15 September 2019

Felix Vallotton: Premature Photorealist ?

At first glance these carefully arranged peppers appear to be circling each other warily, like contestants in a beauty contest.  Or the presence of a  knife suggests an illustration from a contemporary cooking magazine.  Definitely looks like a  photograph. (Curious note about magazine photography: food is photographed from above while interiors are usually shot from a crouching position.)  But these red peppers Poivrons rouges were painted in 1915 by the Swiss-French artist Felix Vallotton.

Some context: around the late 1960s, influenced by the riposte of Pop Art to the oh-so-serious Abstract Expressionists who dominated the American art scene in the post-war period, young artists felt freed to try on various styles - minimalism, feminism, black art, and photorealism.  Some artists tried more than one at a time; for example Audrey Flack (b. 1931) was a feminist and a photorealist who went pretty maximalist in her paintings while she was at it, filling her pictures to the bursting point with objects.

Photorealism is one of the easier types of art to grasp.  The artist uses photography rather than drawing to  explore a potential subject.  How this information gets transferred to canvas is done in various ways but for a Photorealist painter the highest compliment would be for the viewer to be fooled into thinking  "I'm looking at a photograph." 

Felix Vallotton (1865-1925) was born to a Protestant family in Lausanne, Switzerland.  His father was - yes! - a chocolate maker.  When Vallotton joined the semi-secret, semi-mystical French group the Nabis ('nabi' is the Hebrew word for Prophet) he was christened the "Foreign Nabi." (Jozsef Rippl-Ronai from Hungary was called the "Hungarian Nabi.") He became part of the cultural underground of 1890s Paris.  His early painting were avant-garde but in his later years his work became difficult to categorize but somewhat more conservative, as he began making protracts and still lifes.

Vallotton studied classics but switched to drawing and settled in Paris in 1882.  He enrolled in the prestigious Academie Julian, also attended by most of his future fellow Nabis. Vallotton showed paintings at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889,  where Japanese prints and the newly dedicated Eiffel Tower caused a sensation.   Still, Vallotton had to work as a restorer to earn his living.  The hours spent at the Louvre studying works by Da Vinci, Durer, and Holbein had stood him in good stead and gradually he began to receive commissions from home for paintings.

After his Nabi period (1892-1900) Vallotton's reputation was secured.  He acquired a studio on Honfleur, a village on the south bank fo the Seine across the river from Le Havre. There the artist focused on still life painting, particularly fruits and vegetables. The keenness and precision of his eye was like that of a camera. "More than ever the object amuses me: the perfection of an egg; the moisture on a tomato; the striking (martelage) of a hortensia flower;these are the problems for me to resolve." - F.V., quoted in Felix Vallotton: Fire Beneath the Ice by Isabelle Cahn,  Lecturis: 2013.

"Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet" , organized by the Royal Academy of Art in  will travel to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City (October 29, 2019 - January 26, 2020).

Felix Vallotton - Poivrons rouges (Red Peppers), 1915, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Solothurn.

10 September 2019

Elizabeth Harrower: Under a Clamorous Sky

"You have a remarkable, sober acerbity, an almost historical view (the long prospect - I wonder) and the fragrance and nuttiness of the kernel, with the nutshell dispensed with...You are unique, a writer on your own and your future is, no doubt, a long prospect."
 - Christina Stead to Elizabeth Harrower, November 6, 1969

That fragrance is baked into the Australian landscape, a landscape often parched under a "clamorous sky" as Elizabeth Harrower put it.  Grace Cossington-Smith's Black Mountain was painted in the area known as Turramurra, near Sydney where Grace Cossington lived.  The word originate from the Aboriginal where it denotes a high hill.

Elizabeth Harrower and Christina Stead became friends when  Stead returned home to Australia from Europe in the 1970s.  Both writers created characters who prey on others within the supposed shelter of home. Although Harrower was then only in her forties, she had already stopped publishing books in spite of having written four well-received novels between 1957 and 1966.

The Long Prospect, published in 1958 was Harrower's second novel and her first success.  The novel exemplifies Satyagraha, a Sanscrit word combining satya (truth) an agraha (adherence, insistence) given by Gandhi to the practice of nonviolent resistance. "Man and his deeeds are two disctinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doe of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be." In Elizabeth Harrower's novels politics happens in the background because that is how it is in everyday life.  She delicately explores how public disparities play out in real lives.
Twelve year old Emily Lawrence has been exiled to a dismal factory town while her parents, Harry and Paula, pursue separate lives in Sydney.  Occasionally one or the other makes an appearance to do something vaguely parental.  "Just the same, it was immensely embarrassing to have a stranger as an intimate relation," the girl reflects. Emily lives in a boarding house run by her maternal grandmother Lilian who both neglects  and torments the little girl.  

Lilian exults in other people's misfortunes so Emily's one bit of luck is that her grandmother mostly ignores her in favor of horse racing, gambling, and gossiping with her like-minded friends.  The boarding house serves as a respectable front for the lovers she ... from her boarders.

Emily has an uncommon sensibility,  painfully sensitive to the cruelty that her grandmother visits on her.  When Thea, a young woman  Emily has a crush on moves away abruptly, the girl is heartsick. Lilian taunts her mercilessly: "That's right!  Cry, cry, cry! Your bladder's too near your eyes, that's what's wrong with you, Emily Lawrence.  No wonder she wouldn't stay to say goodbye.  I don't  know who would."

Then a new boarder arrives.  Max is a scientist from Sydney: intelligent and kind-hearted, he sees that Emily is starved for friendship and adult attention.  He treats her as an equal as the two discuss literature and art and science. "Emily and Max had taken up a dialogue that had no end..."  Max encourages her to  dream of a future for herself.  

Lilian is not pleased by their friendship.  She encourages others to see something unsavory between the two and she engineers Max's punishment by the  community, a trial by mob that drives him from the town.  Harrower uses her understanding of human motivation to build a scaffold as unbreakable as it is unbearable.  Yer Max has given Emily something precious -  the sense that her life matters.

In Elizabeth Harrower's novels politics happens in the background because that is how it is in ordinary life.  For Harrower  how public disparities play out in real lives is a major thread running through her novels..

Other novels by Elizabeth Harrower:
The Catherine Wheel - Melbourne, Text Publishing: 2014 (1960).
The Watch Tower -  Melbourne, Text Publshing: 2014 (1966).
In Certain Circles -  Melbourne, Text Publishing: 2014.

Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) was among the first Australian artists to paint in he modernist style. Like Van Gogh and Crrzann she used bright colors in broken forms to suggest the natural world.  Paintings of mountains and hillsides were a frequent landscape for Cossington-Smith.

Grace Cossington-Smith - Black Mountain, 1931, watercolor with gouache over pencil, private collection, Australia.

04 September 2019

Arts & Sciences: Rene Henri Digeon & Amedee Guillemin

There is an almost psychedelic aspect to this image of light refracted through a soap bubble but it dates from 1868, not 1968.

Rene-Henri Digeon was a French intaglio printer and engraver who won First Prize at the International Exposition held in Paris in 1855. Digeon illustrated Amedee Guillemin's popular textbooks Les phenomenes de la physique (1868) and Le monde physique (1882). 

Scientists in the late 19th century proposed various theories of optics and, even when those theories were superseded by new information they left traces in art.  The long-lived chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul (1786-1899)  developed a color system that was the basis of pointillism, a style of painting employed  by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in 1886. He also created a type of soap bubble made from animal fats and salt.

The craze for all things Japanese  was named Japonisme by the French art critic Philippe Burty in 1872. Later that year Digeon made his Andromeda meteor, a net of glitter that showers down from an ink-blue night sky. It is likely Digeon had seen the labums by Japanese print makers Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige that were as inspirational to French artists as Chevreul's optics.   

"I saw a star slide down the sky,
Blinding the north as it went by,
Too burning and too quick to hold,
To lovely to be bought or sold,
Good only to be made wishes on,
And then forever to be gone."
 - Sara Teasdale, Collected Poems, Cotchogue, N.Y., Buccaneer Books: 1996

1. Rene Henri Digeon - Light distribution on a soap bubble - Plate VI from Le monde physique, The Wellcome Collection, London.
2. Rene Henri Digeon - Andromedid Meteors, November 27, 1872, Le monde physique, Wellcome Collection, London.

29 August 2019

Francoise Gilot's Recent Montoypes

"Cigarette papers datebook and tobacco pouch
Ought to be like painting
And literature
A hatless head
Eyes straight
A flat nose a plane
On the forehead
My portrait
My heart beats
It's an alarm clock
In the mirror I'm full length
My head smokes"
-"Still Life - Portrait" by Pierre Reverdy, translated from the French by Kenneth Koch, New York, New Directions: 1969.

I can imagine Pierre Reverdy's poem as a dual portrait of two artists, the ingenue Francoise Gilot and the satyr Pablo Picasso.

A mixture of figuration and abstraction has always been characteristic of Francoise Gilot's work. Squares and stripes provide a geometric frame of reference, anchoring her subjects in an otherwise indeterminate space. Flecks on the wings of a bluebird or on the torso of a nude person suggest layers of time and space in the lives of living creatures, and the artist's interests in myth and the nature of the cosmos. 
Gilot began making monotypes in 1985 after more than four decades painting with oils on canvas.  The new medium offered ways to incorporate texture into the meaning of the work.   She worked first at Solo Press in New York City where she created several series of  monoprints, so-called for their singular nature.  Painting directly onto plexiglass rather than using the customary stone or metal plates, Gilot was free to affix exotic papers to the base sheet.   From this plate a single print was made by transfer to paper.  The first exhibition of her monoprints took place in Paris at Berggruen & Cie in 1990.  Today, at ninety-seven, Gilot still practices her discipline of painting every day in her apartment on New York's Upper West Side or in her Parisian studio

When Francoise Gilot met Pablo Picasso in 1943 it happened shortly after her first exhibition opened.  Attracted to the artist as much as the man, Gilot anticipated a creative partnership as well as a romantic one but, during the decade they were together, her interests were subject to his domineering personality and irrational outbursts. With strength and clarity of mind, qualities Picasso was not accustomed to in his relationships with women, she spoke the truth to him: "As an artist you maybe extraordinary, but morally speaking you're worthless."  Could Gilot have been thinking of that moment when she created Law And Freedom?

The year that Gilot moved in with him, Picasso made a drawing,  titled Adam Forcing Eve to Eat an Apple. The game of their courtship had turned to erogenous combat. In retrospect, Gilot had been wise to hesitate for the better part of three years before moving in with him. They had two children, Claude and Paloma, before their acrimonious split.  Picasso was so incensed that he cursed her, telling her that for the rest of er life she would live in his shadow, that if anyone was nice to her it would only be because of her connection to him.   She later described the source of her determination, "in a way I thought, I don't know how long we will all remain alive, so I'm going to do what I want."

Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960) was the contemporary of Cubist and Surrealist artists but he was much closer to the Cubists, especially Joan Gris who illustrated some of Reverdy's books.  In Reverdy's later years, both Picasso and Braque  contributed illustrations to his books but Picasso was so jealous and competitive with Braque by that time that it must have been a relief to deal with Gris. Reverdy's  translator Kenneth Koch goes so far as to label Reverdy a "Cubist poet."   Reverdy was the least mystical of poets; his approach was  to transform life into an aesthetic experience.  Gilot writes about meeting Reverdy in her autobiography Life with Picasso, reprinted this year by New York Review Books, with a forward by Gilot's American friend author Lisa Alther on the anniversary of its initial publication in 1964.  Controversial when it was originally published in 1964, it caused friends of Picasso to vengeful denunciations; thanks to its publication, Picasso never again would conssent to see his children.

Fore more about Francoise Gilot, read Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Woman.

1. Francoise Gilot - Nude on a Sofa, 2011, Mac-Grder Gallery, New Orleans.
2. Francoise Gilot - Bluebird, 2011, Mac-Gryder Galler, New Orleans.
3. Francoise Gilot - Billard Game, 2011,  Mac-Gryder Gallery, New Orleans.
4. Francoise Giilot - Law and Freedom, 2009, Mac-Gryder Gallery, New Orleans.

25 August 2019

Late Summer: Matisse at Collioure

"I believe that painting will make me crazy,  and I am going to try to get out of it as soon as possible."    - Henri Matisse, from a letter to his friend Henri Manguin, late summer, 1904   

The sky visible through the two small windows above the dormer is red with heat.  The geraniums in the terracotta pots on the windowsill are red, too.  Nothing outlandish there - but what about the sails on the boats in the harbor?  And notice that the sky as reflected in the window glass i blue as one would expect.  We are in the presence of a new way of painting, colorful but not in the controlled (and supposedly scientifically based color palette of the pointillists: think Seurat an company.  What caught my attention first, though, was the suggestion of clouds, those blue, pink, and lavender squiggles dancing across the top of the view from Matisse's window.

It is thanks to the critic Louis Vauxelles that the pejorative term Les Fauves (The Wild Beasts) attached to the painters at Collioure in 1905.  The Fauve moment lasted about four years, from 1904 until 1908 when it was overtaken by the renewed interest in form that became known as Cubism.  Vauxelles and his contemporaries had the work of Vincenr Van Gogh, then gone a decade and a half, fresh in their minds.  Van Gogh's colors may have originated in hallucinations; speculation abounded and does to this day that his distorted geometries crossed the line from genius to insanity and Matisse may have had this in mind when he vented to Manguin.
Matisse first summered on the Mediterranean at Saint-Tropez in 1904 and then in 1905 he came to Collioure, a sleepy little fishing village perched below hills, near the border with Spain.   

Matisse, as painter, deliberately avoided  putting his fleeting impressions on canvas, choosing instead to "risk losing charm in order to obtain greater stability."(quoted in Notes of a Painter, translated from the French by Jack D. Flam, New York, E.P. Dutton: 1978)  Matisse had no interest in mimesis  when choosing his colors, to him their brightness was an obvious correlation to the directness of the Mediterranean sun: thus also the lack of shadows in his paintings.  Also, his brushwork was so loose that his forms veer toward abstraction.

Artists may tire of repetition sooner than the pubic appetite for the familiar.  As early as 1873, a guide book for vacationers lamented that destinations on the Normandy coast like Trouville and Sainte-Adresse were little more than "Paris transported for two or three months to the seacoast" (Adolphe Joann) with its attendant frivolities and vices.

When Open Window at Collioure was exhibited for the first time at the Salon d'Automne in 1905 its  colors were described as "primitive" but look closely and their application is anything but unsophisticated.  The way that landscape and  building are intertwined is ingenious.
This seemingly simple style is well-suited to the rustic landscape.

Henrii Matisse - Open Window at Collioure  (La Fenetre ouverte), 1905, oil on canvas, National gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  

15 August 2019

Two Norwegians: Olav Hauge & Harald Sohlberg

"You build a house for your soul,
and wander proudly
in starlight
with the house on your back,
like a snail.
When danger is near
you crawl inside
and are safe
behind your hard

And when you are no more,
the house will
live on,
a testament
to your soul's beauty.
And the sea of your loneliness
will sing deep
  - "Conch" translated from the Norwegian by Robert Hedin

"This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors will open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known.
  - "This is the Dream" translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly

"Not by car,
not by plane -
by neither haysled
nor rickety cart
- or even Elijah's fiery chariot!

You' never get farther than Basho.
He got there by foot."
 - " Not by Car, But by Plane" translated from the Norwegian by Robert Hedin

Olav Hauge (1908-1994) was a poet, a translator, and a horticulturalist, whose writing made a mark on the literary and geographical landscape of his country.  Widely read in European literature, Hauge was also a prolific translator of works from German (Heym, Trakl, Brecht, and Paul Celan, from the French (Mallarme, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Michaux, and Rene Char) and English (Blake, Browning, Tennyson,Yeats, and D.H. Lawrence).  The German romantic Friedrich Holderlin whose blend Greek  mythology and pantheistic mysticism beguiled Hauge, permeated his inner life, so deeply so that Hauge sometimes lost his footing in ordinary life.  When that happened Hauge suffered psychotic episodes, spending several years in a mental hospital during his twenties. 

For most of his life Hauge lived alone in a small house filled with books; only in 1978 did he finally marry Bodil Cappele, an artist. he loved books so much so that he wanted to share them with his neighbors, mostly farmers and laborers who had little time for reading.  Often when one would drop in he would pull a book off the shelf, saying "No doubt you've read this..." 

Trained in horticulture at university, Hauge tended a small orchard.  Although the Hauge family owned a large farm, Norwegian custom dictated that the bulk of it go to Olav's older brother so the younger one received just three acres on which he grew apples.  And though he loved apples, he loved literature more.  Hauge's first poems were published when he was thirty-eight years old. Something in the grandeur of the green mountain landscape of western Norway found a correlative for Hauge in the poems of the 8th century Chinese poet Li Po.  Hauge's  Journals, kept from 1924-1994 and published after his death, reveal a man of extraordinarily broad culture.

When Hauge died his body was carried uphill by a horse drawn carriage for burial in the Ulvik cemetery.  Those who attended the funeral reported that the carriage was accompanied by a colt and its mother who trotted gaily alongside the casket all the way up the mountain.  I like to think that Li Po was with them in spirit..

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) is the other great Norwegian artist, the one who did not paint The Scream. Although reasonably contemporary (Edvard Munch lived from 1863-1944), Sohlberg painted the Norwegian landscape in a somewhat romantic style; contra that his use of color is clear and neat, reminding my of the contemporary American Alex Katz.  Munch has been judged the more modern of the two for his expressionist style and febrile temperament.  Both artists disdained comparisons of their works with those of other  artists.  Hauge is  a modernist, his poetry spare and concrete in style - and yet Sohlberg's landscapes strike me as  a visual equivalent in their rendering of the unique character of northern light.

For further reading: The Dream We Carry: Selected and Last Poems by Olav H. Hauge, translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly & Robert Hedin, Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press: 2008

1. Harald Sohlberg - Fisherman's Cottage. circa 1907, Art Institute of Chicago.
2, Harald Sohlberg - Flower Meadow in the North, 1905, National Museum of Art, Oslo.
3. Harald Sohlberg -  A Country Road, 1905, National Museum of Art, Oslo.

10 August 2019

Big Daddy: A Man For Our Time

Against an improbably blue sky Big Daddy sits, with a pug(nacious) dog on his lap; draped in an 'Uncle Sam' outfit, his visage resembles an  unhealthy reincarnation of Teddy Roosevelt.  His transparent military helmet and thick neck inevitably suggest a phallic reference.  Pax Americana painted in 1973 looks, if not contemporary, then eerily prescient.

May Stevens created the Big Daddy series between 1967 and 1976.  She says she got the idea from a painting she had made of her father, in a typical pose, sitting in front of the television in his undershirt. Ralph Stevens worked as a pipe fitter at the Bethlehem steelyards.  She has described her father as being an ordinary working class man who never questioned the government, supported the Vietnam War unconditionally, and held openly racist and ant-Semitic views.

Stevens did not merely caricature her father.  Bald and stocky, Big Daddy represents the toll  manual labor takes on workers.  She has spoken perceptively about his life and intentions.

"He wanted to be proud.  He worked hard (sloughed off only to the extant that it was, permitted,  in fact required, by his co-workers) and used his wages for his own comforts and for ours, and to enhance his standing in the community and ours.  His sending me to college was the kind of decision that rising in class was worth spending money on.  He didn't expect, of course, that college would make me dress baldy (long hair and shirts and jeans) even years after I graduated.   Nor behave badly either (radical politics, peace marches, signing petitions and other intemperate behavior).  he never imagined that lifting me out of his class would produce in me an allegiance to his class that he did not feel.  He had swallowed the dream.  but it's more than a dream because the books and the art that raise you from one class to another, to bourgeois life, are indeed capable of providing a better life - and also the means of critiquing that life."

With a style made understandable by Pop Ar,t Stevens created a  symbol that connected  patriarchal attitudes to American imperialism (the.red, white, and blue color scheme taken from the flag). He became a vehicle for protest at the hypocrisy and injustice embedded  in personal life and well as in politics. Deliciously, in Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970) the figure is surrounded by cut-out outfits, like a Barbie doll, except that his are soldier, police officer, and a butcher in a bloody apron, all latent with the potential for violence.  As they were first shown the images that became the Big Daddy series were derided by mainstream art critics as heavy-handed, even a perversion of Pop Art (!), and with no resemblances to the dreaded psychedelia.  Time has clarified Stevens' wide-ranging intentions, keeping her works fresh where other works by her male counterparts now seem dated.

May Stevens (b. 1924) was born in Boston, grew up in Quincy, and now lives in New Mexico.  An earlier series Freedom Riders (1963) was inspired by Daumier's Third Class Railway Carriage (1864).  In 1971 Stevens contributed a memorial volume for the victims of the Attica prison uprising.
To read more about May Stevens...

Image: May Stevens - Pax Americana, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY.

31 July 2019

Sassetta by the Sea

  "O my country, I can see the walls
and arches and the columns an the statues
and lonely towers of our ancestors,
but I don't see the glory;
 - from Canto I

  "Human things last only a short time,
and what the sage of Chios claimed
is very sure:
that leaves and human beings
are similar by nature.
Yet few are comfortable with this idea.
We all give room
to restless hope,
the young heart's creature.
  from Canto XLI

(Excerpts from The Canti,  poems by Giocamo Leopardi, translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 2010.)

All appears tranquil on a summer day in central Italy in the 15th century.  The castle-fortress, Rocca Aldobrandesca (at the upper left corner),  built for Aldobrandeshci family, glows importantly in the sun, the buildings of the little walled city are the colors of Jordan almonds, the waters of the Tyrreanean Sea live up to their nickname 'the silver coast', and  ships sail merrily along,  the wind at their backs.  In the lower righ corner a woman bathes in a stream, undisturbed. The scene remains much the same today as when Sassetta painted it,  a small fishing village except for the cars and kite surfers.

Stefano di Giovanni, known as Sassetta (ca.1392-ca.1450), is considered by many to be the greatest Sienese painter of the 15th century. His life is obscure in some aspects; no one is certain where he was born nor the origin of his nickname, although there have been plenty of guesses.  Siena is not far from Talamone: in any case, the artist never traveled very far from home, nor did he need to.  He worked in a milieu that included Duccio di Buoninsegna, called the father of Sienese painting, Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio. His style was one of utmost refinement and technical virtuosity. His first works appeared in the 1420s.  There is a quality in Sassetta's style of  "just enough but no more" that has caused many artists of this past century to find in him a precursor.

Who were the Aldobrandeschi, then? There was  a pope in the family tree, Gregory VII from the 11th century.  Famously, Guiglielmo Aldobrandeschi was a character in Dante's  Divine Comedy, as was his son, cited as an example of the sin of pride. A family of wealthy aristocrats, the Aldobrandeschi owned large tracts of lands in southern Tuscany, necessitating an imposing watch tower in the fortress at Talamone.  By 1300, all but abandoned, it became the home of a garrison for Siena  Talamone had attractions for those with ambitions and the wealth to bring them to fruition; settlements protected  by hillside enclosures surrounded by lands that had been irrigated since the time of Etruscans, settlers of   central Italy who predated the Romans.

This miniaturized picture of a medieval commune has another remarkable quality: confidence.  Central Italy was an economic, political, and cultural hub and would remain so throughout the Renaissance. Sassetta was an extremely pious man but when he came to the sea, he had to own that life was indeed good.

Giacomo Leopardi (1797-1837) was Italy's first modern poet,  whose work pensiero poetante, thinking in poetry, introduced a new type of lyric as a possible poetry.

Image: Sassetta - City by the Sea - View of Talamone,  c. 1430, Pinaoteca di Siena 

23 July 2019

A Lyric of Swallows in Spring

"Even when it seems that the day
has passed like a swallow's wing,
like a handful of tossed
dust that can never be
regathered and no description
no  story is needed
or heard, there is always a word
a small word one can say
if only to say
there's nothing to say."
 - Patrizia Cavalli, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, from The Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry edited by Geoffrey Brock, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2012.

I. On a sunny spring day a young woman pauses on her way to look up at birds in flight overhead. A lyrical moment full of graceful curves, her arms, birds on the wing, and a slightly mysterious wall, not sinister but where does that brown gate lead?  Are we near the sea or up on the escarpment, pretty much the only choices in Trieste, wedged as it is between the mountains and the water.

It could be my imagination or it could be that the wall behind her, there for no obvious reason, is a symbol of the irredentism that is the defining characteristic of Trieste, longtime home of the artist Vittorio Bolaffio.  In Bolaffio's day Trieste was a port city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a fact that rankled the Italian patriots of the Risorgimento.  When World War I broke out Bolaffio was conscripted into the Austrian Army. After the war ended he moved permanently to Trieste, rented a studio, and made lasting friendships while absorbing the atmosphere of the Garibaldi cafe.

After studying art in the Florentine atelier of Giavonni Fattori he had headed to Paris, then the center of the art world, where he sensed to  the significance of Cezanne before most French artists caught on. The impact was so vivid that later when critics evaluated Bolaffio's work they found it to be unusual in its broadly European interests and influences.

An anecdote from the book Trieste nei miei ricordi (Trieste in my memories) written by Bolaffio's friend Giani Stuparich ...the charm of Bolaffio's personality that is visible in Spring with Swallows.
"... one morning I saw Bolaffio arrive in a taxi, and he came down with a very long frame under his arm and I led him into the garden sun where the children were playing.  He called them to see the painting and watched their reactions. I never saw him as happy as when he discovered that they were very interested in the figures and the colors.  Later he told me  about the picture, "I painted iit by oil light while dreaming of the sun. I see that in the sun it does not get damaged: children are the sharpest critics." "

Bolaffio is not so well known outside Italy as his teachers Giovanni Fattori and Giovanni Segantini or his friend Amedeo Modigliani, perhaps because most of his paintings are in Italian collections.  Several of them, including Spring with Swallows, are in the provincial museum of Gorizia. Born in 1893 into a family of well-to-do Jewish wine merchants in the border city of  Gorizia, Baloffio who was described by those who knew him as being gentle, generous, and quiet, seems a natural outsider.  His portraits of members of the local Jewish community are especially admired.

Vittorio Bolaffio died in Trieste the day after Christmas in 1931.  "He was a great artist - he dreamed of universal brotherhood" is the epitaph dictated by his friend the poet Umberto Saba for his tomb.

II. Born in Perugia (1949), Patrizia Cavalli lives in Rome. She has published three collections of poems, the first,  My Poems Will Not Change the World was published in 1974, followed by My Own Singular I (1992) and Always-Open Theater (1999).  "Even when it seems that the day" is  a representative poem, written in a fresh colloquial voice with Cavalli's use of enjambment intensifies her sense of the conditional  nature of  our perception of events.  In origin, enjambment is a French word meaning to step over and in poetry it occurs where most line endings are not punctuated and whose sense of movement steps over to the next line. Her lyricism have inspired some Italian critics to call her  "a modern-day Sappho."  Cavalli's translations of Shakespeare include Othello, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Image: Vittorio Bolaffio - Spring with Swallows, no date given, Museo Provinciale di Borgo

18 July 2019

Howardena Pindell: The Force in the Pattern

In Astronomy: Saturn and Neptune Howardena Pindell portrays the two planets in series of concentric circles moving through a space dotted with numbers and arrows, visitors from a secret graph.  In this ether figurative elements float in a sea of abstract brushwork. It is as though the structure of the universe was right before our eyes in a language whose key we are have yet to find.  As for the large round object at bottom, it could be Jupiter the next innermost planet to Saturn or it could be Earth representing human subjectivity The ragged edges of the image are typical of Pindell's paintings, the canvases usually unstretched and hung directly onto walls with ordinary nails.  

Like Emily Dicksinon's learn'd astronomer who saw figures in columns and charts that measured them, Howardena Pindell has explained her desire to "atomize" art down to its irreducibly smallest  parts, similar to a mathematical exercise.  Pindell recalls how, as a child, she often saw her mathematician father write numbers down in a journal divided into grids. "I saw writing and numbers as drawing."  Another, darker,  memory,  is of a  car trip with her parents through the Midwest.  While drinking from a mug of root beer in Ohio, she noticed that the bottom of the mug had a red circle drawn around its edge.  In answer to her question "why", her parents explained that in the South black people were served separately from whites with cutlery and glassware marked with red circles. 

Although we usually see pattern as decoration, Piindell explores its ideational force, using pattern to express  ideas.  She has worked mostly in an abstract style with figurative elements cleverly encoded; her preference is for details over generalities.  This has also allowed her to upend the cliched expectations of black artists to create earthbound art.

Howardena Pindell was born in Philadelphia and, in 1967, the year she earned her MFA from Yale University,  she was hired by the Museum of Modern Art.  While working at MoMA  Pindell became one of the original members of Artists in Residence, a women's gallery founded in New York in 1972 in response to the dearth of opportunities for women to show their work in museums and galleries, something she had direct experience with at work.  Pindell would return to this theme, elaborating with statistics gathered through seven years of research, with the results published in 1989 in New Art Examiner. She shook up the art world by showing how arts institutions were still deliberately  exclusionary, based on racism. 

At the age of seventy-four Pindell finally had her first career retrospective in 2017, Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen, at the Museum of Contemporary art in Chicago.  And in 2019 she received the Artists' Legacy Foundation award.

Image: Howardena Pindell - Astronomy: Saturn & Neptune, 2008, ink, acrylic, and gouache on paper, courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

11 July 2019

Les Plongeurs at La Piscine

What manner of dive are these swimmers making? Have they just bounced off the diving board (rebondir sur le tramplin)?  Will this turn into a somersault (plongeon perilleux)?  Definitely not a dolphin dive!  It's summer so even the arts get to lighten up.

The divers at the swimming pool (Les Plongeurs a La Piscine), in this case a textile design now housed in a museum that was originally an indoor swimming pool, are both examples of Art Deco, a style named retrospectively in a book of that name by Bevis Hillier published in 1966.

The divers in this repeating textile pattern are a virtual synchronized swim team.  Its conical mountains and curving waves evoke Japanese art of the Taisho period (c.1912-1926) and suggest the ideational power of decoration across cultures. Synchronized swimming, also known as  water ballet,  became increasingly popular thanks to the modern revival of the Olympics and, more importantly, to the introduction of streamlined bathing suits and the sleek rubber bathing caps known as 'aviator caps' for the tough leather skullcaps worn by pilots of early single engine planes. 

La Piscine in Roubaix, France,opened as a pool in 1932 and closed in 1985.  In an inspired remodel, it reopened as a museum in 2000. Its permanent collection is large and varied, Roubaix having been the location of many textile factories since mid-19th century.

Atelier Stablo, founded in the early decades of the 20th century at Roubaix, moved to Paris for heightened visibility  but eventually fell victim to recession in the 1980s,  The atelier specialized in furniture weaving and industrial textiles as the Delerue company, a family business that had a long textile tradition. The seats for the restaurant at the Eiffel Tower were woven at their Roubaix studio, to name one prestigious commission.  They did not keep track of this and other projects in their records, sadly typical of many Art Deca projects, including Atelier Primavera, the original stand alone boutique in a department store - this at Le Printemps in Paris in 1913.  What remains of their archives is now part of the permanent collection of La Piscine

Image: Atelier Stablo - Les Plongeurs (The Divers), c.1930, a drawing for textile manufacturer Delerue, La Piscine, Roubaix.

05 July 2019

Francisco de Zurbaran: Perfectly Still

If only Francisco de Zurbaran had had a century of his own to shine in. Instead Zurbaran's life (1598-1664) overlapped that of Diego Velasquez (1599-1660), arguably the greatest painter of Spain's Golden Age.  Whether Zurbaran would have been flattered to be called the "Spanish Caravaggio" is open to question.  There is no evidence that he ever saw any of  the Italian's work, not to mention that the comparison  grounded in their similar intense use of chiaroscuro, went in the wrong direction for an unalloyed compliment.  And Zurbaran might well have taken offence; he was an ambitious man, the son of a notions seller,  who married three times to wealthy women.

Still life in the 17th century was just becoming a separate genre rather than a merely decorative addition to portraiture.  Looked down on, seen as requiring less skill and ambition than figure painting, it was the poor stepchild of painting.  Zurbaran was a typical artist of his time, painting mostly religious subjects, long  used  to educate the faithful and a fruitful source of commissions for Zurbaran.  Portraits were intended to flatter the vanity of their subjects; a clever artists could combine the two as Zurbaran did with Bishop Gonzallo de Illescas.   Of the few still life paintings that are thought to be from his hand, only this one is signed 'Zurbaran and  dated 1633.   

One painter, Francisco Pachecco, threw shade on still life  in The Art of Painting (El arte de la pintura) in 1649):  "These days there is no lack of those who enjoy this kind of painting because it is easy to do and causes delight by its variety."  "...although it does require more skill...if it is to be used in serious history painting."

Looked at in one way Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose  is a triptych. This has led some critics to guess at religious symbolism in the objects themselves. The unearthly light  does not reach  the  preternaturally dark background, sometimes referred to as Spanish-black. The objects are set on a narrow ledge which imparts a horizontal solemnity to their arrangement.   A  basket of oranges with a sprig of blossoms looks freshly plucked from the tree, an orangerie being a sure sign of luxury in the days before refrigeration. So was the pewter plate that holds four lemons, their pedicels all projecting an erotic tactility.  The cup of water with a rose on a pewter saucer may be included as a bravura display of chiaroscuro.  If we cannot know for certain what prompted Zurbaran to paint this enigmatic masterpiece we sense his pride in its perfection.
Francisco de Zurbaran - Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, 1633, oil on canvas, 23.62 x 41.12" The Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.

02 July 2019

Sonia Delaunay: Simultaneously

"Did the same
Car carry me away
                             I see where you came from
                             You turn your head
On the moon
Just struck
                            At the street corner
                            Everything is turned around
I saw her face
Even her hands
                            The last star
                            Is in the garden
Just like the first
Think of tomorrow
                            Where will they be
                             The thoughtless dead
When the wall vanishes
                             The sky will fall."
"Perspective" by Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960), translated from the French by Kenneth Rexroth, New York, New Directions: 1969.

A wind rose is a graphic chart that shows the direction and speed of wind and employs colors to differentiate wind speeds.  The subject was irresistible to Sonia Delaunay, an artist who thought in graphic terms no matter what the medium at hand. When her friend the poet Tristan Tzara invited her to illustrate a series of poems he had written about La rose des vents Delaunay was delighted.    Both had a long-standing interest in illustrated books and had worked with others on similar projects, most famously Delaunay's  1913 collaboration with Blaise Cendrars on Prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France a long title for a long work printed on one continuous sheet of paper two meters long.   The resulting book, titled Juste present (La rose des vents) was published in 1961. For the covers Delaunay created a color etching that appeared right-side-up on the front and upside-down on the back just present, indeed.

"I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd: in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd."
 - excerpted from "The World" by Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), Maidstone, Crescent Moon: 2012.

It was jazz that came to mind when I saw the Sonia Delaunay retrospective at the Albright-Knox Gallery in early 1980. It was still winter and those brilliant colors seduced me;  fanciful rugs woven  rugs on the gallery floor seemed to bring the sun inside even on a gray day.

Along with  elation  I felt  the unfairness of being too late to an exhibition that opened less than two months after the artist died in December 1979.  If there was any incongruity between the brilliant rhythms in Delaunay's work and the unmovable gray marble columns holding up the Beaux Arts galleries it barely registered on me.  Originally built  to house the Fine Arts Pavilion for the 1901 World's Fair, the Albright-Knox Gallery only opened in 1905; it was celebrating its 75th anniversary in 1980.

Simultanisme, or the representation of movement through pure color, was Sonia Delaunay's contribution to the dynamic experiments that ushered in 20th century art. It has proved to be just as important as Dada and Surrealism, two better-known European movements.  Delaunay's experiments went beyond the emphatically colored landscapes by the Fauvist painters (derogatorily christened  as " Les Fauves" or " the wild beasts" by contemporary critics) just as people were getting comfortable with the beautiful daubs of the Impressionists. 

Delaunay and Tzara had known each since their early days in Paris, meeting in 1921.  Sonia Terk (1885-1979)  was born in Odessa and emigrated from Ukraine in 1905 to study art. When  she met Robert Delaunay, a French artist and became pregnant with their son,  she divorced her husband and married Delaunay.  Their marriage was also an artistic partnership that lasted until Robert Delaunay's death in 1941.   The Delaunay apartment became a meeting place for avant-garde artists and poets Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Jean Cocteau.  While Sonia was busy decorating a Surrealist bookstore Robert painted two portraits of their friend Tzara.  Delaunay not only painted, designed clothing, furniture, and other household items but also collaborated on books with several French poets.  "I have done everything. I have lived my Art," she said.

Tzara came from Hungary by way of Zurich which is where he began to practice something he called Dada, art that expressed hostility to reason and aesthetics, two things that had proved woefully inadequate in the face of trench warfare. A performance artist at the Zurich's Cafe Voltaire, he began to produce manifestos before he wrote poetry.   By the time he met Sonia Delaunay-Terek, Tzara was already known as the "president of Dada."

Images: Sonia Delaunay-Terk, illustrations for Juste present (La rose des vents) by Tristan Tzara, Paris: 1961.  Images from the collection of the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco.
1. illustration for page 39.
2. illustration for page 13.
3. illustration for page 21.
4. frontispiece.

26 June 2019

Play Theory

"Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing." - Johan Huizinga, 1955.

“The green Parc Monceau, with its soft lawns veiled in misty curtains of spray from the sprinkler, attracted me, like something good to eat.   There were fewer children there than in the Luxembourg.   It was better altogether.  But those lawns that are swept like floors!    Never mind, the trees enchanted me and the warm dampness I breathed in relaxed me….that sound of leaves, how sweet it was!” - Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, excerpt from Claudine In Paris, 1901.

The stylized scene of Parisians at leisure on the decorative screen (above) was made by Jean-Emile Laboureur in 1899 when the recently married Colette, a provincial girl new to the capital, was  writing her popular and titillating series of 'Claudine' novels from an attic room.  Her visits to Parc Monceau were occasions when she escaped from the apartment where her husband M. Willy kept her locked up unit she produced a certain number of pages. Doubtless, Huizinga would not have been surprised to see the little brown dog sitting (in the second  panel from the right).  As to what constituted a Nabi picture, the historian of the movement  Charles Chasse said that a picture had meaning only when it possessed "style."  Elements of that style were inspired by Paul Gauguin and the contemporary discovery of Japanese wood block prints (ukiyo-e).

No less a personage than Joan of Arc camped at Monceau  during her audacious attack on Paris in summer of 1429.   By the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV in the 17th century, the Rive Gauche was no longer an empty field. It had become a popular address for the palaces of aristocrats and the private mansions of the wealthy. These urban residences were known in French as hotels particulers.   Philippe d'Orleans,  Duc de Chartres (1747-1793), a cousin of King Louis XVI, purchased the historic Monceau plot in 1769.  Fabulously wealthy, especially after marrying the richest woman in France, he felt emboldened to indulge in a bit of cousinly rivalry.  Begun in 1773, the garden he commissioned from the engineer/architect Louis Carrogis Carmontelle took six years to complete.

Carmontelle designed a theatrical extravaganza, including a miniature Egyptian pyramid, a Turkish minaret, a Dutch windmill, and a Roman naumacchia, an artificial lake for the staging of mock naval battles whose decaying columns still stand today. A model farm that included a water wheel and a windmill demonstrated the duke's interest in scientific experiments.   And Carmontelle knew exactly what he was about, writing after the garden's completion in 1779, "It is simply a fantasy, to have an extraordinary garden, a pure and not at all the desire to mimic a nation which, when it makes a "natural" garden uses a roller on the greens and spoils nature." This mixture of frivolity and earnest effort was a hallmark of Enlightenment the French way. If play is the essential human activity, as the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga claimed, then history itself played at the Parc Monceau.

"...it was not my object to define the place of play among all other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play."  - Johan Huizinga, from the forward to Homo Ludens, 1938.

His relationship to the king led to Philippe's execution during the French Revolution, his properties confiscated by the state.   Parc Monceau went untended until Napoleon III hired Baron Haussmann to make a modern city of Paris.  The renovated park became Haussman's first green space in 1861. It is frequently described as the prettiest park created during Haussmann's tenure, for its splendid entry rotunda, golden  gates, and English-style curving walkways (seen in countless paintings).

Another engineer, Adolphe Alphand (1817-1891) was put in charge of promenades and laid out a refurbished Parc Monceau that opened in 1861. Some of the old follies were kept, and new features added, including a stream crossed by a bridge, a cascade and a grotto. Moving water was used to evoke cleanliness, a quality sorely lacking in the dark, dirty streets of the old Paris.  The public was enchanted and artists flocked there to paint:  Raffaele Ragione, Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte,  Henri Lebasque and  even the American, Childe Hassam.

Today people walk their dogs and children play among the decaying pre-Revolutionary relics just as they did in Colette's day.  Only their clothes have changed. The modern world may impinge on the edges of the park more than it used to but this  little fantasy world is a monument to the primacy of play in human life.  The  hoops and pails and shovels the children play with in Jean-Emile Laboureur's decorative screen could be the forerunners of wheels and steam shovels.

For further reading: Homo Ludens: A Sudy of the Play Element in Culture  by Johan Huizanga, translated from the Dutch, Kettering, Ohio, Angelico Press: 2016 (reprint of 1955 edition, Boston, Beacon Press).

1. Jean-Emile Laboureur - Paravent a quatre feuilles (Standing screen with four leaves),  1899, felt glued on painted burlap, 128,5 x 180cm.,  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2, Gustave Caillebotte - Le Parc Monceau, 1878,  private collection, France.

20 June 2019

At Sea In The Desert

"In the desert you see, there is everything and nothing."
 - Honore de Balzac, from A Passion In The Desert, (1830) translated from the French by Ernest Dowson.

In 1964 when Michelangelo Antonioni filmed Red Desert he may have made the first movie whose subject was the environment.   In the U.S. Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring in September 1962 and the controversy sparked by its claims of chemical poisoning of the natural world were something new in the giddy world of post-war expansion.  An unspoken character in the film is the Po River, the longest river in Italy that rises in the Alps and windes its way across several provinces to empty in the Adriatic Sea.  One of the most complex rivers in Europe,  its sprawling delta makes the Po a barometer of the increasing sedimentation and rising waters that pollution has brought.

And why call it Red Desert?  For the chemical-swollen air that collapsed all distinctions between there and nowhere and, specifically, for the red sulfur particles that fell like rain, coating everything.

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, two giants of post-World War II cinema, both died on July 30, 2007. Antonioni who was ninety-five and Bergman who was eighty-nine had seen almost two centuries between them, but not the same ones; Bergman's was the past and Antonioni's was the present as warning.  Bergman in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, dismissed the Italian director as an amateur immobilized by boredom.  He was only a bit more gallant in his assessment of Antonioni's collaborator Monica Vitti.  Antonioni could have responded that Bergman was a man immobilized by depression but he contented himself by telling the London Telegraph  that Bergman was a man looking to God for answers, whereas he was content to explore metaphysical questions without offering answers. "You wonder what to look at.  I wonder how to live.  It's the same thing." (words Antonioni put in the mouth of a character in Red Desert) Bergman the moralist admitted to his Nazi past only in 1999; possibly it slipped his mind for half a century as he searched for certainty.  As for the timing of their deaths, Bergman went first.

Antonioni, the son of a prosperous northern  family was nevertheless keenly aware of the region's poverty and the seemingly miracle of prosperity brought by the booming petrochemical industry in the decades following World War II.   The scale and futuristic look of the structures erected, conical furnaces and rows of red radio towers raised like the beaks of giant birds to the sky, inspired awe and uneasiness in those who watched the Po landscape altered almost beyond recognition.  All this would be included in the mis-en-scene for Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso).

In 1964 Antonioni and his partner the actor Monica Vitti has just completed a trio of much admired films titled retroactively "Alienation Trilogy." L'aventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L'eclisse (19620 had been filmed in black and white.  Red Desert, their first color film would be awarded the coveted Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1964. When asked why he had turned to color film after such great successes with black and white, Antonioni pointed out that black and white photography is not pure; it too alters reality. 

What he realized was that he needed color to show the deadening effect of pollution on this historic landscape, one that had survived millennia of human settlement yet now seemed imperiled with mere years of industrialization.  Although Antonioni denied being influenced by particular painters, he employed painterly images and techniques throughout Red Desert.  To get the effects he had in mind, Antonioni had buildings, trees, and even grass painted.  The crew spent a long night spraying trees with gray paint to mimic the effects of air pollution.  Even the clouds of sulfur that give the film its title are muted by the thick air. Whenever a bright blue stripe appears on the screen, viewers are alerted that the scene will shift and to pay close attention.  The character Giuliana (played by Vitti) plans to opena gallery where she will sell ceramics, paints the  interior walls with blocks of soft, luminous color that looks like the work of a cheerful Mark Rothko.

In the opening shot factories are obscured by mist rising from the Po River or, so we assume, until the camera pulls back to reveal the steam clouds are belching from smokestacks.  Nearby, striking workers listen to a man shouting through a megaphone that conditions at the factory are so bad that the owner's wife would be ashamed to show her face.  Again the camera pulls back and we see the owner's wife Giuliana walking through this hellish landscape with her little boy Valerio. Prosperity has not brought an end to exploitation.

Giuliana is damaged like her surroundings, recovering from a near miss automobile accident but unable to connect with her old life, she wanders aimlessly.  For a time it seems that Zeller, a sensitive colleague of her husband may be able to help her but, in a manner reminiscent of Lawrence Selden in Edith Wharton's novel  The House of Mirth his offer of rescue is a mirage.

Red Desert ends with a mere whisper of hope when Valerio asks his mother if the birds know the poison spewing from the factory, she assures him that they must know by now.  An admission of puzzlement tinged with dread from Antonioni, a man enthralled by modern technologies.

1. Osvaldo Babieri Bot (1895-1958)  -  Construction, no date given, Galeria d'Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, Plaisance, Italy.
2. Red Desert film still - trees seen through a fog of pollution.
3. Red Desert film still - Giuliana and Zoller walk near radio towers.
4. Red Desert film still - Giuliana and Valerio watch the strikers.

15 June 2019

Georges Braque: Eole, or a Lesser God

"The poem's tempo
failed to keep up,
despite a following wind:

with the young storks
flying across the sky
pure and effortless.

and could only attempt
to mimic their beat

But the sluggish pace
of the poem
stalled and stopped:

the lagging engine,
fingers beneath the wing - 
the underside

tearing, with tearing,
the supple air
of the leaf - "
  - "Fleeting thought" by Ana Luisa Amaral,  from What's In A Name translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, New York, New Directions: 2019.

"I have always been very much engaged and preoccupied by the material, because there is as much sensibility in the technique as in the rest of the picture." - Georges Braque

"Their flight is knowledge, space is their alienation." - St. John Perse, from "Birds"

Aeolus (Eole in French) was such a minor god in the Greek pantheon that it is unclear whether he had one guise or three.  The four winds were the children of Aeolus, keeper of the winds and Eos, the goddess of the dawn, daughter of Hyperion and Theia so, combined, they may have formed Aeolus.  In Greek the word denotes one who is nimble.  Aeolus, who guarded the four winds, lived on a rocky island off the coast of Sicily where he the four winds imprisoned in a cave.  He only loosed them when ordered to by a greater god. 

Braque created his Eole as a sequence of forms: a triangular form is the neck, topped by a spherical head with a crescent (moon) for the god's face in profile at the end of an elongated neck. Hair flows out to the right, as though wind-blown.  Stars in the lower left hand corner also suggest that Aeolus is airborne.  Enclosed forms (triangle, crescent,etc.) surge to the left, creating streams of air in their wake.

Portuguese poet Ana Luisa Amaral is known for reinventing familiar stories in mythology and religion.  Lot's Wife wonders about her namelessness in a bible abounding in names; Amaral's  Ariadne would rather sit in a cafe on the island of Crete chatting with a dinosaur than spinning the thread that will allow Theseus to return to safety after slaying the Minotaur.

Ana Luisa Amaral was born in Lisbon in 1956.  Her first book of poetry  Minha Senhora de Que (Mistress of What) was published in 1990. She has published ten more volumes since and has been included in several anthologies of international poetry and translated into Spanish, Castilian, French, Dutch, Bulgarian, and Croatian.  What's In A Name translated by Margaret Jull Costa is her second collection to appear in English.  Amaral is herself a translator, having translated Emily Dickinson into Portuguese: she received her PhD. in literature on Dickinson's poems.

For further reading: What's In A Name by Ana Luisa Amaral, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, New York, New Directions: 2019.

Image: Georges Braque - Eole, 1939, bronze relief, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

06 June 2019

The Double-Goers: Zachary Schomburg

"I would become, say, Lake Michigan and she, Ontario.  Huron was scoffed at.  Any lake but Huron, she said.  As we threw it around a bit, I changed my answer.  Lake Michigan was clearly the wrong choice for me.  It's a bit too urban, I said, perhaps too likely a choice.

A little later she described our dialogue about Great Lakes as futile and a bit nauseating.  She became upset, knowing we'd probably never become Great Lakes.  She was right, but weeks later I did become a forest somewhere near Saginaw and she became a lovely washer-dryer combination."
  "If Great Lakes" by Zachary Schomburg, from The Man Suit,  Boston, Black Ocean: 2007

A bad aura sometimes attaches to Surrealism: there are those who assert that the writers are incapable of making sense and the artists can't draw.  In general, surrealism works best when it suggests previously un-imagined connections.  Nonsense has a short shelf life for humans; we are designed to search for meaning.   Schomburg has been called  "a sincere surrealist" and praised by James Tate (1943-2015) who was himself a comic absurdist in verse with serious intent.

A doppelganger is the double of a living person, maybe a ghost, and in Zachary Schomberg's poems there are doubles in the most unlikely guises.  A girl dressed as a wedding cake meets her match in a man dressed as an avocado.

Just as Dante had his Beatrice and Petrarch had his Laura so Schomburg's man has Marlene - muse, sometime companion, and always oddly evasive, evasion being part of the charm of a muse for the sort of man who writes poetry.  There is even a poem "Far From Marlene" including with a character with a bird's nest in his hair that seems to have wandered in from a neighboring fairy tale.

From the first poem  "The Monster House" death is present, often as a non sequitur or an absurd joke.   The monster  tells jokes but wants to kill the audience - literally. When he refuses to reform he is replaced by a gorilla dressed as a man who plays a Wurlitzer organ. Schomburg hints subversively that strange things happen whenever one puts on a man suit.

"Black Telephone, White Telephone" is a sequence of poems charting the parallel adventures of two telephones; they may be commenting on each other's exploits or maybe not, but their juxtapositions are suggestive in unexpected ways.  Maybe ordinary life is mysterious after all.

In two poems, both titled "What I Found In The Forest," there are mythic surprises, hollowed trees and handsome woodsmen.

"I found a group
of inappropriately dressed
women inside

a hollowed-out tree.
They all had hidden agendas"

and again from the second poem:

"I found a group
of sharply dressed lumberjacks

a large section of trees.
They were all singing Italian opera."

There is something new in Schomburg's surrealism, an acknowledgement of loneliness and a sense of history that looks back to "Abraham Lincoln's Death SCene" and forward to an emerging ecological consciousness.

Arthur Dove - Lake Afternoon, 1935, oil on canvas, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.