Monday, March 5, 2012

The Artist Draws, Talking to Himself: Wallace Stevens, Ingres, Degas, Picasso ... and Us

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
                        --from “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”
                        by Wallace Stevens

I have been reading Wallace Stevens’s poems and some critical essays about his work.  One writer, Milton J. Bates, researched Stevens’s early letters to the woman who would become his wife, Elsie (“Stevens in Love: The Woman Won, The Woman Lost,” in ELH, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring 1981).  In these letters, Stevens creates personages for the two of them in love; they are in costume or in imaginary landscapes, but, always, they are together. Here is an excerpt from one of his letters to Elsie, from about 1909, where he pictures them in a garden by a fountain (possibly somewhere in Europe, where neither of them had travelled):

The wind has fallen. The moon has risen. We are where we have never been, listening to what we have never heard. We are in a dark place listening – contentedly, to – well, nightingales – why not? ….  And can’t you possibly close your eyes and, by imagination, feel that it is perfectly real – the dark circle of poplars, with the round moon among them, the air moving, the water falling …

Elsie was his first audience, and the letters an early experiment, but later on, Bates says, Elsie turned away, because “the writing of poetry might have qualified in Elsie’s eyes as metaphysical adultery.”  She felt betrayed as he began to publish; this was her husband, these were her poems.  But poets need readers. Think of the stanza quoted above, where Stevens wrote “We make a dwelling in the evening air.”  The poet takes the stuff of the natural world, “the same light … the evening air,” and creates an imagined “dwelling” within it through “the central mind.”   The “we” must include all of us; as Bates says, “no audience, no inspiration.”  In the end, Stevens’s life work would not be love poetry, but rather a philosophical exploration of seeing and being in the world.  And he needed to find a way of speaking beyond the letters and he needed an audience beyond Elsie.

Another critic, Michel Benamou, wrote about Stevens’s  Cubist influences (“Wallace Stevens: Some Relations Between Poetry and Painting,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1959).  But he goes on, more importantly, to say this: “There were two realities for Stevens – the reality of things observed and the reality of things imagined”; the world is “a monster,” but the poem “was the ‘necessary angel’ of reality, and there’s ‘a war that never ends’ between the imagination and the monster of nature.”  Once Elsie had turned away, the poet looked rather inward, confronting “nature” alone.  Stevens begins to find that poetry can pull the monster into its world. Benamou says that when Stevens wrote, in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” that “we seek/ The poem of pure reality …. We seek nothing beyond reality,” he means that “this pure reality is the monster mastered and purified by the imagination” (pp. 58-9).  Stevens puts the imagined conversation into poetic form and we overhear the whole (monologue or dialogue) of the poem.  So, when we enter Stevens’s poetic world, we see both our natural world and the poetic one, and if we are listening, we can enter into the world more completely, we are caught up in it; “nightingales – why not?”  

The final critic I read, the fabulous Marjorie Perloff (in “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” in New Literary History, Vol. 13, No. 3, Spring 1982) says that this world of Stevens is “built upon the central reality of our age, the death of the gods …. in their place it offers the austere satisfactions of a ‘self’ dependent on the pure poetry of the physical world, a ‘self’ whose terrifying lack of belief is turned into a source of freedom.”  Our fear, as we confront what Benamou called the “monster” of reality, can be transformed by “the pure poetry of the physical world.”  Perloff says that, in Stevens’s [mature] poems, “the addressee is always the poet himself.”  He is no longer speaking to Elsie; he is speaking to his own fears, his own observations, and we watch him, turning the everyday objects into poetry, and, says Perloff, he “teaches us how to talk to ourselves.”

We need to talk to ourselves every day as we confront monsters.  So that got me thinking, how do painters talk to themselves?

They draw.  Here are three drawings that can teach us “how to talk to ourselves,” in pencil and charcoal.  The first is by Ingres, “Study of Seated Female Nude,” from 1830.  We are, to quote Stevens’s letter to Elsie, “where we have never been”:

The model looks back out at Ingres, and so, at us, the audience.  Ingres has played with light and shadow, with different types of lines, with idealizing (her perfect hands and face) and with bodily imperfection (her swayed posture, her uneven breasts).  He has lavished attention on a drawing that no-one else might ever see. The drawing is complete in itself: you can almost hear the model breathe. What does this beautiful, calm figure have to do with Stevens and monsters, you ask?  Outside the studio, Paris was not calm.  1830 was the year the King (Charles X, of the House of Bourbon) tightened censorship one day and dissolved parliament the next; in July came the Revolution, the Trois Glorieuses, where the newly-unemployed threw paving-stones and roof tiles and then destroyed all the streetlights. The King abdicated and Louis-Philippe (the House of Orléans) took the throne.  This drawing is, I think, a way for Ingres to settle into himself, to control the chaos through creating its opposite: perfect artistic order. In this year of turmoil, Ingres might well need to talk to himself.  

The next drawing is by Degas, and prepares for a painting of the Bellilli family that he would begin in 1859 (the same year as this sketch) and complete in the next. This pastel drawing is of Degas’s cousin, Giulia Bellilli, and it is now in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection:

There is something about the unfinished character of this sketch that pulls the imagination in; we are “in a dark place listening.” The artist’s presentation of the (probably impatient) girl, her pinafore, and the addition of that blue means that he was lingering, here, longer than he probably needed to; was he talking to himself? Likely, yes; the final painting of the family is Degas’s “monster.”  There was great tension between his aunt and her husband, and, despite the soft blue wall and Gilia’s placement between them, it shows in the final work:

This was painted in Florence. The painting is now exhibited in the Musée d’Orsay, where the website mentions its “climate of oppression” and says that even the little dog at lower right is seeking to “escape” beyond the frame.

Our final sketch is “Seated Nude and Standing Nude,” by Pablo Picasso, from 1906:

For Picasso, this was one of a series of drawings in the notebooks leading up to his “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of 1907.  In the fall of 1905 and winter of 1906, Gertrude Stein had sat for her portrait, and these two nudes have some resemblance to Stein (seated, left) and Picasso’s then-lover, Fernande (standing, right), who sat with them as Picasso painted and read aloud.  In Picasso and His Friends, Fernande would later write that, sometime between the Bateau-Lavoir studio and the one at the Boulevard de Clichy, she and Picasso had taken hashish with Apollinaire and Max Jacob. The poets, Fernande says, were delighted with the sensation, but Picasso, “in a state of nervous hysteria” began to shout “that he had discovered photography, that he wanted to kill himself, that he had nothing left to learn” (translated by Jane Miller, New York: Appleton-Century, p. 134).  He had drawn these two women in a way that no camera could, and still he was afraid.

There is a poem by Stevens, oddly called “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch.”  It was written in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1943, during  World War II, at a time when the Allies were bombing Hamburg and when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was crushed. It was also a year of personal difficulties for Stevens: his sister had died and he had quarreled with his daughter.  And yet Stevens writes of an odalisque, painted

On her side, reclining on her elbow…
              this apparition….
She floats in the air at the level of
The eye, completely anonymous ….
     She floats in the contention, the flux
Between the thing as idea
And the idea as thing. She is half who made her….
This arrangement contains the desire of
The artist….One walks easily
The unpainted shore, accepts the world
As anything but sculpture.

She is beyond the war, the family quarrels, this painted anonymous “apparition,” and in his concentration on her, half herself, half the artist’s creation, Stevens pulls the world into a tight few lines.  When we do walk outside again, we, like the narrator here, will see that the sand we walk on is “unpainted,” and that the monsters of the world are still there, “anything but sculpture,” and yet we have learned something about being in the world. Stevens concludes the poem with this:

Mrs. Pappadopoulos, and thanks.

The apparition is gone, but the poet is still free to keep speaking to himself (and, if we are lucky, to us).

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