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.

THE GOOD SHEPHERD

shepherd
“The Calf Bearer”
c. 570 BC
Marble
65″ high
Acropolis Museum, Athens

It could have been a reference to an ancient or biblical theme, the good shepherd or the calf bearer. An image of a man carrying a calf or a sheep on his shoulders, having just rescued it, and returning it to the flock. Pablo Picasso used many such themes and ideas in his work, however, he usually denied it in reference to this particular piece. “The man could just as well be carrying a pig as a sheep! There is no symbolism in it. It is just something beautiful.”[i]

shepherd-2
Pablo Picasso
“The Man with the Sheep”
1943
Bronze
222.5 x 78 x 78 cm
Musee Picasso, Paris

Shifting back and forth from serious to playful, perhaps he is being sly or evasive? Or surrealistic and poetic like his friend of more than forty years, Max Jacob? Picasso and Jacob met in 1901 and became fast friends. Jacob was the first Parisian to teach Picasso French. And, as an early art critic, he wrote enthusiastically about Picasso’s work. Jacob was also a painter, cubist/surrealist poet, bon vivant, homosexual and a Jew. As described by Roger Shattuck, the beginning of the 20th Century was an exhilerating time: “In its early demonstrations the avant-garde remained a true community, loyal to itself and to its time…. Painters, writers, and musicians lived and worked together and tried their hands at each other’s arts in an atmosphere of perpetual collaboration.”[ii]

“When you paint a picture, it completely changes with each brushtroke, turning like a cylinder, almost interminably. When it stops turning, it’s finished. My latest was a Tower of Babel made of lighted candles.”[iii]

Max Jacob was originally from Quimper in Brittany, France. A street, a bridge, a high school and even the courtyard of the house at 8, rue de Parc, in Quimper bear his name. The Musee des Beaux-Arts in Quimper even has a room dedicated to Jacob featuring his drawings, paintings, and manuscripts. It was there, during the summer of 1997 that I first learned about several details of his life. In Quimper and in Paris during the summer of 1994—the 50th anniversary of Jacob’s death, there was an exhibition documenting this almost lifelong friendship between Max Jacob and Pablo Picasso.

“All it takes is a five-year-old in pale overalls drawing in a coloring book for a door to open into the light, for the house to be built again and the ochre hillside covered with flowers.”[iv]

shepherd-3
Pablo Picasso
“Study for The Man with the Sheep”
1943
Pen and ink with washes on paper
51 1/8″ x 20″
Musee Picasso, Paris

Picasso claims to have completed “The Man with the Sheep” in a burst of spontaneous energy in just one day. It was first in plaster, with the legs a bit too thin to support the upper half, so he and an assistant hoisted it up with ropes, he finished what needed to be done, and then had it cast in bronze right away. However, there are several drawings made as studies for this piece from the previous year. Not only was the position of the sheep not to his liking, but the head of the figure went through several stages: a younger man, then an older one; a clean shaven figure, then a bearded one, and so on.

shepherd-4
Pablo Picasso
“Studies for The Man with the Sheep”
1942
Pen and ink on paper
Musee Picasso, Paris
shepherd-5
Robert Capa
“Picasso in the Grands-Augustins studio, with ‘Man With a sheep’ plaster version”
1944
B&W photograph
Musee Picasso, Paris

At the end he, Picasso, modelled the face of his friend Max Jacob onto this figure. When the piece had been cast, Picasso placed it at the top of the stairs to his studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins. Often SS Officers would climb just to the top of the stairs in surprise inspections and be met by the “Man Holding a Sheep.” They looked quickly around and returned down to the street, not realizing that Jacob had been looking down on them. Max Jacob had been arrested by the SS earlier, and was in the process of being shipped to Auschwitz, however, he died from bronchial pneumonia while in one of the deportation camps at Drancy, France.

“The Yellow Star Again”

“Are those beets your dog’s eating?”
“No, it’s a Jew who fell in the snow.”
“They could find some other place to faint instead of my sidewalk.”[v]


 

[i] Bernadac, Marie-Laure; Picasso Museum, Paris: The Masterpieces; Reunion des Musees Nationaux and Prestel; Paris and munich; 1991; p. 162.

[ii] Shattuck, Roger; The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War I; Vintage Books, Random House; New York, New York; 1968; p. 28.

[iii] Kulik, William, editor and translater; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob; Oberlin College Press; Oberlin, Ohio; 1999; p. 57.

[iv] Kulik, William, editor and translater; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob; p. 129.

[v] Kulik, William, editor and translater; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob; p. 122.

TIME OUT OF MIND

“Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.”[i]

dolmen
Richard Emery Nickolson
“Le geant du Manio, c.6,000-4,000BC, Carnac, France”
Color photograph
1997

Our students at the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in 1995 and 1997 often asked us, having seen pre-historic sites for the first time: how did these people know that they could build something that would last over a thousand years? The site of the Alignements at Carnac in Brittany, France is possibly one or two thousand years older than Stonehenge and constructed by what we now know to be a pre-Druidic culture. Stone constructions known as dolmens are found throughout Brittany and in Carnac proper there are alignements of stones, as many as two or three thousand, always arranged on an east to west axis, which allows for each stone to annually throw its shadow on its neighbor at both sunrise and sunset during the summer solstice.

“That grosbois is oak, ash, elm,

beech, horsbeche & hornbeam
but of acorns tithe shall be paid
For every lamb a penny

time out of mind

one lira per sheep nel Tirolo
sale must be in place overt

not in a backe-room
& between sun-up & sun-down

dies solaris
ut pena ad paucos

metus ad omnes perveniat
of 2 rights the more ancient preferred
caveat emptor.”[ii]

petroglyph-1
Richard Emery Nickolson
“Newspaper Rock, c. 100BC-1500AD, Moab, Utah”
Color photograph
1999

Following my teaching assignments in France in 1995 and 1997 we went on several family trips to Alaska and Canada and to the Four Corners area of the lower forty-eight. Near Moab, Utah there is the site known as Newspaper Rock, which contains dozens of images inscribed into the surface of the rock face over hundreds of years. There are examples of at least three successive Native American cultures, including Anasazi, Navajo and Ute. They are pictographs and petroglyhps: images full of meaning. Similar images seem to appear in several other cultures around the world. In Wrangell Bay, Alaska, there are stones containing petroglyphs which can be seen only at low tide. They are approximately 8,000 years old and carved by the ancesters of today’s Tlingit people.

petroglyph-2
Richard Emery Nickolson
“Petroglyph, c. 6,000BC, Wrangell Bay, Alaska”
Color photograph
1996

“What do you think endures? . . . .”

“A great city is that which has the greatest men and women,
If it be a few ragged huts it is still the greatest city in the whole world.”

“Than this nothing has better served, it has served all,
Served the fluent-tongued and subtle-sensed Greek, and long ere the Greek,
Served in building the buildings that last longer than any, . . . .
Served the mound-raiser on the Mississippi. . . .
Served the Albic temples in woods or on plains, with unhewn pillars and the druids. . . .
Served those who time out of mind made on the granite walls rough sketches of the sun, moon, stars, ships, ocean waves,

petroglyph-3
Richard Emery Nickolson
“Newspaper Rock, c. 100BC-1500AD, Moab, Utah”
Color photograph
1999

Served the paths of the irruptions of the Goths. . . .
Served the long distant Kelt. . . .
Served the making of helms for the galleys of pleasure and the making of those for war,
Served all great works on land and all great works on the sea,
For the medieval ages and before the medieval ages,
Served not the living only then as now, but served the dead.”[iii]

Time out of mind.


 

[i] Whitman, Walt; Selected Poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; p. 153.

[ii] Pound, Ezra; The Cantos of Ezra Pound; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1979; p. 769.

[iii] Whitman; Selected Poems; pp. 131-134.

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.

EXPHRASTICS

“Someone, I tell you, in another time,
will remember us.”[i]

Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek: a description of a work of art, either real or imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise; often used in the adjectival form, ekphrastic, a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art.

keats
John Keats
“Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase”
1819
Ink on paper
The Louvre, Paris, France

From ancient times to the 20th century there has been an interdisciplinary dance played out between poets and painters. The idea of writing a poem or a play that was descriptive of, or inspired by a work of visual art was in fact invented by the Greeks. Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles in the 18th Book of The Illiad being one of the first examples.

“Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield;
Rich various artifice emblazed the field;
Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound;
A silver chain suspends the massy round;
Five ample plates the broad expanse compose,
And godlike labours on the surface rose.
There shone the image of the master-mind:
There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d;
The unwearied sun, the moon completely round;
The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d;
The Pleiads, Hyads, with the northern team;
And great Orion’s more refulgent beam;
To which, around the axle of the sky,
The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye,
Still shines exalted on the ethereal plain,
Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.”[ii]

This was of course, a literary fiction based totally on a plastic fiction, made real through the art of storytelling. The Romantic poet John Keats harks back to classic examples with his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Published anonymously in the January 1820, Number 15 issue of the magazine “Annals of the Fine Arts” it is an elegaic description on this single object. Early speculation centered around the fact that Keats had based his poem on a specific vase, either “The Sosibios Vase” at the Louvre in Paris or later on “The Townley Urn” at the British Museum in London. Nowadays it is considered that his work is more of a synthesis of several objects.

townley
“The Townley Urn”
100-200AD
Marble
H:1.06 metres
The British Museum, London

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[iii]

Keats ends his poem with an observation that has become an everlasting philosophical debate: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” From artists’ arguments in cafes and bars to doctoral dissertation defenses, it has become an ongoing discussion. Whether writing directly from a work of art as the primary source, as Keats has done, or inventing an image and then writing about it, this form of inspiration flows directly from the visual artist to the writer. In some more recent cases the artist seizes upon an image written by a poet and then makes a drawing or painting.

Near the end of his life, the 20th century abstract painter Philip Guston chose an entire new direction for his work, seeming to reject everything he had created before. He got himself hated by many former friends, but not everyone. Younger poets and painters recognized this new figuration, not as a retreat back into a mimetic mode, but as a venture into a new plastic and literary arena. His late drawings and paintings are a rare example of real dialogue between one painter and several contemporary poets. These poets included: Clark Coolidge, Bill Bergson, Musa McKim, Anne Waldman, William Corbett, Frank O’Hara and Stanley Kunitz.

guston
Philip Guston
“Untitled (Book)”
1968
Goache on paper board
51 cm x 76 cm
Estate of the artist

A generation later, young painters who had studied exclusively with abstract artists in school struggled to find their own voices and visions. It seemed like a dead end to continue without a subject, or subject matter. At first they were accused of producing ‘bad’ painting. With a few more artists testing these waters they became known as ‘New Image’ painters and even ‘neo-expressionists.’ Amongst these artists were: Susan Rothenberg, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray and Neil Jenney. All were working, in no small part, thanks to the doors that Philip Guston had opened.

“Henceforth a painting was a legible record of all the decisions, whether tentative or assured, that went into its conception and realization. The issue was not one of speed . . . but rather one of the immediacy and responsiveness of process, the simultaneity of thinking and making.”
Philip Guston [iv]


 

[i] Sappho; “No Oblivion,” The Complete Poems of Sappho (translated by Willis Barnstone); Shambala Publications; Boston & London; 2011; [147].

[ii] Translated by Alexander Pope. This poem is in the public domain.

[iii] Keats, John; John Keats: The Major Works; Oxford University Press; Oxford & New York; 1990 & 2001; pp. 288-289.

[iv] Storr, Robert; Philip Guston; Abbeville Press; New York, New York; 1986; p. 25.