There are far fewer examples of paintings that depict the spoken word between subjects than those which capture the moments of silence that engulf them. Perhaps this is due to the wider time frame that momentary silence offers, or the underlying drama of what remains unspoken.
Certainly, there is less obvious intimacy to be found in a painting of someone talking than in what is otherwise expressed through the eyes and body. Although pictures are not the ideal medium through which conversations are immortalised, there is a time and place where they can come alive on the artist’s canvas.
Capturing the Casual Moment
Without a doubt, the photograph, with its ability to instantly capture a moment of conversation, has an advantage over the traditional artist’s tools of the trade; however, that need not deter the artist from adding a further perspective to that moment. The paintings of modern artists such as Michele De Campo and Jack Vettriano show us how moments of physically close casual contact provide an often overlooked backdrop to daily life. In doing this, they take us into the stories behind those lives.
Although many paintings appear to exist in silence, there is clearly either the expectation or aftermath of conversation instilled in their storyline. Both De Campo and Vettriano created paintings depicting two people sitting together on a bench. There is apparent silence in these moments, but both are clearly engaged in conversations, or at least the thoughts that precede or follow them.
Deciphering the Pregnant Pause
Perhaps the greatest master of the conversation piece was Edward Hopper. Stretching the pause ahead of a line being delivered, as in his ‘Office At Night’, is a hallmark of many of his observations of human communication, or perhaps the breakdown of it.
Likewise in what is probably his best-known piece, ‘Nighthawks’, four characters are momentarily thrown together in a time and place where the suggestion of stifled conversation hangs uneasily in the air. Each has no doubt a story to tell and a destination in mind, but in that captive moment, none may find a natural way to speak of it.