Merry Jesting

Rousseau_Carriole-Juniet

(Henri Rousseau, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (1908): Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.)

Published in the Partisan Review in the summer of 1939, Elizabeth Bishop’s appreciation of Gregorio Valdes made no claims for him as a great painter—‘sometimes he was not even a good “primitive”’—and observed that the artist himself saw no difference between ‘what we think of as his good pictures and his poor pictures’, that success and failure seemed to be merely a matter of luck. Most were copied from photographs or reproductions, nevertheless, ‘when he copied, particularly from a photograph, and particularly from a photograph of something he knew and liked, such as palm trees, he managed to make just the right changes in perspective and coloring to give it a peculiar and captivating freshness, flatness, and remoteness.’

Bishop commissioned Valdes to paint a picture of the Key West house she was living in with Louise Crane, and asked the painter for extras: more flowers, ‘a monkey that lived next door, a parrot and a certain kind of palm tree, called the Traveller’s Palm.’ She began her memoir by describing the first Valdes painting that she saw, ‘a real View’: ‘In the middle of the road was the tiny figure of a man on a donkey, and far away on the right the white speck of a thatched Cuban cabin that seemed to have the same mysterious properties of perspective as the little dog in Rousseau’s The Cariole of M. Juniot.’[1] In letters of that period, she referred to Valdes as ‘our new Key West Rousseau’ and ‘our local Rousseau’.[2]

In 1949, Flannery O’Connor met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and subsequently moved into their house, Ridgefield, Connecticut, as a paying guest. In a letter to Janet McKane, 27 August 1963, O’Connor wrote: ‘Thanks so much for the museum bulletins with devilish dogs etc. The dog I like in painting is one in a painting of Rousseau. I don’t know the name of it but the family is in a wagon, all looking ahead and there is one dog in the wagon and one underneath, kind of prim diabolical dogs. It’s very funny. It used to hang in the Fitzgeralds’ kitchen (the people I lived with in Connecticut) but I have never seen it anywhere else.’[3]

OConnor-InaDillardRussellLibrary

(Flannery O’Connor: Ina Dillard Russell Library via New Georgia Encyclopedia)

It is, of course, the same painting, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (‘Old Juniet’s Cart’), by Henri Rousseau, commonly called ‘Le Douanier’, although ‘he was never a douanier (customs inspector) but a gabelou (employee of the municipal toll service).’[4] Like most of the work of Valdes, Rousseau’s painting began with a photograph, ‘which shows how he selected and revised at will. The bleak snapshot is transformed into a study of red wheels and shafts penetrating masses of black. In the painting the people sit in a compact arrangement in the cart, with space around them, instead of standing formlessly on the kerb. They have become, recognizably, creatures of Rousseau’s vision.’[5] (And four of the people in the picture plus one dog are, pace O’Connor’s memory, not looking ahead but rather at us—only old Juniet and two of the dogs seem to be looking ahead.)

Rousseau has consistently been mocked or celebrated, and sometimes both simultaneously, as was the case with most of the guests attending the famous banquet, given in Rousseau’s honour by Pablo Picasso and Fernande Olivier at the Bateau Lavoir, probably on 21 November 1908. Those guests included Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Salmon and Georges Braque. Many years later, Picasso commented that it was ‘vraiment une blague [really a joke]. Nobody believed in his talent, only Rousseau took it seriously. He wept with joy.’ And yet Picasso was ‘the only person present who genuinely admired Rousseau’s work.’[6]

André Derain commented on the work of Henri Rousseau that, ‘“It seems hardly worthwhile searching and using technical training, when a person so simple, so pure, such a dope, in fact, can succeed in giving such an impression; his work is the triumph of the dopes.”’[7] Nevertheless, his influence on several other painters, notably Robert Delaunay, is often remarked, and Guy Davenport suggests that Picasso’s career-long habit of ‘combining full face and profile’, which became ‘a stylistic trademark’, prompted Rousseau’s ‘perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’[8]

So too, the impact of the Rousseau retrospective at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (the year following his death) was considerable. The younger artists ‘conspired to present a retrospective exhibition’ of forty-seven of Rousseau’s paintings. ‘Esteemed as a true “primitive” by Delaunay and Léger, Rousseau was considered a precursor by the salon cubists, on a par with Cézanne, another modernist primitive’.[9]

John, Gwen, 1876-1939; A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris

(Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris: Museums Sheffield)

There were other, perhaps less predictable, appreciations. ‘In the Indépendants a man named Rousseau had a collection of pictures which you would be very interested in, I’m sure’, Gwen John wrote in a letter of 22 August 1911. ‘He has died lately. He was a douanier and at fifty year[s] old he felt he must paint and so he painted, not knowing at all how to paint. His pictures are very remarkable works, as you can imagine, but they are works of art. I hope you will be able to see them some day, but I don’t know where they are now. I suppose they have gone to his family. The other exhibitors in the Indépendants are just mad people.’[10]

Among recent critics, Robert Hughes wrote that Rousseau meant his visions to be absolutely real, the authenticity of the jungle scenes resting on a tissue of fibs about serving in the French army in Mexico in the 1860s. It was important, Hughes went on, that these spectacles ‘should seem witnessed, not invented’ – and they had, in fact, been witnessed twice, once in Rousseau’s imagination, once more in the Jardin des Plantes.[11] In fact, Roger Shattuck comments, much of the ‘lingering falsehood’ stems from Apollinaire’s articles, in which he stated that Rousseau ‘went to Mexico with troops sent by Napoleon III to support Maximilian, and that it is the memory of the “forbidden” tropical fruits in Central America that obsessed him in his jungle paintings.’ There’s no evidence of such a trip but, as Shattuck remarks, ‘Rousseau’s imagination was capable of its own voyages.’[12]

So it was. His paintings are unsettling but oddly compelling, with their huge children and tiny animals, moustachioed figures frozen in peculiar poses, startling vegetation, sly self-portraits, the sleeping gypsy (who is, in fact, awake, though pretending to be dead), the velvety exoticism of his snake-charmer.

Rousseau_Merry_Jesters

(Henri Rousseau, Les joyeux farceurs: Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

‘Until we are willing to enter Rousseau’s world’, Guy Davenport writes, ‘we are going to misread all his paintings.’ (He has just discussed five such misreadings, of Rousseau’s Les joyeux farceurs.) And, ‘What, psychologically, was most useful to Rousseau was not childishness but a quality wholly mature: the ability to fool himself.’ That is, he saw his paintings as he wished to see them. ‘In this he was a kind of Don Quixote; and, as with the Don, Rousseau wins us over to his way of seeing.’[13]

In a letter to Hugh Kenner (1 March 1963), accompanying his long poem, Flowers and Leaves, Davenport signed himself ‘The Douanier Rousseau of Poetry’ (Kenner’s letter of 1 May 1963 began ‘Dear Mr Rousseau’).[14] * And, as Davenport mentions in the essay just cited, Monsieur Rousseau is there, in that poem:

Henri Rousseau’s garden jungle
Is sincerity’s domain.

And:

Mr Rousseau, master in the modern manner,
Has depicted us in forests of flowers, inquisitive
As catfish, intelligent as Miss Gertrude Stein.[15]

* (Currently scheduled for October this year, and keenly awaited in some quarters, is Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns, published by Counterpoint Press: a total of 2016 – no, that’s not a date – pages: two volumes of a thousand pages each. Quoted price is $95.00 which, given that a lot of slim UK monographs come in at £70 or even £80 these days, seems a snip.)

 

 

References

[1] ‘Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939’, in Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 326-332.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75; Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 746.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1190.

[4] Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, revised edition (New York: Vintage, 1968), 46.

[5] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 100.

[6] John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Volume II, 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life (London: Pimlico, 1997), 110, 112.

[7] Derain, in Denys Sutton, André Derain (London: Phaidon, 1959), 27: quoted in Judi Freeman, The Fauve Landscape (London: Guild Publishing, 1990), 110.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.

[9] Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, editors, A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 120, 121.

[10] Gwen John to John Quinn, in Letters and Notebooks, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 69.

[11] Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 229.

[12] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 46.

[13] Guy Davenport, ‘What Are Those Monkeys Doing?’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 14, 26.

[14] Edward M. Burns, ‘Questioning Minds: The Letters of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport’, The Hopkins Review, 8, 3 (Summer 2015), 338-371 (349).

[15] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 91, 110.

 

Back to normal

Morris

We stayed in Walthamstow in December 2017 mainly to be sure of finally getting to the William Morris Gallery. Housed in a mid-eighteenth century house, in which Morris lived between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two, the Gallery reopened in 2012 after a major redevelopment. We timed the visit to coincide with an exhibition of the work of May Morris, William’s younger daughter, artist and designer of wallpapers, jewellery, embroidery and much else: teacher, lecturer and editor of the 24-volume collected edition of William Morris’s works: http://maymorrisartandlife.co.uk/the-exhibition/

On this occasion of William Morris’s birthday (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896), I was thinking of Peter Stansky noting that, among other paradoxes, Morris’s strong dislike of the Renaissance had to be set against his providing a fine example of what has become the conventional definition of ‘a Renaissance man’. Opposing the very notion of individual genius was a man of evident individual genius. As Stansky remarked, ‘What Morris was unprepared to recognize was that his was truly the exceptional case.’[1]

May_Morris.Wiki

(May Morris)

The narrator of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between remarks at one point, ‘I was in love with the exceptional and ready to sacrifice all normal happenings to it’.[2] Yes, that ‘normal’ – what is it and what has it become? I saw too a photograph, earlier today, in which a ‘March For Our Lives’ demonstrator in Washington held up a placard reading ‘This is not normal’. We said, of course, ‘Back to normal’ as the scheduled strike period ended and the Librarian returned to what was hoped and desired to be precisely that. But normality, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be. From the individual and small-scale to the national and supranational, the stable and the commonsensical have taken a vacation of unspecified length.

On that smallest scale—deliveries cancelled; collections missed; a plasterer working in the house—my own ‘normal’ wasn’t shaping up too well and, essentially, I needed to keep out of the way. Work on walls I might have dodged; work on ceilings made things a little trickier. So I walked to the newsagent, then out over the park to the station and caught a train to Bath.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that, just as cats can immediately spot the one man or woman in the room unsympathetic to cats—and head straight for them—so men on trains with mobile phones and loud voices can pick me out in a crowded carriage—‘Hey, a guy with a book!’—and are thus able to position themselves behind my right ear before getting stuck in to a detailed and repetitive progress report on a telecommunications project, involving several individual contracts. The train ride was thirteen minutes long: when I arrived in Bath, the palms of my hands were slightly damp but I’d suffered no blackouts and the telecommunications man was still in rude health.

(Rex Whistler, The Foreign Bloke; Thomas Gainsborough, Louisa, Lady Clarges: both Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)

So: bookshops, cafés, parks, canal path walking but mainly looking at pictures—David Inshaw’s The River Bank (Ophelia), William Roberts’ The Dressmakers, Gainsborough, Joseph Wright, Thomas Barker—while reading Elizabeth Bishop whenever I could:

‘Mr. Valdes had a wonderful time, I think. It was rather exhausting for us, though, because he speaks scarcely any English, and he stayed from four till seven. We had sherry, which he seemed to regard as just “wine.” He kept saying “More wine” and he finished off the bottle, while Charlotte and I became sicker and sicker. The high point of the affair was when he and Charlotte imitated mosquitoes and buzzed around the room.’ And, ‘Since our patronage he has changed his sign (a palette stuck on the front of his cottage) from “Sign Painter” to “Artistic Painter”. . . ’[3]

Valdes-painting-key-west

https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3578226
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

But yes, that ‘normal’. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson entitled her memoir—in the course of which she wrote of the feelings of sympathy shared by people, even when they didn’t know one another, inside the giant tent during the church’s Glory Crusades. ‘The tent was like the war had been for all the people of my parents’ age. Not real life, but a time where ordinary rules didn’t apply. You could forget the bills and the bother. You had a common purpose.’[4] This was something that I already associated with my own late mother, not in a religious context but purely a social one. For my mother, it was a time when class barriers fell away and everyone was nice to one another and pulled together. Rarely, if ever, mentioned were those opportunities provided to—and enthusiastically taken up by—looters, murderers, rapists, black marketeers and fraudsters. It was, quite simply, the most exciting time—perhaps, unambiguously, the best time—of her life. And this widely-held view of the past, particularly that period of the past, had, I suspect, a strong bearing on the recent convulsions in this country.

Ideas of the normal change over time, with age, within social groups; and some are more obvious than others. The general shift to increasingly liberal social values makes the hundreds of capital offences current in the early nineteenth century, famously including such crimes as impersonating a Chelsea pensioner and damaging Westminster Bridge, almost comic now. And it was quite normal in the nineteenth century for the family album to have photographs of the infant dead, choreographed so that, with eyes open, they still seemed to be alive.[5] Now, I’m often struck by the extraordinary lengths to which some people go to avoid or conjure away the whole subject of death.

‘It may well be’, Allan Bloom observed, ‘that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.’[6] A text for the times, you may think. Still, as Herbert Read noted, ‘it is perfectly possible, even normal, to live a life of contradictions.’[7]

So it is, so it is. I wonder, though, whether the possibility of not living a life of contradictions, is fast vanishing – if it has not already left the building.

References

[1] Peter Stansky, Redesigning the World: William Morris, the 1880s, and the Arts and Crafts (Princeton University Press, 1985), 6.

[2] L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between ([1953] Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 94.

[3] To Frani Blough and Margaret Miller, 3 June 1938: One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75.

[4] Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011; London: Vintage 2012), 70, 71.

[5] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), 375.

[6] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 75.

[7] Herbert Read, Contrary Experiences (London: Faber, 1963), 62.

 

Winter solstice; nothing political

Lights2

Winter solstice. The shortest, least lighted day. The darkest hour before the dawn, and all that. So we can expect some brightening soon? Answers on a speck of dust, please, to a post office box located somewhere out in mid-ocean.

Is it possible, on such a day, not to stray into political lament or harangue in this new age of unreason, at the end of what feels like a very long year or rather, eighteen months, which is how long it is since, in Jonathan Meades’ summary, ‘[t]he aim of the 52 per cent that shot itself in the foot was so poor that it also shot the 48 per cent.’?[1]

Face-to-the-world

It’s possible. Difficult but possible, if only by concentrating on quite other things, such as the obvious advantage of new bookshelves in the kitchen being the option of browsing while the kettle boils or the grill heats up. You might gather useful, or useless, or at least diverting facts such as that Gustave Courbet had himself photographed more than any other nineteenth-century French painter.[2] Or, say, insights into the problems of novel-writing:

Unstrung-Harp

‘Several weeks later, the loofah trickling on his knees, Mr Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.’[3]

Or, say, this cheering news of the use to which Mary Cassatt put her share of the 1879 Impressionist exhibition’s earnings: ‘[ . . . ] Mary bought a Monet and a Degas; by that time she already owned pictures of Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, and Monet; her impulse, like Degas’, was ever to put money not earmarked for necessities, into pictures.’[4] I’m thinking how pleasant it would be: not needing to be rich, simply having the good taste to want ‘a Monet and a Degas’ and, of course, to have that sense of priorities.

21 December, something cheering. Let me see. Yes, that day in 1944, Sylvia Townsend Warner writes to Ben Huebsch of Viking Press about her wonderful novel The Corner That Held Them, reviewed by Kate Macdonald earlier this year here:

https://katemacdonald.net/2017/05/22/sylvia-townsend-warner-the-corner-that-held-them/

‘At this moment you should have up to p.182. I have killed off a lot more ladies in the next bit you will get, so much creating and killing off makes me feel as providential as Providence. Ralph, however, is still with us. He is to live into an old age serene and bright and die without a pang of conscience.’ Four months later, she writes to him to say: ‘It will be long—about 180,000 I believe. It is also what one calls powerful. If dropped from a suitable height it would wipe out the state of Vermont.’[5]

confucius

(Confucius: K’ung Fu-Tse)

Meanwhile, reflecting—obviously, not at all in a political way—on the news of the day, of altogether too many recent days, an extract from Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto XIII’ pops into my head:

And Kung raised his cane against Yuan Jang,
Yuan Jang being his elder,
For Yuan Jang sat by the roadside pretending to
be receiving wisdom.
And Kung said “You old fool, come out of it,
“Get up and do something useful.”
And Kung said
“Respect a child’s faculties
“From the moment it inhales the clear air,
“But a man of fifty who knows nothing
Is worthy of no respect.”[6]

References

[1] Jonathan Meades, ‘In the loop: The gulf between the arts and art: a personal view’ (edited text of a speech given at the annual dinner of the Royal Academy of Arts in London), Times Literary Supplement (20 October 2017), 14.

[2] Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (London: Harper Press, 2010), 194.

[3] Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel, in Amphigorey: Fifteen Books by Edward Gorey (New York: Perigee Books, 1981), unpaginated.

[4] Nancy Hale, Mary Cassatt: A biography of the great American painter (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 94.

[5] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 88, 92.

[6] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 58-59.

 

A Visit to ‘The Enemy’: Wyndham Lewis Up North

Manchester-early

(Manchester, early morning)

To Manchester, primarily to see the Wyndham Lewis exhibition or perhaps—depending on which witness was consulted—to visit Chetham’s and John Rylands libraries; or even to take full advantage of room service in the hotel.

I was last in Manchester almost exactly thirteen years ago and my strongest memories from that visit were of extraordinarily impressive public buildings, friendly people and a vibrant city centre which felt good to walk around. Nothing has changed for me in those respects, and there is still that positive feeling as you walk around the centre, despite some of the trouble that Manchester has had to weather recently.

Coming from Bristol, we could only lament that city’s lost opportunities as we sampled the Metrolink on a tram out to the Quays and Imperial War Museum North.

IWM-North

(IWM North)

And so to Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War. This is a tremendous exhibition, covering the whole of Lewis’s career but also, invaluably, including much of the related, contextual artistic work: designs from Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, paintings by Vorticist allies, and ending with Michael Ayrton’s poignant portrait of the elderly—and blind—Lewis wearing his eyeshade.

Portrait of Wyndham Lewis 1955 by Michael Ayrton 1921-1975

(Michael Ayrton, Wyndham Lewis, 1955: Tate © Estate of Michael Ayrton)

Some of the Lewis artworks I’d seen before, at an exhibition in Cardiff. Having dug out the catalogue by Jane Farrington (with contributions by John Rothenstein, Richard Cork and Omar Pound), I see that it was in 1980, that it actually started in Manchester (not, as I mistakenly thought, London) and that A Battery Shelled (1919) wasn’t included in that exhibition. I believe the only piece that didn’t make the move was the famous and controversial portrait of T. S. Eliot, which had to return home to Durban, so I was glad to catch up with it here.

I do remember the almost overwhelming impact of walking into that space in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and seeing the remarkable range of his work for the first time, a range that I’d never really suspected before, an effect that was heightened by the fact that, when I viewed the exhibition, I was alone for much of that time. Walking around the IWM exhibition the other day, in fact, there were few enough people for each of us to take our time and see things properly, and to go back and look again—increasingly rare in recent years: in several other exhibitions I’ve been to lately, you’d have to stand on a stepladder to see half of the exhibits over the heads of the crowds.

WL-Exhbtn

Whether I’d seen them before or not, the pieces I found myself scribbling the titles of on this occasion included Smiling Woman Ascending a Stair (c.1911-12), The Vorticist (1912), The Crowd (1914-15), Two Missionaries (1917), Figures in the Air (1927), The Surrender of Barcelona (1936) and, of course, A Battery Shelled (1919)—the scale and force of that canvas draws you back for a second or third viewing. I still find several of the portraits hugely impressive: Eliot and Pound, Edith Sitwell, Naomi Mitchison in particular, the instantly recognisable figure of Nancy Cunard – and portraits of Lewis’s wife Froanna, one of them, the superb 1938 The Mexican Shawl, more usually to be found back in Bristol.

Lewis, Wyndham, 1882-1957; Mexican Shawl

Wyndham Lewis, The Mexican Shawl
© Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

But, again, some of the indispensable elements for me were the extras: the journals (Blast, The Tyro, The Enemy), the books (including Lewis’s astonishingly ill-judged titles of the 1930s) and the artworks by others: one of my favourites being Jessica Dismorr’s Abstract Composition (1915).

Abstract Composition c.1915 by Jessica Dismorr 1885-1939

There are also works by Wadsworth, Bomberg, Atkinson, and the wonderful William Roberts painting, The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915, with Lewis looming centrally and a little larger than everyone else. Then, too, the Gaudier-Brzeska pieces: the Horace Brodzky, yes, but primarily the stunning Bird Swallowing a Fish: once you’ve seen the bomb or torpedo in the shape of that fish, you never get past it again.

Bird Swallowing a Fish c.1913-4, cast 1964 by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1891-1915

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Bird Swallowing a Fish (Tate, 1913-14, cast in bronze 1964).

While, on the face of it, you could conjure up few pairings so unlike one another as Lewis and Henry Thoreau, I do hear echoes of ‘The Enemy’ in the essay that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote after his friend’s death: ‘There was something military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise.’[1] The critic Michael Levenson wrote of ‘the modernist urge towards dualistic opposition and radical polarities’ and one of the leading modernists asserted that ‘The history of the world is the history of temperaments in opposition.’[2] Lewis was, certainly, always in opposition.

Which consideration brings us, inevitably, to the thorny ‘problem’ of Lewis’s politics, the troublesome positions brought about by the confrontational stance of the man that Auden called ‘That lonely old volcano of the Right’.[3] The issue is confronted frankly and illuminatingly by participants in the very good video at the end of the exhibition: they include Richard Slocombe, author of the accompanying catalogue; the doyen of Lewis studies, Paul Edwards; and there’s an excellent contribution from our friend Nathan Waddell (a Fordian as well as a Lewisian).

Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War runs to the end of the year and is emphatically well worth a visit.

References

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Thoreau’, in Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 396.

[2] Michael H. Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), ix; Ezra Pound, ‘Provincialism the Enemy’, in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 169.

[3] W. H. Auden, ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (1937), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 198.

 

Turning to the Sunflowers

Sunflowers_4_small

On a day disfigured by news of another mass murder, this time in London, I turn to our new dwarf sunflowers, as the sunflower itself is fabled to turn toward the sun. Helianthus annuus, ‘frequently appearing on rubbish-tips and in unexpected places in gardens, usually from birdseed’, Richard Mabey notes.[1]

‘I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when you know that what I’m at is the painting of some big sunflowers,’ Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo.

Van_Gogh_Sunflowers

(Vincent van Gogh, ‘Sunflowers’: National Gallery)

‘I have three canvases going—1st, three huge flowers in a green vase, with a light background, a size 15 canvas; 2nd, three flowers, one gone to seed, having lost its petals, and one a bud against a royal-blue background, size 25 canvas; 3rd, twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (size 30 canvas). The last one is therefore light on light, and I hope it will be the best. Probably I shall not stop at that. Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers. Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, you know there is a lovely decoration of flowers; I always remember the big sunflowers in the window there.’[2]

Sunflowers.1

In ‘Morality and the Novel’, D. H. Lawrence writes of ‘the living moment’, of the ‘business’ of art being ‘to reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe’ at that moment. His first example is this: ‘When van Gogh paints sunflowers, he reveals, or achieves, the vivid relation between himself, as man, and the sunflower, as sunflower, at that quick moment of time. His painting does not represent the sunflower itself. We shall never know what the sunflower itself is. And the camera will visualize the sunflower far more perfectly than van Gogh can.
‘The vision on the canvas is a third thing, utterly intangible and inexplicable, the offspring of the sunflower itself and van Gogh himself. The vision on the canvas is for ever incommensurable with the canvas, or the paint, or van Gogh as a human organism, or the sunflower as a botanical organism. You cannot weigh nor measure nor even describe the vision on the canvas. It exists, to tell the truth, only in the much-debated fourth dimension. In dimensional space it has no existence.
‘It is a revelation of the perfected relation, at a certain moment, between a man and a sunflower.’[3]

Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower Sutra’ remembers an occasion with Jack Kerouac but looks back to William Blake:

‘Look at the sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—
—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—’[4]

ginsberg-flower

(Allen Ginsberg: https://bluerailroad.wordpress.com/allen-ginsberg-an-interview/)

Blake’s Songs of Experience included ‘Ah Sun-flower!’

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.[5]

Hardly a cheerful poem, to be sure: ‘his terrible lyric on the sunflower’, the flower ‘which wistfully follows the sun across the sky all day, a perfect symbol of the “vegetable” life rooted in this world and longing to be free.’[6] It’s a flower, too, associated strongly with a painter—Vincent—who killed himself at the age of thirty-seven.

Not uncomplicatedly life-affirming, then, but clearly hugely attractive to a great many poets and painters. And forget those, anyway, for the moment, because what strikes me most often is people that say simply: ‘I love sunflowers’ or ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ Quite basic, no doubt: the shape of a sun, the colour of sunlight. But an immediate, powerful, and genuine response or sense of connection.

Paul Nash planned a series of four sunflower paintings but completed only Solstice of the Sunflower (1945), the year of his death, and 1944’s The Eclipse of the Sunflower.

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Eclipse of the Sunflower

(Photo credit: British Council Collection)

Last word to Conrad Aiken:

Each morning we devour the unknown.
Each day we find, and take, and spill, or spend, or lose, a sunflower splendor of which none knows the source.[7]

References

[1] Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 379.

[2] The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, second edition (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), III, 18-19.

[3] D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, edited and with an introduction by Edward D. McDonald (London: William Heinemann, 1936), 527.

[4] Ginsberg, Selected Poems 1947-1995 (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 60.

[5] The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, newly revised edition, edited by David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 25. There is a short video of Ginsberg reading this poem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jySDWBowDnY

[6] Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 74.

[7] ‘A Letter from Li Po’: Conrad Aiken, Selected Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 248.