THE LAOCOÖN

Nothing extraneous.  Everything working.  With muscles tense, movement over every inch of the surface, the figures themselves create the space in which they exist, taking the place of time. Timeless.

The Priest Laocoön was a seer in the Temple of Apollo.  He had two sons, Antiphas and Thymbraeus.  One story has him ostracized from the temple for breaking his vow of celibacy.  Another describes his ill-fated warning to the assembled people of Troy against accepting a suspicious gift from the army of Greece:  the Trojan horse.  In either case, it is an ancient Greek sculpture that brings this story to life.

 

lacoon1
Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus of Rhodes
“The Laocoön”
200 BC — 100 AD
Marble
6’ 10” x 5’ 4” x 3’ 8”
The Vatican Museum, Vatican City

“… Of our men
One group stood marveling, gaping to see
The dire gift of the cold unbedded goddess,
The sheer mass of the horse.”

“Build up a bonfire under it,
This trick of the Greeks, a gift no one can trust,
Or cut it open, search the hollow belly!”

“Contrary notions pulled the crowd apart.
Next thing we knew, in front of everyone,
Laocoön with a great company
Came furiously running from the Height,
And still far off cried out:  ‘O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?’”[i]

Writing in the Aeneid the poet Virgil related the story of Laocoön’s warning to his fellow citizens, the subsequent sack of Troy, and that infamous horse.  Laocoön, sensing the horse to be hollow, struck it with his spear, echoing both inside and out.  So either Apollo, or Minerva, sent serpents in retaliation for Laocoön’s warnings and his defiance of the gods.  The research, dating, and other historical facts surrounding the telling of this story and the creation of the sculpture are, however, confusing.

Pliny the Elder attributed the commission of this sculpture to a team of three artists from Rhodes:  Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus.  They worked together seamlessly, interlacing the figures and serpents into a dynamic whole.  It was thought to have been completed between 200 BC and 100 AD but those dates continue to be debated.

The original work was buried and lost after being in the Palace of Titus around 79-81 AD. It was later rediscovered during an excavation in early 1506 and brought immediately to Pope Julius II who had it placed in the Vatican Collection.  His Holiness requested Michelangelo, who was working in Rome at the time, to inspect this newly discovered example of classical sculpture.  Upon seeing “The Laocoön” Michelangelo declared it to be the most beautiful example he had seen from ancient times.

At first “The Laocoön” was attributed to the Romans as a copy from a lost original.  Later it was theorized that it was not Roman, but truly a classical Greek composition.  This debate continued without much clarification until the historian Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote an explication of this sculpture in his “Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry” in 1766.  Lessing describes this sculpture and looks deeply into it, while simultaneously analyzing Virgil’s poem.

These art historical speculations pose a problem for the student of ekphrastics:  if it had been created earlier, then Virgil may have actually seen it and been inspired to write his account in the Aeneid.  However, if it had really been a Roman composition, then it was much later than Virgil, and possibly an illustration of his telling of this story.

In any event, Lessing’s descriptions and speculations are in themselves important examples of the ekphrastic tradition.  His observations search the surfaces of this piece of marble and look deeply into its meaning.  Describing a facial feature in one example, and then writing regarding the anguish coming from behind the mask, Lessing gives us a meditation on the expressive possibilities in a work of art.

 

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Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros of Rhodes
“The Laocoön”
(DETAIL)

“Virgil’s Laocoön cries out, but this screaming Laocoön is the same man whom we already know and love as a prudent patriot and loving father.  We do not relate his cries to his character, but solely to his unbearable suffering.  It is this alone which we hear in them, and it was only by this means that the poet could convey it clearly to our senses.”[ii]

Lessing’s observations address the processes of both seeing and writing.  In his essay he searches for significant details that are employed for creative expression and he, himself, debates the use of these details in order to tell the entire story.  Which elements will work for the poet?  Which ones for the artists?

“It is claimed that representation in the arts covers all of visible nature, of which the beautiful is but a small part.  Truth and expression are art’s first law, and as nature herself is ever ready to sacrifice beauty for the sake of higher aims, so must the artist subordinate it to his general purpose and pursue it no further than truth and expression permit.  It is enough that truth and expression transform the ugliest aspects of nature into artistic beauty.”[iii]

 

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Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros of Rhodes
“The Laocoön”
(VERSO)

“The idea of having the father and his two sons connected in one entanglement by means of the deadly serpents is undeniably an inspired one and gives evidence of a highly artistic imagination.  Whose was it, the poet’s or the artists’?”[iv]

“But only that which gives free rein to the imagination is effective.  The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine.  And the more we add in our imaginations, the more we must think we see.”[v]

Early in the summer of 2017, during a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Cité de Paris, I came upon the following statement on one of the information tags in an exhibition and copied it down in my notebook:

“Tout l’art du passe, de toutes les époques, de tout les civilisations surgit devant moi, tout est simultané comme si l’espace prenait la place du temps.”
—Alberto Giacometti, 1965[vi]

This led me back to a book of “Interpretive Drawings” by Alberto Giacometti that included two of his drawings from “The Laocoön.”  In English his statement reads:  “In all art of the past, of all eras, and all civilizations that came before me, all share a common vision in which space takes the place of time.”[vii]

 

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Alberto Giacometti
“Laocoon, after a statue in the Vatican Museum”
1952Ballpoint pen drawing
11 1/2” x 8 1/4”
Annette and Alberto Giacometti Foundation,
Paris and Zurich

Not only did Alberto Giacometti go to this source in reference to the old masters, so did James Joyce when Stephen Dedalus comments on this very story in Ulysses:  “Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope.”[viii]

And this is how Virgil described Laocoön’s confrontation with this beast:

“…Some crookedness
Is in this thing.  Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all.”

“He broke off then
And rifled his big spear with all his might
Against the horse’s flank, the curve of the belly.
It stuck there trembling, and the rounded hull
Reverberated groaning at the blow.”[ix]

 

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Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros of Rhodes
“The Laocoon”
200 BC — 100 AD
Marble
6’ 10” x 5’ 4” x 3’ 8”
The Vatican Museum, Vatican City

“…. But straight ahead
They slid until they reached Laocoön.
Twining about and feeding on the body.
Next they ensnared the man as he ran up
With weapons:  coils like cables looped and bound him
Twice round the middle; twice about his throat
They wipped their back-scales, and their heads towered,
While with both hands he fought to break the knots,
Drenched in slime, his head-hands black with venom,
Sending to heaven his appalling cries
Like a slashed bull escaping from an altar,
The fumbled axe shrugged off.  The pair of snakes
Now flowed away and made for the highest shrines,
The citadel of pitiless Minerva,
Where coiling they took cover at her feet
Under the rondure of her shield.  New terrors
Ran in the shaken crowd:  the word went round
Laocoön had paid, and rightfully,
For profanation of the sacred hulk
With his offending spear hurled at its flank.”[x]

 

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Alberto Giacometti
“Head of Laocoön”
1952Ballpoint pen drawing
11 1/2” x 8 1/4”
Annette and Alberto Giacometti Foundation,
Paris and Zurich


[i] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); Vintage Classics and Random House; New York, New York; 1990; BOOK II, Lines 42-45 & 52-61, p. 34.

[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 24.

[iii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.

[iv] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 35.

[v] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.

[vi] Carluccio, Luigi; Giacometti:  A Sketchbook of Interpretive Drawings; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1967. Giacometti’s statement regarding these drawings led me to revisit this book of his drawings copied from many historic works of art.

[vii] From an e-mail correspondence between this writer and Dr. Rosalie Vermette, Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Paris, France, and Professor Emerita, School of Liberal Arts, Indiana University and Purdue University at Indianapolis, 22 May 2018.  

[viii] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1934 & 1997; p. 301.

[ix] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 67-75, p. 35.

[x] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 290-310, p. 41.

ONE WHO HAS BECOME ALL EYES DOES NOT SEE!

“This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature.  It is not what is seen.  It is what is known forever in the mind.”[i]

Writing in her own notebooks and journals Agnes Martin sets out her thinking in spare and poetic lines.  Not unlike her paintings.  Single lines, and then groups of lines, they add up to a wholeness in both vision and spirit.  And it raises questions:  where is painting and pattern in relation to nature?  Where is the balance, what is the distance between perfection and imperfection?  Do content and abstraction rule each other out?  These questions serve to articulate and refine our thoughts.  Through them we might discover that vision for an artist comes from within rather than from the outside.

 

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Agnes Martin
Untitled #9
1995
Acrylic and graphite on linen
60” x 60”
The Doris and Donald fisher Collection
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francsco, California

“In my best moments I think ‘Life has passed me by’ and I am content.”[ii]

“I wish the idea of time would drain out of my cells and leave me quiet even on this shore.”[iii]

“Everyone recognizes the nature pattern of unequal and contesting or related parts.”[iv]

“I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are.”[v]

 

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Agnes Martin
“With My Back to the World”
1997
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
60” x 60”
Museum of Modern Art, New York

The poet Edward Hirsch has written a series of spare and poetic lines about Ms. Martin’s work:  very minimal yet extremely observant.  I have heard him read several times, both here in Indianapolis and in Chicago, and I often feel like I can hear his voice when I read his work.  His lines are the perfect analogies for the shapes and colors contained in the paintings and drawings of Agnes Martin.  In his collection Lay Back the Darkness he has achieved a light and gracious balance.  Crucial to the ekphrastic tradition.

I once asked him about this and if this ekphrastic example was based on a specific painting by Ms. Martin or rather a general group of them, taken together as a larger body of work.  He responded:

“Yes, my piece on Agnes Martin refers to a wide range of her line drawings.  There is a piece on ekphrastic poetry in the new issue of ‘American Poetry Review’ and the writer refers to the poem as a form of gallery poetry.  That actually makes sense.  It doesn’t refer to one single painting, the way, say, my earlier poem did, ‘Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad,’ but rather surveys a whole landscape of poems.”[vi]

THE HORIZONTAL LINE
(Homage to Agnes Martin)

“It was like a white sail in the early morning.

It was like a tremulous wind calming itself
After a night on the thunderous sea.

She came out of the mountains
And surrendered to the expansiveness of a plain.”[vii]

“The beauty of an imperfection.

From its first pointed stroke
To its last brush with meaning
The glow of the line was spiritual.”[viii]

“The horizon was a glimmering blue band
A luminous streamer in the distance.

She remembered the stillness of a pool
Before the swimmers entered the water
And the colorful ropes dividing the lines.”[ix]

 

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Agnes Martin
“Untitled #2”
1981
Acrylic paint and blue pencil on canvas
72” x 72 “
Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

 

“Sacred dream of geometry,
Ruler and protractor, temper my anguish,
Untrouble my mind.

She would not line up with others
She would align herself with the simple truth.”[x]

And Agnes Martin, writing in her own notebooks, might have the final say in this matter:

“One who has become all eyes does not see.”[xi]

 


[i] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; Whitney Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams; New York, New York; 1992; p. 25.

[ii] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 26.

[iii] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 26.

[iv] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 25.

[v] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 25.

[vi] Hirsch, Edward; From an e-mail correspondence with this author; 26 July 2017, at 9:49AM.

[vii] Hirsch, Edward; “The Horizontal Line (Homage to Agnes Martin), Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 35.

[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 37.

[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 38.

[x] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 39.

[xi] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 24.

WAR, WHAT’S IT GOOD FOR?

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Dick Durrance
“An American soldier with a VC skull”
1968
B&W Photograph
DASPO, US Army

 

From ancient Greek sculptures on the theme of “The Fallen Warrior” to Uccello’s sequence of three versions of “The Battle of San Romano” we have the beginnings of a great history of images of war.

In 1633 the artist Jacques Callot published his “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” as a response to the French invasion of Lorraine during the Thirty Years War.  In the early 19th Century, it was Francisco Goya who was inspired to work in this direction as he witnessed the Napoleonic invasion of Spain from 1808 to 1814, which resulted in his series of  “The Disasters of War.”

Even the French artist Henri Rousseau took up the subject in his 1894 painting titled:  “War, or The Ride of Discord.”  Although it had been more than twenty years since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 these events continued to haunt Rousseau’s ideas for paintings.

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Henri Rousseau,
“War, or The Ride of Discord”
1894
Oil on canvas
1.145m x 1.95m
Musee d’Orsay, Paris

 

From the earliest years of photography, during both the Crimean War and the American Civil War, to present day combat photographers and journalists, we have a continuing record of many important historical events.

war3
Mathew Brady
“Photographic outfit near Petersburg, Virginia,
used during the American Civil War”
1864
B&W Photograph
Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

 

The initial Armistice Day was offered as a celebration of the peace that came at the end of the First World War on 11 November 1919.  Unfortunately, this annual observance has now turned into a celebration of war, the exact opposite of its original intent.

Many recent artists and veterans have used a variety of media as a means of documenting and coming to grips with their wartime experiences.  However, it is the aftermath that becomes more confusing.  From a distance, there is a completely different perspective.

The Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress and the United States Army Center of Military History all have important collections of works of art created by active participants and witnesses in the field.  More recently the Viet Nam Veterans Artist Group was formed and organized in Chicago, from 1981 to 1992 and has now grown and become known as the National Veterans Art Museum.[i]

war4
Karl Michel
“Loomings”
1983
Pastel on paper
34 3/4” x 25 3/4”
National Veterans Art Museum, Chicago, Illinois

 

Inspired by many of the artists whose work is in the collection of the National Veterans Art Museum as well as work from the United States Army Center of Military History, the Indianapolis Art Center curated an important exhibition of this work in it’s “Art of Combat:  Artists from the Viet Nam War Then and Now” in 2000.[ii]

Many veterans, as well as concerned civilians in the United States, have chosen this as a major part of their subject matter, including:  Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, Ric Haynes, David Shirm, Michael Helbing, Karl Michel and especially Michael Aschenbrenner in his “Broken Bone” series.  Although many of these artists were actual witnesses to the Viet Nam War, their current works are often reflections and memories of events sometimes lost, and sometimes regained.

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David Shirm
“What We Left Behind”
1992
Prisma color on paper
22” x 30”
Courtesy of the artist

 

Writers and musicians during the 1960’s also tackled these issues.  How could we forget the words of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” or Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die?”  A number of other examples include work by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Barry McGuire and Kemo Williams.  And especially, Edwin Starr’s “War!”

“…Oh, war it’s an enemy to all mankind
The point of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest
Within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die, ah, war-huh, good god y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it, say it, say it
War, huh
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing listen to me…”

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Michael Aschenbrenner
“Damaged Bone Series”
1990
Glass, fabric, wire and twigs
Variable dimensions
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

“…it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker
(War) it’s got one friend that’s the undertaker
Oh, war, has shattered many a young mans dreams
Made him disabled, bitter and mean
Life is much too short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can’t give life
It can only take it away

Oh, war, huh good god y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing say it again….”[iii]

 


[i] Sinaiko, Eve, et al.; Vietnam:  Reflexes and Reflections; the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York; 1998.

[ii] Moore, Julia Muney, et al.; The Art of Combat:  Artists and the Vietnam War, Then and Now; Indianapolis Art Center; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2000.

[iii] Starr, Edwin; “War” (lyrics by Barret Strong and Norman Whitfield); 20th Century Masters:  The Millennium Collection – The Best of Edwin Starr; Audio CD, B00005R8E7; Motown Records; 2001.

THREE BATHERS, TWO HENRYS & ONE CEZANNE

It is a monstrous painting.  Huge when first encountered in the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, approximately seven feet high and eight feet across, impossible to be taken in all at once.  Cezanne worked on this subject through many years and versions, always searching for the solution he had imagined.

henry1
Paul Cezanne
“The Large Bathers”
1900-1906
6’ 10 7/8” x 8’ 2 3/4”
Oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art

We can see from several smaller studies how Cezanne’s ideas developed and grew over time.  Two or three figures in one, three to five figures in another, numerous combinations and variations.  This work was really important to Cezanne, but it was even more important to artists who followed him.  Significantly amongst those in later generations were both Henry Moore and Henri Matisse.  Each of them had actually owned smaller versions of Cezanne’s “Bathers.”

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Paul Cezanne
“Three Bathers”
c. 1875
Oil on canvas
12” x 13”
The Henry Moore Foundation

“I now own a small Cezanne Bathers painting, and in talking about it to friends, I have often said, ‘look what a romantic idea Cezanne had of women,’ and, ‘how fully he realised (sic) the three-dimensional world.’  I felt that I could easily make sculptures of his figures.”

“Stephen Spender in a letter to me said, ‘your idea of showing that you could make sculptures of the Cezanne figures is fascinating.  Why don’t you do it?’  Soon after his letter, I felt like proving it, and modeled each of the three figures in plasticine, taking about an hour in all.  My idea was to show their existence completely in space, and perhaps to photograph them or make drawings, as it were, from behind the picture, showing them from all sides and demonstrating that they had been conceived by Cezanne in full three dimensions.”

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Henry Moore
“Three Bathers—After Cezanne”
1978
Bronze
1. 30.5 cm. (length 12”)
The Henry Moore Foundation

“I enjoyed the whole of this experience.  I had thought I knew our ‘Bathers’ picture completely, having lived with it for twenty years.  But this exercise—modelling the figures and drawing them from different views—has taught me more than any amount of just looking at the picture.”

“This example shows that working from the object—modelling or drawing it—makes you look much more intensely than ever you do if you just look at something for pleasure.”[i]

There is a popularly held misconception that artists are bad writers, although to this day we are constantly required to submit an “artist’s statement” for any and every thing we do.  However, from the number of letters written back and forth amongst artists, from entries written in their notebooks and journals, and explanations that many curators require from the artists they are celebrating, it is clear that visual artists are also very articulate with regards to the written word.

Here are two examples, from Henry Moore above and Henri Matisse below, reflecting their personal thoughts and observations on several versions of Paul Cezanne’s “Bathers.”  They write clearly and straightforwardly regarding these paintings, all the while rediscovering how important Cezanne’s work actually was.

Henry Moore has worked with the pure plastic sense of both painting and sculpture and the process of articulating form in space.  This is evident in all of his later work, and his many figurative pieces.

Henri Matisse is drawing from the Cezanne and searching for a more complete realization of a composition as seen over several years.  Amongst several examples this would lead to his great “Bathers by a River” of 1917 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Henri Matisse
“Bathers by a river”
1909-1917
Oil on canvas
102 1/2” x 154 3/16”
Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection
The Art Institute of Chicago

In 1899 Henri Matisse purchased “Three Bathers” by Cezanne from the Parisian art dealer Vollard.  He kept it in his possession until 1936 when he donated it to the Petit Palais in Paris.  On 10 November 1936 he wrote this letter to Raymond Escholier, the director of the museum:

“Allow me to tell you that this picture is of the first importance in the work of Cezanne because it is a very dense, very complete realization of a composition that he carefully considered in several canvases which, though now in important collections, are only the studies that culminated in this work.”

“In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope; it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance; for this reason, allow me to request that it be placed so that it may be seen to its best advantage.  For this it needs both light and adequate space.  It is rich in color and surface, and seen at a distance it is possible to appreciate the sweep of its lines and the exceptional sobriety of its relationships.”

“I know that I do not have to tell you this, but nevertheless I think it is my duty to do so; please accept these remarks as the excusable testimony of my admiration for this work which has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it.  Allow me to thank you for the care that you will give it, for I hand it over to you with complete confidence. . . .”[ii]

henry5
Paul Cezanne
“Three Bathers”
1879-1882
Oil on canvas
55 cm. x 52 cm.
Gift of Henri Matisse to the Petit Palais,
the City Museum of Paris in 1936

 


[i] Wilkinson, Alan, ed; Henry Moore:  Writings and Conversations; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; 2002; pp. 307-309.

[ii] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles and London; 1995; p. 124.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN

“When we say that the artist imitates the poet or the poet the artist, we can mean one of two things:  either that the one takes the other’s work as his model, or that both work from the same model and one borrows his manner of presentation from the other.”[i]

“If . . . the poet and the artist must contemplate those objects common to both from the same point of view, the inevitable result is that their representations will correspond to one another in many points without there having been even the slightest imitation or emulation.  These points of agreement between contemporaneous artists and poets in regard to things that no longer exist may lead to mutual illumination . . . .”[ii]

Although the above observations were made by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing concerning ancient examples of sculpture and literature they could just as easily apply to a more modern example:  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.[iii]

James Agee and Walker Evans were commissioned to produce a series of essays and images documenting rural life in the Southern United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression.  After many stops and starts, negotiations with publishers and printers, and a very general concept and structure for this project, they set off touring the South and ultimately living with three sharecropper families.  A writer and an artist, sharing their experiences first hand, responding to the people, the landscape, the times, and to each other, Agee and Evans produced one of the most haunting and lyrical portraits of American life.

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Walker Evans
“House of cotton sharecropper Floyd Borroughs, Hale County, Alabama”
1936-1941
Gelatin silver print
5 1/4” x 9 7/8”
The Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

“We lay on the front porch.  The boards were unplaned thick oak, of uneven length, pinned down by twenty-penny nails.  A light roof stuck out its tongue above us dark and squarely, sustained at its outward edge by the slippery trunks of four young trees from which the bark had been peeled.  There were four steps down, oak two-by-twelves; the fourth, when stepped on, touched the ground.  These steps were in the middle of the porch.  They led, across the porch, into a roofed doorless hallway, about six feet wide, which ran straight through the house and clove it in half.  There was a floor to this hallway, of wide unplaned boards.  Laid across beams too wide apart, they sagged beneath a heavy foot.  For ten feet toward the rear end they were only an inch from the ground.  At the end they lay flush on it.”[iv]

The title for this work seemed to be almost Biblical to me and I tried to search for its source.  It turned out to be from the book of Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes.  So it is not included in modern editions.  It does however, recognize and praise the generations of mankind, from all walks of life and throughout time, drawing parallels between the ancient and the modern.

“Let us now sing praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations.

The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning.

There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles . . . .”

walker2
Walker Evans
“Bud Fields, Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama”
March 1935
Gelatin silver print
7 5/8” x 9 5/8”
Gift of the Farm Security Administration,
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

“Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.

But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them . . . .

The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation declares their praise.”[v]

The original names of the farmers were Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs.  In order to protect and insure the privacy of these farmers and their families the names in the text were changed to Fred Gavin Ricketts, Thomas Gallatin Woods, and George Gudger.  The dates of the photographs also vary, from as early as 1936 to as late as 1941.  These were probably mix-ups in between the shooting, printing, and publishing times as well as museum and gallery cataloging.

Although I have found examples of Walker Evans’ photographs from several collections including the National Gallery and the Library of Congress, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, they are all copyrighted through the Walker Evans Archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Below you will find a small portfolio of the photographic images and literary quotations from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  These are paired in such a way as to give a broader picture of this work, however, they are not a substitute for it in its entirety.  Only an introduction.

“Its west wall is the front of the house; its north wall, the hallway; its east wall, the partition; its south wall, the side of the house.  At the center of the partition wall is a fireplace.  At the center of the side wall and of the front wall is an exactly square window, about three feet each way.  At the center of the north wall a door leads into the rear bedroom.  The doors are very wide vertical planks, not paneled, but crosslaid with planks in a Z.  They are held shut by block wood buttons and are kept shut most of the time. . . .”

walker3
Walker Evans
“Fireplace, Burrough’s Bedroom, Hale County, Alabama”
1936
Gelatin silver print
9 15/16” x 8”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“. . . The square shutters, hung on sagged and rusted, loud hinges, are less broad verticals.  Always at night and nearly always during the day they are drawn shut and secured, one by a leather strap over a nail, the other by a piece of rag over a nail.  When they are shut, the room is dark and has a special heat and odor of daylight darkness; but also there is a strong starlight of sunshine with slits and blades and rods of light through the roof and two outward walls and, looking through the floor, the quiet sunless daylighted grain of the earth can be seen, strange to see as at the bottom of a lake; and in this oddly lighted darkness, certain flecks of the room are brilliantly picked out, and every part of it is visible.”[vi]

“Overalls”

“They are pronounced overhauls.”

“Try—I cannot write of it here—to imagine and to know, as against other garments, the difference of their feeling against your body; drawn-on, and bibbed on the whole belly and chest, naked from the kidneys up behind, save for crossed straps, and slung by these straps from the shoulders; the slanted pockets on each thigh, the deep square pockets on each buttock; the complex . . .”

walker4
Walker Evans
“Frank Tengle”
1936
Gelatin silver print
7 13/16” x 4 13/16”
Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

“. . . and slanted structures, on the chest, of the pockets shaped for pencils, rulers, and watches; the coldness of sweat when they are young, and their stiffness; their sweetness to the skin and pleasure of sweating when they are old; the thin metal buttons of the fly; the lifting aside of straps and the deep slipping downward in defecation; the belt some men use with them to steady their middles; the swift, simple, and inevitably supine gestures of dressing and of undressing, which, as is less true of any other garment, are those of harnessing and of unharnessing the shoulders of a tired and hard-used animal.”[vii]

walker5
Walker Evans
“The Frank Tengle Family in Hale County, Alabama”
1936-1941
Gelatin silver print
10 3/4” x 13 3/4”
The Library of Congress,
Washington, DC.

“The family exists for work.  It exists to keep itself alive.  It is a cooperative economic unit.  The father does one set of tasks; the mother another; the children still a third, with the sons and daughters serving apprenticeship to their father and mother respectively.  A family is called a force, without irony; and children come into the world chiefly that they may help with the work and that through their help the family may increase itself.  Their early years are leisurely; a child’s life work begins as play.  Among his first imitative gestures are gestures of work; and the whole imitative course of his maturing and biologic envy is a stepladder of learning of physical tasks and skills.

This work solidifies, and becomes steadily more and more, in greater and greater quantity and variety, an integral part of his life.”[viii]

“And Ellen where she rests, in the gigantic light:  she, too, is completely at peace, this child, the arms squared back, and palms open loose against the floor, the floursack on her face; the soles of the feet facing:  her blown belly swimming its navel, white as flour; and blown full broad with slumbering blood into a circle:  so white all the outward flesh, it glows of blue; so dark, the deep hole, a dark red shadow of life blood:  this center and source, . . .

walker6
Walker Evans
“Squeakie asleep”
1936
Gelatin silver print
24” x 16”
The Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

. . . for which we have never contrived any worthy name, is as if it were breathing, flowering, soundlessly, a snoring silence of flame; it is as if flame were breathed forth from it and subtly played about it:  and here in this breathing and play of flame, a thing so strong, so valiant, so unvanquishable, it is without effort, without emotion, I know it shall at length outshine the sun.”[ix]

 


[i] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 45.

[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; pp. 45-46.

[iii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston and New York; 1941.

[iv] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 201.

[v] Metzger, Bruce M., and Roland E. Murphy, eds.; “Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach,” Chapter 44, Verses 1-15, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books; Oxford University Press; New York, New York; 1991; p. 148.

[vi] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 142.

[vii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 240-241.

[viii] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 291-292.

[ix] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 402.

AIN’T IT JUST LIKE THE NIGHT

“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.

magritte1
Rene Magritte
“The Meaning of Night (Le sens de la nuit)”
1927
Oil on canvas
54 1/2” x 41 1/2”
The Menil Collection,
Houston, Texas

 

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.

magritte2
Albert Pinkham Ryder
“Moonlit Cove”
1880’s
Oil on canvas
14 1/8” x 17 1/8”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

 

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.

magritte3
Geogia O’Keeffe
“The Radiator Building—Night, New York”
1927
Oil on canvas
121.9 cm x 76.2 cm
Fisk University Galleries
Nashville, Tennessee

 

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.

magritte4
April Gornik
“Pulling Moon”
1983
Oil on canvas
76” x 80”
Courtesy of the artist.

 

“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.

NIGHTHAWKS

night1
Edward Hopper
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941-1942
Chalk and charcoal on paper
8 1/2” x 14 1/8” (irregular)
Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

Even from the beginning he knew that it was going to be a very important painting. He produced a series of preparatory drawings, both of the overall composition and each of the individual figures inhabiting this lonely corner diner.  No matter what his doubts or concerns were, Edward Hopper continued to work on the “Night Hawks” and completed it on 21 January 1942.  It was soon displayed in a local gallery where it was seen by both Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art and Daniel Catton Rich from the Art Institute of Chicago.  “Nighthawks” entered the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago within months of its completion, and for many visitors it has become one of the most important paintings in that collection.

Over the years the “Nighthawks” has inspired many writers and poets, and the Art Institute itself has published a book[i] celebrating the ekphrastic tradition, with its collection and the “Nighthawks” having significant roles in this process.  Even in beginning writing and composition classes we are directed to start with something that we know.  Direct observation and description are often followed by reflection or meditation, which then leads into metaphor and lyricism.  Here are examples from three contemporary writers:  Joseph Stanton, Joyce Carol Oates, and last but not least, Tom Waits.  Although each has written about the same painting, they have moved in very different directions.  Always incorporating a very important and uniquely American aesthetic principle, the transformation of the commonplace.

night2
Edward Hopper
“Nighthawks”
1942
Oil on canvas
33 1/8” x 60”
Friends of American Art,
The Art Institute of Chicago

Nighthawks

“It is about 11 p.m.  It is 1942.  Edward and Jo have just seen The Skin of Our Teeth, off-Broadway.  They have sought the solace of a cup of coffee and a moment’s respite before the five-block walk back to Washington Square.  They have been here before and can call the counter man by name.  They sit near where he works at the slicings for tomorrow’s sandwiches, knowing he will ask about the play.  They want to talk about it.  Edward found it funny.  Jo thought it sad.”

“The man across the counter, who sits alone, is Mr. Antrobus, disguised as Thornton Wilder, but the Hoppers know nothing of this, nor that this scene is a continuation of the play, nor that it will become Edward’s most famous picture.”

“Edward and Jo talk about the Antrobus children and think, without sharing their thoughts, about the Hopper children that will never be.”

“Jo rides the high stool, turning over and over a matchbook that says ‘God is love’ on both sides.  Edward’s right hand, holding a cigarette, rests on the counter a fraction of an inch from Jo’s left hand, but they do not touch.”

“The café is a cool slice of flourescent light jutting into the darkness that is New York City night.  It is the prow of a ship riding the ghosted blue of doorways and the long, dangerous green of alleyways – shoals of shadow.”

“The war is everywhere and nowhere.  The casualty lists in the evening paper tick off the seconds till dawn.”

“Mr. Antrobus/Wilder – missing his haunted, imaginary domesticity – shoves his Times into his coat pocket, leaves a tip, and leaves.  He is thinking he will ride the last train out of Penn Station to a little, nonexistent suburb in New Jersey, where, in a little house near a pond, a little family he will never have waits crouching around a fire, while dinosaurs thunder down suburban streets and the terrible, ridiculous cold comes on.”[ii]

 

night3
Edward Hopper,
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941 or 1942
Chalk and charcoal on paper
8 1/8” x 8”
The Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

EDWARD HOPPER’S NIGHTHAWKS, 1942

“The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest; she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand, thinking that
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him? Her heavy-lidded eyes,
pouty lipsticked mouth, she has the redhead’s
true pallor like skim milk, damned good-looking
and she guesses she knows it, but what exactly
has it gotten her so far, and where? — he’ll start
to feel guilty in a few days, she knows
the signs, an actual smell, sweaty, rancid, like
dirty socks; he’ll slip away to make telephone calls
and she swears she isn’t going to go through that
again, isn’t going to break down crying or begging
nor is she going to scream at him, she’s finished
with all that. And he’s silent beside her,
not the kind to talk much but he’s thinking
thank God he made the right move at last,
he’s a little dazed like a man in a dream —
is this a dream? — so much that’s wide, still,
mute, horizontal, and the counterman in white,
stooped as he is and unmoving, and the man
on the other stool unmoving except to sip
his coffee; but he’s feeling pretty good,
it’s primarily relief, this time he’s sure
as h*** going to make it work, he owes it to her
and to himself. . . . And she’s thinking
the light in this place is too bright, probably
not very flattering, she hates it when her lipstick
wears off and her makeup gets caked, she’d like
to use a ladies’ room but there isn’t one here
and . . . how long before a gas station opens? —
it’s the middle of the night and she has a feeling
time is never going to budge. This time
though she isn’t going to demean herself —
he starts in about his wife, his kids, how
he let them down, they trusted him and he let
them down, she’ll slam out of the g*******d room
and if he calls her Sugar or Baby in that voice,
running his hands over her like he has the right,
she’ll slap his face hard, You know I hate that: STOP!
And he’ll stop. He’d better. The angrier
she gets the stiller she is, hasn’t said a word
for the past ten minutes, not a strand
of her hair stirs, and it smells a little like ashes
or like the henna she uses to brighten it, but
the smell is faint or anyway, crazy for her
like he is, he doesn’t notice, or mind —
burying his hot face in her neck. . . . She’s still contemplating
the cigarette burning in her hand,
the counterman is still stooped gaping
at her, and he doesn’t mind that, why not,
as long as she doesn’t look back, in fact
he’s thinking he’s the luckiest man in the world
so why isn’t he happier?”[iii]

 

night4
Edward Hopper
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941 or 1942
Chalk and charcoal on paper
15 1/16” x 11 1/16” (irregular)
The Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)
“Nighthawks at the diner of Emma’s Forty-Niner
There’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight
All the gypsy hacks and the insomniacs
Now the paper’s been read, now the waitress said

‘Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie? Yeah’

It’s a graveyard charade, it’s a late shift masquerade
And it’s two for a quarter, dime for a dance
Woolworth’s rhinestone diamond earrings and a sideways glance
Now the register rings, now the waitress sings

‘Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie? Yeah’

Now well, the classified section offers no direction
It’s a cold caffeine in a nicotine cloud
Now the touch of your fingers lingers burning in my memory
I’ve been eighty-sixed from your scheme
Now I’m in a melodramatic nocturnal scene
Now I’m a refugee from a disconcerted affair
Now the lead pipe morning falls, now the waitress calls
‘Eggs and sausage, another side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl with burgers and fries
Now what kind of pie?’

À la mode if you will
Just come in and join the crowd
Had some time to kill, yeah
You see, I just come in to join the crowd
Had some time to kill
Just come in to join the crowd
‘Cause I had some time to kill”[iv]

 

night5
Edward Hopper
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941 or 1942
Chalk on paper
7 1/4” x 4 7/16” (irregular)
The Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

 


[i] Hirsch, Edward, and the Art Institute of Chicago; Transforming Vision:  Writers on Art; A Bullfinch Press Book & Little, Brown and Company; Boston, New York, Toronto, London; 1994.

[ii] Stanton, Joseph; “Nighthawks” Imaginary Museum; Time Being Books; St. Louis, Missouri; 1999; p. 98.

[iii] Oates, Joyce Carol; “Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942” The Time Traveler; E. P. Dutton; New York, New York; 1989; pp. 40-42.

[iv] Waits, Tom; “Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)” Nighthawks at the Dinner; Audio CD B000002GYG; Asylum Records; New York, New York; 1990.

GIORGIO MORANDI AND THE TALKING ETERNITY BLUES

Amongst painters and printmakers, there is a great deal of admiration for the work of Giorgio Morandi.  Even from artists whose work does not necessarily look like a Morandi, there is still a genuine interest in and respect for this work and its subtle power.  Many artists often observe that he is a “painter’s painter” in the very best sense of these words.

morandi
Frank Gehry
“Winton Guest House”
1982-1987
Wayzata, Minnesota

However, I was later surprised to discover that many other professions share this admiration, including several poets and even one contemporary architect, Frank Gehry, whose Winton Guest House echoes several Morandi still life forms.  And let us not forget the Italian surrealist filmmaker, Federico Fellini, and his references to Morandi’s work in the classic film “La Dolce Vita!”

morandi2
Federico Fellini
Film still from “La Dolce Vita”
1960
Featuring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, et al.
Cineriz/Pathe Consortium Cinema

Earlier this year, on a visit with family and friends in Florida, I happened upon the Vero Beach Book Center hosting a reading by the Poet Laureate of Indian River County, Sean Sexton.  He also mentioned Morandi in several instances:  both his paintings and his etchings.  When I asked him about his interest in Morandi this is how he responded:

“The poem ‘Disparate’ lays out my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Morandi show . . . and observations from a noonday repast in the cafeteria, just a flight of stairs down out of the show. . . . The works collectively comprise something so completely outside convention and the sources that inspired them and succeed in what they present as a whole.”[i]

morandi3
Giorgio Morandi
“Still Life”
1956
Oil on canvas
Private Collection, Switzerland

“Disparate”
“The girls in the museum cafeteria titter in
pleasant gossip, coiffed and garbed alike
in gold, cashmere, and silk.  Each face keeps
the same joy in this holiday escape from dailiness,
as their secret society, founded upon commiseration,
excludes a Venus in synthetic leopard wrap the next
table over, her long, raven hair mussed as if
she’d just stepped from a baroque bedchamber.
She has nothing to say to them (nor do they ask),
but sits attending an old, blind Tobit and his
wife sipping water and taking a frugal repast.

Morandi’s lonely bottles hang in galleries upstairs,
paintings in lush pink butter and almond paste,
and the most exquisite greys in art.  On a wall placard
is a quote from his ending days:
“If only you knew Longhi, how badly I want to work,
I have so many ideas I wish to develop…”
In quiet and solitude he kept at his métier, sharing
the family apartment with his three unmarried sisters,
seeking only the recognition of his peers—the leering Chardin,
rag tied round his bespectacled head, stolid Piero, mercurial
Caravaggio, and the intractable, enraptured, Cezanne.”[ii]

morandi4
Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin
“Self-Portrait with a Visor”
c. 1776
Pastel on blue laid paper, mounted on canvas
457mm x 374mm
The Art Institute of Chicago,
Chicago, Illinois

Several years ago at the Butler University Visiting Writers’ Series I heard the poet Charles Wright read from his work.  I was impressed with the range and depth of his work, and especially several of his remarks mentioning both Piet Mondrian and Giorgio Morandi, two of my own personal favorites.

Giorgio Morandi’s work is often difficult on many levels.  For first time viewers it is so simple, even mundane, that they wonder what is the big deal?  For the experienced viewer, they become more complicated, utilizing formal devices and placement to create subtle but powerful tensions.  And for others, perhaps only painters and poets, these pieces become mystical.

This is such a powerful element in his work, that in one recent five-year period (from 2004 to 2009) there were three major exhibitions in celebration of his work:  at both the Metropolitan Museum[iii] in New York, the one Sean Sexton mentioned above, and the Phillips Collection[iv] in Washington, DC, and a small but highly successful presentation at the Lucas Schoormans Gallery, also in New York.

In the catalogue for that exhibition, Schoormans wrote:  “At first glance, the works may appear quiet, contemplative, but once the viewer engages with them, one realizes that they are anything but.  Instead, it becomes apparent that they seem to affirm only one thing:  that nothing is certain, and permanently subject to change.  Embracing this message, Morandi presents the viewer with endless variations, at times with the subtlest of shifts in tonal values and composition, and thereby he becomes the architect of a world as finely calibrated and rigorously constructed as any great work of art, or perhaps a piece of music – think Bach’s Well Tempered Piano:  a monumental under-statement, of riveting and stimulating beauty that allows us a notion of the sublime.”[v]

“Giorgio Morandi and the talking eternity blues”
“Late April in January, seventy-some-odd degree.
The entry of Giorgio Morandi in The Appalachian Book of the Dead
Begins here, without text, without dates—
A photograph of the master contemplating four of his objects,
His glasses pushed high on his forehead,
his gaze replaced and pitiless.”

morandi5
Herbert List
“Portrait of Giorgio Morandi”
B&W photograph
1953
Collection of Herbert List Estate,
Hamburg, Germany

“The dove, in summer, coos sixty times a minute, one book says.
Hard to believe that,
even in this unseasonable heat,
A couple of them appearing and silent in the bare tree
Above me.
Giorgio Morandi doesn’t blink an eye
As sunlight showers like sulphur grains across his face.
There is an end to language.

There is an end to handing out the names of things,
Clouds moving south to north along the Alleghenies
And Blue Ridge, south to north on the wind.
Eternity, unsurprisingly, doesn’t give this a take,
Eternity’s comfortless, a rock and a hard ground.

Now starless, Madonnaless, Morandi
Seems oddly comforted by the lack of comforting,
A proper thing in its proper place,
Landscape subsumed, language subsumed,
the shadow of God
Liquid and indistinguishable.”[vi]

morandi6
Giorgio Morandi
“Still Life”
1953
Oil on canvas
8” x 15 7/8”
The Phillips Collection,
Washington, DC.

 


[i] Sexton, Sean; “An Artist’s Statement” contained in an e-mail to this writer, 10 March 2019, 9:36pm.

[ii] Sexton, Sean; May Darkness Restore; Press 53; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 2019; p. 32.

[iii] Bandera, Maria Cristina, and Renato Miracco; Morandi 1890-1946; The Metropolitan Museum of Art and SKIRA; New York, New York, and Milano, Italy; 2008.

[iv] Fergonzi, Flavio, and Elisabetta Barisoni; Morandi:  Master of Modern Still Life; The Phillips Collection; Washington, DC; 2009

[v] Mattioli-Rossi, Laura; Giorgio Morandi Late Paintings 1950-1964; Lucas Schoormans Gallery; New York, New York; 2004; p. 3.

[vi] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 167.

A CARNIVAL EVENING

“Un soir de carnival” has always been for me one of the most enigmatic paintings produced by Henri Rousseau.  A seemingly typical moonlit landscape is inhabited by two figures, supposedly on their way to a costume ball.  Or are they lost in a forest?  And, are they unaware of the shadowy cabin in the background, with a ghostlike face staring out at this scene?

The majority of his other landscapes depict exotic and naïve scenes and situations that invite us in to his personal and fantastical world.  This painting, however, relies upon all of the same elements and yet it is disturbing.  The unfamiliar?  The threatening?  The dark and looming landscape?

“At intervals during his steady production of works that record the mutual attunement of landscape and the human figure, Rousseau painted canvases that surpass both landscape and portraiture.  All are large compositions in which a distinct feeling of awe and catastrophe has intensified his style without basically modifying it.  Their thematic content is uniform:  in either a totally barren or an unnaturally verdant countryside, a living creature confronts a mysterious presence.  Rousseau did not himself separate these paintings from the rest of his production, yet in them he contrives to express an almost undefinable experience.”[i]

This is how Roger Shattuck describes some of these qualities in Rousseau’s work, especially a handful of larger and more enigmatic paintings.  This feeling has not been lost on the poet Linda Pasten in her collection titled, Carnival Evening:  New and Selected Poems which includes several ekphrastic examples including:  “Le Sens de la Nuit, Magritte, 1927,” and “Still Life,” and a “Detail from the Altarpiece at Ghent.”

rousseau1
Henri Rousseau
“Carnival Evening”
1886
Oil on canvas
46 3/16” x 35 1/4”
Louis E. Stern Collection
Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

Carnival Evening
         Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas

“Despite the enormous evening sky
spreading over most of the canvas,
its moon no more
than a tarnished coin, dull and flat,
in a devalued currency;

despite the trees, so dark themselves,
stretching upward like supplicants,
utterly leafless; despite what could be
a face, rinsed of feeling, aimed
in their direction,

the two small figures
at the bottom of this picture glow
bravely in their carnival clothes,
as if the whole darkening world
were dimming its lights for a party.”[ii]


[i] Shattuck, Roger; The Banquet Years; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House; New York, New York; 1968; p. 91.

[ii] Pastan, Linda; Carnival Evening:  New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 39.

A HOUSE BY THE RAILROAD TRACKS

From the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana to the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago and from the Museum of Modern Art in New York across town to the Whitney Museum of American Art, we can discover several iconic images of American life, all produced by the same artist:  Edward Hopper.

Their sense of place and history not only documents an era in our national life, but also evokes the feel and texture of those years.  These images have intrigued and inspired a variety of American poets and painters including both Edward Hirsch and Phillip Koch.  They have also become iconic images that stand in for a much larger and more complex sense of our country:  rooftops and storefronts, bridges and lighthouses, and of course railroad tracks and isolation.

For Phillip Koch many of these images are reminders of his own childhood and studies in art school, especially in New York, Ohio, and Indiana.  Seeing and confronting Hopper’s paintings are one of the most important ways of learning, not only about them, but also about painting in general.

When I asked Phillip Koch about Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad” this was his response:

“I’ve loved that painting for years and in March of 2015 made a special trip up to Haverstraw, NY (just north of Hopper’s hometown of Nyack, NY) as I knew the building Hopper had worked from was still standing and little changed from his day. The house is high up on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. There is a railroad track just down the hill a bit from the house, and still farther down the hill a road where Hopper stood and envisioned his painting.”

tracks
Phillip Koch
“Haverstraw”
2015
Vine charcoal on paper
10 1/2” x 14”
Collection of the artist, Baltimore, Maryland

“This is Haverstraw, vine charcoal, 10 1/2 x 14 inches, 2015, that I did from nearly the exact same spot where Hopper stood to do his House by the Railroad.  I didn’t include the railroad tracks though they are still there and in use, just as in Hopper’s day. If you compare Hopper’s oil to my version, you can see Hopper felt free to invent some additional architectural features to make his structure more interesting (realist that he was, he loved to play around with his subjects and add and subtract forms at will.)”[i]

For the poet Edward Hirsch, Hopper’s paintings frame a mid-western sense of isolation:  spatial and psychological conditions.  Hirsch often personifies the typical American storefront, or an old house façade, giving them human expressions:  these are some of the classic human conditions that poets constantly deal with, playing with only light and shadow and words and rhythms in order to intensify and exaggerate a mythical presence.

What follows here, is Hirsch’s articulate and sensitive meditation on Edward Hopper’s great painting, “House by the Railroad” from 1925:

Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad 

“Out here in the exact middle of the day,
This strange, gawky house has the expression
Of someone being stared at, someone holding
His breath underwater, hushed and expectant;

This house is ashamed of itself, ashamed
Of its fantastic mansard rooftop
And its pseudo-Gothic porch, ashamed
of its shoulders and large, awkward hands.

But the man behind the easel is relentless.
He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
The house must have done something horrible
To the people who once lived here

Because now it is so desperately empty,
It must have done something to the sky
Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
And devoid of meaning. There are no

Trees or shrubs anywhere—the house
Must have done something against the earth.
All that is present is a single pair of tracks
Straightening into the distance. No trains pass.

tracks2
Edward Hopper
“House by the Railroad”
1925
Oil on canvas
24” x 29”
(Anonymous Gift)
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Now the stranger returns to this place daily
Until the house begins to suspect
That the man, too, is desolate, desolate
And even ashamed. Soon the house starts

To stare frankly at the man. And somehow
The empty white canvas slowly takes on
The expression of someone who is unnerved,
Someone holding his breath underwater.

And then one day the man simply disappears.
He is a last afternoon shadow moving
Across the tracks, making its way
Through the vast, darkening fields.

This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,

The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it.”[ii]

 


[i] Koch, Philip; An artist’s statement contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer; 19 November 2017.

[ii] Hirsch, Edward; “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)” Wild Gratitude; Alfred A. Knopf Publishers; New York, New York; 1986; pp. 13-14.