WHISPERS OF EDWARD HOPPER IN THE GALLERIES OF THE IMAGINARY MUSEUM

I first met Joseph Stanton in the Conference Rooms at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in October of 2004 during a series of discussions related to both the fine and liberal arts.[i]  Speaking as both a poet and art historian, Stanton approached Edward Hopper’s work from a critical point of view, while not forgetting the narrative lyricism contained therein.

Stanton’s collection of poems titled “Imaginary Museum” is an excellent example of the ekphrastic tradition.  He has created a museum of sorts that includes several ‘wings’ housing the various collections.  Both, Eastern and Western cultures, as well as references to Pieter Brueghel and Edward Hopper are featured amongst the galleries of this museum.

hopper
Edward Hopper
“Approaching a City”
1946
Oil on canvas
27 1/8” x 36”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Approaching a City                  

“The way into the city is a darkness
that opens to a shadowed underground.
There are thoughts we approach but do not express.

With so much ahead we try to think of less,
knowing how clocks will turn us round and round.
The way into the city is a darkness

that remembers what we cannot confess:
that shadows shape what our lives have found.
A thought we can approach but not express

suggests that the future must be a guess –
a lie we must pass through or go around.
Yet the city’s inclination to darkness

should come as no surprise and no distress.
The light that strikes against wall and ground
is a thought we approach without express

prospects for joy or grief or tenderness,
keeping in mind the sky’s pale-blue surround.
There is no way into the city’s darkness,
which we have approached but not expressed.”[ii]

There are many examples of ekphrastic writing that are inspired by, but not necessarily literal descriptions of works of art.  For example, many works by Agnes Martin have inspired writers over the years, however this is in a very general sense, and often not related to any one specific work.  On the other hand, Edward Hopper’s painting of the “Nighthawks” has been the source for a great deal of writing, very specifically.  So, I recently asked Joseph Stanton about this and about his personal writing process.  Here is his reply:

“To answer your question, I focus very intensely on specific artworks, but I do not force myself to write about them in any particular way. Often I spend many months looking at reproductions of artworks to which I would like to respond without writing much of anything.  Also, because I teach art history, I live with my thoughts about the artworks in multiple ways. My procedure in such a case is to read and/or reread everything I can find about the artworks and the artist . . . . Sometimes I come up with a poem, sometimes I don’t . . . . Most of the research of course does not end up in the poem; sometimes none of it does . . . . The excesses that do not end up in poems or articles are enrichments to my teaching. In my role as an art historian, no amount of information or reflection on artworks is wasted. It is all grist for the mill.”[iii]

hopper1
Edward Hopper
“New York Corner, or Corner Saloon”
1913
Oil on canvas
24” x 29”
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University
Stanford, California

New York Corner              

“This saloon faces
a murderous expanse
of intersection.
Let’s drink
to that.”[iv]

Above and below are selections from the Hopper Collection of the Imaginary Museum.  We will be saving the “Night Hawks” and “The House by the Railroad Tracks” amongst others for later installments.  These current examples are indeed a set of whispers, less popular works perhaps, but clearly ones where the voices of both the poet and the painter are coming into focus.

hopper2
Edward Hopper
“Drug Store”
1927
Oil on canvas
29” x 40”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

Drugstore                                 

“A drugstore window
in 1927:
jarred red light and blue
islanded in the silent street –
one war ahead, one war behind.”[v]

hopper3
Edward Hopper
“Rooms for Tourists”
1945
Oil on canvas
30 1/4” x 42 1/8”
Yale University Art gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

Rooms for Tourists                   

“Sometimes
all we need to know about
cozy, bright rooms is
that we have been
left outside.”[vi]

hopper4
Edward Hopper
“Cape Cod Evening”
1939
Oil on canvas
30 1/4” x 40 1/4”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Cape Cod Evening                    

“The moment’s center
sees a dog poised in tall grass,
ears tuned to autumn’s
stiff breeze:  he sniffs bitter air
as if it were just weather.”[vii]

hopper5
Edward Hopper
“Solitude”
1944
Oil on canvas
32” x 50”
Private Collection

Solitude                             

“The sadness of horizon
is a matter of perspective,
the point being the vanishing
where lines converge
only because we see them to.

That vision is delusion
saves us from nothing.
Seeing’s myth
conceals a truth:

though there is no point
to vanishing,
we will all vanish anyway.”[viii]

 


[i] The Eighteenth Annual National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists, sponsored by the School of Visual Arts in New York, New York.  The topic of Stanton’s paper was “Retrospection on a Gallery of Hopper Poems” and looked especially at Hopper’s paintings as narratives.  20-22 October 2004.

[ii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; Time Being Books; St. Louis, Missouri; 1999; p. 93.

[iii] Stanton, Joseph; An artist’s statement contained in an e-mail communication with this writer on 27 November 2018.

[iv] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 94.

[v] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 97.

[vi] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 107.

[vii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 109.

[viii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 110.

ART HISTORY, CHICAGO!

It was my first year of graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington and there was a field trip from there up to visit the Art Institute of Chicago.  The major exhibition was a collection of Modern Masters from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, including Matisse’s painting of “Nasturtiums with Dance, II” from 1912.  It remains one of my all time favorites, even to this day.  However, what I was not totally prepared for was the extent of the permanent collection in Chicago.

So many pieces that I had read about in art history books and now saw in person:  from Corneille de Lyon and El Greco to Cezanne, Renoir, Manet and Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.  This experience brought back many memories, especially me youthful visits to the National Gallery of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Recently in reading more about this work, and the work of contemporary poets, I came across this insightful piece by Thomas Lynch surveying this collection in Chicago.  It is like a walking and talking tour of the Impressionist wing of the Art Institute.

chicago
Georges Seurat’s
“Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”
1884-1886
Oil on canvas
81 3/4” x 121 1/4”
Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago

 

“Art History, Chicago”

“It’s not so much a Sunday Afternoon
on the Island of La Grande Jatte as the point
of order according to Seurat –-
that bits of light and color, oil paints
aligned in dots become the moment caught,
verbs slowed to a standstill, the life examined.
We step back wide-eyed for a better look:
an assemblage of Parisian suburbanites
in Sunday dress, top hats and parasols,
are there among the trees beside the river.
There are girls and women, men and dogs
in random attitudes of ease and leisure.
A stretch of beach, boats in the blue water,
a woman with a monkey on a leash,
a stiff man beside her, a mother and daughter,
that little faceless girl who seems to look at us.
And everyone is slightly overdressed except
for a boatman stretched out in the shade.
He smokes his pipe and waits for passengers.

chicago1
Gustave Caillebotte’s
“Paris Street, A Rainy Day”
1877
Oil on canvas,
83 1/2” x 108 3/4”
Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago

 

But I have never been to Paris.
I’ve never holidayed beside the Seine
nor strolled with a French girl in the gray morning
as in this Paris Street, A Rainy Day
Gustave Caillebotte’s earlier masterpiece
three galleries down in this collection.
So I do not know these cobblestones, this street,
this corner this couple seems intent on turning.
But I have walked with a woman arm in arm
holding an umbrella in a distant city,
and felt the moment quicken, yearning for
rainfall or a breeze off the river or
the glistening flesh of her body in water
the way this woman’s is about to be
that Degas has painted in The Morning Bath.
She rises from her bed, removes her camisole
and steps into the tub a hundred years ago.

chicago2
Edgar Degas
“The Morning Bath”
1887-1890
Pastel on off-white laid paper mounted on board
706 x 433 mm
Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago

History’s a list of lovers and cities,
a mention of the weather, names and dates
of meetings in libraries and museums
of walks by the sea, or through a city,
late luncheons, long conversations, memories
of what happened or what didn’t happen.
But art is a brush of a body on your body,
the permanent impression that the flesh
retains of courtesies turned intimate;
the image and likeness, the record kept
of figures emergent in oil or water
by the river, in the rain or in the bath
when, luminous with love and its approval,
that face, which you hardly ever see,
turns its welcome towards you yet again.”[i]

 


[i] Lynch, Thomas; Still Life in Milford; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1998; pp. 19-20.

STILL, THERE’S LIFE IN MILLFORD!

The artist Lester Johnson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1919 and died in Southampton, New York in 2010.  He studied at the Minneapolis School of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.  He moved to New York City in 1947 and then to Milford, Connecticut in 1964 after accepting a teaching position at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture.  Although he remained a figurative painter, he did adopt many of the concerns and issues shared by the abstract expressionist artists of the time.

Johnson’s work is represented in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago; The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York; and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

millford
LESTER JOHNSON
“Millford Still Life”
1965
Oil on canvas
48” x 42”
Harvard Museums/Fogg Museum of Art
Cambridge, Massachusetts

 

Thomas Lynch was born in 1948 in Detroit, Michigan.  He attended the Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and later attended university and mortuary school, from which he graduated in 1973.  He took over his father’s funeral business in Milford, Michigan in 1974.

He has held teaching positions at Wayne State University in Detroit, the Creative Writing Program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and the Candler School of Theology, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thomas Lynch’s poems and stories have appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times and the Times of London, the New Yorker, Poetry, the Paris Review, the Los Angeles Times, the Irish Times, Esquire, Newsweek and the Washington Post.

His writing draws upon autobiographical incidents, memories and other elements of daily life.  Focusing on many of those experiences from his life outside of the literary world and on the routines of small town life in Michigan, he often transforms a local detail into a universal symbol.

Thomas Lynch still lives and works in Milford, Michigan, where he is the Funeral Director.

This is confusing, as one lives in Milford, Michigan and the other lived in Milford, Connecticut, and when they write or paint about a ‘still life in Millford’ I still don’t quite know where I am.

The paintings are in collections in both Ann Arbor, Michigan and Cambridge, Massachusetts, while the objects depicted could be from anywhere, any small town junk shop or flea market.  The poetic structures are strict, but with variations.  As are the still lives.

Johnson arranges everyday objects in each composition, incorporating expressionist paint handling while maintaining figurative content.  Lynch employs a strict eight line form – ten to twelve syllable beats to each line – but then varies the last line to surprising rhythms, wording and imagery.

 

Still Life in Milford—Oil on Canvas by Lester Johnson”

“You’re lucky to live in a town like this
with art museums and Indian food
and movie houses showing foreign films
and grad students and comely undergrads.
Years back I’d often make a half-hour trip.
It was good for my creative juices
to browse the holy books at Shaman Drum.
Still, life in Milford isn’t all that bad.

We have two trendy restaurants and a bar
well known by locals for its Coney dogs.
We have a bookshop now.  We even have
a rush hour, art fairs and bon vivants.
And a classic car show every October—
mostly muscle cars—Dodges, Chevys, Fords.
No psychic healers yet or homeopaths.
Still, life in Milford has a certain ambiance,

more Wyeth than Picasso, to be sure,
more meatloaf and potatoes than dim-sum.  Fact is,
at first I thought this Lester Johnson was
a shirttail cousin of the Johnson brothers—
long-standing members of the Chamber of Commerce
in Milford, Michigan, like me.  In fact
his only connection to these parts was
Still Life in Milford, gathering dust here

in the basement of the art museum.
His own Milford’s somewhere back east, near Yale—
the day job, teaching, he could never quit
the way that Robert Frost taught English here
and Donald Hall before the muse in them
escaped their offices in Angell Hall.
They were last seen running and maybe running still.
Life in Milford, Michigan, is similar.”

millford2
LESTER JOHNSON
“Millford Still Life”
1965
Oil on canvas
44 5/16” x 36”
University of Michigan, Museum of Art
Ann Arbor, Michigan

“I have steady work, a circle of friends
and lunch on Thursdays with the Rotary.
I have a wife, unspeakably beautiful,
a daughter and three sons, a cat, a car,
good credit, taxes and mortgage payments
and certain duties here.  Notably,
when folks get horizontal, breathless, still:
life in Milford ends.  They call.  I send a car.

Between the obsequies I play with words.
I count the sounds and syllables and rhymes.
I try to give it shape and sense, like so:
eight stanzas of eight lines apiece, let’s say
ten syllables per line or twelve.  Just words.
And if rhyming’s out of fashion, I fashion rhymes
that keep their distance, fours lines apart, like so.
Still, life in Milford keeps repeating.  Say

I’m just like Lester, just like Frost and Hall:
I covet the moment in which nothing moves
and crave the life free of life’s distractions.
A bucket of flowers on a table.
A vase to arrange the flowers in.  A small
pipe—is it?—smoldering in an ashtray to
suggest the artist and impending action.
Still Life in Milford seems a parable

on the human hunger for creation.
The flowers move from bucket to vase
like moving words at random into song—
the act of ordering is all the same—
the ordinary becomes a celebration.
Whether paper, canvas, ink or oil paints,
once finished we achieve a peace we call
Still Life in Milford.  Then we sign our names.”[i]

 


[i] Lynch, Thomas; Still Life in Milford; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1998; pp. 134-136.

PATRICIA CLARK AND THE PAINTERS

In the ekphrastic tradition, painting and poetry are considered as parallel disciplines:  incorporating imagery and metaphor while combining imagination and transformation.  Differing in the use of line and color in one and words and rhythms in the other.  Each begins with the mimetic element and usually moves into the semiotic.  Literal descriptions of the world around us are then used to create a new meaning or vision.

When I first heard Patricia Clark’s poem, inspired by a Claude Monet painting, it was while attending her reading sponsored by the Kellogg Writers Series at the University of Indianapolis in September 2013.  She also mentioned to the students there, that there were artists in the audience and that she wanted to put in a word or two regarding the ekphrastic tradition.  Although an ancient tradition, it is also an obscure one to the average reader.  Students in the audience may have been hearing about this for the first time.

clark1
Claude Monet
“Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil”
1873
Oil on canvas
21 3/8” x 28 7/8”
High Museum of Art
Atlanta, Georgia

 

Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil

“Two banks, one golden, one green,
and in the center, the town
ahead, with a spire needling up,
a puncture into clouds,
and vague suggestions
of industry—buildings, smoke, and noise.

What I love along the bank are the skiffs
drawn up, five or more
at the golden side, the first boat
a bright russet like a horizontal flame
on water,
the next two mauve, one a sailboat,
one not.

The ochre-gold spills down from the cottonwoods,
pouring under the hulls,
entering the river with the same
intensity of burning
we see in life at its peak,
or life with the flame
threatening to go out.

In a month the trees will be masts
bare as the boats,
the man we know, ill with a fatal brain tumor,
will be gone—the Grand River
burnished with ochre and red
as the Seine is,
cooling air hinting at winter’s knives.

One bank green in the painting,
green going away,
and the river placid, calm—
in the center of it—
the flowing never ceasing, rhythm of moon,
sun, the turning earth, pulling it outward,
eternal, restless, to the maw of the sea.”[i]

One important element in Patricia Clark’s work is that she starts with a description or a reflection on the painting, but then goes beyond into our current time and place, commenting upon her own life events and keeping the imagery relevant and alive.

In many poems Clark has used certain relationships as an extension of the original idea.  A color or texture will often spark an image of a loved one:  the death of her mother, a remembering of her sister and the friends who travel along the Grand River in the state of Michigan.

In a recent conversation, I asked her specifically about the Monet painting and a second one by Wolf Kahn, and the general process that she uses.  This was her response:

“What I usually do is surround myself in my little studio hut with some images I feel drawn to. I’m not really looking for something — it’s a combination for me of color, image, atmosphere, who knows? I also don’t put too much pressure on, like ‘you must write about this painting!’ I wait & see if it speaks to me. Often that has happened. The Monet one, ‘Autumn on the Seine’ just grabbed me one day & I started . . . by just describing what I see — but then quickly one’s own concerns get woven in there somehow, inevitably. . . .”

“For awhile . . . after my mother’s passing, I wrote about her and just would let that happen, too, rather than forbidding any more ‘mother’ poems.”[ii]

clark2
Wolf Kahn
“Frontal View of Trees”
2016
Oil on canvas
52” x 60”
Courtesy: Ameringer McEnery Yohe
New York, New York

Frontal View of Trees
                  (after Wolf Kahn)

“I like it when the trunks
of the birches
take up earth’s
mantis green,
that’s what she would do—
appropriate the ground,
by sinking in.

She troubles me, my mother
who didn’t die
comforted, at home.
Our bodies point to fates
we live but cannot decipher.
The sun offers
its warming touch.

Souls of the dead, thin
presences and pale—
yet their spirits
have turned to light—
glow of cumin, cinnamon ruddy
in the corner
of the canvas.

To misread means to author
your own text—
in truth, the trunks
wear flood marks, mud
floating high in water left
the smear.
She fell down.

Smack of the ground’s kiss,
that broke
her nose.  The doctor said,
dead before she hit the ground.
Linked once, she and I severed now
and who will be
at my side when I go?

The birches make a grove
collecting light—
she wore a verve
for  living, cloak
of many colors.”[iii]


[i] Clark, Patricia; Sunday rising; Michigan State University Press; East Lansing, Michigan; 2013; pp. 5-6.

[ii] Clark, Patricia; An explanatory statement on process as contained in an e-mail communication with this writer, 24 January 2018.

[iii] Clark, Patricia; The Canopy; Terrapin Books; West Caldwell, New Jersey; 2017; pp. 8-9.

A NUDE DESCENDING THE STAIRS

“Why?  Only because she had walked naked into my life?  In a painting?”[i]

“You came here so you could finally understand modern art?”[ii]  Who knows how many times this question has been asked, and inadequately answered?  Beginning with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and continuing into our current time, now including the Modernists and Post-Modernists.  These questions involving the definition of modern art come up several times in this story that revolves around a young nude woman who is portrayed as she comes down a staircase in a modern painting.

In his recent novel The Woman on the Stairs the writer Bernhard Schlink draws inspiration from a Gerhardt Richter painting for a story involving the interrelationships amongst an art patron and his wife, an artist and his mistress, and a young lawyer who is caught in the middle of all of this.  Threats of lawsuits are flying back and forth.  Discussions and negotiations are being held regarding the conservation of this modern masterpiece.  And, the lawyer has fallen in love with a nude woman descending a staircase.  I am not sure if there is a post-modern dilemma effecting the legal profession nowadays, but this situation certainly highlights that dilemma in the contemporary art world.

The industrial revolution brought with it the production of a new range of synthetic pigments for artists.  Scientific discoveries and theories brought to our attention how reality is made up of smaller and smaller elements and particles.  And photography brought a new interest in capturing the realistic moment.  Although many writers have proposed that photography also destroyed the need for painting, the final result was to free it, allowing painting to explore new paths of expression, no longer confined by realism and the mimetic.

One important historic example was the work of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his experiments in capturing a variety of figures and animals in motion.  For example, his photographs of horses in motion proved once and for all that artists of the past had never correctly depicted the action of galloping horses.

nude
Eadward Muybridge
“Woman descending a staircase, sequence”
1887
Collotype on paper
7 3/4” x 14 13/16”
University of Pennsylvania Archives
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Muybridge’s studies of human figures walking, running, climbing and descending stairs also brought new light on these particular movements.  When Duchamp’s “Nude Descending the Staircase” was shown at the Armory Show in 1913 in the United States it of course created a stir as well as achieving unbelievable success.  In interviews afterwards, Duchamp stated how he had been directly influenced by Muybridge’s earlier work.[iii]

nude2
Marcel Duchamp
“Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”
1912
Oil on canvas
57 7/8” x 35 1/8”
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection
Philadelphia Museum of Art

For the author Bernhard Schlink, various discussions and descriptions of this painting advance the story line of his novel.  They become a series of ekphrastic exercises, deftly woven into the development of the story.

In talking about the German painter Karl Schwind’s painting of the “Woman on Staircase” the model Irene Gundlach mentioned that:  “It was an answer to Marcel Duchamp.  Do you know Nude Descending a Staircase?  A cubist figure, breaking up in the moments of descent, a vortex of legs, ass, arms and heads?  Duchamp’s work was talked about as the end of painting, and Schwind wanted to show that a naked woman descending a staircase could still be painted.”[iv]

Further on she explained that:  “He wanted to keep the pictures he felt defined him as an artist.  That spoke to issues in contemporary painting:  what representation and abstraction can offer, their relationship to photography, how beauty and truth interact.”[v]

At one point, the lawyer remembered:  “I went into a bookshop, and asked for everything they had on Karl Schwind.  A few years before, the Frankfort Art Association had organized an exhibition and published a slim catalogue – that was all they had.  I know nothing about art and couldn’t judge if the paintings were good or bad.  There were pictures of waves, of skies and

nude3
Gerhardt Richter
“Ema (Nude on a Staircase)”
1966
Oil on canvas
200 cm x 130 cm
Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

clouds, of trees; the colours were beautiful, and everything was blurry, the way I see the world when I’m not wearing my glasses.  Familiar, yet distanced.  The catalogue listed the galleries that had exhibited Schwind and the awards he had won.  He didn’t appear to be a failure as an artist, bet he wasn’t established either – up-and-coming, perhaps.”[vi]

And finally, as the patron Peter Gundlach was speaking, he “ . . . told us about the article in the New York Times and the reports that followed in the German media.  The painting, Woman on Staircase, a fixture in Schwind catalogues, but never exhibited, about which Schwind had always been evasive, had a mysterious aura, and its sudden appearance in, of all places, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was a sensation.”[vii]

“Then he laughed.  ‘In any case, you had a good eye, better than mine.  If I had suspected that the painting would one day be worth more than twenty million . . . .’”[viii]

 


[i] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; Pantheon Books; New York, New York; 2016; p. 98.

[ii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p.85.

[iii] Ramirez, Juan Antonio; Duchamp:  love and death, even; Reaktion Books; London, United Kingdom; 1998; pp. 257-258.

[iv] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.

[v] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.

[vi] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 14.

[vii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 116.

[viii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 113.

THE FLIGHT OF ICARUS!

matisse
Henri Matisse
“The Fall of Icarus”
1943
Gouache on paper cut out, collaged on canvas
35 x 26.5 cm
Private Collection

“‘I warn you,’ Daedalus had said, ‘not to fly so low that the mist or fog weighs down your wings, nor so high that the sun scorches you:  fly between the two!  Avoid too much heat and too much damp, too much dryness and too much cold.  Keep to the center of their wheel.  Don’t look at Bootes or Helice, or at Orion’s drawn sword.  Take me as your guide and follow!”

“But Icarus grows excited.  He forgets the advice.  Soon he masters the beating of his wings and swoops in wide, playful circles above the sea.  Does Minos see him laughing and dancing on the invisible crest of the world?  Like a swimmer, turning his back on the cries from shore, he is already far at sea.  He has tired of following his father’s shoulders, his snowy wings and shock of hair.  He enters into glory as into a garden, a garden of flames that surrounds him; and he breathes in.  ‘O Sun!  Father!’ he cries to the encircling fire.  Once more he kicks on the wind!  Again he beats his wings on the torrid wave of the wind!  Once more he thrusts up into the light!”[i]

We know of course, how this is going to end:  wings and wax melting, bursting into flames, and finally falling into the sea below.  Deadalus, the great engineer and inventor, who had constructed these devices for himself and his son, Icarus, had been imprisoned by King Minos in the very dungeon he had constructed for the Minitaur on orders from this king.

The excitement and enthusiasm of this young man overshadowed the warnings of his father, to stay the course.  It is an ancient moral tale from Ovid that has fascinated many generations of painters and poets:  from Pieter Breughel (both the Elder and the Younger) to Henri Matisse and from William Carlos Williams to Claude-Henri Rocquet.

Many years ago, in literature and composition classes in Baltimore we were  exposed to both classic and contemporary writers, especially Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders and Susan Sontag.  Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore were always mentioned as well, but William Carlos Williams was often sited only as a footnote.  Sometimes at night I would hit the library and find the new (at the time) two volume edition of Williams’ Collected Poems on the reserve shelf.  I read through the entire collection several times that semester.

I have read that Williams himself was aware of and frustrated by the lack of greater recognition his work was afforded at that time.  He continued to write nonetheless, and his last collection, “Pictures from Breughel” proved beyond a doubt his importance.  Three months after his death, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection.  His deep seeing, attention to detail and sensitivity towards Breughel’s work have continued to influence many younger painters and poets.

II    LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS

“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning”[ii]

matisse2
Pieter Bruegel
“La chute d’Icare”
Oil on panel
1562-1563
73.5 x 112 cm
Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

 


[i] Rocquet, Claude-Henri; Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1991.  (p. 122).

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” Pictures from Breughel; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 4.

INTO THE LIFE OF THINGS

“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.

ellen1
Ellen Fischer
“Kodak and Mirror”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

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.

ellen2
Ellen Fischer
“Hanging Machete”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

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.”

ellen3
Ellen Fischer
“A Close Call”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Private collection Indianapolis)

“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.

ellen4
Ellen Fischer
“Bust with Palette Knife”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist)

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.