WILLIAMSTOWN — For the exhibit “Painting Between the Lines,” at Williams College Museum of Art, 14 contemporary artists painted their own versions of art described in literature. Among the literary tidbits in the fresh-faced show is a passage from Sylvia Plath’s novel “The Bell Jar.” The book’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, a mental patient, is given a mirror by a nurse. She looks, but doesn’t see herself. Indeed, she thinks she’s looking at a picture:
“You couldn’t tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person’s face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow.”
Mirrors are not pictures, but every work of art is a mirror. Read a novel, gaze upon a painting, listen to music, and what you experience will be an intimate refreshment of your beliefs, wounds, and hopes. Esther does not see herself in the mirror, but “its supernatural conglomeration of bright colors” startles her, and she smiles. She is touched. That’s the moment in the scene in which she is revealed.
What Esther sees, in the eyes of painter Laura Owens, is fractured, ragged, displaced, but not without hope. Owens’s untitled rendering of Plath’s description depicts a blue grid mussed with bright smears and painterly squiggles. Eyes, nose, and mouth float within a diamond at the center of the grid, but don’t quite coalesce into a face. Yet the mouth smiles, the colors charm. Despite the chaos and the allusions to violence and violation, there’s sweetness here.
“Painting Between the Lines,” organized by the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco and curated by Jens Hoffmann, takes a calculated risk. What a reader sees while reading is idiosyncratic. Imagination rushes in to fill in the blanks. That’s one of the delicious things about books, and the tables set by authors here, such as Albert Camus, Marcel Proust, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, beckon us to a sumptuous meal. If you’re the type of reader who hesitates to see the film adaptation of a favorite book because you don’t want someone else’s vision imposed over your own, you may want to steer clear.
On the other hand, these paintings conjure only individual passages, not entire plots, and the imaginings of these artists far outdo, in detail and vision, anything I might have conjured while reading.
There are occasional missteps in the show. Michael van Ofen’s spare rendering of a Madonna described in Umberto Eco’s mystery “The Name of the Rose” doesn’t take into account a second image Eco writes about, of the whore of Babylon, the erotic charge that connects the two pictures, or the discomfort it inflicts on the narrator, a 14th-century monk.
But many others go above and beyond. Laylah Ali’s searing rendition of a portrait, described as “a botched job,” of Frau Chauchat in Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” might spit on you in your nightmares.
Mann’s protagonist, for whom Frau Chauchat is an object of erotic fascination, describes her: “How can one handle an outlandish face like that? At first you think it will be easy to capture it, what with the swing of those hyperborean cheekbones and those eyes that look like cracks in a muffin . . .”
Ali draws on Mann’s delineations of both the portrait and its sitter, painting her in a dusky pink, eyes narrow, mouth witheringly indifferent, hair and brows glaring in sun-bleached tones. She is utterly unforgiving. Beware.
With her sizzling hues and economical lines, Ali outdoes the more monstrous, albeit comic, version Jakub Julian Ziolkowski paints of a fictional portrait in Sándor Márai’s 1942 novel “Embers,” of a character’s mother, the empress, in her youth. In “Untitled (Widow),” Ziolkowski deploys the descriptions of the young noblewoman, such as “the sweep of her décolleté,” in his depiction of a much older woman (whose décolleté droops), puncturing delusions of class and motherhood by imbuing them with satiric extremes of age, luxury, and sexuality.
Which brings us to another portrait that pits youth against age, Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” perhaps the most famous fictional painting, of a man whose portrait ages so that he can remain young. Norbert Schwontkowski gamely tackles Wilde’s take on Gray, through the eyes of the artist who paints him: “It is not merely that I paint from him, draw from him, sketch from him. Of course, I have done all that. But he is much more to me than a model or a sitter. . . . I can now re-create life in a way that was hidden from me before.”
How do you put that on canvas? Schwontkowski sagely chooses not to represent Gray’s face. Instead, he paints a headless man, a mere suit representing the persona put out to the world, and a black cat startling at its own reflection. Look at the reflection: Like Esther’s in “The Bell Jar,” it doesn’t synch. The cat is lower than its mirror image, defensive, hunched as if preparing to pounce. The painting slyly captures Wilde’s theme of the great divide between the public self and the private self, and how one might shrink at the sight of the other.
“Painting Between the Lines” is, in the end, something of a hall of mirrors: this painter’s reflections upon that writer’s reflections upon some small golden nugget of life. For a viewer and a reader, it’s nourishing to linger, to savor connections between text and image, and to entertain one’s own reflections.