Painting and poetry have long been known as the sister or twin arts. Apropos of which, there is a story told of Michelangelo which is perhaps apocryphal. He possessed a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy, so the story goes, which copy was his most cherished possession. He was always reading it, and as he read it he would be inspired by the verses to create figures which he would therefore draw in the margins. On being summoned to Rome, and unable to bear being parted from his beloved book, he packed it in the trunk which he was sending on by ship, whilst he made the journey by road. You've probably guessed the next bit: there was a great storm at sea; the ship, the trunk and the book were lost. A double loss, for he had lost both Dante's poetry and his own drawings. He went for a damage limitation strategy and reproduced his drawings from memory, elaborating them as he did so - all on The Sistine Chapel Roof.
True or not, I have always felt the story to contain within itself the whole question of the influence of poetry on art - and, of course, its corollary, the influence of art on poetry. One example of each will suffice, I think, the first being Baudelaire. In a recent post, The Flowers of Evil, I wrote of Baudelaire as the first modern poet and of the modernity of his poems Les Fleurs du Mal. But Baudelaire was driven by another passion, and had to his credit another achievement by which he should be remembered: he was the first art critic in the modern sense - and many think him the best that has so far been.
Baudelaire sought out the company of those who then constituted the Paris art world, and more to the point, they sought his company. He was a good listener at their discussions and an acute observer in their studios. He came to know their thoughts and theories and how these related to the works they were producing, and he contributed to them in no small measure. In many cases, theories of art that the painters were working towards were fleshed-out and developed by Baudelaire.
A good example was the theory that was being developed by Delacroix concerning the correct way to look at a painting. Delacroix was insisting that the viewer should look for melody. To do this you looked at it from a distance. If the distance was great enough, both lines and subject matter became imperceptible. It has meaning, he wrote, if it is melodious, for if it is melodious it has already taken its place in your store of memories.
In fact, Baudelaire took this further: A well-drawn figure fills you with a pleasure which is absolutely divorced from its subject. Whether voluptuous or awe-inspiring, this figure will owe its entire charm to the arabesque which it cuts in space. So long as it is skillfully drawn there is nothing - from the limbs of a martyr who is being flayed alive, to the body of a swooning nymph - that does not admit a kind of pleasure in whose elements the subject matter plays no part.
The important word in the above paragraph is probably arabesque, for it was a concept that Baudelaire piloted. Furthermore, he piloted it in such elegant prose that it stayed in the memory and was picked up by artists who would come later. Certainly the idea of the arabesque as the be all and end all of things was picked up by the symbolist painters for whom it became almost iconic. But the influence did not stop there: Matisse and Picasso also picked it up and ran with it.
For Matisse - no mean stylist he! - the arabesque was to become of fundamental importance. But that was not the limit of Baudelaire's influence on Matisse. At times in his Notes of a Painter, Matisse is almost paraphrasing from the writings of Baudelaire, something he was quite open about it, for his letters are full of his indebtedness to Baudelaire's theories.
But if there was one theory more than any other driving Baudelaire it was the question: What is pure art according to the modern ideal? His answer? It is the creation of an evocative magic, containing at once the object and the subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself.
Before Baudelaire art criticism was no more than a cataloguing exercise. He transformed it, ensured that it could never go back to what it had been, and introduced into it many words that are to this day resonant of modernity, words like: consciousness,
The poet I have chosen to illustrate the influence of art on poetry is Wallace Stevens. Making it easy for myself, I guess, for the involvement of his poetry with art is well known. In fact, I could have used him to illustrate the influence either way, for not only were the twentieth century modernists a formative influence on his poetry, but his verse did much to shape the development of modern American art particularly.
While working on his first collection, Stevens was a frequent visitor at art galleries, and particularly at one, that of his old college friend, Walter Arensberg, where works by Picasso and Duchamp were on show. It is well known that the inspiration for his long poem The Man with the Blue Guitar came from Picasso's painting of a man with a blue guitar. It is true that Stevens never confirmed this, indeed was careful to say that it was suggested by no particular painting, but it is generally conceded that Picasso's painting was the main source of inspiration. Stevens used the thought and theories of cubism to get him out of the excesses of surrealism, which he thought was just too much. Particularly, he was drawn to the depiction of multiple views of a single object. Inevitably, there is a degree of fragmentation in some of the poems of Stevens, but it is never accidental. It is there for a the purpose of the multiple view.
There is this perfect little gem of a poem, Anecdote of the Jar, which is one of Stevens's best-known works, though I must confess that I was very far in to Stevens's work before I came across it.
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
I can find no reference by Stevens himself to the fact, but again it is acknowledged widely that the inspiration for this , as for others, came from the found objects of Duchamp. It does seem that Stevens lived and worked at a time when in America, at any rate, the arts influenced each other in ways they do not regularly do today, and perhaps never did in Europe - with the glorious exception of Baudelaire.
In The Idea of Order at Key West Stevens explores the relationship that exists between Perception and reality. Nothing becomes real until it is observed. Art opens the door to perception, which is the centre of our being. The poem is an illustration of this. Without the poem and without the song in the poem we would not perceive the order at Key West. Elizabeth Bishop seems to have developed her existentialism from these investigations by Stevens.
Stevens lectured regularly on The Relations Between Poetry and Painting. The weight of his argument was to the effect that in an age when man has by and large lost his faith art and poetry must compensate for what has been lost. The imagination as it is released in the practice and/or appreciation of art is the next greatest power to belief in God. Because poetry and painting exist in the borderland between imagination and reality they acquire a prophetic status and work prophetically. They become a vital assertion of self in a world where nothing but the self remains, if that remains. In all that he had to say on the subject, though, he always refused to draw lines of influence between particular works - instance his refusal to acknowledge the inspiration for The Man With the Blue Guitar.
This unwillingness to be specific about individual lines of influences suggests that it just might be that they do not work in the case of Stevens, that as he himself put it, his inspiration came, not from particular works, but fromthe literature of painting. :To a large extent, the problems of poets are the problems of painters, and poets must turn to the literature of painting for a discussion of their own problems.
So we find that The Man with the Blue Guitar refers to a saying of Picasso that a painting is une somme de destructions, (a horde of destructions):
Is this picture of Picasso’s, this "horde
Of destructions," a picture of ourselves,
Now an image of society?
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