A BLACK DEATH NOW AND THEN

“Such was the cruelty of the stars, and perhaps to some extent of men also, that between March and the following June, what with the virulence of the plague and the abandonment and neglect of many of the sick by those who were healthy but fearful, it is firmly believed that more than one hundred thousand human beings lost their lives within the walls of Florence, when it is likely that beforehand no one would have estimated that the city had so many inhabitants.”1

C. W. Eckersberg
“The Marble Steps Leading to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome”
1814-1816
Oil on canvas
32.5 cm x 36.5cm
National Gallery of Denmark
Copenhagen, Denmark

“There was a cold morning
When Santa Maria della Pace
seemed to whiten in shadows
And an afternoon when we looked up,
as if casually,

At the stone eagles of the Last Judgement
perched on Santa Crisogono in Trastevere.
I’ll never forget how the sky shimmered
like a bowl of light
That poured over our heads as we climbed

One hundred and twenty-four stairs—
The steep unforgiving gray stones
of Santa Maria d’Aracorli—
Built in gratitude
for deliverance from the Black Death.”2

“Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancients footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.”3

From Boccaccio to Edward Hirsch to Bob Dylan, writers often echo elements of times passed. Recently I have rediscovered two of these classic themes: the “Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio from 1350, and the Millard Meiss essay on “Painting in Florence and Sienna After the Black Death” from 1951. These are haunting and horrifying observations from history, which have been too easily forgotten over the years. From Florence to Rome and all across Europe during those times, thousands of people were migrating to distant safe places, while even more thousands of people were dying at home.

Boccaccio made use of parables and morality tales in order to entertain and enlighten the public in the Decameron, while offering in the introduction a history and a warning for generations to come. Six hundred years later, Millard Meiss was describing the plastic process in altar pieces and frescoes of that time period. He often noted the new naturalism in certain paintings, and the movement or gesture created by these artists. Sadly however, he notes that there are no documents remaining that mention the Lorenzetti after this time, concluding that they too were victims of the Black Death.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti
“The Effects of Good Government”
1338-1339
Fresco
7.7m x 14.4m (overall)
Palazzo Pubblica, Siena, Italy

First appearing in Florence from June to September in 1348, the Black Plague continued with resurgences in 1363 and again in 1374. During these times, the city states experienced other social, political and aesthetic developments: these included transitions from a merchant oligarchy to nobility rule, followed by revolutions against these very same nobles; business and banking failures; and painting developments with regard to looking to past classics for inspiration, or looking to the future and progress. Everything seemingly in disarray.

“…things had come to such a pass that dead human beings were treated no better than goats. It became apparent that the sheer scale of this disaster had made ignorant folk fully aware and resigned in the face of that one thing which limited and less frequent misfortunes, such as occurring the natural course of events, had not been able to teach intelligent people to endure with patience. There was not enough consecrated ground to bury the great multitude of corpses arriving at every church and almost every hour….So, when all the graves were occupied, very deep pits were dug in the churchyards, into which the new arrivals were put in their hundreds….like merchandise in the hold of a ship….”4

In the midst of all of this, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti produced their finest works, incorporating both organic form and spatial movement. Pietro was concerned with continuing in the modes of Giotto and Duccio, whilst Ambrogio was focused on the contemporary world and his “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” in the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna. In either case, they advanced the path of early Italian painting.

But what can we say about writing and painting in this day and age? Do we find ourselves in a new international style, or a new dark ages, continuing to be scattered in many smaller diverse city states?

There is an early painting by a contemporary artist in Philadelphia, Sidney Goodman, that has always been an enigma to me, even from the first time I saw it years ago. It was the image of some sort of tragedy, with a few survivors going about, but not from any particular time. It could easily have been an example of, or the result of “Bad Government” during the Post War Era in the 1960’s. Or did it portend to the future? In any event, it is a terrifically staged scene in which the characters act.

Sidney Goodman
“The Walk”
1963-1964
Oil of canvas
83 1/2” x 65 1/4”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

When I look at the larger more populous centers such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, I often feel like they have insulated themselves from the rest of the country. However, when I think of other areas, there are a lot of artists living in isolation, social distancing, and continuing to work. These artists and writers include: Kristy Deetz and Ed Louis in Green Bay, Wisconsin; Altoon Sultan from Groton,Vermont, to Erik Johnson in Eugene, Oregon; Christa Charles and Patrick Manning in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and in Indianapolis, Carla Knopp and Steve Paddack.

One artist in particular, Maddy Weisz, from Ft. Collins, Colorado has recently created another set of stage like images, dealing with human interactions and isolations all at once. When I asked her about these paintings, this was her response:

“My paintings are derived from the thousands of photos . . . I’ve taken over the years . . . . They are not good photos by any means, but I usually find interesting people walking, interacting . . . .”

“. . . . for example the arrangement of people and things in the ‘Tiny Dancer’ painting . . . . I happen to be watching from our Hotel room in Brussels to the plaza below, and captured the little girl dancing while all the people around her were absorbed in other things.”

“I’ve been interested in the idea of stage settings for a long time, and I’m really glad you picked up on this theme. . . . I’ve been trying different formal approaches to this idea. Sometimes I have an idea about the patterning of the ground space around the figures before painting, but most of the time I let the painting evolve intuitively.”5

Maddy Weisz
“Tiny Dancer”
2021
Oil on canvas
20” x 16”
Collection of the artist,
Ft. Collins, Colorado

Finally, there is a novel by Albert Camus that describes and captures our own existential moment: a horrific viral pandemic.

A doctor, a journalist, and a friend find themselves in the midst of a mysterious virus that is sweeping the land. The friend suggests that he can set up a local sanitary squad or safety committee, in order to keep the local citizenry healthy, and to assist the doctor in his work. It started out as some men’s duty, but quickly turned into everyone’s concern. About half way through The Plague, Albert Camus sets these characters Rieux, Tarrou, and Rambert in a conversation discussing the idea of man and his courage, heroism, and decency.

“Rieux had been watching the journalist attentively. With his eye still on him, he said quietly: ‘Man isn’t an idea Rambert.’”

Rambert, jumping off of his bed declares: “Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. We must face that fact, doctor. Let’s wait to acquire that capacity or, if really it’s beyond us, wait for the deliverance that will come to each of us anyway, without his playing the hero. Personally, I look no further.”

Although he was very tired, Rieux rose and responded: “You’re right, Rambert, quite right, and for nothing in the world would I try to dissuade you from what you’re going to do; it seems to me absolutely right and proper. However, there’s one thing I must tell you; there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”6

Ambrogio Lorenzetti
“The Effects of Bad Government”
1338-1339
Fresco
7.7m x 14.4m (overall)
Palazzo Pubblica, Siena, Italy


1 Boccaccio, Giovanni; Decameron, (Translated by J. G. Nichols); Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2008; p. 13.
2 Hirsch, Edward; “Roman Fall” from Earthly Measures; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 1999; p. 39.
3 Dylan, Bob; Writings and Drawings; A Borzoi Book, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 1973; p. 299.
4 Boccaccio, Giovanni; Decameron, (Translated by J. G. Nichols); Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2008; pp. 12-13.
5 Weisz, Maddy; “E-Mail correspondence with this writer,” 10:01 pm, 5 February 2022.
6 Camus, Albert; The Plaque; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 2004; pp. 146-147.

THE LONG STEM OF CONNECTION

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. 

Nat Finkelstein
“Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan at The Factory”
(Copyright Nat Finkelstein)
1966
B&W photograph
Courtesy of Idea Generation Gallery

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!

Nat Finkelstein
“Bob Dylan with ‘Double Elvis’ strapped to the roof of his car in front of The Factory”
(Copyright Nat Finkelstein)
1966
B&W photograph
Courtesy of Idea Generation Gallery

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.

Geoffrey Clements
“Dr. Williams on the roof of the Passaic General Hospital”
1936
B&W photograph
Courtesy of the Rutherford Public Library,
Rutherford, New Jersey

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,

and the long stem of connection.”[ii]

Andy Warhol
“Double Elvis”
1963
6’ 11” x 53”
Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas
Museum of Modern Art, New York

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. 

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.

magritte1
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.

ARE WE CLIMBING JACOB’S LADDER?

“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

ladder1
Attavante
“Le songe de Saint Romuald et l’Echelle des moines”[i]
1502
Miniature on parchment
44 cm. x 34 cm.
Wildenstein Collection of Illuminations
Musee Marmottan, Paris
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
tread, and
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
doubtful,
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
little
lift of wings:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut
stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past
him.
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.”

ladder2
Georgia O’Keeffe
“Ladder to the Moon”
1958
Oil on canvas
40 3/16” x 30 1/4”
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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.

ladder3
Martin Puryear
“Ladder for Booker T. Washington”
1996
Wood (ash and maple)
432” x 22 3/4” x 3”
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas

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.

ladder4
Sarah K. Jones
“Ladder #2”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

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.

ladder5
Sarah K. Jones
“Ladder #3”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

“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]

ladder6
Sarah Kathryn Jones
“Ladder #1”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

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.

THE DISASTERS OF WAR

war1
Francisco Goya
“Not in this case, Plate #36, The Disasters of War”
c. 1812/1815, published 1863
Etching, aquatint and drypoint
140 x 190 mm
The Art Institute of Chicago

“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.
What madness!
This is too much!
Why?
Nobody knows why.
Not in this case either.
This is worse.
Barbarians!
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?

war2
Jacques Callot
“The Hanging: Number 11, The Miseries of War”
1631, published in 1633
Etching
8.1 x 18.6 cm.
Collection: The Art Gallery of New South Wales

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.

war3
Lawrence Henry Beitler
“Marion Lynching”
1930
B&W Photograph
Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana

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]

war4
James Reitzas
“Strange Fruit”
2000
Rope, sand and body bags
(Installation dimensions variable)
Boston, Massachusetts

“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.

WHAT GOD SAID TO ABRAHAM

abraham1
Lorenzo Ghiberti
“The Sacrifice of Isaac”
1401-1402
Gilt bronze
21″ x 17″
National Museum, Florence

“. . . 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.

abraham2
Rembrandt van Rijn
“The Sacrifice of Abraham”
Etching and drypoint
1655
154 x 131 mm
The Art Institute of Chicago

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.

abraham3
John Filo
“Mary Vecchio cries over the body of one of the Kent State University students who had just been shot by Ohio National Guard soldiers on May 4, 1970”
B&W photograph
Courtesy of the Pulitzer Prize Foundation

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.

abraham4
George Segal
“Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University”
Bronze
1978-1979
The John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection, Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

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.