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.

LIKE THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND

In the New Testament both Matthew and Luke relate the story of Jesus being confronted and questioned by the Pharisees, who were pretending to be ‘teachers’ and trying to catch this young man in his own teachings.  When questioned by his disciples later, Jesus described the Pharisees like this:

“. . . they are blind guides.  And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”[i]

blind1a
Pieter Breughel the Elder
“The Parable of the Blind”
1568
Distemper on linen canvas
86 cm x 154 cm
Museo di Capadimonte, Naples, Italy

It was a powerful image that caught the imagination of many Northern Renaisance artists, especially Pieter Breughel the Elder.  Later still, it continued to influence writers such as Charles Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams, who included this subject in his final collection, Pictures from Brueghel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1963, just two months after that author’s death.

“This horrible but superb painting
the parable of the blind
without a red

in the composition shows a group
of beggars leading
each other diagonally downward

across the canvas
from one side
to stumble finally into a bog

where the picture
and the composition ends back
of which no seeing man

is represented the unshaven
features of the des-
titute with their few

pitiful possessions a basin
to wash in a peasant
cottage is seen and a church spire

the faces are raised
as toward the light
there is no detail extraneous

to the composition one
follows the others stick in
hand triumphant to disaster” [ii]

Paintings by Pieter Breughel and poems by William Carlos Williams have continued to inspire and influence artists and writers today.  “Referring to a group of figural drawings he had begun around 1963, Willem de Kooning would say in 1975, ‘I draw while painting, and I don’t know the difference between painting and drawing.  The drawings that interest me most are made with eyes closed.’”[iii]

They all looked like scratches, these drawings that de Kooning called ‘blind’ drawings.  We first saw them in an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center[iv] in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979.  At the time, this exhibition was known as “Recent de Kooning” and featured paintings, drawings, and sculptures completed since 1969.

blind2a
Willem de Kooning
“Blind Drawing”
1969
Ink on paper
26” x 18 7/8”
Estate of the artist

What we didn’t know at the time, was that de Kooning completed these drawings in a vertical format and later rotated them 90 or 180 degrees in order to further dissorient the viewer.  When re-oriented to their original format certain details emerge:  these details include several clear references to Breughel’s great painting, “The Parable of the Blind.”

blind3a
Pieter Breughel the Elder
“The Parable of the Blind”
DETAIL

You wouldn’t believe the number of art students who in studying this painting will draw all of the figures straight across the page from left to right, all in a line, and all horizontally.  Totally ignoring the descending diagonal from the upper left to the lower right.  This of course flattens both the movement and the composition.

blind4a
Casey Roberts
“Study #1 from The Parable of the Blind”
1993-1994
Brush and ink on paper
18” x 24”
Courtesy of the artist, Indianapolis, Indiana

One younger artist who noticed this right away was Casey Roberts.  Examples of his brush and ink drawings above and below, clearly show that he saw this diagonal movement and took it to a contemporary conclusion.  As long time faculty members in various art schools around the country we could all probably be described as the blind leading the blind.  An all encompassing metaphor.

blind5
Casey Roberts
“Study #2 from The Parable of the Blind”
1993-1994
Brush and ink on paper
18” x 24”
Courtesy of the artist, Indianapolis, Indiana


[i] “Matthew 15:13-14” The Holy Bible:  Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinbugh; 1952; p. 770.

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; p. 11.

[iii] Elderfield, John, et al; de Kooning a Retrospective; The Museum of Modern Art; New York, New York; 2011; p. 369.

[iv] Cowart, Jack, and Sanford Sivits Shaman; de Kooning 1969-1978; University of Northern Iowa; Cedar Falls, Iowa; 1978.