In French, the sign along the roadside simply read: DANGER MORTAL! These were posted all along the winding coastal roads going out from the port at Le Palais. They covered most of the island. They were a very real warning as many of the island roads curved right along the coast, with precipitous and precarious views down from the cliffs, and across the inlets and bays. There were no guardrails.
We visited there in the summer of 1995 with our friend, the painter Holly Hughes and her mother Wanda, who at that time was the studio/office manager for the contemporary American painter Ellsworth Kelly. Wanda was armed with a map that had been given to her by Ellsworth so that we might find the ‘village’ where he had lived after WWII. Little did we know what a sight we were approaching?
Over the years on Belle-Isle, the largest of the Breton Islands, many artists found in the isolation, the savage waves and tides, the inspiration that they were searching for. Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, the actress Sarah Bernhardt and her companion the painter Georges Clairin, the Irish painter John Peter Russell, were all attracted to this special place, and later of course, so was Ellsworth Kelly.
During the fall of 1886, from 12 September to 25 November to be exact, Claude Monet lived and worked on Belle-Isle. During this time he produced a series of 39 paintings, exploring the weather and the wildness of this place.
Not to be outdone by the painters, the contemporary poet Patricia Clark from Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently visited Paris and many of the great museums there. She noticed in particular the paintings by Monet at the Musée D’Orsay, and the potential for an ekphrastic experience. When I asked Clark about this, this is what she said:
“As for the poem about Monet’s Rochers — we did not go out to the place, alas! Would love to see it. I believe (memory is slippery!) we saw the painting at the Musee D’Orsay. My method — such as it is! — is to buy postcards of paintings that really move me. . . . Then there’s a catalog. But I know I have a postcard of this painting.”
“I think what drew me to it is that it’s not an image I’d seen that much. It seems rougher and less ‘pretty’ than many Monets. I kept it in front of me and then one day, I started to write about it. That’s about as much as I recall — of course, a writer can’t help but layer their own issues over what they look at — so that’s what happens, doesn’t it? I hope that comes through.”[i]
“Les Rochers de Belle-Ille”
(after the painting by Claude Monet)
“No beach here—just the sea swirling in blue
deep blue and green
Both the sea and the rocks show age
It’s a tired scene of their coming together
each hour and day
The water’s force, erosion of all the softest parts
leaving only solid rock
This you could be crushed upon—the hardest
knowledge of all—
What is impervious to you, quite solidly indifferent
No escaping the sea
throws you repeatedly on the rocks of all you’re stupid about—
self-ignorance, deception, lies—
Instead someone calls this a scene, a landscape, seascape—
Following the end of WWII, from 1948 to 1954, the American artist and veteran Ellsworth Kelly visited and lived in several areas of France. In July 1949 he even rented a house on Belle-Ile-en-Mer for the summer and part of the fall. He had fallen in love with France and with its artists, especially Claude Monet and Henri Matisse.
In 1965 Kelly returned to Belle-Isle with a specific purpose, to re-visit certain sites that Monet had painted and witness them directly, not just metaphorically. Later in his life, 2005, he returned to Belle-Isle for a last series of drawings, not abstracted from the rocks, but directly created from the sources.[iii]
It is a landscape that would challenge one’s imagination. From the earliest visitors to contemporary painters and poets, one can only wonder how they felt when approaching these vistas for the first time. Looking out on this frighteningly beautiful land, with its bays, inlets, needles, rocks, and steep cliffs, it is no wonder that this entire region of France would come to be described as Finistère: the end of the earth.
[i] Clark, Patricia; in an e-mail response to this writer; 9 January 2021; 9:52 AM.
[ii] Clark, Patricia; Self-Portrait with a Million Dollars; Terrapin Books; West Caldwell, New Jersey; 2020; pp. 36-37.
[iii] Bois, Yve-Alain, and Sarah Lees; Monet/Kelly; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; Williamston, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press; New Haven and London; 2014.
Several years ago, during a visit to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, I was surprised to discover a painting by Robert Moskowitz, “Hard Ball III.” This painting reminded me of my own love of baseball. From childhood stickball games in the street, where fire hydrants, telephone poles, and man-hole covers served as the bases, and on to later years when we played in a summer league on real fields along the Mall and the Elipse just across the street from the White House in Washington, DC.
The Washington Senators were of course our home town team. One had to root, root, root for the home team even when they didn’t win, which was often, and a shame. But it was always great, whether we were sitting right there on the first base line or out in left field waiting for hits from Mantle and Berra, or Runnels and Busby and Yost.
Over the years my Dad and I both worked for a printing and photography company located at 19th and K Streets, NW: he much earlier in his career, and I during the summers right after high school and on through art school. The company was called Cooper/Trent after its two owners, and we were all baseball fans. Mr. Cooper and Mr. Trent had season tickets at Griffith Stadium and would usually bring back souvenirs for us, a photograph signed by Stan “The Man” Musial of the Cardinals, and a baseball, signed by the entire Senators team. I still have both of these, to this day.
But this is about something larger than these pieces of nostalgia. It is about a history that is both athletic and aesthetic: perfect for bridging the gap between painting and poetry, and as it turns out, two women have played an important part in this process.
During the 1930’s and 40’s the artist Marjorie Acker Phillips accompanied her husband Duncan to hundreds of local baseball games. Duncan Phillips of course, was the founder of the Phillips Collection of Washington, DC. During these outings, Marjorie often carried a sketchbook and drawing materials with her and drew the field, the players, and the general atmosphere of that great old ballpark, Griffith Stadium.
Later in the 1950’s and 60’s in New York, the poet Marianne Moore also became a baseball fan, especially of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella were some of her favorite subjects. She was well aware of the contribution that Jackie Robinson was making to our history at that time, and I think that the sound of Branch Rickey’s name may have brought a smile to her face.
“Baseball and Writing”
“Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting and baseball is like writing. You can never tell with either how it will go or what you will do; generating excitement— a fever in the victim— pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter. Victim in what category? Owlman watching from the press box? To whom does it apply? Who is excited? Might it be I?[i]
As the Phillips Collection developed and grew, Marjorie and Duncan Phillips moved out of their original home near DuPont Circle in Washington, and gave over the entire space to the museum. The Phillips Collection became the first museum in the country dedicated to modern art. It also provided an educational component in support of the works contained therein, and soon became known as a museum of modern art and its sources. Works of art were grouped as they played off of each other: from Ingres, Goya and Delacroix to Degas, Renoir and Cezanne, from Monticelli to van Gogh, with Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon and Georges Braque included in the mix.
Over the years Marjorie Phillips’ work became more known and she continued to enjoy the games of the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium. Her painting “Night Baseball” depicts a moment during a Yankees/Senators game when Joe DiMaggio comes up to bat. It is 1951, his last playing season. Everything is still, and rather than depict an action, she chose instead the tension of waiting on the delivery of that pitch to home plate.
I have recently discovered, from an old article in the Washington Post, that Marianne Moore had actually seen this painting and wrote to Marjorie Phillips about it.[ii] “Night Baseball” could have ended up in the collection of Miss Moore, unfortunately Marjorie Phillips had already given it as a gift to her husband Duncan, who placed it in his collection. Supposedly, even the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was interested in this painting, however it has remained in the Phillips Collection to this day.
It has been years since the Senators and Calvin Griffith left Washington, DC. They are only memories nowadays. However, newer painters and poets often remind us of those days. As mentioned above, Robert Moskowitz has always chosen simple, iconic images for his work, transforming them into monumental statements. Now, the poet Joseph Stanton, in the series “Painting the Corners” from his recent collection Things Seen, has taken a similar look at familiar icons, and this includes Marjorie Phillips’ painting “Night Baseball.”
MARJORIE PHILLIPS’ Night Baseball
“It’s the 1st of September 1951 and Joe Dimaggio is about to take his last swing in our nation’s capital. He’s up against the great, but largely forgotten, Connie Marrero, El Guajiro de Labertinto, El Premier of the Cuban stars, four years older than Joltin’ Joe, but still floating them up there, one damned knuckle ball after another, pitching with canny discernment and elderly grace, losing game after game, for the hapless Senators, despite his stellar ERA.
The electrified white of his home togs makes him seem a bright X, marking the spot of green field that waits under the glowering bruise of the night sky suspended above Griffith stadium in this brief instant before the fateful pitch.
Duncan Phillips has taken his wife to witness the great Dimaggio, another masterpiece for their gallery, but Marjorie can see this night as all about the weary pitcher, spread-limbed as if on a cross, arrayed against the base path the too much celebrated Joe will too soon circle.
“I know a good print when I see it. I know when it is good and why it is good. It is the neck of a man, the nose of a woman . . . . It is a photograph by Sheeler. It is. It is the thing where it is. So. That’s the mine out of which riches have always been drawn.”[i]
This is one of many observations made by William Carlos Williams regarding his long time friend Charles Sheeler. Williams was constantly calling for an “intense vision of the facts”[ii] and considered a painting or a photograph or a poem as a thing to be shaped or carved out in the process.
Williams noted this many times throughout his career: from his early work, in several of his essays, and in his epic poem Patterson. It even came up in his “Introduction” for Sheeler’s Retrospective Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939 where he observed: “It is in things that for the artist the power lies. . . .”[iii]
Sheeler had a wide range of interests, not only through his professional work but also as an inquisitive and thoughtful human being. He supported himself for many years as a documentary photographer both with Vogue and Fortune Magazines, as well as work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
These projects often paralleled his aesthetic interests, complimenting his studio work. Modern industrial subjects such as the factories in Ballardvale, Massachusetts and the Ford Motors plant in Detroit, Michigan became important sources of inspiration for this work. Simultaneously, he was interested in, and paid visits to historic farmhouses in Pennsylvania and New England, as well as communitarian sites such as the Ephrata Community in Lancaster County, and the Shaker Villages in both Mount Lebanon, New York and Hancock, Massachusetts. He even began collecting certain pieces of antique furniture with which he furnished his own home: folk art, ceramics, curved wooden boxes, and of course many Shaker chairs, cabinets, and tables.
William Carlos Williams even noted how his friend Charles Sheeler had taken certain objects and constructed an environment in which to live. Williams writing in his autobiography stated:
“The poem is our objective, the secret at the heart of the matter—as Sheeler’s small house, reorganized….”
“Charles Sheeler, artist, has taken the one rare object remaining more or less intact…and proceeded to live in it…and make a poem (a painting) of it….”[iv]
“How shall we in this region of the mind which is all we can tactically, sensually know, organize our history other than as Shaker furniture is organized? It is a past, totally uninfluenced by anything but the necessity, the total worth of the thing itself, the relationship of the parts to the whole. The Shakers made furniture for their own simple ritualistic use, of white pine, applewood, birch—what they had. Sheeler has a remarkable collection of this furniture.”[v]
For several years Sheeler had been working on an autobiography, which he turned over to the writer Constance Rourke, who edited and organized it. Rourke drew heavily upon Sheeler’s words, which became an important element in her monograph on this artist in 1939. Later, the historians Faith and Edward Demming Andrews referred to this book in their article on Sheeler in “Art in America” that focused on his interest in the Shakers:
“But as time went on he must have become more and more convinced that he wanted to do, through his medium, what the Shakers . . . had done in theirs: to strip away all that was superficial, to find the essential, the absolute, the inner undisguised meaning, the final irreducible character in form.”[vi]
Sheeler himself had many things to say regarding his interests and this collection. They were historic artifacts by that time, but they were also very contemporary in feeling and form. He stated that: “I don’t like these things because they are old but in spite of it. I’d like them still better if they were made yesterday because then they would afford proof that the same kind of creative power is continuing.”[vii]
“No embellishment meets the eye. Beauty of line and proportion through excellence of craftsmanship make the absence of ornament in no way an omission. The sense of light and spaciousness received upon entering the hall is indicative of similar spiritual qualities of the Shakers. Instinctively one takes a deep breath, as in the midst of some moving and exalted association of nature. There were no dark corners in those lives.”[viii]
“—Say it, no ideas but in things— nothing but the blank faces of the houses and cylindrical trees bent, forked by preconception and accident— split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained— secret—into the body of the light!”[ix]
[i] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253.
[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 231.
[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; p. 234.
[iv] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 332-333.
[v] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 333-334.
[vi] Andrews, Faith and Edward D.; “Sheeler and the Shakers;” Art in America; New York, New York; Number One; 1965; p. 95.
[vii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.
[viii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.
[ix] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6-7.
“We looked upon the French with a certain amount of awe because we thought they had secrets about art and literature which we might gain. We were anxious to learn, and yet we were repelled too. There was a little resentment in us against all the success of the French. The time had come for us to talk on our own terms. We felt this.”[i]
“Even though I have so profound an admiration for the beauty of Chartres, I realize strongly that it belongs to a culture, a tradition, a people of which I am not a part….It seems to be a persistent necessity for me to feel a sense of derivation from the country in which I live and work.”[ii]
Here are two important statements by 20th Century Americans: the first from William Carlos Williams and the second from Charles Sheeler. They became friends almost immediately after meeting for the first time and remained so for years to follow. Sheeler was concerned as a painter and photographer with discovering an American vision and a local, immediate subject matter. Williams, in his search for a poetic voice and an American idiom in his writing, incorporated everyday subjects and images, always insisting to ‘say it, no ideas but in things!’[iii]
In her early book on Charles Sheeler, Constance Rourke noticed the mutual interest in painting and poetry and the personal affection that had been established between the painter Charles Sheeler and the poet William Carlos Williams. They travelled in some of the same social and aesthetic circles: in Philadelphia within the Louise and Walter Arensberg family of influence, and New York, both were included in the circle built around the Steiglitz Group, which also included the artists Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth.
“A new intercommunication between artists and writers had begun of which this lasting friendship was a symbol. Williams, Wallace Stevens, and a few other ‘new’ poets had read some of their work at one of the Independents exhibitions. Some of Sheeler’s drawings and photographs were reproduced in Broom. . . . Each group was tending more often to look at the work of the other, to consider it, stay with it, give it the warmth of immediate discussion. Exchanges of ideas were taking place that might not be reflected directly in either painting or writing but could provide something in the way of a generative force for both.”[iv]
And here is one of Williams’ early observations regarding Sheeler’s work: “Romance, decoration, fullness—are lost in touch, sight, a word, to bite an apple. Henry Ford has asked Chas. Sheeler to go to Detroit and photograph everything. Carte blanche. Sheeler! That’s rich. . . .”[v]
Sheeler, in his capacity as a professional photographer, worked for several publications in the Conde Nast Group, as well as documenting the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Arensburg family private collection. Williams also knew of the Arensburg circle of artists, realists and surrealists amongst them, and of the importance of the local avant-garde. These are interesting parallels in their lives and activities. Today however, writers and artists often see this as the glorification of the industrial object, or as nostalgia, or realism so real, that it becomes surreal.
The Descent of Winter 10/30
“To freight cars in the air all the slow clank, clank clank, clank moving above the treetops
the wha, wha of the horse whistle
pah, pah, pah pah, pah, pah, pah, pah
piece and piece piece and piece moving still trippingly through the morningmist
long after the engine has fought by and disappeared in silence to the left”[vi]
Sheeler took great advantage of his many photographic essay commissions not just to document industrial sites in the East and the Mid-West, but to also collect valuable images for his own studio work in both drawing and painting. Variations on many of these themes appeared in his work throughout his lifetime and they have continued to provide inspiration for several artists in younger generations.
Contemporary painters such as Donald Sultan and Robert Moskowitz have benefitted from this insight that is contained in Sheeler’s work: an intense perception of the man-made environment and landscape. Recent curators and art historians have also noticed this, especially those writing about the Industrial Sublime[vii] and Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine.[viii] It is an ongoing aesthetic.
“A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant. . . . Its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character. Therefore, each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form. The effect is beauty, what in a single object resolves our complex feelings of propriety. . . .”
“When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”[ix]
[i] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 49.
[ii] Tsujimoto, Karen; Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of Washington Press; Seattle & London; 1982; p. 85. (Statement made by Sheeler on his series of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, originally published in Constance Rourke; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; New York, New York; Harcourt, Brace; 1938; p. 130).
[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1946 & 1992; p. 6.
[iv] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 50.
[v] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253.
[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 246.
[vii] Botwinick, Michael, et al; Industrial sublime; Empire State Editions, Fordham University Press; Yonkers, New York; 2014.
[viii] Lucic, Karen; Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine; Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1991.
[ix] Williams, William Carlos; I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet; (Edited by Edith Heal); New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1978; pp. 78-79.
As an extended reflection on the artist’s life and family history, his marriage, and with several references to other artists, William Carlos Williams chose to include this great poem at the very end of his last collection, Pictures from Brueghel and other poems, published in 1962. It is sometimes referred to as the world’s darkest love poem.
In the past, whenever I read “Asphodel” I had always thought of it as a written piece of surrealism: an author speaking to his contemporaries while walking through a strange landscape. He often mentions his wife Flossie and their friend Charlie Demuth, as well as other artists such as Goya and Cezanne. Today, when I re-read these lines, I associate them with more contemporary artists, especially Alfred Leslie and Laurie Gatlin.
I used to see certain paintings by Leslie at Allen Frumkin’s galleries in both Chicago and New York. I would often make a connection to certain other events or stories. With this one in particular, “7:00 AM News” I would always go right back to Williams and his observations regarding dreaded poetry and the news.
Then there is that strange visual juxtaposition of flowers actually blooming in hell. Totally surreal and I cannot help but think of the artist’s post card series created by Laurie Gatlin during the mid 1990’s.
I have recently re-discovered several of Dr. Gatlin’s post cards from this series, especially the ones quoting Dr. Williams and the Asphodel. When I asked her about them, this is what she had to say:
“I love that poem. I like the way it meanders through memory, and balances both loss and sorrow and love. I started that postcard project when I was living alone for the first time – I got married young and never lived on my own – I went from my parents house to my husband’s house, and then we had a house with children, a noisy house, and when I separated from him and moved into my own apartment, I was both happy with the ability to be alone and also terribly lonely. It’s hard to make that adjustment, and the way I coped was to reach out with my postcards. . . . So there were a lot of things in that poem that resonated with me, and re-reading it again today, I am more struck by the sense of looking back over a life lived. . . .”
“One of the things that strikes me about William Carlos Williams is the sense of rhythm in his works – not structured with regular meter, but it reads to me very much like a metered poem. There’s also the sense of distance in most of his poems – a sense of standing apart, and I think that appeals to me. Of Asphodel is actually pretty personal as it speaks about his relationship with his wife, but so much of it is also observational and distant. I think I appreciated both of those aspects at the time as well – the meter and the sense of distance/personal relationship.”[ii]
I have always agreed with these observations from Laurie Gatlin and I share her understanding of Williams’ poem and its meanings. However, during all of this time I missed a crucial detail of what Williams was trying to say. Only recently have I discovered classical references to this greeny flower. In fact, Homer mentions this in several passages of The Odyssey. While exploring Hades at the direction of Circe in order to consult the prophet Tiresias, Odysseus had met and talked with Achilles’ ghost and Minos, as well as Agamemnon, his own dead mother Autolycus, and of course Tiresias hinself. He had been sent by Circe in order to question his former crew regarding the events wherein he was lost at sea and these mates had been killed. All the while, during this visit, he noticed that there were fields and meadows of asphodels growing there.
“Of asphodel, that greeny flower, like a buttercup upon its branching stem— save that it’s green and wooden— I come, my sweet, to sing to you. We lived long together a life filled, if you will, with flowers. So that I was cheered when I came first to know that there were flowers also in hell.”[iii]
It turned out that Circe had instructed Odysseus two different times to travel to Hades for advice and guidance from his brothers in arms and from Tiresias. When he told Achilles that his son was actually still alive and had brought honor to his family, the ghost was overjoyed:
“…after I told him this, Achilles’ ghost took great swift-footed strides across the fields of asphodel, delighted to have heard about the glorious prowess of his son.”[iv]
During these explorations Odysseus met and talked with many of the inhabitants of the underworld. Whilst he was seeking to learn the routes out in order to return to Ithaca, his comrades in the underworld were seeking news of the outside world and they rushed to find any news that they could.
“On open roads they crossed the Ocean stream, went past the rock of Leucas and the gates of Helius the Sun, and skittered through the provinces of dreams, and soon arrived in fields of asphodel, the home of shadows who have been worn to weariness by life.”[v]
Asphodel, That Greeny Flower “Of asphodel, that greeny flower, I come, my sweet, to sing to you! My heart rouses thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you and concerns many men. Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”[vi]
“What power has love but forgiveness? In other words by its intervention what has been done can be undone. What good is it otherwise? Because of this I have invoked the flower in that frail as it is after winter’s harshness it comes again to delect us. Asphodel, the ancients believed, in hell’s despite was such a flower.”[vii]
[i] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 161.
[ii] Gatlin, Laurie; in an artist’s statement and e-mail communication with this writer; 29 June 2020, 6:58 AM.
[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 153.
[iv] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; pp. 296-197, lines 538-541.
[v] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; p. 507, lines 11-16.
[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 161-162.
[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 169-170.
It is a fabulously horrific depiction of the flaying of Marsyas as told in ancient times by the poet Ovid and painted late in the life of the Renaissance painter Titian. Recent novelists such as Iris Murdoch and Evelyn Waugh have often mentioned the importance of this painting with regard to their own writing. And, the painter Tom Phillips even included it in his official portrait of Murdoch, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Titian may have kept this painting in his studio longer than usual, psychological reflections of an old man on his life, while employing those plastic and gestural movements, which keep a painting alive, even after years of work, over and over, on the same surface. Titian painted “The Flaying of Marsyas” between 1570 and 1576. Its patron is unknown.
Although in his “Lives of the Artists” Vasari does not mention this painting in particular, he does write about the working method that Titian used around this time. He writes: “…and these last works are executed with bold strokes and dashed off with a broad and even coarse sweep of the brush, insomuch that from near little can be seen, but from a distance they appear perfect….Although many believe that they are done without effort, in truth it is not so…for it is known that they are painted over and over again, and that he returned to them with his colours so many times, that the labour may be perceived. And this method, so used, is judicious, beautiful, and astonishing, because it makes pictures appear alive and painted with great art….”[i]
In the original telling of this ancient story, it was Marsyas the satyr, in his arrogance, who had challenged Apollo to a piping contest. It was agreed that it would take place in the woods with an audience of those from both the woodlands and Olympus. Afterwards all agreed that Apollo had easily won and that was it. However, Apollo had been offended, and in his wrath, ordered the flaying of Marsyas. This is how Ovid described it:
“After the Theban had told this story about the demise of the Lycian peasants, another recalled the horrible punishment dealt to the Satyr who’d challenged Latona’s son to a piping contest and lost. ‘Don’t rip me away from myself!’ he entreated; ‘I’m sorry!’ he shouted between his shrieks, ‘Don’t flay me for piping!’ In spite of his cries, the skin was peeled from his flesh, and his body was turned into one great wound; the blood was pouring all over him, muscles were fully exposed, his uncovered veins convulsively quivered; the palpitating intestines could well be counted, and so could organs glistening through the wall of his chest. The piper was mourned by the rustic fauns who watch over the woodlands, his brother satyrs, the nymphs and Olympus, the pupil he loved by all who tended their flocks or herds on the Lycian mountains. Their tears dropped down and saturated the fertile earth, who absorbed them deep in her veins and discharged them back into the air in the form of a spring. This found its way to the sea through a channel, which took the name Marsyas, clearest of Phrygian rivers.”[ii]
In a more contemporary rendition of this story, the poet Robin Robertson includes an extended description of this ancient and mythical event. Below are several selections from this larger ekphrastic piece: a lyrical description of the scene on that day, specific instructions from the butcher to his two apprentices, illusions of bad tattoos as if lifted from the skin, and an allusion of a dismantled man, not unlike the anatomy of a painting and its skin, as a “disappointing pentimento.”
THE FLAYING OF MARSYAS after Ovid
“A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves, Sifting down to dapple the soft ground, and rest a gilded bar against the muted flanks of trees. In the flittering green light the glade listens in and breathes.
A wooden pail; some pegs, a coil of wire; A bundle of steel flensing knives.
Spreadeagled between two pines, Hooked at each hoof to the higher branches, tied to the root by the hands, flagged as his own white cross, the satyr Marsyas hangs.
Three stand as honour guard: two apprentices, one butcher.”
“Let’s have a look at you, then. Bit scrawny for a satyr, all skin and whipcord, is it? Soon find out. So, think you can turn up with your stag-bones and outplay Lord Apollo? This’ll learn you. Fleece the fucker.
Now. One of you on each side. Blade along the bone, find the tendon, nick it and peel, nice and slow. A bit of shirt-lifting, now, to purge him, pull his wool over his eyes and show him Lord Apollo’s rapture; pelt on one tree, him on another: the inner man revealed.”
“Red Marsyas. Marsyas ecorche, splayed, shucked of his skin in a tug and rift of tissue; his birthday suit sloughed the way a sodden overcoat is eased off the shoulders and dumped. All memories of a carnal life lifted like a bad tattoo, live bark from the vascular tree: raw Marsyas unsheathed.
Or this: the shambles of Marsyas. The dark chest meat marbled with yellow fat, his heart like an animal breathing in its milky envelope, the viscera a well-packed suitcase of chitterlings, a palpitating tripe. A man dismantled, a tatterdemalion torn to steak and rind, a disappointing pentimento or the toy that can’t be re-assembled by the boy Apollo, a raptor, vivisector.
The sail of stretched skin thrills and snaps in the same breeze that makes his nerves fire, his bare lungs scream. Stripped of himself and from his twin: the stiffening scab and the sticky wound.
Marsyas the martyr, a god’s fetish, hangs from the tree like bad fruit.”[iii]
As a footnote to this subject: the novelist Iris Murdoch was especially fond of this painting. References to it are included in several of her novels, and when the artist Tom Phillips was commissioned to do her portrait for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery in London, Murdoch suggested that a portion of the Titian painting be included in the background of her portrait. And it was.
[i] Vasari, Giorgio; Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York and Toronto; 1996; p. 794.
[ii] Ovid; Metamorphoses: Book 6 (Translated by David Raeburn); Penguin Classics; London, England; 2004; pp. 228-229, lines 382-400.
[iii] Robertson, Robin; A Painted Field; Harcourt Brace & Company; San Diego, New York, London; 1997; pp. 10-12.
For how many years have these two landmarks, Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge, attracted the attention of poets and painters? Many have tackled this subject. When we read Walt Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ or Hart Crane’s ‘To Brooklyn Bridge’ there are many elements that remind us of other works by artists like John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Joseph Stella. Contemporary poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Joseph Stanton have also made mention of these sites.
Most recently, and very importantly, we have images from the contemporary photographer Dudley Gray, whose work clearly shares many of these same aesthetic concerns. In fact, many of Dudley Gray’s images have been published over the years, and the writer Janel Bladow has had this to say in describing his work in OMNI Magazine:
“The cables of the Brooklyn Bridge…become flamboyant, spidery abstractions. Around Manhattan other buildings, bathed in vivid colored light, brightly beam the urban nightscape. These marvels of design sparkle like precious jewels.”[i]
“Without altering the physical structure of the cityscape, artist Joseph Strand and photographer Dudley Gray can change the mood of the city. Their urban illuminations transform today’s skyline into stunning abstract light sculptures of the future.”[ii]
However, we must go back in time and follow a progression of these words and images. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman describes some of the very spots that would later become the views people would have when crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, throughout this poem Whitman makes reference to the generations of the future who will experience these sights.
“The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks,
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,
Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.”[iii]
“Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore; Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.”[iv]
One of these others from fifty or one hundred years hence would surely be the painter Joseph Stella. Stella has always been a difficult artist to categorize. Although he was a very figurative painter he was not close to the American realists and regionalists so popular during the early years of the 20th Century. Although he was a modernist, he would not be classified as a colonial cubist, as others were during that same era. He is appealing to us today for these very reasons.
Stella’s body of work includes almost classical portrait drawings of his contemporaries such as Edgar Varese, Marcel Duchamp, and Katherine Millay. Amongst his most important, and famous images, are paintings from the “New York Interpreted” series, especially the works in reference to Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge. And finally, there exists another body of work that includes many references to natural objects and fantasies.
Another literary reference should be added here: Joseph Stella wrote several manuscript notes regarding his individual paintings. They were written fragments, translated from the Italian by Irma B. Jaffe, and included in her book dealing with the symbolism in Stella’s work.[v] These written statements by Stella are in themselves quite serious and lyrical. They do not just describe, but provide a literary parallel to his paintings. They are just as mystical as his paintings, equal to them, and excellent examples of the ekphrastic process in their own right.
“Seen for the first time, as a weird metallic Apparition under a metallic sky, out of proportion with the winged lightness of its arch, traced for the conjunction of Worlds, supported by the massive dark towers dominating the surrounding tumult of the surging skyscrapers with their gothic majesty sealed in the purity of their arches, the cables, like divine messages from above, transmitted to the vibrating coils, cutting and dividing into innumerable musical spaces the nude immensity of the sky, it impressed me as the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America…the eloquent meeting of all the forces arising in a superb assertion of powers, in Apotheosis.”[vi]
Jumping ahead to contemporary literature, recent references have appeared to both Coney Island and Far Rockaway by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The very first book I read by Ferlinghetti was A Coney Island of the Mind, purchased in San Francisco in 1970 or so; and the most recent one was A Far Rockaway of the Heart, which I purchased just after his reading here in Indianapolis at Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus on 7 February 2000.
We learned that night, that he had been continually writing, adding to, and expanding upon many of his earlier themes. Even though he had spent so much time at the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, he seemed to be making several references to his earlier years: the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and any number of childlike antics on sidewalks just below the bridges and elevated train tracks.
The Junkman’s Obligato
“Let us arise and go now into the interior dark night of the soul’s still bowery and find ourselves anew where subways stall and wait under the River. Cross over into full puzzlement. South Ferry will not run forever. They are cutting out the Bay ferries but it is still not too late to get lost in Oakland. Washington has not yet toppled from his horse. There is still time to goose him and go leaving our income tax form behind and our waterproof wristwatch with it staggering blind after alleycats under Brooklyn’s Bridge blown statues in baggy pants our tincan cries and garbage voices trailing. Junk for sale!”[vii]
Poets of a younger generation have also taken on these ideas and images, including the writer and art historian Joseph Stanton. With his writing, Stanton creates imaginary places and even museums with various ‘wings’ housing his personal collection of ekphrastic masterpieces, including this reference to Josef Stella and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Josef Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge
“On his first painting of it, lines of force slant this way, then slant that, flickering a cacophony of blue and white above a blossom of blood; while the spine articulates— in tiny, elegant detail— the sequenced towers.
Passing the frisson futurism in subsequent pictures, Stella settled to a symmetry a quintessential modernism that became the way he crossed this bridge every subsequent time he came to its soaring contradictions—
medieval gothic are its massive piers and yet the machined-aged cables of steel, the taut song of its wiring mechanique, is what lifts our spirits, transports us, as we walk the interior passage, unique to this suspension, a path that makes our walking seem
a transit towards an altar, an altar that turns out to be the City of Brooklyn, a place worthy of worship in its way, but cruel, ungraspable. ‘Only the dead know Brooklyn,’ sayeth the gospel of Thomas Wolfe.”[viii]
Thinking again about modernism and the “wiring mechanique,” Janel Bladow has summarized perfectly the effect of light falling on the Brooklyn Bridge, while quoting Dudley Gray: “To Gray, light caresses structure. ‘It’s like a love affair between light and steel. Colors run from hot purples to cold blues. Buildings suddenly acquire both intense identification and peaceful beauty in one dazzling moment.’”[ix]
TO BROOKLYN BRIDGE
“Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning, A jest falls from the speechless caravan.
Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks, A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene; All afternoon the cloud flown derricks turn… Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.”[x]
[i] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.
[ii] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.
[iii] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 3, p. 144.
[iv] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 2, p. 143.
[v] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California, and New York, New York; 1994.
[vi] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California and New York, New York; 1994; (Unpaginated, printed opposite Plate 13).
[vii] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; A Coney Island of the Mind; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1958; p. 56.
[viii] Stanton, Joseph; Moving pictures; Shanti Arts Publishing; Brunswick, Maine; 2019; p. 86.
[ix] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 73.
[x] Crane, Hart, ed. Marc Simon; “To Brooklyn Bridge” from The Complete Poems of Hart Crane; Liveright Publishing Corporation; New York and London; 2001; p. 43.
She would have them start out by doing gesture drawings and warming up before some of the more formal work began in the studio. It was an idea right out of the Bauhaus School, where she herself had studied. This art teacher did both drawing and color assignments as well as graphic and plastic exercises.
“She believed in mixing colors and drawing from nature”
“She taught exercises in composition and breathing”
“She spoke of positive and negative forms and the rhythm of geometric shapes and the musical keyboard of color”[i]
Friedl Dicker was born on 30 July 1898 in Vienna, Austria. During her youth, she and several friends studied with the artist Johann Itten at his private school in Vienna. She later followed Itten to Weimar, Germany, where she studied at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923. Along with Itten, she also studied with Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer and Paul Klee. She was especially influenced by the drawing and introductory courses that had been developed by Itten.
After leaving the Bauhaus, she established workshops and ateliers in both Berlin and Vienna, focusing on architecture, interior design, textiles and bookbinding. She also became an art educator, guiding kindergarten teachers in Vienna in the education of children.
Dicker continued with both her own work and teaching for several years, and even produced a series of political posters in support of the Austrian Communist Party. During the February Uprising in 1934 she was arrested and interrogated regarding her communist activities. After her release, she moved to Prague, continued her creative activities, and met and married Pavel Brandeis on 30 April 1936. There she continued her own studio work as well as teaching art to Jewish children who were no longer allowed to attend the public schools.
On 17 December 1942, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was deported to the Terezin concentration camp just north of Prague. From a third-story window she continued to paint scenes of the courtyard below, and she continued to teach children in her art classes in the camp. She brought the lessons that she had learned at the Bauhaus directly to her new young charges at Terezin.
On 6 October 1944, Dicker-Brandeis and her students were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau where they were executed on 9 October 1944.
Just before her classes were closed, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis collected 4,387 drawings completed by her students. She packed them all in two suitcases and hid them in one of the children’s dormitories in the Ghetto in Prague. Since their rediscovery, these works have been featured at both the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Jewish Museum in Prague, where they are now preserved in the permanent collection.
Several years ago we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It was there that I first saw the drawings of the children who had been incarcerated in the concentration camps in Europe. I immediately purchased the catalog titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”[ii] and have kept its memory close. Later I read a new collection of Edward Hirsch’s work titled Lay Back the Darkness that contained a section titled “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944.”
I wrote to him regarding this sequence of poems. As it turned out, we had both seen some of this work in person, although in two very different locations: he had seen them at the Museum in Terezin, and I had seen them in Washington, DC. When I asked him about this, this was his response: “I didn’t see that particular exhibition in Washington, but I’m sure it includes the same work that I saw a couple of times at the museum in Terezin. I first discovered some of the poems and drawings in a little book called ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly.’ That was later amplified into the exhibition.”[iii]
After reading Hirsch’s book, many of the images from the drawings came flooding back into my mind, so I have paired a selection of Edward Hirsch’s lines with some of the children’s drawings here. I also asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Helmick, an expert on Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, for her thoughts on this important art educator. This is a summary of what she wrote back to me:
“The empathetic experience of artmaking was Friedl Dicker Brandeis’ gift to the young artists in the Nazi concentration camp. While many artists in the Nazi internment camp recorded the awful circumstances in which they were imprisoned, Dicker Brandeis provided aesthetic experiences for the children in her charge….By teaching them to observe and experience their visual world…she enabled them to live imaginatively in horrific conditions. The artifacts left behind were not just products of art making but windows into the soul of the makers that gave proof of meaning making and authentic engagement, just as Dicker Brandeis believed.”[iv]
“A pasted collage on an office form of a sunny evening in Terezin”[v]
“This is a guard with a stick This is a stick with a heart This is a heart with a horseshoe This is a girl flinging the horseshoe at a guard”[vi]
“An unsigned still life with a jelly jar filled with meadow flowers”[vii]
“Somewhere out there in the trees far away from the barracks childhood is still waiting for me”[viii]
“Not even the teacher who had studied at the Bauhaus could draw the face of God”[ix]
[i] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 55.
[ii] Volavkova, Hana, ed., Haim Potok, Vaclav Havel; I Never Saw Another Butterfly; Schocken Books; New York, Neew York; 1993.
[iii] Hirsch, Edward; (From an e-mail correspondence with this writer); 26 July 2017 at 9:49AM.
[iv] Helmick, Linda, PhD; Assistant Professor of Art Education, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; (From an e-mail correspondence with this author); 24 March 2020, 10:57 am.
[v] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.
[vi] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 51.
[vii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.
[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 49.
[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 53.
Somehow in the course of events we have been led to believe that the ‘modern’ has come to mean only formalist abstraction and minimalism. A smaller and smaller world defined by a very tight description. There are however, several important modern writers and artists who have paid special attention to the details of modern life, seeing in them the larger world and how these details might speak to us.
SUNDAY NIGHT “Make use of the things around you. This light rain Outside the window, for one. This cigarette between my fingers, These feet on the couch. The faint sound of rock-and-roll, The red Ferrari in my head. The woman bumping Drunkenly around the kitchen . . . Put it all in, Make use.”[i]
“Don’t forget when the phone was off the hook all day, every day.”[ii]
“When, at 12:24, I look at the clock that isn’t running and it tells the same time as the clock that is”[iii]
As we read the above observations, both Musa McKim and Raymond Carver look directly at the world surrounding us: a telephone lying off its hook, a broken alarm clock, a bag of sugar, or just the sun creating a glare on a sheet of white paper. Many of the same things that would catch the eye of an artist. The abstract form and shape of a grand piano, or the abstracted movement of a bird in space. All are examples of minimal imagery with maximum power that both poets and painters would employ.
Brancusi’s sculpture, straight out of a folk tradition, but unrecognzable to the Parisian elite, later became the sophisticated form that synthesized beauty, abstraction and content. There is the catch: abstraction and content. At first no one saw Brancusi’s pieces as birds, neither in space nor in flight. Today, however, they have become a symbol of just that.
Not unlike the sculpture of Brancusi, the orchestral pieces of Igor Stravinsky synthesized classical music with jazz, folk and even the primal. Traditional painting had also gone through a similar synthesis of realism, cubism and pure plastic painting.
In the 1950’s and 60’s many young art students were taught by American abstract artists. Process and abstraction formed the content of most of the work at that time. But later, outside of academia, these artists were also confronted by the dilemma of what to do now? They were well versed in process, but struggled to find content. One artist however, set the most impressive example. Philip Guston at his Marlborough show in 1970 envisioned the end of one aspect of this process, and opened the gates and possibilities to new forms of imagery. Making use of the things around him.
By looking at certain details occurring in the world he single handedly opened the doors for himself, for poets, and later artists to come. These included Clarke Coolidge, Musa McKim, Raymond Carver, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg and more.
“I thought I would never write anything down again. Then I put on my cold wristwatch.”[iv]
In the mid 1960’s Robert Moskowitz produced a series of small paintings of a simple corner of a room. Quiet, minimal, very abstract and infused with a new sense of content and space. Where the simplest shape or form of a thing could clearly speak.
He would later take this process, including both personal and universal images, and juxtapose them in subtle but provacotive ways. A corner of the Flatiron Building, or the tops of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Towers, for example. A simplified assortment of visual images, not unlike the sparse and provacotive language used by Raymond Carver and Musa McKim.
“Talking about her brother Morris, Tess said: ‘The night always catches him. He never believes it’s coming.’”[v]
“When on TV I see my sister in a bit part in an old movie”[vi]
“Three men and a woman in wet suits. The door to their motel room is open and they are watching TV.”[vii]
“And below in the street they are rattling the Coca-Cola bottles”[viii]
His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes “Duke Ellington riding in the back of his limo, somewhere in Indiana. He is reading by lamplight. Billy Strayhorn is with him, but asleep. The tires hiss on the pavement. The Duke goes on reading and turning the pages.”[ix]
[i] Carver, Raymond; “Sunday Night,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 53.
[ii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.
[iii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.
[iv] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 121.
[v] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 64.
[vi] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.
[vii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 65.
[viii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.
[ix] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.
“who’s the guy on the glass? that’s joyce. joyce, that’s a girl’s name. that’s a name. well, what’s with him? he watches over me. he only got one eye. a guy like him that’s all he needs.”[i]
The poems of Patti Smith are simultaneously cutting and fanciful, getting at a certain truth even as they weave myths, fantasies and contemporary literature together. There are several statements made by Smith that remind me of another artist’s work, the contemporary painter Robert Barnes. Whether in a poem by Smith or a painting by Barnes, we definitely witness a series of visual ambiguities and associative shifts taking place.
“a coronet of stars ornament of the tame no one to bow to to vow to to blame how did i die? i tried to walk thru light with tangled hair not yet prepared for the valley of combat.”[ii]
“have you seen dylan’s dog it got wings it can fly if you speak of it to him it’s the only time Dylan can’t look you in the eye”
“have you seen dylan’s dog it got wings it can fly when it lands like a clown he’s the only thing allowed to look Dylan in the eye”[iii]
They both, Patti Smith and Robert Barnes, have their idols and inspirations, an assortment of creative and eccentric characters. For Barnes these include: James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Craven, Jeremy Bentham, and Tristan Tzara. And Smith: again James Joyce, William S. Burrows, Jean Genet, Andre Breton, Arthur Rimbaud, and Bob Dylan. Magicians and tricksters they are, in both words and images. Smith masquerading as Dylan, and Barnes often using the analogy of the slight of hand embodied in the old time ‘table cloth’ trick!
During the fall of 2015 the Indiana University Art Museum held a retrospective of Robert Barnes’ work, “Grand Illusions: Late Works 1985-2015.” This was such a powerful show, and it was the second such exhibition of his work that I have seen in person. In his remarks at the opening Barnes mentioned several influential books including: “The Golden Bough” by James George Frazer, “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves, and “Ulysses” by James Joyce. Using these examples, he noted how a subject unfolds as it is invented in his paintings. A narrative transformation of sorts takes place.[v]
“Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey” was the earlier exhibition organized by the Madison Art Center in Wisconsin, which travelled to the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, and several other national locations. The main essay for this catalogue was written by the Chicago critic and curator Dennis Adrian, and set about describing and defining many of the issues and ideas that flow through this work.
“The complex, shifting, and many-layered sense of a larger reality has important correspondences in Barmes’s (sic) various literary and artistic enthusiasms. Among the most significant of these is his love and regard for the writing of James Joyce. In fact, Barnes’ method and effects are like the continuous unreeling present in Joyce’s Ulysses, where the events of Leopold Bloom’s day are experienced by both him and the reader as shifting and overlapping elements of feeling, observation, memory, fantasy, imagination, conflation of past and present…all of which are rooted in the structure, incidents, and characters of Homer’s Odyssey.”[vi]
“In both Joyce and Barnes, the ‘subject,’ so to speak, is created and even invented freshly for us, but it also contains, through parallels of structure, allusion, or direct reference, a connection with other realms of experience, ‘actual,’ artistic, or both….The elements in Barnes’ paintings which feel like the record or recollections of some specific actuality help to create a forceful presence for his abstract inventions and the curious forms which we seem to recognize but cannot identify, that is, the things which we know about perceptually but cannot name.”[vii]
More recently, I wrote to Robert Barnes to ask him about his work and especially his interest in James Joyce. He graciously responded:
“When I attended the University of Chicago in the fifties I was fortunate to have as a friend the poet Paul Carroll who wanted to be James Joyce! We had as a drinking companion an Irishman who was then the answerman for the now defunct Chicago Daily News! He was at one time an actor at the Abbey Theatre in the old country! If we bought him drinks he would recite complete Irish plays (all the parts)!”
“At one time he undertook the reading of Ulysses! He could do the plays verbatim but read Joyce from a book! He claimed it had to be read with an Irish accent and I believe he was right! It took him several evenings and lots of booze but was well worth it and gave me a life long love of things Joycean!”
“I have been fortunate in to have encountered inspiring people at the right time (it seems magical)! Even without an Irish accent I think it a good idea to read Ulysses aloud or at least part of it….it is a life changing experience!”[viii]
Racing through a day in Dublin, in a stream of consciousness, Ulysses proceeds with abandon to its conclusion. Its characters and stories often parallel the paintings of Robert Barnes. Not only in his painting of Joyce, but in many other subjects, Barnes has created a cast of invented characters and self-portrait equivalents that exist within the spatial logic of both painting and poetry.
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, the Joyce family often used a local Dublin painter for family portraits. This task went to Patrick Tuohy, who required James Joyce to sit daily for almost a month. With tensions building between the artist and the writer as the work went on, Joyce became increasingly irritable, and it has been noted: “…he was impatient with the artist’s pretensions: ‘Never mind my soul. Just be sure you have my tie right.’”[ix]
“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”[x]
[i] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 13.
[ii] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 163.
[iii] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; pp. 22-23.
[iv] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 53.
[v] A discussion between Robert Barnes and Michael Brooks that took place during the opening ceremonies of the “Robert Barnes: Grand Illusions, Late Works 1985-2015” exhibition at the Indiana University Museum of Art, Bloomington, Indiana. From my notes taken during that program, 25 September 2015.
[vi] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10.
[vii] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10.
[viii] Barnes, Robert; from an e-mail correspondence with this writer on 24 March 2020, at 11:53 am.
[ix] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, and Toronto; 1997; p. xxviii.
[x] Smith, Patti; Early Work: 1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. x.