THE SURREALISTIC DRUIDS: PART TWO

“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]

2surreal-1
Georgia O’Keeffe
“Red and Pink Rocks and Teeth”
1938                              
Oil on canvas
21” x 13”
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, gift of Georgia O’Keeffe
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

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.

1surreal-2
Yves Tanguy
“Multiplication of the Arcs”
1954
Oil on canvas
40” x 60”
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

“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.

2surreal-3
Richard Emery Nickolson
“The Beach near Le Pouldu, Brittany, France”
1997
Color photograph
Collection of the artist

“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.”

Guillevic[iv]


[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.

GREAT LADY PAINTER, SHE KILLED SNAKES WITH A STICK!

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.

okeefe
Alfred Stieglitz. “Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe”
1918
Gelatin silver print
23.5 cm x 15.4 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Georgia O’Keeffe [i]
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.

georgia o’keeffe

“great lady painter
what she do now
she goes out with a stick
and kills snakes

georgia o’keeffe
all life still
cow skull
bull skull
no bull shit
pyrite pyrite
she’s no fool
started out pretty
pretty pretty girl

georgia o’keeffe
until she had her fill
painted desert
flower cactus
hawk and head mule
choral water color
red coral reef
been around forever

georgia o’keeffe
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.