WILLIAMSTOWN -- He is a teenager, and he has come where he is forbidden, to do a forbidden thing.

He has walked into the library to open a book.

Adso is a novice in a medieval monastery, and he opens the book of Revelation to see the form of a woman. (He is about to touch the form of a real woman, and he will find that a revelation too.)

The woman Adso saw in a scene in Umberto Eco's novel, "The Name of the Rose," appears now at the Williams College Museum of Art -- Eco's description beside a painting by German contemporary artist Michael van Ofen. In the real painting, a luminous figure seems to move forward, serenely, suggested in spare lines, like a Japanese inkwash done in oils.

Work from van Ofen and 13 more contemporary painters makes up "Painting Between the Lines," a new exhibit at WCMA, and the inspiration for the museum's Lit Café tonight. Each painter has drawn from the description of a painting in a classic or well-known book -- from Oscar Wilde's "Portrait of Dorian Grey" to Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" to Haruki Murikami's "Kafka on the Shore."

Jens Hoffmann, now deputy director at the Jewish Museum in New York, originally curated the show for the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in Chicago, when he served as director there.

"I had curated a series of exhibits -- on "The Wizard of Oz," "Moby-Dick" and "Huckleberry Finn" -- considering the relationship between art and literature," he said.


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During the preparation for the "Moby-Dick" show, as he re-read the book, he was struck by the painting Melville describes at an inn in New Beford, Conn., where his hero spends a night before joining his ship. Critics have called this passage one of the best descriptions ever written of a fictional artwork. Hoffmann gathered fictional artworks over the next three years and sought out artists he felt had a warmth for books.

Michael van Ofen illuminates a Madonna in response to Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose.’
Michael van Ofen illuminates a Madonna in response to Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose.’ (Image courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art)

He knew their styles, he said, and he wanted to see how they would connect with these writers -- what Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal, who has a dark quality in his work, Hoffmann said, would do with Milan Kundera, one of the Czech Republic's most recognized writers.

The show evolved in careful planning and through many conversations. The description of each fictional painting stands beside the contemporary painting it has inspired, and at times the connection is clear. At others, the physical painting responds to the fictional one, or takes off from it, or revolves around themes in the book.

A walk through the exhibit is a walk through silent conversations on all sides.

What draws Raqib Shaw, whose work many describe as hedonistic, fantastic and rich in color, to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's contemplative peasant, who has very little heedless pleasure in his wintry life? Is he drawn to a contemplation that goes on somehow without thought and may lead either to pilgrimage or to pillage?

The show aims to celebrate books as an inspiration for painting and to prove the vitality of painting as a contemporary artform, said WCMA's public relations coordinator, Kim Hugo.

"Historically, there have been several ‘painting is dead' time periods," she explained, "one after photography [became a popular medium], and one after installation. There have always been people committed to it, but as far as trends in the art world," enthusiasm for new technologies has led to an idea that painting is outdated.

The artists here argue that it is vividly alive.

In "The Name of the Rose," Adso is shaken by the female form and by a doubt that women are inherently corrupt, as the church has taught him. The illuminator who created Adso's Revelation "dwelled at length upon the female form," and this physical form agitates Adso. Though he doesn't know it yet, he is about walk out of this room and into a woman's arms.

Van Ofen has chosen to paint a woman without a physical form, a luminous figure feminine only by veil and robe, but lit from within. 

What would she say if she could speak -- or touch?

If you go ...

What: Lit Café to celebrate ‘Paiting between the Lines' and ‘Picture: Literature' exhibits

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown

When: Tonight, 5 to 9 p.m.

Admission: Free

Information: wcma.williams.edu