ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON

Raphael’s painting of “St. George and the Dragon” from the collection of the National Gallery of Art is an unforgettable image. It is an heroic and monstrous image contained within a very small sized painting. The figure is astride his horse, they are fighting as one, vanquishing this beast, with a panoramic landscape framing the whole image. It is a classic theme, echoed by many artists.

Raphael
“Saint George and the Dragon”
1505
Oil on wood
11.2″ x 8.5″
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

As in the ‘folk tradition’ in music, one artist will set out a theme, which is later taken up and elaborated upon, by later artists. The ideas and images continue to grow and develop over time. The 15th Century German artist Bernt Notke and the 20th Century American poet Robert Bly are two important examples of this process.

Taking its inspiration from the sculptural group of the same name by the German artist Bernt Notke, “St. George and the Dragon” is an excellent example of the ekphrastic tradition. Robert Bly is literally reading this sculpture from top to bottom: from the boyish expression on the face of this knight down to the horrific vestige of the monster on his death bed.

Over the years, the poet Robert Bly made several appearances at the Butler University Visiting Writers Program here in Indianapolis, including 1989, 1994, 1999 and 2003. I have continued to follow his work over these years, and had it not been for these visits, I would never have heard of, nor read about, this artist and this particular piece of sculpture.

Bernt Notke was an eastern German painter, printmaker and sculptor who lived from 1440 to 1509. During his lifetime he lived and worked in Lassahn and Lübeck, several other areas near the Baltic Sea, and made intermittent visits to Sweden. It was in Stockholm in 1489 that he produced his most important work, “St. George and the Dragon” for the City Church, now known as the Cathedral of St. Nickolas.

Robert Bly has often studied and written about works of visual art. These have included both Bernt Notke’s “St. George and the Dragon” and Albrecht Durer’s etching of “Two Middle Aged Lovers.”1 Bly has not just referred to earlier German artists: many others have included ancient examples of an Egyptian figure of “Isis” and a Mycenean “Ecstatic Mother,”2 both at the Louvre. He also references Pieter Breughel’s painting of a Flemish pageant3 (now only known to us as a woodcut printed by an anonymous artist in 1566), as well as the great series of “Haystacks” painted by Claude Monet. Bly always seems to be attracted to the heroic and the universal and how they both are intertwined with the personal and everyday existence of his subjects.

Bernt Notke
“St. George and the Dragon”
1489
Bronze replica of the original wood and mixed media.
3.75 meters high, 6 meters including base.
The Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas,
Stockholm, Sweden

St. George and the Dragon

A sculpture made by Bernt Notke
in 1489 for Stockholm Cathedral

“The dragon is losing.
He fights on his back
Fiercely, as when a child
Lifts his four feet
To hold off
The insane parent.
His claws grasp
The wooden lance that has
Pierced his thorny
Breast. . . . But too late. . . .

As children, we knew ours
Was a muddy greatness.
We knew our part
Lay with the dragon.

And this girlish knight?
Oh I know him.
I read the New
Testament as I lay
Naked on my bed
As a boy. The knight
Rises up radiant
With his forehead
Eye that sees past
The criminal’s gibbet
To the mindful
Towers of the spirit city.
But I now hate
This solar boy
Whom I have been.

This solar knight
Grows victorious
All over the world.
And the dragon? He
Is the great spirit
The alchemists knew of.
He is Joseph, sent down
To the well. Grendel,
What we have forgotten,
Without whom is nothing.”5

And as a footnote to all of this, I remember a painting from several years ago by the contemporary artist, Ellen Fischer. It is an abstracted version of St. George based on that Raphael painting mentioned above from the National Gallery. Many of Fischer’s earlier paintings incorporate the playful placement and movement of a variety of objects on and around the picture plane.

In this particular painting, “St. George and the Dragon,” she includes all of the elements from the original with slightly differing placements. This painting however, stands out as very tightly constructed: horse and rider fused as one, the shadow of the leg and tail of the monster just below the middle of the horse. It gives us an interior intensity complimented with the perfect placement of the various elements.

When I asked her about this, this was her response:

“I made St. George and his horse one and the same! See the princess in the background with the red dress? She is in the distance in my painting, too—iconography is the same in every picture I can think of—I’ve always loved St. George’s heroic, plump white horse, who appears to be as much into the fight as St. George, swinging its hooves at the dragon!”6

Ellen Fischer
“St. George and the Dragon”
c. 1977-1978
Oil on canvas
48″ x 60”
Collection of the artist

1 Bly, Robert; Eating the Honey of Words; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 1999; pp. 119 & 202-203.

2 Bly, Robert; Sleepers Joining Hands; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 1991; pp. 35 & 45.

3 Bly, Robert; Iron John; Adddison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.; New York, New York; 1990; pp. 244-245.

4 Bly, Robert; The Night Abraham Called to the Stars; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 2002; p. 15.

5 Bly, Robert; “St. George and the Dragon” from Eating the Honey of Words; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 1999; pp. 202-203.

6 Fischer, Ellen; “A statement on St. George and the Dragon;” E-MAIL communication with this author; 14 April 2022, 7:58am.

WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA: THREE POEMS

In the conclusion of his book, Vermeer in Bosnia, Lawrence Weschler writes about two of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems: “In Praise of Dreams” from 1986, and “Maybe All This” from 1993. From the first poem he notes that Szymborska wrote: “In my dream . . . I paint like Vermeer of Delft.” And in the second one, he speculates: “. . . the picture Szymborska’s words have in mind must be something very like Vermeer’s Lacemaker. How marvelously, at any rate, the poem helps elucidate the painting, and vice versa.”1 To my mind, this is one of the most important functions of the ekphrastic tradition.

In her collected work, Wislawa Szymborska provides us with several examples of this tradition. One especially is a diminutive poem, of only six lines describing a diminutive painting of a milkmaid by Vermeer. When this was written, the author was surely reflecting upon earlier wars and invasions in Europe, especially in her homeland of Poland. Today however, it has taken on a new and timely meaning related to the Ukraine.2

In earlier work, Szymborska takes a more generalized view through a museum, taking note of certain historic objects: an antique plate, a necklace, gloves and shoes, swords, and even a lute. She alludes to the scene without illustrating it.

In another poem she doesn’t literally show the ‘Tower of Babel’ as it was painted by Pieter Brueghel, but she does set up a dialogue between two of its inhabitants. There are two different type faces printed throughout this conversation: Italic for the first one, and ROMAN for the second. Although they are both placed together on the ensuing lines, they clearly do not communicate in any logical way. The speaking in different languages and at cross purposes has begun.3

In several other poems however, Szymborska takes a cue directly from the works of art. These include an ancient Greek sculptural fragment, and paintings by both Pieter Brueghel and Johannes Vermeer.

BRUEGHEL’S TWO MONKEYS

“This is what I see in my dreams about final exams:
two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the windowsill,
the sky behind them flutters,
the sea is taking its bath.

The exam is History of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.

One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,
the other seems to be dreaming away—
but when it’s clear I don’t know what to say
he prompts me with a gentle

clinching of his chain.”4

Pieter Brueghel
“Two Monkeys”
1562
Oil on wooden panel
20cm x 23cm
Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, Germany

GREEK STATUE

“With the help of people and the other elements
time hasn’t done a bad job on it.
It first removed the nose, then the genitalia,
next, one by one, the toes and fingers,
over the years the arms, one after the other,
the left thigh, the right,
the shoulders, hips, head, and buttocks,
and whatever dropped off has since fallen to pieces,
to rubble, to gravel, to sand.

When someone living dies that way
blood flows at every blow.

But marble statues die white
and not always completely.

From the one under discussion only the torso lingers
and it’s like a breath held with great effort,
since now it must
draw
to itself
all the grace and gravity of what was lost.

And it does,
for now it does,
it does and it dazzles,
it dazzles and endures—

Time likewise merits some applause here,
since it stopped work early,
and left some for later.”5

“The Gaddi Torso”
1st Century BC.
Marble
84cm high
The Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy

Perhaps works of art actually do survive, in one way or another, in one form or another, in order to remind us of what is important. They need not follow the dictates of ‘socialist realism’ nor the fashions of ‘post-modernism’ and so many other contemporary isms. What we end up experiencing is the persistence of each artist, their story and how they want to tell it, even if it ends up being only a fragment, or a whisper. The artist’s voice, carried through even in a fragment, is an antidote to the craziness of our world during these times.

Johannes Vermeer
“The Milkmaid”
1658-1660
Oil on canvas
17 7/8” x 16”
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,
The Netherlands.

VERMEER

“As long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted silence and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the jug to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.”6


1 Weschler, Lawrence; Vermeer in Bosnia; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.; New York, New York; 2004; p. 403.

2 Szymborska, Wiesława; Poems New and Collected 1957-1997; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Harcourt Brace & Company; New York, San Diego, London; 1998; p. 30.

3 Szymborska, Wiesława; Poems New and Collected 1957-1997; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Harcourt Brace & Company; New York, San Diego, London; 1998; p. 57.

4 Szymborska, Wiesława; Poems New and Collected 1957-1997; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Harcourt Brace & Company; New York, San Diego, London; 1998; p. 15.

5 Szymborska, Wisława; Here; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Boston, New York; 2010; p. 77.

6 Szymborska, Wisława; Here; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Boston, New York; 2010; p. 55.

The Letter

No, this is not about The Boxtops, nor Joe Cocker’s cover of their mournful rock ballad from 1967, although there is a reference to a Broadway musical from 1953. This concerns any number of artists who moved to New York City during the early and middle years of the 20th Century. They came especially from the Mid-West. David Smith was one of them, having been born and raised in Decatur, Indiana. Often feeling homesick, there is a certain letter, in the form of a sculpture, which he imagined writing home.

A. Eriss
“David Smith”
B&W Photograph
1936
(p. 11; David Smith by David Smith.)

Smith first worked in offices in Washington, DC and New York, and later as a welder in a steelworks. He was simultaneously energized by the life and pace of the east coast and demoralized by the loneliness and solitude that he found there. “Yet lonesomeness is a state in which the creative artist must dwell much of the time….”1

This instantly reminded me of Rainer Maria Rilke and the advice he had written in a letter from Rome on 14 May 1904 to his younger poet friend: “This very wish will help you, if you use it quietly, and deliberately and like a tool, to spread out your solitude over wide country. People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.”2

David Smith was doubly aware of this I think. While many of his contemporaries were easily falling into camps based solely on media or subject matter, his stated goal was that this work was an attempt to bridge the gap between painting and drawing and sculpture: a most difficult project.

There are several examples of this work: severely linear pieces that often contain, or are made up of, an arrangement of attenuated forms and glyphs. A great example of this is a beautiful piece in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art titled “The Egyptian Barnyard” and often described as a drawing in steel, or in this case, welded silver.

David Smith
“Egyptian Barnyard”
1954
Wrought and soldered silver on wood base
14 1/2” x 24” x 5 1/2”
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James W. Alsdorf
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana

Although his work has often been held up as great formalist abstraction, there are specific examples of content inherent in many of Smith’s pieces. For instance, these figurative gesture drawings of the dancer Martha Graham.

David Smith
“Studies of Martha Graham”
1938
12” x 19”
Drawing on paper after a series of photographs by
Barbara Morgan.
Collection of Candida and Rebecca Smith.

There are also photographic references to his daughters running and tumbling through their back yard, portraits of other artists and characters, and even several pieces inspired directly from Alberto Giacometti’s early masterpiece “The Palace at 4:00 AM.”

David Smith
“Interior for Exterior”
1939
Steel and bronze
18” x 22” x 23 1/4”
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Orin Raphael

Over the years, writers such as Cleve Gray3 and Edward F. Fry4 have provided hints as to the content of “The Letter.” In 1967 at the Yale-Norfolk Summer School of Music and Art it was Mr. Gray who lectured on David Smith, whose biography he had just finished editing. In one of the earliest exhibitions I had visited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it was the David Smith Retrospective of 1969 that made a lasting impression. Finally, during my freshman year in art school in Baltimore, an early winter 1965 visiting artist lecture by David Smith himself still rings true to me in all that he said.

David Smith
“Sketchbook Study for The Letter”
c. 1950
Pen and ink and pencil on paper
David Smith Archives, III — 1283
New York, New York

In order to decipher this letter, we can see in the drawing study a salutation in the top left corner and a signature at the lower right. In between we have the written body made up of a series of scrap railroad hardware “h’s” and “y’s” and “o’s” forming a message. The particular wording of this letter itself is borrowed from a 1953 song that was included in the Broadway musical “Wonderful Town.”

In short, two young girls, sisters Ruth and Eileen Sherwood from Columbus, Ohio, arrive in Greenwich Village determined to make it in the city, one as a writer, the other as an actress. From their basement apartment, they are shaken by blasts from the nearby construction of a new subway line, as well as late night knocks on their door by ‘customers’ of the former tenant known as Violet. They are stricken with homesickness, and musically ask: Why oh why oh, did we leave Ohio? This reference did indeed become the content of David Smith’s “Letter.”

“DEAR MOTHER”

“OH WHY,
OH WHY OH,
DID I EVER LEAVE
O HI OH?”

“YOUR SON, DAVID SMITH”

David Smith
“The Letter”
1950
Steel
37 3/4” x 22 7/8 x 11”
The Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute
Utica, New York

1 Clark, Trinkett; The Drawings of David Smith; International Exhibitions Foundation; Washington, DC; 1985; p. 20.

2 Rilke, Rainer Maria; Letters to a Young Poet; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1934 & 1962; p. 53.

3 Gray, Cleve, ed.; David Smith by David Smith; Holt, Rinehart and Winston; New York, New York; 1968.

4 Fry, Edward F.; David Smith; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; New York, New York; 1969.

BARBARA FRITCHIE AND THE AMERICAN FLAG

In American history classes in high school we learned of the story of a woman who insisted on waving her country’s flag during the Civil War even as a Confederate general was leading his troops in retreat through the town of Frederick, Maryland and back into northern Virginia.  We knew her name to be Barbra Fritchie, but several other spellings were used, including Frietchie and Frietschie.

“Barbara Fritchie”
Steel plate engraving
1867[i]

At that time, Miz Fritchie was ninety years old, and although she occasionally cheered on Union Army troops, it may have been a woman in nearby Middletown who actually waved the flag in this particular incident as Confederate soldiers passed by.

To add to the confusion, John Greenleaf Whittier had only heard of this incident through other reports and constructed his narrative from a distance.  Although Lee is mentioned early in the poem, it was Stonewall Jackson who was actually leading Lee’s army.  Flags may have also been waved at A. P. Hill and Ambrose Burnside as their armies passed through this area during those times.  Be that as it may, Whittier’s poem honoring Barbara Frietchie became a tribute to the local community in Frederick as well as an inspiration to abolitionists across the land.  

In more recent times, several contemporary artists have taken up this theme: weaving and waving the American flag in and out of their work.  It is not just a gimmick, and it does eliminate some of the clichés that surround the use of the American flag.  These pieces re-establish some of the flag’s symbolic potential and point to the irony that its use implies in these current times.  Three such artists are:  Sonya Clark, Donald Lipski, and Thornton Dial.  The descriptions written concerning these pieces, as well as the artists’ own statements provide lyrical interpretations regarding this work. 

Discussing the process of un-weaving, combining and re-weaving certain flags for an exhibition at the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles in 2020, Sonya Clark stated:  “We are at a chapter in our history that once again acknowledges how racial injustice is deeply woven into the fabric of this nation.  We are at a turning point. We must unravel those strands of injustice.”[ii] 

In an essay accompanying a Donald Lipski exhibition at the Fabric Workshop in 1991, the poet and critic John Yau observed:  “In his most recent work—Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?—Lipski continues to apply a wide range of specific, usually repetitive processes, to the American flag.  In ‘Flag balls,’ with the help of others, he rolled thousands of yards of continuously printed flag material into giant spheres.  In doing so, he extends the process in which a flag achieves a greater dimension, reminding viewers that we are all part of a larger pattern.”[iii] 

And last, but not least, there is the very title that Thornton Dial chose for the piece included in his exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2003.  It beautifully summarizes and states the purpose of his work:  “Don’t matter how raggly the flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together.” 

So here is the entire poem, written by John Greenleaf Whittier, on the flag waving done by Miz Barbara Fritchie during the Civil War, interspersed with examples of these three contemporary American artists.                

Sonya Clark
“these days this history this country”
2019
Unwoven and rewoven commercially printed flags
(American & Confederate Battle Flags)
10” x 7”
Image © Sonya Clark, 2019

Barbara Frietchie

“Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,

Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,

On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—

Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.”

Donald Lipsky
“Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?  Flag Ball #2”
1990
Muslin 
(One of thirteen balls, each 32” in diameter)
Courtesy of The Fabric Workshop
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.

“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:

‘Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!’ he said.

All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!”[iv]

Thronton Dial
“Don’t matter how raggly the flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together“
2003
Mattress coils, chicken wire, clothing, can lids, found metal, plastic twine, wire, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood.
71” x 114” x 8”
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana


[i] Brockett, L. P. and Mary C. Vaughan; Woman’s Work in the Civil War: a Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience; Zeigler, McCurdy & Co.; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1867; p. 10.

[ii] Clark, Sonya; From the artist’s statement for the “Democracy 2020 Exhibition:  Craft & the Election;” Craft in America Center; Los Angeles, California; 2020.

[iii] Stroud, Marion Boulton, et al; Donald Lipski:  Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?; The Fabric Workshop; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1991; Unpagenated.

[iv] Whittier, John Greenleaf; “Barbara Frietchie;” The Atlantic Monthly; Boston, Massachusetts; October 1863. 

THE FLAYING OF MARSYAS

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. 

Titian
“Self Portrait”
1567
Oil on canvas
86 cm x 65 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

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]

Titian
“The Flaying of Marsyas”
DETAIL (Inverted)

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]

Titian
“The Flaying of Marsyas”
1570-1576
Oil on canvas
212 cm x 207 cm
Archdiocesan Museum, Komeriz
The Czech Republic

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.”

“Hanging Marsyas”
Marble
Height 2.56 m
Roman copy c. 150 AD based on an original Hellenistic
group created at the Pergamon during the late 3rd Century BC
Musee Louvre, Paris

“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.

Tom Phillips
“Portrait of Iris Murdoch”
1987
Oil on canvas
36” x 28”
National Portrait Gallery, London

[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.

THE SHIELD OF ACHELLES

In ancient times, as these stories, tales, and histories were spoken and traded, collected and written down, it was Homer who ultimately composed the epic poem The Iliad.  In so doing, he chronicled the adventures of the Greek army, the sack of Troy and the heroic wanderings of the many participants across the seas. 

In one section especially, he described at length the great warrior Achilles as he was preparing for his battles in the Trojan Wars.  Achilles’ mother, Thetis, who had foreseen these upcoming events, commissioned the blacksmith Hêphaistos to forge a shield, with many layers and stories illuminated on its face.  He, Achilles, would have a choice of living a long life in peace and relative obscurity, or going into battle, with imminent death awaiting, but having his name become legendary.  We all know which of these paths he took.

It was Homer’s description of this amazing shield, going into great detail on all levels, which we accept today as the first and most important example of the ekphrastic tradition. In reading The Iliad over the years since that time, many artists and poets have tried to explicate these details, in both analytical and romantic ways.

“Then, running round the shield-rim, triple-ply,
he pictured all the might of the Ocean stream.”[i]

Alexander Pope
“Diagram for Achilles’ Shield” (MS 4808)
1712-1724
Pen and ink on paper
The British Library, London

In the eighteenth century Alexander Pope set out on a personal project to create a modern translation of Homer’s Iliad.  It stretched out over a twelve-year period, and he supported himself during this time by selling subscriptions to this as a series.  Along with this writing project, he attempted to reconstruct the design of Achilles’ shield, paying close attention to Homer’s descriptions.  The drawings and diagrams that he created are now in the manuscript collection of the British Library.  They give an excellent glimpse into this fictional work of art, and the Ocean stream that runs around its shield-rim.

Homer continues to describe the richness and imagination of the decoration for Achilles’ shield.  In the lines below he lays out the scheme for this project, including several realms and worlds in which the story takes place. 

                                                               “Durable
fine bronze and tin he threw into the blaze
with silver and with honorable gold,
then mounted a big anvil in his block
and in his right hand took a powerful hammer,
managing with his tongs in his left hand.” 

“His first job was a shield, a broad one, thick,
well-fashioned everywhere.  A shining rim
he gave it, triple-ply, and hung from this
a silver shoulder strap.  Five welded layers
composed the body of the shield.  The maker
used all his art adorning this expanse. 
He pictured on it earth, heaven, and sea,
unwearied sun, moon waxing, and the stars
that heaven bears for garland:  Plêiades,
Hyades, Orion in his might,
the Great Bear, too, that some have called the Wain,
pivoting there, attentive to Orion,
and unbathed ever in the Ocean stream.”[ii]  

Later in history, the artisan John Flaxman was commissioned by the firm of Rundell, Brigge & Rundell in London to take Homer’s description of this shield, using the original Greek text and Alexander Pope’s translation, and using his own illustrations to reconstruct this great work of art.  It includes all of the realms and landscapes as they are described, as well as the people and all of the characters as they interact, in both war and peace.  To our modern eye, and mind, this shield may have been beautiful, however, it also would have been huge, impossible for a single warrior to wield. 

John Flaxman (Commissioned by Philip Rundell)
“Shield of Achilles”
1821
Silver gilt
90.5 x 90.5 x 18.0 cm
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace,
United Kingdom

Coming closer to our own time, both W. H. Auden and Cy Twombly bring this imagery up to date.  A contemporary rendering of this story by Auden alternates shorter and longer lines in its retelling.  The following selected stanzas show Achilles’ mother, Thetis, looking over the shoulder of the blacksmith Hêphaistos during the process of the making of the shield.  She seems to be checking on its progress, with special attention to the inclusion of the many details that will go into this narrative. 

Auden however, sets a darker tone than the purely heroic one, including this description:  “An artificial wilderness and a sky like lead.”  Coming full circle, so to speak, the contemporary artist Cy Twombly re-visits this theme with a very energetic and abstract depiction of the shield.  Insane scribblings perhaps, yet they are lyrical and beautiful, graphic expressions with the pure kinetic energy that enlivens Achilles’ shield. 

The Shield of Achilles

“She looked over his shoulder
         For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-groomed cities
         And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
         His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
         And a sky like lead.” 

“She looked over his shoulder
         For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
         Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
         Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
         Quite another scene.” 

Cy Twombly
“Fifty Days at Iliam:  Shield of Achilles”
1978
Oil, crayon and graphite on canvas
75 1/2” x 67”
Philadelphia Museum of Art,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“She looked over his shoulder
         For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
         Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
         But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
         But a weed-choked field.” 
“The thin-lipped armorer,
         Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
         Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
         To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
         Who would not live long.”[iii]


[i] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; p. 454, lines 607-608.

[ii] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; pp. 450-451, lines 479-497

[iii] Auden, W. H.; Collected Poems; Modern Library; New York, New York; 2007; pp. 594-596.

MUSA MCKIM AND RAYMOND CARVER: MODERN DETAILS

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. 

Constantin Brancusi
“Bird in Space”
1928
Bronze
54” x 8 ½” x 6 ½”
Collection:  Museum of Modern Art, New York

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. 

Arnold Newman
“Igor Stravinsky, New York City”
1946
Black & White Photograph
12 1/16” x 22 5/16”
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

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] 

Philip Guston in collaboration with Musa McKim
“I thought I would never write anything down again.”
(UNDATED)
Pen & ink drawing on paper
19” x 24”
The Estate of Musa Guston

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.

Robert Moskowitz
“Untitled (Empire State)”
1980 
Graphite and pastel on paper
106” x 31 1/4”
Collection:  Mr. and Mrs. Robert K. Hoffman,
Dallas, Texas

“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] 

Robert Moskowitz
“Painting (For Duke Ellington)”
1977
Oil on canvas
90” x 75”
Collection of Mary and Jim Parton, Great Falls, Virginia

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.

THE LAOCOÖN

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

lacoon2
Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros of Rhodes
“The Laocoön”
(DETAIL)

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

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

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

 

lacoon3
Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros of Rhodes
“The Laocoön”
(VERSO)

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

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

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

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

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

 

lacoon4
Alberto Giacometti
“Laocoon, after a statue in the Vatican Museum”
1952Ballpoint pen drawing
11 1/2” x 8 1/4”
Annette and Alberto Giacometti Foundation,
Paris and Zurich

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

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

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

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

 

lacoon5
Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros of Rhodes
“The Laocoon”
200 BC — 100 AD
Marble
6’ 10” x 5’ 4” x 3’ 8”
The Vatican Museum, Vatican City

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

 

lacoon6
Alberto Giacometti
“Head of Laocoön”
1952Ballpoint pen drawing
11 1/2” x 8 1/4”
Annette and Alberto Giacometti Foundation,
Paris and Zurich


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WAR, WHAT’S IT GOOD FOR?

war1
Dick Durrance
“An American soldier with a VC skull”
1968
B&W Photograph
DASPO, US Army

 

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

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

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

war2
Henri Rousseau,
“War, or The Ride of Discord”
1894
Oil on canvas
1.145m x 1.95m
Musee d’Orsay, Paris

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

war5
David Shirm
“What We Left Behind”
1992
Prisma color on paper
22” x 30”
Courtesy of the artist

 

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

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

war6
Michael Aschenbrenner
“Damaged Bone Series”
1990
Glass, fabric, wire and twigs
Variable dimensions
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

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

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

 


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

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

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

THREE BATHERS, TWO HENRYS & ONE CEZANNE

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

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

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

henry2
Paul Cezanne
“Three Bathers”
c. 1875
Oil on canvas
12” x 13”
The Henry Moore Foundation

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

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

henry3
Henry Moore
“Three Bathers—After Cezanne”
1978
Bronze
1. 30.5 cm. (length 12”)
The Henry Moore Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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