Art Dictionary

From Word to Image: The Poet as Visual Artist

Hermann Hesse. Mit Feder und Farbe

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Many poets and thinkers, of all eras and persuasions, wielded the paintbrush or pencil as passionately as they did the pen. With varying degrees of confidence and hesitancy, these doubly gifted artists occupied two creative realms that provided reciprocal sources of inspiration.

“Not that I considered myself a painter or aspired to be one. But painting is lovely; it makes one happier and more tolerant. Afterwards one’s fingers are not black, as with writing, but red and blue.” (Hermann Hesse)

 “Words and images are correlates that eternally search for one another,” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The numerous literary figures who passionately dedicated themselves to the paintbrush, paint, canvas, or alternate painting utensils attest to this statement by the one of Germany’s most renown literary figures, who himself can be counted among such multi-talented artists.

Who today is aware that the great Danish story-teller, Hans Christian Andersen, also knew how to enthrall an audience by making paper cutouts? Does anyone know that Hermann Hesse, the world-famous author of novels such as Siddharta and The Steppenwolf, drew and did watercolors for years, preferably on “beautiful Italian paper,” as he once described? Who is familiar with the fact that Joachim Ringelnatz, primarily known for his humorous poems, left behind a remarkable body of paintings?
The list of doubly talented personalities who were or are creatively engaged in a field beyond their original métier reads like a who’s who of literary history. A few prominent examples within various German historical trajectories range from: Thomas Murner to Jörg Wickram and Matthias Claudius; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to E.T.A. Hoffmann and Philipp Otto Runge; Justinus Kerner to Adalbert Stifter and Wilhelm Busch; Heinrich Mann to Franz Kafka and Kurt Schwitters; and Hans Arp to Peter Weiss and Günter Grass. Interdisciplinary artistic interests are not only limited to shifting between text and image but also between text and sound, and vice versa. There are poets who were composers, composers who painted and drew, and visual artists who wrote poetry and prose or composed music. However, the number of literary authors who tried their hands as visual artists is unusually large. “No wonder,” writes John Updike: “The tools are related, the impulse is the same.”


Looking at the relationship between the arts over the centuries—before the backdrop of the tendencies and debates of specific eras—one can identify continuous processes of convergence and differentiation. Since antiquity, emphasis has been placed on the similarity between word and image. In his famous phrase “ut pictura poesis” (dating from 14 BC) the Roman poet Horace described his idea that “a poem [should] resemble a painting.” On the one hand, this idea of these two “sister arts” was carried forward in the Renaissance, and the notion of the “uomo universale,” the universally cultivated individual was formulated. Leonardo da Vinci—painter, sculptor, architect, anatomist, inventor, engineer, and natural philosopher—was seen to embody this kind of universal talent and was celebrated as an “all-round genius” (Sigmund Freud). On the other, with the development of humanism in the Renaissance era, the individual arts emancipated themselves through debates that took up discussions dating from antiquity as to which artistic genre should be deemed the most noble. In the era of Enlightenment, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing attempted to define the boundaries of individual arts in his influential essay Laokoon oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; 1766). In the age of Classicism, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller reengaged with the debate on the relationship and difference between poetry and painting and further refined the profiles of the individual artistic disciplines.
In contrast, there were also attempts to narrow the gap between word and image. In the Baroque period, for example, poetry and painting were closely interwoven. The study of emblems took on central importance; this text-image genre was so popular that scholars have called the era the “age of the emblem” (Albrecht Schöne). Also the Romantics drew fresh inspiration from a blend of artistic disciplines. Philipp Otto Runge was captivated by the idea of being able to unite painting, poetry, music, and architecture into a comprehensive gesamtkunstwerk. Under the Expressionists the fields of literature and visual art united with the aim of inspiring overarching intellectual renewal. In euphoric tones Ernst Ludwig Kirchner made the call in the manifesto of the Die Brücke from 1906 for “room to spread our arms and live…in the face of established, older forces.” The protagonists of the anti-art movement of Dadaism hoped precisely for a merging of the individual arts, and Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau was considered an outstanding example of this idea: “From painting to sculpture, from image to typography, from collage to photography. . . . The new lack of limitation could be seen everywhere. The dam had burst” (Hans Richter). Finally, to end this brief list of historical highlights, the Bauhaus advocated for the “equal treatment of all kinds of creative work and their logical interaction within the modern world order,” as stated by Walter Gropius, head of this educational institution founded in 1919.


One question concerned scholars from the very beginning, ever since the phenomenon of the dually talented artist was first explored in an exhibition in Heidelberg and Mannheim in 1931. Can the works produced by artists gifted in both the fields of literature and art be considered of equal merit? Are these cases of “true” double talent, or is the writer’s preoccupation with visual art merely something akin to a painting hobby, simply “productive dilettantism” as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once described.

Was Goethe himself a dual creative talent? There is no question that his talents were manifold: He studied law, and as a natural scientist he was active in the fields of physics, botany, anatomy, and mineralogy. He displayed political acumen as a privy council. Not only as a poet did he win great acclaim. Trained in draftsmanship, etching, and engraving, he also strove to establish himself as a visual artist. Particularly during his travels he recorded his impressions in drawings. During his famous stay in Italy from 1786 to 1788 he even assumed the identity of “Filippo Miller, tedesco, pittore,” but in terms of his artistic aspirations he soon came to the realization that he was “in fact only born a poet.” Summing up his Italian journey, he wrote: “My thirst has been quenched.” Nevertheless, Goethe left behind a convolute of some 2,500 drawings. Does any one of these works have the power of the novel Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities, 1809) or the charm of his love poems and ballads?
Was the man of letters and founding figure of French Romanticism, Victor Hugo, blessed with a second talent equivalent to his writing? Hugo viewed his excursions into a neighboring creative field as “a way to pass the time in between writing verses.” Fascinated by the dramatic beauty of the Rhine landscape, he produced numerous drawings between 1839 and 1840. In parallel he also created abstract ink pictures, his so-called “taches,” in which the artist experimented in an unorthodox manner with coffee, tea, red wine, shoe polish, burnt matches, and squashed quills, developing an unmistakable personal style in the process. These “stains,” created with an unusual degree of inventiveness, recall French Tachisme, and in the twentieth century these works garnered recognition for Hugo, representing a form of art on par with works of modern art. But can such works be measured against his magnificent historical novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) or his social critique Les Misérables (1862)?
And can one consider Wilhelm Busch, the author of popular comical picture-stories like Max und Moritz, a “true” double talent? The artist himself characterized his landscape paintings—which were he originally modeled after the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century and later skillfully emancipated from this first source of inspiration—as “smearings, not worthy of much honor.” While alive, Busch hid his oil paintings and drawings from public view. However, later audiences recognized the surprising modern idiom of the works; in 1912 August Macke described Busch as the “first futurist.”


Scholarship and art criticism have rightly pursued these questions and have, in some cases, come to differing conclusions. However, here it should suffice to accord these double talents twofold recognition, even if sometimes a pursuit amounts to a second talent not equaling the first, a mere “dalliance” with another art form. In any case, visual works by poets offer a deeper understanding of their artistic personality, and often they permit new conclusions to be drawn about a core oeuvre or provide material for a more comprehensive interpretation of an individual’s literary production. 

25.3.2014 Stefanie Gommel

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