A NUDE DESCENDING THE STAIRS

“Why?  Only because she had walked naked into my life?  In a painting?”[i]

“You came here so you could finally understand modern art?”[ii]  Who knows how many times this question has been asked, and inadequately answered?  Beginning with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and continuing into our current time, now including the Modernists and Post-Modernists.  These questions involving the definition of modern art come up several times in this story that revolves around a young nude woman who is portrayed as she comes down a staircase in a modern painting.

In his recent novel The Woman on the Stairs the writer Bernhard Schlink draws inspiration from a Gerhardt Richter painting for a story involving the interrelationships amongst an art patron and his wife, an artist and his mistress, and a young lawyer who is caught in the middle of all of this.  Threats of lawsuits are flying back and forth.  Discussions and negotiations are being held regarding the conservation of this modern masterpiece.  And, the lawyer has fallen in love with a nude woman descending a staircase.  I am not sure if there is a post-modern dilemma effecting the legal profession nowadays, but this situation certainly highlights that dilemma in the contemporary art world.

The industrial revolution brought with it the production of a new range of synthetic pigments for artists.  Scientific discoveries and theories brought to our attention how reality is made up of smaller and smaller elements and particles.  And photography brought a new interest in capturing the realistic moment.  Although many writers have proposed that photography also destroyed the need for painting, the final result was to free it, allowing painting to explore new paths of expression, no longer confined by realism and the mimetic.

One important historic example was the work of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his experiments in capturing a variety of figures and animals in motion.  For example, his photographs of horses in motion proved once and for all that artists of the past had never correctly depicted the action of galloping horses.

nude
Eadward Muybridge
“Woman descending a staircase, sequence”
1887
Collotype on paper
7 3/4” x 14 13/16”
University of Pennsylvania Archives
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Muybridge’s studies of human figures walking, running, climbing and descending stairs also brought new light on these particular movements.  When Duchamp’s “Nude Descending the Staircase” was shown at the Armory Show in 1913 in the United States it of course created a stir as well as achieving unbelievable success.  In interviews afterwards, Duchamp stated how he had been directly influenced by Muybridge’s earlier work.[iii]

nude2
Marcel Duchamp
“Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”
1912
Oil on canvas
57 7/8” x 35 1/8”
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection
Philadelphia Museum of Art

For the author Bernhard Schlink, various discussions and descriptions of this painting advance the story line of his novel.  They become a series of ekphrastic exercises, deftly woven into the development of the story.

In talking about the German painter Karl Schwind’s painting of the “Woman on Staircase” the model Irene Gundlach mentioned that:  “It was an answer to Marcel Duchamp.  Do you know Nude Descending a Staircase?  A cubist figure, breaking up in the moments of descent, a vortex of legs, ass, arms and heads?  Duchamp’s work was talked about as the end of painting, and Schwind wanted to show that a naked woman descending a staircase could still be painted.”[iv]

Further on she explained that:  “He wanted to keep the pictures he felt defined him as an artist.  That spoke to issues in contemporary painting:  what representation and abstraction can offer, their relationship to photography, how beauty and truth interact.”[v]

At one point, the lawyer remembered:  “I went into a bookshop, and asked for everything they had on Karl Schwind.  A few years before, the Frankfort Art Association had organized an exhibition and published a slim catalogue – that was all they had.  I know nothing about art and couldn’t judge if the paintings were good or bad.  There were pictures of waves, of skies and

nude3
Gerhardt Richter
“Ema (Nude on a Staircase)”
1966
Oil on canvas
200 cm x 130 cm
Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

clouds, of trees; the colours were beautiful, and everything was blurry, the way I see the world when I’m not wearing my glasses.  Familiar, yet distanced.  The catalogue listed the galleries that had exhibited Schwind and the awards he had won.  He didn’t appear to be a failure as an artist, bet he wasn’t established either – up-and-coming, perhaps.”[vi]

And finally, as the patron Peter Gundlach was speaking, he “ . . . told us about the article in the New York Times and the reports that followed in the German media.  The painting, Woman on Staircase, a fixture in Schwind catalogues, but never exhibited, about which Schwind had always been evasive, had a mysterious aura, and its sudden appearance in, of all places, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was a sensation.”[vii]

“Then he laughed.  ‘In any case, you had a good eye, better than mine.  If I had suspected that the painting would one day be worth more than twenty million . . . .’”[viii]

 


[i] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; Pantheon Books; New York, New York; 2016; p. 98.

[ii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p.85.

[iii] Ramirez, Juan Antonio; Duchamp:  love and death, even; Reaktion Books; London, United Kingdom; 1998; pp. 257-258.

[iv] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.

[v] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.

[vi] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 14.

[vii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 116.

[viii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 113.

THE FLIGHT OF ICARUS!

matisse
Henri Matisse
“The Fall of Icarus”
1943
Gouache on paper cut out, collaged on canvas
35 x 26.5 cm
Private Collection

“‘I warn you,’ Daedalus had said, ‘not to fly so low that the mist or fog weighs down your wings, nor so high that the sun scorches you:  fly between the two!  Avoid too much heat and too much damp, too much dryness and too much cold.  Keep to the center of their wheel.  Don’t look at Bootes or Helice, or at Orion’s drawn sword.  Take me as your guide and follow!”

“But Icarus grows excited.  He forgets the advice.  Soon he masters the beating of his wings and swoops in wide, playful circles above the sea.  Does Minos see him laughing and dancing on the invisible crest of the world?  Like a swimmer, turning his back on the cries from shore, he is already far at sea.  He has tired of following his father’s shoulders, his snowy wings and shock of hair.  He enters into glory as into a garden, a garden of flames that surrounds him; and he breathes in.  ‘O Sun!  Father!’ he cries to the encircling fire.  Once more he kicks on the wind!  Again he beats his wings on the torrid wave of the wind!  Once more he thrusts up into the light!”[i]

We know of course, how this is going to end:  wings and wax melting, bursting into flames, and finally falling into the sea below.  Deadalus, the great engineer and inventor, who had constructed these devices for himself and his son, Icarus, had been imprisoned by King Minos in the very dungeon he had constructed for the Minitaur on orders from this king.

The excitement and enthusiasm of this young man overshadowed the warnings of his father, to stay the course.  It is an ancient moral tale from Ovid that has fascinated many generations of painters and poets:  from Pieter Breughel (both the Elder and the Younger) to Henri Matisse and from William Carlos Williams to Claude-Henri Rocquet.

Many years ago, in literature and composition classes in Baltimore we were  exposed to both classic and contemporary writers, especially Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders and Susan Sontag.  Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore were always mentioned as well, but William Carlos Williams was often sited only as a footnote.  Sometimes at night I would hit the library and find the new (at the time) two volume edition of Williams’ Collected Poems on the reserve shelf.  I read through the entire collection several times that semester.

I have read that Williams himself was aware of and frustrated by the lack of greater recognition his work was afforded at that time.  He continued to write nonetheless, and his last collection, “Pictures from Breughel” proved beyond a doubt his importance.  Three months after his death, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection.  His deep seeing, attention to detail and sensitivity towards Breughel’s work have continued to influence many younger painters and poets.

II    LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS

“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning”[ii]

matisse2
Pieter Bruegel
“La chute d’Icare”
Oil on panel
1562-1563
73.5 x 112 cm
Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

 


[i] Rocquet, Claude-Henri; Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1991.  (p. 122).

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” Pictures from Breughel; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 4.

INTO THE LIFE OF THINGS

“Nothing is hollow or waste to the imagination of Marianne Moore….For I don’t think there is a better poet writing in America today or one who touches so deftly so great a range of our thought….So that in looking at some apparently small object one feels the swirl of great events.”[i]

This is what William Carlos Williams wrote about his friend and colleague Marianne Moore in an article regarding her work for the Quarterly Review of Literature in 1948.  This particular issue of the Quarterly Review was published in honor of Miss Moore.

Marianne Moore was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1887 and lived most of her life there.  Miss Moore studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a professional librarian, with the other half of her career as a poet.  Along the way, she met and shared aesthetic interests with other fellow poets including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.  On a rare trip overseas to London and the British Museum with her mother in 1911 she discovered a small Egyptian blown glass sculpture in the form of a fish, which later became an important example of the ekphrastic tradition.  She has also written sensitively about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome and His Lion” and “Rodin’s Penseur.

ellen1
Ellen Fischer
“Kodak and Mirror”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

Ellen Fischer was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1956.  She studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has served as a curator at both the Greater Lafayette Museum of Art in Indiana and the Vero Beach Museum of Art in Florida.  The other half of her career over these years was of course as a studio artist.

These two could have been sisters, or distant cousins, perhaps not from the exact same family, but from across the spread of time.  They share several aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual traditions even though one was an Imagist poet and the other is a contemporary painter.  Both women have worked with great independence and determination.

On several occasions I have accompanied Ms. Fischer to art museums, galleries, antique stores and markets in Central Florida.  The same eyes that look so intensely at works of art are also used to search out a find or two at the local flea market or Goodwill Store.  Her juxtapositions are always surprising and provocative, bringing out the best in every object.

Quietly creating these still lives, flooding them with light and satire and curiosity, Ms. Fischer has assembled a body of work that speaks of human hands and activities. It is exactly what Miss Moore advocated when she mentioned how one object shouldn’t diminish or reduce another:  one thing being great because another is small.

ellen2
Ellen Fischer
“Hanging Machete”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist

Although many of these objects are old and discarded, they are not, to my mind, nostalgic.  They are unusual in form and antique in the sense that they carry with them a certain history, or an untold story that may have already been lost, only now to be participants in a totally new story.

When I recently asked Ms. Fischer about her work and her selection of subjects, this was her response:

“YES, I see things at Goodwill and thrift stores and flea markets, and buy them.  I know right away that I have to have them, and that I will paint them.  The meat cleaver was purchased at the St. Vincent DePaul shop here in Vero.  Two friends were with me and I had nothing to buy. When they were checking out, I saw it in a case on the other side of the cash register and asked to see it.”

“Well, once something like that is in your hands you can’t let it go.  I paid way more for that cleaver than I usually spend on anything in the thrift store– $10.00!”

“I had done a few paintings with sharp objects in them, and wanted to do more.  The cleaver interested me as an object to paint. It did lie around the studio for a few months before I used it, but I never stopped thinking about it, in a general way.”

“It seemed natural to use the little Parian ware ‘Ma Kettle’ figure with it– she is holding an ax, you may have noticed, and has a pig at her side….And she was just the right size to hide behind the blade.”

ellen3
Ellen Fischer
“A Close Call”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Private collection Indianapolis)

“Always best when a still life comes together spontaneously.  I don’t think you can force objects to go together that don’t belong together, no matter how you juggle them.”

“Sometimes I have played around with objects, positioning them this way and that to see how they might work, but if it doesn’t happen within a reasonable amount of time, I keep the object I am most interested in painting on the table and try different objects with it.”

“I have to feel strongly about the objects in the first place to want to paint them.”[ii]

Because of her interest in various works of art, Marianne Moore was often questioned about her writing and collecting.  She struggled to defend the directness of her own work and to explain what she saw in the work of others, both poets and painters.  Finally having had enough, she made her own statement regarding what she indeed looked for.

Here is Miss Moore’s response regarding her collection of art and objects:

“When I Buy Pictures

or what is closer to the truth,
when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor,
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible
than the intensity of the mood;
or quite the opposite–the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-box,
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist of the hour-glass,
and deer and birds and seated people;
it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal biography perhaps,
in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse;
an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic in three parts;
the silver fence protecting Adam’s grave, or Michael taking Adam by the wrist.

ellen4
Ellen Fischer
“Bust with Palette Knife”
2016
Oil on panel
12” x 9”
(Courtesy of the artist)

Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one’s enjoyment.
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honored–
that which is great because something else is small.
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.”[iii]


 

[i] Williams, William Carlos; “Marianne Moore” Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. 292-294.

[ii] Fischer, Ellen; An artist’s statement regarding “Close Call” and other still life elements as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 21 June 2017.

[iii] Schulman, Grace, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking; New York, New York; 2003; p. 144.

ARE WE CLIMBING JACOB’S LADDER?

“And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!  And behold, the Lord stood

above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God if Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the

ladder1
Attavante
“Le songe de Saint Romuald et l’Echelle des moines”[i]
1502
Miniature on parchment
44 cm. x 34 cm.
Wildenstein Collection of Illuminations
Musee Marmottan, Paris
south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families bless themselves.  Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.’  Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place….This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”[ii]

The Jacob’s Ladder

“The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence for angels’ feet that
only glance in their
tread, and
need not touch the stone.

It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a
doubtful,
a doubting night gray.

A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next giving a
little
lift of wings:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut
stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past
him.
The poem ascends.”[iii]

There are many literary references and historical illustrations to the passage of people and angels traveling between Heaven and Earth.  There are also contemporary examples such as the one above by Denise Levertov and one at the end of this essay by Bob Dylan.  In literature these draw upon the Old Testament story of the Dream of Jacob. In music there is a major source for this in the great American Southern Baptist spiritual:  “Jacob’s Ladder.”

“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

Soldiers of the cross.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
We are brothers, and sisters, all.”[iv]

It was one of the first African American spirituals to become popular with both black and white citizens of the south.  There is no record of when it was written or who wrote it, but it came into being sometime between 1750 and 1825, and was known as a call and response song amongst slaves.  The ladder quickly became one of many symbols for the means of escaping slavery.

As is typical with folk traditions, this song was handed down through generations and verses were added and changed to reflect more recent times.  Significant versions from the 20th Century include recordings by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and most recently by Bruce Springsteen during his “Seeger Sessions.”

ladder2
Georgia O’Keeffe
“Ladder to the Moon”
1958
Oil on canvas
40 3/16” x 30 1/4”
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

In the visual arts as well, this imagery has wide ranging uses, from medieval manuscript illuminations to pieces of surrealism and even to contemporary sculpture.  The “Dream of Romuald with the stairs of the Monks” from an Italian book illumination at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris is a reference to the story of Jacob’s Ladder.  Many early 20th Century artists incorporated this imagery into their work, from realists to surrealists, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Joan Miro and most recently, Martin Puryear, who has used the ladder form in his sculpture dedicated to Booker T. Washington.

ladder3
Martin Puryear
“Ladder for Booker T. Washington”
1996
Wood (ash and maple)
432” x 22 3/4” x 3”
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas

Finally, a young artist here in Indiana has for several years been employing severe and unusual views of many ordinary and everyday objects.  Having studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Pont-Aven, France and the Arizona State University in Tempe, Sarah Jones has always had an eye for the unique angle of things.

ladder4
Sarah K. Jones
“Ladder #2”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

The dramatic placement and situation of certain objects is combined with her own personal point of view towards these things.  Her paintings above and below best illustrate this, as does her own statement regarding how they came about.

ladder5
Sarah K. Jones
“Ladder #3”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

“The paintings came about after a summer spent in the four corners region. I was working on a ranch in Durango, CO and took weekend trips to places like Mesa Verde, Taos, and Albuquerque. It was my first trip west of the Mississippi and I was fascinated by the differences in landscape and even quality of light compared to Indiana. The images which inspired the paintings were taken at Taos Pueblo. The sky was SO blue. The light was SO bright. The shadows were SO strong. I loved the clean lines of the buildings and the shadow patterns made by ladders leaning against the adobe buildings. They formed lovely right angle triangles: building= side 1, ladder = side 2 and shadow of ladder falling across the ground = side 3.”[v]

ladder6
Sarah Kathryn Jones
“Ladder #1”
1993
Oil on canvas
12” x 12”
Courtesy of the artist

Finally, I am reminded of a certain theme that runs through much of the writing of William Carlos Williams:  primarily in his epic poem “Patterson” and secondly in an essay on the work of the artist Charles Sheeler.  He mentions several times that we should “Say it!  No ideas but in things!”[vi]  And further, he observes that “It is in things that for the artist power lies….”[vii]  So, it is in both poetry and painting that a single object might become a powerful image.

“May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young”[viii]

 


[i] Translated as “The Dream of St. Romuald and the Ladder of the Monks” this is a piece from the Wildenstein Collection of historic manuscript illuminations at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris. One historian, Peter Damian, has noted that St. Romuald’s Dream is also a conflation of the legend of Jacob’s Dream.

[ii] “Genesis 28:11-17” The Holy Bible:  Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinburgh; 1952; p. 21.

[iii] Levertov, Denise; Selected Poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2002; p. 25.

[iv] Springsteen, Bruce; “Jacob’s Ladder” The Seeger Sessions; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1998 & 2006.

[v] Jones, Sarah; An artist’s statement regarding her “Ladder Paintings” as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 16 May 2017.

[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6 & 9.

[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; p. 234.

[viii] Dylan, Bob; “Forever Young” Planet Waves; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1974 & 2004.

WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER

ohara1
Alice Neel
“Frank O’Hara”
Oil on canvas
1960
34” x 16 1/8”
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC.

He started out manning the front desk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York right after finishing up graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1951.  He soon became an Assistant Curator and later an Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture.

He would often take off for lunch and scribble notes in the park while he ate a sandwich, or he would walk around the block, stop in at the Ollivetti Shop pretending to test out the latest typewriter and type out 10 or 15 lines on a sheet of paper and then return to his office.  “Lunch Poems” he would later call them.[i]

Although his degrees were in creative writing, Frank O’Hara had a keen eye and a contagious smile and soon met many of the other younger painters and poets in New York.  Amongst his new circle of friends and associates were Grace Hartigan, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter, Michael Goldberg, Alfred Leslie and Joan Mitchell.  He would often collaborate with several of these painters, especially Larry Rivers, Michael Goldberg, and Grace Hartigan.  One important example of this was the series of Hartigan’s paintings and O’Hara’s poems titled “Oranges” exhibited and published through Tibor de Nagy in 1953.[ii]

ohara2
Grace Hartigan
“Oranges No. 1”
1952
Oil on paper
44 1/4” x 33 1/2”
Poetry and Rare Books Collection
State University of New York
Buffalo, New York

 

“WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER”
“I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why?  I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.  Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting.  I drop in.
‘Sit down and have a drink’ he
says.  I drink:  we drink.  I look
up. ‘You have SARDINES in it.’
‘Yes, it needed something there.’
‘Oh.’  I go and the days go by
and I drop in again.  The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by.  I drop in.  The painting is
finished.  ‘Where’s the SARDINES?’
All that’s left is just
letters.  ‘It was too much,’ Mike says.

But me?  One day I am thinking of
a color:  orange.  I write a line
about orange.  Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page.  There shoud be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life.  Days go by.  It is even in
prose, I am a real poet.  My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet.  It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES.  And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.”[iii]

ohara3
Michael Goldberg
“Sardines”
1955
Oil and adhesive tape on canvas
80 3/4” x 66”
National Museum of American Art
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

 


[i] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 2014.

[ii] Perloff, Marjorie; Frank O’Hara:  Poet among Painters; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1998, pp. 76-77.

[iii] Allen, Donald, ed.; The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London; 1995; pp. 261-262.

THE CHINESE WRITTEN CHARACTER AS A MEDIUM FOR POETRY

“Today he is hardly likely to find himself unless he is a non-conformist and a rebel.  To say this is neither dangerous nor new.  It is what society really expects of its artists.  For today the artist has, whether he likes it or not, inherited the combined functions of hermit, pilgrim, prophet, priest, shaman, sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist, and bonze.”[i]

This is what Thomas Merton had to say about contemporary artists and writers.  He had multiple points of view regarding this position:  as a poet himself, as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Lexington, Kentucky, as a student of calligraphy and as a colleague and friend to others in the field, including Ad Reinhart, John Cage, D. T. Suzuki and Jacques Maritain.

chinese
Thomas Merton
“Untitled” (Sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist)
c. 1963
Brush and India ink on paper
10 1/4” x 7 1/2”
The Thomas Merton Center,
Bellarmine University,
Louisville, Kentucky

In the beginning years of the 20th century Henri Matisse began thinking and writing about the importance of signs.  He saw this especially in the pen and ink drawings of Vincent van Gogh, which were an early influence on him, as well as in certain examples of calligraphy from Oriental art.

chinese2
Henri Matisse
“Standing Nude, Arms Covering her Face”
1901-1903
Ink on paper
10 3/8” x 8”
Gift of Edward Steichen
Museum of Modern Art, New York

In these same years the poet Ezra Pound was sent a manuscript that had been written by the scholar Ernest Fenollosa who had been studying the origins of the Japanese and Chinese alphabets, whose characters had originally been drawings!

“Chinese poetry has the unique advantage of combining both elements.  It speaks at once with the vividness of painting, and with the mobility of sounds.”[ii]

chinese3[iii]

Ezra Pound called this the ‘ideogramic method’ and used what he had learned from Fenollosa to define and clarify the quality known as ‘economy of means’ that is so important to both painters and poets.  This also led directly to the invention of ‘Imagist Poetry’ that is characterized by clarity and directness.

In letters and conversations with Louis Aragon throughout his lifetime Henri Matisse often explained that:  “The sign is determined at the moment I use it and for the object of which it must form a part.  For this reason I cannot determine in advance signs which never change and which would be like writing:  that would paralyze the freedom of my invention.”[iv]

chinese4
Henri Matisse
“Acrobat”
1952
Brush and ink on paper
41 3/8” x 29 1/2”
Private Collection

Aragon helped to ‘translate’ many of Matisse’s statements, paintings and drawings, into literature through his essay ‘Matisse en France’ from 1942-43 and the two volume ‘Matisse:  A Novel’ from 1972.

Similar concerns can be seen in the works of Henri Michaux working in Paris and Thomas Merton working in Lexington, Kentucky.  They were both interested in painting and poetry, through which they each investigated the use of signs.

“To abstract means to free oneself, to come disentangled.”

“The hand should be empty, should in no way hinder what’s flowing into it.”

“Only the ‘exact placement,’ the ‘just proportion’ matter.”[v]

chinese5
Henri Michaux
“Untitled (Mouvements)”
c. 1950-51
India ink on paper
12 5/8” x 9 1/2”
Private collection

More recently, in an interview with Janie C. Lee at the Whitney Museum of American Art on 21 May 1998, Brice Marden described some of his work in the “St. Bart’s 1985-86 Series” in this way:  “The whole history of the life is right there on the surface.  These drawings were all started as individual sheets in a book.  Then I took the book apart and started putting them together in different sequences.  Some I reworked, putting two sheets on

chinese6
Brice Marden
“St. Bart’s 1985-86 N.Y. 3”
1985-1986
Ink and gouache on paper
7 5/16” x 7 7/8”
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

each page . . . . Top to bottom and across to the left.  I was following the Chinese calligraphic method.  It was easier for me because I’m left handed, so if I work from right to left, I don’t run the chance of smudging the ink or some marking.  These were very early calligraphy-based drawings.”[vi]

The effects of Matisse’s experiments along with Fenollosa’s observations have been wide ranging:  from the paintings of Henri Michaux to the calligraphies of Thomas Merton, to Brice Marden’s recent drawings and even to a few of my own students over the years, especially the work of Rene Gonzalez.

chinese7
Rene Gonzales
“The Civil War Cannon”
Pen & ink on paper
8 1/2” x 11”
1997
Courtesy of the artist

“Yes, I remember these drawings very well…they were an automatic drawing series.  I had been studying a lot of Motherwell at that time and watched a documentary on his Reconciliation Elegy work.  In it, he described a process where he would sit down with a stack of paper and ink and a brush and just knock out gestures with no edits or reworks.  He could then look at 50 to 100 drawings on the floor and begin to select the ones he wanted to investigate further.  The series of drawings I did went through a similar process and only a few were then selected as the actual compositions to my paintings.  I believe they were either 8 1/2 x 11 or smaller but I do not remember.”[vii]

chinese8
Rene Gonzales
“An M-16”
Pen & ink on paper
8 1/2” x 11”
1997
Courtesy of the artist

“The freedom of the artist is to be sought precisely in the choice of his work and not in the choice of the role as ‘artist’ which society asks him to play.”[viii]

chinese9[ix]


[i] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes:  The Art of Thomas Merton; New Seeds Publishing; Boston & London; 2006; p. 100.

[ii] Fenollosa, Ernest and Ezra Pound, ed.; The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1936; p. 9.

[iii] This example has been published in both Fenollosa (p. 8) and Michaux (p. 43).  It shows three characters, all containing legs.  To the right the ideogram for ‘horse’ with four legs underneath.  In the center is an ‘eye’ being carried by two legs.  And on the left the image of a man.  As both authors explain, these images taken together produce the line:  “man sees horse.”

[iv] Schneider, Pierre; Matisse; Rizzoli International; New York, New York; 1984 and 2002; p. 576.

[v] Michaud, Henri; translated by Gustaf Sobin; Henri Michaux:  Ideograms in China; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1975; (unpaginated).

[vi] Lee, Janie C.; Brice Marden Drawings; The Whitney Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1998; p. 19.

[vii] From E-MAIL communications between the artist and this writer on 14 January and 27 January 2017.

[viii] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes:  The Art of Thomas Merton; p. 100.

[ix] This last example is taken from Fenollosa (p. 40).  It shows a ‘mouth’ on the lower right with words and tongue coming out of it.  On the left is the figure of a ‘man.’  Taken together, they form the sign:  “a man standing beside his word, truth.”

IN HOTEL LOBBIES

“Edward Hopper’s art is highly provocative and often disturbing. His contemplative figures appear to be alienated from society and to occupy a world devoid of interaction and communication. They never smile or frown, and their attitudes and expressions suggest unapproachableness. These introspective figures convey an inner turmoil that can provide questions about relationships, the roles people play in society, and the meaning of life.”[i]

hopper
Edward Hopper
“Sketch for Hotel Lobby”
1943
Conte crayon and graphite on paper
8 7/16″ x 10 15/16″
Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

When studying several of Hopper’s sketches for this painting, it becomes clear that he was really searching, working out the space and placement for the lobby and the people inhabiting that space. Five or six different figures were placed in various positions within the composition, including one, a desk clerk, who is hidden in the background behind a lamp in the office. Figures of both men and women are substituted for each other in order to achieve the balance that he desired.

hardwick
D.W. Hardwick
“Study #2 from the Hotel Lobby”
1976
Graphite on paper
6″ x 8″
Private Collection, Indianapolis, Indiana

For many years of my teaching career, we would visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art and draw directly from the objects in their collection. There are several works by Edward Hopper housed there, including “American Landscape,” “New York, New Haven and Hartford” and the “Hotel Lobby” from 1943. Especially important in this learning process is to discover the underlying architecture of any work of art, not just the surface illusions. Two such examples are shown above and below this paragraph. Drawings made on the spot in the museum and showing both space and movement and the tonal juxtapositions that occur in the original. They were completed by Darryl W. Hardwick during the summer session of 1976.

hardwick2
D.W. Hardwick
“Study #1 from the Hotel Lobby”
1976
Graphite on paper
6″ x 8″
Private Collection, Indianapolis, Indiana

The poet Raymond Carver in his collection titled Ultramarine of 1987 took on a similar subject. Not directly written after this painting, the parallels however are so striking that one might do a double take. A quiet, perfectly still scene, with the various characters going about their daily routines. Structured and written to lead us into this particular space. Introspective, with the possibility of great turmoil.

“In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo”

“The girl in the lobby reading a leather-bound book.
The man in the lobby using a broom.
The boy in the lobby watering plants.
The desk clerk looking at his nails. The woman in the lobby writing a letter.
The old man in the lobby sleeping in his chair.
The fan in the lobby revolving slowly overhead.
Another hot Sunday afternoon.

Suddenly, the girl lays her finger between the pages of her book.
The man leans on his broom and looks.
The boy stops in his tracks.
The desk clerk raises his eyes and stares.
The woman quits writing.
The old man stirs and wakes up.
What is it?

Someone is running up from the harbor.
Someone who has the sun behind him.
Someone who is barechested.
Waving his arms.

It’s clear something terrible has happened.
The man is running straight for the hotel.
His lips are working themselves into a scream.

Everyone in the lobby will recall their terror.
Everyone will remember this moment for the rest of their lives.”[ii]

hopper2
Edward Hopper
“Hotel Lobby”
1943
Oil on canvas
32 1/4″ x 40 3/4″
Williams Ray Adams Memorial Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana

 

[i] Warkel, Harriet G.; Paint to Paper: Edward Hopper’s Hotel Lobby; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2008; p. 11.

[ii] Carver, Raymond; “In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo,” Ultramarine: Poems; Random House; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 75-76.