“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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
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
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
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
lift of wings:
and a man climbing
must scrape his knees and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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]
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 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]
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.
“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.
“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.”
[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.
There is this photograph, all stark, black & white. It is haunting, shocking and a bit punked out, but it was not taken by Robert Mapplethorpe. A young woman all shaggy, crazy, in a camisole with arms raised: a beautiful black & white study, but again, not by Robert Mapplethorpe and the subject is not Patti Smith. It is Georgia O’Keeffe as photographed by Alfred Stieglitz.
In many ways they set New York City and the art world on fire in the 1920’s. And would it be any different today? In 2010 Patti Smith published her autobiographical book Just Kids, wherein the feel of New York City and the ambience of the Chelsea Hotel are the background for many honest and lyrical memories of an otherwise decrepit downtown environment.
Smith has also written of other influences, amongst them: James Joyce, Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan and Georgia O’Keeffe. In the art world, it seems like there is a parallel to the music world when it comes to the matter of a ‘folk tradition.’ Where one younger artist might hear of an old time tune or lyric and learn that song and then up-date it, adding a verse or two that applies to the current times. A thread that runs through the fabric of history. So Patti Smith has done exactly that in her poem/portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe.
“great lady painter
what she do now
she goes out with a stick
and kills snakes
all life still
no bull shit
she’s no fool
started out pretty
pretty pretty girl
until she had her fill
hawk and head mule
choral water color
red coral reef
been around forever
great lady painter
what she do now
go and beat the desert
stir dust bowl
go and beat the desert
snake skin skull
go and beat the desert
all life still”[ii]
Not to be outdone by the ‘punk’ music scene, Robbie Robertson’s solo studio albums following the breakup of The Band explored melancholy and meditative views of a variety of American cultural issues. He reflects upon the American West, the city of New Orleans and a variety of dream images including a long ago Georgia O’Keeffe. In a ‘talkin blues’ style these are modern musings, or even warnings, somewhat seductive and even dangerous.
“I remember the smell of burning leaves
And we were making love
She was like a young Georgia O’Keeffe
From another time
In an old abandoned railroad shack
One should never go
Where anything can happen….”[iii]
[i] Stieglitz, Alfred; Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York, New York; 1978 & 1997; plate 9.
[ii] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York & London; 1994; pp. 48-49.
[iii] Robertson, Robbie; “Day of Reckoning,” Storyville; audio recording GEFSD 24303; David Geffen Company; Ontario, Canada; 1991.