If landscapes could talk back to artists

Great landscapes are as much about the personality of the land they represent as portraits of people. I thought, perhaps, if the land portrayed had a voice and could talk back to the artist, it might be an interesting dialogue, as in a play. Playwriting. I have not done it before and this is exactly what the Weekly Writing Challenge is about.


Dramatis personae

The Artist

The Voice of the Town (The Voice)

The Artist stands in the centre of the stage with city views projected in random order on three screens shaped like a diamond around him. Each new photo lights up when the previous one goes dark. The views are accompanied by relevant sounds (church bells, traffic, people talking, etc.) The artist is dressed for a field trip with his gear hanging off his shoulder.

As the photo-show progresses, the voice of the town tells its story.

The Voice of the Town (The Voice): I am a hundred miles away from Moscow, to the South-East, and for hundreds of years I was at the frontier, fighting off Tatar nomads while Czars in Moscow were building the state that is now known as Russia. I am as old as Moscow, a bit over 850 years old, that is. In-between the wars, I was leading the quiet life of a provincial town. Well, there was that wife of the Prince who threw herself from a tower as she didn’t want to be captured by the Mongols, but I am not sure it wasn’t an accident. Oh, the first Russian battleship was built there. I’ve got no seas around here, but they somehow pulled it all the way to one of the big ponds using small and big rivers as roads. I have been crumbling, and I have been restored again. I am not exactly looking old as new, but some churches get a new paint job, the old Castle gets a facelift, and I still have a few tourists coming in each year.

Suddenly, when the image of an arched gallery appears, the Artist says “That’s’ the place!” and starts unpacking and unfolding his easel. The image stays on the screen.

He starts drawing and we see this pastel gradually emerging on the white screen behind and above him:

When the drawing is over, the artist’s mobile goes off, he puts it on loudspeaker, because his hands are still busy doing some final touches on the drawing.

The Voice: What is this? What season is this? What…

The Artist: Winter. You’re not a summer vacation spot. You’re more of a winter character. You had a difficult life in your 900 years as a small town and you weathered it out. Well done. I want to show that you are still alive and kicking. See these people at the back walking by the wall? I put them there to show that life goes on regardless of anything. There’s still some purpose behind your not being a forgotten ruin. I don’t want to offend you, but there’s a lot in you that looks like a ruin.

The Voice: Why is then the snow green? Is this an ecologic disaster? I don’t have any factories around here, just agriculture. Very primitive agriculture, I have to admit.

The Artist: I could say I see you this way, but no, it’s green because the sky is blue.

The Voice: You’re are barmy. And not because you talk to a town’s spirit.

The Artist: ha-ha-ha. The street lights paint the snow yellow. The deep blue skies reflect in the yellow snow and – bang! – it becomes green. You are a small town that has always been one with nature. That’s the way to show it. And the red of the wall separates the blue and green right in the middle, like blood running through a body! Plus, it’s the basics of the colour wheel. That’s to show your vitality, my provincial friend.

The Voice: I’d say looking at the colour wheel I need some orange.

The Artist: Oh, no, you don’t have enough energy in you, not enough optimism. No, you’re not getting any orange. I’ve even made the red cold, because the brick wall is as frozen as those people who trudge below.

The Voice: You might be right on this. But why is everything so… curved? When I see myself in the mirror I see mostly straight lines, not the oceanic waves you painted.

The Artist: Have you seen airplanes flying above you?

The Voice: that’s the only entertainment I get during cold nights when all the yobs are scared off by the frost! But how are planes relevant?

The Artist: Airplanes fly along beelines from point A to point B, but when you project those routes on a flat page of an inflight magazine, these routes turn into curves. I take your straight lines and linear perspective and project them onto your curved history.

When I was drawing the red-brick wall I thought it had seen Russians, Mongols, and Poles scaling it, fighting each other to hold on to it, dying on I, and on both sides of it. And often it was Russians against Russians. This is no straight wall at all. It is like portraying a soldier with deep scars on his body from past fights. I’d have to show the scars even if they are covered by his clothes.

The Voice: My scars have been healed, repainted and rebuilt. I’ve not seen a war in the last 70 years! You can see scars on the body of a soldier, but you can’t see them on me.

The Artist: But I can. I can even if I don’t want it. Shall we paint more of you, if you are not scared to be seen as what you really are?

IMPORTANT: Did you like the play dialogue? Do you want to see more of the town and how the Artist thought it really looked like? Let me know what you think of this form: landscape talking back to the artist. I need to know whether it is a form interesting to develop. If you want to know more about this particular artist, click on the tag “Sevostianov” at the bottom, it will get you to the right posts.

If this is your first time here, you can sample stuff in this blog by clicking on ABOUT at the top of the page. You’ll find links to some of my best or typical posts there. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh. You can also sign up for my posts to be delivered right into your hands using the form on the right.


  1. Oh this was a fun challenge! I definitely like the ‘subject talks back’ idea.
    Here’s the question: how do you know what the artist is saying? Are the colors, the lines – the thought process behind them – your own theorising? How can one tell when those choices are not accidental? Or were they explained to you by the artist himself, or (in the case of older works, not here) by some notes from the artists or contemporaries?

    1. “How do you know what the artist is saying?”
      In a great book, all characters, plots, and scenes are always justified. Nothing is accidental or unnecessarily excessive. The same is true for great paintings. Artists may claim “it was a pure chance” or “impulse” to draw a certain line or use a specific colour. It is never true. Francis Bacon used to say he just wanted to use violet colour when he painted his study of Innocent X. Rarely an artist can really say what he means by his painting – painters are accustomed to expressing themselves not with the help of words. Regardless of what artists claim, it is important to understand their motivation, and then interpret their paintings, with or – much more often – without the artist’s help. My interpretation is a merge of mathematics\formal logic, psychology\neuroscience, sociology, art history, and history (because it helps to understand possible motivations for artists long gone). It helps that I have education, background, or business in these areas. Sometimes I indeed interview artists (like this one), but they can never explain why and what they did, except in very vague terms, like “I feel that corner is empty”. This is why I never ask artists what they wanted to express in their painting. I ask them a lot of questions about how they feel about the place, or about time, or abour a certain historic event.

      With this artist we like playing the game of taste: we go through an exhibition and choose paintings we like. Our choices are usually matched 95%. I can always explain why I liked (or disliked) a certain painting, but the artist can not, he just “feels it”. This is why I am not an artist. I think too much )

      When I interpret something, I believe the work is complete when it explains most of the artist’s choices: story, composition, shapes, lines, and colours.

      1. Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isnt it? The question of greatness. How do you define a great book or great art. WHO defines a book or a piece of art to be great. Is it a sum of technical/symbolic aspects or an irrefutable personal response? Because on a personal level, this piece is entirely forgettable to me. It evokes nothing. And from a technical/symbolic perspective it looks like something that could have been randomly thrown together by a 10-year old – before your deconstruction, of course.

        1. Oh, but I have a theory on greatness which is a blend of math, neuroscience and sociology, but it can only be objectively proven when brainscans become as affordable technically and financially as an online survey right now. One day I will describe it in a post. This piece is entirely forgettable unless you know the story of the town drawn in this pastel piece. And while a 10-year old could certainly copy the drawing, the chances of a kid producing it initially are infinitely small ))) The same is true for most of great contemporary art which is no longer about skills but ideas. In terms of skill, Calder’s kinetic installations could be done by anyone. In terms of ideas that the installations are meant to send across, no 10 year old could have created them.

          1. Oh but that’s exactly the problem. I dont know The Story. And if I cant ‘get’ the piece without such foreknowledge [having which is an unreasonable expectation], if it’s not compelling on its own, then this piece of art is ineffectual. And then, if the Idea doesnt come thought without someone else’s [yours?] expert interpretation, then the Idea as well is ineffectual – impotent, irrelevant, not worthy of the capital ‘I’ – as well. Thus, in my book, it is a fail.

            1. There’s a lot of art I don’t get fully at first glance as well, but good art always has some intrigue or conflict that make me want to go further. In this piece it is the use of colors, that, while “unnatural”, create a certain harmony, linked to expectation of something that exists beyond the picture plane. The deep blue plus the clash of red and green are known to have this effect on the human brain, but that, of course, strongly depends on the initial emotional state of the viewer. The areas given to warm and cold colours are extremely well caluclated to create a balance (this is a bit surprising for a sketch like this, actually). The sketch makes me think of the portrait town as something very provincial, very old, very twisted in terms of history, but still alive and kicking. A single sketch created this impression. And all this raises my interest and makes me study the history of Zaraisk (a town I’ve never been to). But if I don’t go and look into the town’s history, the sketch is very likely to geet wiped away from memory. So, it is not about knowing the Story in advance that helps to appreciate art, but it is about learning the Story to understand it to its full capacity )

  2. This is a dialogue between the Ignorant and the Sage. It gets the message across but your signature sarcasm is missing – and what a loss it is! If you ask me – stick to your existing form of narrative, it is fluent, exciting and unpredictable.

    1. Thank you! )
      I feel a bit trapped though by my existing style when I just want to talk about a good work of art. Perhaps, a juxtaposition of a great landscape and something very average could do the trick. Will keep trying!

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