AIN’T IT JUST LIKE THE NIGHT

“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.

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Rene Magritte
“The Meaning of Night (Le sens de la nuit)”
1927
Oil on canvas
54 1/2” x 41 1/2”
The Menil Collection,
Houston, Texas

 

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.

magritte2
Albert Pinkham Ryder
“Moonlit Cove”
1880’s
Oil on canvas
14 1/8” x 17 1/8”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

 

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.

magritte3
Geogia O’Keeffe
“The Radiator Building—Night, New York”
1927
Oil on canvas
121.9 cm x 76.2 cm
Fisk University Galleries
Nashville, Tennessee

 

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.

magritte4
April Gornik
“Pulling Moon”
1983
Oil on canvas
76” x 80”
Courtesy of the artist.

 

“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.

DEAD BIRDS

“His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes”

“The early sixteenth-century Belgian painter called, for want of his real name, The Master of the Embroidered Leaf.

Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up the house after being away for three months.

Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies. Not all of them were great. But there were 104 of them.”[i]

deadbird1
Albert Pinkham Ryder
“Dead Bird”
1890’s
Oil on wood panel
4 3/8” x 10”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

This terrible but beautiful image of a dead bird has always been one of the most haunting paintings in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Just over four inches high it is an important example of works of art that are intimate in size and grand in spirit. Their effect remains with the viewer long after stepping outside of the museum.

Raymond Carver used this technique on several occasions in his work, especially in his collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Small statements, snippets really, are concise and to the point. 16th Century illuminations, dead birds on the front porch, or an incident involving Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington all incorporate the painterly criteria of ‘economy of means.’ Compression.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red and Pink Rocks with Teeth” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Jan Vermeer’s “Girl in the Red Hat” at the National Gallery in Washington and Ryder’s “Dead Bird” mentioned above are all small in size but powerful in scale. Why should this be? Perhaps it was the desire of certain figurative painters and Imagist poets for the significant detail: to rivet the universal with the particular. Or, the suggestion made several times by William Carlos Williams throughout his epic poem Patterson to “Say it! No ideas, but in things.”[ii]

Whether it was the search for an American idiom or a single image out of the mass of chaos, Williams would ask of us: “What common language to unravel?”[iii] For both the poet and the painter it would be the process of finding one’s own vision or voice coming out of “…a mass of detail to interrelate on a new ground…pulling the disparate together to clarify and compress.”[iv]

“Because the sun was behind them
their shadows came first and then
the birds themselves.”[v]

deadbird2
Susan Rothenberg
“Blue Bird Wings”
1989
Oil on canvas
65″x43″
Private collection

To make an image or an object one’s own is to have a signature that comes out of the process of creating that image. Idiosyncratic imagery, like that in Ryder’s painting, has been the trademark of a certain few artists: as in the work of Musa McKim or Leonard Baskin or Susan Rothenberg; Raymond Carver or Kim Fuelling or Michael Ondaatje. These images will speak for themselves, as any real painting or drawing or poem will.

deadbird3
Leonard Baskin
“Dead Bird”
c. 1950’s
Woodcut
1” x 2”
Michelson Galleries, Northampton, Massachusetts

“Through the Boughs”

“Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think, that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was, they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes. The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and won’t stop blowing. . . . Give me your hand for a time. Hold on to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was, those ragged birds cry.”[vi]

deadbird4
Kim Fuelling
“Fallen Bird”
c. 1998
Graphite on paper
8” x 10”
Courtesy of the artist, Zionville, North Carolina

“Application for a Driving License”

“Two birds loved
in a flurry of red feathers
like a burst cottonball,
continuing while I drove over them.

I am a good driver, nothing shocks me.”[vii]


[i] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes;” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; pp. 64-66.

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; p. 7.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; p. 9.

[iv] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; p. 19.

[v] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon, Selected Writings; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 137.

[vi] Carver, Raymond; “Through the Boughs;” A New Path to the Waterfall; p. 120.

[vii] Ondaatje, Michael; “Application for a Driving License;” The Cinnamon Peeler; Vintage International; New York, New York; 1997; p. 14.