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 SURREALISTIC DRUIDS: PART TWO

“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]

2surreal-1
Georgia O’Keeffe
“Red and Pink Rocks and Teeth”
1938                              
Oil on canvas
21” x 13”
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, gift of Georgia O’Keeffe
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

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.

1surreal-2
Yves Tanguy
“Multiplication of the Arcs”
1954
Oil on canvas
40” x 60”
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

“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.

2surreal-3
Richard Emery Nickolson
“The Beach near Le Pouldu, Brittany, France”
1997
Color photograph
Collection of the artist

“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.”

Guillevic[iv]


[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.

THE SURREALISTIC DRUIDS: PART ONE

Yves Tanguy and Eugene Guillevic have often been described as ‘Druids’ in the 20th century worlds of painting and poetry.

As a youth in Locronan, Yves Tanguy would often watch a local painter named Toche at work, whose aim it was to capture the atmospheric qualities of the Breton landscape in a kind of half light.  Eugene Guillevic was also influenced early on, first by the German poet Rilke and later by the French poet Trakl.

Yves Tanguy was born in 1900 on the Place de la Concorde in Paris and many childhood vacations were spent in his family home at Locronan in Finistere, Brittany where thousands of menhirs and dolmens have been scattered across the landscape since prehistoric times.

Tanguy was drafted into the Army in 1918 and returned to Paris at the end of his service in 1922.  It was during this time period that he met two fellow artists, Jacques Prevert and Giorgio de Chirico.  It was through these contacts that Tanguy became associated with Andre Breton and the Surrealist Group, from 1924 to 1938.  Prior to World War II, he met and married the American artist Kay Sage and moved to New York and later established a studio in Woodberry, Connecticut.  Tanguy died in Connecticut in 1955.

1surreal-1
Kay Sage
“A Little Later”
1938
Oil on canvas
36” x 28”
Denver Art Museum, Denver Colorado

Eugene Guillevic was born in Carnac, Morbihan, Brittany in 1907.  He began writing poetry as a child, inspired primarily by the Fables of La Fontaine.  Upon passing his baccalaureate in 1926 he was assigned a series of governmental positions including as Inspecteur d’Economie National from 1946 to 1963.

His work developed through the Surrealist period and into a more personal simplicity and maturity later in his life.  He received Le Grand Prix de Poesie from the French Academy in 1976 and Le Grand Prix National de Poesie in 1984.  Guillevic died in 1997.

In her book of translations of selected Guillevic poems, the poet Denise Levertov observed that:  “The great ritual places of the Celts . . . the places where the great and small stones or menhirs, are gathered in powerful and enigmatic testimony to forgotten certainties, are landscapes of a profound austerity.”[i]

“The Rocks”

“The rocks won’t know
one speaks about them.

And always to sustain them, they’ll have
only grandeur. . . .”

“They don’t burn sulphur
in the darkness

for they have never known
the fear of death. . . .”

“And then the joy

of knowing the menace
and enduring.

1surreal-2
Yves Tanguy
“Multiplication of the Arcs”
1954
Oil on canvas
40” x 60”
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

While at their edges
bits of stone flake off

which wind and wave had scraped at
while they were dozing.”

“. . . They don’t have to go about
With faces you can read like books.”

“They did not want to be the temple
in which to delight. . . .”

“And joy
comes to them out of themselves alone. . . .”

“It happens that a block of stone
detaches itself and falls,

falls so that one misses a breath,
into the wet sea. . . .”

“. . . To be the memory of a rock, of being
promontory, out and towards the wave.”[ii]

 


[i] Guillevic, Eugene; Translated by Denise Levertov; Guillevic:  Selected Poems; New Directions Publishig Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; p. vii.

[ii] Guillevic, Eugene; Translated by Denise Levertov; Guillevic:  Selected Poems; pp. 76-83.

 

THE DOG OF ART

“It’s me. One day I saw myself in the street just like that. I was the dog.”[i]

giacommeti1
Alberto Giacometti
“Le Chien”
1951
Bronze
45 x 98 x 15 cm.
Annette et Alberto Giacometti Foundation, Zurich

“The Dog of Art”

“That dog with daisies for eyes
who flashes forth
flame of his very self at every bark
is the Dog of Art.
Worked in wool, his blind eyes
look inward to caverns and jewels
which they see perfectly,
and his voice
measures forth the treasure
in music sharp and loud,
sharp and bright,
bright flaming barks,
and growling smoky soft, the Dog
of Art turns to the world
the quietness of his eyes.”[ii]

The first time I had heard of the ‘dog of art’ was through this work and from other poets, especially in Baltimore: Jean Rubin and Dr. William Kinter. And later through Edward Hirsch when he visited here in Indianapolis and Chicago. The dog of art was a daemon of sorts: an impish figure who would torture every artist. Pinching a nose here, pulling on an ear there. Tickling or itching one’s body in some way that just could not be ignored, as hard as one might try.

This of course created a tension, a sense that could only be released or satisfied by making something! Denise Levertov and Edward Hirsch are both writers who have shown us this fact. Over and over. The discipline of a writer who continually carves out a vision and a voice. Exactly what Alberto Giacometti would do: not just in sculpture, but he is carving out a space or form in every one of his paintings and drawings as well.

giacommeti2
Henri Cartier-Bresson
“Alberto Giacometti”
1961
B & W photograph
Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris

Whether he was crossing the street near 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Paris to make his way from his studio to a café, or returning to the studio, he was like a dog in the rain, wasn’t he? Caught in a significant moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson on one of these daily trecks, his coat pulled up over his head to protect from the rain, he rarely strayed from his usual patterns.

As the writer James Lord described it, it was in this nearby café where Alberto “…ate what was his ritual lunch: two hard boiled eggs, two slices of cold ham with a piece of bread, two glasses of Beaujolais, and two large cups of coffee.”[iii] He ordered this very same combination for almost 40 years. He worked every day and made his models do the same. Strictly.   Religiously.

“…a street during the rain and the figure was me….Me scurrying down the street in the rain.”[iv]

giacommeti3
Alberto Giacometti
“Walking Quickly under the Rain”
1949
Bronze
32” long
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Bunshaft

“The Rain”

“Trying to remember old dreams. A voice. Who came in.
And meanwhile the rain, all day, all evening,
quiet steady sound. Before it grew too dark
I watched the blue iris leaning under the rain,
the flame of the poppies guttered and went out.
A voice. Almost recalled. There have been times
the gods entered. Entered a room, a cave?
A long enclosure where I was, the fourth wall of it
too distant or too dark to see. The birds are silent,
no moths at the lit windows. Only a swaying rosebush
pierces the table’s reflection, raindrops gazing from it.
There have been hands laid on my shoulders.
What has been said to me,
how has my life replied?
The rain, the rain….”[v]

 


[i] Selz, Peter; Alberto Giacometti; The Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Company; New York, New York; 1965; p. 62.

[ii] Levertov, Denise; “The Dog of Art,” Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1979; p. 118.

[iii] Lord, James; A Giacometti Portrait; The Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Company; New York, New York; 1968; p. 9.

[iv] Selz, Peter; Alberto Giacometti; The Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Company; New York, New York; 1965; pp. 56-57. Photo credit: Herbert Matter.

[v] Levertov, Denise; “The Rain,” Poems 1968-1972; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1987; p. 53.