MARIANNE MOORE AND THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE

Since ancient times, certain stories have been handed down from one generation to another through the spoken word. They were collected by such writers as Ovid, Homer, Aesop; other later fabulist writers; and even Rumi. It was later that they were finally published. There are also times when pieces of writing, or works of art are not merely illustrations of each other, but are truly complementary, that they support one another. “The Fables of La Fontaine” are a great example of this.

Pierre Julien
“La Fontaine with the Manuscript of the Fox and the Grapes”
1785
Marble
5′ 8″ x 3′ 7 1/4″ x 4′ 2 3/4″
The Louvre, Paris, France

“The Fables of La Fontaine” were published from 1668 to 1694. Over these years several editions were illustrated by François Chauveau, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, and Gustave Doré: these becoming major works of art in their own right. They were translated into English by Walter Thornbury in 1868 and much later by the Imagist poet Marianne Moore in her “Late Poems from 1965 to 1972.”

As this ancient tradition of story telling spread throughout the world, several of Aesop’s Fables found their way from the West to the East. As Jelaluddin Rumi had himself been collecting similar stories, several of them were included in his late work the Masnavi. In more recent times, new translations of these have been undertaken by Coleman Barks, especially in his books on The Soul of Rumi and One-Handed Basket Weaving.

So the following is a selection of three poems. Two versions of the story of the friendship between a bear and a gardener: the first is Marianne Moore’s translation of La Fontaine’s “The Bear and the Garden-Lover” and the second one is Coleman Barks’ translation of “The Man with a Bear” by Rumi. The final selection is a short piece from Marianne Moore’s translations titled “The Fox and the Grapes.” The works of art by Gustave Doré, an Anonymous Persian Miniaturist, and François Chauveau.

The Bear and the Garden-Lover

“A bear with fur that appeared to have been licked backward
Wandered a forest once where he alone had a lair.
This new Bellerophon, hid by thorns which pointed outward,
Had become deranged. Minds suffer disrepair
When every thought for years has been turned inward.
We prize witty byplay and reserve is still better,
But too much of either and health has soon suffered.
No animal sought out the bear
In coverts at all times sequestered,
Until he had grown embittered
And, wearying of mere fatuity,
By now was submerged in gloom continually.
He had a neighbor rather near,
Whose own existence had seemed drear;
Who loved a parterre of which flowers were the core,
And the care of fruit even more.
But horticulturalists need, besides work that is pleasant,
Some shrewd choice spirit present.
When flowers speak, it is as poetry gives leave
Here in this book; and bound to grieve,
Since hedged by silent greenery to tend,
The gardener thought one sunny day he’d seek a friend.
Nursing some thought of the kind,
The bear sought a similar end
And the past just missed collision
Where their paths came in conjunction.
Numb with fear, how ever get away or stay here?
Better be a Gascon and disguise despair
In such a plight, so the man did not hang back or cower.
Lures are beyond a mere bear’s power
And this one said, ‘Visit my lair.’ The man said, ‘Yonder bower,
Most noble one, is mine; what could be friendlier
Than to sit on tender grass and share such plain refreshment
As native products laced with milk? Since it’s an embarrassment
To lack what lordly bears would have as daily fare,
Accept what if here.’ The bear appeared flattered.
Each found, as he went, a friend was what most mattered;
Before they’d neared the door, they were inseparable.
As confidant, a beast seems dull.
Best live alone if wit can’t flow,
And the gardener found the bear’s reserve a blow,
But conducive to work, without sounds to distract.
Having game to be dressed, the bear, as it puttered,
Diligently chased or slaughtered
Pests that filled the air, and swarmed, to be exact,
Round his all too weary friend who lay down sleepy—
Pests—well, flies, speaking unscientifically.
One time as the gardener had forgot himself in dream
And a single fly had his nose at its mercy,
The poor indignant bear who had fought it vainly,
Growled, ‘I’ll crush that trespasser; I have evolved a scheme.’
Killing flies was his chore, so as good as his word,
The bear hurled a cobble and made sure it was hurled hard,
Crushing a friend’s head to rid him of a pest.
With bad logic, fair aim disgraces us the more;
He’d murdered someone dear, to guarantee his friend rest.

Intimates should be feared who lack perspicacity;
Choose wisdom, even in an enemy.”1

Gustave Doré
Jean de La Fontaine’s “L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins”
1868
Wood engraving
Public Domain

“The Man with a Bear”

“For the man who saved the bear
from the dragon’s mouth, the bear
became a sort of pet.

When he would lie down to rest,
the bear would stand guard.

A certain friend passed by,
‘Brother how did this bear
get connected to you?’

He told the adventure with the dragon,
and the friend responded,
‘Don’t forget
what your companion is. This friend
is not human! It would be better
to choose one of your own kind.’

‘You’re just jealous of my unusual helper.
Look at his sweet devotion. Ignore
the bearishness!’

But the friend was not convinced,
‘Don’t go into the forest
with a comrade like this!
Let me go with you.’
‘I’m tired.
Leave me alone.’
The man began imagining
motives other than kindness for his friend’s concern.
‘He has made a bet with someone
that he can separate me from my bear.’ Or,
‘He will attack me when my bear is gone.’

He had begun to think like a bear!

So the human friends went different ways,
the one with his bear into a forest,
where he fell asleep again.

The bear stood over him
waving the flies away.

But the flies kept coming back,
which irritated the bear.

He dislodged a stone from the mountainside
and raised it over the sleeping man.

When he saw that the flies had returned
and settled comfortably on the man’s face,
He slammed the stone down, crushing
to powder the man’s face and skull.

Which proves the old saying:

IF YOU’RE FRIENDS
WITH A BEAR,
THE FRIENDSHIP
WILL DESTROY YOU.

WITH THAT ONE,
IT’S BETTER TO BE
ENEMIES.”2

Illustration contained in the Manuscript W.626.79B
“Masnavi-i ma’navi” by Jalal al-Din Rumi
1663
Ink and pigments on thin laid paper
10 7/16” x 5 7/8”
The Walters Art Museum,
Baltimore, Maryland.

The Fox and the Grapes

“A fox of Gascon, through some say of Norman descent,
When stared till faint gazed up at a trellis to which grapes were tied—
Matured till they glowed with a purplish tint
As though there were gems inside.
Now grapes were what our adventurer on strained haunches chanced to crave
But because he could not reach the vine
He said, ‘These grapes are sour; I’ll leave them for some knave.’

Better, I think, than an embittered whine.”3

Francois Chauveau
“Illustration for the Fables de La Fontaine, Volume 1”
1668
Burin engraving
Claude Barbin & Denys Thierry,
Paris, France

1 Moore, Marianne; Grace Schulman, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore, Viking Penguin; New York, New York; 2003; pp. 370-371.

2 Barks, Coleman; RUMI One-Handed Basket Weaving Poems on the Theme of Work; MAYPOP; Athens, Georgia; pp. 23-24.

3 Moore, Marianne; Grace Schulman, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore, Viking Penguin; New York, New York; 2003; p. 365.

OBJECTS ON A TABLE

“Between the gathering of food and its consumption there is an interval when it is on display. To this arrangement of eggs on the sideboard, as may be, brought in from the henhouse. . . apples and pears from the orchard, a string of fish from the river, a brace of partridges flecked with blood, a basket of squash and beans from the garden, the Dutch gave the name still life around the middle of the seventeenth century.”1

William Bailey
“Still Life with Seven Eggs”
c. 1965
Oil on canvas
24” x 30”
Collection: Harold Mailand, Indianapolis, Indiana.

“Over the years (William) Bailey’s still lifes have changed. In the 1960s a few eggs appeared on a tabletop. Then a few utensils were added. Gradually, over the next fifteen years, as the utensils took over the eggs vanished, except for the occasional appearance of one, as affectionate reminder perhaps of humble beginnings. The early paintings made up mainly of eggs seem, when compared with the recent paintings, casual in disposition. And the tabletops seem nowhere as ample as they do now. Increasingly they have become sites, and their objects have grown in size. Coffee pots are towers, bowls are colosseums, other containers are houses or forts, and between them shadowy piazzas, dreamlike passageways. And then they are nothing of the kind, but themselves, as they were, parts of an elaborately orchestrated picture that is much more powerful and assertive than its individual pieces. What began with a few eggs on a table has become an image of immense inaction, an apparition of fixity and quietude.”2

In the selections above, two contemporary writers, Guy Davenport and Mark Strand, provide important observations on contemporary still life painting. Throughout the history of art the still life however, has constantly been overshadowed: as the great classical themes in painting were always monumental narrative histories set in deep and panoramic landscapes, making the arrangement and presentation of domestic objects only a footnote, of little meaning or consequence. The writer and critic Guy Davenport would argue with me on this point: “We must not, however, imagine that still life is inconsequential or trivial. Composers work out ideas in string quartets—Beethoven’s and Bartok’s experimental forms for discovering what can be done with harmonies and tempi—that have become masterpieces. There are artists like Chardin and Braque for whom still life was their major form of expression, as there are poets who have excelled only in the sonnet and the short lyric.”3

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
“Still-Life with Pipe and Jug”
c. 1737
Oil on canvas
32.5 cm x 40. cm
Musée Louvre, Paris, France

Along with Davenport and Strand, there have been many other contemporary examples of writing about still life, or as it is known in French, nature morte. For me, one influential example was a catalogue for the “Big Still Life” exhibition at the Allan Frumkin Gallery in New York in 1979.4 Frumkin’s proposal was to challenge gallery artists and a few invited friends to paint large sized images of a variety of traditionally intimate subjects. James McGarrell’s submission was a veritable tour de force of this idea.

James McGarrell
“A Fine Excess with Chardin Quotation”
1978-1979
Oil on canvas
45 1/4” x 93 1/4”
Allan Frumkin Gallery and the Estate of the Artist

The poet Mark Strand has written chapters in catalogues and small books on both Edward Hopper and William Bailey that read like prose poems about the artists. There is also Guy Davenport’s book of essays on this very subject, “Objects on a Table.” Also, there are the writings of the poet and critic John Ashbery who was always attentive to this subject, especially with his colleagues Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher.

Jane Freilicher
“In Broad Daylight”
1979
Oil on canvas
70” x 80”
McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas

Here are Ashbery’s observations regarding Freilicher’s paintings: “Her pictures always have an air of just coming into being, of tentativeness that is the lifeblood of art. There are always new and surprising full passages where you couldn’t imagine another artist coming to the same decisions, which are invariably the right ones. Her subjects are often the same—still life or landscapes, sometimes viewed through a window—but the way of painting is constantly different, fresh, and surprising. Her work is rich in meanings that continue to resonate with us even after we have moved on and are thinking of something else. It is one reason why we value art and part of what makes her a great artist.”5

Some would say that these things are just objects on a table. Sometimes in art school they were referred to as table-top landscapes. Random placements of things, occupying our field of vision. Right at eye level. Although appearances may often be random, happenstance and arbitrary, this is not the case. As every painter knows, it is indeed a calculated risk to place one certain object next to another. It is the ancient idea of the just placement of things. And the poet Mark Strand, a classmate of William Bailey at Yale, has always been keen on this idea.

“Every painting is an answer to randomness, a metaphysical solution—each object has found its proper place in the scheme of things. And the arrangement, inasmuch as it is an ideal order, inspires belief. So that when a number of Bailey’s still lifes are seen at the same time, we are forced to experience the provisional nature of even the most extreme order. The painting, instead of being conclusive, becomes a revision, a judgment on the previous painting’s power to enchant and to subdue anxiety.”

William Bailey
“Piano Scuro”
2003
Oil on linen
38 1/8” x 51”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“Bailey’s seemingly reductive world of pots and bowls on a table becomes complex. His objects are as basic as colors in their capacity to recombine into new figurational orders. In its studied reordering of ideal groupings, Bailey’s work is anything but repetitious. Objects keep reappearing, sometimes with their size or shape slightly altered, sometimes with the stations they occupy changed, and as a result their positions are diminished or aggrandized. Each change, we feel, is a new final chapter in the life of the objects. To miss these permutations in Bailey’s work is to resist what amounts to a critique of what passes for change in our culture.”6


1 Davenport, Guy; Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature; Counterpoint; Washington, DC; 1998; p. 3.

2 Strand, Mark; William Bailey; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 28-30.

3 Davenport, Guy; Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature; Counterpoint; Washington, DC; 1998; p. 10.

4 Frumkin, Allan; The Big Still Life; Allen Frumkin Gallery; New York, New York; 1979; (unpaginated).

5 From a portion of John Ashbery’s statement before his presentation to Jane Freilicher of the Gold Medal for Painting given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 18 May 2005.

6 Strand, Mark; William Bailey; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 32-34.

GIORGIO DE CHIRICO AND THE GEOMETRY OF SHADOWS

“Metaphor, juxtaposition, unsettling connections, meaning evoked in the missing connective tissue between somehow familiar objects—these are the poet’s tools.”1

In her introduction to a new publication of de Chirico’s poems, Stefania Heim has written of the many qualities and concerns which are shared between painters and poets. In this particular instance, the poems were written and the paintings were produced by the very same person, Giorgio de Chirico.

It all seems like a stage set: houses lined up around the edges of piazzas; foreground still lives shifting the scale of the entire vista; statues, some riding horses in the background and some asleep in the center; trains speeding past in the far distance, all seemingly without reason or purpose within the total scene. All of them, however, contributing to the interconnectedness and the overall strangeness, with smokestacks and towers looming over the horizon.

Enigmatic imagery and hermetic signs, these elements often function in both painting and poetry. Classical marble statues: heads and figures that often appear livelier than their human counterparts, resulting in a kind of painting that strives to be magical. These are the very ideas that form the foundation for all of Giorgio de Chirico’s imagery in both painting and poetry. A portion of his poem, “Mysterious Night” contains the following image, taken directly from one of his still lives.

“Two iron artichokes on the ocher table.
The geometry of shadows lacerated the heart
all melancholy morning.
But evening came and the volumes and forms fused.
Men and animals were passing like silent shadows
in the crepuscular light.
Long dream’s light. The strange sounds arrive muffled
only the mind’s wheels, vertiginous, rotate.”2

Giorgio de Chirico
“The Philosopher’s Conquest”
1913-1914
Oil on canvas
49 1/4” x 39”
The Joseph Winterbotham Collection,
The Art Institute of Chicago

In the poem “Vision” de Chirico speaks of the houses that line the piazzas, and then there is this excerpt from “Zeus the Explorer” a prose poem incorporating anther favorite image from de Chirico’s work:

“The big colored zinc glove, with the terrible golden nails, swinging on the shop door in the sad breaths of the civic afternoons, showed me with its index finger pointing toward the slabs of the sidewalk the hermetic signs of a new melancholy.”3

Giorgio de Chirico
“Turin Spring”
1914
Oil on canvas
124cm x 99.5cm
Private Collection

VISION

“Houses along the piazzas,
houses at the top of the world
at the near horizon
of our faraway desires,
friends you came one evening
in which at every moment
hope escaped before
our hands that uselessly
attempted to stop it
and we were thinking
about the white acropolises
where the poet exalts himself
and kneels.”4

Giorgio de Chirico
“Piazza d’Italia with Statue”
1937
Oil on canvas
La Galleria Nazionale,
Rome, Italy

(fragment)

“Life, life, great mysterious dream! All the enigmas
that you muster; joys and flashes…
Porticoes in the sun. Sleeping statues.
Red chimney tops; nostalgias for unknown horizons…
And the enigma of the school, and the prison, and the
barracks;
and the locomotive that whistles night below the frigid
vault and the stars.
Always the unknown; the waking at morning and the dream
it has become, dark omen, mysterious oracle…”5

Later during the 1930’s, as the whole idea of ‘surrealism’ was becoming institutionalized, painting mostly formulas and facing failure, certain artists saw new doors opening. This was especially important for Alberto Giacometti and Giorgio Morandi. Giorgio de Chirico to some extent realized this as well, he even wrote about it at the time: “Around me the international gang of modern painters was stupidly striving amid exhausted formulas and sterile systems.”6

De Chirico looked back to the classical period admiringly, tried to return to it, but with very mixed results. Turning his head on the ‘modern’ movement, he did indeed go backwards, whereas Giacometti and Morandi looked forward, seeing ways out of this dilemma in order to discover new methods of seeing, rediscovering their own eyes.

“La Parisienne”
(Camp-Stool Fresco)
c. 1350 BCE
20cm high
Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

ZEUXIS THE EXPLORER
for Mario Broglio

“The most ancient Cretans would print an enormous eye in the middle of the skinny profiles that chased each other around their vases, their domestic utensils, the walls of their houses.
Even the fetus of a man, of a fish, of a chicken, of a serpent, in its first stage, is entirely an eye.
You must find the eye in every thing.”7


1 de Chirico, Giorgio, (Stefania Heim, translator); Geometry of Shadows; A Public Space Books; Brooklyn, New York; 2019; p. xi.

2 de Chiric, Giorgio; (Stefania Heim, translator); Geometry of Shadows; A Public Space Books; Brooklyn, New York; 2019; p. 3.

3 de Chiric, Giorgio; (Stefania Heim, translator); Geometry of Shadows; A Public Space Books; Brooklyn, New York; 2019; p. 37.

4 de Chiric, Giorgio; (Stefania Heim, translator); Geometry of Shadows; A Public Space Books; Brooklyn, New York; 2019; p. 69.

5 de Chiric, Giorgio; (Stefania Heim, translator); Geometry of Shadows; A Public Space Books; Brooklyn, New York; 2019; p. 83.

6 de Chiric, Giorgio; (Stefania Heim, translator); Geometry of Shadows; A Public Space Books; Brooklyn, New York; 2019; p. 35.

7 de Chirico, Giorgio; (Stefania Heim, translator); Geometry of Shadows; A Public Space Books; Brooklyn, New York; 2019; p. 35.

ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON

Raphael’s painting of “St. George and the Dragon” from the collection of the National Gallery of Art is an unforgettable image. It is an heroic and monstrous image contained within a very small sized painting. The figure is astride his horse, they are fighting as one, vanquishing this beast, with a panoramic landscape framing the whole image. It is a classic theme, echoed by many artists.

Raphael
“Saint George and the Dragon”
1505
Oil on wood
11.2″ x 8.5″
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

As in the ‘folk tradition’ in music, one artist will set out a theme, which is later taken up and elaborated upon, by later artists. The ideas and images continue to grow and develop over time. The 15th Century German artist Bernt Notke and the 20th Century American poet Robert Bly are two important examples of this process.

Taking its inspiration from the sculptural group of the same name by the German artist Bernt Notke, “St. George and the Dragon” is an excellent example of the ekphrastic tradition. Robert Bly is literally reading this sculpture from top to bottom: from the boyish expression on the face of this knight down to the horrific vestige of the monster on his death bed.

Over the years, the poet Robert Bly made several appearances at the Butler University Visiting Writers Program here in Indianapolis, including 1989, 1994, 1999 and 2003. I have continued to follow his work over these years, and had it not been for these visits, I would never have heard of, nor read about, this artist and this particular piece of sculpture.

Bernt Notke was an eastern German painter, printmaker and sculptor who lived from 1440 to 1509. During his lifetime he lived and worked in Lassahn and Lübeck, several other areas near the Baltic Sea, and made intermittent visits to Sweden. It was in Stockholm in 1489 that he produced his most important work, “St. George and the Dragon” for the City Church, now known as the Cathedral of St. Nickolas.

Robert Bly has often studied and written about works of visual art. These have included both Bernt Notke’s “St. George and the Dragon” and Albrecht Durer’s etching of “Two Middle Aged Lovers.”1 Bly has not just referred to earlier German artists: many others have included ancient examples of an Egyptian figure of “Isis” and a Mycenean “Ecstatic Mother,”2 both at the Louvre. He also references Pieter Breughel’s painting of a Flemish pageant3 (now only known to us as a woodcut printed by an anonymous artist in 1566), as well as the great series of “Haystacks” painted by Claude Monet. Bly always seems to be attracted to the heroic and the universal and how they both are intertwined with the personal and everyday existence of his subjects.

Bernt Notke
“St. George and the Dragon”
1489
Bronze replica of the original wood and mixed media.
3.75 meters high, 6 meters including base.
The Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas,
Stockholm, Sweden

St. George and the Dragon

A sculpture made by Bernt Notke
in 1489 for Stockholm Cathedral

“The dragon is losing.
He fights on his back
Fiercely, as when a child
Lifts his four feet
To hold off
The insane parent.
His claws grasp
The wooden lance that has
Pierced his thorny
Breast. . . . But too late. . . .

As children, we knew ours
Was a muddy greatness.
We knew our part
Lay with the dragon.

And this girlish knight?
Oh I know him.
I read the New
Testament as I lay
Naked on my bed
As a boy. The knight
Rises up radiant
With his forehead
Eye that sees past
The criminal’s gibbet
To the mindful
Towers of the spirit city.
But I now hate
This solar boy
Whom I have been.

This solar knight
Grows victorious
All over the world.
And the dragon? He
Is the great spirit
The alchemists knew of.
He is Joseph, sent down
To the well. Grendel,
What we have forgotten,
Without whom is nothing.”5

And as a footnote to all of this, I remember a painting from several years ago by the contemporary artist, Ellen Fischer. It is an abstracted version of St. George based on that Raphael painting mentioned above from the National Gallery. Many of Fischer’s earlier paintings incorporate the playful placement and movement of a variety of objects on and around the picture plane.

In this particular painting, “St. George and the Dragon,” she includes all of the elements from the original with slightly differing placements. This painting however, stands out as very tightly constructed: horse and rider fused as one, the shadow of the leg and tail of the monster just below the middle of the horse. It gives us an interior intensity complimented with the perfect placement of the various elements.

When I asked her about this, this was her response:

“I made St. George and his horse one and the same! See the princess in the background with the red dress? She is in the distance in my painting, too—iconography is the same in every picture I can think of—I’ve always loved St. George’s heroic, plump white horse, who appears to be as much into the fight as St. George, swinging its hooves at the dragon!”6

Ellen Fischer
“St. George and the Dragon”
c. 1977-1978
Oil on canvas
48″ x 60”
Collection of the artist

1 Bly, Robert; Eating the Honey of Words; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 1999; pp. 119 & 202-203.

2 Bly, Robert; Sleepers Joining Hands; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 1991; pp. 35 & 45.

3 Bly, Robert; Iron John; Adddison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.; New York, New York; 1990; pp. 244-245.

4 Bly, Robert; The Night Abraham Called to the Stars; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 2002; p. 15.

5 Bly, Robert; “St. George and the Dragon” from Eating the Honey of Words; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 1999; pp. 202-203.

6 Fischer, Ellen; “A statement on St. George and the Dragon;” E-MAIL communication with this author; 14 April 2022, 7:58am.

JOAN MITCHELL, WALLACE STEVENS AND THE AMARYLLIS, THE HEMLOCK AND THE LINDEN TREE

There is a Joan Mitchell painting in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art titled “Niege et fleurs” (“Snow and Flowers” in French) that was part of a special docent tour for the Contemporary Art Society a few years ago. This particular docent started out by insisting that the tourists pay no attention to the title of this painting. I thought that this was a shame, as this painting was exactly that: Snow and Flowers. Recently at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I walked into one of the galleries in the middle of the recent Joan Mitchell Retrospective and spied a large painting of a flower, an amaryllis, and that was exactly what it was: “La Grande Vallée II (Amaryllis).”1

Joan Mitchell
“La Grande Vallée II (Amaryllis)”
Oil on canvas
86 1/2” x 78 5/8”
© Estate of Joan Mitchell
Courtesy, Guggenheim, Asher Associates, New York.

Furthermore, the Baltimore exhibition used many examples of how the gardens and landscapes of France influenced Joan Mitchell’s paintings. It also referred to the many writers, poets who were Mitchell’s contemporaries and predecessors, and how they were so important to her work.

The post-war aesthetic community in New York City consisted of so many painters and poets. They all lived in a certain few neighborhoods and gathered at many of the same local galleries and bars. For Joan Mitchell, who was always interested in literature, especially poetry, this was a fertile environment. Amongst her life long friends and literary colleagues were: James Schyler, Eileen Myles, Pierre Schneider, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery.

Beginning in 1955, Mitchell split much of her time living and working in both New York and France. After moving permanently to France in 1959, she continued her friendships with the poets of the New York School and become new friends with poets in France, including Jacques Dupin and J. J. Mitchell.

All the while, Joan Mitchell was both imagining and seeing this new landscape surrounding her. Flowers in her garden. The linden tree that was right outside her front door in France.

Joan Mitchell
“Tilleul”
1978
Oil on canvas
94 1/2” x 70 3/4”
Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

These bits and pieces of nature, whether seen directly or out of the corner of one’s eye, always have the feel of movement and form. Haptic sensations of seeing and walking through the landscape, with a tacit understanding of the space immediately in front us.

And finally, there is this painting of a nearby hemlock. Mitchell was attracted to this form as it had been written about by Wallace Stevens. In 1916 Stevens had written of a peacock perching in a hemlock tree. Later taking off in flight. In this poem Stevens describes the movement of birds’ wings, the wind through the leaves of the trees, sensations of color and movement. The writing becomes physical, imagistic. The words becoming solid, like objects.

In the paintings of Joan Mitchell, there are certain guiding elements: the gestural brushstrokes, analogous and/or complementary color contrasts, and a space that is primarily felt as opposed to an illusion. There is no need for illustrating a thing, as the paint is that thing. The image is so strong and physical. And Mitchell’s painting “Hemlock” was inspired by this Wallace Stevens poem, “Domination of Black.”

“At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.”

“I heard them cry—the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks 
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?”

Joan Mitchell
“Hemlock”
1956
Oil on canvas
91” x 80”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York

“Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks….”2


1 Roberts, Sarah, and Katy Siegel, eds.; Joan Mitchell; Baltimore Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Yale University Press; New Haven and London; 2020; Plate 111.

2 Stevens, Wallace; “Domination of Black” Collected Poetry and Prose; The Library of America; New York, New York; 1997; p. 7.

WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA: THREE POEMS

In the conclusion of his book, Vermeer in Bosnia, Lawrence Weschler writes about two of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems: “In Praise of Dreams” from 1986, and “Maybe All This” from 1993. From the first poem he notes that Szymborska wrote: “In my dream . . . I paint like Vermeer of Delft.” And in the second one, he speculates: “. . . the picture Szymborska’s words have in mind must be something very like Vermeer’s Lacemaker. How marvelously, at any rate, the poem helps elucidate the painting, and vice versa.”1 To my mind, this is one of the most important functions of the ekphrastic tradition.

In her collected work, Wislawa Szymborska provides us with several examples of this tradition. One especially is a diminutive poem, of only six lines describing a diminutive painting of a milkmaid by Vermeer. When this was written, the author was surely reflecting upon earlier wars and invasions in Europe, especially in her homeland of Poland. Today however, it has taken on a new and timely meaning related to the Ukraine.2

In earlier work, Szymborska takes a more generalized view through a museum, taking note of certain historic objects: an antique plate, a necklace, gloves and shoes, swords, and even a lute. She alludes to the scene without illustrating it.

In another poem she doesn’t literally show the ‘Tower of Babel’ as it was painted by Pieter Brueghel, but she does set up a dialogue between two of its inhabitants. There are two different type faces printed throughout this conversation: Italic for the first one, and ROMAN for the second. Although they are both placed together on the ensuing lines, they clearly do not communicate in any logical way. The speaking in different languages and at cross purposes has begun.3

In several other poems however, Szymborska takes a cue directly from the works of art. These include an ancient Greek sculptural fragment, and paintings by both Pieter Brueghel and Johannes Vermeer.

BRUEGHEL’S TWO MONKEYS

“This is what I see in my dreams about final exams:
two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the windowsill,
the sky behind them flutters,
the sea is taking its bath.

The exam is History of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.

One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,
the other seems to be dreaming away—
but when it’s clear I don’t know what to say
he prompts me with a gentle

clinching of his chain.”4

Pieter Brueghel
“Two Monkeys”
1562
Oil on wooden panel
20cm x 23cm
Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, Germany

GREEK STATUE

“With the help of people and the other elements
time hasn’t done a bad job on it.
It first removed the nose, then the genitalia,
next, one by one, the toes and fingers,
over the years the arms, one after the other,
the left thigh, the right,
the shoulders, hips, head, and buttocks,
and whatever dropped off has since fallen to pieces,
to rubble, to gravel, to sand.

When someone living dies that way
blood flows at every blow.

But marble statues die white
and not always completely.

From the one under discussion only the torso lingers
and it’s like a breath held with great effort,
since now it must
draw
to itself
all the grace and gravity of what was lost.

And it does,
for now it does,
it does and it dazzles,
it dazzles and endures—

Time likewise merits some applause here,
since it stopped work early,
and left some for later.”5

“The Gaddi Torso”
1st Century BC.
Marble
84cm high
The Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy

Perhaps works of art actually do survive, in one way or another, in one form or another, in order to remind us of what is important. They need not follow the dictates of ‘socialist realism’ nor the fashions of ‘post-modernism’ and so many other contemporary isms. What we end up experiencing is the persistence of each artist, their story and how they want to tell it, even if it ends up being only a fragment, or a whisper. The artist’s voice, carried through even in a fragment, is an antidote to the craziness of our world during these times.

Johannes Vermeer
“The Milkmaid”
1658-1660
Oil on canvas
17 7/8” x 16”
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,
The Netherlands.

VERMEER

“As long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted silence and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the jug to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.”6


1 Weschler, Lawrence; Vermeer in Bosnia; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.; New York, New York; 2004; p. 403.

2 Szymborska, Wiesława; Poems New and Collected 1957-1997; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Harcourt Brace & Company; New York, San Diego, London; 1998; p. 30.

3 Szymborska, Wiesława; Poems New and Collected 1957-1997; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Harcourt Brace & Company; New York, San Diego, London; 1998; p. 57.

4 Szymborska, Wiesława; Poems New and Collected 1957-1997; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Harcourt Brace & Company; New York, San Diego, London; 1998; p. 15.

5 Szymborska, Wisława; Here; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Boston, New York; 2010; p. 77.

6 Szymborska, Wisława; Here; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Boston, New York; 2010; p. 55.

A BLACK DEATH NOW AND THEN

“Such was the cruelty of the stars, and perhaps to some extent of men also, that between March and the following June, what with the virulence of the plague and the abandonment and neglect of many of the sick by those who were healthy but fearful, it is firmly believed that more than one hundred thousand human beings lost their lives within the walls of Florence, when it is likely that beforehand no one would have estimated that the city had so many inhabitants.”1

C. W. Eckersberg
“The Marble Steps Leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome”
1814-1816
Oil on canvas
32.5 cm x 36.5cm
National Gallery of Denmark
Copenhagen, Denmark

“There was a cold morning
When Santa Maria della Pace
seemed to whiten in shadows
And an afternoon when we looked up,
as if casually,

At the stone eagles of the Last Judgement
perched on Santa Crisogono in Trastevere.
I’ll never forget how the sky shimmered
like a bowl of light
That poured over our heads as we climbed

One hundred and twenty-four stairs—
The steep unforgiving gray stones
of Santa Maria d’Aracorli—
Built in gratitude
for deliverance from the Black Death.”2

“Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancients footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.”3

From Boccaccio to Edward Hirsch to Bob Dylan, writers often echo elements of times passed. Recently I have rediscovered two of these classic themes: the “Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio from 1350, and the Millard Meiss essay on “Painting in Florence and Sienna After the Black Death” from 1951. These are haunting and horrifying observations from history, which have been too easily forgotten over the years. From Florence to Rome and all across Europe during those times, thousands of people were migrating to distant safe places, while even more thousands of people were dying at home.

Boccaccio made use of parables and morality tales in order to entertain and enlighten the public in the Decameron, while offering in the introduction a history and a warning for generations to come. Six hundred years later, Millard Meiss was describing the plastic process in altar pieces and frescoes of that time period. He often noted the new naturalism in certain paintings, and the movement or gesture created by these artists. Sadly however, he notes that there are no documents remaining that mention the Lorenzetti after this time, concluding that they too were victims of the Black Death.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti
“The Effects of Good Government”
1338-1339
Fresco
7.7m x 14.4m (overall)
Palazzo Pubblica, Siena, Italy

First appearing in Florence from June to September in 1348, the Black Plague continued with resurgences in 1363 and again in 1374. During these times, the city states experienced other social, political and aesthetic developments: these included transitions from a merchant oligarchy to nobility rule, followed by revolutions against these very same nobles; business and banking failures; and painting developments with regard to looking to past classics for inspiration, or looking to the future and progress. Everything seemingly in disarray.

“…things had come to such a pass that dead human beings were treated no better than goats. It became apparent that the sheer scale of this disaster had made ignorant folk fully aware and resigned in the face of that one thing which limited and less frequent misfortunes, such as occurring the natural course of events, had not been able to teach intelligent people to endure with patience. There was not enough consecrated ground to bury the great multitude of corpses arriving at every church and almost every hour….So, when all the graves were occupied, very deep pits were dug in the churchyards, into which the new arrivals were put in their hundreds….like merchandise in the hold of a ship….”4

In the midst of all of this, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti produced their finest works, incorporating both organic form and spatial movement. Pietro was concerned with continuing in the modes of Giotto and Duccio, whilst Ambrogio was focused on the contemporary world and his “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” in the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna. In either case, they advanced the path of early Italian painting.

But what can we say about writing and painting in this day and age? Do we find ourselves in a new international style, or a new dark ages, continuing to be scattered in many smaller diverse city states?

There is an early painting by a contemporary artist in Philadelphia, Sidney Goodman, that has always been an enigma to me, even from the first time I saw it years ago. It was the image of some sort of tragedy, with a few survivors going about, but not from any particular time. It could easily have been an example of, or the result of “Bad Government” during the Post War Era in the 1960’s. Or did it portend to the future? In any event, it is a terrifically staged scene in which the characters act.

Sidney Goodman
“The Walk”
1963-1964
Oil of canvas
83 1/2” x 65 1/4”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

When I look at the larger more populous centers such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, I often feel like they have insulated themselves from the rest of the country. However, when I think of other areas, there are a lot of artists living in isolation, social distancing, and continuing to work. These artists and writers include: Kristy Deetz and Ed Louis in Green Bay, Wisconsin; Altoon Sultan from Groton,Vermont, to Erik Johnson in Eugene, Oregon; Christa Charles and Patrick Manning in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and in Indianapolis, Carla Knopp and Steve Paddack.

One artist in particular, Maddy Weisz, from Ft. Collins, Colorado has recently created another set of stage like images, dealing with human interactions and isolations all at once. When I asked her about these paintings, this was her response:

“My paintings are derived from the thousands of photos . . . I’ve taken over the years . . . . They are not good photos by any means, but I usually find interesting people walking, interacting . . . .”

“. . . . for example the arrangement of people and things in the ‘Tiny Dancer’ painting . . . . I happen to be watching from our Hotel room in Brussels to the plaza below, and captured the little girl dancing while all the people around her were absorbed in other things.”

“I’ve been interested in the idea of stage settings for a long time, and I’m really glad you picked up on this theme. . . . I’ve been trying different formal approaches to this idea. Sometimes I have an idea about the patterning of the ground space around the figures before painting, but most of the time I let the painting evolve intuitively.”5

Maddy Weisz
“Tiny Dancer”
2021
Oil on canvas
20” x 16”
Collection of the artist,
Ft. Collins, Colorado

Finally, there is a novel by Albert Camus that describes and captures our own existential moment: a horrific viral pandemic.

A doctor, a journalist, and a friend find themselves in the midst of a mysterious virus that is sweeping the land. The friend suggests that he can set up a local sanitary squad or safety committee, in order to keep the local citizenry healthy, and to assist the doctor in his work. It started out as some men’s duty, but quickly turned into everyone’s concern. About half way through The Plague, Albert Camus sets these characters Rieux, Tarrou, and Rambert in a conversation discussing the idea of man and his courage, heroism, and decency.

“Rieux had been watching the journalist attentively. With his eye still on him, he said quietly: ‘Man isn’t an idea Rambert.’”

Rambert, jumping off of his bed declares: “Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. We must face that fact, doctor. Let’s wait to acquire that capacity or, if really it’s beyond us, wait for the deliverance that will come to each of us anyway, without his playing the hero. Personally, I look no further.”

Although he was very tired, Rieux rose and responded: “You’re right, Rambert, quite right, and for nothing in the world would I try to dissuade you from what you’re going to do; it seems to me absolutely right and proper. However, there’s one thing I must tell you; there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”6

Ambrogio Lorenzetti
“The Effects of Bad Government”
1338-1339
Fresco
7.7m x 14.4m (overall)
Palazzo Pubblica, Siena, Italy


1 Boccaccio, Giovanni; Decameron, (Translated by J. G. Nichols); Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2008; p. 13.
2 Hirsch, Edward; “Roman Fall” from Earthly Measures; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 1999; p. 39.
3 Dylan, Bob; Writings and Drawings; A Borzoi Book, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 1973; p. 299.
4 Boccaccio, Giovanni; Decameron, (Translated by J. G. Nichols); Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2008; pp. 12-13.
5 Weisz, Maddy; “E-Mail correspondence with this writer,” 10:01 pm, 5 February 2022.
6 Camus, Albert; The Plaque; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2004; pp. 146-147.

The Letter

No, this is not about The Boxtops, nor Joe Cocker’s cover of their mournful rock ballad from 1967, although there is a reference to a Broadway musical from 1953. This concerns any number of artists who moved to New York City during the early and middle years of the 20th Century. They came especially from the Mid-West. David Smith was one of them, having been born and raised in Decatur, Indiana. Often feeling homesick, there is a certain letter, in the form of a sculpture, which he imagined writing home.

A. Eriss
“David Smith”
B&W Photograph
1936
(p. 11; David Smith by David Smith.)

Smith first worked in offices in Washington, DC and New York, and later as a welder in a steelworks. He was simultaneously energized by the life and pace of the east coast and demoralized by the loneliness and solitude that he found there. “Yet lonesomeness is a state in which the creative artist must dwell much of the time….”1

This instantly reminded me of Rainer Maria Rilke and the advice he had written in a letter from Rome on 14 May 1904 to his younger poet friend: “This very wish will help you, if you use it quietly, and deliberately and like a tool, to spread out your solitude over wide country. People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.”2

David Smith was doubly aware of this I think. While many of his contemporaries were easily falling into camps based solely on media or subject matter, his stated goal was that this work was an attempt to bridge the gap between painting and drawing and sculpture: a most difficult project.

There are several examples of this work: severely linear pieces that often contain, or are made up of, an arrangement of attenuated forms and glyphs. A great example of this is a beautiful piece in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art titled “The Egyptian Barnyard” and often described as a drawing in steel, or in this case, welded silver.

David Smith
“Egyptian Barnyard”
1954
Wrought and soldered silver on wood base
14 1/2” x 24” x 5 1/2”
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James W. Alsdorf
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana

Although his work has often been held up as great formalist abstraction, there are specific examples of content inherent in many of Smith’s pieces. For instance, these figurative gesture drawings of the dancer Martha Graham.

David Smith
“Studies of Martha Graham”
1938
12” x 19”
Drawing on paper after a series of photographs by
Barbara Morgan.
Collection of Candida and Rebecca Smith.

There are also photographic references to his daughters running and tumbling through their back yard, portraits of other artists and characters, and even several pieces inspired directly from Alberto Giacometti’s early masterpiece “The Palace at 4:00 AM.”

David Smith
“Interior for Exterior”
1939
Steel and bronze
18” x 22” x 23 1/4”
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Orin Raphael

Over the years, writers such as Cleve Gray3 and Edward F. Fry4 have provided hints as to the content of “The Letter.” In 1967 at the Yale-Norfolk Summer School of Music and Art it was Mr. Gray who lectured on David Smith, whose biography he had just finished editing. In one of the earliest exhibitions I had visited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it was the David Smith Retrospective of 1969 that made a lasting impression. Finally, during my freshman year in art school in Baltimore, an early winter 1965 visiting artist lecture by David Smith himself still rings true to me in all that he said.

David Smith
“Sketchbook Study for The Letter”
c. 1950
Pen and ink and pencil on paper
David Smith Archives, III — 1283
New York, New York

In order to decipher this letter, we can see in the drawing study a salutation in the top left corner and a signature at the lower right. In between we have the written body made up of a series of scrap railroad hardware “h’s” and “y’s” and “o’s” forming a message. The particular wording of this letter itself is borrowed from a 1953 song that was included in the Broadway musical “Wonderful Town.”

In short, two young girls, sisters Ruth and Eileen Sherwood from Columbus, Ohio, arrive in Greenwich Village determined to make it in the city, one as a writer, the other as an actress. From their basement apartment, they are shaken by blasts from the nearby construction of a new subway line, as well as late night knocks on their door by ‘customers’ of the former tenant known as Violet. They are stricken with homesickness, and musically ask: Why oh why oh, did we leave Ohio? This reference did indeed become the content of David Smith’s “Letter.”

“DEAR MOTHER”

“OH WHY,
OH WHY OH,
DID I EVER LEAVE
O HI OH?”

“YOUR SON, DAVID SMITH”

David Smith
“The Letter”
1950
Steel
37 3/4” x 22 7/8 x 11”
The Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute
Utica, New York

1 Clark, Trinkett; The Drawings of David Smith; International Exhibitions Foundation; Washington, DC; 1985; p. 20.

2 Rilke, Rainer Maria; Letters to a Young Poet; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1934 & 1962; p. 53.

3 Gray, Cleve, ed.; David Smith by David Smith; Holt, Rinehart and Winston; New York, New York; 1968.

4 Fry, Edward F.; David Smith; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; New York, New York; 1969.

TURNER’S STORMS

In 1966 the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented an exhibition of paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner titled “Imagination and Reality.” He was the only 19th Century artist that they had so honored up to that time.

The catalogue essays began with this statement: “Self-evidently The Museum of Modern Art has always dedicated itself to the exhibition and general understanding of contemporary art, but from time to time it includes in its programme exceptional productions of other periods of art history in which the modern spirit happened to be fore-shadowed or by which modern artists have been influenced. We have no precedent for a one-man show of an artist who died more than a century ago.”1

J. M. W. Turner
“Ship on Fire”
c. 1826-1830
Watercolour on paper
13 1/4” x 19 3/8”
The Turner Bequest, The Tate Gallery,
London, United Kingdom

We took a bus up from Baltimore just to see this exhibition, and were blown away both literally and figuratively. It was shocking how abstract and gestural and expressionistic these paintings were, as well as what a powerful degree of content they contained.

Storms and lights were flowing across and around these canvases. Crossing the divide. They had all the contemporary elements of New York School painting, but they were not in the least dated, in fact, they were extremely refreshing and contemporary.

Needless to say, many painters and poets have been influenced by this work over the years. Most recently Yusef Komunyakaa has taken up this subject in “Turner’s Great Tussle with Water” from his collection of The Emperor of Water Clocks. He starts with an early classical Turner painting, “The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire” and works his way through to later, more expressionistic works, just as Turner would have developed in style and confidence. And he leaves us with beautifully horrific poetic imagery.

J. M. W. Turner
“The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire”
1817
Oil on canvas
170 cm x 239 cm
The Tate Britain, United Kingdom

TURNER’S GREAT TUSSLE WITH WATER

“As you can see, he first mastered light
& shadow, faces moving between grass
& stone, the beasts wading to the ark,
& then The Decline of the Carthaginian
Empire, before capturing volcanic reds,
but one day while walking in windy rain
on the Thames he felt he was descending
a hemp ladder into the galley of a ship,
down in the swollen belly of the beast
with a curse, hook, & bailing bucket,
into whimper & howl, into piss & shit.”

J. M. W. Turner
“Snow Storm–Steam Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth”
1842
Oil on canvas
36” x 48”
The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom

“He saw winds hurl sail & mast pole
as the crewmen wrestled slaves dead
& half-dead into a darkened whirlpool.
There it was, groaning. Then the water
was stabbed & brushed till voluminous,
& the bloody sharks were on their way.
But you’re right, yes, there’s still light
crossing the divide, seething around
corners of the thick golden frame.”2

J. M. W. Turner
“The Slave Ship”
1840
Oil on canvas
35 3/4” x 48”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

As a footnote to this work, Turner would often pair a poem with one of his paintings. As so many of his paintings had an historic story to tell, these pieces complimented and played off of each other. This was especially true of the painting “The Slave Ship.” An extract from one of Turner’s unfinished poems was indeed placed next to the painting when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840.

Fallacies of Hope

“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”3


1Gowing, Lawrence; Turner: Imagination and Reality; The Museum of Modern Art; New York, New York; 1966; p. 5.

2Komunyakaa, Yusef; The Emperor of Water Clocks; Farrar Straus Giroux; New York, New York; 2015; p. 17.

3For the full text of Turner’s verse see A. J. Finberg, “The Life of J.M.W. Turner,” R.A., 2nd ed., 1961, p. 474.

MATISSE’S WINDOWS

“It is not a matter of indifference that a great painter should have worked in some particular place; and above all this is true of Matisse. . . . Matisse’s windows open on to Nice.  In his pictures, I mean.  Those marvelous open windows, behind which the sky is as blue as Matisse’s eyes behind his spectacles.  Here is a dialogue between mirrors.  Nice looks at her painter and is imaged in his eyes.”[i]

Henri Matisse
“Interior with a Phonograph”
1924
Oil on canvas
34 5/8” x 31 1/2”
Private Collection

These are the words of the poet and long time friend of Henri Matisse, Louis Aragon.  Matisse and Aragon spoke with each other often over their lifetimes and especially during the time period that Aragon spent constructing his novel on this artist.

Over the years I have read and searched the photographs in this two volume Aragon book, Matisse:  A Novel.  It includes so many paintings and drawings, as well as much of the correspondence between the poet and painter. While going through these images, especially the ones completed in the city of Nice, I remembered a collection of work by Alice Friman from here in Indianapolis.

I have known of Alice Friman and her work for many years.  I asked her about her poem “Matisse’s Windows” and what followed was a new conversation between this poet and painter, related to the paintings of Henri Matisse.  She had been telling me about a certain set of them that she had seen several years ago included in the “Matisse Retrospective” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and I still had my copy of the catalogue from that exhibition, so I knew exactly what she had been talking about.

“I don’t know really what attracts me to certain paintings. I only know it happens. You are an artist so of course you would think of ‘light’ or ‘color’ but I would say I’m looking at subject matter, and the feeling I get from what’s going on in there inside that frame…a sort of poem–loneliness, sadness, anger, mystery. Does that make any sense? The painter isn’t, can’t be divorced from his/her subject matter, surely. Matisse’s feelings are all over his paintings. Yes?”[ii]

Matisse’s Windows
“Fishing trawlers two hundred yards out
slosh next to roses in the wallpaper
where a smudge equals the spray
and slap of flounder
as if there were no wall, no dividing brick
between that woman playing solitaire at her table
and boats and bathers in their white caps
and honeymoons.” 

Henri Matisse
“Interior at Nice:  Young Woman in a Green Dress Leaning at the Window”
1921
Oil on canvas
25 1/2” x 21 5/58”
The Colin Collection

“At night, what fits the hand—cards,
pear, or china cat—abandoned. 
It’s the window your eyes come back to
where a garden rises blue Jurassic,
and trees, blue as veins
yanked out by the souls at Acheron,
fidget for you beyond the glass.” 

Henri Matisse
“Two Odalisques”
1928
Oil on canvas
21 1/4” x 25 5/8”
Moderna Museet, Stockholm

“Only in Nice did he pull the drapes,
drape the parrot cage.  Here at last,
the dream of his middle age.  Let Pablo get lost
in a jungle of geometry.  Here is nothing
but circles:  breasts and turbans
and kohl-lined eyes,
lounging in an overstuffed room
so hot you could kiss the moisture
off an upper lip.  A male wish.  An eleventh hour
wound so bright it reels to look.  No night, no day. 
No door.  Just the woman, waiting. 
Her eyes looking out, never wanting to leave. 
Her only window—
the man standing in front of her with a brush.”[iii] 

Henri Matisse
“The Painter and his Model:  Studio Interior”
c. 1918-1921
Oil on canvas
23 5/8” x 28 3/4”
Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Marron, New York

[i] Aragon, Louis; Henri Matisse a novel; A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; New York, New York; 1971; vol. 1, p. 119.

[ii] Friman, Alice; (From a statement in an e-mail to this author); 9 June 2021, 12:03 PM.

[iii] Friman, Alice; Zoo; The University of Arkansas Press; Fayetteville, Arkansas; 1999; p. 69.