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.
“I know a good print when I see it. I know when it is good and why it is good. It is the neck of a man, the nose of a woman . . . . It is a photograph by Sheeler. It is. It is the thing where it is. So. That’s the mine out of which riches have always been drawn.”[i]
This is one of many observations made by William Carlos Williams regarding his long time friend Charles Sheeler. Williams was constantly calling for an “intense vision of the facts”[ii] and considered a painting or a photograph or a poem as a thing to be shaped or carved out in the process.
Williams noted this many times throughout his career: from his early work, in several of his essays, and in his epic poem Patterson. It even came up in his “Introduction” for Sheeler’s Retrospective Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939 where he observed: “It is in things that for the artist the power lies. . . .”[iii]
Sheeler had a wide range of interests, not only through his professional work but also as an inquisitive and thoughtful human being. He supported himself for many years as a documentary photographer both with Vogue and Fortune Magazines, as well as work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
These projects often paralleled his aesthetic interests, complimenting his studio work. Modern industrial subjects such as the factories in Ballardvale, Massachusetts and the Ford Motors plant in Detroit, Michigan became important sources of inspiration for this work. Simultaneously, he was interested in, and paid visits to historic farmhouses in Pennsylvania and New England, as well as communitarian sites such as the Ephrata Community in Lancaster County, and the Shaker Villages in both Mount Lebanon, New York and Hancock, Massachusetts. He even began collecting certain pieces of antique furniture with which he furnished his own home: folk art, ceramics, curved wooden boxes, and of course many Shaker chairs, cabinets, and tables.
William Carlos Williams even noted how his friend Charles Sheeler had taken certain objects and constructed an environment in which to live. Williams writing in his autobiography stated:
“The poem is our objective, the secret at the heart of the matter—as Sheeler’s small house, reorganized….”
“Charles Sheeler, artist, has taken the one rare object remaining more or less intact…and proceeded to live in it…and make a poem (a painting) of it….”[iv]
“How shall we in this region of the mind which is all we can tactically, sensually know, organize our history other than as Shaker furniture is organized? It is a past, totally uninfluenced by anything but the necessity, the total worth of the thing itself, the relationship of the parts to the whole. The Shakers made furniture for their own simple ritualistic use, of white pine, applewood, birch—what they had. Sheeler has a remarkable collection of this furniture.”[v]
For several years Sheeler had been working on an autobiography, which he turned over to the writer Constance Rourke, who edited and organized it. Rourke drew heavily upon Sheeler’s words, which became an important element in her monograph on this artist in 1939. Later, the historians Faith and Edward Demming Andrews referred to this book in their article on Sheeler in “Art in America” that focused on his interest in the Shakers:
“But as time went on he must have become more and more convinced that he wanted to do, through his medium, what the Shakers . . . had done in theirs: to strip away all that was superficial, to find the essential, the absolute, the inner undisguised meaning, the final irreducible character in form.”[vi]
Sheeler himself had many things to say regarding his interests and this collection. They were historic artifacts by that time, but they were also very contemporary in feeling and form. He stated that: “I don’t like these things because they are old but in spite of it. I’d like them still better if they were made yesterday because then they would afford proof that the same kind of creative power is continuing.”[vii]
“No embellishment meets the eye. Beauty of line and proportion through excellence of craftsmanship make the absence of ornament in no way an omission. The sense of light and spaciousness received upon entering the hall is indicative of similar spiritual qualities of the Shakers. Instinctively one takes a deep breath, as in the midst of some moving and exalted association of nature. There were no dark corners in those lives.”[viii]
“—Say it, no ideas but in things— nothing but the blank faces of the houses and cylindrical trees bent, forked by preconception and accident— split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained— secret—into the body of the light!”[ix]
[i] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253.
[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 231.
[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; p. 234.
[iv] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 332-333.
[v] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 333-334.
[vi] Andrews, Faith and Edward D.; “Sheeler and the Shakers;” Art in America; New York, New York; Number One; 1965; p. 95.
[vii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.
[viii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.
[ix] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6-7.
“We looked upon the French with a certain amount of awe because we thought they had secrets about art and literature which we might gain. We were anxious to learn, and yet we were repelled too. There was a little resentment in us against all the success of the French. The time had come for us to talk on our own terms. We felt this.”[i]
“Even though I have so profound an admiration for the beauty of Chartres, I realize strongly that it belongs to a culture, a tradition, a people of which I am not a part….It seems to be a persistent necessity for me to feel a sense of derivation from the country in which I live and work.”[ii]
Here are two important statements by 20th Century Americans: the first from William Carlos Williams and the second from Charles Sheeler. They became friends almost immediately after meeting for the first time and remained so for years to follow. Sheeler was concerned as a painter and photographer with discovering an American vision and a local, immediate subject matter. Williams, in his search for a poetic voice and an American idiom in his writing, incorporated everyday subjects and images, always insisting to ‘say it, no ideas but in things!’[iii]
In her early book on Charles Sheeler, Constance Rourke noticed the mutual interest in painting and poetry and the personal affection that had been established between the painter Charles Sheeler and the poet William Carlos Williams. They travelled in some of the same social and aesthetic circles: in Philadelphia within the Louise and Walter Arensberg family of influence, and New York, both were included in the circle built around the Steiglitz Group, which also included the artists Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth.
“A new intercommunication between artists and writers had begun of which this lasting friendship was a symbol. Williams, Wallace Stevens, and a few other ‘new’ poets had read some of their work at one of the Independents exhibitions. Some of Sheeler’s drawings and photographs were reproduced in Broom. . . . Each group was tending more often to look at the work of the other, to consider it, stay with it, give it the warmth of immediate discussion. Exchanges of ideas were taking place that might not be reflected directly in either painting or writing but could provide something in the way of a generative force for both.”[iv]
And here is one of Williams’ early observations regarding Sheeler’s work: “Romance, decoration, fullness—are lost in touch, sight, a word, to bite an apple. Henry Ford has asked Chas. Sheeler to go to Detroit and photograph everything. Carte blanche. Sheeler! That’s rich. . . .”[v]
Sheeler, in his capacity as a professional photographer, worked for several publications in the Conde Nast Group, as well as documenting the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Arensburg family private collection. Williams also knew of the Arensburg circle of artists, realists and surrealists amongst them, and of the importance of the local avant-garde. These are interesting parallels in their lives and activities. Today however, writers and artists often see this as the glorification of the industrial object, or as nostalgia, or realism so real, that it becomes surreal.
The Descent of Winter 10/30
“To freight cars in the air all the slow clank, clank clank, clank moving above the treetops
the wha, wha of the horse whistle
pah, pah, pah pah, pah, pah, pah, pah
piece and piece piece and piece moving still trippingly through the morningmist
long after the engine has fought by and disappeared in silence to the left”[vi]
Sheeler took great advantage of his many photographic essay commissions not just to document industrial sites in the East and the Mid-West, but to also collect valuable images for his own studio work in both drawing and painting. Variations on many of these themes appeared in his work throughout his lifetime and they have continued to provide inspiration for several artists in younger generations.
Contemporary painters such as Donald Sultan and Robert Moskowitz have benefitted from this insight that is contained in Sheeler’s work: an intense perception of the man-made environment and landscape. Recent curators and art historians have also noticed this, especially those writing about the Industrial Sublime[vii] and Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine.[viii] It is an ongoing aesthetic.
“A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant. . . . Its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character. Therefore, each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form. The effect is beauty, what in a single object resolves our complex feelings of propriety. . . .”
“When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”[ix]
[i] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 49.
[ii] Tsujimoto, Karen; Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of Washington Press; Seattle & London; 1982; p. 85. (Statement made by Sheeler on his series of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, originally published in Constance Rourke; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; New York, New York; Harcourt, Brace; 1938; p. 130).
[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1946 & 1992; p. 6.
[iv] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 50.
[v] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253.
[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 246.
[vii] Botwinick, Michael, et al; Industrial sublime; Empire State Editions, Fordham University Press; Yonkers, New York; 2014.
[viii] Lucic, Karen; Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine; Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1991.
[ix] Williams, William Carlos; I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet; (Edited by Edith Heal); New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1978; pp. 78-79.
As an extended reflection on the artist’s life and family history, his marriage, and with several references to other artists, William Carlos Williams chose to include this great poem at the very end of his last collection, Pictures from Brueghel and other poems, published in 1962. It is sometimes referred to as the world’s darkest love poem.
In the past, whenever I read “Asphodel” I had always thought of it as a written piece of surrealism: an author speaking to his contemporaries while walking through a strange landscape. He often mentions his wife Flossie and their friend Charlie Demuth, as well as other artists such as Goya and Cezanne. Today, when I re-read these lines, I associate them with more contemporary artists, especially Alfred Leslie and Laurie Gatlin.
I used to see certain paintings by Leslie at Allen Frumkin’s galleries in both Chicago and New York. I would often make a connection to certain other events or stories. With this one in particular, “7:00 AM News” I would always go right back to Williams and his observations regarding dreaded poetry and the news.
Then there is that strange visual juxtaposition of flowers actually blooming in hell. Totally surreal and I cannot help but think of the artist’s post card series created by Laurie Gatlin during the mid 1990’s.
I have recently re-discovered several of Dr. Gatlin’s post cards from this series, especially the ones quoting Dr. Williams and the Asphodel. When I asked her about them, this is what she had to say:
“I love that poem. I like the way it meanders through memory, and balances both loss and sorrow and love. I started that postcard project when I was living alone for the first time – I got married young and never lived on my own – I went from my parents house to my husband’s house, and then we had a house with children, a noisy house, and when I separated from him and moved into my own apartment, I was both happy with the ability to be alone and also terribly lonely. It’s hard to make that adjustment, and the way I coped was to reach out with my postcards. . . . So there were a lot of things in that poem that resonated with me, and re-reading it again today, I am more struck by the sense of looking back over a life lived. . . .”
“One of the things that strikes me about William Carlos Williams is the sense of rhythm in his works – not structured with regular meter, but it reads to me very much like a metered poem. There’s also the sense of distance in most of his poems – a sense of standing apart, and I think that appeals to me. Of Asphodel is actually pretty personal as it speaks about his relationship with his wife, but so much of it is also observational and distant. I think I appreciated both of those aspects at the time as well – the meter and the sense of distance/personal relationship.”[ii]
I have always agreed with these observations from Laurie Gatlin and I share her understanding of Williams’ poem and its meanings. However, during all of this time I missed a crucial detail of what Williams was trying to say. Only recently have I discovered classical references to this greeny flower. In fact, Homer mentions this in several passages of The Odyssey. While exploring Hades at the direction of Circe in order to consult the prophet Tiresias, Odysseus had met and talked with Achilles’ ghost and Minos, as well as Agamemnon, his own dead mother Autolycus, and of course Tiresias hinself. He had been sent by Circe in order to question his former crew regarding the events wherein he was lost at sea and these mates had been killed. All the while, during this visit, he noticed that there were fields and meadows of asphodels growing there.
“Of asphodel, that greeny flower, like a buttercup upon its branching stem— save that it’s green and wooden— I come, my sweet, to sing to you. We lived long together a life filled, if you will, with flowers. So that I was cheered when I came first to know that there were flowers also in hell.”[iii]
It turned out that Circe had instructed Odysseus two different times to travel to Hades for advice and guidance from his brothers in arms and from Tiresias. When he told Achilles that his son was actually still alive and had brought honor to his family, the ghost was overjoyed:
“…after I told him this, Achilles’ ghost took great swift-footed strides across the fields of asphodel, delighted to have heard about the glorious prowess of his son.”[iv]
During these explorations Odysseus met and talked with many of the inhabitants of the underworld. Whilst he was seeking to learn the routes out in order to return to Ithaca, his comrades in the underworld were seeking news of the outside world and they rushed to find any news that they could.
“On open roads they crossed the Ocean stream, went past the rock of Leucas and the gates of Helius the Sun, and skittered through the provinces of dreams, and soon arrived in fields of asphodel, the home of shadows who have been worn to weariness by life.”[v]
Asphodel, That Greeny Flower “Of asphodel, that greeny flower, I come, my sweet, to sing to you! My heart rouses thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you and concerns many men. Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”[vi]
“What power has love but forgiveness? In other words by its intervention what has been done can be undone. What good is it otherwise? Because of this I have invoked the flower in that frail as it is after winter’s harshness it comes again to delect us. Asphodel, the ancients believed, in hell’s despite was such a flower.”[vii]
[i] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 161.
[ii] Gatlin, Laurie; in an artist’s statement and e-mail communication with this writer; 29 June 2020, 6:58 AM.
[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 153.
[iv] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; pp. 296-197, lines 538-541.
[v] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; p. 507, lines 11-16.
[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 161-162.
[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 169-170.
It is a fabulously horrific depiction of the flaying of Marsyas as told in ancient times by the poet Ovid and painted late in the life of the Renaissance painter Titian. Recent novelists such as Iris Murdoch and Evelyn Waugh have often mentioned the importance of this painting with regard to their own writing. And, the painter Tom Phillips even included it in his official portrait of Murdoch, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Titian may have kept this painting in his studio longer than usual, psychological reflections of an old man on his life, while employing those plastic and gestural movements, which keep a painting alive, even after years of work, over and over, on the same surface. Titian painted “The Flaying of Marsyas” between 1570 and 1576. Its patron is unknown.
Although in his “Lives of the Artists” Vasari does not mention this painting in particular, he does write about the working method that Titian used around this time. He writes: “…and these last works are executed with bold strokes and dashed off with a broad and even coarse sweep of the brush, insomuch that from near little can be seen, but from a distance they appear perfect….Although many believe that they are done without effort, in truth it is not so…for it is known that they are painted over and over again, and that he returned to them with his colours so many times, that the labour may be perceived. And this method, so used, is judicious, beautiful, and astonishing, because it makes pictures appear alive and painted with great art….”[i]
In the original telling of this ancient story, it was Marsyas the satyr, in his arrogance, who had challenged Apollo to a piping contest. It was agreed that it would take place in the woods with an audience of those from both the woodlands and Olympus. Afterwards all agreed that Apollo had easily won and that was it. However, Apollo had been offended, and in his wrath, ordered the flaying of Marsyas. This is how Ovid described it:
“After the Theban had told this story about the demise of the Lycian peasants, another recalled the horrible punishment dealt to the Satyr who’d challenged Latona’s son to a piping contest and lost. ‘Don’t rip me away from myself!’ he entreated; ‘I’m sorry!’ he shouted between his shrieks, ‘Don’t flay me for piping!’ In spite of his cries, the skin was peeled from his flesh, and his body was turned into one great wound; the blood was pouring all over him, muscles were fully exposed, his uncovered veins convulsively quivered; the palpitating intestines could well be counted, and so could organs glistening through the wall of his chest. The piper was mourned by the rustic fauns who watch over the woodlands, his brother satyrs, the nymphs and Olympus, the pupil he loved by all who tended their flocks or herds on the Lycian mountains. Their tears dropped down and saturated the fertile earth, who absorbed them deep in her veins and discharged them back into the air in the form of a spring. This found its way to the sea through a channel, which took the name Marsyas, clearest of Phrygian rivers.”[ii]
In a more contemporary rendition of this story, the poet Robin Robertson includes an extended description of this ancient and mythical event. Below are several selections from this larger ekphrastic piece: a lyrical description of the scene on that day, specific instructions from the butcher to his two apprentices, illusions of bad tattoos as if lifted from the skin, and an allusion of a dismantled man, not unlike the anatomy of a painting and its skin, as a “disappointing pentimento.”
THE FLAYING OF MARSYAS after Ovid
“A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves, Sifting down to dapple the soft ground, and rest a gilded bar against the muted flanks of trees. In the flittering green light the glade listens in and breathes.
A wooden pail; some pegs, a coil of wire; A bundle of steel flensing knives.
Spreadeagled between two pines, Hooked at each hoof to the higher branches, tied to the root by the hands, flagged as his own white cross, the satyr Marsyas hangs.
Three stand as honour guard: two apprentices, one butcher.”
“Let’s have a look at you, then. Bit scrawny for a satyr, all skin and whipcord, is it? Soon find out. So, think you can turn up with your stag-bones and outplay Lord Apollo? This’ll learn you. Fleece the fucker.
Now. One of you on each side. Blade along the bone, find the tendon, nick it and peel, nice and slow. A bit of shirt-lifting, now, to purge him, pull his wool over his eyes and show him Lord Apollo’s rapture; pelt on one tree, him on another: the inner man revealed.”
“Red Marsyas. Marsyas ecorche, splayed, shucked of his skin in a tug and rift of tissue; his birthday suit sloughed the way a sodden overcoat is eased off the shoulders and dumped. All memories of a carnal life lifted like a bad tattoo, live bark from the vascular tree: raw Marsyas unsheathed.
Or this: the shambles of Marsyas. The dark chest meat marbled with yellow fat, his heart like an animal breathing in its milky envelope, the viscera a well-packed suitcase of chitterlings, a palpitating tripe. A man dismantled, a tatterdemalion torn to steak and rind, a disappointing pentimento or the toy that can’t be re-assembled by the boy Apollo, a raptor, vivisector.
The sail of stretched skin thrills and snaps in the same breeze that makes his nerves fire, his bare lungs scream. Stripped of himself and from his twin: the stiffening scab and the sticky wound.
Marsyas the martyr, a god’s fetish, hangs from the tree like bad fruit.”[iii]
As a footnote to this subject: the novelist Iris Murdoch was especially fond of this painting. References to it are included in several of her novels, and when the artist Tom Phillips was commissioned to do her portrait for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery in London, Murdoch suggested that a portion of the Titian painting be included in the background of her portrait. And it was.
[i] Vasari, Giorgio; Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York and Toronto; 1996; p. 794.
[ii] Ovid; Metamorphoses: Book 6 (Translated by David Raeburn); Penguin Classics; London, England; 2004; pp. 228-229, lines 382-400.
[iii] Robertson, Robin; A Painted Field; Harcourt Brace & Company; San Diego, New York, London; 1997; pp. 10-12.
Bob Dylan shows up at The Factory for a screen test. These are traditionally short, on the spot, spontaneous interviews, filmed and conducted by Andy Warhol himself. Warhol is a bit dazzled that Dylan actually showed up. Dylan a bit nonplussed, as he doesn’t really like Warhol’s paintings.
Edie Sedgwick, supposedly introduced Dylan to Warhol sometime around 1965-1966, but it was Barbara Rubin, a filmmaker and a mutual acquaintance of both, who brought Dylan to the studio. Having finished the screen test, Dylan received a personal tour of The Factory. One account of the story has Warhol giving a painting of Elvis Presley to Dylan. The other account has Dylan picking up the Presley painting, putting it under his arm, and walking out with it as payment for the screen test. Warhol’s studio assistants were aghast, but did not quite know what to do at this point. The kind of story from which myths are made. Fortunately, the photographer Nat Finkelstein was there at The Factory, documenting the entire encounter.
The painting was the large “Double Elvis” from the “Silver Elvis Series” produced by Warhol in silver spray paint and silk-screen, printed on rolls of canvas and cut to size by his assistants: one, two, or three images to a panel. In any case, the “Double Elvis” was strapped to the roof of Dylan’s station wagon and taken away!
Musical history, myth, and mystery all wrapped up in the long stem of connection, and Elvis Presley remains at the center of our attention. Presley’s early renditions of classic blues songs such as “Milk Cow Blues” were really important influences on the young Bob Dylan.[i] Presley’s appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show were crucial influences on an entire generation of young Americans, including the poet David Wojahn, who was born in 1953 in St. Paul, Minnesota and studied at both the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona.
Writing in his collection Mystery Train, Wojahn collected several rock & roll myths, all supposedly based on true incidents. They were visions of musical stars and hangers on, often containing tragic outcomes: Brian Wilson having a ton of sand delivered to his living room where he set his piano in order to compose several of his masterpieces; Bo Diddley being mistaken for Chuck Berry one night on Long Beach Island in New Jersey; and William Carlos Williams taking a break in his hospital day room just in time to see Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show one Sunday night.
The poet Denise Levertov was born in 1923 in Ilford in Essex, England, where she was raised and home schooled by her Welsh mother. In 1948 she emigrated to the United States with her husband, the writer and activist Mitchell Goodman, in order to work and teach. Levertov shared many literary and aesthetic concerns with her American counterparts from Black Mountain College to New York City. Many of these younger poets especially, were drawn to the work of William Carlos Williams. Of utmost importance were visions of the local and attention to detail, a new method on how to create a presence, and the physical measure of an object or a sound.
There are two modern poems that touch on these interrelationships, one each by Levertov and Wojahn. Although they are of differing generations, they share an interest in the attention to certain details, and looking directly at the world around themselves. Wojahn even uses a line “…missed connections, missed connections….” which seems to be a play on Levertov’s powerful portrait of Williams. Here are the two pieces, from very different points of view, but featuring work that places them each within the aesthetic realm that was established by William Carlos Williams.
Williams: An Essay
“His theme over and over:
the twang of plucked catgut from which struggles music,
the tufted swampgrass quicksilvering dank meadows,
a baby’s resolute—metaphysic of appetite and tension.
Not the bald image, but always— undulant, elusive, beyond reach of any dull staring eye—lodged
among the words, beneath the skin of image: nerves, muscles, rivers of urgent blood, a mind
secret, disciplined, generous and unfathomable. Over
and over, his theme hid itself and smilingly, reappeared.
He loved persistence—but it must be linked to invention: landing backwards, ‘facing into the wind’s teeth,’ to please him.
He loved the lotus cup, fragrant upon the swaying water, loved
the wily mud pressing swart riches into its roots,
W. C. W. Watching Presley’s Second Appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”: Mercy Hospital, Newark, 1956
“The tube, like the sonnet, is a fascist form. I read they refused to show this kid’s wriggling bum. ‘The pure products of America. . . .’ etc. From Mississippi! Tupelo, a name like a flower you wouldn’t want beside you in a room like this, where the smells hold you a goddamn hostage to yourself, where talk’s no longer cheap. Missed connections, missed connections— a junk heap blazing there in Ironbound, a couple kids beside it, juiced on the cheapest wine. Mid- thought. Mid winter, and stalled between TV screen and window. . . . This pomped-up kid, who preens and tells us ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ Kid, forget it. You don’t know a fucking thing about cruelty yet.”[iii]
[i] Barker, Derek, ed.; “Bob Dylan’s Jukebox: Songs that Influenced the Bard;” CD Recording; ISIS and Chrome Dreams Productions; Surrey and Warwickshire, United Kingdom; 2006.
[ii] Levertov, Denise; Candles in Babylon; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1982; pp. 59-60.
[iii] Wojahn, David; Mystery Train; University of Pittsburgh Press; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; 1990; p. 27.
For how many years have these two landmarks, Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge, attracted the attention of poets and painters? Many have tackled this subject. When we read Walt Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ or Hart Crane’s ‘To Brooklyn Bridge’ there are many elements that remind us of other works by artists like John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Joseph Stella. Contemporary poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Joseph Stanton have also made mention of these sites.
Most recently, and very importantly, we have images from the contemporary photographer Dudley Gray, whose work clearly shares many of these same aesthetic concerns. In fact, many of Dudley Gray’s images have been published over the years, and the writer Janel Bladow has had this to say in describing his work in OMNI Magazine:
“The cables of the Brooklyn Bridge…become flamboyant, spidery abstractions. Around Manhattan other buildings, bathed in vivid colored light, brightly beam the urban nightscape. These marvels of design sparkle like precious jewels.”[i]
“Without altering the physical structure of the cityscape, artist Joseph Strand and photographer Dudley Gray can change the mood of the city. Their urban illuminations transform today’s skyline into stunning abstract light sculptures of the future.”[ii]
However, we must go back in time and follow a progression of these words and images. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman describes some of the very spots that would later become the views people would have when crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, throughout this poem Whitman makes reference to the generations of the future who will experience these sights.
“The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks,
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,
Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.”[iii]
“Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore; Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.”[iv]
One of these others from fifty or one hundred years hence would surely be the painter Joseph Stella. Stella has always been a difficult artist to categorize. Although he was a very figurative painter he was not close to the American realists and regionalists so popular during the early years of the 20th Century. Although he was a modernist, he would not be classified as a colonial cubist, as others were during that same era. He is appealing to us today for these very reasons.
Stella’s body of work includes almost classical portrait drawings of his contemporaries such as Edgar Varese, Marcel Duchamp, and Katherine Millay. Amongst his most important, and famous images, are paintings from the “New York Interpreted” series, especially the works in reference to Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge. And finally, there exists another body of work that includes many references to natural objects and fantasies.
Another literary reference should be added here: Joseph Stella wrote several manuscript notes regarding his individual paintings. They were written fragments, translated from the Italian by Irma B. Jaffe, and included in her book dealing with the symbolism in Stella’s work.[v] These written statements by Stella are in themselves quite serious and lyrical. They do not just describe, but provide a literary parallel to his paintings. They are just as mystical as his paintings, equal to them, and excellent examples of the ekphrastic process in their own right.
“Seen for the first time, as a weird metallic Apparition under a metallic sky, out of proportion with the winged lightness of its arch, traced for the conjunction of Worlds, supported by the massive dark towers dominating the surrounding tumult of the surging skyscrapers with their gothic majesty sealed in the purity of their arches, the cables, like divine messages from above, transmitted to the vibrating coils, cutting and dividing into innumerable musical spaces the nude immensity of the sky, it impressed me as the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America…the eloquent meeting of all the forces arising in a superb assertion of powers, in Apotheosis.”[vi]
Jumping ahead to contemporary literature, recent references have appeared to both Coney Island and Far Rockaway by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The very first book I read by Ferlinghetti was A Coney Island of the Mind, purchased in San Francisco in 1970 or so; and the most recent one was A Far Rockaway of the Heart, which I purchased just after his reading here in Indianapolis at Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus on 7 February 2000.
We learned that night, that he had been continually writing, adding to, and expanding upon many of his earlier themes. Even though he had spent so much time at the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, he seemed to be making several references to his earlier years: the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and any number of childlike antics on sidewalks just below the bridges and elevated train tracks.
The Junkman’s Obligato
“Let us arise and go now into the interior dark night of the soul’s still bowery and find ourselves anew where subways stall and wait under the River. Cross over into full puzzlement. South Ferry will not run forever. They are cutting out the Bay ferries but it is still not too late to get lost in Oakland. Washington has not yet toppled from his horse. There is still time to goose him and go leaving our income tax form behind and our waterproof wristwatch with it staggering blind after alleycats under Brooklyn’s Bridge blown statues in baggy pants our tincan cries and garbage voices trailing. Junk for sale!”[vii]
Poets of a younger generation have also taken on these ideas and images, including the writer and art historian Joseph Stanton. With his writing, Stanton creates imaginary places and even museums with various ‘wings’ housing his personal collection of ekphrastic masterpieces, including this reference to Josef Stella and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Josef Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge
“On his first painting of it, lines of force slant this way, then slant that, flickering a cacophony of blue and white above a blossom of blood; while the spine articulates— in tiny, elegant detail— the sequenced towers.
Passing the frisson futurism in subsequent pictures, Stella settled to a symmetry a quintessential modernism that became the way he crossed this bridge every subsequent time he came to its soaring contradictions—
medieval gothic are its massive piers and yet the machined-aged cables of steel, the taut song of its wiring mechanique, is what lifts our spirits, transports us, as we walk the interior passage, unique to this suspension, a path that makes our walking seem
a transit towards an altar, an altar that turns out to be the City of Brooklyn, a place worthy of worship in its way, but cruel, ungraspable. ‘Only the dead know Brooklyn,’ sayeth the gospel of Thomas Wolfe.”[viii]
Thinking again about modernism and the “wiring mechanique,” Janel Bladow has summarized perfectly the effect of light falling on the Brooklyn Bridge, while quoting Dudley Gray: “To Gray, light caresses structure. ‘It’s like a love affair between light and steel. Colors run from hot purples to cold blues. Buildings suddenly acquire both intense identification and peaceful beauty in one dazzling moment.’”[ix]
TO BROOKLYN BRIDGE
“Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning, A jest falls from the speechless caravan.
Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks, A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene; All afternoon the cloud flown derricks turn… Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.”[x]
[i] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.
[ii] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.
[iii] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 3, p. 144.
[iv] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 2, p. 143.
[v] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California, and New York, New York; 1994.
[vi] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California and New York, New York; 1994; (Unpaginated, printed opposite Plate 13).
[vii] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; A Coney Island of the Mind; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1958; p. 56.
[viii] Stanton, Joseph; Moving pictures; Shanti Arts Publishing; Brunswick, Maine; 2019; p. 86.
[ix] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 73.
[x] Crane, Hart, ed. Marc Simon; “To Brooklyn Bridge” from The Complete Poems of Hart Crane; Liveright Publishing Corporation; New York and London; 2001; p. 43.
She would have them start out by doing gesture drawings and warming up before some of the more formal work began in the studio. It was an idea right out of the Bauhaus School, where she herself had studied. This art teacher did both drawing and color assignments as well as graphic and plastic exercises.
“She believed in mixing colors and drawing from nature”
“She taught exercises in composition and breathing”
“She spoke of positive and negative forms and the rhythm of geometric shapes and the musical keyboard of color”[i]
Friedl Dicker was born on 30 July 1898 in Vienna, Austria. During her youth, she and several friends studied with the artist Johann Itten at his private school in Vienna. She later followed Itten to Weimar, Germany, where she studied at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923. Along with Itten, she also studied with Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer and Paul Klee. She was especially influenced by the drawing and introductory courses that had been developed by Itten.
After leaving the Bauhaus, she established workshops and ateliers in both Berlin and Vienna, focusing on architecture, interior design, textiles and bookbinding. She also became an art educator, guiding kindergarten teachers in Vienna in the education of children.
Dicker continued with both her own work and teaching for several years, and even produced a series of political posters in support of the Austrian Communist Party. During the February Uprising in 1934 she was arrested and interrogated regarding her communist activities. After her release, she moved to Prague, continued her creative activities, and met and married Pavel Brandeis on 30 April 1936. There she continued her own studio work as well as teaching art to Jewish children who were no longer allowed to attend the public schools.
On 17 December 1942, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was deported to the Terezin concentration camp just north of Prague. From a third-story window she continued to paint scenes of the courtyard below, and she continued to teach children in her art classes in the camp. She brought the lessons that she had learned at the Bauhaus directly to her new young charges at Terezin.
On 6 October 1944, Dicker-Brandeis and her students were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau where they were executed on 9 October 1944.
Just before her classes were closed, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis collected 4,387 drawings completed by her students. She packed them all in two suitcases and hid them in one of the children’s dormitories in the Ghetto in Prague. Since their rediscovery, these works have been featured at both the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Jewish Museum in Prague, where they are now preserved in the permanent collection.
Several years ago we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It was there that I first saw the drawings of the children who had been incarcerated in the concentration camps in Europe. I immediately purchased the catalog titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”[ii] and have kept its memory close. Later I read a new collection of Edward Hirsch’s work titled Lay Back the Darkness that contained a section titled “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944.”
I wrote to him regarding this sequence of poems. As it turned out, we had both seen some of this work in person, although in two very different locations: he had seen them at the Museum in Terezin, and I had seen them in Washington, DC. When I asked him about this, this was his response: “I didn’t see that particular exhibition in Washington, but I’m sure it includes the same work that I saw a couple of times at the museum in Terezin. I first discovered some of the poems and drawings in a little book called ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly.’ That was later amplified into the exhibition.”[iii]
After reading Hirsch’s book, many of the images from the drawings came flooding back into my mind, so I have paired a selection of Edward Hirsch’s lines with some of the children’s drawings here. I also asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Helmick, an expert on Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, for her thoughts on this important art educator. This is a summary of what she wrote back to me:
“The empathetic experience of artmaking was Friedl Dicker Brandeis’ gift to the young artists in the Nazi concentration camp. While many artists in the Nazi internment camp recorded the awful circumstances in which they were imprisoned, Dicker Brandeis provided aesthetic experiences for the children in her charge….By teaching them to observe and experience their visual world…she enabled them to live imaginatively in horrific conditions. The artifacts left behind were not just products of art making but windows into the soul of the makers that gave proof of meaning making and authentic engagement, just as Dicker Brandeis believed.”[iv]
“A pasted collage on an office form of a sunny evening in Terezin”[v]
“This is a guard with a stick This is a stick with a heart This is a heart with a horseshoe This is a girl flinging the horseshoe at a guard”[vi]
“An unsigned still life with a jelly jar filled with meadow flowers”[vii]
“Somewhere out there in the trees far away from the barracks childhood is still waiting for me”[viii]
“Not even the teacher who had studied at the Bauhaus could draw the face of God”[ix]
[i] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 55.
[ii] Volavkova, Hana, ed., Haim Potok, Vaclav Havel; I Never Saw Another Butterfly; Schocken Books; New York, Neew York; 1993.
[iii] Hirsch, Edward; (From an e-mail correspondence with this writer); 26 July 2017 at 9:49AM.
[iv] Helmick, Linda, PhD; Assistant Professor of Art Education, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; (From an e-mail correspondence with this author); 24 March 2020, 10:57 am.
[v] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.
[vi] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 51.
[vii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.
[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 49.
[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 53.