“I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen pictures of ‘Sunflowers,’ a decoration in which the raw or broken chrome yellows will blaze forth from backgrounds—blue, from the palest malachite green to royal blue, framed in thin strips painted orange lead.”
“Effects like those of stained-glass windows in a Gothic church.”[i]
There are certain threads running throughout history, both plastic and poetic, which show us how ideas grow and develop. One artist will create an image or composition that will be picked up by another artist working at a later date, as if in answer to the first. These ideas and images will add to and expand upon the original. One important example of this can be found in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and letters, where several times he mentions the debt that he owes to the paintings of Adolphe Monticelli. In fact a total of 57 of Vincent’s letters mention Monticelli, and his series of sunflower paintings illustrate this point.
I remember that the contemporary painter Knox Martin, an important faculty member at both the Art Students League and Yale University School of Art, would always mention this, every chance he had.[ii] Van Gogh saw himself as the ‘spiritual heir’ to Monticelli, as later Antonin Artaud[iii] saw himself as the heir to van Gogh. Others following in this line have included the philosopher Gaston Bachelard[iv] and the rock and roll idol Jim Morrison!
It is clear that van Gogh was using history, and references to certain artists such as Gauguin, Delacroix, and Millet, as his guideposts. And especially Monticelli:
“But I myself—I tell you frankly—am returning more to what I was looking for before I came to Paris. I do not know if anyone before me has talked about suggestive color, but Delacroix and Monticelli, without talking about it, did it.”[v]
“Now listen, for myself I am sure that I am continuing his work here, as if I were his son or brother.”[vi]
It often seems to me that van Gogh’s emphasis on observing those everyday objects surrounding him was a kind of searching, not just for a subject, but also for a larger meaning: the soul of a flower, perhaps, which would establish him within an aesthetic family that includes Adolphe Monticelli and William Blake, as well as more modern heirs such as Allen Ginsberg, Jim Dine and even Edwin Dickinson.
A parallel occurrence happens within the literary tradition, especially when we consider the effect that Blake has had on both painters and poets. This includes of course, Allen Ginsberg. In his biography on Ginsberg, the author Barry Miles describes one defining moment for that writer:
“The summer heat was on. Allen lay on his bed by the open window, reading William Blake. The book was open to the poem ‘Ah! Sunflower,’ from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. . . . when he heard a deep, ancient voice, reading the poem aloud. He immediately knew, without thinking, that it was the voice of Blake himself, coming to him across the vault of time. The voice was prophetic, tender. It didn’t seem to be coming from his head; in fact, it seemed to be in the room, but no one was there. He described it: ‘The peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son.’”[vii]
“Ah, Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;
Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go!”[viii]
After that experience, it didn’t take long for Allen Ginsberg to discover his true voice as a poet, calling forth the legacy of a previous generation and adding new imagery to it. He collected these new poems in the book Howl, which included an introduction by another New Jersey poet, William Carlos Williams. It was Williams who observed: “Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist. . . . Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels. This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own. . . .”[ix]
“I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery.
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—
—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem
and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past—
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye—
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb,
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then!”
“The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives,
all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuberance of artificial worse-than-dirt—industrial—modern—all that civilization spotting your crazy golden crown—
and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos—all these
entangled in your mummied roots—and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form!
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul?”
“Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,
—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.”[x]
[i] Van Gogh, Vincent; “Letter 19 to Emile Bernard, August 1888” The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; New York Graphic Society; Greenwich, Connecticut; 1959; vol. 3, p. 511.
[ii] Knox Martin served as one of the faculty members at the Yale University Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, Connecticut during the summer of 1967. His lectures, field trips and critiques were filled with references to these artists and more during that time.
[iii] de la Faille, J. B.; The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings; Reynal & Company in association with William Morrow & Company; Amsterdam and New York; 1970; pp. 29-30.
[iv] de la Faille, J. B.; The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings; Reynal & Company in association with William Morrow & Company; Amsterdam and New York; 1970; pp. 34-35.
[v] Van Gogh, Vincent; The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; New York Graphic Society; Greenwich, Connecticut; 1959; vol. 3, p. 44.
[vi] Van Gogh, Vincent; The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh; New York Graphic Society; Greenwich, Connecticut; 1959; vol. 3 p. 445.
[vii] Miles, Barry; Ginsberg: A Biography; Simon and Schuster; New York, London and Toronto; 1989; p. 99.
[viii] Blake, William; Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience; Walton Street Press; Great Britain; 1794 & 2016; p. 38.
[ix] Ginsberg, Allen; Howl; (With an introduction by William Carlos Williams); City Lights Books; San Francisco. California; 1956; pp. 7-8.
[x] Ginsberg, Allen; Howl; (With an introduction by William Carlos Williams); City Lights Books; San Francisco. California; 1956; pp. 28-30.