I’m always looking for a great podcast to listen to, and my mother told me that the legendary BBC radio show Desert Island Discs was available as a podcast. What a treasure trove! There are more than two thousand episodes.
If you don’t know the premise, on this show, celebrated guests are interviewed and asked, “If you were a castaway on a desert island, what eight ‘discs’ (or songs), one book, and one luxury would you take with you?”
I’m a huge fan of children’s literature, so of course I’m familiar with the work of Quentin Blake, whom I know best for his illustrations for Roald Dahl. I decided to listen to his interview, which originally aired in 2006, and I was very struck by a story he told.
He was invited by the National Gallery in London to put together an exhibition called “Tell Me a Picture.” He decided to bring together the worlds of fine art and illustration to help children see in great artworks the kind of art they’re familiar with from picture books.
What was interesting to me was that he was allowed to draw all over the walls. The pictures were hung, and he drew on the walls behind them. I looked up photos online, and it looked wonderful.
This approach interested me tremendously, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about negative space. In art, “negative space” is the space around a subject. It’s not the subject itself, but everything that’s not the “real” subject.
It’s very easy to ignore negative space. Our attention is fixed on the positive space.
Back when I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum every day, I kept thinking about the negative space of that space—like the stairwells, the restrooms, odd little forgotten dull corners. I kept thinking, “Boy, they should do something interesting with this space. It’s the Met!"
For instance, I’m a huge fan of the masterpiece of children’s literature, E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In the book, two children run away from home to live in the Met. On their first day, when they arrive with the things they should’ve been taking to school, they have to hide their belongings in the museum. If I were the head of the Met, I'd create a permanent acknowledgement of From the Mixed-up Files. I'd stash a violin case and a trumpet case in some hallway corner or under a stairwell. I can only imagine the great pleasure visitors would feel, spotting them there. For instance, there’s an ugly, odd little neglected corner in the Egyptian wing that would be perfect:
There’s also negative space outside the Met. The front of the museum is grand and gorgeous, with a beautiful set of stairs, carvings, fountains, rows of trees, banners, and light. On the back of the building, the side that faces Central Park, there’s an enormous wall that looks like, well, the forgotten back of a building. Why not do something with that?
These days, I’m trying to look behind the obvious, I’m trying to see the negative space, as well as the “negative time.” As Quentin Blake found, it offers tremendous opportunities, if we remember that it’s there.
It’s easy to overlook the possibilities of negative space, but they’re there.
Header illustration via quentinblake.com.