Somehow in the course of events we have been led to believe that the ‘modern’ has come to mean only formalist abstraction and minimalism. A smaller and smaller world defined by a very tight description. There are however, several important modern writers and artists who have paid special attention to the details of modern life, seeing in them the larger world and how these details might speak to us.
SUNDAY NIGHT “Make use of the things around you. This light rain Outside the window, for one. This cigarette between my fingers, These feet on the couch. The faint sound of rock-and-roll, The red Ferrari in my head. The woman bumping Drunkenly around the kitchen . . . Put it all in, Make use.”[i]
“Don’t forget when the phone was off the hook all day, every day.”[ii]
“When, at 12:24, I look at the clock that isn’t running and it tells the same time as the clock that is”[iii]
As we read the above observations, both Musa McKim and Raymond Carver look directly at the world surrounding us: a telephone lying off its hook, a broken alarm clock, a bag of sugar, or just the sun creating a glare on a sheet of white paper. Many of the same things that would catch the eye of an artist. The abstract form and shape of a grand piano, or the abstracted movement of a bird in space. All are examples of minimal imagery with maximum power that both poets and painters would employ.
Brancusi’s sculpture, straight out of a folk tradition, but unrecognzable to the Parisian elite, later became the sophisticated form that synthesized beauty, abstraction and content. There is the catch: abstraction and content. At first no one saw Brancusi’s pieces as birds, neither in space nor in flight. Today, however, they have become a symbol of just that.
Not unlike the sculpture of Brancusi, the orchestral pieces of Igor Stravinsky synthesized classical music with jazz, folk and even the primal. Traditional painting had also gone through a similar synthesis of realism, cubism and pure plastic painting.
In the 1950’s and 60’s many young art students were taught by American abstract artists. Process and abstraction formed the content of most of the work at that time. But later, outside of academia, these artists were also confronted by the dilemma of what to do now? They were well versed in process, but struggled to find content. One artist however, set the most impressive example. Philip Guston at his Marlborough show in 1970 envisioned the end of one aspect of this process, and opened the gates and possibilities to new forms of imagery. Making use of the things around him.
By looking at certain details occurring in the world he single handedly opened the doors for himself, for poets, and later artists to come. These included Clarke Coolidge, Musa McKim, Raymond Carver, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg and more.
“I thought I would never write anything down again. Then I put on my cold wristwatch.”[iv]
In the mid 1960’s Robert Moskowitz produced a series of small paintings of a simple corner of a room. Quiet, minimal, very abstract and infused with a new sense of content and space. Where the simplest shape or form of a thing could clearly speak.
He would later take this process, including both personal and universal images, and juxtapose them in subtle but provacotive ways. A corner of the Flatiron Building, or the tops of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Towers, for example. A simplified assortment of visual images, not unlike the sparse and provacotive language used by Raymond Carver and Musa McKim.
“Talking about her brother Morris, Tess said: ‘The night always catches him. He never believes it’s coming.’”[v]
“When on TV I see my sister in a bit part in an old movie”[vi]
“Three men and a woman in wet suits. The door to their motel room is open and they are watching TV.”[vii]
“And below in the street they are rattling the Coca-Cola bottles”[viii]
His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes “Duke Ellington riding in the back of his limo, somewhere in Indiana. He is reading by lamplight. Billy Strayhorn is with him, but asleep. The tires hiss on the pavement. The Duke goes on reading and turning the pages.”[ix]
[i] Carver, Raymond; “Sunday Night,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 53.
[ii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.
[iii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.
[iv] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 121.
[v] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 64.
[vi] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.
[vii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 65.
[viii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.
[ix] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.
“who’s the guy on the glass? that’s joyce. joyce, that’s a girl’s name. that’s a name. well, what’s with him? he watches over me. he only got one eye. a guy like him that’s all he needs.”[i]
The poems of Patti Smith are simultaneously cutting and fanciful, getting at a certain truth even as they weave myths, fantasies and contemporary literature together. There are several statements made by Smith that remind me of another artist’s work, the contemporary painter Robert Barnes. Whether in a poem by Smith or a painting by Barnes, we definitely witness a series of visual ambiguities and associative shifts taking place.
“a coronet of stars ornament of the tame no one to bow to to vow to to blame how did i die? i tried to walk thru light with tangled hair not yet prepared for the valley of combat.”[ii]
“have you seen dylan’s dog it got wings it can fly if you speak of it to him it’s the only time Dylan can’t look you in the eye”
“have you seen dylan’s dog it got wings it can fly when it lands like a clown he’s the only thing allowed to look Dylan in the eye”[iii]
They both, Patti Smith and Robert Barnes, have their idols and inspirations, an assortment of creative and eccentric characters. For Barnes these include: James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Craven, Jeremy Bentham, and Tristan Tzara. And Smith: again James Joyce, William S. Burrows, Jean Genet, Andre Breton, Arthur Rimbaud, and Bob Dylan. Magicians and tricksters they are, in both words and images. Smith masquerading as Dylan, and Barnes often using the analogy of the slight of hand embodied in the old time ‘table cloth’ trick!
During the fall of 2015 the Indiana University Art Museum held a retrospective of Robert Barnes’ work, “Grand Illusions: Late Works 1985-2015.” This was such a powerful show, and it was the second such exhibition of his work that I have seen in person. In his remarks at the opening Barnes mentioned several influential books including: “The Golden Bough” by James George Frazer, “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves, and “Ulysses” by James Joyce. Using these examples, he noted how a subject unfolds as it is invented in his paintings. A narrative transformation of sorts takes place.[v]
“Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey” was the earlier exhibition organized by the Madison Art Center in Wisconsin, which travelled to the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, and several other national locations. The main essay for this catalogue was written by the Chicago critic and curator Dennis Adrian, and set about describing and defining many of the issues and ideas that flow through this work.
“The complex, shifting, and many-layered sense of a larger reality has important correspondences in Barmes’s (sic) various literary and artistic enthusiasms. Among the most significant of these is his love and regard for the writing of James Joyce. In fact, Barnes’ method and effects are like the continuous unreeling present in Joyce’s Ulysses, where the events of Leopold Bloom’s day are experienced by both him and the reader as shifting and overlapping elements of feeling, observation, memory, fantasy, imagination, conflation of past and present…all of which are rooted in the structure, incidents, and characters of Homer’s Odyssey.”[vi]
“In both Joyce and Barnes, the ‘subject,’ so to speak, is created and even invented freshly for us, but it also contains, through parallels of structure, allusion, or direct reference, a connection with other realms of experience, ‘actual,’ artistic, or both….The elements in Barnes’ paintings which feel like the record or recollections of some specific actuality help to create a forceful presence for his abstract inventions and the curious forms which we seem to recognize but cannot identify, that is, the things which we know about perceptually but cannot name.”[vii]
More recently, I wrote to Robert Barnes to ask him about his work and especially his interest in James Joyce. He graciously responded:
“When I attended the University of Chicago in the fifties I was fortunate to have as a friend the poet Paul Carroll who wanted to be James Joyce! We had as a drinking companion an Irishman who was then the answerman for the now defunct Chicago Daily News! He was at one time an actor at the Abbey Theatre in the old country! If we bought him drinks he would recite complete Irish plays (all the parts)!”
“At one time he undertook the reading of Ulysses! He could do the plays verbatim but read Joyce from a book! He claimed it had to be read with an Irish accent and I believe he was right! It took him several evenings and lots of booze but was well worth it and gave me a life long love of things Joycean!”
“I have been fortunate in to have encountered inspiring people at the right time (it seems magical)! Even without an Irish accent I think it a good idea to read Ulysses aloud or at least part of it….it is a life changing experience!”[viii]
Racing through a day in Dublin, in a stream of consciousness, Ulysses proceeds with abandon to its conclusion. Its characters and stories often parallel the paintings of Robert Barnes. Not only in his painting of Joyce, but in many other subjects, Barnes has created a cast of invented characters and self-portrait equivalents that exist within the spatial logic of both painting and poetry.
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, the Joyce family often used a local Dublin painter for family portraits. This task went to Patrick Tuohy, who required James Joyce to sit daily for almost a month. With tensions building between the artist and the writer as the work went on, Joyce became increasingly irritable, and it has been noted: “…he was impatient with the artist’s pretensions: ‘Never mind my soul. Just be sure you have my tie right.’”[ix]
“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”[x]
[i] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 13.
[ii] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 163.
[iii] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; pp. 22-23.
[iv] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 53.
[v] A discussion between Robert Barnes and Michael Brooks that took place during the opening ceremonies of the “Robert Barnes: Grand Illusions, Late Works 1985-2015” exhibition at the Indiana University Museum of Art, Bloomington, Indiana. From my notes taken during that program, 25 September 2015.
[vi] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10.
[vii] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10.
[viii] Barnes, Robert; from an e-mail correspondence with this writer on 24 March 2020, at 11:53 am.
[ix] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, and Toronto; 1997; p. xxviii.
[x] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. x.
“I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen pictures of ‘Sunflowers,’ a decoration in which the raw or broken chrome yellows will blaze forth from backgrounds—blue, from the palest malachite green to royal blue, framed in thin strips painted orange lead.”
“Effects like those of stained-glass windows in a Gothic church.”[i]
There are certain threads running throughout history, both plastic and poetic, which show us how ideas grow and develop. One artist will create an image or composition that will be picked up by another artist working at a later date, as if in answer to the first. These ideas and images will add to and expand upon the original. One important example of this can be found in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and letters, where several times he mentions the debt that he owes to the paintings of Adolphe Monticelli. In fact a total of 57 of Vincent’s letters mention Monticelli, and his series of sunflower paintings illustrate this point.
I remember that the contemporary painter Knox Martin, an important faculty member at both the Art Students League and Yale University School of Art, would always mention this, every chance he had.[ii] Van Gogh saw himself as the ‘spiritual heir’ to Monticelli, as later Antonin Artaud[iii] saw himself as the heir to van Gogh. Others following in this line have included the philosopher Gaston Bachelard[iv] and the rock and roll idol Jim Morrison!
It is clear that van Gogh was using history, and references to certain artists such as Gauguin, Delacroix, and Millet, as his guideposts. And especially Monticelli:
“But I myself—I tell you frankly—am returning more to what I was looking for before I came to Paris. I do not know if anyone before me has talked about suggestive color, but Delacroix and Monticelli, without talking about it, did it.”[v]
“Now listen, for myself I am sure that I am continuing his work here, as if I were his son or brother.”[vi]
It often seems to me that van Gogh’s emphasis on observing those everyday objects surrounding him was a kind of searching, not just for a subject, but also for a larger meaning: the soul of a flower, perhaps, which would establish him within an aesthetic family that includes Adolphe Monticelli and William Blake, as well as more modern heirs such as Allen Ginsberg, Jim Dine and even Edwin Dickinson.
A parallel occurrence happens within the literary tradition, especially when we consider the effect that Blake has had on both painters and poets. This includes of course, Allen Ginsberg. In his biography on Ginsberg, the author Barry Miles describes one defining moment for that writer:
“The summer heat was on. Allen lay on his bed by the open window, reading William Blake. The book was open to the poem ‘Ah! Sunflower,’ from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. . . . when he heard a deep, ancient voice, reading the poem aloud. He immediately knew, without thinking, that it was the voice of Blake himself, coming to him across the vault of time. The voice was prophetic, tender. It didn’t seem to be coming from his head; in fact, it seemed to be in the room, but no one was there. He described it: ‘The peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son.’”[vii]
“Ah, Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;
Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go!”[viii]
After that experience, it didn’t take long for Allen Ginsberg to discover his true voice as a poet, calling forth the legacy of a previous generation and adding new imagery to it. He collected these new poems in the book Howl, which included an introduction by another New Jersey poet, William Carlos Williams. It was Williams who observed: “Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist. . . . Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels. This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own. . . .”[ix]
“I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery.
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—
—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem
and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past—
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye—
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb,
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then!”
“The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives,
all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuberance of artificial worse-than-dirt—industrial—modern—all that civilization spotting your crazy golden crown—
and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos—all these
entangled in your mummied roots—and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form!
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul?”
“Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,
—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.”[x]
[i] Van Gogh, Vincent; “Letter 19 to Emile Bernard, August 1888” The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; New York Graphic Society; Greenwich, Connecticut; 1959; vol. 3, p. 511.
[ii] Knox Martin served as one of the faculty members at the Yale University Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, Connecticut during the summer of 1967. His lectures, field trips and critiques were filled with references to these artists and more during that time.
[iii] de la Faille, J. B.; The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings; Reynal & Company in association with William Morrow & Company; Amsterdam and New York; 1970; pp. 29-30.
[iv] de la Faille, J. B.; The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings; Reynal & Company in association with William Morrow & Company; Amsterdam and New York; 1970; pp. 34-35.
[v] Van Gogh, Vincent; The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; New York Graphic Society; Greenwich, Connecticut; 1959; vol. 3, p. 44.
[vi] Van Gogh, Vincent; The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; New York Graphic Society; Greenwich, Connecticut; 1959; vol. 3 p. 445.
[vii] Miles, Barry; Ginsberg: A Biography; Simon and Schuster; New York, London and Toronto; 1989; p. 99.
[viii] Blake, William; Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience; Walton Street Press; Great Britain; 1794 & 2016; p. 38.
[ix] Ginsberg, Allen; Howl; (With an introduction by William Carlos Williams); City Lights Books; San Francisco. California; 1956; pp. 7-8.
[x] Ginsberg, Allen; Howl; (With an introduction by William Carlos Williams); City Lights Books; San Francisco. California; 1956; pp. 28-30.
“The geometries in the paintings—the center line and other divisions—are the main fascinators…. Working with wholes and parts has always been important…. It is important that on each side of the middle line there is a good, solid form. Where divisions become more complex, it is a matter of making certain that each section has individual solidarity as well as a working contribution to the wholeness of the picture.”[i]
“But let us note that art—even on an abstract level—has never been confined to ‘idea’; art has always been the ‘realized’ expression of equilibrium.”[ii]
The importance of the inter-relationships between the whole and its parts, the expression of equilibrium, and the underlying architecture of any work of art have always been important elements in the making of a painting. The statements above illustrate these concerns from two very different artists: the first one from Susan Rothenberg and the second from Piet Mondrian.
Even though a painting by Susan Rothenberg may seem to have nothing in common with one by Mondrian, in the middle 1980’s Rothenberg paid him a tribute with a series of new paintings. Younger artists of that era, associated with the New Image and Bad Painting exhibitions, seemed to rediscover certain forms of imagery and gesture, which reinvigorated painting after it had recently been declared dead. The meaningful gesture and a renewed sense of the plastic possibilities of painting energized this new work.
With his arrival in New York City in 1940, Mondrian’s work began to change and respond to his new environment. The Neo-Plastic aesthetic became a trans-Atlantic issue for a larger artistic community. His direct influence on younger artists, especially in the United States, included Harry Holtzman, Charmion von Wiegand, Fritz Glarner and Ilya Bolotowsky.
During this time period Mondrian’s work had shifted from works he had brought with him when he emigrated from Europe into a new phase of New York paintings. Even Lee Krasner acknowledged his influence and importance for American artists. Mary Gabriel writes of this several times in her book Ninth Street Women, especially mentioning Krasner talking about meeting Mondrian in his studio, and two of his vices:
“Mondrian embodied restraint—physical and spiritual—but he had two secret vices: coffee (he hid his pot so this weakness wouldn’t be discovered) and, inconceivably, dancing. He had a Victrola and a stack of Blue Note jazz records to which he danced barefoot in his studio. Though he had taken lessons in Paris to learn the fox-trot and the tango, he preferred improvisation. One dance partner called him ‘terrifying.’”[iii]
In another literary vein, when the poet Charles Wright visited Butler University in Indianapolis as part of its Visiting Writers Series on 29 March 2005, he made reference to a variety of artists, from Vasari and Michelangelo to Morandi and Mondrian, with Milton Avery and Wolf Kahn in between. Meditations on the shapes and specific colors in these paintings, Wright wove individual descriptions and imaginings together into a lyrical whole and made a point of referring to specific Mondrian paintings. Included below are two of his pieces, along with the paintings to which they refer.
“As Mondrian knew,
Art is an image of an image of an image,
More vacant, more transparent
With each repeat and slough:
one skin, two skins, it comes clear,
An old idea not that old.”
“Two rectangles, red and grey, from 1935,
Distant thunder like a distant thunder—
Howitzer shells, large
drop-offs into drumbeat and roll.
And there’s that maple again,
Head like an African Ice Age queen, full-leafed and lipped.
Behind her, like clear weather,
Mondrian’s window gives out
A dab of red, a dab of grey, white interstices.
You can’t see the same thing twice,
As Mondrian knew.”[iv]
SITTING AT DUSK IN THE BACK YARD AFTER THE MONDRIAN RETROSPECTIVE
“Form imposes, structure allows—
the slow destruction of form
So as to bring it back resheveled, reorganized,
Is the hard heart of the enterprise.
Under its camouflage,
The light, relentless shill and cross-dresser, pools and deals.
Inside its short skin, the darkness burns.
Mondrian thought the destructive element in art
Much too neglected.
Landscape, of course, pursues it savagely.
And that’s what he meant:
You can’t reconstruct without the destruction being built in;
There is no essence unless
nothing has been left out.
Destruction takes place so order might exist.
Destruction takes place at the point of maximum awareness. Orate sine intermissione, St. Paul instructs.
The gods and their names have disappeared.
Only the clouds remain.
Meanwhile, the swallows wheel, the bat wheels, the grackles
begin their business.
Gathers itself for sacrifice, its slow
fadeout along the invisible,
Leaving the land its architecture of withdrawal,
Black lines and white spaces, an emptiness primed with reds and blues.”[v]
It was as if Mondrian had found his home. The new environment and the company of artists and the hustle suited him to a tee. Even though he sometimes isolated himself in order to work, he also explored and enjoyed this new vibrancy. However, his death in 1944 left a void in all of this. Another section of Ninth Street Women again mentions Lee Krasner’s memories of this time:
“Amid the unrelenting reports of death in the world, three in particular shook Lee. Mondrian had died in late January 1944. The sadness surrounding his passing was not just over the loss of a great artist, it was also over the circumstances of his death. Mondrian had stayed up until four a.m. after an opening and had subsequently become ill. Though bedridden for several days, in his humility he hadn’t wanted to bother anyone, and so he had remained alone in his stark white apartment with its myriad right angles until friends finally discovered he was sick and took him to the hospital. It was too late. He died five days later of pulmonary pneumonia. Mondrian had had only one solo show during his lifetime, and that was in New York, where he said he had spent the happiest years of his life—because of the music.”[vi]
A Golden Moment: Mondrian sitting at a table/piano, about to play some jazz. On this keyboard/table top, red and blue squares appear surrounded by white, while in the background a much larger passage of yellow covers part of the floor. This is all very loose, very gestural, and supposedly the very opposite surface of a Mondrian painting. Yet, when we have seen unfinished Mondrian paintings in both New York and the Netherlands, colored tapes appear, temporarily attached to the surface of the painting, even with some stripes painted out. All lines and movements: this is Mondrian, dancing with his paintings.
“Having loved the surface for a long time, then one searches for something more. And yet this is in the surface itself. Looking through it one sees the inner.”[vii]
[i] Marshall, Richard; New Image Painting; Whitney Museum of American Art; New York, New York; 1978; p. 56.
[ii] Blotkamp, Carel; Mondrian: The Art of Destruction; Harry N. Abrams; New York, New York; 1994; p. 9.
[iii] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. 81.
[iv] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 61.
[v] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; pp. 122-123.
[vi] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. xx.
[vii] Cooper, Harry, and Ron Spronk; Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings; Harvard University Art Museums; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2001; p. 24.
Dedicated to the memories of: William Weber (1947-1968) and Dr. Timothy Wiles (1946-2003).
I had known of the poet Elizabeth “Coco” Weber for many years and had the chance to work directly with her in 1999-2000 at the Indianapolis Art Center in conjunction with the exhibition “The Art of Combat: Artists and the Viet Nam War, Then & Now.” It was through this work that I also met and became friends with other artists, writers and educators such as Arturo Alonzo Sandaval, Michael Aschenbrenner, W. D. Earhardt, Timothy Wiles, and Yusef Kommunyaka.
Elizabeth Weber had been in contact with many other writers and veterans in order to reconstruct and clarify the life and memory of her brother Bill, who had been the Radio Operator for Charlie Company and had been killed by a sniper’s bullet on 12 February 1968 at My Lai 3. His death was not the only reason, but it was one of the reasons that triggered his mates and their actions later on 16 March 1968 at My Lai 5.
Elizabeth Weber has spent many years since then writing about her brother Bill, their shared childhood experiences, and the deep loss to her family following his death. This, coupled with imagery stretching from Minnesota to Kansas to Indiana, sets the stage for times and places that become clear, fade, and become clear again.
As an artist, I was reminded of the great American Regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. Landscapes where sheets hung on a line drying, where flags flapped in the breeze, and preachers were busy baptizing young people or burying old soldiers as they returned home one final time.
Elizabeth Weber opens the second section of her poem “Kansas, 1920” with the lines: “My father says hell glories on this earth. Nothing more. Salvation is what big men talk about when they want something, like a church, or my brother.”
She reminded me later in a conversation that she totally understood the imagery that I had conjured up regarding these landscapes, however, she had in fact seen an installation by the contemporary artist Ann Hamilton at the Art Institute of Chicago. An installation that I had also seen, of sheets mounted and stretched on tracks which circulated through the galleries of the museum, creating their own breeze, and weaving throughout the galleries. I totally understood. And that was exactly how she came upon the idea for the poem, Kansas, 1920.
In The Outfield
in memory of William Weber (1947-1968)
Across the street
one light is left in a restaurant. A girl
rubs the counter so mold
won’t grow. I watch her
like a sniper. She cleans
and her heart is like mine.
One shot and she would fall
like the cloth she holds.
The light goes out—no light,
no girl, no heart.
I don’t know how
it was that day.
Perhaps the sniper sat
while the world throbbed into place.
butterflies swarmed in your eyes.
The sniper went to the heart:
He pulled the trigger.
It was all he could do.
The thin beat you heard
in your ears was just that—
blood that stops in a second
and turns black in the air.
Dear Bill, the monarchs swarmed
without you this September.
All I could do was stand
in the outfield and watch them
explode in the sky.[i]
Kansas, 1920 “I am a girl who stands among sheets
drying one by one in Kansas daylight.
They starch to a white beyond the simple roll
of these hills to dazzle my eyes.
In sheets like these they wrapped my brother
who yielded his body in a killing
called war, as if that made it more right.
The hole they blew in his side explodes in my head.
It stays now, a place for the day to escape to.
In her grief my mother gave up his clothing,
his books and planes he modeled from balsa.
She gave them up to the sky in a black furl
as if the heat of that burning
could wipe out the hurt she felt.
All that’s left is a shirt I stole and keep
balled in my dresser away from my mother’s hands.
My sister gives herself to every man she can
as if that could fill the hollow spot my brother left.
She says she wants to take in all their anguish
and looks in their eyes for a matching emptiness
where she can place herself, but finds instead an ache
like a fist.
My father says hell glories on this earth.
Nothing more. Salvation is what big men talk about
when they want something, like a church
or my brother. Every night he carves
rounds of cottonwood into the smooth moons of napkin holders.
I call them cries without faces.
I stand here by these starching sheets and know wisdom
waits in the field with the corn.
Grow, says the sun, and it grows.
Bend, says the rain, and it bends.
Die, says the cold, and it dies.
As I bend to the weight of these sheets,
I watch them die a little each day with the wash
but come glorious in the sun,
bright flags against an empty Kansas prairie.”[ii]
[i] Weber, Elizabeth; Small Mercies; Owl Creek Press; Missoula, Montana; 1983; pp. 17-18.
[ii] Weber, Elizabeth; “Kansas, 1920,” The Burning House; Main Street Rag; Charlotte, North Carolina; 2005; p. 9.
“The Orpheus of the still life. He was surrounded by an aura of mystery, and legends circulated about what took place in his atelier, tales about supernatural forces he brought into his work. Probably Torrentius thought a certain dose of charlatanism did not harm art (differing here from his modest guild brothers of the Fraternity of Saint Luke), but on the contrary helped it. For example, he used to say he did not in fact paint but only placed paints on the floor next to his canvases; under the influence of musical sounds they arranged themselves in colourful harmonies. But is not art, every art, a kind of alchemical transmutation? From pigments dissolved in oil arise flowers, towns, bays of the ocean and views of paradise truer than the real ones.”[i]
It is an entire book written as an ekphrastic exercise. The author, Zbigniew Herbert, takes various elements from the Golden Age of Dutch painting and life and weaves a series of stories and essays around these themes. In this particular example, an art historian is doing research on a surprising painting that he has just encountered in a museum, by an artist he has never heard of. The “Still Life with a Bridle” by Johannes van der Beeck, also know as Torrentius, is equally as enigmatic as its maker. It clearly shows the artist’s hand at rendering a variety of materials and subjects: reading from right to left across the center of the painting we have a ceramic jug, a glass cruet, and a pewter pitcher, clearly illustrating the artist’s ability to handle a variety of surfaces in both light and shadow.
Herbert, even in the description of this still life, finds an underlying structure forming both horizontals and verticals, as well as hidden imagery, a mysterious note placed at the bottom of the composition and then the dark, almost hidden bridle directly above at the top. And, as an historian, he warns himself of the dangers of speculation and reading into the meaning of this mysterious painting. In the process of deciphering the verse written on the note anchoring the composition, Herbert observes: “Gnomic poems, particularly those that are esoteric texts, should be explained rather than translated word by word. One should approach them by degrees of meaning, carefully and on tiptoes, because literalness renders their meaning shallow and frightens away mystery.”[ii]
Bret Waller, the Director Emeritus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art used to always start his talks to my classes with the explanation that: “All works of art contain within themselves the definition of what they are about and how they were made.”[iii] And then of course, he would go through the elements of the piece that we were standing in front of and explicate exactly that. I have always tried to keep this lesson in mind, as both an artist and educator.
My reading over the last year, in both Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Sbigniew Herbert, has led to several new definitions and functions regarding the ekphrastic tradition. Contained within the descriptions of certain works of visual art are not merely observations but also insights; not just formal analyses but also lyrical and metaphorical underpinnings.
Lessing does this by first arguing one side of the history and in the next chapter, arguing the exact opposite side in both dating and aesthetic problems. Until more scientific dating can occur, we will be left with only a range of styles: early or late, Greek or Roman, etc. Herbert is aware of this dilemma as well, and even quotes the great French poet: “Paul Valery warned: ‘We should apologize that we dare to speak about painting.’ I was always aware of committing a tactless act.”[iv]
“I know well, too well, all the agonies and vain effort of what is called description, and also the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language—as voluminous, as receptive as hell—in which court verdicts and love novels are written. I don’t even know very well what inclines me to undertake these efforts. I would like to believe that it is my impervious ideal that requires me to pay it clumsy homages.”[v]
“Freedom – so many treatises were written about it that it became a pale, abstract concept. But for the Dutch it was something as simple as breathing, looking and touching objects. It did not need to be defined or beautified. This is why there is no division in their art between what is great and small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary. They painted apples and the portraits of fabric shopkeepers, pewter plates and tulips, with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison.”[vi]
[i] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; Notting Hill Editions; London, United Kingdom; 2012; p. 100.
[ii] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 127.
[iii] This observation is taken from my own notebooks and recollections of several public and private discussions with Mr. Bret Waller, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 1990-2001.
[iv] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 123.
[v] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 122.
[vi] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 150.
Nothing extraneous. Everything working. With muscles tense, movement over every inch of the surface, the figures themselves create the space in which they exist, taking the place of time. Timeless.
The Priest Laocoön was a seer in the Temple of Apollo. He had two sons, Antiphas and Thymbraeus. One story has him ostracized from the temple for breaking his vow of celibacy. Another describes his ill-fated warning to the assembled people of Troy against accepting a suspicious gift from the army of Greece: the Trojan horse. In either case, it is an ancient Greek sculpture that brings this story to life.
“… Of our men
One group stood marveling, gaping to see
The dire gift of the cold unbedded goddess,
The sheer mass of the horse.”
“Build up a bonfire under it,
This trick of the Greeks, a gift no one can trust,
Or cut it open, search the hollow belly!”
“Contrary notions pulled the crowd apart.
Next thing we knew, in front of everyone,
Laocoön with a great company
Came furiously running from the Height,
And still far off cried out: ‘O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?’”[i]
Writing in the Aeneid the poet Virgil related the story of Laocoön’s warning to his fellow citizens, the subsequent sack of Troy, and that infamous horse. Laocoön, sensing the horse to be hollow, struck it with his spear, echoing both inside and out. So either Apollo, or Minerva, sent serpents in retaliation for Laocoön’s warnings and his defiance of the gods. The research, dating, and other historical facts surrounding the telling of this story and the creation of the sculpture are, however, confusing.
Pliny the Elder attributed the commission of this sculpture to a team of three artists from Rhodes: Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus. They worked together seamlessly, interlacing the figures and serpents into a dynamic whole. It was thought to have been completed between 200 BC and 100 AD but those dates continue to be debated.
The original work was buried and lost after being in the Palace of Titus around 79-81 AD. It was later rediscovered during an excavation in early 1506 and brought immediately to Pope Julius II who had it placed in the Vatican Collection. His Holiness requested Michelangelo, who was working in Rome at the time, to inspect this newly discovered example of classical sculpture. Upon seeing “The Laocoön” Michelangelo declared it to be the most beautiful example he had seen from ancient times.
At first “The Laocoön” was attributed to the Romans as a copy from a lost original. Later it was theorized that it was not Roman, but truly a classical Greek composition. This debate continued without much clarification until the historian Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote an explication of this sculpture in his “Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry” in 1766. Lessing describes this sculpture and looks deeply into it, while simultaneously analyzing Virgil’s poem.
These art historical speculations pose a problem for the student of ekphrastics: if it had been created earlier, then Virgil may have actually seen it and been inspired to write his account in the Aeneid. However, if it had really been a Roman composition, then it was much later than Virgil, and possibly an illustration of his telling of this story.
In any event, Lessing’s descriptions and speculations are in themselves important examples of the ekphrastic tradition. His observations search the surfaces of this piece of marble and look deeply into its meaning. Describing a facial feature in one example, and then writing regarding the anguish coming from behind the mask, Lessing gives us a meditation on the expressive possibilities in a work of art.
“Virgil’s Laocoön cries out, but this screaming Laocoön is the same man whom we already know and love as a prudent patriot and loving father. We do not relate his cries to his character, but solely to his unbearable suffering. It is this alone which we hear in them, and it was only by this means that the poet could convey it clearly to our senses.”[ii]
Lessing’s observations address the processes of both seeing and writing. In his essay he searches for significant details that are employed for creative expression and he, himself, debates the use of these details in order to tell the entire story. Which elements will work for the poet? Which ones for the artists?
“It is claimed that representation in the arts covers all of visible nature, of which the beautiful is but a small part. Truth and expression are art’s first law, and as nature herself is ever ready to sacrifice beauty for the sake of higher aims, so must the artist subordinate it to his general purpose and pursue it no further than truth and expression permit. It is enough that truth and expression transform the ugliest aspects of nature into artistic beauty.”[iii]
“The idea of having the father and his two sons connected in one entanglement by means of the deadly serpents is undeniably an inspired one and gives evidence of a highly artistic imagination. Whose was it, the poet’s or the artists’?”[iv]
“But only that which gives free rein to the imagination is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imaginations, the more we must think we see.”[v]
Early in the summer of 2017, during a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Cité de Paris, I came upon the following statement on one of the information tags in an exhibition and copied it down in my notebook:
“Tout l’art du passe, de toutes les époques, de tout les civilisations surgit devant moi, tout est simultané comme si l’espace prenait la place du temps.”
—Alberto Giacometti, 1965[vi]
This led me back to a book of “Interpretive Drawings” by Alberto Giacometti that included two of his drawings from “The Laocoön.” In English his statement reads: “In all art of the past, of all eras, and all civilizations that came before me, all share a common vision in which space takes the place of time.”[vii]
Not only did Alberto Giacometti go to this source in reference to the old masters, so did James Joyce when Stephen Dedalus comments on this very story in Ulysses: “Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope.”[viii]
And this is how Virgil described Laocoön’s confrontation with this beast:
Is in this thing. Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all.”
“He broke off then
And rifled his big spear with all his might
Against the horse’s flank, the curve of the belly.
It stuck there trembling, and the rounded hull
Reverberated groaning at the blow.”[ix]
“…. But straight ahead
They slid until they reached Laocoön.
Twining about and feeding on the body.
Next they ensnared the man as he ran up
With weapons: coils like cables looped and bound him
Twice round the middle; twice about his throat
They wipped their back-scales, and their heads towered,
While with both hands he fought to break the knots,
Drenched in slime, his head-hands black with venom,
Sending to heaven his appalling cries
Like a slashed bull escaping from an altar,
The fumbled axe shrugged off. The pair of snakes
Now flowed away and made for the highest shrines,
The citadel of pitiless Minerva,
Where coiling they took cover at her feet
Under the rondure of her shield. New terrors
Ran in the shaken crowd: the word went round
Laocoön had paid, and rightfully,
For profanation of the sacred hulk
With his offending spear hurled at its flank.”[x]
[i] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); Vintage Classics and Random House; New York, New York; 1990; BOOK II, Lines 42-45 & 52-61, p. 34.
[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 24.
[iii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.
[iv] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 35.
[v] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.
[vi] Carluccio, Luigi; Giacometti: A Sketchbook of Interpretive Drawings; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1967. Giacometti’s statement regarding these drawings led me to revisit this book of his drawings copied from many historic works of art.
[vii] From an e-mail correspondence between this writer and Dr. Rosalie Vermette, Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Paris, France, and Professor Emerita, School of Liberal Arts, Indiana University and Purdue University at Indianapolis, 22 May 2018.
[viii] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1934 & 1997; p. 301.
[ix] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 67-75, p. 35.
[x] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 290-310, p. 41.
“This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”[i]
Writing in her own notebooks and journals Agnes Martin sets out her thinking in spare and poetic lines. Not unlike her paintings. Single lines, and then groups of lines, they add up to a wholeness in both vision and spirit. And it raises questions: where is painting and pattern in relation to nature? Where is the balance, what is the distance between perfection and imperfection? Do content and abstraction rule each other out? These questions serve to articulate and refine our thoughts. Through them we might discover that vision for an artist comes from within rather than from the outside.
“In my best moments I think ‘Life has passed me by’ and I am content.”[ii]
“I wish the idea of time would drain out of my cells and leave me quiet even on this shore.”[iii]
“Everyone recognizes the nature pattern of unequal and contesting or related parts.”[iv]
“I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are.”[v]
The poet Edward Hirsch has written a series of spare and poetic lines about Ms. Martin’s work: very minimal yet extremely observant. I have heard him read several times, both here in Indianapolis and in Chicago, and I often feel like I can hear his voice when I read his work. His lines are the perfect analogies for the shapes and colors contained in the paintings and drawings of Agnes Martin. In his collection Lay Back the Darkness he has achieved a light and gracious balance. Crucial to the ekphrastic tradition.
I once asked him about this and if this ekphrastic example was based on a specific painting by Ms. Martin or rather a general group of them, taken together as a larger body of work. He responded:
“Yes, my piece on Agnes Martin refers to a wide range of her line drawings. There is a piece on ekphrastic poetry in the new issue of ‘American Poetry Review’ and the writer refers to the poem as a form of gallery poetry. That actually makes sense. It doesn’t refer to one single painting, the way, say, my earlier poem did, ‘Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad,’ but rather surveys a whole landscape of poems.”[vi]
THE HORIZONTAL LINE
(Homage to Agnes Martin)
“It was like a white sail in the early morning.
It was like a tremulous wind calming itself
After a night on the thunderous sea.
She came out of the mountains
And surrendered to the expansiveness of a plain.”[vii]
“The beauty of an imperfection.
From its first pointed stroke
To its last brush with meaning
The glow of the line was spiritual.”[viii]
“The horizon was a glimmering blue band
A luminous streamer in the distance.
She remembered the stillness of a pool
Before the swimmers entered the water
And the colorful ropes dividing the lines.”[ix]
“Sacred dream of geometry,
Ruler and protractor, temper my anguish,
Untrouble my mind.
She would not line up with others
She would align herself with the simple truth.”[x]
And Agnes Martin, writing in her own notebooks, might have the final say in this matter:
From ancient Greek sculptures on the theme of “The Fallen Warrior” to Uccello’s sequence of three versions of “The Battle of San Romano” we have the beginnings of a great history of images of war.
In 1633 the artist Jacques Callot published his “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” as a response to the French invasion of Lorraine during the Thirty Years War. In the early 19th Century, it was Francisco Goya who was inspired to work in this direction as he witnessed the Napoleonic invasion of Spain from 1808 to 1814, which resulted in his series of “The Disasters of War.”
Even the French artist Henri Rousseau took up the subject in his 1894 painting titled: “War, or The Ride of Discord.” Although it had been more than twenty years since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 these events continued to haunt Rousseau’s ideas for paintings.
From the earliest years of photography, during both the Crimean War and the American Civil War, to present day combat photographers and journalists, we have a continuing record of many important historical events.
The initial Armistice Day was offered as a celebration of the peace that came at the end of the First World War on 11 November 1919. Unfortunately, this annual observance has now turned into a celebration of war, the exact opposite of its original intent.
Many recent artists and veterans have used a variety of media as a means of documenting and coming to grips with their wartime experiences. However, it is the aftermath that becomes more confusing. From a distance, there is a completely different perspective.
The Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress and the United States Army Center of Military History all have important collections of works of art created by active participants and witnesses in the field. More recently the Viet Nam Veterans Artist Group was formed and organized in Chicago, from 1981 to 1992 and has now grown and become known as the National Veterans Art Museum.[i]
Inspired by many of the artists whose work is in the collection of the National Veterans Art Museum as well as work from the United States Army Center of Military History, the Indianapolis Art Center curated an important exhibition of this work in it’s “Art of Combat: Artists from the Viet Nam War Then and Now” in 2000.[ii]
Many veterans, as well as concerned civilians in the United States, have chosen this as a major part of their subject matter, including: Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, Ric Haynes, David Shirm, Michael Helbing, Karl Michel and especially Michael Aschenbrenner in his “Broken Bone” series. Although many of these artists were actual witnesses to the Viet Nam War, their current works are often reflections and memories of events sometimes lost, and sometimes regained.
Writers and musicians during the 1960’s also tackled these issues. How could we forget the words of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” or Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die?” A number of other examples include work by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Barry McGuire and Kemo Williams. And especially, Edwin Starr’s “War!”
“…Oh, war it’s an enemy to all mankind
The point of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest
Within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die, ah, war-huh, good god y’all
What is it good for
Say it, say it, say it
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing listen to me…”
“…it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker
(War) it’s got one friend that’s the undertaker
Oh, war, has shattered many a young mans dreams
Made him disabled, bitter and mean
Life is much too short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can’t give life
It can only take it away
Oh, war, huh good god y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing say it again….”[iii]
[i] Sinaiko, Eve, et al.; Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections; the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York; 1998.
[ii] Moore, Julia Muney, et al.; The Art of Combat: Artists and the Vietnam War, Then and Now; Indianapolis Art Center; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2000.
[iii] Starr, Edwin; “War” (lyrics by Barret Strong and Norman Whitfield); 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection – The Best of Edwin Starr; Audio CD, B00005R8E7; Motown Records; 2001.
It is a monstrous painting. Huge when first encountered in the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, approximately seven feet high and eight feet across, impossible to be taken in all at once. Cezanne worked on this subject through many years and versions, always searching for the solution he had imagined.
We can see from several smaller studies how Cezanne’s ideas developed and grew over time. Two or three figures in one, three to five figures in another, numerous combinations and variations. This work was really important to Cezanne, but it was even more important to artists who followed him. Significantly amongst those in later generations were both Henry Moore and Henri Matisse. Each of them had actually owned smaller versions of Cezanne’s “Bathers.”
“I now own a small Cezanne Bathers painting, and in talking about it to friends, I have often said, ‘look what a romantic idea Cezanne had of women,’ and, ‘how fully he realised (sic) the three-dimensional world.’ I felt that I could easily make sculptures of his figures.”
“Stephen Spender in a letter to me said, ‘your idea of showing that you could make sculptures of the Cezanne figures is fascinating. Why don’t you do it?’ Soon after his letter, I felt like proving it, and modeled each of the three figures in plasticine, taking about an hour in all. My idea was to show their existence completely in space, and perhaps to photograph them or make drawings, as it were, from behind the picture, showing them from all sides and demonstrating that they had been conceived by Cezanne in full three dimensions.”
“I enjoyed the whole of this experience. I had thought I knew our ‘Bathers’ picture completely, having lived with it for twenty years. But this exercise—modelling the figures and drawing them from different views—has taught me more than any amount of just looking at the picture.”
“This example shows that working from the object—modelling or drawing it—makes you look much more intensely than ever you do if you just look at something for pleasure.”[i]
There is a popularly held misconception that artists are bad writers, although to this day we are constantly required to submit an “artist’s statement” for any and every thing we do. However, from the number of letters written back and forth amongst artists, from entries written in their notebooks and journals, and explanations that many curators require from the artists they are celebrating, it is clear that visual artists are also very articulate with regards to the written word.
Here are two examples, from Henry Moore above and Henri Matisse below, reflecting their personal thoughts and observations on several versions of Paul Cezanne’s “Bathers.” They write clearly and straightforwardly regarding these paintings, all the while rediscovering how important Cezanne’s work actually was.
Henry Moore has worked with the pure plastic sense of both painting and sculpture and the process of articulating form in space. This is evident in all of his later work, and his many figurative pieces.
Henri Matisse is drawing from the Cezanne and searching for a more complete realization of a composition as seen over several years. Amongst several examples this would lead to his great “Bathers by a River” of 1917 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1899 Henri Matisse purchased “Three Bathers” by Cezanne from the Parisian art dealer Vollard. He kept it in his possession until 1936 when he donated it to the Petit Palais in Paris. On 10 November 1936 he wrote this letter to Raymond Escholier, the director of the museum:
“Allow me to tell you that this picture is of the first importance in the work of Cezanne because it is a very dense, very complete realization of a composition that he carefully considered in several canvases which, though now in important collections, are only the studies that culminated in this work.”
“In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope; it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance; for this reason, allow me to request that it be placed so that it may be seen to its best advantage. For this it needs both light and adequate space. It is rich in color and surface, and seen at a distance it is possible to appreciate the sweep of its lines and the exceptional sobriety of its relationships.”
“I know that I do not have to tell you this, but nevertheless I think it is my duty to do so; please accept these remarks as the excusable testimony of my admiration for this work which has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it. Allow me to thank you for the care that you will give it, for I hand it over to you with complete confidence. . . .”[ii]
[i] Wilkinson, Alan, ed; Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; 2002; pp. 307-309.
[ii] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles and London; 1995; p. 124.