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The worlds of art and literature intermingle
A renowned Italian painter of his era from Florence (c. 1421– 1457), Andrea del Castagno was influenced largely by Giotto di Bondone and Tommaso Masaccio. But there is something more to his life than his artistic trajectory. An artist-biographer of the Italian Renaissance, Giorgio Vasari, alleged that the painter took the life of another artist Domenico Veneziano, though many felt that the presumption was unlikely.

But just the fact that Vasari relates the story of these two 15th-century artists who took their so-called artistic rivalry to the probability of murder made it all quite dramatic, though it was not necessarily the case, as the supposed killer happened to predecease his victim. However, this compelling murder mystery in itself revealed quite a lot about the palpable obsessive rivalries of the Renaissance period. So it remained artistically and realistically true.

An interesting essay, titled ‘The art of illusion’ by writer Jonathan Jones reveals how artists tend to inhabit the borders between fiction and fact. As a result, both their works and lives have invariably inspired writers like Vasari and Dan Brown. Jones, who writes on art themes for the Guardian newspaper and also a jury for the 2009 Turner prize, takes a cue from Oscar Wilde's book ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and points out it triggered him to mull over the phenomenon of art inspiring so many good stories.

In Wilde's novel, a painter creates a young man’s portrait, who he is in love with. All his unspoken passion goes into the work that somehow makes it more than a mere passive artwork. It takes on mysterious properties. When young Dorian wants the portrait to decay while he is preserved in his pristine beauty, he indeed gets his wish.

The tale essentially belongs to a class of art fictions – stories about artworks. Other examples of this genre include ‘The Oval Portrait’ by Edgar Allan Poe and ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ by Balzac. If writers can narrate such tales about artworks and forms of art, imagine what they perhaps can do with the milieu and lives of artists of different eras. A case in point is ‘The Masterpiece’ by Emile Zola, a dark portrait of the French 19th century avant-garde, and ‘La Carte et le Territoire’ by Michel Houellebecq. It satirizes the contemporary art world.

This illustrates novelists do have their share of fun with artists and the art world. As the columnist explains, this actually goes back to the very origins of artistic celebrity! ‘Lives of the Artists’ by Giorgio Vasari, probably the first ever noteworthy work of art criticism & art history, was published in 1550. It was followed up by an expanded edition almost two decades later. Often branded as nothing more than just a collection of a bunch of some sensational anecdotes about eccentric artists and their art, it, in fact, was nothing less than a collection of insightful stories about art. The author saw it as an adventure, art creators as anti-heroes or heroes - their travails concocting terrific tales.

Vasari, as mentioned above, created the fascinating modern image of the ‘artist’ by evoking tales, which hovered on the thin boundaries between fact and fiction. Another of his contemporaries Benvenuto Cellini, sculptor and criminal, traced his own life in a way that just as richly juxtaposed reality with fantasy.

Cellini's life was turned into an opera by Berlioz; Vasari's life of Michelangelo was spun into Irving Stone's bestseller The Agony and the Ecstasy, which was filmed with Charlton Heston. Since then we have had the life of Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring and the commercial king of them all, The Da Vinci Code.

All these works of fictions exist in that enigmatic borderland between art and real life. If the latter is real and art to be seen as an illusion, does the artists’ lives glide between truth and illusion? Do they take on the apparent unreality of their own works? Or perhaps, as evident in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, it might well be a complex two-way relationship, and art does reveal truths that the apparent illusion of our everyday life habitually conceals.

Either way, the world of art is indeed strange and eccentric enough to inspire many such stories. It’s no surprise then that many distinguished writers have continued to recognize in the world of art and artists a tantalizing and tempting subject matter that swings between the plausible and the fabulous, between truth and deceit. The worlds of art and literature intermingle to result in highly engaging literary works.