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
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.
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?”
“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.
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
“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
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.
“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.
“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
“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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“OH WHY, OH WHY OH, DID I EVER LEAVE O HI OH?”
“YOUR SON, DAVID SMITH”
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.
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
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.
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.”
“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
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.
“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]
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.”
“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.”
“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]
[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.
Much of the mystery surrounding the life of Johannes Vermeer begins with the Arnold Bon poem written in eulogy after the death of Carel Fabritius, who was killed as a result of the explosion of the gunpowder magazine in Delft on 12 October 1654.
All of the stanzas of Arnold Bon’s poem recall the life and accomplishments of Fabritius, who at the time was the most eminent painter in Delft. However, the last stanza mentions a younger artist, a Vermeer, who rises like a phoenix following this tragedy.
“Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire, In the midstand at the height of his powers, But happily there arose out of the fire VERMEER, who masterfully trod in his path.”[i]
Aside from this single mention, very little had been written about Vermeer for many of the decades that followed. Almost two hundred years later the art historian, critic, and connoisseur Théophile Thoré-Bürger was carrying out a survey of European museums and private collections. In several cases, he recognized a different hand and eye amongst these paintings. None of them, he felt, could still be attributed to artists such as Carel Fabritius or Pieter de Hooch. Nor could they have come from the school of Rembrandt. In an essay from 1866, not knowing at that time who this artist might be, Thoré-Bürger referred to Vermeer as the Sphinx of Delft. As Thoré-Bürger continued his research this artist’s identity became clearer, and many artists and authors started taking notice.
“…like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer.”[ii]
Vermeer’s paintings have often played an important role in historic pieces of literature, recent fiction and popular novels. During the summer of 1921 the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris collected and arranged several examples of Dutch painting for a loan exhibition from The Hague that included two Vermeer paintings: “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” and “A View of Delft.
It was in a setting at this exhibition that Proust situated his character, the novelist Bergotte, directly in front of the View of Delft: “He repeated to himself: ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.’ Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee; whereupon he suddenly ceased to think that his life was in jeopardy and, reverting to his natural optimism, told himself: ‘It’s nothing, merely a touch of indigestion….’ A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants come hurrying to his assistance. He was dead.”[iii]
In more recent times, the author Jane Jelley traces many ideas covering Vermeer paintings, producing a series of art historical essays written as if they were prose poems. They bring a refreshing vision and description to these works.
“No reproduction of the View of Delft does justice to this masterpiece. If you are lucky enough ever to stand in front of this painting in the Mauritshuits in The Hague, you are likely to find its effects as compelling as do many other visitors. They have also turned their backs on one of the most famous pictures in the world, to follow the gaze of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. She is actually not looking at us after all, but at the town in which she was born, the town in which she was painted. Together we see straight into a tranquil, newly-washed, early summer morning in Delft 1663; as if through a window in the wall.”[iv]
Jane Jelley’s writing also recognizes the pure plastic qualities of painting; those elements that are especially important when viewing a painting close up, with very little distance between the eye of the viewer and the surface of the painting. These are qualities that apply equally to Vermeer as well as to de Kooning.
“Like flies in amber, stray brush-hairs have been caught in the paint in some of Vermeer’s paintings. There are some on the surface of the View of Delft ‘used to finish the painted reflections of the buildings in the water’. . . . and conservators wondered whether Vermeer had used old or poor quality brushes; or whether these had shed hair because of the way they were made.”[v]
“Whatever its thickness, a good brush should balance in the hand like a violin bow. An experienced painter will feel the weight of the handle; and judge where he should hold it, and how he should move his arm. He can use the force from a turn of a wrist, or the pressure of a finger, to change the direction, depth, and speed of the stroke, as he feels the response of the thicknesses and texture of the paint against the canvas. The brush movement is as much a part of the painting as the colour, tone, or composition; and in some canvases, especially from the twentieth century onwards, becomes the subject of the picture itself.”[vi]
The ultimate example with regards to this writing is in volume five of A la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. The novelist Bergotte dies in a gallery, at an exhibition of Dutch paintings, in front of the “View of Delft.” He fixes his last living look on that picture, homing in on several details that had been pointed out by a critic in the newspaper:
“At last he came to the Vermeer, which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall….”
“…His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ‘That’s how I ought to have written,’ he said. ‘My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall….’ He repeated to himself: ‘Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall.’”[vii]
It was not, however, the character Bergotte, but Proust himself who managed the final word on the View of Delft. Vermeer was a special favorite of Proust, and in an interview late in his life, Marcel Proust made this observation: “Ever since I saw the View of Delft in the museum in The Hague, I have known that I had seen the most beautiful painting in the world.”[viii]
[i] Bon, Arnold; Last Stanza of the Eulogy Poem for Carel Fabritius; Published by Dirck van Bleyswijck; Delft, The Netherlands; 1667; p. 854.
[ii] Proust, Marcel; In Search of Lost Time; Everyman’s Library; Everyman Publishers and Random House; London, United Kingdom; 2001; Volume3, p. 665.
[iii] Proust, Marcel; In Search of Lost Time; Everyman’s Library; Everyman Publishers and Random House; London, United Kingdom; 2001; Volume3, p. 665.
[iv][iv] Jelley, Jane; Traces of Vermeer; Oxford University Press; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2017; pp. 142-143.
[v] Jelley, Jane; Traces of Vermeer; Oxford University Press; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2017; pp. 87-88.
[vi] Jelley, Jane; Traces of Vermeer; Oxford University Press; Oxford, United Kingdom; 2017; p. 87.
[vii] Proust, Marcel; In Search of Lost Time; Everyman’s Library; Everyman Publishers and Random House; London, United Kingdom; 2001; Volume3, pp. 664-665.
[viii] West, Adam, ed.; Proust in Context; Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, United Kingdom; 2013; p. 84.
In French, the sign along the roadside simply read: DANGER MORTAL! These were posted all along the winding coastal roads going out from the port at Le Palais. They covered most of the island. They were a very real warning as many of the island roads curved right along the coast, with precipitous and precarious views down from the cliffs, and across the inlets and bays. There were no guardrails.
We visited there in the summer of 1995 with our friend, the painter Holly Hughes and her mother Wanda, who at that time was the studio/office manager for the contemporary American painter Ellsworth Kelly. Wanda was armed with a map that had been given to her by Ellsworth so that we might find the ‘village’ where he had lived after WWII. Little did we know what a sight we were approaching?
Over the years on Belle-Isle, the largest of the Breton Islands, many artists found in the isolation, the savage waves and tides, the inspiration that they were searching for. Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, the actress Sarah Bernhardt and her companion the painter Georges Clairin, the Irish painter John Peter Russell, were all attracted to this special place, and later of course, so was Ellsworth Kelly.
During the fall of 1886, from 12 September to 25 November to be exact, Claude Monet lived and worked on Belle-Isle. During this time he produced a series of 39 paintings, exploring the weather and the wildness of this place.
Not to be outdone by the painters, the contemporary poet Patricia Clark from Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently visited Paris and many of the great museums there. She noticed in particular the paintings by Monet at the Musée D’Orsay, and the potential for an ekphrastic experience. When I asked Clark about this, this is what she said:
“As for the poem about Monet’s Rochers — we did not go out to the place, alas! Would love to see it. I believe (memory is slippery!) we saw the painting at the Musee D’Orsay. My method — such as it is! — is to buy postcards of paintings that really move me. . . . Then there’s a catalog. But I know I have a postcard of this painting.”
“I think what drew me to it is that it’s not an image I’d seen that much. It seems rougher and less ‘pretty’ than many Monets. I kept it in front of me and then one day, I started to write about it. That’s about as much as I recall — of course, a writer can’t help but layer their own issues over what they look at — so that’s what happens, doesn’t it? I hope that comes through.”[i]
“Les Rochers de Belle-Ille”
(after the painting by Claude Monet)
“No beach here—just the sea swirling in blue
deep blue and green
Both the sea and the rocks show age
It’s a tired scene of their coming together
each hour and day
The water’s force, erosion of all the softest parts
leaving only solid rock
This you could be crushed upon—the hardest
knowledge of all—
What is impervious to you, quite solidly indifferent
No escaping the sea
throws you repeatedly on the rocks of all you’re stupid about—
self-ignorance, deception, lies—
Instead someone calls this a scene, a landscape, seascape—
Following the end of WWII, from 1948 to 1954, the American artist and veteran Ellsworth Kelly visited and lived in several areas of France. In July 1949 he even rented a house on Belle-Ile-en-Mer for the summer and part of the fall. He had fallen in love with France and with its artists, especially Claude Monet and Henri Matisse.
In 1965 Kelly returned to Belle-Isle with a specific purpose, to re-visit certain sites that Monet had painted and witness them directly, not just metaphorically. Later in his life, 2005, he returned to Belle-Isle for a last series of drawings, not abstracted from the rocks, but directly created from the sources.[iii]
It is a landscape that would challenge one’s imagination. From the earliest visitors to contemporary painters and poets, one can only wonder how they felt when approaching these vistas for the first time. Looking out on this frighteningly beautiful land, with its bays, inlets, needles, rocks, and steep cliffs, it is no wonder that this entire region of France would come to be described as Finistère: the end of the earth.
[i] Clark, Patricia; in an e-mail response to this writer; 9 January 2021; 9:52 AM.
[ii] Clark, Patricia; Self-Portrait with a Million Dollars; Terrapin Books; West Caldwell, New Jersey; 2020; pp. 36-37.
[iii] Bois, Yve-Alain, and Sarah Lees; Monet/Kelly; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; Williamston, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press; New Haven and London; 2014.
In American history classes in high school we learned of the story of a woman who insisted on waving her country’s flag during the Civil War even as a Confederate general was leading his troops in retreat through the town of Frederick, Maryland and back into northern Virginia. We knew her name to be Barbra Fritchie, but several other spellings were used, including Frietchie and Frietschie.
At that time, Miz Fritchie was ninety years old, and although she occasionally cheered on Union Army troops, it may have been a woman in nearby Middletown who actually waved the flag in this particular incident as Confederate soldiers passed by.
To add to the confusion, John Greenleaf Whittier had only heard of this incident through other reports and constructed his narrative from a distance. Although Lee is mentioned early in the poem, it was Stonewall Jackson who was actually leading Lee’s army. Flags may have also been waved at A. P. Hill and Ambrose Burnside as their armies passed through this area during those times. Be that as it may, Whittier’s poem honoring Barbara Frietchie became a tribute to the local community in Frederick as well as an inspiration to abolitionists across the land.
In more recent times, several contemporary artists have taken up this theme: weaving and waving the American flag in and out of their work. It is not just a gimmick, and it does eliminate some of the clichés that surround the use of the American flag. These pieces re-establish some of the flag’s symbolic potential and point to the irony that its use implies in these current times. Three such artists are: Sonya Clark, Donald Lipski, and Thornton Dial. The descriptions written concerning these pieces, as well as the artists’ own statements provide lyrical interpretations regarding this work.
Discussing the process of un-weaving, combining and re-weaving certain flags for an exhibition at the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles in 2020, Sonya Clark stated: “We are at a chapter in our history that once again acknowledges how racial injustice is deeply woven into the fabric of this nation. We are at a turning point. We must unravel those strands of injustice.”[ii]
In an essay accompanying a Donald Lipski exhibition at the Fabric Workshop in 1991, the poet and critic John Yau observed: “In his most recent work—Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?—Lipski continues to apply a wide range of specific, usually repetitive processes, to the American flag. In ‘Flag balls,’ with the help of others, he rolled thousands of yards of continuously printed flag material into giant spheres. In doing so, he extends the process in which a flag achieves a greater dimension, reminding viewers that we are all part of a larger pattern.”[iii]
And last, but not least, there is the very title that Thornton Dial chose for the piece included in his exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2003. It beautifully summarizes and states the purpose of his work: “Don’t matter how raggly the flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together.”
So here is the entire poem, written by John Greenleaf Whittier, on the flag waving done by Miz Barbara Fritchie during the Civil War, interspersed with examples of these three contemporary American artists.
“Up from the meadows rich with corn, Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.
Round about them orchards sweep, Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,
Fair as a garden of the Lord To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,
On that pleasant morn of the early fall When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—
Over the mountains winding down, Horse and foot, into Frederick town.
Forty flags with their silver stars, Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun Of noon looked down, and saw not one.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then, Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town, She took up the flag the men hauled down;
In her attic window the staff she set, To show that one heart was loyal yet.”
“Up the street came the rebel tread, Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouched hat left and right He glanced: the old flag met his sight.
“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast. “Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.
It shivered the window, pane and sash; It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;
She leaned far out on the window-sill, And shook it forth with a royal will.
‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame, Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred To life at that woman’s deed and word:
‘Who touches a hair of yon gray head Dies like a dog! March on!’ he said.
All day long through Frederick street Sounded the tread of marching feet:
All day long that free flag tost Over the heads of the rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell On the loyal winds that loved it well;
And through the hill-gaps sunset light Shone over it with a warm good-night.
Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er, And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.
Honor to her! and let a tear Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!
Peace and order and beauty draw Round thy symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down On thy stars below in Frederick town!”[iv]
[i] Brockett, L. P. and Mary C. Vaughan; Woman’s Work in the Civil War: a Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience; Zeigler, McCurdy & Co.; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1867; p. 10.
[ii] Clark, Sonya; From the artist’s statement for the “Democracy 2020 Exhibition: Craft & the Election;” Craft in America Center; Los Angeles, California; 2020.
[iii] Stroud, Marion Boulton, et al; Donald Lipski: Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?; The Fabric Workshop; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1991; Unpagenated.
[iv] Whittier, John Greenleaf; “Barbara Frietchie;” The Atlantic Monthly; Boston, Massachusetts; October 1863.
Several years ago, during a visit to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, I was surprised to discover a painting by Robert Moskowitz, “Hard Ball III.” This painting reminded me of my own love of baseball. From childhood stickball games in the street, where fire hydrants, telephone poles, and man-hole covers served as the bases, and on to later years when we played in a summer league on real fields along the Mall and the Elipse just across the street from the White House in Washington, DC.
The Washington Senators were of course our home town team. One had to root, root, root for the home team even when they didn’t win, which was often, and a shame. But it was always great, whether we were sitting right there on the first base line or out in left field waiting for hits from Mantle and Berra, or Runnels and Busby and Yost.
Over the years my Dad and I both worked for a printing and photography company located at 19th and K Streets, NW: he much earlier in his career, and I during the summers right after high school and on through art school. The company was called Cooper/Trent after its two owners, and we were all baseball fans. Mr. Cooper and Mr. Trent had season tickets at Griffith Stadium and would usually bring back souvenirs for us, a photograph signed by Stan “The Man” Musial of the Cardinals, and a baseball, signed by the entire Senators team. I still have both of these, to this day.
But this is about something larger than these pieces of nostalgia. It is about a history that is both athletic and aesthetic: perfect for bridging the gap between painting and poetry, and as it turns out, two women have played an important part in this process.
During the 1930’s and 40’s the artist Marjorie Acker Phillips accompanied her husband Duncan to hundreds of local baseball games. Duncan Phillips of course, was the founder of the Phillips Collection of Washington, DC. During these outings, Marjorie often carried a sketchbook and drawing materials with her and drew the field, the players, and the general atmosphere of that great old ballpark, Griffith Stadium.
Later in the 1950’s and 60’s in New York, the poet Marianne Moore also became a baseball fan, especially of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella were some of her favorite subjects. She was well aware of the contribution that Jackie Robinson was making to our history at that time, and I think that the sound of Branch Rickey’s name may have brought a smile to her face.
“Baseball and Writing”
“Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting and baseball is like writing. You can never tell with either how it will go or what you will do; generating excitement— a fever in the victim— pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter. Victim in what category? Owlman watching from the press box? To whom does it apply? Who is excited? Might it be I?[i]
As the Phillips Collection developed and grew, Marjorie and Duncan Phillips moved out of their original home near DuPont Circle in Washington, and gave over the entire space to the museum. The Phillips Collection became the first museum in the country dedicated to modern art. It also provided an educational component in support of the works contained therein, and soon became known as a museum of modern art and its sources. Works of art were grouped as they played off of each other: from Ingres, Goya and Delacroix to Degas, Renoir and Cezanne, from Monticelli to van Gogh, with Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon and Georges Braque included in the mix.
Over the years Marjorie Phillips’ work became more known and she continued to enjoy the games of the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium. Her painting “Night Baseball” depicts a moment during a Yankees/Senators game when Joe DiMaggio comes up to bat. It is 1951, his last playing season. Everything is still, and rather than depict an action, she chose instead the tension of waiting on the delivery of that pitch to home plate.
I have recently discovered, from an old article in the Washington Post, that Marianne Moore had actually seen this painting and wrote to Marjorie Phillips about it.[ii] “Night Baseball” could have ended up in the collection of Miss Moore, unfortunately Marjorie Phillips had already given it as a gift to her husband Duncan, who placed it in his collection. Supposedly, even the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was interested in this painting, however it has remained in the Phillips Collection to this day.
It has been years since the Senators and Calvin Griffith left Washington, DC. They are only memories nowadays. However, newer painters and poets often remind us of those days. As mentioned above, Robert Moskowitz has always chosen simple, iconic images for his work, transforming them into monumental statements. Now, the poet Joseph Stanton, in the series “Painting the Corners” from his recent collection Things Seen, has taken a similar look at familiar icons, and this includes Marjorie Phillips’ painting “Night Baseball.”
MARJORIE PHILLIPS’ Night Baseball
“It’s the 1st of September 1951 and Joe Dimaggio is about to take his last swing in our nation’s capital. He’s up against the great, but largely forgotten, Connie Marrero, El Guajiro de Labertinto, El Premier of the Cuban stars, four years older than Joltin’ Joe, but still floating them up there, one damned knuckle ball after another, pitching with canny discernment and elderly grace, losing game after game, for the hapless Senators, despite his stellar ERA.
The electrified white of his home togs makes him seem a bright X, marking the spot of green field that waits under the glowering bruise of the night sky suspended above Griffith stadium in this brief instant before the fateful pitch.
Duncan Phillips has taken his wife to witness the great Dimaggio, another masterpiece for their gallery, but Marjorie can see this night as all about the weary pitcher, spread-limbed as if on a cross, arrayed against the base path the too much celebrated Joe will too soon circle.