From ancient Greek sculptures on the theme of “The Fallen Warrior” to Uccello’s sequence of three versions of “The Battle of San Romano” we have the beginnings of a great history of images of war.
In 1633 the artist Jacques Callot published his “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” as a response to the French invasion of Lorraine during the Thirty Years War. In the early 19th Century, it was Francisco Goya who was inspired to work in this direction as he witnessed the Napoleonic invasion of Spain from 1808 to 1814, which resulted in his series of “The Disasters of War.”
Even the French artist Henri Rousseau took up the subject in his 1894 painting titled: “War, or The Ride of Discord.” Although it had been more than twenty years since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 these events continued to haunt Rousseau’s ideas for paintings.
From the earliest years of photography, during both the Crimean War and the American Civil War, to present day combat photographers and journalists, we have a continuing record of many important historical events.
The initial Armistice Day was offered as a celebration of the peace that came at the end of the First World War on 11 November 1919. Unfortunately, this annual observance has now turned into a celebration of war, the exact opposite of its original intent.
Many recent artists and veterans have used a variety of media as a means of documenting and coming to grips with their wartime experiences. However, it is the aftermath that becomes more confusing. From a distance, there is a completely different perspective.
The Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress and the United States Army Center of Military History all have important collections of works of art created by active participants and witnesses in the field. More recently the Viet Nam Veterans Artist Group was formed and organized in Chicago, from 1981 to 1992 and has now grown and become known as the National Veterans Art Museum.[i]
Inspired by many of the artists whose work is in the collection of the National Veterans Art Museum as well as work from the United States Army Center of Military History, the Indianapolis Art Center curated an important exhibition of this work in it’s “Art of Combat: Artists from the Viet Nam War Then and Now” in 2000.[ii]
Many veterans, as well as concerned civilians in the United States, have chosen this as a major part of their subject matter, including: Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, Ric Haynes, David Shirm, Michael Helbing, Karl Michel and especially Michael Aschenbrenner in his “Broken Bone” series. Although many of these artists were actual witnesses to the Viet Nam War, their current works are often reflections and memories of events sometimes lost, and sometimes regained.
Writers and musicians during the 1960’s also tackled these issues. How could we forget the words of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” or Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die?” A number of other examples include work by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Barry McGuire and Kemo Williams. And especially, Edwin Starr’s “War!”
“…Oh, war it’s an enemy to all mankind
The point of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest
Within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die, ah, war-huh, good god y’all
What is it good for
Say it, say it, say it
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing listen to me…”
“…it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker
(War) it’s got one friend that’s the undertaker
Oh, war, has shattered many a young mans dreams
Made him disabled, bitter and mean
Life is much too short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can’t give life
It can only take it away
Oh, war, huh good god y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing say it again….”[iii]
[i] Sinaiko, Eve, et al.; Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections; the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York; 1998.
[ii] Moore, Julia Muney, et al.; The Art of Combat: Artists and the Vietnam War, Then and Now; Indianapolis Art Center; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2000.
[iii] Starr, Edwin; “War” (lyrics by Barret Strong and Norman Whitfield); 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection – The Best of Edwin Starr; Audio CD, B00005R8E7; Motown Records; 2001.
“When we say that the artist imitates the poet or the poet the artist, we can mean one of two things: either that the one takes the other’s work as his model, or that both work from the same model and one borrows his manner of presentation from the other.”[i]
“If . . . the poet and the artist must contemplate those objects common to both from the same point of view, the inevitable result is that their representations will correspond to one another in many points without there having been even the slightest imitation or emulation. These points of agreement between contemporaneous artists and poets in regard to things that no longer exist may lead to mutual illumination . . . .”[ii]
Although the above observations were made by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing concerning ancient examples of sculpture and literature they could just as easily apply to a more modern example: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.[iii]
James Agee and Walker Evans were commissioned to produce a series of essays and images documenting rural life in the Southern United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression. After many stops and starts, negotiations with publishers and printers, and a very general concept and structure for this project, they set off touring the South and ultimately living with three sharecropper families. A writer and an artist, sharing their experiences first hand, responding to the people, the landscape, the times, and to each other, Agee and Evans produced one of the most haunting and lyrical portraits of American life.
“We lay on the front porch. The boards were unplaned thick oak, of uneven length, pinned down by twenty-penny nails. A light roof stuck out its tongue above us dark and squarely, sustained at its outward edge by the slippery trunks of four young trees from which the bark had been peeled. There were four steps down, oak two-by-twelves; the fourth, when stepped on, touched the ground. These steps were in the middle of the porch. They led, across the porch, into a roofed doorless hallway, about six feet wide, which ran straight through the house and clove it in half. There was a floor to this hallway, of wide unplaned boards. Laid across beams too wide apart, they sagged beneath a heavy foot. For ten feet toward the rear end they were only an inch from the ground. At the end they lay flush on it.”[iv]
The title for this work seemed to be almost Biblical to me and I tried to search for its source. It turned out to be from the book of Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes. So it is not included in modern editions. It does however, recognize and praise the generations of mankind, from all walks of life and throughout time, drawing parallels between the ancient and the modern.
“Let us now sing praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles . . . .”
“Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them . . . .
The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation declares their praise.”[v]
The original names of the farmers were Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs. In order to protect and insure the privacy of these farmers and their families the names in the text were changed to Fred Gavin Ricketts, Thomas Gallatin Woods, and George Gudger. The dates of the photographs also vary, from as early as 1936 to as late as 1941. These were probably mix-ups in between the shooting, printing, and publishing times as well as museum and gallery cataloging.
Although I have found examples of Walker Evans’ photographs from several collections including the National Gallery and the Library of Congress, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, they are all copyrighted through the Walker Evans Archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Below you will find a small portfolio of the photographic images and literary quotations from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These are paired in such a way as to give a broader picture of this work, however, they are not a substitute for it in its entirety. Only an introduction.
“Its west wall is the front of the house; its north wall, the hallway; its east wall, the partition; its south wall, the side of the house. At the center of the partition wall is a fireplace. At the center of the side wall and of the front wall is an exactly square window, about three feet each way. At the center of the north wall a door leads into the rear bedroom. The doors are very wide vertical planks, not paneled, but crosslaid with planks in a Z. They are held shut by block wood buttons and are kept shut most of the time. . . .”
“. . . The square shutters, hung on sagged and rusted, loud hinges, are less broad verticals. Always at night and nearly always during the day they are drawn shut and secured, one by a leather strap over a nail, the other by a piece of rag over a nail. When they are shut, the room is dark and has a special heat and odor of daylight darkness; but also there is a strong starlight of sunshine with slits and blades and rods of light through the roof and two outward walls and, looking through the floor, the quiet sunless daylighted grain of the earth can be seen, strange to see as at the bottom of a lake; and in this oddly lighted darkness, certain flecks of the room are brilliantly picked out, and every part of it is visible.”[vi]
“They are pronounced overhauls.”
“Try—I cannot write of it here—to imagine and to know, as against other garments, the difference of their feeling against your body; drawn-on, and bibbed on the whole belly and chest, naked from the kidneys up behind, save for crossed straps, and slung by these straps from the shoulders; the slanted pockets on each thigh, the deep square pockets on each buttock; the complex . . .”
“. . . and slanted structures, on the chest, of the pockets shaped for pencils, rulers, and watches; the coldness of sweat when they are young, and their stiffness; their sweetness to the skin and pleasure of sweating when they are old; the thin metal buttons of the fly; the lifting aside of straps and the deep slipping downward in defecation; the belt some men use with them to steady their middles; the swift, simple, and inevitably supine gestures of dressing and of undressing, which, as is less true of any other garment, are those of harnessing and of unharnessing the shoulders of a tired and hard-used animal.”[vii]
“The family exists for work. It exists to keep itself alive. It is a cooperative economic unit. The father does one set of tasks; the mother another; the children still a third, with the sons and daughters serving apprenticeship to their father and mother respectively. A family is called a force, without irony; and children come into the world chiefly that they may help with the work and that through their help the family may increase itself. Their early years are leisurely; a child’s life work begins as play. Among his first imitative gestures are gestures of work; and the whole imitative course of his maturing and biologic envy is a stepladder of learning of physical tasks and skills.
This work solidifies, and becomes steadily more and more, in greater and greater quantity and variety, an integral part of his life.”[viii]
“And Ellen where she rests, in the gigantic light: she, too, is completely at peace, this child, the arms squared back, and palms open loose against the floor, the floursack on her face; the soles of the feet facing: her blown belly swimming its navel, white as flour; and blown full broad with slumbering blood into a circle: so white all the outward flesh, it glows of blue; so dark, the deep hole, a dark red shadow of life blood: this center and source, . . .
. . . for which we have never contrived any worthy name, is as if it were breathing, flowering, soundlessly, a snoring silence of flame; it is as if flame were breathed forth from it and subtly played about it: and here in this breathing and play of flame, a thing so strong, so valiant, so unvanquishable, it is without effort, without emotion, I know it shall at length outshine the sun.”[ix]
[i] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 45.
[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; pp. 45-46.
[iii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston and New York; 1941.
[iv] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 201.
[v] Metzger, Bruce M., and Roland E. Murphy, eds.; “Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach,” Chapter 44, Verses 1-15, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books; Oxford University Press; New York, New York; 1991; p. 148.
[vi] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 142.
[vii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 240-241.
[viii] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 291-292.
[ix] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 402.
“So we walked in the pouring rain, Daddy, Mummy, and I, each with a school satchel and shopping bag filled to the brim with all kinds of things thrown together anyhow.
We got sympathetic looks from people on their way to work. You could see by their faces how sorry they were they couldn’t offer us a lift; the gaudy yellow star spoke for itself.
Only when we were on the road did Mummy and Daddy begin to tell me bits and pieces about the plan. For months as many of our goods and chattels and necessities of life as possible had been sent away and they were sufficiently ready for us to have gone into hiding of our own accord on July 16. The plan had to be speeded up ten days because of the call-up, so our quarters would not be so well organized, but we had to make the best of it. The hiding place itself would be in the building where Daddy has his office.”
Above are some of the entries from Anne Frank’s Diary, made on the first day of her family’s hiding. Below are the notes that she made a year and a half later. One cannot imagine what they were really experiencing during those times, even after reading the Diary.
One summer Anne McKenzie Nickolson and I visited several major cities in Europe, including Copenhagen, Hamburg, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels. It was almost a year after the 9/11 attacks and security was evident everywhere, even walking down Vermeerstraat, or visiting the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam, but especially while visiting the Anne Frank House Museum on 13 June 2002. Somber. It was not raining that day, nor was the sky grey, but still it was somber.
In just two days we visited three important museums: the Rembrandt House, the Anne Frank House Museum, and the Vincent van Gogh Museum. Each one was organized in chronological order, including Rembrandt’s studio and Anne Frank’s attic, so that going through them felt like walking through their lives. Especially the photographs and posters still glued to the walls of Anne Frank’s room.
Coming out of the museum, we walked along the canals and around the block in order to completely see the outside of the house and annex. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, tree lined streets and canals, with many references to its great artists and historical events. Later, looking through the Anne Frank House Museum Guide Book, I found the axonometric diagram for both the house and the annex. It is a beautiful rendering in its own right, and gives one a clear idea and sense of the place.
“When someone comes in from outside, with the wind on their clothes and the cold on their faces, then I could bury my head in the blankets to stop myself thinking: ‘When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?’ And because I must not bury my head in the blankets, but the reverse—I must keep my head high and be brave, the thoughts will come, not once, but oh, countless times. Believe me, if you have been shut up for a year and a half, it can get too much for you some days. In spite of all justice and thankfulness, you can’t crush your feelings. Cycling, dancing, whistling, looking out into the world, feeling young, to know that I am free—that’s what I long for, still, I mustn’t show it, because I sometimes think if all eight of us began to pity ourselves, or went about with discontented faces, where would it lead us? I . . . . don’t know, and I couldn’t talk about it to anyone, because then I know I should cry. Crying can bring such relief.”
“It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank” Linda Pastan
“It is raining on the house
of Anne Frank
and on the tourists
herded together under the shadow
of their umbrellas,
on the perfectly silent
tourists who would rather be
but who wait here on stairs
so steep they must rise
to some occasion
high in the empty loft,
in the quaint toilet,
in the skeleton
of a kitchen
or on the map—
each of its arrows
a barb of wire—
with all the dates, the expulsions,
the forbidding shapes
And across Amsterdam it is raining
on the Van Gogh Museum
where we will hurry next
to see how someone else
could find the pure
center of light
within the dark circle
of his demons.”[iii]
[i] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; p. 16.
[ii] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; pp. 123-124.
[iii] Pastan, Linda; “It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank” Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 96.
“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.
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]
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
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.
“…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.”[i]
I have often had a similar feeling as that expressed by Charles Sheeler above. As an American I have always felt that my voice and vision should grow out of my own country and experience. However, I had not counted on participating in a graduate art history seminar at Indiana University on Gothic Architecture and seeing, for the first time, a beautiful little book titled “The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt” that had been edited by Theodore Bowie.[ii] Many years later, searching through the ‘librairie’ at the Musee Cluny in Paris, I purchased a more recent and larger edition of the same title.
Villard de Honnecourt may have been an architect, or possibly an itinerant designer or draughtsman. Some historians have described him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the dark-ages. In any event, he did produce a sketchbook full of drawings and devices that changed how we see the world. They were at least a ‘pattern book’ or stylistic guide to the articulation of Gothic facades and interiors.[iii] These drawings by Honnecourt were not the only reason, but they were one of the reasons that allowed this new ‘gothic’ style to spread throughout Europe.
These little drawings are focused, insightful, powerfully structural, filled with character and attention to detail, and I always think of them immediately whenever I hear of the writer Raymond Carver or read about his short story “Cathedral.”
In this story, a young couple is surprised by a visit from a friend of the wife, an old blind man for whom she had worked several years ago. She did his reading for him and other chores. He was in town taking care of some business after the death of his wife and he wanted to ‘see’ them again.
The husband was a bit leery of this old man and his unexpected visit, as it was his wife who had been close to him. They had dinner and a few drinks and afterwards they watched a program on Gothic Cathedrals on TV. The wife had soon gone to sleep, leaving the two men in the living room, when the old blind man came up with this suggestion: would the young man teach him how to draw a cathedral? All that he really new about these things was what he had just heard on the TV program and didn’t know what they really looked like.
This young man, totally disoriented and slightly tipsy, searched the house for papers and pens and drawing materials and spread them all out on the living room floor.
“The blind man got down from the sofa and sat next to me on the carpet.”
“He ran his fingers over the paper. He went up and down the sides of the paper. The edges, even the edges. He fingered the corners.”
“‘All right,’ he said. ‘All right, let’s do her.’”
“He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. ‘Go ahead, bub, draw,’ he said. ‘Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you. You’ll see. Draw,’ the blind man said.”
“The blind man said, ‘We’re drawing a cathedral….Press hard,’ he said to me. That’s right. That’s good,’ he said.”
“‘You got it, bub. I can tell. You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you? You’re cooking with gas now.’”
“‘Close your eyes now,’ the blind man said to me.
I did it. I closed them just like he said.
‘Are they closed?’ he said. ‘Don’t fudge.’
‘They’re closed,’ I said.
‘Keep them that way,’ he said. He said, ‘Don’t stop now. Draw.”
“So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”
“Then he said, ‘I think that’s it. I think you got it,’ he said. ‘Take a look. What do you think?’”
“But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.”[iv]
[i] 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).
[ii] Bowie, Theodore; The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt; Indiana University Press; Bloomington and London; 1959.
[iii] von Simpson, Otto; The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order; Harper & Row Publishers; New York and Evanston; 1962; p. 198.
[iv] Carver, Raymond; “Cathedral” Where I’m Calling From; Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1991; pp. 306-307.
“Lady Day got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies….”[i]
Her real name was Eleanora Fagan Gough, born in Philadelphia in 1915. She spent most of her childhood in Baltimore raised by relatives. She took the name ‘Billie’ in honor of her favorite actress Billie Dove and the name ‘Holiday’ from Clarence Holiday, her probable father. Her only training as a teenager was singing along with phonograph records at her aunt’s house. She was discovered by John Hammond and made her first recording with Benny Goodman in 1933.
Billie Holiday would later record and work with Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie, Artie Shaw and Lester Young. Many of her contemporaries noted that she made each and every song her own, took them to unheard of heights and depths, bursting into the open air.
Her memory has been celebrated in the song “Angel of Harlem” by the rock band U2 and by the American sculptor Mark di Suvero in a monumental piece “For Lady Day” in south Chicago and perhaps most poignantly by the New York School poet Frank O’Hara upon reading of her death in 1959.
“The Day Lady Died”
“It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off
the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”[ii]
Finally, in describing this piece in tribute to Billie Holiday and the emergence of a new sculptural space, the critic Peter Schjeldahl has obsered: “The colosal ‘drawing in space’ with assembled elements—a specialty of the Manilow park, whose ‘For Lady Day’ by Mark di Suvero is a masterpiece of the mode—burst the boundaries of the traditional gallery and garden display and entered the open air.”[iii]
[i] U2; “Angel of Harlem,” Rattle and Hum; audio recording 422-842 299-2; Island Records; New York, New York; 1988.
[ii] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1964 & 2014; p. 21.
[iii] Manilow, Lewis, et al; The Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park; Governors State University Foundation; University Park, Illinois; 1987. (Including the essay “A Park for the Prairie God” by Peter Schjeldahl); p. 11.
To a hair’s breadth
Antonin Artaud, 1947[i]
In conversations with many of his friends over the years, especially with the poet Louis Aragon, Matisse often stated that: “The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language….”[ii]
It truly was a new world of signs and images that Matisse was creating. Even as he was recovering from several surgeries late in life and confined to his bed or wheelchair, he kept working. The philosopher Henri Focillon described this as a carving out of space or as the work of art creating its own space in the life of forms. The Beat Generation poet Ed Sanders has also described this as ‘those scissors flashing in the world of forms’ or as a ‘cutting’ form.
As Artoud described this process it is a project dealing with arrangements to “a hair’s breadth.” Later it would be suggested by Sanders that he wants it adjusted “This way and that, Minutitudinous!”
Or as Matisse himself has noted “The artist’s role is not to translate an observation, but to express the impact an object makes on his own nature: the shock, the initial reaction.”[iii]
“A work of art is situated in space. But it will not do to say it simply exists in space: a work of art treats space according to its own needs, defines space and even creates such space as may be necessary to it. The space of life is a known quantity to which life readily submits; the space of art is a plastic and changing material.”[iv]
THE CUTTING PROW: FOR HENRI MATISSE
“The genius was 81
Fearful of blindness
Caught in a wheelchair
Staring at death
But the Angel of mercy
Gave him a year
To scissor some shapes
To soothe the scythe
And shriek! shriek!
The peace of
There was something besides
Of cutting a beautiful shape—-
Each thing had a ‘sign’
Each thing had a ‘symbol’
Each thing had a cutting form
to scissor seize.
‘One must study an object a long time,’
the genius said,
‘to know what its sign is.’
The scissors were his scepter
Was as the prow of a barque
To sail him away.
There’s a photograph
which shows him sitting in his wheelchair
bare foot touching the floor
drawing the crisscross steel
a shape in the gouache
His helper sits near him
Till he hands her the form
To pin to the wall
He points with a stick
How he wants it adjusted
This way and that,
The last blue iris blooms at
The top of its stalk
Ah, keep those scissors flashing in the
World of Forms, Henri Matisse
The cutting of the scissors
Was the prow of a boat
To take him away
The last blue iris
Blooms at the top
On a warm spring day
Ah, keep those scissors flashing
In the World of Forms, Henri Matisse
Sitting in a wheelchair
Bare feet touching the floor
Angel of Mercy
Pushed him over Next to Plato’s door