“The relationships that bind forms together in nature cannot be pure chance, and what we call ‘natural life’ is in effect a relationship between forms, so inexorable that without it this natural life could not exist. So it is with art as well. The formal relationships within a work of art and among different works of art constitute an order for, and a metaphor of, the entire universe.”[i]
For many years while travelling I always carried a set of ink pens and a field sketchbook and close by a copy of a book of poems by Eugene Guillevec that had been translated by Denise Levertov. These poems were so vivid: extremely colorful, visual, imaginary. And solid. Perfect for a painter.
In her translations Levertov observed that Guillevic’s work was based on a “… simplicity of diction, the plain and hard meaning of things without descriptive qualification reverberates … with the ambiguity, the unfathomable mystery of natural objects.”[ii]
During one summer several years ago on a visit to the Denver Art Museum it was clear that the curators had arranged a new hanging of the permanent collection featuring the addition of works not usually exhibited. It was there that I came upon a small still life by Kay Sage that brought to mind instantly another small still life, this one by Georgia O’Keeffe, that I had seen earlier in the year at the Art Institute of Chicago.
It is strange, even surreal one might say, how certain images might carry over a great distance and an expanse of time. I have admired, for a long time, the paintings of Kay Sage and Georgia O’Keeffe, finding a shared sensibility between these two women, which alerted me to another shared set of sensibilities between Guillevic and Tanguy, physical and spiritual elements both!
The paintings of Yves Tanguy and the poems of Eugene Guillevec show the influence of the Breton landscape in both abstract and physical ways. The formal and lyrical qualities depend greatly on the strange and surreal spirit of this place, the landscape of Brittany, while the litteral and figurative elements seem to depend on the clear observation and depiction of that landscape. Specific forms layed out in a specific space. Although I had always admired this element in Guillevic’s writing, it was also something that bothered me regarding Tanguy’s landscapes. Something overly stylized or self-consciously surreal.
“The form of the work of art is first, in the artist, a sort of conscious urge to produce a certain piece of work; his confused awareness of the work to be is already his awareness of its form. The making of beauty consists in the progressive information of a piece of freely chosen matter by the form present in the artist’s mind.”[iii]
Late in the summer of 2007 we visted both the Musee de Prehistoire and the galleries at the Hall de la Mairie de Carnac in Brittany, France. One was an exhibition of photographs of those many pre-historic sites that inhabit the Breton landscape. The other was a selection of writings by Guillevec exhibited alongside several paintings by contemporary artists. These included works by Marie Alloy, Jean-Jacques Dournon, and Julius Baltazar. In both cases it highlighted the importance of this ancient landscape, even on contemporary painters and poets. I have also discovered many of the nearby beaches, not on the sandy leeward sides of the land, but the ones on the windward sides, the rocky ones! And it was there that I saw the importance of Tanguy’s paintings: the balance that he maintained between the real and the surreal. And what Guillevec felt about the rocks and the sea, winds blowing in and out in contrary routes.
“De la mer aux menhirs,
Des menhirs a la mer,
La meme route avec deux vents contraires
Et celui de la mer
Plein du meutre de l’autre.”
[i] Focillon, Henri; The Life of Forms in Art; Zone Books; New York, New York; 1992; p. 33.
[ii] Guillevic, Eugene; Translated by Denise Levertov; Guillevic: Selected Poems; New Directions Publishig Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. viii-ix.
[iii] Gilson, Etienne; The Arts of the Beautiful; Dalkey Archive Press; Champaign, Illinois; 2000; p. 97.
[iv] Notes taken by this writer regarding poems written by Eugene Guillevic and posted in conjunction with the exhibition “Guillevic et les peintres” at the Hall de la Mairie de Carnac, Carnac, Brittany, France, 25 July 2007.