THE DAY IT RAINED ON ANNE FRANK’S HOUSE

“So we walked in the pouring rain, Daddy, Mummy, and I, each with a school satchel and shopping bag filled to the brim with all kinds of things thrown together anyhow.

We got sympathetic looks from people on their way to work.  You could see by their faces how sorry they were they couldn’t offer us a lift; the gaudy yellow star spoke for itself.

Only when we were on the road did Mummy and Daddy begin to tell me bits and pieces about the plan.  For months as many of our goods and chattels and necessities of life as possible had been sent away and they were sufficiently ready for us to have gone into hiding of our own accord on July 16.  The plan had to be speeded up ten days because of the call-up, so our quarters would not be so well organized, but we had to make the best of it.  The hiding place itself would be in the building where Daddy has his office.”

Thursday, 9 July, 1942.[i]

anne
Carel Blazer
“Front view of the house,
Victor (Kraler) Kugler’s office and business”
1954
B&W photograph
Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Above are some of the entries from Anne Frank’s Diary, made on the first day of her family’s hiding.  Below are the notes that she made a year and a half later.  One cannot imagine what they were really experiencing during those times, even after reading the Diary.

One summer Anne McKenzie Nickolson and I visited several major cities in Europe, including Copenhagen, Hamburg, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels.  It was almost a year after the 9/11 attacks and security was evident everywhere, even walking down Vermeerstraat, or visiting the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam, but especially while visiting the Anne Frank House Museum on 13 June 2002.  Somber.  It was not raining that day, nor was the sky grey, but still it was somber.

In just two days we visited three important museums:  the Rembrandt House, the Anne Frank House Museum, and the Vincent van Gogh Museum.  Each one was organized in chronological order, including Rembrandt’s studio and Anne Frank’s attic, so that going through them felt like walking through their lives.  Especially the photographs and posters still glued to the walls of Anne Frank’s room.

Coming out of the museum, we walked along the canals and around the block in order to completely see the outside of the house and annex.  Amsterdam is a beautiful city, tree lined streets and canals, with many references to its great artists and historical events.  Later, looking through the Anne Frank House Museum Guide Book, I found the axonometric diagram for both the house and the annex.  It is a beautiful rendering in its own right, and gives one a clear idea and sense of the place.

anne2
Eric van Rootselaar
“Anne Frank House, cross-section house and annex”
(Axonometric projection)
2001
Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

“When someone comes in from outside, with the wind on their clothes and the cold on their faces, then I could bury my head in the blankets to stop myself thinking:  ‘When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?’  And because I must not bury my head in the blankets, but the reverse—I must keep my head high and be brave, the thoughts will come, not once, but oh, countless times.  Believe me, if you have been shut up for a year and a half, it can get too much for you some days.  In spite of all justice and thankfulness, you can’t crush your feelings.  Cycling, dancing, whistling, looking out into the world, feeling young, to know that I am free—that’s what I long for, still, I mustn’t show it, because I sometimes think if all eight of us began to pity ourselves, or went about with discontented faces, where would it lead us?  I . . . . don’t know, and I couldn’t talk about it to anyone, because then I know I should cry.  Crying can bring such relief.”

Friday, 24 December, 1943[ii]

anne3
Carel Blazer
“Back view of the house, location of the Secret Annex”
1954
B&W photograph
Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

“It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank”
                                                                        Linda Pastan

“It is raining on the house
of Anne Frank
and on the tourists
herded together under the shadow
of their umbrellas,
on the perfectly silent
tourists who would rather be
somewhere else
but who wait here on stairs
so steep they must rise
to some occasion
high in the empty loft,
in the quaint toilet,
in the skeleton
of a kitchen
or on the map—
each of its arrows
a barb of wire—
with all the dates, the expulsions,
the forbidding shapes
of continents.
And across Amsterdam it is raining
on the Van Gogh Museum
where we will hurry next
to see how someone else
could find the pure
center of light
within the dark circle
of his demons.”[iii]

anne4
“Entrance, visitor queues in the rain”
(File Photograph)
Vincent Van Gogh Museum
Museumplein, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

[i] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; p. 16.

[ii] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; pp. 123-124.

[iii] Pastan, Linda; “It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank” Carnival Evening:  New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 96.

A NUDE DESCENDING THE STAIRS

“Why?  Only because she had walked naked into my life?  In a painting?”[i]

“You came here so you could finally understand modern art?”[ii]  Who knows how many times this question has been asked, and inadequately answered?  Beginning with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and continuing into our current time, now including the Modernists and Post-Modernists.  These questions involving the definition of modern art come up several times in this story that revolves around a young nude woman who is portrayed as she comes down a staircase in a modern painting.

In his recent novel The Woman on the Stairs the writer Bernhard Schlink draws inspiration from a Gerhardt Richter painting for a story involving the interrelationships amongst an art patron and his wife, an artist and his mistress, and a young lawyer who is caught in the middle of all of this.  Threats of lawsuits are flying back and forth.  Discussions and negotiations are being held regarding the conservation of this modern masterpiece.  And, the lawyer has fallen in love with a nude woman descending a staircase.  I am not sure if there is a post-modern dilemma effecting the legal profession nowadays, but this situation certainly highlights that dilemma in the contemporary art world.

The industrial revolution brought with it the production of a new range of synthetic pigments for artists.  Scientific discoveries and theories brought to our attention how reality is made up of smaller and smaller elements and particles.  And photography brought a new interest in capturing the realistic moment.  Although many writers have proposed that photography also destroyed the need for painting, the final result was to free it, allowing painting to explore new paths of expression, no longer confined by realism and the mimetic.

One important historic example was the work of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his experiments in capturing a variety of figures and animals in motion.  For example, his photographs of horses in motion proved once and for all that artists of the past had never correctly depicted the action of galloping horses.

nude
Eadward Muybridge
“Woman descending a staircase, sequence”
1887
Collotype on paper
7 3/4” x 14 13/16”
University of Pennsylvania Archives
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Muybridge’s studies of human figures walking, running, climbing and descending stairs also brought new light on these particular movements.  When Duchamp’s “Nude Descending the Staircase” was shown at the Armory Show in 1913 in the United States it of course created a stir as well as achieving unbelievable success.  In interviews afterwards, Duchamp stated how he had been directly influenced by Muybridge’s earlier work.[iii]

nude2
Marcel Duchamp
“Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”
1912
Oil on canvas
57 7/8” x 35 1/8”
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection
Philadelphia Museum of Art

For the author Bernhard Schlink, various discussions and descriptions of this painting advance the story line of his novel.  They become a series of ekphrastic exercises, deftly woven into the development of the story.

In talking about the German painter Karl Schwind’s painting of the “Woman on Staircase” the model Irene Gundlach mentioned that:  “It was an answer to Marcel Duchamp.  Do you know Nude Descending a Staircase?  A cubist figure, breaking up in the moments of descent, a vortex of legs, ass, arms and heads?  Duchamp’s work was talked about as the end of painting, and Schwind wanted to show that a naked woman descending a staircase could still be painted.”[iv]

Further on she explained that:  “He wanted to keep the pictures he felt defined him as an artist.  That spoke to issues in contemporary painting:  what representation and abstraction can offer, their relationship to photography, how beauty and truth interact.”[v]

At one point, the lawyer remembered:  “I went into a bookshop, and asked for everything they had on Karl Schwind.  A few years before, the Frankfort Art Association had organized an exhibition and published a slim catalogue – that was all they had.  I know nothing about art and couldn’t judge if the paintings were good or bad.  There were pictures of waves, of skies and

nude3
Gerhardt Richter
“Ema (Nude on a Staircase)”
1966
Oil on canvas
200 cm x 130 cm
Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

clouds, of trees; the colours were beautiful, and everything was blurry, the way I see the world when I’m not wearing my glasses.  Familiar, yet distanced.  The catalogue listed the galleries that had exhibited Schwind and the awards he had won.  He didn’t appear to be a failure as an artist, bet he wasn’t established either – up-and-coming, perhaps.”[vi]

And finally, as the patron Peter Gundlach was speaking, he “ . . . told us about the article in the New York Times and the reports that followed in the German media.  The painting, Woman on Staircase, a fixture in Schwind catalogues, but never exhibited, about which Schwind had always been evasive, had a mysterious aura, and its sudden appearance in, of all places, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was a sensation.”[vii]

“Then he laughed.  ‘In any case, you had a good eye, better than mine.  If I had suspected that the painting would one day be worth more than twenty million . . . .’”[viii]

 


[i] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; Pantheon Books; New York, New York; 2016; p. 98.

[ii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p.85.

[iii] Ramirez, Juan Antonio; Duchamp:  love and death, even; Reaktion Books; London, United Kingdom; 1998; pp. 257-258.

[iv] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.

[v] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.

[vi] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 14.

[vii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 116.

[viii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 113.

THE FLIGHT OF ICARUS!

matisse
Henri Matisse
“The Fall of Icarus”
1943
Gouache on paper cut out, collaged on canvas
35 x 26.5 cm
Private Collection

“‘I warn you,’ Daedalus had said, ‘not to fly so low that the mist or fog weighs down your wings, nor so high that the sun scorches you:  fly between the two!  Avoid too much heat and too much damp, too much dryness and too much cold.  Keep to the center of their wheel.  Don’t look at Bootes or Helice, or at Orion’s drawn sword.  Take me as your guide and follow!”

“But Icarus grows excited.  He forgets the advice.  Soon he masters the beating of his wings and swoops in wide, playful circles above the sea.  Does Minos see him laughing and dancing on the invisible crest of the world?  Like a swimmer, turning his back on the cries from shore, he is already far at sea.  He has tired of following his father’s shoulders, his snowy wings and shock of hair.  He enters into glory as into a garden, a garden of flames that surrounds him; and he breathes in.  ‘O Sun!  Father!’ he cries to the encircling fire.  Once more he kicks on the wind!  Again he beats his wings on the torrid wave of the wind!  Once more he thrusts up into the light!”[i]

We know of course, how this is going to end:  wings and wax melting, bursting into flames, and finally falling into the sea below.  Deadalus, the great engineer and inventor, who had constructed these devices for himself and his son, Icarus, had been imprisoned by King Minos in the very dungeon he had constructed for the Minitaur on orders from this king.

The excitement and enthusiasm of this young man overshadowed the warnings of his father, to stay the course.  It is an ancient moral tale from Ovid that has fascinated many generations of painters and poets:  from Pieter Breughel (both the Elder and the Younger) to Henri Matisse and from William Carlos Williams to Claude-Henri Rocquet.

Many years ago, in literature and composition classes in Baltimore we were  exposed to both classic and contemporary writers, especially Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders and Susan Sontag.  Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore were always mentioned as well, but William Carlos Williams was often sited only as a footnote.  Sometimes at night I would hit the library and find the new (at the time) two volume edition of Williams’ Collected Poems on the reserve shelf.  I read through the entire collection several times that semester.

I have read that Williams himself was aware of and frustrated by the lack of greater recognition his work was afforded at that time.  He continued to write nonetheless, and his last collection, “Pictures from Breughel” proved beyond a doubt his importance.  Three months after his death, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection.  His deep seeing, attention to detail and sensitivity towards Breughel’s work have continued to influence many younger painters and poets.

II    LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS

“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning”[ii]

matisse2
Pieter Bruegel
“La chute d’Icare”
Oil on panel
1562-1563
73.5 x 112 cm
Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

 


[i] Rocquet, Claude-Henri; Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1991.  (p. 122).

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” Pictures from Breughel; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 4.

INTO THE LIFE OF THINGS

“Nothing is hollow or waste to the imagination of Marianne Moore….For I don’t think there is a better poet writing in America today or one who touches so deftly so great a range of our thought….So that in looking at some apparently small object one feels the swirl of great events.”[i]

This is what William Carlos Williams wrote about his friend and colleague Marianne Moore in an article regarding her work for the Quarterly Review of Literature in 1948.  This particular issue of the Quarterly Review was published in honor of Miss Moore.

Marianne Moore was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1887 and lived most of her life there.  Miss Moore studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a professional librarian, with the other half of her career as a poet.  Along the way, she met and shared aesthetic interests with other fellow poets including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.  On a rare trip overseas to London and the British Museum with her mother in 1911 she discovered a small Egyptian blown glass sculpture in the form of a fish, which later became an important example of the ekphrastic tradition.  She has also written sensitively about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome and His Lion” and “Rodin’s Penseur.

ellen1
Ellen Fischer
“Kodak and Mirror”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

Ellen Fischer was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1956.  She studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has served as a curator at both the Greater Lafayette Museum of Art in Indiana and the Vero Beach Museum of Art in Florida.  The other half of her career over these years was of course as a studio artist.

These two could have been sisters, or distant cousins, perhaps not from the exact same family, but from across the spread of time.  They share several aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual traditions even though one was an Imagist poet and the other is a contemporary painter.  Both women have worked with great independence and determination.

On several occasions I have accompanied Ms. Fischer to art museums, galleries, antique stores and markets in Central Florida.  The same eyes that look so intensely at works of art are also used to search out a find or two at the local flea market or Goodwill Store.  Her juxtapositions are always surprising and provocative, bringing out the best in every object.

Quietly creating these still lives, flooding them with light and satire and curiosity, Ms. Fischer has assembled a body of work that speaks of human hands and activities. It is exactly what Miss Moore advocated when she mentioned how one object shouldn’t diminish or reduce another:  one thing being great because another is small.

ellen2
Ellen Fischer
“Hanging Machete”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

Although many of these objects are old and discarded, they are not, to my mind, nostalgic.  They are unusual in form and antique in the sense that they carry with them a certain history, or an untold story that may have already been lost, only now to be participants in a totally new story.

When I recently asked Ms. Fischer about her work and her selection of subjects, this was her response:

“YES, I see things at Goodwill and thrift stores and flea markets, and buy them.  I know right away that I have to have them, and that I will paint them.  The meat cleaver was purchased at the St. Vincent DePaul shop here in Vero.  Two friends were with me and I had nothing to buy. When they were checking out, I saw it in a case on the other side of the cash register and asked to see it.”

“Well, once something like that is in your hands you can’t let it go.  I paid way more for that cleaver than I usually spend on anything in the thrift store– $10.00!”

“I had done a few paintings with sharp objects in them, and wanted to do more.  The cleaver interested me as an object to paint. It did lie around the studio for a few months before I used it, but I never stopped thinking about it, in a general way.”

“It seemed natural to use the little Parian ware ‘Ma Kettle’ figure with it– she is holding an ax, you may have noticed, and has a pig at her side….And she was just the right size to hide behind the blade.”

ellen3
Ellen Fischer
“A Close Call”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Private collection Indianapolis)

“Always best when a still life comes together spontaneously.  I don’t think you can force objects to go together that don’t belong together, no matter how you juggle them.”

“Sometimes I have played around with objects, positioning them this way and that to see how they might work, but if it doesn’t happen within a reasonable amount of time, I keep the object I am most interested in painting on the table and try different objects with it.”

“I have to feel strongly about the objects in the first place to want to paint them.”[ii]

Because of her interest in various works of art, Marianne Moore was often questioned about her writing and collecting.  She struggled to defend the directness of her own work and to explain what she saw in the work of others, both poets and painters.  Finally having had enough, she made her own statement regarding what she indeed looked for.

Here is Miss Moore’s response regarding her collection of art and objects:

“When I Buy Pictures

or what is closer to the truth,
when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor,
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible
than the intensity of the mood;
or quite the opposite–the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-box,
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist of the hour-glass,
and deer and birds and seated people;
it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal biography perhaps,
in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse;
an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic in three parts;
the silver fence protecting Adam’s grave, or Michael taking Adam by the wrist.

ellen4
Ellen Fischer
“Bust with Palette Knife”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist)

Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one’s enjoyment.
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honored–
that which is great because something else is small.
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.”[iii]


 

[i] Williams, William Carlos; “Marianne Moore” Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. 292-294.

[ii] Fischer, Ellen; An artist’s statement regarding “Close Call” and other still life elements as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 21 June 2017.

[iii] Schulman, Grace, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking; New York, New York; 2003; p. 144.

ARE WE CLIMBING JACOB’S LADDER?

“And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!  And behold, the Lord stood

above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God if Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the

ladder1
Attavante
“Le songe de Saint Romuald et l’Echelle des moines”[i]
1502
Miniature on parchment
44 cm. x 34 cm.
Wildenstein Collection of Illuminations
Musee Marmottan, Paris
south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families bless themselves.  Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.’  Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place….This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”[ii]

The Jacob’s Ladder

“The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence for angels’ feet that
only glance in their
tread, and
need not touch the stone.

It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a
doubtful,
a doubting night gray.

A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next giving a
little
lift of wings:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut
stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past
him.
The poem ascends.”[iii]

There are many literary references and historical illustrations to the passage of people and angels traveling between Heaven and Earth.  There are also contemporary examples such as the one above by Denise Levertov and one at the end of this essay by Bob Dylan.  In literature these draw upon the Old Testament story of the Dream of Jacob. In music there is a major source for this in the great American Southern Baptist spiritual:  “Jacob’s Ladder.”

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

Soldiers of the cross.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
We are brothers, and sisters, all.”[iv]

It was one of the first African American spirituals to become popular with both black and white citizens of the south.  There is no record of when it was written or who wrote it, but it came into being sometime between 1750 and 1825, and was known as a call and response song amongst slaves.  The ladder quickly became one of many symbols for the means of escaping slavery.

As is typical with folk traditions, this song was handed down through generations and verses were added and changed to reflect more recent times.  Significant versions from the 20th Century include recordings by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and most recently by Bruce Springsteen during his “Seeger Sessions.”

ladder2
Georgia O’Keeffe
“Ladder to the Moon”
1958
Oil on canvas
40 3/16” x 30 1/4”
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

In the visual arts as well, this imagery has wide ranging uses, from medieval manuscript illuminations to pieces of surrealism and even to contemporary sculpture.  The “Dream of Romuald with the stairs of the Monks” from an Italian book illumination at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris is a reference to the story of Jacob’s Ladder.  Many early 20th Century artists incorporated this imagery into their work, from realists to surrealists, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Joan Miro and most recently, Martin Puryear, who has used the ladder form in his sculpture dedicated to Booker T. Washington.

ladder3
Martin Puryear
“Ladder for Booker T. Washington”
1996
Wood (ash and maple)
432” x 22 3/4” x 3”
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas

Finally, a young artist here in Indiana has for several years been employing severe and unusual views of many ordinary and everyday objects.  Having studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Pont-Aven, France and the Arizona State University in Tempe, Sarah Jones has always had an eye for the unique angle of things.

ladder4
Sarah K. Jones
“Ladder #2”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

The dramatic placement and situation of certain objects is combined with her own personal point of view towards these things.  Her paintings above and below best illustrate this, as does her own statement regarding how they came about.

ladder5
Sarah K. Jones
“Ladder #3”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

“The paintings came about after a summer spent in the four corners region. I was working on a ranch in Durango, CO and took weekend trips to places like Mesa Verde, Taos, and Albuquerque. It was my first trip west of the Mississippi and I was fascinated by the differences in landscape and even quality of light compared to Indiana. The images which inspired the paintings were taken at Taos Pueblo. The sky was SO blue. The light was SO bright. The shadows were SO strong. I loved the clean lines of the buildings and the shadow patterns made by ladders leaning against the adobe buildings. They formed lovely right angle triangles: building= side 1, ladder = side 2 and shadow of ladder falling across the ground = side 3.”[v]

ladder6
Sarah Kathryn Jones
“Ladder #1”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

Finally, I am reminded of a certain theme that runs through much of the writing of William Carlos Williams:  primarily in his epic poem “Patterson” and secondly in an essay on the work of the artist Charles Sheeler.  He mentions several times that we should “Say it!  No ideas but in things!”[vi]  And further, he observes that “It is in things that for the artist power lies….”[vii]  So, it is in both poetry and painting that a single object might become a powerful image.

“May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young”[viii]

 


[i] Translated as “The Dream of St. Romuald and the Ladder of the Monks” this is a piece from the Wildenstein Collection of historic manuscript illuminations at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris. One historian, Peter Damian, has noted that St. Romuald’s Dream is also a conflation of the legend of Jacob’s Dream.

[ii] “Genesis 28:11-17” The Holy Bible:  Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinburgh; 1952; p. 21.

[iii] Levertov, Denise; Selected Poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2002; p. 25.

[iv] Springsteen, Bruce; “Jacob’s Ladder” The Seeger Sessions; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1998 & 2006.

[v] Jones, Sarah; An artist’s statement regarding her “Ladder Paintings” as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 16 May 2017.

[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6 & 9.

[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; p. 234.

[viii] Dylan, Bob; “Forever Young” Planet Waves; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1974 & 2004.

THE DISCOBOLUS

disco1
“Discobolus”
Roman copy after a Greek original, c. 450 BC.
Lifesize
Marble
Museo delle Terme, Rome

It is an icon, some would even call it a cliché, one of the many great sculptures from the ancient Greeks that have been handed down to us through Roman copies.  It has, however, lasted throughout all of these years, and no doubt will continue.  It may not be relevant, but it was and is influential.  During all of its history artists have studied these pieces and writers have been inspired by them, including a most important San Francisco Bay Area poet.

From classical Greek sculpture to Goya, from Marc Chagall to Charlie Chaplin, and even from Morris Graves to Edward Hopper, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has always written about a variety of artists.  He also speaks of both the detail and the overall, both the immediate and the historical.  He notices the calipers in the hands of the sculptor as well as the ramifications for an articulated detail that carries us over the centuries.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 11.12.40 AM[i]

“Discobolus” or the “Discus Thrower” is of course a marble copy of the original bronze Greek sculpture by Myron.  And, at one time or another, it has made its way, through academic castings and copies, into almost every art school in the world.  This is where Vincent Van Gogh first encountered it in a drawing class in Antwerp in 1886.

“Students at the Antwerp academy were expected to work three or four days on a single drawing, so that during his six-week stay Van Gogh probably executed about a dozen sheets.  We know both from his letters and from eyewitness accounts that he copied several different sculptures, but this study from a cast of the Discus Thrower (ca. 450 B.C.) by Myron of Eleutherai is the only example to have survived.”[ii]

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Vincent Van Gogh
“The Discus Thrower”
1886
Black chalk on paper
22 1/8” x 17 1/2”
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Most recently, from Pop Art to the Post-Modern, we encounter themes and variations played out in an art historical context. Ned Rifkin in writing about the artist Robert Moskowitz’s borrowing of sculptural imagery from Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” to Rodin’s “The Thinker” and even to the Roman copy of the “Discus Thrower” has observed:

“Moskowitz reduced the barely recognizable image to a hard edged outline. . . . It becomes. . . its vestigal shadow and reads not as an experience of form in space but as a sign.”

“Certainly, the artist is making a statement about self-consciousness while also reinventing the form.  It definitely uses that known image and says, ‘What does it mean now?’” [iii]

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Robert Moskowitz
“Bowler”
1984
Pastel on paper
108” x 44 5/8”
Mr. and Mrs. Harry W. Anderson, San Francisco, California

[i] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; A Coney Island of the Mind; New Directions Publishing Company; New York, New York; 1958; p. 79.

[ii] Ives, Colta, Susan Alyson Stein, et al; Vincent Van Gogh:  The Drawings; The Metropilitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2005; p. 126.

[iii] Rifkin, Ned; Robert Moskowitz; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in association with Thames and Hudson; New York, New York; 1989; p. 42.

HOW TO DRAW A CATHEDRAL

“…even though I have so profound an admiration for the beauty of Chartres, I realize strongly that it belongs to a culture, a tradition, a people of which I am not a part….It seems to be a persistent necessity for me to feel a sense of derivation from the country in which I live and work.”[i]

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Charles Sheeler
“Chartres Cathedral”
1929
B&W photograph
9” x 7”
The Lane Collection, Charles Sheeler Archives
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

I have often had a similar feeling as that expressed by Charles Sheeler above.  As an American I have always felt that my voice and vision should grow out of my own country and experience.  However, I had not counted on participating in a graduate art history seminar at Indiana University on Gothic Architecture and seeing, for the first time, a beautiful little book titled “The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt” that had been edited by Theodore Bowie.[ii] Many years later, searching through the ‘librairie’ at the Musee Cluny in Paris, I purchased a more recent and larger edition of the same title.

Villard de Honnecourt may have been an architect, or possibly an itinerant designer or draughtsman.  Some historians have described him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the dark-ages.  In any event, he did produce a sketchbook full of drawings and devices that changed how we see the world.  They were at least a ‘pattern book’ or stylistic guide to the articulation of Gothic facades and interiors.[iii]  These drawings by Honnecourt were not the only reason, but they were one of the reasons that allowed this new ‘gothic’ style to spread throughout Europe.

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Villard de Honnecourt
“Double Row of Flying Buttresses, Rheims Cathedral VI”
(The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, [C.LXIV])
1230
Pen & ink on paper
9.25” x 6.1”
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
These little drawings are focused, insightful, powerfully structural, filled with character and attention to detail, and I always think of them immediately whenever I hear of the writer Raymond Carver or read about his short story “Cathedral.”

In this story, a young couple is surprised by a visit from a friend of the wife, an old blind man for whom she had worked several years ago.  She did his reading for him and other chores.  He was in town taking care of some business after the death of his wife and he wanted to ‘see’ them again.

The husband was a bit leery of this old man and his unexpected visit, as it was his wife who had been close to him.  They had dinner and a few drinks and afterwards they watched a program on Gothic Cathedrals on TV.  The wife had soon gone to sleep, leaving the two men in the living room, when the old blind man came up with this suggestion:  would the young man teach him how to draw a cathedral?  All that he really new about these things was what he had just heard on the TV program and didn’t know what they really looked like.

This young man, totally disoriented and slightly tipsy, searched the house for papers and pens and drawing materials and spread them all out on the living room floor.

“The blind man got down from the sofa and sat next to me on the carpet.”

“He ran his fingers over the paper.  He went up and down the sides of the paper.  The edges, even the edges.  He fingered the corners.”

“‘All right,’ he said.  ‘All right, let’s do her.’”

“He found my hand, the hand with the pen.  He closed his hand over my hand.  ‘Go ahead, bub, draw,’ he said.  ‘Draw.  You’ll see.  I’ll follow along with you.  It’ll be okay.  Just begin now like I’m telling you.  You’ll see.  Draw,’ the blind man said.”

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Villard de Honnecourt
“Exterior and Interior Elevations, Rheims Cathedral IV”
(The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, [C.LXII])
1230
Pen & ink on paper
9.25” x 6.1”
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
“The blind man said, ‘We’re drawing a cathedral….Press hard,’ he said to me.  That’s right.  That’s good,’ he said.”

“‘You got it, bub.  I can tell.  You didn’t think you could.  But you can, can’t you?  You’re cooking with gas now.’”

“‘Close your eyes now,’ the blind man said to me.

I did it.  I closed them just like he said.

‘Are they closed?’ he said.  ‘Don’t fudge.’

‘They’re closed,’ I said.

‘Keep them that way,’ he said.  He said, ‘Don’t stop now.  Draw.”

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Villard de Honnecourt
“North Tower of Laon Cathedral”
(The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, [C.XIX])
1230
Pen & ink on paper
9.25” x 6.1”
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
“So we kept on with it.  His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper.  It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”

“Then he said, ‘I think that’s it.  I think you got it,’ he said.  ‘Take a look.  What do you think?’”

“But I had my eyes closed.  I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer.  I thought it was something I ought to do.”[iv]

 


 

[i] Tsujimoto, Karen; Images of America:  Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of Washington Press; Seattle & London; 1982; p. 85.  (Statement made by Sheeler on his series of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, originally published in Constance Rourke; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; New York, New York; Harcourt, Brace; 1938; p. 130).

[ii] Bowie, Theodore; The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt; Indiana University Press; Bloomington and London; 1959.

[iii] von Simpson, Otto; The Gothic Cathedral:  Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order; Harper & Row Publishers; New York and Evanston; 1962; p. 198.

[iv] Carver, Raymond; “Cathedral” Where I’m Calling From; Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1991; pp. 306-307.