JACOB WRESTLING THE ANGEL

For many Post-Impressionist artists, the search for new and exotic subjects was a kind of aesthetic race for discovery.  However, with limited funds and with just a day’s stage coach ride straight west from Paris, one might have encountered a new and foreign land:  Brittany.  The landscape and language, clothing and costumes, saints and legends and traditions would prove to be both foreign and seductive.

During three such trips in 1886, 1888 and 1889 Pont-Aven became the gathering place for Paul Gauguin and several of his contemporaries, including Paul Seruzier, Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Emile Schuffenecker, and Meyer de Haan.[i]

There were many great ancient stories and myths in the Breton world, long before Christianity arrived. Spirits and wizards freely roamed the land.  It is even rumored that Merlin himself is burried there, somewhere in the Broceliande Forest.[ii]

jacob1
Paul Gauguin
“Two Breton Boys Wrestling”
1888
Oil on canvas
73 cm x 93 cm
Formerly from the Samuel Josefowitz Collection
Lausanne, Switzerland

It is also a realm where one of the great classic sports was Sunday afternoon wrestling.  Ongoing competitions and feats of strength.  Sometimes playful, as in boys being boys, but other times very serious:  man to man fights, not necessarily to the death, but clearly in order to establish a local heirarchy.  Symbolically of course, it was a ritual re-enactment of the great Biblical story of Jacob wrestling the Angel.

This is where Paul Gauguin completed his very first religious painting.  A gathering of Breton women on a Sunday afternoon, having a collective vision, inspired by a sermon on the subject of Jacob wrestling the Angel.

“The same night he arose and took his two wives, two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’  But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’  And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’  And he said ‘Jacob.’”

jacob2
Paul Gauguin
“Vision After the Sermon
(Jacob wrestling with the angel)”
1888
Oil on canvas
28.4” x 35.8”
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

“Then he said, ‘Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’  Then Jacob asked him, ‘Tell me, I pray, your name.’  But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’  And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the name of the place Peni’el, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penu’el, limping because of his thigh.  Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the sinew of the hip which is upon the hollow of the thigh, because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh on the sinew of the hip.”[iii]


[i] Denvir, Bernard; Paul Gauguin The Search for Paradise:  Letters from Brittany and the South Seas; Collins & Brown; London; 1992; pp. 154-155.

[ii] Aubert, O. – L.; Celtic Legends of Brittany; Coop Breizh; Spezet, Brittany, France; 1993.

[iii] “Genesis 32:22-32” The Holy Bible:  Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinbugh; 1952; p. 25.

JUNGLE SURRENDER

“In ‘Jungle Surrender’ the figures in the foreground are in a semiconscious state of concern about a relationship between their offsprings, the embracing couple in the mid ground.  My scout dog and I become voyeurs hidden in the jungle.  The figure with raised hands represents my surrender to the memories and hallucinations of war.  The mournful howl of the lone wolf echoes throughout the burning glow of the agent orange landscape.”[i]

The artist Don Cooper was born in Texas in 1944 and received his BFA in 1966 and his MFA in 1968, both from the University of Georgia.  He has held a variety of faculty positions at the University of Georgia, West Georgia College, and the Atlanta College of Art over the ensuing years.  His work is represented in several public collections including the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cooper was drafted within days of receiving his MFA and served as a ‘scout dog handler’ in Vietnam in 1969-1970.  After the war, he often painted dogs and other domestic animals but didn’t directly address images related to that war until the mid-1980’s.  He felt that these paintings, including “Jungle Surrender,” were a sort of purge of the trauma of that war.

Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1947.  He served as an Information Specialist in the United States Army and was also stationed in Viet Nam in 1969-1970.  He received an MA in writing in 1978 from Colorado State University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, in 1980.

Komunyakaa has published more than fourteen collections of poetry including Dien Cai Dau in 1988 and Neon Vernacular for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994.  He has held several teaching positions including the University of New Orleans, Indiana University, and Princeton University. Currently he serves as Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.

jungle1
Don Cooper
“Jungle Surrender”
1984
Oil on canvas
56” x 84”
(Courtesy of the artist)

“Jungle Surrender (after Don Cooper’s painting)

“Ghosts share us with the past & future
but we struggle to hold on to each breath.

Moving toward what waits behind the trees,
the prisoner goes deeper into himself, away

from how a man’s heart divides him, deeper
into the jungle’s indigo mystery & beauty,

with both hands raised into the air, only
surrendering halfway:  the small man inside

waits like a photo in a shirt pocket, refusing
to raise his hands, silent & uncompromising

as the black scout dog beside him.  Love & hate
flesh out the real man, how he wrestles

himself through a hallucination of blues
& deep purples that set the day on fire.

He sleepwalks a labyrinth of violet,
measuring footsteps from one tree to the next,

knowing we’re all somehow connected.
What would I have said?

The real interrogator is a voice within.
I would have told them about my daughter

in Phoenix, how young she was,
about my first woman, anything

but how I helped ambush two Viet Cong
while plugged into the Grateful Dead.

For some, a soft windy voice makes them
snap.  Blues & purples.  Some place between

central Georgia & Tay Ninh Province—
the vision a knot of blood unravels

& parts of us we dared put into the picture
come together; the prisoner goes away

almost whole.  But he will always touch
fraying edges of things, to feel hope break

like the worm that rejoins itself
under the soil . . . head to tail.”[ii]


[i] Cooper, Don; An artist’s statement regarding “Jungle Surrender” as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 12 July 2016.

[ii] Komunyakaa, Yusef; “Jungle Surrender (after Don Cooper’s painting)” Dien Cai Dau; Wesleyan University Press; Middletown, Connecticut; 1988; pp. 37-38.

THE SURREALISTIC DRUIDS: PART TWO

“The relationships that bind forms together in nature cannot be pure chance, and what we call ‘natural life’ is in effect a relationship between forms, so inexorable that without it this natural life could not exist.  So it is with art as well.  The formal relationships within a work of art and among different works of art constitute an order for, and a metaphor of, the entire universe.”[i]

For many years while travelling I always carried a set of ink pens and a field sketchbook and close by a copy of a book of poems by Eugene Guillevec that had been translated by Denise Levertov.  These poems were so vivid:  extremely colorful, visual, imaginary.  And solid.  Perfect for a painter.

In her translations Levertov observed that Guillevic’s work was based on a “… simplicity of diction, the plain and hard meaning of things without descriptive qualification reverberates … with the ambiguity, the unfathomable mystery of natural objects.”[ii]

2surreal-1
Georgia O’Keeffe
“Red and Pink Rocks and Teeth”
1938                              
Oil on canvas
21” x 13”
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, gift of Georgia O’Keeffe
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

During one summer several years ago on a visit to the Denver Art Museum it was clear that the curators had arranged a new hanging of the permanent collection featuring the addition of works not usually exhibited.  It was there that I came upon a small still life by Kay Sage that brought to mind instantly another small still life, this one by Georgia O’Keeffe, that I had seen earlier in the year at the Art Institute of Chicago.

It is strange, even surreal one might say, how certain images might carry over a great distance and an expanse of time.  I have admired, for a long time, the paintings of Kay Sage and Georgia O’Keeffe, finding a shared sensibility between these two women, which alerted me to another shared set of sensibilities between Guillevic and Tanguy, physical and spiritual elements both!

The paintings of Yves Tanguy and the poems of Eugene Guillevec show the influence of the Breton landscape in both abstract and physical ways.  The formal and lyrical qualities depend greatly on the strange and surreal spirit of this place, the landscape of Brittany, while the litteral and figurative elements seem to  depend on the clear observation and depiction of that landscape.  Specific forms layed out in a specific space.  Although I had always admired this element in Guillevic’s writing, it was also something that bothered me regarding Tanguy’s landscapes.  Something overly stylized or self-consciously surreal.

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Yves Tanguy
“Multiplication of the Arcs”
1954
Oil on canvas
40” x 60”
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

“The form of the work of art is first, in the artist, a sort of conscious urge to produce a certain piece of work; his confused awareness of the work to be is already his awareness of its form.  The making of beauty consists in the progressive information of a piece of freely chosen matter by the form present in the artist’s mind.”[iii]

Late in the summer of 2007 we visted both the Musee de Prehistoire and the galleries at the Hall de la Mairie de Carnac in Brittany, France.  One was an exhibition of photographs of those many pre-historic sites that inhabit the Breton landscape.  The other was a selection of writings by Guillevec exhibited alongside several paintings by contemporary artists.  These included works by Marie Alloy, Jean-Jacques Dournon, and Julius Baltazar.  In both cases it highlighted the importance of this ancient landscape, even on contemporary painters and poets.  I have also discovered many of the nearby beaches, not on the sandy leeward sides of the land, but the ones on the windward sides, the rocky ones!  And it was there that I saw the importance of Tanguy’s paintings:  the balance that he maintained between the real and the surreal.  And what Guillevec felt about the rocks and the sea, winds blowing in and out in contrary routes.

2surreal-3
Richard Emery Nickolson
“The Beach near Le Pouldu, Brittany, France”
1997
Color photograph
Collection of the artist

“De la mer aux menhirs,
Des menhirs a la mer,
La meme route avec deux vents contraires
Et celui de la mer
Plein du meutre de l’autre.”

Guillevic[iv]


[i] Focillon, Henri; The Life of Forms in Art; Zone Books; New York, New York; 1992; p. 33.

[ii] Guillevic, Eugene; Translated by Denise Levertov; Guillevic:  Selected Poems; New Directions Publishig Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. viii-ix.

[iii] Gilson, Etienne; The Arts of the Beautiful; Dalkey Archive Press; Champaign, Illinois; 2000; p. 97.

[iv] Notes taken by this writer regarding poems written by Eugene Guillevic and posted in conjunction with the exhibition “Guillevic et les peintres” at the Hall de la Mairie de Carnac, Carnac, Brittany, France, 25 July 2007.

THE SURREALISTIC DRUIDS: PART ONE

Yves Tanguy and Eugene Guillevic have often been described as ‘Druids’ in the 20th century worlds of painting and poetry.

As a youth in Locronan, Yves Tanguy would often watch a local painter named Toche at work, whose aim it was to capture the atmospheric qualities of the Breton landscape in a kind of half light.  Eugene Guillevic was also influenced early on, first by the German poet Rilke and later by the French poet Trakl.

Yves Tanguy was born in 1900 on the Place de la Concorde in Paris and many childhood vacations were spent in his family home at Locronan in Finistere, Brittany where thousands of menhirs and dolmens have been scattered across the landscape since prehistoric times.

Tanguy was drafted into the Army in 1918 and returned to Paris at the end of his service in 1922.  It was during this time period that he met two fellow artists, Jacques Prevert and Giorgio de Chirico.  It was through these contacts that Tanguy became associated with Andre Breton and the Surrealist Group, from 1924 to 1938.  Prior to World War II, he met and married the American artist Kay Sage and moved to New York and later established a studio in Woodberry, Connecticut.  Tanguy died in Connecticut in 1955.

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Kay Sage
“A Little Later”
1938
Oil on canvas
36” x 28”
Denver Art Museum, Denver Colorado

Eugene Guillevic was born in Carnac, Morbihan, Brittany in 1907.  He began writing poetry as a child, inspired primarily by the Fables of La Fontaine.  Upon passing his baccalaureate in 1926 he was assigned a series of governmental positions including as Inspecteur d’Economie National from 1946 to 1963.

His work developed through the Surrealist period and into a more personal simplicity and maturity later in his life.  He received Le Grand Prix de Poesie from the French Academy in 1976 and Le Grand Prix National de Poesie in 1984.  Guillevic died in 1997.

In her book of translations of selected Guillevic poems, the poet Denise Levertov observed that:  “The great ritual places of the Celts . . . the places where the great and small stones or menhirs, are gathered in powerful and enigmatic testimony to forgotten certainties, are landscapes of a profound austerity.”[i]

“The Rocks”

“The rocks won’t know
one speaks about them.

And always to sustain them, they’ll have
only grandeur. . . .”

“They don’t burn sulphur
in the darkness

for they have never known
the fear of death. . . .”

“And then the joy

of knowing the menace
and enduring.

1surreal-2
Yves Tanguy
“Multiplication of the Arcs”
1954
Oil on canvas
40” x 60”
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

While at their edges
bits of stone flake off

which wind and wave had scraped at
while they were dozing.”

“. . . They don’t have to go about
With faces you can read like books.”

“They did not want to be the temple
in which to delight. . . .”

“And joy
comes to them out of themselves alone. . . .”

“It happens that a block of stone
detaches itself and falls,

falls so that one misses a breath,
into the wet sea. . . .”

“. . . To be the memory of a rock, of being
promontory, out and towards the wave.”[ii]

 


[i] Guillevic, Eugene; Translated by Denise Levertov; Guillevic:  Selected Poems; New Directions Publishig Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; p. vii.

[ii] Guillevic, Eugene; Translated by Denise Levertov; Guillevic:  Selected Poems; pp. 76-83.

 

RECIPES AND ROOFTOPS

recipes1
Camille Pissarro
“Les toits rouges, coin de village, effet d’hiver”
1877, huile sur toile
H. 0.54 x L. 0.65
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

“Recipe”

“Take a roof of old tiles
a short while after midday.

Place nearby
a fullgrown linden
stirred by the wind.

Above them put
a blue sky washed
by clouds.

Let them simmer.[i]
Watch them.”[ii]

During the fall of 1872 and continuing through 1874, Paul Cezanne sought out the advice and guidance of the much older Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. They often painted side by side, observing the very same motif at the same hour of the day, in and around the area of Pontoise and Auvers-sur-Oise. They would compare and criticize each other’s work. This began both a personal and professional relationship that had a profound affect on each of them. A recipe for success.

Rooftops of red and a variety of other colors became a kind of theme or metaphor. Robert and Sonia Delauney, Francis Picabia and other French artists took up this subject. Certain American artists as well, in the early 20th Century, also incorporated these architectural forms, such as Charles Sheeler’s barns at Lancaster and Georgia O’Keeffe’s barns at Lake George, along with other works by Ralston Crawford and Marsden Hartley. The roofs got to a point where they became very abstract and even surreal. More so later when painted by Rene Magritte or written about by Marianne Moore.

recipes2
Rene Magritte
“Empire of Light”
1953-1954
Oil on canvas
76 15/16” x 51 5/8”
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, New York

“The magician’s retreat”

“of moderate height,
(I have seen it)
cloudy but bright inside
like a moonstone,
while a yellow glow
from a shutter-crack shone,
and a blue glow from the lamppost
close to the front door.
It left nothing of which to complain,
nothing more to obtain,
consummately plain.

A black tree mass rose at the back
almost touching the eaves
with the definiteness of Magritte,
was above all discreet.”[iii]


[i] The penultimate line could be written in a couple of alternate ways, including “Let them be” and “Let them work” as in certain other culinary procedures.

[ii] Guillevic, Eugene; Seleceted Poems (translated by Denise Levertov); New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. 66-67.

[iii] Schulman, Grace, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking; New York, New York; 2003; p. 136.

HOW TO PAINT LIGHT ON THE SIDE OF A BUILDING!

hopper
Edward Hopper
“House by the Railroad”
1925
Oil on canvas
24” x 29”
Museum of Modern Art, New York. New York

“‘All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house,’ said Edward Hopper (or words to that effect), and there have been legions of poets and filmmakers obsessed with light. I would side with the irrational visionary romantic who says light came first, and darkness but a fleeting shadow to be swept away with more light. (“More light!” cried the great poet, dying.) Poets and painters are the natural bearers of it, and all I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life.”[i]

Painters and poets are indeed the natural bearers of light.  And, it would be difficult to overestimate the influence that Edward Hopper has had on later artists.  Gail Levin has explained this very succinctly in her essay “Edward Hopper: His Legacy for Artists.”  She writes:  “Many contemporary painters work on Hopperesque themes in a realist style that he would have respected.  Cape Cod scenes by both Philip Koch and John Dowd have been compared to Hopper’s work. . . . Walter Hatke’s Room of the Sun (1979) was one of many pictures in which he explored painting sunlight in interiors in a way suggestive of Hopper’s focus on light, particularly in the latter’s celebrated Sun in an Empty Room (1963).  Hopper’s themes reappear in the gas stations, street corners, and trains of George Nick, who studied with Hopper’s friend and admirer Edwin Dickinson….”[ii]

hopper2
Philip Koch
“Equinox”
1991
Oil on canvas
40” x 60”
Courtesy of the artist

Hopper has also had an influence on several contemporary writers such as John Hollander, Tess Gallagher, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand and especially Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  As a poet, Ferlinghetti has written about artists from every period.  He often uses the analogy for being an artist as ‘walking on a tightrope’ and applies this to everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Goya, from Morris Graves to Picasso, and from Marc Chagall to Edward Hopper.  In fact, he has paid great attention to Hopper in several poems and the two collections titled “Pictures of the Gone World” and “How to Paint Sunlight.”  In particular Ferlinghetti was inspired by a photographic portrait of Edward Hopper taken by Arnold Newman in front of Hopper’s house in Truro, Massachusetts in 1960.

hopper3
Arnold Newman
“Edward Hopper: Truro, Massachusetts”
1960
B & W Photograph
22 5/16” x 17 13/16”
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 9.13.05 AM[iii]

 


[i] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; How to Paint Sunlight; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2001; p. ix.

[ii] Lyons, Deborah and Adam D. Weinberg; Edward Hopper and the American Imagination; (including the essay “Edward Hopper:  His Legacy for Artists” by Gail Levin); W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1995; pp. 115-116.

[iii] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; “At the Hopper house” Pictures of the gone world; City Lights Publishing; San Francisco, California; 1995; #37.

THE VENUS OF WILLENDORF

venus
“Venus of Willendorf”
28,000-25,000 BCE.
Oolitic limestone, 4 1/4” high
Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

“She’s big as a man’s fist,
Big as a black-pepper shaker
Filled with gris-gris dust,
Like two fat gladiolus bulbs
Grown into a burst of twilight.
Lumpy & fertile, earthy
& egg-shaped, she’s pregnant
With all the bloomy hosannas
Of love hunger.  Beautiful
In a way that forces us to look
At the ground, this squat
Venus in her braided helmet
Is carved from a hunk of limestone
Shaped into a blues singer.
In her big smallness
She makes us kneel.”[i]


[i] Komunyakaa, Yusef; Talking Dirty to the Gods; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 17.