Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Anxiety of Influence vs. "It was her voice that made/ The sky acutest at its vanishing..."

"She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker ..."  from "The Idea of Order at Key West,"
                    by Wallace Stevens

So I was just sitting here, sketching ...

And I was thinking about the ways writers and artists balance artistic influence against developing their own artistic "voices" or styles. Stevens's poem, quoted above, gives us a woman whose voice is so surely her own that the sea clings to it.  I attended a reading the other day; the writer's day job was ...   "editor."  And so, in the question-and-answer period, I asked her how she protected "your own voice" while reading so many other contemporary writers.  And she gave us all a long, wandering answer that never circled back to her "own voice." Why didn't she answer?

My memory -- which I will admit, is shaky on this point, so I will be very brief! -- of Harold Bloom's book The Anxiety of Influence  centers on the weight of all those writers (or, in my case, artists) who have come before.  And, that, where one is most influenced, one is most prone to deny that influence.  Picasso, for example, doesn't mention Renoir anywhere that I have seen, and of course we would not expect him to. The lush Impressionist works seem to have nothing to do with Picasso's thin washes of color and focus on the hard-edged line. And yet, and yet: a show called "Picasso: Challenging the Past" came together at the National Gallery in London in 2009, and we see the names we expect: Ingres, Velazquez, El Greco, Delacroix. And then the one we do not expect, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, with "Seated Bather in a Landscape, called Euridice," from 1885-1890, a painting that, the catalogue tells us, Picasso owned.  The curators (Elizabeth Cowling, Neil Cox, Simonetta Fraquelli, Susan Grace Galassi, Christopher Riopelle and Anne Robbins) have placed a Picasso, "Large Bather," 1921, up against it. See what you think.

I have always wondered where Picasso's large bathers came from. This seems pretty definitive to me. But Picasso's voice survives these influences, in part because he has folded them into his "own voice." His style often shifts in reaction to other artists' work. The influence moves him forward.  But it could, just as easily, set any of us back. So how to escape it?

And then I thought of Helen Frankenthaler (not a new thing for me: see November 9th and 14th entries).  She lived with first one, then another of the biggest art-world names of her time, Clement Greenberg and Robert Motherwell. I once heard her work dismissed by someone who didn't know any better as "second-rate Motherwell."  But Frankenthaler, despite the weight of living with these two men, created her own world, just as Stevens's woman does in the poem above. Frankenthaler created color-field painting. She was, in Stevens's words, "the single artificer of the world/ In which she sang." Before anyone else poured thin washes of paint onto untreated canvas, there she was; she had taken the thrown lines of Pollock's paint into a new direction.  And now she has moved on, to a graceful printing style -- influenced by Japanese prints -- and has rediscovered another "voice."  Here are two prints; the first is "Madame Butterfly," and the second is "Book of Clouds":

No-one else works this way. So, to my novelist, if you are reading this ... I hope it helps you see what I was asking.

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