There is a Joan Mitchell painting in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art titled “Niege et fleurs” (“Snow and Flowers” in French) that was part of a special docent tour for the Contemporary Art Society a few years ago. This particular docent started out by insisting that the tourists pay no attention to the title of this painting. I thought that this was a shame, as this painting was exactly that: Snow and Flowers. Recently at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I walked into one of the galleries in the middle of the recent Joan Mitchell Retrospective and spied a large painting of a flower, an amaryllis, and that was exactly what it was: “La Grande Vallée II (Amaryllis).”1
Furthermore, the Baltimore exhibition used many examples of how the gardens and landscapes of France influenced Joan Mitchell’s paintings. It also referred to the many writers, poets who were Mitchell’s contemporaries and predecessors, and how they were so important to her work.
The post-war aesthetic community in New York City consisted of so many painters and poets. They all lived in a certain few neighborhoods and gathered at many of the same local galleries and bars. For Joan Mitchell, who was always interested in literature, especially poetry, this was a fertile environment. Amongst her life long friends and literary colleagues were: James Schyler, Eileen Myles, Pierre Schneider, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery.
Beginning in 1955, Mitchell split much of her time living and working in both New York and France. After moving permanently to France in 1959, she continued her friendships with the poets of the New York School and become new friends with poets in France, including Jacques Dupin and J. J. Mitchell.
All the while, Joan Mitchell was both imagining and seeing this new landscape surrounding her. Flowers in her garden. The linden tree that was right outside her front door in France.
These bits and pieces of nature, whether seen directly or out of the corner of one’s eye, always have the feel of movement and form. Haptic sensations of seeing and walking through the landscape, with a tacit understanding of the space immediately in front us.
And finally, there is this painting of a nearby hemlock. Mitchell was attracted to this form as it had been written about by Wallace Stevens. In 1916 Stevens had written of a peacock perching in a hemlock tree. Later taking off in flight. In this poem Stevens describes the movement of birds’ wings, the wind through the leaves of the trees, sensations of color and movement. The writing becomes physical, imagistic. The words becoming solid, like objects.
In the paintings of Joan Mitchell, there are certain guiding elements: the gestural brushstrokes, analogous and/or complementary color contrasts, and a space that is primarily felt as opposed to an illusion. There is no need for illustrating a thing, as the paint is that thing. The image is so strong and physical. And Mitchell’s painting “Hemlock” was inspired by this Wallace Stevens poem, “Domination of Black.”
“At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
“I heard them cry—the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?”
“Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks….”2
1 Roberts, Sarah, and Katy Siegel, eds.; Joan Mitchell; Baltimore Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Yale University Press; New Haven and London; 2020; Plate 111.
2 Stevens, Wallace; “Domination of Black” Collected Poetry and Prose; The Library of America; New York, New York; 1997; p. 7.
3 thoughts on “JOAN MITCHELL, WALLACE STEVENS AND THE AMARYLLIS, THE HEMLOCK AND THE LINDEN TREE”
Thanks for mentioning Jacques Dupin
He should always be remembered
Maryann, I thought of you when I was writing this, as you so nicely referred me, years ago, to Dupin regarding Giacometti’s studio. I was going to send this post to you, but I see that you have already received it. The section in this exhibition regarding Mitchell’s relationships with writers was quite amazing. Best regards always, Richard.
Fascinating synthesis w/Mitchell (not well known to me) and Stevens.
Love Hemlock. And you know I love Szymborska.