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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A CARNIVAL EVENING

“Un soir de carnival” has always been for me one of the most enigmatic paintings produced by Henri Rousseau.  A seemingly typical moonlit landscape is inhabited by two figures, supposedly on their way to a costume ball.  Or are they lost in a forest?  And, are they unaware of the shadowy cabin in the background, with a ghostlike face staring out at this scene?

The majority of his other landscapes depict exotic and naïve scenes and situations that invite us in to his personal and fantastical world.  This painting, however, relies upon all of the same elements and yet it is disturbing.  The unfamiliar?  The threatening?  The dark and looming landscape?

“At intervals during his steady production of works that record the mutual attunement of landscape and the human figure, Rousseau painted canvases that surpass both landscape and portraiture.  All are large compositions in which a distinct feeling of awe and catastrophe has intensified his style without basically modifying it.  Their thematic content is uniform:  in either a totally barren or an unnaturally verdant countryside, a living creature confronts a mysterious presence.  Rousseau did not himself separate these paintings from the rest of his production, yet in them he contrives to express an almost undefinable experience.”[i]

This is how Roger Shattuck describes some of these qualities in Rousseau’s work, especially a handful of larger and more enigmatic paintings.  This feeling has not been lost on the poet Linda Pasten in her collection titled, Carnival Evening:  New and Selected Poems which includes several ekphrastic examples including:  “Le Sens de la Nuit, Magritte, 1927,” and “Still Life,” and a “Detail from the Altarpiece at Ghent.”

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Henri Rousseau
“Carnival Evening”
1886
Oil on canvas
46 3/16” x 35 1/4”
Louis E. Stern Collection
Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

Carnival Evening
         Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas

“Despite the enormous evening sky
spreading over most of the canvas,
its moon no more
than a tarnished coin, dull and flat,
in a devalued currency;

despite the trees, so dark themselves,
stretching upward like supplicants,
utterly leafless; despite what could be
a face, rinsed of feeling, aimed
in their direction,

the two small figures
at the bottom of this picture glow
bravely in their carnival clothes,
as if the whole darkening world
were dimming its lights for a party.”[ii]


[i] Shattuck, Roger; The Banquet Years; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House; New York, New York; 1968; p. 91.

[ii] Pastan, Linda; Carnival Evening:  New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 39.

THE DAY IT RAINED ON ANNE FRANK’S HOUSE

“So we walked in the pouring rain, Daddy, Mummy, and I, each with a school satchel and shopping bag filled to the brim with all kinds of things thrown together anyhow.

We got sympathetic looks from people on their way to work.  You could see by their faces how sorry they were they couldn’t offer us a lift; the gaudy yellow star spoke for itself.

Only when we were on the road did Mummy and Daddy begin to tell me bits and pieces about the plan.  For months as many of our goods and chattels and necessities of life as possible had been sent away and they were sufficiently ready for us to have gone into hiding of our own accord on July 16.  The plan had to be speeded up ten days because of the call-up, so our quarters would not be so well organized, but we had to make the best of it.  The hiding place itself would be in the building where Daddy has his office.”

Thursday, 9 July, 1942.[i]

anne
Carel Blazer
“Front view of the house,
Victor (Kraler) Kugler’s office and business”
1954
B&W photograph
Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Above are some of the entries from Anne Frank’s Diary, made on the first day of her family’s hiding.  Below are the notes that she made a year and a half later.  One cannot imagine what they were really experiencing during those times, even after reading the Diary.

One summer Anne McKenzie Nickolson and I visited several major cities in Europe, including Copenhagen, Hamburg, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels.  It was almost a year after the 9/11 attacks and security was evident everywhere, even walking down Vermeerstraat, or visiting the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam, but especially while visiting the Anne Frank House Museum on 13 June 2002.  Somber.  It was not raining that day, nor was the sky grey, but still it was somber.

In just two days we visited three important museums:  the Rembrandt House, the Anne Frank House Museum, and the Vincent van Gogh Museum.  Each one was organized in chronological order, including Rembrandt’s studio and Anne Frank’s attic, so that going through them felt like walking through their lives.  Especially the photographs and posters still glued to the walls of Anne Frank’s room.

Coming out of the museum, we walked along the canals and around the block in order to completely see the outside of the house and annex.  Amsterdam is a beautiful city, tree lined streets and canals, with many references to its great artists and historical events.  Later, looking through the Anne Frank House Museum Guide Book, I found the axonometric diagram for both the house and the annex.  It is a beautiful rendering in its own right, and gives one a clear idea and sense of the place.

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Eric van Rootselaar
“Anne Frank House, cross-section house and annex”
(Axonometric projection)
2001
Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

“When someone comes in from outside, with the wind on their clothes and the cold on their faces, then I could bury my head in the blankets to stop myself thinking:  ‘When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?’  And because I must not bury my head in the blankets, but the reverse—I must keep my head high and be brave, the thoughts will come, not once, but oh, countless times.  Believe me, if you have been shut up for a year and a half, it can get too much for you some days.  In spite of all justice and thankfulness, you can’t crush your feelings.  Cycling, dancing, whistling, looking out into the world, feeling young, to know that I am free—that’s what I long for, still, I mustn’t show it, because I sometimes think if all eight of us began to pity ourselves, or went about with discontented faces, where would it lead us?  I . . . . don’t know, and I couldn’t talk about it to anyone, because then I know I should cry.  Crying can bring such relief.”

Friday, 24 December, 1943[ii]

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Carel Blazer
“Back view of the house, location of the Secret Annex”
1954
B&W photograph
Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

“It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank”
                                                                        Linda Pastan

“It is raining on the house
of Anne Frank
and on the tourists
herded together under the shadow
of their umbrellas,
on the perfectly silent
tourists who would rather be
somewhere else
but who wait here on stairs
so steep they must rise
to some occasion
high in the empty loft,
in the quaint toilet,
in the skeleton
of a kitchen
or on the map—
each of its arrows
a barb of wire—
with all the dates, the expulsions,
the forbidding shapes
of continents.
And across Amsterdam it is raining
on the Van Gogh Museum
where we will hurry next
to see how someone else
could find the pure
center of light
within the dark circle
of his demons.”[iii]

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“Entrance, visitor queues in the rain”
(File Photograph)
Vincent Van Gogh Museum
Museumplein, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

[i] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; p. 16.

[ii] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; pp. 123-124.

[iii] Pastan, Linda; “It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank” Carnival Evening:  New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 96.