“‘I warn you,’ Daedalus had said, ‘not to fly so low that the mist or fog weighs down your wings, nor so high that the sun scorches you: fly between the two! Avoid too much heat and too much damp, too much dryness and too much cold. Keep to the center of their wheel. Don’t look at Bootes or Helice, or at Orion’s drawn sword. Take me as your guide and follow!”
“But Icarus grows excited. He forgets the advice. Soon he masters the beating of his wings and swoops in wide, playful circles above the sea. Does Minos see him laughing and dancing on the invisible crest of the world? Like a swimmer, turning his back on the cries from shore, he is already far at sea. He has tired of following his father’s shoulders, his snowy wings and shock of hair. He enters into glory as into a garden, a garden of flames that surrounds him; and he breathes in. ‘O Sun! Father!’ he cries to the encircling fire. Once more he kicks on the wind! Again he beats his wings on the torrid wave of the wind! Once more he thrusts up into the light!”[i]
We know of course, how this is going to end: wings and wax melting, bursting into flames, and finally falling into the sea below. Deadalus, the great engineer and inventor, who had constructed these devices for himself and his son, Icarus, had been imprisoned by King Minos in the very dungeon he had constructed for the Minitaur on orders from this king.
The excitement and enthusiasm of this young man overshadowed the warnings of his father, to stay the course. It is an ancient moral tale from Ovid that has fascinated many generations of painters and poets: from Pieter Breughel (both the Elder and the Younger) to Henri Matisse and from William Carlos Williams to Claude-Henri Rocquet.
Many years ago, in literature and composition classes in Baltimore we were exposed to both classic and contemporary writers, especially Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders and Susan Sontag. Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore were always mentioned as well, but William Carlos Williams was often sited only as a footnote. Sometimes at night I would hit the library and find the new (at the time) two volume edition of Williams’ Collected Poems on the reserve shelf. I read through the entire collection several times that semester.
I have read that Williams himself was aware of and frustrated by the lack of greater recognition his work was afforded at that time. He continued to write nonetheless, and his last collection, “Pictures from Breughel” proved beyond a doubt his importance. Three months after his death, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection. His deep seeing, attention to detail and sensitivity towards Breughel’s work have continued to influence many younger painters and poets.
II LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS
“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
[i] Rocquet, Claude-Henri; Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1991. (p. 122).
[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” Pictures from Breughel; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 4.
“Nothing is hollow or waste to the imagination of Marianne Moore….For I don’t think there is a better poet writing in America today or one who touches so deftly so great a range of our thought….So that in looking at some apparently small object one feels the swirl of great events.”[i]
This is what William Carlos Williams wrote about his friend and colleague Marianne Moore in an article regarding her work for the Quarterly Review of Literature in 1948. This particular issue of the Quarterly Review was published in honor of Miss Moore.
Marianne Moore was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1887 and lived most of her life there. Miss Moore studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a professional librarian, with the other half of her career as a poet. Along the way, she met and shared aesthetic interests with other fellow poets including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. On a rare trip overseas to London and the British Museum with her mother in 1911 she discovered a small Egyptian blown glass sculpture in the form of a fish, which later became an important example of the ekphrastic tradition. She has also written sensitively about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome and His Lion” and “Rodin’s Penseur.”
Ellen Fischer was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1956. She studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has served as a curator at both the Greater Lafayette Museum of Art in Indiana and the Vero Beach Museum of Art in Florida. The other half of her career over these years was of course as a studio artist.
These two could have been sisters, or distant cousins, perhaps not from the exact same family, but from across the spread of time. They share several aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual traditions even though one was an Imagist poet and the other is a contemporary painter. Both women have worked with great independence and determination.
On several occasions I have accompanied Ms. Fischer to art museums, galleries, antique stores and markets in Central Florida. The same eyes that look so intensely at works of art are also used to search out a find or two at the local flea market or Goodwill Store. Her juxtapositions are always surprising and provocative, bringing out the best in every object.
Quietly creating these still lives, flooding them with light and satire and curiosity, Ms. Fischer has assembled a body of work that speaks of human hands and activities. It is exactly what Miss Moore advocated when she mentioned how one object shouldn’t diminish or reduce another: one thing being great because another is small.
Although many of these objects are old and discarded, they are not, to my mind, nostalgic. They are unusual in form and antique in the sense that they carry with them a certain history, or an untold story that may have already been lost, only now to be participants in a totally new story.
When I recently asked Ms. Fischer about her work and her selection of subjects, this was her response:
“YES, I see things at Goodwill and thrift stores and flea markets, and buy them. I know right away that I have to have them, and that I will paint them. The meat cleaver was purchased at the St. Vincent DePaul shop here in Vero. Two friends were with me and I had nothing to buy. When they were checking out, I saw it in a case on the other side of the cash register and asked to see it.”
“Well, once something like that is in your hands you can’t let it go. I paid way more for that cleaver than I usually spend on anything in the thrift store– $10.00!”
“I had done a few paintings with sharp objects in them, and wanted to do more. The cleaver interested me as an object to paint. It did lie around the studio for a few months before I used it, but I never stopped thinking about it, in a general way.”
“It seemed natural to use the little Parian ware ‘Ma Kettle’ figure with it– she is holding an ax, you may have noticed, and has a pig at her side….And she was just the right size to hide behind the blade.”
“Always best when a still life comes together spontaneously. I don’t think you can force objects to go together that don’t belong together, no matter how you juggle them.”
“Sometimes I have played around with objects, positioning them this way and that to see how they might work, but if it doesn’t happen within a reasonable amount of time, I keep the object I am most interested in painting on the table and try different objects with it.”
“I have to feel strongly about the objects in the first place to want to paint them.”[ii]
Because of her interest in various works of art, Marianne Moore was often questioned about her writing and collecting. She struggled to defend the directness of her own work and to explain what she saw in the work of others, both poets and painters. Finally having had enough, she made her own statement regarding what she indeed looked for.
Here is Miss Moore’s response regarding her collection of art and objects:
“When I Buy Pictures
or what is closer to the truth,
when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor,
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible
than the intensity of the mood;
or quite the opposite–the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-box,
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist of the hour-glass,
and deer and birds and seated people;
it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal biography perhaps,
in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse;
an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic in three parts;
the silver fence protecting Adam’s grave, or Michael taking Adam by the wrist.
Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one’s enjoyment.
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honored–
that which is great because something else is small.
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.”[iii]
[i] Williams, William Carlos; “Marianne Moore” Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; pp. 292-294.
[ii] Fischer, Ellen; An artist’s statement regarding “Close Call” and other still life elements as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 21 June 2017.
[iii] Schulman, Grace, ed.; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking; New York, New York; 2003; p. 144.
“And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood
above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God if Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the
south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place….This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”[ii]
The Jacob’s Ladder
“The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence for angels’ feet that
only glance in their
need not touch the stone.
It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a
a doubting night gray.
A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next giving a
lift of wings:
and a man climbing
must scrape his knees and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past
The poem ascends.”[iii]
There are many literary references and historical illustrations to the passage of people and angels traveling between Heaven and Earth. There are also contemporary examples such as the one above by Denise Levertov and one at the end of this essay by Bob Dylan. In literature these draw upon the Old Testament story of the Dream of Jacob. In music there is a major source for this in the great American Southern Baptist spiritual: “Jacob’s Ladder.”
“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
We are brothers, and sisters, all.”[iv]
It was one of the first African American spirituals to become popular with both black and white citizens of the south. There is no record of when it was written or who wrote it, but it came into being sometime between 1750 and 1825, and was known as a call and response song amongst slaves. The ladder quickly became one of many symbols for the means of escaping slavery.
As is typical with folk traditions, this song was handed down through generations and verses were added and changed to reflect more recent times. Significant versions from the 20th Century include recordings by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and most recently by Bruce Springsteen during his “Seeger Sessions.”
In the visual arts as well, this imagery has wide ranging uses, from medieval manuscript illuminations to pieces of surrealism and even to contemporary sculpture. The “Dream of Romuald with the stairs of the Monks” from an Italian book illumination at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris is a reference to the story of Jacob’s Ladder. Many early 20th Century artists incorporated this imagery into their work, from realists to surrealists, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Joan Miro and most recently, Martin Puryear, who has used the ladder form in his sculpture dedicated to Booker T. Washington.
Finally, a young artist here in Indiana has for several years been employing severe and unusual views of many ordinary and everyday objects. Having studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Pont-Aven, France and the Arizona State University in Tempe, Sarah Jones has always had an eye for the unique angle of things.
The dramatic placement and situation of certain objects is combined with her own personal point of view towards these things. Her paintings above and below best illustrate this, as does her own statement regarding how they came about.
“The paintings came about after a summer spent in the four corners region. I was working on a ranch in Durango, CO and took weekend trips to places like Mesa Verde, Taos, and Albuquerque. It was my first trip west of the Mississippi and I was fascinated by the differences in landscape and even quality of light compared to Indiana. The images which inspired the paintings were taken at Taos Pueblo. The sky was SO blue. The light was SO bright. The shadows were SO strong. I loved the clean lines of the buildings and the shadow patterns made by ladders leaning against the adobe buildings. They formed lovely right angle triangles: building= side 1, ladder = side 2 and shadow of ladder falling across the ground = side 3.”[v]
Finally, I am reminded of a certain theme that runs through much of the writing of William Carlos Williams: primarily in his epic poem “Patterson” and secondly in an essay on the work of the artist Charles Sheeler. He mentions several times that we should “Say it! No ideas but in things!”[vi] And further, he observes that “It is in things that for the artist power lies….”[vii] So, it is in both poetry and painting that a single object might become a powerful image.
“May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young”[viii]
[i] Translated as “The Dream of St. Romuald and the Ladder of the Monks” this is a piece from the Wildenstein Collection of historic manuscript illuminations at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris. One historian, Peter Damian, has noted that St. Romuald’s Dream is also a conflation of the legend of Jacob’s Dream.
[ii] “Genesis 28:11-17” The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinburgh; 1952; p. 21.
[iii] Levertov, Denise; Selected Poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2002; p. 25.
[iv] Springsteen, Bruce; “Jacob’s Ladder” The Seeger Sessions; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1998 & 2006.
[v] Jones, Sarah; An artist’s statement regarding her “Ladder Paintings” as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 16 May 2017.
[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6 & 9.
[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; p. 234.
[viii] Dylan, Bob; “Forever Young” Planet Waves; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1974 & 2004.
“The early sixteenth-century Belgian painter called, for want of his real name, The Master of the Embroidered Leaf.
Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up the house after being away for three months.
Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies. Not all of them were great. But there were 104 of them.”[i]
This terrible but beautiful image of a dead bird has always been one of the most haunting paintings in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Just over four inches high it is an important example of works of art that are intimate in size and grand in spirit. Their effect remains with the viewer long after stepping outside of the museum.
Raymond Carver used this technique on several occasions in his work, especially in his collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Small statements, snippets really, are concise and to the point. 16th Century illuminations, dead birds on the front porch, or an incident involving Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington all incorporate the painterly criteria of ‘economy of means.’ Compression.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red and Pink Rocks with Teeth” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Jan Vermeer’s “Girl in the Red Hat” at the National Gallery in Washington and Ryder’s “Dead Bird” mentioned above are all small in size but powerful in scale. Why should this be? Perhaps it was the desire of certain figurative painters and Imagist poets for the significant detail: to rivet the universal with the particular. Or, the suggestion made several times by William Carlos Williams throughout his epic poem Patterson to “Say it! No ideas, but in things.”[ii]
Whether it was the search for an American idiom or a single image out of the mass of chaos, Williams would ask of us: “What common language to unravel?”[iii] For both the poet and the painter it would be the process of finding one’s own vision or voice coming out of “…a mass of detail to interrelate on a new ground…pulling the disparate together to clarify and compress.”[iv]
“Because the sun was behind them
their shadows came first and then
the birds themselves.”[v]
To make an image or an object one’s own is to have a signature that comes out of the process of creating that image. Idiosyncratic imagery, like that in Ryder’s painting, has been the trademark of a certain few artists: as in the work of Musa McKim or Leonard Baskin or Susan Rothenberg; Raymond Carver or Kim Fuelling or Michael Ondaatje. These images will speak for themselves, as any real painting or drawing or poem will.
“Through the Boughs”
“Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think, that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was, they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes. The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and won’t stop blowing. . . . Give me your hand for a time. Hold on to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was, those ragged birds cry.”[vi]
“Application for a Driving License”
“Two birds loved
in a flurry of red feathers
like a burst cottonball,
continuing while I drove over them.
There is a story regarding the poet William Carlos Williams and the painter Marsden Hartley that recounts an early shared experience. Dr. Williams was working at the time at the Post Graduate Clinic in New York and after his shift had made arrangements to visit Hartley’s studio. Hartley however, was either late or had totally forgotten the appointment and Williams sat for a few minutes on the stoop in front of the building. It was getting dark, streetlights were coming on and firetrucks were racing past. Williams got out a piece of paper and wrote down, or sketched out, the entire scene. It became his poem “The Great Figure” and was published as part of his collection Sour Grapes in 1921.
A few years later Charles Demuth began a series of eight abstract “poster portraits” as tributes to other modern American artists, amongst them were Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Arthur Dove. Although these were not literal likenesses, Demuth created these portraits using imagery that related to each sitter. In William Carlos Williams’ case urban sights and sounds, cubist directional lines and a number on the side of a passing firetruck are all incorporated into this one particular painting.
“The Great Figure”
“Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city”[i]
Williams’ poem became a classic example of the new writing in America known as Imagism. Charles Demuth’s painting was purchased by Alfred Stieglitz and later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And later still, during the Pop Art period, Robert Indiana appropriated this image for a series of his own paintings and silkscreen prints titled the “American Dream.” Examples of these works are now in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
[i] Williams, William Carlos; The Collected Poems: Volume I; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1986; p. 174.
At the Salon of 1907 in Paris, the critic Louis Vauxcelles described the “Blue Nude” as: “A nude woman, ugly, spread out on opaque blue grass under some palm trees.”[i]
In 1913 in New York and Chicago the Armory Show was a catalyst for derision of both European and modern art by the general American population. It was of course the first exposure of works by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and even Ingres to the American public. This exhibition also included selected contemporary American artists, including several who were associated with Alfred Stieglitz and his gallery.
Henri Matisse’s early painting, “Blue Nude, a Souvenir of Biskra” from 1907 was one of the pieces to cause a public stir. At the close of the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1913, the students rioted and burned both the painting and Matisse in effigy on the steps of the museum.
The painting had been purchased by Leo Stein in Paris at the 1907 Salon. Later it was purchased by the American collector John Quinn, whose estate in turn sold it to Etta and Claribel Cone of Baltimore, where it remains in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Blue Nude was also featured in an exhibition at Stieglitz’s gallery in 1921, where it was seen by the American poet William Carlos Williams. His prose poem, inspired by this painting, may be one of the first positive pieces of writing regarding the “Blue Nude.”
“A Matisse in New York”
“On the french grass, in that room on Fifth Ave., lay that woman who had never seen my own poor land.”
“So he painted her. The sun had entered his head in the color of sprays of flaming palm leaves. They had been walking for an hour or so after leaving the train. They were hot. She had chosen the place to rest and he had painted her resting, with interest in the place she had chosen.”
“It was the first of summer. Bare as was his mind of interest in anything save the fullness of his knowledge, into which her simple body entered as into the eye of the sun himself, so he painted her.”
“No man in my country has seen a woman naked and painted her as if he knew anything except that she was naked. No woman in my country is naked except at night.”
“In the french sun, on the french grass in a room on Fifth Ave., a french girl lies and smiles at the sun without seeing us.”[ii]
More recently, in 1993 the English writer A. S. Byatt has taken a similar approach to this subject in The Matisse Stories, a series of short stories each inspired by one of Matisse’s paintings. This time, it is the “Large Reclining Nude” also known as the “Pink Nude” purchased in 1936 directly from the artist by Etta Cone and donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art through the Cone Sisters’ bequest in 1950.
Dr. Claribel Cone’s will stated that the Baltimore Museum of Art should receive the bequest of their collection provided that “…the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore became improved.”[iii]
“She had walked in one day because she had seen the Rosy Nude through the plate glass. That was odd, she thought, to have that lavish and complex creature stretched voluptuously above the coat rack, where one might have expected the stare, silver and supercilious or jetty and frenzied, of the model girl. They were all girls now, not women. The rosy nude was pure flat colour, but suggested mass. She had huge haunches and a monumental knee, lazily propped high. She had round breasts, contemplations of the circle, reflections on flesh and its fall. . . . She had asked cautiously for a cut and blow-dry.”[iv]
In conversations with his friends and fellow artists 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…”[v]
[i] Flam, Jack; Matisse in the Cone Collection: The Poetics of Vision; The Baltimore Museum of Art; Baltimore, Maryland; 2001; pp. 41-42.
[ii] Tashjian, Dickran; William Carlos Williams and the American Scene 1920-1940; Whitney Museum of American; New York, New York; 1978; 29-31.