18 February 2011

To Paint The Portrait Of A Bird


First paint a cage
with an open door
then paint
something pretty
something simple
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
then place the canvas against a tree
in a garden
in a wood
or in a forest
hide behind the tree
without speaking
without moving...
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but he can just as well spend long years
before deciding
Don't get discouraged
wait years if necessary
the swiftness or slowness of the coming
of the bird having no rapport
with the success of the picture
When the bird comes
if he comes
observe the most profound silence
wait till the bird enters the cage
and when he has entered
gently close the door with a brush
paint out all the bars one by one
taking care not to touch any of the feathers of the bird
Then paint the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful of its branches
for the bird
paint also the green foliage and the wind's freshness
the dust of the sun
and the noise of insects in the summer heat
and then wait for the bird to decide to sing
If the bird doesn't sing
it's a bad sign
a sign that the painting is bad
but if he sings it's a good sign
a sign that you can sign
so then so gently you pull out
one of the feathers of the bird
and you write yours name in a corner of the picture

- Jacques Prevert, translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, New York, Doubelday & Company: 1971.

Two careers of  Jacques Prevert (1900-1977),  poet and screenwriter, meet in this piece.  But he had others.  Prevert quit school to work at  Le Bon Marche, possibly the first department store in the world and certainly an inspiration for the novel Au Bonheur des Dames  by Emile Zola (1883).  He was drafted into the French army during World War I and afterward he became a Surrealist.  His last project, left unfinished at his death, was for an animated film, The King And the Mockingbird.   His name is not familiar in the English-speaking world, but his words are: Jacques Prevert wrote the lyrics for one of the most popular love songs of all time: Les Feuilles mortes or Autumn Leaves.

1. China - fragment of silk embroidered cloth, Ming Dynasty, Musee Guimet, Paris.
2. Japan - coffret made with lacquer, Meiji Period, Musee Guimet, Paris.
2. Japan -


alestedemadrid said...

Beautiful poem and useful information. As usual.

Touch2Touch said...

I've been a lurker here for some time, and enjoyed the exquisite interplay between art, literature, history, and just sheer beauty!
But today's post, on yet another interminable snowy day, impels me to tell you so, as it is such a wonderfully hopeful entry. Thank you.

Rouchswalwe said...

Les Feuilles mortes is one of the most beautiful songs! But I never knew who wrote the lyrics. The interplay of cage and bars and brush is moving. Thank you for bringing this all together in this touching post.

Jane said...

Thanks Alestedemadrid. Prevert's poems deserve renewed attention.

Jane said...

Touch2Touch, birds have inspired so many artists and it was a challenge to find images that aren't too familiar.

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe, Prevert did many things, including making collages. There's an exhibition on view currently at Maison Europeenne de Photographie in Paris.

Rebecca said...

Our art teacher recently gave us this poem as inspiration for our next piece. Beautiful !!

Jane said...

Rebecca, it is a visually suggestive poem. Hope you let us know what you come up with. Thanks for your comment.