“Nothing is hollow or waste to the imagination of Marianne Moore….For I don’t think there is a better poet writing in America today or one who touches so deftly so great a range of our thought….So that in looking at some apparently small object one feels the swirl of great events.”[i]
This is what William Carlos Williams wrote about his friend and colleague Marianne Moore in an article regarding her work for the Quarterly Review of Literature in 1948. This particular issue of the Quarterly Review was published in honor of Miss Moore.
Marianne Moore was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1887 and lived most of her life there. Miss Moore studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a professional librarian, with the other half of her career as a poet. Along the way, she met and shared aesthetic interests with other fellow poets including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. On a rare trip overseas to London and the British Museum with her mother in 1911 she discovered a small Egyptian blown glass sculpture in the form of a fish, which later became an important example of the ekphrastic tradition. She has also written sensitively about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome and His Lion” and “Rodin’s Penseur.”
Ellen Fischer was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1956. She studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has served as a curator at both the Greater Lafayette Museum of Art in Indiana and the Vero Beach Museum of Art in Florida. The other half of her career over these years was of course as a studio artist.
These two could have been sisters, or distant cousins, perhaps not from the exact same family, but from across the spread of time. They share several aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual traditions even though one was an Imagist poet and the other is a contemporary painter. Both women have worked with great independence and determination.
On several occasions I have accompanied Ms. Fischer to art museums, galleries, antique stores and markets in Central Florida. The same eyes that look so intensely at works of art are also used to search out a find or two at the local flea market or Goodwill Store. Her juxtapositions are always surprising and provocative, bringing out the best in every object.
Quietly creating these still lives, flooding them with light and satire and curiosity, Ms. Fischer has assembled a body of work that speaks of human hands and activities. It is exactly what Miss Moore advocated when she mentioned how one object shouldn’t diminish or reduce another: one thing being great because another is small.
Although many of these objects are old and discarded, they are not, to my mind, nostalgic. They are unusual in form and antique in the sense that they carry with them a certain history, or an untold story that may have already been lost, only now to be participants in a totally new story.
When I recently asked Ms. Fischer about her work and her selection of subjects, this was her response:
“YES, I see things at Goodwill and thrift stores and flea markets, and buy them. I know right away that I have to have them, and that I will paint them. The meat cleaver was purchased at the St. Vincent DePaul shop here in Vero. Two friends were with me and I had nothing to buy. When they were checking out, I saw it in a case on the other side of the cash register and asked to see it.”
“Well, once something like that is in your hands you can’t let it go. I paid way more for that cleaver than I usually spend on anything in the thrift store– $10.00!”
“I had done a few paintings with sharp objects in them, and wanted to do more. The cleaver interested me as an object to paint. It did lie around the studio for a few months before I used it, but I never stopped thinking about it, in a general way.”
“It seemed natural to use the little Parian ware ‘Ma Kettle’ figure with it– she is holding an ax, you may have noticed, and has a pig at her side….And she was just the right size to hide behind the blade.”
“Always best when a still life comes together spontaneously. I don’t think you can force objects to go together that don’t belong together, no matter how you juggle them.”
“Sometimes I have played around with objects, positioning them this way and that to see how they might work, but if it doesn’t happen within a reasonable amount of time, I keep the object I am most interested in painting on the table and try different objects with it.”
“I have to feel strongly about the objects in the first place to want to paint them.”[ii]
Because of her interest in various works of art, Marianne Moore was often questioned about her writing and collecting. She struggled to defend the directness of her own work and to explain what she saw in the work of others, both poets and painters. Finally having had enough, she made her own statement regarding what she indeed looked for.
Here is Miss Moore’s response regarding her collection of art and objects:
“When I Buy Pictures
or what is closer to the truth,
when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor,
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible
than the intensity of the mood;
or quite the opposite–the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-box,
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist of the hour-glass,
and deer and birds and seated people;
it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal biography perhaps,
in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse;
an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic in three parts;
the silver fence protecting Adam’s grave, or Michael taking Adam by the wrist.
Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one’s enjoyment.
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honored–
that which is great because something else is small.
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.”[iii]
[i] Williams, William Carlos; “Marianne Moore” Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. 292-294.
[ii] Fischer, Ellen; An artist’s statement regarding “Close Call” and other still life elements as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 21 June 2017.
[iii] Schulman, Grace, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking; New York, New York; 2003; p. 144.