Guest Post, Matthew Felix Sun: Literature Inspired Paintings

The creative worlds of words and images, though not mutually exclusive, are distinct enough to form two vastly different domains. Most artists would not dip into both pools. But with equal passion for images and for words, I have often oscillated between these two modes of expression. At the same time, understanding that the era of Renaissance Men is long past, I knew I must choose between them. I have been gratified to discover how, even in choosing the visual arts, the boundary painting and literature is not absolute. I have often found that these two worlds rub against each other in surprising ways.

I am drawn as a fine artist to peer over the fence into the literary world by discontent with my medium of choice, or with my ability to utilize it to express myself fully. The medium or media we choose to convey our deepest feelings and expressions, however rich, can never fully convey the mystery of our imagination. Hence the endless striving to develop and grow as an artist, be it visual, musical, or in the medium of words.

The Known World

One form of artistic creation often inspires re-interpretation in another medium, perhaps of a whole story, perhaps of a fleeting moment. The motivation is not necessarily to prove a better job of expression can be done; rather, it is to add another dimension to the engaging concept, in hope of complementing the original.

I have been stimulated sometimes by the whole atmosphere of a novel, such as Blindness by José Saramago; other times by a specific passage which may not even be pivotal in the larger scheme of a narrative, such as my newly completed oil painting, Arabesque, inspired by a passage from The Known World by Edward P. Jones:  … looked over at the open chiffarobe [sic], whose door was broken and so would never close properly, looked at the black dress hanging there. It seemed to have its own life, so much life that it could have come down and walked over and placed itself over her body. Fastened itself.

Matthew Felix Sun

 Arabesque, Oil on Canvas, 28″x22″, 2013

I was stirred by the passage and the image I painted soon after reading it flooded into my mind. Incidentally, this painting also fell into a long-developing scheme of mine: I have been working on a series of “White Dresses“, which I see as both liberated and restricted objects, at once individual and impersonal, simultaneously beautiful and sinister. Now I have been inspired to start a companion series of “Black Dresses“.


The Tin Drum

Looking back to my paintings inspired by literature, Grandma (2003) remains my most powerful creation. This canvas was inspired by a few scattered descriptions in The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) by Günter Grass, of the protagonist’s peasant grandmother at various phases of her long life: her many layers of skirts, her peeling potatoes, the heated bricks she used to keep warm by placing them, again, underneath her layers of skirts.

Grandma by Matthew Felix Sun

 Grandma, Oil on Canvas, 40″x30″, 2003

The Tin Drum also moved me to create another painting with his depiction of a nightmarish book burning by the Nazis. In this painting, The Devil’s Dance, the archaic scroll with the proclamation of “Faith, Hope, and Love” is intended to echo the perverse scene in the book.

Devils' Dance

The Devils’ Dance, Oil on Canvas, 30″x48″, 2004


My painting Blindness, based on José Saramago’s eponymous masterpiece, (originally in Portuguese: Ensaio sobre a cegueira, directly translated as Essay on Blindness), didn’t depict any particular passage of the book; rather, I tried to capture a sense of displacement and bewilderment that pervades Saramago’s novel.Blindness by Matthew Felix Sun

Blindness, Oil on Canvas, 36″x48″, 2006


Similarly, the atmospheric novel, The Bells of Bruges (Le Carillonneur) by George Rodenbach led me through the unforgettable medieval city of Bruges, Belgium, enriched by my wonderful memory of meandering through the narrow cobblestone streets several years before I read Rodenbach’s book. Revisiting Bruges through this novel moved me to try to capture the stillness of a city frozen in the past, while underneath its calm, as in any living place, the unquenchable quest for  life’s essence  surged.   Nothing was more present than the lifeblood of history.

Bruges by Matthew Felix Sun

Bruges, Impression, Oil on Canvas, 24″x30″, 2009


Now, back to the specific. I responded strongly to a passage in Europe Central by William T. Vollmann:

Have you ever seen an injured bird at the seashore? Here come crabs from nowhere – they wait under the sand – and ring it round, cautiously at first, before you know it, the first crab has leapt onto the broken wing and pinched off a morsel. The bird struggles, but here come other crabs in a rush.

For me, this passage summarized the helplessness of Europe during World War II, which, viewed through a historical magnifier, distilled the essence of human suffering.

Siege by Matthew Felix Sun

Siege, Oil on Canvas, 18″x24″, 2010

Below is a video compilation of these paintings and their respective inspirations: