“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.
“And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood
above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God if Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the
south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place….This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”[ii]
The Jacob’s Ladder
“The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence for angels’ feet that
only glance in their
need not touch the stone.
It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a
a doubting night gray.
A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next giving a
lift of wings:
and a man climbing
must scrape his knees and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past
The poem ascends.”[iii]
There are many literary references and historical illustrations to the passage of people and angels traveling between Heaven and Earth. There are also contemporary examples such as the one above by Denise Levertov and one at the end of this essay by Bob Dylan. In literature these draw upon the Old Testament story of the Dream of Jacob. In music there is a major source for this in the great American Southern Baptist spiritual: “Jacob’s Ladder.”
“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
We are brothers, and sisters, all.”[iv]
It was one of the first African American spirituals to become popular with both black and white citizens of the south. There is no record of when it was written or who wrote it, but it came into being sometime between 1750 and 1825, and was known as a call and response song amongst slaves. The ladder quickly became one of many symbols for the means of escaping slavery.
As is typical with folk traditions, this song was handed down through generations and verses were added and changed to reflect more recent times. Significant versions from the 20th Century include recordings by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and most recently by Bruce Springsteen during his “Seeger Sessions.”
In the visual arts as well, this imagery has wide ranging uses, from medieval manuscript illuminations to pieces of surrealism and even to contemporary sculpture. The “Dream of Romuald with the stairs of the Monks” from an Italian book illumination at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris is a reference to the story of Jacob’s Ladder. Many early 20th Century artists incorporated this imagery into their work, from realists to surrealists, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Joan Miro and most recently, Martin Puryear, who has used the ladder form in his sculpture dedicated to Booker T. Washington.
Finally, a young artist here in Indiana has for several years been employing severe and unusual views of many ordinary and everyday objects. Having studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Pont-Aven, France and the Arizona State University in Tempe, Sarah Jones has always had an eye for the unique angle of things.
The dramatic placement and situation of certain objects is combined with her own personal point of view towards these things. Her paintings above and below best illustrate this, as does her own statement regarding how they came about.
“The paintings came about after a summer spent in the four corners region. I was working on a ranch in Durango, CO and took weekend trips to places like Mesa Verde, Taos, and Albuquerque. It was my first trip west of the Mississippi and I was fascinated by the differences in landscape and even quality of light compared to Indiana. The images which inspired the paintings were taken at Taos Pueblo. The sky was SO blue. The light was SO bright. The shadows were SO strong. I loved the clean lines of the buildings and the shadow patterns made by ladders leaning against the adobe buildings. They formed lovely right angle triangles: building= side 1, ladder = side 2 and shadow of ladder falling across the ground = side 3.”[v]
Finally, I am reminded of a certain theme that runs through much of the writing of William Carlos Williams: primarily in his epic poem “Patterson” and secondly in an essay on the work of the artist Charles Sheeler. He mentions several times that we should “Say it! No ideas but in things!”[vi] And further, he observes that “It is in things that for the artist power lies….”[vii] So, it is in both poetry and painting that a single object might become a powerful image.
“May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young”[viii]
[i] Translated as “The Dream of St. Romuald and the Ladder of the Monks” this is a piece from the Wildenstein Collection of historic manuscript illuminations at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris. One historian, Peter Damian, has noted that St. Romuald’s Dream is also a conflation of the legend of Jacob’s Dream.
[ii] “Genesis 28:11-17” The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinburgh; 1952; p. 21.
[iii] Levertov, Denise; Selected Poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2002; p. 25.
[iv] Springsteen, Bruce; “Jacob’s Ladder” The Seeger Sessions; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1998 & 2006.
[v] Jones, Sarah; An artist’s statement regarding her “Ladder Paintings” as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 16 May 2017.
[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6 & 9.
[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; p. 234.
[viii] Dylan, Bob; “Forever Young” Planet Waves; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1974 & 2004.
“One cannot look at this.
This is bad.
This is how it happened.
This always happens.
There is no one to help them.
With or without reason.
He defends himself well.
He deserved it.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There was nothing to be done and he died.
This is too much!
Nobody knows why.
Not in this case either.
This is worse.
This is the absolute worst!
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.
Perhaps they are of another breed.
I saw it.
And this too.
Truth has died.
This is the truth.”[i]
In one of her late series of essays, Susan Sontag created a literary collage of sorts. The title of this piece is “Looking at the Unbearable” and is inspired by Goya’s series of “The Disasters of War.” In fact, it is a very straightforward listing of several titles of Goya’s prints as they were later annotated in pencil beneath each print!
Goya was inspired to work in this direction by the earlier artist Jacques Callot whose “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” was published in 1633 as a response to the French invasion of Lorraine during the Thirty Years War. From 1808 to 1814 it was the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, witnessed by Goya, that lead to “The Disasters of War.” Although separated by over 200 years, these two bodies of work, taken together, comprise some of the most powerful statements ever made against war. What does that mean for us now?
Instant justice on the battlefield, or revenge and vigilante justice in small town America seemed to take no heed of past history and warnings. In Marion, Indiana for example, on 7 August 1930 the photographer Lawrence Beitler came upon a scene that just had to be documented. A mob of citizens had broken into the local jail and took two African American prisoners, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, out into the night, where they were lynched. This particular photograph became a symbol of the ongoing racial war and tensions within our country. Thousands of copies of it, both as post cards and posters were printed over the following few days and weeks.
In 1937, Abel Meeropol saw a copy of this photograph and was inspired to write the poem “Bitter Fruit” along with the music that later became a labor/civil rights anthem titled “Strange Fruit.” Since then it has been recorded many times up to the present day, but the 1939 version by Billie Holiday became a classic.
One contemporary artist and musician in the greater Boston area, James Reitzas, found a way to voice this through sculpture. Using very simple materials, rope and sand and burlap, he fashioned units of human size and proportion and literally hung them from local trees. Mimicking and referring back to Billie Holiday’s signature song “Strange Fruit” and Callot’s and Goya’s prints, these pieces show the metaphorical power of materials. They also echo many of the songs written at the time in order to give voice to both the civil rights and anti-war movements: the early Bob Dylan masterpiece “Desolation Row” contains an opening line that was directly inspired from Beitler’s photograph.
“They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row.”[ii]
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”[iii]
[i] Sontag, Susan; Regarding the Pain of Others; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2003; pp. 44-47.
[ii] Dylan, Bob; “Desolation Row,” Writings and Drawings; Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books; New York, New York; 1973; pp. 193-195.
[iii] Holiday, Billie; “Strange Fruit” The Centennial Collection; audio recording B00S7E1V7W; Sony Legacy; New York, New York; 2015.
“. . . God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’
Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’
God say, ‘No’ Abe say, ‘What?’
God say, ‘You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’, you better run’
Well, Abe says, ‘Where d’you want this killin’ done?’
God says, ‘Out on Highway 61’”[i]
It is one of the great Old Testament stories regarding Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac in order to somehow and ultimately prove his faith. He struggled with this dearly. A very important depiction of this is the one above that Lorenzo Ghiberti used as the presentation piece for the commission of the bronze doors in the Basilica at Florence in 1401.
Another powerful image is an etching by Rembrandt in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The processes of etching and drypoint not only illustrate the story but parallel the psychological struggle through physical struggle and manipulation of the medium. Rembrandt, always being a master of both the formal and the personal, combines these elements into a universal statement.
We need only to come to the late 1960’s in America for several other critical examples. These years proved to be a shocking turning point in the lives of many people. Earlier civil rigths demonstrations had evolved into anti-war demonstrations. Meanwhile, a music and arts festival was held in a sleepy town in upstate New York in August 1969. But, by May of the next year, the Kent State Massacre had occurred.
Upon hearing of the massacre at Kent State and seeing this photograph for the first time, the singer songwriter Neil Young penned what would become an anthem performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “Ohio.”
“Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.”[ii]
In 1978 Kent State University commissioned the sculptor George Segal to create a memorial to the people killed in the massacre. Segal chose as his theme the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. Safe enough at the time. The piece was actually completed and about to be installed when the university had second thoughts. The sculpture was never installed and offered instead to the Princeton University Art Museum, where it now sits in the courtyard near the University Chapel.
The situation was offensive all the way around, but, it was most offensive because the Kent State officials did not want to be associated with the idea that one generation was willing to sacrifice another for the sake of a totally misguided involvement in a distant war.
Although a very safe and more abstract memorial now occupies the spot of the Kent State Massacre, the question still remains, when and how will we ever learn to work to end war, rather than to invest in and profit from, the engagement in war?
“Now the roving gambler he was very bored
He was tryin’ to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61”[iii]
[i] Dylan, Bob; “Highway 61 Revisited,” Writings and Drawings; Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books; New York, New York; 1973; pp. 196.
[ii] Young, Neil; “Ohio,” Live at Massey Hall, 1971; audio recording, BOOOMTPANG; Reprise Records; New York, New York; 2007.
[iii] Dylan, Bob; “Highway 61 Revisited,” Writings and Drawings; pp. 196.