looked at one way, a profile of the man with beard and bleeding Oedipus eyes; looked another, it’s the torso of a naked woman.

As John Updike writes in an essay in The Writer’s Brush (Mid-List Press, 480 pages, $40): “No wonder writers, so many of them, have drawn and painted; the tools are allied, the impulse is one.”

Related: Updike does death, R. Crumb does God, Vanity Fair does Proust, Orpheus in the afterworld, Midnight ramblers, More more >
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