Monday, November 21, 2016

Charles Tarlton, "The Turn of Art"

This piece was originally published in Fiction International, Issue 45, "About Seeing." It is dedicated to Janet Bishop, Thomas Weisel Family Curator of Painting and Sculpture, SFMOMA, whose tour around "The Steins Collect" was so exhilarating.

The Turn of Art
A dramatic scene in prose and verse

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris.  It is 1907.
The room is filled with heavy furniture, a large writing desk, sideboards, tables, and cupboards.
1. Pablo Picasso (Left Stage Center) and Henri Matisse (right Stage Center) sit in low chairs across from each other in front of the fireplace (Up Stage Center). They face us as if looking into a camera (think of the famous photo of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by Man Ray taken in 1922).
On the wall (Up Stage Left) behind PICASSO, 5 MATISSE paintings are hanging—Woman in a hat (1905), Madame Matisse (1905), Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-6), Blue Nude (1907), and Self-portrait (1906).

On the wall (Up Stage Right) behind MATISSE we see 5 PICASSO paintings—Boy Leading a Horse (1905-6)), Gertrude Stein (1905-6), Young Acrobat on a Ball (1905), Nude with Joined Hands (1906), and Self-portrait (1906).
once we had turned
our backs on the museums
where could we go?
            Indicates MATISSE, sarcastically.
then he started drawing
lines of paint an inch wide
wasn’t easy
while so many others
were portraying
the fine line of a nose
details in strands of hair
not enough, not
for him.  Just to make it
look like real fruit
no more trompe-l'œil for him
dot’s enough for a nipple
I drew with brush
loads of flat blue house paint
made my lines thick
all around the outside
black between trees and sky

MATISSE stands and crosses the room.  He takes Boy Leading a Horse from the wall and carries it back to his chair.  He leans it against the wall beside his chair and sits down.
Not every one, however, followed my lead.
Pause, admiring Picasso’s picture.
browns and some grays
this is a precocious child’s
drawing.  A horse!
a boy’s dream of the West
the open plains to ride
a poetic
dream might more easily
bring in the cash
hung on their wall till 1913
you often saw it there
Pause, PICASSO points to a spot on the wall
later Nazis forced
von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
to liquidate
art smuggled out and sold
like pigeons in St Marks
swarmed around you
as they changed to property
they escaped like wild birds
I was waiting
for you to drop it all
come up to art
renounce celebrity
stop showing off—show us!
works of genius
make us feel supremely
genius has to give it up
forfeit its advantage
has to give up what?
they used to say
I wish I could draw like that
now they say, anyone could
I felt deeply
every brush stroke of these
as I made them
but in cold aftermath
just financial success
            Pause, as if reflecting.
I was watching, you know, despite my cool demeanor.  But, I loved the life in the cafés, you know, the money, spreading my name around.  And the women, they all wanted to touch my genius. 
You did none of that.  You ran no races, gave no quarter.
How was that?
you were ahead
tossing off thick-limbed monsters
driving me mad
you made these obstacles
I had to climb over
I wanted to paint
with a heavier hand
lose all my fear
of teachers, my father
forget about the saints
could see clearly
down into the world’s heart
below surfaces
but you kept painting them,
the surfaces, the smiles
PICASSO stands and claps.  He then crosses the room behind MATISSE and removes Woman with a hat and carries it back to his chair and holds it on his lap, partly turning it so the audience can see.
this is, of course
all odd lumps of color
rub out the woman’s face
PICASSO covers the face with his hand.
—and behold Kandinsky!
you sped ahead
on wings of distortion
shape and color
yours to waste, invent
new wonders for the eye
no milliner
could make a hat like that
it was conceived
on an insane palette
laughing, you were laughing
MATISSE looks around the room, as if trying to orient himself. Coughs.
Somewhere near here, art’s roadmap changed abruptly.  Up ahead or looking just behind us, out of the corner of my eye, we were poking forward, looking for the line just so we could step over it. 
I saw you coming up.
the other side,
how I longed to be free
there’d be no looking back
make the first real pictures!
2. The stage goes dark. Two middle-aged men emerge from the wings (Down Stage Right) under a single spot, dressed as GERTRUDE STEIN (PETER CARMODY) and ALICE B. TOKLAS (ANDREW BLIGHT) and wearing the same hats worn in the famous snapshot taken in Aix-les-Bains, 1927.
they never knew
what the very next thing 
might be—tiny
legs, an arm, thick as trees
palm tree fronds like fish bones
They were always searching for it, for the new.  At first in different ways; Picasso, of course, classically trained, gifted, was a long time shaking off the lessons, his tutored instincts.  The Blue and Rose periods—he could have been using a camera. 
Henri was different, all for crude outlines, sudden colors, rough dabs of paint, the merest suggestion.
he made it strange
defied the viewer’s eye
no matter what
it was, it disappeared
into paint, just the paint
That’s it, of course.  He overthrew the subject.
Only the paint counted.
That was where the eye fell; there, on the paint, the thick paint piling up, the paint on top of other paint, the paint plowed by the brush like a field readied for planting. 
Look on the wall!  You see the picture of his wife, Madame Matisse, with the green line down her nose?  See what I mean? 
Compare that to Picasso; choose one there on the wall.
What about the portrait of Gertrude Stein?
I mean, my portrait.
PICASSO and MATISSE rise and retrieve their respective paintings and bring them (Down Stage Right).  They stand under the spot, holding the paintings in front of their chests.
He meant it to look like you, a resemblance, but, he said, if it didn’t look like you right now, that was all right, because it eventually would.
it was just exactly me.
PICASSO holds the painting out and turns it so he can see it.  He looks at CARMODY.
I was looking for truth
not just surfaces
behind those eyes, a mind
was watching for a sign
You’re right, I had seen so much
Pauses, musing.
on the lookout
your eyes reach out to probe
what you’re hearing
as if to say, I had hoped
you’d not be like the rest
And, what do we say about Madame Matisse’s portrait? 
Can your discerning eye probe deeper meaning there? 
What do you make of that green stripe?
perhaps you meant
only to encompass
her, register
your discontent with life
the burden of marriage
I always felt
pushed into the background
in those black eyes, stern lips
how would you even know?
I still say it’s the paint; the spirits of all the wild emotions caught up in spread paint, bone splinters in the ambergris—color, thickness, smell—wide brushes. 
It looks like whatever you want it to look like. 
No. It was not about looking, or smelling, or being like anything at all. 
It meant in fact—red, the green, the violet, and orange; just as it means blue, black, and yellow—in any of their many permutations, in a chance encounter, as crude parts of the world.
it was to paint
because I was making
objects from paint
my mind’s eye gave the world
only the quickest glance
3. CARMODY AND BLIGHT exit. Spot off, Stage lights up. MATISSE and PICASSO are back in their chairs.  PICASSO points up at a painting, The Young Acrobat on a Ball.
there’s a story
in that one for certain
pure narrative
tempts us to wondering
who the large sad man is
I contemplate
more the lonely woman
child, boy, and dog
dreamily facing hills
where a white horse grazes
the acrobat
is a boy or a girl
learning to stand
on such uncertainty
focussing attention
it was Giotto
or me, could draw perfect
freehand circles
painted like Velázquez
aims now to be a child
MATISSE crosses the room and stands under his painting, Le Bonheur de Vivre. He points up to it.
Childishness, to be sure, yet there’s nothing childish about it. 
Your hills and distances are but suggested (did you notice?) while the big ideas, all the rest, are wild reds and greens, hints of mythology in all the playful poses, but circles and careless dots for eyes, spring frolics, and a touch of sensuousness, perspective out of whack
—verges on humorous.
far more expressive
than my pouting giant
or my morose
pale hills.  Your lovers run in
search of cartoon nudity
So, you want to talk about nudes?
MATISSE reaches up and removes Nude with Joined Hands.  He looks closely at it.
You were still painting like Velázquez.
you’re so polite
your nude’s too well-mannered
covers herself
could be from Pompey’s walls
a goddess or priestess
she’s a mural
painted on Spanish stucco
inside a church
I meant to paint
women someone could love
I was out to show the world who was master.  Infinite reflection and dark resignation show on the faces of my men; the deepest sadness, calm, or joy appears on the faces of my women, because they are so beautiful. The children know so much. 
I could not paint the kind of pulsing stones, the female boulders you were so happy to make.
I dreamt women
you could take out walking
they’d hold your arm
it took time seeing how
wrong; longer catching up.
4. PICASSO goes behind his chair and takes out a long pointer rod.  He goes over to the paintings and stands in front of Blue Nude.  He points to it.
            Long Pause. He is just looking at the painting, transfixed for a moment.
this was vulgar
so I at first decided
whore-sailor all in one
promiscuously drawn
PICASSO comes to (Down Stage Center), Pauses again, and leans intimately toward the audience, in confidence.
            Pause, sighs in resignation.
this beautiful hulk is
Look at it!  Look at it!
a carcass of hip bones
ankles, twisted rib cage
Pause, to MATISSE directly, as if, for the moment, giving in.
This was your high water mark. 
I knew it instantly.  I ran home and drew a hundred chunky naked women leaning on their elbows, sharp hip bones and one leg flung over the other—a hundred, at least. 
You had launched a thunderbolt, for certain, but I thought to myself, “I will rise to that, rise up to that!”
caught by surprise
lost sight of the way ahead
in a fever to catch up
with this the history
of modern art resumes 
that we could teach
the art world to embrace
this meaty toad
love and art together
move closer to the truth
The way ahead congealed, the compass and the raw materials were set. 
If anyone could have seen into the future, this would have been…
MATISSE makes an all-inclusive gesture with his waving arm.
…where it all started.
5. PICASSO reaches up and takes down the Self-portrait by MATISSE; MATISSE takes down the Self-portrait by PICASSO.  They both come (Down Stage Center) and stand holding the paintings and facing the audience. PICASSO pulls a false beard from the portrait of MATISSE. The two portraits reveal a strong family resemblance—the portraits of two brothers.

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