“The Orpheus of the still life. He was surrounded by an aura of mystery, and legends circulated about what took place in his atelier, tales about supernatural forces he brought into his work. Probably Torrentius thought a certain dose of charlatanism did not harm art (differing here from his modest guild brothers of the Fraternity of Saint Luke), but on the contrary helped it. For example, he used to say he did not in fact paint but only placed paints on the floor next to his canvases; under the influence of musical sounds they arranged themselves in colourful harmonies. But is not art, every art, a kind of alchemical transmutation? From pigments dissolved in oil arise flowers, towns, bays of the ocean and views of paradise truer than the real ones.”[i]
It is an entire book written as an ekphrastic exercise. The author, Zbigniew Herbert, takes various elements from the Golden Age of Dutch painting and life and weaves a series of stories and essays around these themes. In this particular example, an art historian is doing research on a surprising painting that he has just encountered in a museum, by an artist he has never heard of. The “Still Life with a Bridle” by Johannes van der Beeck, also know as Torrentius, is equally as enigmatic as its maker. It clearly shows the artist’s hand at rendering a variety of materials and subjects: reading from right to left across the center of the painting we have a ceramic jug, a glass cruet, and a pewter pitcher, clearly illustrating the artist’s ability to handle a variety of surfaces in both light and shadow.
Herbert, even in the description of this still life, finds an underlying structure forming both horizontals and verticals, as well as hidden imagery, a mysterious note placed at the bottom of the composition and then the dark, almost hidden bridle directly above at the top. And, as an historian, he warns himself of the dangers of speculation and reading into the meaning of this mysterious painting. In the process of deciphering the verse written on the note anchoring the composition, Herbert observes: “Gnomic poems, particularly those that are esoteric texts, should be explained rather than translated word by word. One should approach them by degrees of meaning, carefully and on tiptoes, because literalness renders their meaning shallow and frightens away mystery.”[ii]
Bret Waller, the Director Emeritus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art used to always start his talks to my classes with the explanation that: “All works of art contain within themselves the definition of what they are about and how they were made.”[iii] And then of course, he would go through the elements of the piece that we were standing in front of and explicate exactly that. I have always tried to keep this lesson in mind, as both an artist and educator.
My reading over the last year, in both Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Sbigniew Herbert, has led to several new definitions and functions regarding the ekphrastic tradition. Contained within the descriptions of certain works of visual art are not merely observations but also insights; not just formal analyses but also lyrical and metaphorical underpinnings.
Lessing does this by first arguing one side of the history and in the next chapter, arguing the exact opposite side in both dating and aesthetic problems. Until more scientific dating can occur, we will be left with only a range of styles: early or late, Greek or Roman, etc. Herbert is aware of this dilemma as well, and even quotes the great French poet: “Paul Valery warned: ‘We should apologize that we dare to speak about painting.’ I was always aware of committing a tactless act.”[iv]
“I know well, too well, all the agonies and vain effort of what is called description, and also the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language—as voluminous, as receptive as hell—in which court verdicts and love novels are written. I don’t even know very well what inclines me to undertake these efforts. I would like to believe that it is my impervious ideal that requires me to pay it clumsy homages.”[v]
“Freedom – so many treatises were written about it that it became a pale, abstract concept. But for the Dutch it was something as simple as breathing, looking and touching objects. It did not need to be defined or beautified. This is why there is no division in their art between what is great and small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary. They painted apples and the portraits of fabric shopkeepers, pewter plates and tulips, with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison.”[vi]
[i] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; Notting Hill Editions; London, United Kingdom; 2012; p. 100.
[ii] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 127.
[iii] This observation is taken from my own notebooks and recollections of several public and private discussions with Mr. Bret Waller, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 1990-2001.
[iv] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 123.
[v] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 122.
[vi] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 150.
Nothing extraneous. Everything working. With muscles tense, movement over every inch of the surface, the figures themselves create the space in which they exist, taking the place of time. Timeless.
The Priest Laocoön was a seer in the Temple of Apollo. He had two sons, Antiphas and Thymbraeus. One story has him ostracized from the temple for breaking his vow of celibacy. Another describes his ill-fated warning to the assembled people of Troy against accepting a suspicious gift from the army of Greece: the Trojan horse. In either case, it is an ancient Greek sculpture that brings this story to life.
“… Of our men
One group stood marveling, gaping to see
The dire gift of the cold unbedded goddess,
The sheer mass of the horse.”
“Build up a bonfire under it,
This trick of the Greeks, a gift no one can trust,
Or cut it open, search the hollow belly!”
“Contrary notions pulled the crowd apart.
Next thing we knew, in front of everyone,
Laocoön with a great company
Came furiously running from the Height,
And still far off cried out: ‘O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?’”[i]
Writing in the Aeneid the poet Virgil related the story of Laocoön’s warning to his fellow citizens, the subsequent sack of Troy, and that infamous horse. Laocoön, sensing the horse to be hollow, struck it with his spear, echoing both inside and out. So either Apollo, or Minerva, sent serpents in retaliation for Laocoön’s warnings and his defiance of the gods. The research, dating, and other historical facts surrounding the telling of this story and the creation of the sculpture are, however, confusing.
Pliny the Elder attributed the commission of this sculpture to a team of three artists from Rhodes: Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus. They worked together seamlessly, interlacing the figures and serpents into a dynamic whole. It was thought to have been completed between 200 BC and 100 AD but those dates continue to be debated.
The original work was buried and lost after being in the Palace of Titus around 79-81 AD. It was later rediscovered during an excavation in early 1506 and brought immediately to Pope Julius II who had it placed in the Vatican Collection. His Holiness requested Michelangelo, who was working in Rome at the time, to inspect this newly discovered example of classical sculpture. Upon seeing “The Laocoön” Michelangelo declared it to be the most beautiful example he had seen from ancient times.
At first “The Laocoön” was attributed to the Romans as a copy from a lost original. Later it was theorized that it was not Roman, but truly a classical Greek composition. This debate continued without much clarification until the historian Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote an explication of this sculpture in his “Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry” in 1766. Lessing describes this sculpture and looks deeply into it, while simultaneously analyzing Virgil’s poem.
These art historical speculations pose a problem for the student of ekphrastics: if it had been created earlier, then Virgil may have actually seen it and been inspired to write his account in the Aeneid. However, if it had really been a Roman composition, then it was much later than Virgil, and possibly an illustration of his telling of this story.
In any event, Lessing’s descriptions and speculations are in themselves important examples of the ekphrastic tradition. His observations search the surfaces of this piece of marble and look deeply into its meaning. Describing a facial feature in one example, and then writing regarding the anguish coming from behind the mask, Lessing gives us a meditation on the expressive possibilities in a work of art.
“Virgil’s Laocoön cries out, but this screaming Laocoön is the same man whom we already know and love as a prudent patriot and loving father. We do not relate his cries to his character, but solely to his unbearable suffering. It is this alone which we hear in them, and it was only by this means that the poet could convey it clearly to our senses.”[ii]
Lessing’s observations address the processes of both seeing and writing. In his essay he searches for significant details that are employed for creative expression and he, himself, debates the use of these details in order to tell the entire story. Which elements will work for the poet? Which ones for the artists?
“It is claimed that representation in the arts covers all of visible nature, of which the beautiful is but a small part. Truth and expression are art’s first law, and as nature herself is ever ready to sacrifice beauty for the sake of higher aims, so must the artist subordinate it to his general purpose and pursue it no further than truth and expression permit. It is enough that truth and expression transform the ugliest aspects of nature into artistic beauty.”[iii]
“The idea of having the father and his two sons connected in one entanglement by means of the deadly serpents is undeniably an inspired one and gives evidence of a highly artistic imagination. Whose was it, the poet’s or the artists’?”[iv]
“But only that which gives free rein to the imagination is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imaginations, the more we must think we see.”[v]
Early in the summer of 2017, during a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Cité de Paris, I came upon the following statement on one of the information tags in an exhibition and copied it down in my notebook:
“Tout l’art du passe, de toutes les époques, de tout les civilisations surgit devant moi, tout est simultané comme si l’espace prenait la place du temps.”
—Alberto Giacometti, 1965[vi]
This led me back to a book of “Interpretive Drawings” by Alberto Giacometti that included two of his drawings from “The Laocoön.” In English his statement reads: “In all art of the past, of all eras, and all civilizations that came before me, all share a common vision in which space takes the place of time.”[vii]
Not only did Alberto Giacometti go to this source in reference to the old masters, so did James Joyce when Stephen Dedalus comments on this very story in Ulysses: “Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope.”[viii]
And this is how Virgil described Laocoön’s confrontation with this beast:
Is in this thing. Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all.”
“He broke off then
And rifled his big spear with all his might
Against the horse’s flank, the curve of the belly.
It stuck there trembling, and the rounded hull
Reverberated groaning at the blow.”[ix]
“…. But straight ahead
They slid until they reached Laocoön.
Twining about and feeding on the body.
Next they ensnared the man as he ran up
With weapons: coils like cables looped and bound him
Twice round the middle; twice about his throat
They wipped their back-scales, and their heads towered,
While with both hands he fought to break the knots,
Drenched in slime, his head-hands black with venom,
Sending to heaven his appalling cries
Like a slashed bull escaping from an altar,
The fumbled axe shrugged off. The pair of snakes
Now flowed away and made for the highest shrines,
The citadel of pitiless Minerva,
Where coiling they took cover at her feet
Under the rondure of her shield. New terrors
Ran in the shaken crowd: the word went round
Laocoön had paid, and rightfully,
For profanation of the sacred hulk
With his offending spear hurled at its flank.”[x]
[i] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); Vintage Classics and Random House; New York, New York; 1990; BOOK II, Lines 42-45 & 52-61, p. 34.
[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 24.
[iii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.
[iv] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 35.
[v] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.
[vi] Carluccio, Luigi; Giacometti: A Sketchbook of Interpretive Drawings; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1967. Giacometti’s statement regarding these drawings led me to revisit this book of his drawings copied from many historic works of art.
[vii] From an e-mail correspondence between this writer and Dr. Rosalie Vermette, Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Paris, France, and Professor Emerita, School of Liberal Arts, Indiana University and Purdue University at Indianapolis, 22 May 2018.
[viii] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1934 & 1997; p. 301.
[ix] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 67-75, p. 35.
[x] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 290-310, p. 41.
“This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”[i]
Writing in her own notebooks and journals Agnes Martin sets out her thinking in spare and poetic lines. Not unlike her paintings. Single lines, and then groups of lines, they add up to a wholeness in both vision and spirit. And it raises questions: where is painting and pattern in relation to nature? Where is the balance, what is the distance between perfection and imperfection? Do content and abstraction rule each other out? These questions serve to articulate and refine our thoughts. Through them we might discover that vision for an artist comes from within rather than from the outside.
“In my best moments I think ‘Life has passed me by’ and I am content.”[ii]
“I wish the idea of time would drain out of my cells and leave me quiet even on this shore.”[iii]
“Everyone recognizes the nature pattern of unequal and contesting or related parts.”[iv]
“I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are.”[v]
The poet Edward Hirsch has written a series of spare and poetic lines about Ms. Martin’s work: very minimal yet extremely observant. I have heard him read several times, both here in Indianapolis and in Chicago, and I often feel like I can hear his voice when I read his work. His lines are the perfect analogies for the shapes and colors contained in the paintings and drawings of Agnes Martin. In his collection Lay Back the Darkness he has achieved a light and gracious balance. Crucial to the ekphrastic tradition.
I once asked him about this and if this ekphrastic example was based on a specific painting by Ms. Martin or rather a general group of them, taken together as a larger body of work. He responded:
“Yes, my piece on Agnes Martin refers to a wide range of her line drawings. There is a piece on ekphrastic poetry in the new issue of ‘American Poetry Review’ and the writer refers to the poem as a form of gallery poetry. That actually makes sense. It doesn’t refer to one single painting, the way, say, my earlier poem did, ‘Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad,’ but rather surveys a whole landscape of poems.”[vi]
THE HORIZONTAL LINE
(Homage to Agnes Martin)
“It was like a white sail in the early morning.
It was like a tremulous wind calming itself
After a night on the thunderous sea.
She came out of the mountains
And surrendered to the expansiveness of a plain.”[vii]
“The beauty of an imperfection.
From its first pointed stroke
To its last brush with meaning
The glow of the line was spiritual.”[viii]
“The horizon was a glimmering blue band
A luminous streamer in the distance.
She remembered the stillness of a pool
Before the swimmers entered the water
And the colorful ropes dividing the lines.”[ix]
“Sacred dream of geometry,
Ruler and protractor, temper my anguish,
Untrouble my mind.
She would not line up with others
She would align herself with the simple truth.”[x]
And Agnes Martin, writing in her own notebooks, might have the final say in this matter:
From ancient Greek sculptures on the theme of “The Fallen Warrior” to Uccello’s sequence of three versions of “The Battle of San Romano” we have the beginnings of a great history of images of war.
In 1633 the artist Jacques Callot published his “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” as a response to the French invasion of Lorraine during the Thirty Years War. In the early 19th Century, it was Francisco Goya who was inspired to work in this direction as he witnessed the Napoleonic invasion of Spain from 1808 to 1814, which resulted in his series of “The Disasters of War.”
Even the French artist Henri Rousseau took up the subject in his 1894 painting titled: “War, or The Ride of Discord.” Although it had been more than twenty years since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 these events continued to haunt Rousseau’s ideas for paintings.
From the earliest years of photography, during both the Crimean War and the American Civil War, to present day combat photographers and journalists, we have a continuing record of many important historical events.
The initial Armistice Day was offered as a celebration of the peace that came at the end of the First World War on 11 November 1919. Unfortunately, this annual observance has now turned into a celebration of war, the exact opposite of its original intent.
Many recent artists and veterans have used a variety of media as a means of documenting and coming to grips with their wartime experiences. However, it is the aftermath that becomes more confusing. From a distance, there is a completely different perspective.
The Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress and the United States Army Center of Military History all have important collections of works of art created by active participants and witnesses in the field. More recently the Viet Nam Veterans Artist Group was formed and organized in Chicago, from 1981 to 1992 and has now grown and become known as the National Veterans Art Museum.[i]
Inspired by many of the artists whose work is in the collection of the National Veterans Art Museum as well as work from the United States Army Center of Military History, the Indianapolis Art Center curated an important exhibition of this work in it’s “Art of Combat: Artists from the Viet Nam War Then and Now” in 2000.[ii]
Many veterans, as well as concerned civilians in the United States, have chosen this as a major part of their subject matter, including: Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, Ric Haynes, David Shirm, Michael Helbing, Karl Michel and especially Michael Aschenbrenner in his “Broken Bone” series. Although many of these artists were actual witnesses to the Viet Nam War, their current works are often reflections and memories of events sometimes lost, and sometimes regained.
Writers and musicians during the 1960’s also tackled these issues. How could we forget the words of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” or Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die?” A number of other examples include work by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Barry McGuire and Kemo Williams. And especially, Edwin Starr’s “War!”
“…Oh, war it’s an enemy to all mankind
The point of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest
Within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die, ah, war-huh, good god y’all
What is it good for
Say it, say it, say it
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing listen to me…”
“…it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker
(War) it’s got one friend that’s the undertaker
Oh, war, has shattered many a young mans dreams
Made him disabled, bitter and mean
Life is much too short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can’t give life
It can only take it away
Oh, war, huh good god y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing say it again….”[iii]
[i] Sinaiko, Eve, et al.; Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections; the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York; 1998.
[ii] Moore, Julia Muney, et al.; The Art of Combat: Artists and the Vietnam War, Then and Now; Indianapolis Art Center; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2000.
[iii] Starr, Edwin; “War” (lyrics by Barret Strong and Norman Whitfield); 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection – The Best of Edwin Starr; Audio CD, B00005R8E7; Motown Records; 2001.
It is a monstrous painting. Huge when first encountered in the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, approximately seven feet high and eight feet across, impossible to be taken in all at once. Cezanne worked on this subject through many years and versions, always searching for the solution he had imagined.
We can see from several smaller studies how Cezanne’s ideas developed and grew over time. Two or three figures in one, three to five figures in another, numerous combinations and variations. This work was really important to Cezanne, but it was even more important to artists who followed him. Significantly amongst those in later generations were both Henry Moore and Henri Matisse. Each of them had actually owned smaller versions of Cezanne’s “Bathers.”
“I now own a small Cezanne Bathers painting, and in talking about it to friends, I have often said, ‘look what a romantic idea Cezanne had of women,’ and, ‘how fully he realised (sic) the three-dimensional world.’ I felt that I could easily make sculptures of his figures.”
“Stephen Spender in a letter to me said, ‘your idea of showing that you could make sculptures of the Cezanne figures is fascinating. Why don’t you do it?’ Soon after his letter, I felt like proving it, and modeled each of the three figures in plasticine, taking about an hour in all. My idea was to show their existence completely in space, and perhaps to photograph them or make drawings, as it were, from behind the picture, showing them from all sides and demonstrating that they had been conceived by Cezanne in full three dimensions.”
“I enjoyed the whole of this experience. I had thought I knew our ‘Bathers’ picture completely, having lived with it for twenty years. But this exercise—modelling the figures and drawing them from different views—has taught me more than any amount of just looking at the picture.”
“This example shows that working from the object—modelling or drawing it—makes you look much more intensely than ever you do if you just look at something for pleasure.”[i]
There is a popularly held misconception that artists are bad writers, although to this day we are constantly required to submit an “artist’s statement” for any and every thing we do. However, from the number of letters written back and forth amongst artists, from entries written in their notebooks and journals, and explanations that many curators require from the artists they are celebrating, it is clear that visual artists are also very articulate with regards to the written word.
Here are two examples, from Henry Moore above and Henri Matisse below, reflecting their personal thoughts and observations on several versions of Paul Cezanne’s “Bathers.” They write clearly and straightforwardly regarding these paintings, all the while rediscovering how important Cezanne’s work actually was.
Henry Moore has worked with the pure plastic sense of both painting and sculpture and the process of articulating form in space. This is evident in all of his later work, and his many figurative pieces.
Henri Matisse is drawing from the Cezanne and searching for a more complete realization of a composition as seen over several years. Amongst several examples this would lead to his great “Bathers by a River” of 1917 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1899 Henri Matisse purchased “Three Bathers” by Cezanne from the Parisian art dealer Vollard. He kept it in his possession until 1936 when he donated it to the Petit Palais in Paris. On 10 November 1936 he wrote this letter to Raymond Escholier, the director of the museum:
“Allow me to tell you that this picture is of the first importance in the work of Cezanne because it is a very dense, very complete realization of a composition that he carefully considered in several canvases which, though now in important collections, are only the studies that culminated in this work.”
“In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope; it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance; for this reason, allow me to request that it be placed so that it may be seen to its best advantage. For this it needs both light and adequate space. It is rich in color and surface, and seen at a distance it is possible to appreciate the sweep of its lines and the exceptional sobriety of its relationships.”
“I know that I do not have to tell you this, but nevertheless I think it is my duty to do so; please accept these remarks as the excusable testimony of my admiration for this work which has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it. Allow me to thank you for the care that you will give it, for I hand it over to you with complete confidence. . . .”[ii]
[i] Wilkinson, Alan, ed; Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; 2002; pp. 307-309.
[ii] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles and London; 1995; p. 124.
“When we say that the artist imitates the poet or the poet the artist, we can mean one of two things: either that the one takes the other’s work as his model, or that both work from the same model and one borrows his manner of presentation from the other.”[i]
“If . . . the poet and the artist must contemplate those objects common to both from the same point of view, the inevitable result is that their representations will correspond to one another in many points without there having been even the slightest imitation or emulation. These points of agreement between contemporaneous artists and poets in regard to things that no longer exist may lead to mutual illumination . . . .”[ii]
Although the above observations were made by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing concerning ancient examples of sculpture and literature they could just as easily apply to a more modern example: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.[iii]
James Agee and Walker Evans were commissioned to produce a series of essays and images documenting rural life in the Southern United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression. After many stops and starts, negotiations with publishers and printers, and a very general concept and structure for this project, they set off touring the South and ultimately living with three sharecropper families. A writer and an artist, sharing their experiences first hand, responding to the people, the landscape, the times, and to each other, Agee and Evans produced one of the most haunting and lyrical portraits of American life.
“We lay on the front porch. The boards were unplaned thick oak, of uneven length, pinned down by twenty-penny nails. A light roof stuck out its tongue above us dark and squarely, sustained at its outward edge by the slippery trunks of four young trees from which the bark had been peeled. There were four steps down, oak two-by-twelves; the fourth, when stepped on, touched the ground. These steps were in the middle of the porch. They led, across the porch, into a roofed doorless hallway, about six feet wide, which ran straight through the house and clove it in half. There was a floor to this hallway, of wide unplaned boards. Laid across beams too wide apart, they sagged beneath a heavy foot. For ten feet toward the rear end they were only an inch from the ground. At the end they lay flush on it.”[iv]
The title for this work seemed to be almost Biblical to me and I tried to search for its source. It turned out to be from the book of Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes. So it is not included in modern editions. It does however, recognize and praise the generations of mankind, from all walks of life and throughout time, drawing parallels between the ancient and the modern.
“Let us now sing praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles . . . .”
“Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them . . . .
The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation declares their praise.”[v]
The original names of the farmers were Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs. In order to protect and insure the privacy of these farmers and their families the names in the text were changed to Fred Gavin Ricketts, Thomas Gallatin Woods, and George Gudger. The dates of the photographs also vary, from as early as 1936 to as late as 1941. These were probably mix-ups in between the shooting, printing, and publishing times as well as museum and gallery cataloging.
Although I have found examples of Walker Evans’ photographs from several collections including the National Gallery and the Library of Congress, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, they are all copyrighted through the Walker Evans Archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Below you will find a small portfolio of the photographic images and literary quotations from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These are paired in such a way as to give a broader picture of this work, however, they are not a substitute for it in its entirety. Only an introduction.
“Its west wall is the front of the house; its north wall, the hallway; its east wall, the partition; its south wall, the side of the house. At the center of the partition wall is a fireplace. At the center of the side wall and of the front wall is an exactly square window, about three feet each way. At the center of the north wall a door leads into the rear bedroom. The doors are very wide vertical planks, not paneled, but crosslaid with planks in a Z. They are held shut by block wood buttons and are kept shut most of the time. . . .”
“. . . The square shutters, hung on sagged and rusted, loud hinges, are less broad verticals. Always at night and nearly always during the day they are drawn shut and secured, one by a leather strap over a nail, the other by a piece of rag over a nail. When they are shut, the room is dark and has a special heat and odor of daylight darkness; but also there is a strong starlight of sunshine with slits and blades and rods of light through the roof and two outward walls and, looking through the floor, the quiet sunless daylighted grain of the earth can be seen, strange to see as at the bottom of a lake; and in this oddly lighted darkness, certain flecks of the room are brilliantly picked out, and every part of it is visible.”[vi]
“They are pronounced overhauls.”
“Try—I cannot write of it here—to imagine and to know, as against other garments, the difference of their feeling against your body; drawn-on, and bibbed on the whole belly and chest, naked from the kidneys up behind, save for crossed straps, and slung by these straps from the shoulders; the slanted pockets on each thigh, the deep square pockets on each buttock; the complex . . .”
“. . . and slanted structures, on the chest, of the pockets shaped for pencils, rulers, and watches; the coldness of sweat when they are young, and their stiffness; their sweetness to the skin and pleasure of sweating when they are old; the thin metal buttons of the fly; the lifting aside of straps and the deep slipping downward in defecation; the belt some men use with them to steady their middles; the swift, simple, and inevitably supine gestures of dressing and of undressing, which, as is less true of any other garment, are those of harnessing and of unharnessing the shoulders of a tired and hard-used animal.”[vii]
“The family exists for work. It exists to keep itself alive. It is a cooperative economic unit. The father does one set of tasks; the mother another; the children still a third, with the sons and daughters serving apprenticeship to their father and mother respectively. A family is called a force, without irony; and children come into the world chiefly that they may help with the work and that through their help the family may increase itself. Their early years are leisurely; a child’s life work begins as play. Among his first imitative gestures are gestures of work; and the whole imitative course of his maturing and biologic envy is a stepladder of learning of physical tasks and skills.
This work solidifies, and becomes steadily more and more, in greater and greater quantity and variety, an integral part of his life.”[viii]
“And Ellen where she rests, in the gigantic light: she, too, is completely at peace, this child, the arms squared back, and palms open loose against the floor, the floursack on her face; the soles of the feet facing: her blown belly swimming its navel, white as flour; and blown full broad with slumbering blood into a circle: so white all the outward flesh, it glows of blue; so dark, the deep hole, a dark red shadow of life blood: this center and source, . . .
. . . for which we have never contrived any worthy name, is as if it were breathing, flowering, soundlessly, a snoring silence of flame; it is as if flame were breathed forth from it and subtly played about it: and here in this breathing and play of flame, a thing so strong, so valiant, so unvanquishable, it is without effort, without emotion, I know it shall at length outshine the sun.”[ix]
[i] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 45.
[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; pp. 45-46.
[iii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston and New York; 1941.
[iv] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 201.
[v] Metzger, Bruce M., and Roland E. Murphy, eds.; “Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach,” Chapter 44, Verses 1-15, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books; Oxford University Press; New York, New York; 1991; p. 148.
[vi] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 142.
[vii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 240-241.
[viii] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 291-292.
[ix] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 402.
“Here are some clues to The Meaning of Night.” This is how the poet Linda Pastan begins her meditation on the painting of the same name by Rene Magritte. It is somewhat of a challenge, as Magritte’s paintings are almost always enigmatic, offering few clear narratives or clues. Although they are full with imagery and fantasy, they also leave the viewer, more often than not, with more questions than answers.
A dark gray beach scene inhabited by two men in bowler hats, bits and pieces of sea foam strewn across the beach, and a strange configuration, or is it an accumulation of female body parts, seeming to float near the center right of the composition? It seems like a riddle of imagery but without any clear indication of where an answer might be found. The secrets of the night are the true inhabitants of Magritte’s world.
Le Sens de la Nuit Magritte, oil on canvas, 1927
“Here are some clues
to The Meaning of Night:
pieces of bright foam estranged
from the sea; a woman wrapped
in a cage of wrinkled shapes;
the formal back of one man twinned
to the front of another—
or are they really the same man,
and could he be the undertaker of day?
If there is a meaning to night
is it contained here, or must we search
through the dreams that lap
behind our closed lids as we sleep
like the small waves in this painting
which, when the day is over
and the museum shuts down,
go back to the dark sea
they came from?”[i]
Many artists and writers have alluded to, or incorporated directly into their work, the meanings and secrets of the night. The nighttime references in these poems and paintings are just as lyrical and enigmatic. Albert Pinkham Ryder’s nocturnal landscapes instantly come to mind, as well as others that might not be so obvious.
In the early 20th Century Georgia O’Keeffe often used views of New York City at night, from in and around the Shelton and Radiator Buildings: city lights reflecting off of the buildings and up into the sky while echoing radiators and heat pipes rattling throughout the night.
In 1968 Bob Dylan used this reference in the opening lines of one of his masterpieces, “Visions of Johanna.” And later still the contemporary painter April Gornik used images of night in several of her hauntingly lyrical and monumental paintings.
“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind”[ii]
[i] Pastan, Linda; Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p.5.
[ii] Dylan, Bob; “Visions of Johanna” from Writings and Drawings; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; New York, New York; 1973; pp. 207-208.