When I was a freshman, before you took Freshman English you had to take a test, to see which level class they'd place you in. I won't bore you with the test results, but the upshot of this was that the class I was in had a somewhat unusual teacher, which resulted in a somewhat unusual class. We didn't read the usual books, we didn't have the usual assignments - for the most part. This was, after all, the class where I wrote a discussion on the merits of nudity in NYPD Blue, discussed the incarnations of Batman in popular media, and where my final paper was a conversation between Nietzche and Borges (in Lewis Carroll style rhyme, no less).
But our first assignment was more mundane: the trip to the museum. I imagine this is an assignment straight out of some writing handbook. You go to the museum, find a piece you like, and write about it. Now, if we'd been sent to the natural history museum, it might have been more interesting... and my essay probably would have been on some dinosaur coming to life and eating the night staff, leaving a skeletonized person inside the T-rex skeleton the next day. However, we were sent to the art museum. I do not remember the artist I chose, though I remember the picture. A landscape, nothing spectacular.
There was, however, a story in it. I found one, I'm sure someone could have found something else, and it occurred to me that the best works of art - whether they be from the masters or from more local, less well known artists (like that girl in the next cubicle who constantly doodles on the quarterly reports) - tell a story, or at least hint at one. For example, either in that class or another, I ended up writing a poem on Picasso's "The Old Guitarist." It's from his blue period, which is that clustering of his works that I'd actually hang on my wall. Looking at that picture, there clearly is a story or two or even three behind the somewhat forlorn strummings of the old guy in the clothes that don't quite fit. And I don't always see the same story every time.
I'm not going to presume that anything that occurs to me when I look at it was in Picasso's head when he painted it. If he's spoken or written about his inspiration for the piece, I am unfamiliar with it and (followers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn) not going to bother looking it up at the moment. Maybe later.
Likewise, a friend of mine showed me a picture of a tree. I'd known she was working on the tree, and so I had certain expectations in my head as to what it would look like. I was, as it turned out, completely wrong, but that's fine because what was on paper was much more complex and beautiful than what had been in my head. It was, like the Picasso, something that I could see putting on my wall, and every time I looked at it coming up with a different story behind it. Never quite seeing it the same way twice.
There are a number of my favorite books that are like that, too, where no matter how many times I read them, each time I find something I hadn't noticed before, a story that hadn't occurred to me the last time I read it. I find things familiar, too, of course, but I think the paintings that tell a story are like the books that do so: each time you see it there's that mix of the familiar and the as yet to be discovered, and it's somewhere in that middle space where ideas are born.