On Saturday a new group of Drawn To The Page writers gathered at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, to explore the Ansel Krut exhibition and some of the Jerwood collection. The exhibition in the Foreshore Gallery, brings together a series of largely unseen paintings by the London based, South African born painter, Ansel Krut. Drawing on both classical portraiture and cartooning, his paintings focus around subverting still life by linking objects to create improbably, playful and often dark human forms.
When I came to look at the exhibition, what I was struck with were the characters that seemed to emerge from these paintings, with their own personalities, histories and experiences, whether comic or troubled. And Krut’s dark, grotesque – almost surreal figures, also reminded me of the fiction of authors such as Nikolai Gogol and Franz Kafka. Creating characters, and experimenting with the surreal and strange, formed the heart of our writing for the afternoon, with exercises that encouraged writers to start a dialogue with the figures in the paintings and to bring a new character to life.
Reflecting on how the grotesque, carnivalesque and surreal are often creative and artistic responses to repression, whether personal, social, political or religious, (Krut ascribes much of his unsettling imagery to growing up in Apartheid in South Africa) – we read an extract from Gogol’s socially subversive and surreal short story, The Nose. In Gogol’s story the absurdity of a nose disappearing from someone’s face and taking on a life of its own is treated quite matter of factly, but he lets this event disrupt and unbalance the status quo to darkly humorous effect.
After some exploratory writing, developing a character from one of the paintings, thinking about what their voices would sound like, how they might move with their strange bodies, what occupations they might have – I then suggested writers create a scene in which their new character disrupts the status quo, challenges expectations or upsets the balance of power. Writers treated the surreal bodies of their protagonists matter of factly, as Gogol does with his Nose – but used their strangeness to maximum comic or subversive effect. Doing this helped us to see the subversive power of Krut’s paintings and to connect more deeply with his imagery.
After this, we moved upstairs to look at some of the small bronzes currently on display in the Jerwood Collection galleries. The figurative sculptures by Bernard Meadows, Michael Ayrton and Elizabeth Frink, had distorted, surreal or fantastic bodies – and reminded us strongly of the paintings downstairs. After spending some time with them, we read an extract from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, noticing how in this story, the strange insect body that his protagonist wakes up with is not treated matter of factly, but reacted to fearfully and incredulously by the unfortunate Gregor. ‘What would happen,’ I asked, ‘if someone were to wake up with a body like one of these sculptures? How would they react to it, how would they function?’ Our final writing exercise got writers exploring this idea, waking Frink’s Harbinger Bird, Ayrton’s Siren or Meadow’s Cock, and making them get to grip with the real world, to great effect.
As always, writers were encouraged to develop these draft stories at home and submit them to the Drawn To The Page blog – and we hope to be posting some of them in the next few weeks.