Great paintings can tell equally great stories. Think of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring on Vemeer or even Siri Hustvedt's great novel What I Loved whose foundation is built on the perceptions of an art history professor as well as his friendship with an artist and his wife/muse. During the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition in 1996 it wasn't the pickled cow or Emin's tent that really got me thinking about the story behind them but a very small - A5 perhaps - charcoal drawing of a naked girl whose back is turned away from the viewer and her hands are clearly held up against her lowered face. It is therefore safe to assume she was crying. And I thought about that picture for days afterwards thinking 'why'? I so wanted to buy that picture because of the question mark hanging above her head but also because of its universal appeal - just got out of her lover's bed only to be told it isn't working? Just got out of her lover's bed after killing him, even?
One of the reasons I 'became' a writer, I think, is because I feel so receptive to this ever-present possibility of story and art galleries are such playgrounds for the writer's fertile imagination. A visit to the museum, gallery or even buying art books are great ways in which to kick start the writing process or even help through a spell of writer's block. A couple of my favourite pictures for this purpose are:
Stanczyk by Jan Matejko (1862) at the National Museum, Warsaw
Stanczyk was the court jester to several Polish kings who was said to aim his satirical wit at those in power and who turned the jester, symbolically, into the consicence of his nation. The picture shows Stanczyk, in his red outfit that we have for so long associated with merry-making, looking defeated and depressed, apparently because Smolensk had been lost during war with Moscow.
There's also Vilhelm Hammershoi's Interior (1899), seen here currently at the National Gallery on loan from the Tate. Viewing this picture it's as if time has stood still - what does the woman hold in her hand, a letter perhaps?