Someone once explained to me that abstract art wasn’t merely a matter of blobbing paint on canvas, which, I believe, may have been my unfortunate description of it at the time. Any artist worth their pigment, I was told, would have an understanding of the fundamentals of structure, balance and light, and would have studied the classic and most difficult subject—the nude—regardless of their own unique and personal style.
It stands to reason then, I thought, that all art must have its own version of the nude, the essential discipline that provides a foundation to which the artist—whether painter, writer, sculptor, chef, musician—is anchored; the percipient vantage point from which they may let imagination take over, adding distinctive colour, texture, words, flavour and melodies.
From Shakespeare to Alice Munro, literature serves as the writer’s nude, the form we study. But merely to read, to admire the body, isn’t enough. We have to know what’s beyond the shape, the words, to look past the skin at the fundamental structures that exist in every story—the style, wordplay, rhythm, the cycle of romantic, tragic, ironic and comedic modes—to find the musculature that gives it the ability to stand on its own before it’s dressed with the details of the action, character and dialogue.
One paints the nude not merely by seeing the obvious, but by appreciating the whole while dissecting its smallest components in order to understand what makes it live, breathe and move.
As writers, reading is second nature—reading the literary nude, however, is a whole other dimension. And until we’ve mastered it, there’s a very good chance we’re simply blobbing words on paper.