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.

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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.

THE SURREALISTIC DRUIDS: PART ONE

Yves Tanguy and Eugene Guillevic have often been described as ‘Druids’ in the 20th century worlds of painting and poetry.

As a youth in Locronan, Yves Tanguy would often watch a local painter named Toche at work, whose aim it was to capture the atmospheric qualities of the Breton landscape in a kind of half light.  Eugene Guillevic was also influenced early on, first by the German poet Rilke and later by the French poet Trakl.

Yves Tanguy was born in 1900 on the Place de la Concorde in Paris and many childhood vacations were spent in his family home at Locronan in Finistere, Brittany where thousands of menhirs and dolmens have been scattered across the landscape since prehistoric times.

Tanguy was drafted into the Army in 1918 and returned to Paris at the end of his service in 1922.  It was during this time period that he met two fellow artists, Jacques Prevert and Giorgio de Chirico.  It was through these contacts that Tanguy became associated with Andre Breton and the Surrealist Group, from 1924 to 1938.  Prior to World War II, he met and married the American artist Kay Sage and moved to New York and later established a studio in Woodberry, Connecticut.  Tanguy died in Connecticut in 1955.

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Kay Sage
“A Little Later”
1938
Oil on canvas
36” x 28”
Denver Art Museum, Denver Colorado

Eugene Guillevic was born in Carnac, Morbihan, Brittany in 1907.  He began writing poetry as a child, inspired primarily by the Fables of La Fontaine.  Upon passing his baccalaureate in 1926 he was assigned a series of governmental positions including as Inspecteur d’Economie National from 1946 to 1963.

His work developed through the Surrealist period and into a more personal simplicity and maturity later in his life.  He received Le Grand Prix de Poesie from the French Academy in 1976 and Le Grand Prix National de Poesie in 1984.  Guillevic died in 1997.

In her book of translations of selected Guillevic poems, the poet Denise Levertov observed that:  “The great ritual places of the Celts . . . the places where the great and small stones or menhirs, are gathered in powerful and enigmatic testimony to forgotten certainties, are landscapes of a profound austerity.”[i]

“The Rocks”

“The rocks won’t know
one speaks about them.

And always to sustain them, they’ll have
only grandeur. . . .”

“They don’t burn sulphur
in the darkness

for they have never known
the fear of death. . . .”

“And then the joy

of knowing the menace
and enduring.

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

While at their edges
bits of stone flake off

which wind and wave had scraped at
while they were dozing.”

“. . . They don’t have to go about
With faces you can read like books.”

“They did not want to be the temple
in which to delight. . . .”

“And joy
comes to them out of themselves alone. . . .”

“It happens that a block of stone
detaches itself and falls,

falls so that one misses a breath,
into the wet sea. . . .”

“. . . To be the memory of a rock, of being
promontory, out and towards the wave.”[ii]

 


[i] Guillevic, Eugene; Translated by Denise Levertov; Guillevic:  Selected Poems; New Directions Publishig Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; p. vii.

[ii] Guillevic, Eugene; Translated by Denise Levertov; Guillevic:  Selected Poems; pp. 76-83.

 

DEAD BIRDS

“His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes”

“The early sixteenth-century Belgian painter called, for want of his real name, The Master of the Embroidered Leaf.

Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up the house after being away for three months.

Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies. Not all of them were great. But there were 104 of them.”[i]

deadbird1
Albert Pinkham Ryder
“Dead Bird”
1890’s
Oil on wood panel
4 3/8” x 10”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

This terrible but beautiful image of a dead bird has always been one of the most haunting paintings in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Just over four inches high it is an important example of works of art that are intimate in size and grand in spirit. Their effect remains with the viewer long after stepping outside of the museum.

Raymond Carver used this technique on several occasions in his work, especially in his collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Small statements, snippets really, are concise and to the point. 16th Century illuminations, dead birds on the front porch, or an incident involving Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington all incorporate the painterly criteria of ‘economy of means.’ Compression.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red and Pink Rocks with Teeth” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Jan Vermeer’s “Girl in the Red Hat” at the National Gallery in Washington and Ryder’s “Dead Bird” mentioned above are all small in size but powerful in scale. Why should this be? Perhaps it was the desire of certain figurative painters and Imagist poets for the significant detail: to rivet the universal with the particular. Or, the suggestion made several times by William Carlos Williams throughout his epic poem Patterson to “Say it! No ideas, but in things.”[ii]

Whether it was the search for an American idiom or a single image out of the mass of chaos, Williams would ask of us: “What common language to unravel?”[iii] For both the poet and the painter it would be the process of finding one’s own vision or voice coming out of “…a mass of detail to interrelate on a new ground…pulling the disparate together to clarify and compress.”[iv]

“Because the sun was behind them
their shadows came first and then
the birds themselves.”[v]

deadbird2
Susan Rothenberg
“Blue Bird Wings”
1989
Oil on canvas
65″x43″
Private collection

To make an image or an object one’s own is to have a signature that comes out of the process of creating that image. Idiosyncratic imagery, like that in Ryder’s painting, has been the trademark of a certain few artists: as in the work of Musa McKim or Leonard Baskin or Susan Rothenberg; Raymond Carver or Kim Fuelling or Michael Ondaatje. These images will speak for themselves, as any real painting or drawing or poem will.

deadbird3
Leonard Baskin
“Dead Bird”
c. 1950’s
Woodcut
1” x 2”
Michelson Galleries, Northampton, Massachusetts

“Through the Boughs”

“Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think, that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was, they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes. The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and won’t stop blowing. . . . Give me your hand for a time. Hold on to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was, those ragged birds cry.”[vi]

deadbird4
Kim Fuelling
“Fallen Bird”
c. 1998
Graphite on paper
8” x 10”
Courtesy of the artist, Zionville, North Carolina

“Application for a Driving License”

“Two birds loved
in a flurry of red feathers
like a burst cottonball,
continuing while I drove over them.

I am a good driver, nothing shocks me.”[vii]


[i] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes;” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; pp. 64-66.

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; p. 7.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; p. 9.

[iv] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; p. 19.

[v] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon, Selected Writings; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 137.

[vi] Carver, Raymond; “Through the Boughs;” A New Path to the Waterfall; p. 120.

[vii] Ondaatje, Michael; “Application for a Driving License;” The Cinnamon Peeler; Vintage International; New York, New York; 1997; p. 14.

EXPHRASTICS

“Someone, I tell you, in another time,
will remember us.”[i]

Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek: a description of a work of art, either real or imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise; often used in the adjectival form, ekphrastic, a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art.

keats
John Keats
“Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase”
1819
Ink on paper
The Louvre, Paris, France

From ancient times to the 20th century there has been an interdisciplinary dance played out between poets and painters. The idea of writing a poem or a play that was descriptive of, or inspired by a work of visual art was in fact invented by the Greeks. Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles in the 18th Book of The Illiad being one of the first examples.

“Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield;
Rich various artifice emblazed the field;
Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound;
A silver chain suspends the massy round;
Five ample plates the broad expanse compose,
And godlike labours on the surface rose.
There shone the image of the master-mind:
There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d;
The unwearied sun, the moon completely round;
The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d;
The Pleiads, Hyads, with the northern team;
And great Orion’s more refulgent beam;
To which, around the axle of the sky,
The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye,
Still shines exalted on the ethereal plain,
Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.”[ii]

This was of course, a literary fiction based totally on a plastic fiction, made real through the art of storytelling. The Romantic poet John Keats harks back to classic examples with his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Published anonymously in the January 1820, Number 15 issue of the magazine “Annals of the Fine Arts” it is an elegaic description on this single object. Early speculation centered around the fact that Keats had based his poem on a specific vase, either “The Sosibios Vase” at the Louvre in Paris or later on “The Townley Urn” at the British Museum in London. Nowadays it is considered that his work is more of a synthesis of several objects.

townley
“The Townley Urn”
100-200AD
Marble
H:1.06 metres
The British Museum, London

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[iii]

Keats ends his poem with an observation that has become an everlasting philosophical debate: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” From artists’ arguments in cafes and bars to doctoral dissertation defenses, it has become an ongoing discussion. Whether writing directly from a work of art as the primary source, as Keats has done, or inventing an image and then writing about it, this form of inspiration flows directly from the visual artist to the writer. In some more recent cases the artist seizes upon an image written by a poet and then makes a drawing or painting.

Near the end of his life, the 20th century abstract painter Philip Guston chose an entire new direction for his work, seeming to reject everything he had created before. He got himself hated by many former friends, but not everyone. Younger poets and painters recognized this new figuration, not as a retreat back into a mimetic mode, but as a venture into a new plastic and literary arena. His late drawings and paintings are a rare example of real dialogue between one painter and several contemporary poets. These poets included: Clark Coolidge, Bill Bergson, Musa McKim, Anne Waldman, William Corbett, Frank O’Hara and Stanley Kunitz.

guston
Philip Guston
“Untitled (Book)”
1968
Goache on paper board
51 cm x 76 cm
Estate of the artist

A generation later, young painters who had studied exclusively with abstract artists in school struggled to find their own voices and visions. It seemed like a dead end to continue without a subject, or subject matter. At first they were accused of producing ‘bad’ painting. With a few more artists testing these waters they became known as ‘New Image’ painters and even ‘neo-expressionists.’ Amongst these artists were: Susan Rothenberg, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray and Neil Jenney. All were working, in no small part, thanks to the doors that Philip Guston had opened.

“Henceforth a painting was a legible record of all the decisions, whether tentative or assured, that went into its conception and realization. The issue was not one of speed . . . but rather one of the immediacy and responsiveness of process, the simultaneity of thinking and making.”
Philip Guston [iv]


 

[i] Sappho; “No Oblivion,” The Complete Poems of Sappho (translated by Willis Barnstone); Shambala Publications; Boston & London; 2011; [147].

[ii] Translated by Alexander Pope. This poem is in the public domain.

[iii] Keats, John; John Keats: The Major Works; Oxford University Press; Oxford & New York; 1990 & 2001; pp. 288-289.

[iv] Storr, Robert; Philip Guston; Abbeville Press; New York, New York; 1986; p. 25.