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The art of storytelling; Caravaggio, Pinter and a Bear of Very Little Brain.

A life without stories would be impossible. Look for something that doesn't have a story and resign yourself to never finding it. A grain of sand on a beach; a petal on a flower; the broken handle on my cup; the rusted rivet in a metal bridge; and the gum stuck to the pavement, all have a story. Everything does - there's the how did it get there; where did it come from; who put it there; what happened to bring it in front of me at this precise time?

What is a story?

Story - definition: a true or fictitious account of a sequence of events and characters; its purpose being to entertain or inform.

We constantly ask ourselves, what's the story? Or, what's in a story? Different questions, but essentially addressing the same thing: we like to know. And if we don't know, we like to make an attempt at explaining things - we pry, we wonder, we invent - who did that, why, where, what happened next? We fill in the gaps. Not always accurately. But we fill them anyway, because we don't sit comfortably with ignorance.

Life becomes a series of stories that we tell ourselves. We pile story on story, constructing a personal library of tales that define us. A library that is without walls, colliding with other people's libraries and sharing its bookshelves in a vast lending and borrowing and stealing narrative ecosystem. It begins with a few words announcing our birth and collapses at our death; ripping, as it does so, into the overlapping libraries of the lives we have shared and announcing this story is no longer available; it has ended. Nothing more will be added to it beyond its expiry date.

Brief aside as this procrasti-ramble veers off on a slightly different path: real brick and stone libraries filled with real books should be preserved as the treasure houses that they are. Perhaps, that's the subject of a ranti-blog that I'll save for another day. Though, to be honest, I don't think I could add more than has already been said by Chris Riddell on this subject - look at his on-line presence if you want convincing that he is a laureate on a worthy library-saving, literacy-promoting mission.

Back to stories - obvious stories told through word of mouth or written in a book. Not so obvious perhaps, the stories in a poem or the words and, sometimes Nobel winning, poetry in a song. But cinema, television and radio create stories too - fiction, non-fiction, news; all stories. What about photography and paintings? Can a painting have a narrative? Not the story behind the two dimensional construct of canvas and paint. But the picture as painted. Yes, of course it can. Visit any art gallery and listen to the newly woken words inside your head - dancing and joining hands and splitting apart - as you order and formulate a narrative to explain the image.

Some artists are better at story-telling than others. Caravaggio - see Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery until January - was a master story teller. No words. Just paint. An an acute sense of the dramatic; the confidence to stray into scenes of everyday life; and a deep appreciation of light and dark. If what follow fails to convince you, visit the exhibition and decide for yourself.

Let me tell you some Caravaggio stories -

Caravaggio takes two friends; close friends it appears, as one is kissing the other. Both are men. The scene is set for his story. Who are they? Are their names of significance? If I tell you they are Judas and Christ, you'll perhaps guess where this story is going. The kiss is not innocent. It is an act of betrayal, that will have enormous consequence. What Judas does in identifying Jesus by kissing him is irreversible, deceitful and shaming. Caravaggio builds on this moment by surrounding the figures in darkness and shows not just one Roman soldier but a crowd of them. You gaze at the picture and feel the oppressive crush, the jostling and the heat. You imagine the noise. Then you notice a lamp, held aloft by another man - a stranger, not a soldier, not a disciple, but Caravaggio himself; the artist as illuminator. Light shines on the soldiers' tunics and helmets - its searing sharpness heralding the something wicked that is to come -  and drops harsh shadows across their faces. A softer fragile light falls on Christ. We can imagine what happens next. Caravaggio makes story-telling look easy.

Another painting and another story. Caravaggio paints a supper, and tells us it is in a place called Emmaus; it's an ordinary domestic scene with fruit on the table and seated men talking. Nothing more, perhaps, than ordinary life. But being Caravaggio, the story unfolds the longer you look at his painting: there is an overly ornate table cloth; the man on the left has fallen on hard times, there's a rip at his elbow, and he is pushing himself hurriedly out of his chair. Light again casts shadows, picking out details - a glint in the eye, a fold of fabric. The background is dark and the picture's focal point is the seated man directly opposite the viewer. There is a pale luminescence to his skin, quite different to the lines and ruggedness of the other men's faces. All these fine details add to the story: who are they? Are they friends or were they strangers before they sat to share this meal? What has occurred in the life of the man with the ripped sleeve to make him look so dishevelled? Caravaggio is playing with us. Leading us from beginning to middle to end - it is, of course, the risen Christ, sitting centrally, and his astonished disciples rising as they recognise him.

These stunning paintings sparked a Caravaggesque style - narrative art heavily dependent on chiaroscuro and the drama of everyday life. (Chiaroscuro - a technique of manipulating light and dark in a painting, where the light jumps out and slaps you on the face; imagine shining a torch on a picture, anything white will shine and you can pick out other parts while leaving the periphery in darkness, then take the torch away and step back and see astonishingly that the light is still there. The artist has illuminated his picture with white and yellow paints and the contrast between light and dark creates atmosphere and drags you in, forcing your participation in the story.)

Have I lost you in this procrasti-ramble of story telling? Yet? ... Not yet? Can I tell you a couple more?

Picture a tavern and a motley gathering of souls, both old and young, experienced and inexperienced, wealthy and not-so-wealthy. They are all men and are singing and drinking, in several degrees of inebriation. So far, a common enough social scene. But now for the story - there's a knife on the table. One of the men has a sword. At the back a hungry servant is stealing some food. One of the drinkers  has spied the thief. It's a game. Seed some doubt, scatter a little jeopardy and crank up the tension by turning down the surrounding light. Illuminate from only one lamp which casts long shadows and ripples of reflected light across the scene. It's menacing. Who are the gathered men? The story sits at a precipice - jump and it's going to turn nasty. Murder even. Bartolomeo Manfredi knew what he was doing when he painted this story; he drew us in, with lots of visual clues and atmospheric, discombobulating lighting, just as in the art of his inspiration, Caravaggio.

Last story (for now); last picture - it is of two young women and an older man. The girls are standing together at the man's side and he is seated. Even though he looks a little worse for the wear already, perhaps he's drunk, they are pouring him a drink and helping him to drink it. Have I seeded the picture in your head? You need to think classical painting. No mini-skirts; no mobile phones. I hope you're wondering who they are. There are more clues in the painting. The girls are clearly wealthy - one has beads decorating her long pink dress - it has the lustre of silk - and they both have fine lace at their breasts. Are they prostitutes? Have they tricked the man and plan a night of debauchery which he won't remember in the morning? Are they wealthy perhaps because they are thieves and he will wake hungover, stripped of everything? Or ... are they his daughters? No, surely not. Not looking at him like that. But wait a minute, notice how the lights are lowered. Wonder why. Shrouding them all, in the background, is bleak darkness. The only light is from a single lamp and it shines on their stricken faces. The old man is their father. His clothes hang off him and he looks exhausted. Beneath, his body is bare and wrinkled and weak. His name is Lot. His daughters believe he is the only man to have escaped Sodom. And that he is their only chance of conceiving. They love their father but they touch him with the lightness that we reserve for something we find repellant. So they encourage him to drink. If you get to see the painting, look into their eyes (if not, imagine a look of fiery hatred dulled by awful resignation). What you will see is the brilliance of the artist Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri. A story both haunting and horrific and wonderfully executed.

Is it possible to look at anything without our brains leaping like enthusiastic olympians to fill in the gaps? I think it isn't. Caravaggio et al exploit this when they paint stories. Photographers and film makers do the same.

Our hunger for stories makes us look everywhere. Sit at a pavement cafe, watching the world pass a few feet away, and invent stories for the people you see. Do this with a friend and observe how your stories differ. What features do you both notice and include in your stories; what mannerisms; what hints from the dress and the way they walk? Did you see different stories? Sometimes, we look at something and see the same story. But sometimes, the same story is the wrong story. What about this one - a story made famous recently by social media? A small boy is running to rescue his smaller sister from a car; the sand at his feet spitting into the air as a sniper aims at him. Awful and shocking. The video was assumed, by millions to be from Syria and went viral. But what we all saw was the wrong story. It was later attributed to a Norwegian film crew, filming in Malta, with Syrian refugees. Our interpretation was collectively wrong. Our shock however was justified as worse is happening every day in Syria and that apparently was the motivation behind making it. We got it wrong but our emotional response was perhaps right.

So we can't stop seeing and telling ourselves stories. They flow in our veins. We find them in pictures, in cinema, in words, books, poems, songs, and in music.  How we interpret what we read or see depends on where we come from, on our experiences and beliefs, and on the particular stories that we as individuals reference in trying to understand what we see.

If we want to create stories for others to enjoy, it is best always to show, never tell. The best writers know not to tell. Some of the best writers, write for the stage and create dramatic stories. Their skill is to show the audience just enough and leave all the rest open to interpretation.

My trip to London last week, took me first to Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery (national gallery) and to No Man's Land (nomanslandtheplay) in the evening. What a joy! What a treat to see two knights of British theatre! And what a story. Pinter gives a masterclass in the slow reveal, leaving the play open to interpretation on so many levels. His two old men are overly-fond of alcohol, and have a shared past and polarised literary careers. The only other characters are two parasitic con-artists who live with and off the wealthier writer, whose mental capacity is affected by drink and possibly early dementia. Who is likeable? Where do our sympathies lie? Pinter drip feeds the back-story. The successful writer, in a lucid moment, reveals himself to have been an arrogant cad. And is thoroughly unpleasant. Where now do our sympathies lie?
Apart from wanting to call social services to report the imprisonment of a vulnerable elderly man, I wanted to know what happened next. Would he slip into death after the prolonged hopelessness of his entrapment? Indeed is that what he deserves? Or could the two old men outwit the younger less educated wordsmiths and escape into a second after-no-man's-land life; freedom in a twilit heaven on earth? Pinter didn't fill in the gaps. A consummate story-teller, he knew just how many words to use; just how much to show and just how far he could push his audience's imagination.

Story-telling has its greats. They are the threads running through the corridors of our personal story libraries. Different greats for each of us, they enlighten and help to make us who we are.

One of my greats is AA Milne and his Bear of Very Little Brain. I am endlessly moved and cheered by his gentle stories. This quote makes me smile and perhaps sums up the muddled story-telling and words in this procrasti-ramble -

"I don't see much sense in that," said Rabbit. "No," said Pooh, humbly. "There isn't. But there was going to be when I began it. It's just that something happened to it along the way."


Happy 90th Birthday, Winnie the Pooh.



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