After Don Palmgren commented on the Hopper paintings in my post on Henry James’ weak specifications, I asked him if he would do a guest post on the relationship between painting and writing. Don is Professor Emeritus of Studio Art, Gustavus Aldolphus College. He lives in St. Paul, and paints in his studio on Harriet Island. You can see more of his work at www.mnartists.org (put his name in the search box), including his wonderful Jack the dog paintings. He has an upcoming show (2014) at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, WI. I think you’ll find his reflections and his art most interesting. Thank you, Don!
In her blog about Henry James’ “weak specifications,” Paulette included the painting Office at Night by Edward Hopper, whose specifications, however limited in number, were powerful. The white interior walls of the office were poetic manifestations, epiphanies if you will, of the emotional ambience of the scenes. They functioned as words might in a piece of writing. This started me thinking about the connections between painting and writing.
The usual connection is painting as illustration of a story. This is the old bugaboo for modernist painters. The picture is seen as subservient to the writing, an extra, the frosting on the cake. Thus the modernist preference for the word “painting” rather than “picture.” A painting must stand by itself, apart from literature. (As my grad school teacher told me, “You can be literal, but not literary!”)
There is Narrative Painting, however, that creates its own story, or rather the viewer imaginatively creates the story. What are these people doing in this image, what is going on? How will it turn out? One could read the Hopper images this way. This gets a bit literary, however, even without a piece of writing, and thus controversial.
A more intimate connection is in the process of working, the emotional/psychological experience of creation. To paint a white wall and write about a scene in which brightness characterizes a room involve a similar interior process. Choosing color, shapes, directional movement, spatial relationships are analogous to the choices of a writer. Painting is not simply making the wall white. It is immersing oneself (not literally!) as a painter in the white until it is absorbed in the psyche and all the verbally indescribable, but present, mystery is manifest. In writing, the description of a room with a white wall can come close to the writer’s observation, but be insufficient. Diction, syntax, structure, all the tools of writing are involved in making the mystery of white present, and in doing so create an image that is more than an illustration of a room. It becomes a thing in itself that paradoxically opens the imagination to deeper meaning. It happens because the poet is inside the words as the painter is inside the white paint. To simply describe the white wall in writing or in painting is literalism. To allow the white wall to live is poetry.
Mark Doty (Still Life with Oysters and Lemon) writing of his experience viewing a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says:
What makes a poem a poem, finally, is that it is unparaphrasable. There is no other way to say exactly this; it exists only in its own body of language, only in these words. I may try to explain it or represent it in other terms, but then some element of its life will always be missing.
It’s the same with painting. I may inventory, weigh, suggest, but I cannot circumscribe; some element of mystery will always be left out. What is missing is, precisely, its poetry.
I have included here a large pastel painting and a detail of the man I have named “Woos Goode.” The name came to me in a dream, wherein I saw a piece of white paper tacked to a wall. It said “Woos Goode.” I assumed that was a name, but whose? (Who’s Woos?) I lived with this name buried in my unconscious for several years and slowly came to think of Woos as myself, a kind of alter ego who had some of my personality characteristics, if a bit exaggerated: a tad rumpled, a bit awkward, a little shy, quiet and sometimes ignored. I came to think of him as something like Peter Falk’s old TV detective “Columbo,” with whom I shared some of the above qualities, including an exact duplicate of his rumpled trench coat. While he appeared less than aware, in fact he was sensitive, observant, intuitive, knew exactly what the criminal was doing and cleverly laid a trap to catch him.
I came to see myself as the awkward Woos in an ongoing relationship with an opera singer whose musical brilliance, worldly sophistication and overall savior faire were perpetually disconcerting to someone like Woos. I wrote a prose poem about a concert she once sang and my experience there and its aftermath.
SWALLOWS COME AND GO
Swallows come and go. They are little slick-feathered things of Prussian blue and white, with an F15 fighter energy which catches you off-guard. They are fast, aggressive. They swoop at you. Some attacked me once when I got too near their nest. I ducked just in time to get out of their airspace.
In Chicago one summer she sang a concert version of Puccini’s La Rondine (“The Swallow”). The soprano in the opera is mistress to a wealthy Parisian businessman. A “kept woman.” But she falls in love with a naive man who proposes marriage. In a moment of self-understanding, she realizes that she must leave him and return to her former life. Like a swallow, the woman comes and goes in beauty and in speed, as though the coming and going were the only things.
The ultramarine gown she wore that night came up high on her throat as if to protect her bare back.
Later she left. Later she returned. Later she left again.
In my head, the swallows come and go.
As I finished the painting, which had begun as a simple portrait of Woos Goode, I was dissatisfied with the empty space on Woos’ left side. Nudged by the poem to include the swallows, I began to see more clearly the connection between the visual images and the verbal. Woos and the swallows became one image in my mind. So while there are elements of the poem in the painting and the painting in the poem neither, I believe, is an illustration of the other.
While working on the painting and, more so, studying it after finishing, I have allowed imagination to conjure a variety of ideas. This is a process purely after, not before, the act of painting, and is something any viewer can and should do by imaginative looking (like reading a poem). Knowledge of the story of Woos Goode and the opera is unnecessary.
The swallows are in a complex visual and emotional space in relation to Woos. They may be drawn on the wall behind, or they may be in the air, yet they are coming towards him. They are moving, fluid. He is stationary, solid, though maybe about to step forward. Which is the more real? Which the more vulnerable? The two seem connected. Woos and the birds belong together. Fluidity comes to Woos. It will, of course, leave as quickly. But it will return, as swallows do. They are drawn in line and appear to be easily wiped out. They may be only in his head, not in the room. Possibly Woos would like to be more fluid, as perhaps he once was or has been in his better moments. His slight step forward is a small indication of that. And he is standing on a bright red carpet in a room of purple walls. His ironic smile reveals his worldly pain, his vulnerability and distrust of fluidity. How to have stability and fluidity together in one’s life?
The seductive swallows come and go.