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.

A SUITCASE FILLED WITH CHILDREN’S DRAWINGS

She would have them start out by doing gesture drawings and warming up before some of the more formal work began in the studio.  It was an idea right out of the Bauhaus School, where she herself had studied.  This art teacher did both drawing and color assignments as well as graphic and plastic exercises.

Josef Bauml
“Drawing exercise—relaxing the hand, rhythm”
1943-44
Graphite on paper
25 x 31.2 cm
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“She believed in mixing colors
and drawing from nature”

“She taught exercises in composition
and breathing”

“She spoke of positive and negative forms
and the rhythm of geometric shapes
and the musical keyboard of color”[i]            

Hana Lustigova
“Exercise—color theory”
1943-1944
Watercolor and graphite on paper
17.2 x 25.2 cm
The Jewish Museum, Prague

Friedl Dicker was born on 30 July 1898 in Vienna, Austria.  During her youth, she and several friends studied with the artist Johann Itten at his private school in Vienna.  She later followed Itten to Weimar, Germany, where she studied at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923.  Along with Itten, she also studied with Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer and Paul Klee.  She was especially influenced by the drawing and introductory courses that had been developed by Itten.

Friedl Dicker
“Composition, Abstract Figure”
ca. 1920
Charcoal, pastel
15 1/2” x 12 1/2”
The University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria

After leaving the Bauhaus, she established workshops and ateliers in both Berlin and Vienna, focusing on architecture, interior design, textiles and bookbinding.  She also became an art educator, guiding kindergarten teachers in Vienna in the education of children. 

Dicker continued with both her own work and teaching for several years, and even produced a series of political posters in support of the Austrian Communist Party.  During the February Uprising in 1934 she was arrested and interrogated regarding her communist activities.  After her release, she moved to Prague, continued her creative activities, and met and married Pavel Brandeis on 30 April 1936.  There she continued her own studio work as well as teaching art to Jewish children who were no longer allowed to attend the public schools.

On 17 December 1942, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was deported to the Terezin concentration camp just north of Prague.  From a third-story window she continued to paint scenes of the courtyard below, and she continued to teach children in her art classes in the camp.  She brought the lessons that she had learned at the Bauhaus directly to her new young charges at Terezin.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis
“Bare Tree in Courtyard”
1943/1944
Watercolor
11 3/4” x 17 1/2”
Simon Wiesenthal Center Library and Archives,
Los Angeles, California

On 6 October 1944, Dicker-Brandeis and her students were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau where they were executed on 9 October 1944.

Just before her classes were closed, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis collected 4,387 drawings completed by her students.  She packed them all in two suitcases and hid them in one of the children’s dormitories in the Ghetto in Prague.  Since their rediscovery, these works have been featured at both the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Jewish Museum in Prague, where they are now preserved in the permanent collection.

Several years ago we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.  It was there that I first saw the drawings of the children who had been incarcerated in the concentration camps in Europe.  I immediately purchased the catalog titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”[ii] and have kept its memory close.  Later I read a new collection of Edward Hirsch’s work titled Lay Back the Darkness that contained a section titled “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944.” 

I wrote to him regarding this sequence of poems.  As it turned out, we had both seen some of this work in person, although in two very different locations:  he had seen them at the Museum in Terezin, and I had seen them in Washington, DC.  When I asked him about this, this was his response:  “I didn’t see that particular exhibition in Washington, but I’m sure it includes the same work that I saw a couple of times at the museum in Terezin.  I first discovered some of the poems and drawings in a little book called ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly.’  That was later amplified into the exhibition.”[iii]  

After reading Hirsch’s book, many of the images from the drawings came flooding back into my mind, so I have paired a selection of Edward Hirsch’s lines with some of the children’s drawings here.  I also asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Helmick, an expert on Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, for her thoughts on this important art educator.  This is a summary of what she wrote back to me: 

“The empathetic experience of artmaking was Friedl Dicker Brandeis’ gift to the young artists in the Nazi concentration camp. While many artists in the Nazi internment camp recorded the awful circumstances in which they were imprisoned, Dicker Brandeis provided aesthetic experiences for the children in her charge….By teaching them to observe and experience their visual world…she enabled them to live imaginatively in horrific conditions. The artifacts left behind were not just products of art making but windows into the soul of the makers that gave proof of meaning making and authentic engagement, just as Dicker Brandeis believed.”[iv]

Ruth Schachterova
“Composition”
1943/1944
Paper collage
10” x 14”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“A pasted collage on an office form
of a sunny evening in Terezin”[v]         

Sonja Spitzova
“Prague Theater, Guard with a Stick”
1943-1944
Collage with paper from an office ledger
7 3/4” x 8 1/4”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“This is a guard with a stick
This is a stick with a heart
This is a heart with a horseshoe
This is a girl flinging the horseshoe at a guard”[vi]            

(Unknown child artist)
“Free Art”
1943/1944
Watercolor
8” x 10 1/2”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“An unsigned still life with a jelly jar
filled with meadow flowers”[vii]                   

Vilem Eisner
1943-1944
“Forest”
Watercolor on paper
15.2 x 21.3 cm
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“Somewhere out there in the trees
far away from the barracks
childhood is still waiting for me”[viii]            

(Unknown child artist)    
“Composition”
1943/1944
Watercolor
10 1/2” x 8”
The Jewish Museum, Prague

“Not even the teacher
who had studied at the Bauhaus
could draw the face of God”[ix]                     


[i] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 55.

[ii] Volavkova, Hana, ed., Haim Potok, Vaclav Havel; I Never Saw Another Butterfly; Schocken Books; New York, Neew York; 1993.

[iii] Hirsch, Edward; (From an e-mail correspondence with this writer); 26 July 2017 at 9:49AM.

[iv] Helmick, Linda, PhD; Assistant Professor of Art Education, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; (From an e-mail correspondence with this author); 24 March 2020, 10:57 am.

[v] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.

[vi] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 51.

[vii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.

[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 49.

[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 53.

ONE WHO HAS BECOME ALL EYES DOES NOT SEE!

“This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature.  It is not what is seen.  It is what is known forever in the mind.”[i]

Writing in her own notebooks and journals Agnes Martin sets out her thinking in spare and poetic lines.  Not unlike her paintings.  Single lines, and then groups of lines, they add up to a wholeness in both vision and spirit.  And it raises questions:  where is painting and pattern in relation to nature?  Where is the balance, what is the distance between perfection and imperfection?  Do content and abstraction rule each other out?  These questions serve to articulate and refine our thoughts.  Through them we might discover that vision for an artist comes from within rather than from the outside.

 

agnes1
Agnes Martin
Untitled #9
1995
Acrylic and graphite on linen
60” x 60”
The Doris and Donald fisher Collection
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francsco, California

“In my best moments I think ‘Life has passed me by’ and I am content.”[ii]

“I wish the idea of time would drain out of my cells and leave me quiet even on this shore.”[iii]

“Everyone recognizes the nature pattern of unequal and contesting or related parts.”[iv]

“I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are.”[v]

 

agnes2
Agnes Martin
“With My Back to the World”
1997
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
60” x 60”
Museum of Modern Art, New York

The poet Edward Hirsch has written a series of spare and poetic lines about Ms. Martin’s work:  very minimal yet extremely observant.  I have heard him read several times, both here in Indianapolis and in Chicago, and I often feel like I can hear his voice when I read his work.  His lines are the perfect analogies for the shapes and colors contained in the paintings and drawings of Agnes Martin.  In his collection Lay Back the Darkness he has achieved a light and gracious balance.  Crucial to the ekphrastic tradition.

I once asked him about this and if this ekphrastic example was based on a specific painting by Ms. Martin or rather a general group of them, taken together as a larger body of work.  He responded:

“Yes, my piece on Agnes Martin refers to a wide range of her line drawings.  There is a piece on ekphrastic poetry in the new issue of ‘American Poetry Review’ and the writer refers to the poem as a form of gallery poetry.  That actually makes sense.  It doesn’t refer to one single painting, the way, say, my earlier poem did, ‘Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad,’ but rather surveys a whole landscape of poems.”[vi]

THE HORIZONTAL LINE
(Homage to Agnes Martin)

“It was like a white sail in the early morning.

It was like a tremulous wind calming itself
After a night on the thunderous sea.

She came out of the mountains
And surrendered to the expansiveness of a plain.”[vii]

“The beauty of an imperfection.

From its first pointed stroke
To its last brush with meaning
The glow of the line was spiritual.”[viii]

“The horizon was a glimmering blue band
A luminous streamer in the distance.

She remembered the stillness of a pool
Before the swimmers entered the water
And the colorful ropes dividing the lines.”[ix]

 

agnes3
Agnes Martin
“Untitled #2”
1981
Acrylic paint and blue pencil on canvas
72” x 72 “
Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

 

“Sacred dream of geometry,
Ruler and protractor, temper my anguish,
Untrouble my mind.

She would not line up with others
She would align herself with the simple truth.”[x]

And Agnes Martin, writing in her own notebooks, might have the final say in this matter:

“One who has become all eyes does not see.”[xi]

 


[i] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; Whitney Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams; New York, New York; 1992; p. 25.

[ii] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 26.

[iii] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 26.

[iv] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 25.

[v] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 25.

[vi] Hirsch, Edward; From an e-mail correspondence with this author; 26 July 2017, at 9:49AM.

[vii] Hirsch, Edward; “The Horizontal Line (Homage to Agnes Martin), Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 35.

[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 37.

[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 38.

[x] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 39.

[xi] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 24.

A HOUSE BY THE RAILROAD TRACKS

From the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana to the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago and from the Museum of Modern Art in New York across town to the Whitney Museum of American Art, we can discover several iconic images of American life, all produced by the same artist:  Edward Hopper.

Their sense of place and history not only documents an era in our national life, but also evokes the feel and texture of those years.  These images have intrigued and inspired a variety of American poets and painters including both Edward Hirsch and Phillip Koch.  They have also become iconic images that stand in for a much larger and more complex sense of our country:  rooftops and storefronts, bridges and lighthouses, and of course railroad tracks and isolation.

For Phillip Koch many of these images are reminders of his own childhood and studies in art school, especially in New York, Ohio, and Indiana.  Seeing and confronting Hopper’s paintings are one of the most important ways of learning, not only about them, but also about painting in general.

When I asked Phillip Koch about Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad” this was his response:

“I’ve loved that painting for years and in March of 2015 made a special trip up to Haverstraw, NY (just north of Hopper’s hometown of Nyack, NY) as I knew the building Hopper had worked from was still standing and little changed from his day. The house is high up on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. There is a railroad track just down the hill a bit from the house, and still farther down the hill a road where Hopper stood and envisioned his painting.”

tracks
Phillip Koch
“Haverstraw”
2015
Vine charcoal on paper
10 1/2” x 14”
Collection of the artist, Baltimore, Maryland

“This is Haverstraw, vine charcoal, 10 1/2 x 14 inches, 2015, that I did from nearly the exact same spot where Hopper stood to do his House by the Railroad.  I didn’t include the railroad tracks though they are still there and in use, just as in Hopper’s day. If you compare Hopper’s oil to my version, you can see Hopper felt free to invent some additional architectural features to make his structure more interesting (realist that he was, he loved to play around with his subjects and add and subtract forms at will.)”[i]

For the poet Edward Hirsch, Hopper’s paintings frame a mid-western sense of isolation:  spatial and psychological conditions.  Hirsch often personifies the typical American storefront, or an old house façade, giving them human expressions:  these are some of the classic human conditions that poets constantly deal with, playing with only light and shadow and words and rhythms in order to intensify and exaggerate a mythical presence.

What follows here, is Hirsch’s articulate and sensitive meditation on Edward Hopper’s great painting, “House by the Railroad” from 1925:

Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad 

“Out here in the exact middle of the day,
This strange, gawky house has the expression
Of someone being stared at, someone holding
His breath underwater, hushed and expectant;

This house is ashamed of itself, ashamed
Of its fantastic mansard rooftop
And its pseudo-Gothic porch, ashamed
of its shoulders and large, awkward hands.

But the man behind the easel is relentless.
He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
The house must have done something horrible
To the people who once lived here

Because now it is so desperately empty,
It must have done something to the sky
Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
And devoid of meaning. There are no

Trees or shrubs anywhere—the house
Must have done something against the earth.
All that is present is a single pair of tracks
Straightening into the distance. No trains pass.

tracks2
Edward Hopper
“House by the Railroad”
1925
Oil on canvas
24” x 29”
(Anonymous Gift)
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Now the stranger returns to this place daily
Until the house begins to suspect
That the man, too, is desolate, desolate
And even ashamed. Soon the house starts

To stare frankly at the man. And somehow
The empty white canvas slowly takes on
The expression of someone who is unnerved,
Someone holding his breath underwater.

And then one day the man simply disappears.
He is a last afternoon shadow moving
Across the tracks, making its way
Through the vast, darkening fields.

This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,

The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it.”[ii]

 


[i] Koch, Philip; An artist’s statement contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer; 19 November 2017.

[ii] Hirsch, Edward; “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)” Wild Gratitude; Alfred A. Knopf Publishers; New York, New York; 1986; pp. 13-14.