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Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Sister Arts

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?


Liz said...

Hi Dave,

I have always believed strongly that poetry in the power of words influences the way art is created. Contemporary Art Critics I have found many to be dry about the way they might describe an the composition and technique of an artwork. I recently obtained a copy of Francis Bacon. Many of his quotations and descriptions of nature have influenced much of the way I compose my own artwork.

One fantastic and very very fascintating post.

All the best Liz

Dave King said...

Thank you, Mad Bush Farm Crew,
I certainly would go along with what you say. Francis Bacon is another good example.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post Dave, I agree with the link between art and poetry, and definitely think that it is a two way traffic...

The Weaver of Grass said...

An interesting post, Dave. I think there is a two-way process between all the arts - I see music and poetry as close too. Interestingly - I love the work of RS Thomas. He did one small book (I can neither find it on my shelf nor remember its title) where each poem related to the "famous" picture printed opposite to it. For me it worked least of all his poetry. I think this is because often any work of art says something which cannot be put into words necessarily and to try to put it into words somehow diminishes it.

Marion McCready said...

If this is true, which current artists do you think poets today ought to be 'conversing' with? And perhaps photographers also?

Dave King said...

It's an interesting question. I don't think there is any doubt but there's a link, but I'd almost say it's anti-intuitive. Difficult to say precisely what the link is.

Dave King said...

The Weaver of Grass
I agree with that - see my reply to Blondbloke - I don't think the link is that direct.

Dave King said...


What an interesting question! Before arriving at who, I think we should be asking why? What should we get from the link (assuming that we are the poets)? I shall have to have a think about that.

Art Durkee said...

The why is easy: You find the muse where you find it, and you find inspiration everywhere, if you're open to it. I don't think it needs a lot of cogitation. Or maybe that's just me.

It seems to me that artists have always looked to other media, as well as, for inspiration. Inspiration, by the way, can be simply the urge to make something, the kick in the pants one needs to get busy; it's not all Big Ideas. It's ordinary. Artists look to other media because their own can become too stale and familiar. There's more energy in discovering the unfamiliar than in retreading the known; and energy is what art-making needs. It's an engine.

I think that your assessment of Baudelaire, which I have also heard from others, is accurate. I think he was the urning point for what became Modernism.

At the same time, I think there's a difference between the forces of cross-pollination, if you will, that you're discussing here, and merely ekphrastic poetry. I think a lot of what you're talking about gets lumped in under ekphrasis, mostly if truth be told by critics who are not themselves artists. I think artists in whatever media can all relate to the experience of being energized by another artwork they've encountered, in whatever media. It has often seemed to me that non-artist critics totally miss this point; they don't understand that painters are turned on by more things than other paintings by other painters.

I encounter this bafflement constantly, being the multi-media artist that I am. It has been a constant thread in my life that critics and even other artists have tried to convince me to slow down, pick only one medium to work in, and put all my energy into one container. Few people seem to understand that it's all the same creative energy to me, no matter where it comes out.

What I don't get from a lot of cross-media discussions, what I think gets constantly overlooked, is precisely that. That it's all one creative force, and it can come out lots of different ways. Michelangelo wrote beautiful sonnets, too. Leonardo da Vinci wrote journals, poems, painted, made sculptures, and did science experiments.

What has happened since the Renaissance, when many of these artists were also experimenters and cultural explorers, contributing a great deal in many artforms, is that we have allowed ourselves to become so specialized that we have forgotten the ideals of the Renaissance Man: to be well-rounded and well-practiced in many different media.

I sometimes think the reason so many Modernist artists hung out with writers, and vice versa, was that each was hungry to be more than a specialist, but generalists in the arts, the way the Renaissance Man was. And certainly they stoked each others' fires. You get that wherever you find it.

S. A. Hart said...

Dave, thank you for this fascinating post. I learned much, which is always a pleasure!

Would you be kind enough to contact me via email? I've tried sending you an email but the link on this blog doesn't work---the message is returned to me, rather than going through to you. Thanks. Sharon

S. A. Hart said...

Upon reflection, I remembered a poem by Beaudelaire that addresses the fact there are many things that may inspire us to create....

"Be Drunk
by Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Louis Simpson

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."

Cloudia said...

Dave: Your erudition is awesome!
Aloha from Waikiki-

Crafty Green Poet said...

Very interesting post, I also think that Art Durkee made some very good points in his comment. Creativity will find a way to express itself and being open to all sorts of inspiration from all fields leads to improved creativity

Anonymous said...

art durkee: some very valid points in there, especially about critics. As a practising artist myself I am always looking at other media for inspiration, whether it be a poem, a photograph, another artists work or even just nature itself. Those who criticise just do not understand how the artistic mind works, or if they do they don't show it.

You hit the nail squarely on the head when you said that "Artists look to other media because their own can become too stale and familiar."; this is just so true. It is definitely when my work begins to look tired and laboured that I start looking at other things for ideas to freshen it up, to maybe seek out a new path to follow... Thanks for putting all into such eloquent words.

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

I greatly appreciate the comprehansive nature of your comments. There is so much to think about there, though nothing immediately ocurring with which I would want to disagree. I shall have a long think about it all.

Dave King said...


Thanks for that. Have emailed you.

Dave King said...


I did not know that poem, but it is typical of Baudelaire, I think. It seems to sum up much of what he says elsewhere.

Dave King said...


Not really, I assure you!

Dave King said...

Crafty Green Poet

Absolutely - and commentators will always complicate it to mkake more of it!

Dave King said...


But I do think there is a special relationship between Painting and poetry that perhaps is more direct than between the other arts. The nature of that relationship is what fascinates me. It is, as I said, anti-intuitive, so where does it come from?

Anonymous said...

I whole heartedly agree with you Dave, but I am not sure that I have the answer as to where it comes from. I do know that there seems to be an intrinsic link between words and pictures; I find Radio 4 the best TV I can watch. It has ever been thus that words conjure images in my mind, and none more so than the words of the WW1 poets, Wilfred Owen particularly. Why this should be so is a mystery to me, maybe there is a degree course somplace that could provide the answer; but then I gues one would be getting deeply immersed in the philosophy of art...

Dave King said...

I think you are correct about one thing: the answer lies very deep. Some links are more obvious - that between poetry and music, for instance, even painting and music - but the more profound links are those that lie deeper. Which I guess, is what you might expect.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've got a bit caught up with Baudelaire's comment about the pleasure one gets from a well-drawn work of art being nothing to do with its subject, i.e. a painting is a mirror and not a window. He seems to be promoting Abstract Expressionism - a painting is as opposed to a painting being of. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty much all been said, Dave - a thoroughly absorbing and thought-provoking post. Keep 'em coming!

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, considering the first part of this latest post of yours I was wondering why Michelangelo didn't carry the book with him travelling on land if he so much cared about it.
And more generally I thought once more of how artists and people travelled in those years, and how different and longer and much harder travelling was, for example I have never found information about the journey back from Rome Titian made to his hometown Pieve di Cadore on the mountains in the north of Veneto. I even imagined that in a poem.

Janice Thomson said...

An excellent and thought-provoking post Dave.
For myself, a multi-media artist, the underlying link between all art forms is that of beauty/perfection.
In daily life we are too busy gratifying the ego's needs and wants to note the many wonders of the world we live in. But focus our attention on a painting, a sheet of music, writing a poem etc. and we lose the ego, touching that beauty and perfection of our higher selves, soul or whatever one calls his inner self. In other words we do become one with our art and in this way we see the perfection and beauty buried deep within our own selves. Suddenly a facet of light makes us gasp, a certain note makes our heart quiver or a certain line takes us to another plane. As an artist we not only try to portray this beauty but we also look for it in others artwork and find it affects us in varying degrees and often we apply the same principles to our own endeavors. I think painting itself is affected by all other art forms more so than any other, yet I find poetry and painting go hand in hand much easier than say music and poetry. Writing a poem inspired by a painting is no different than one inspired by a walk in the woods for in both cases you are portraying that which your eyes have seen. Sometimes I have been so inspired as to do both a painting and a poem on the same theme - in both cases it is that beauty, that perfection one tries to portray.

Anonymous said...

Nice discussion on Baudelaire and Stevens; I think the attraction modern art had to these poets is that it is non-linear, whereas an emergent modern literature seems to get hung up, precisely, on the impossibility of adapting its standstill (existential) content to narrative storytelling.

I completely disagree with Art Durkee, who seems to be living in a hippie dreamworld. Content and form are inextricably linked, and the mastery of form leads to content that is the register of the times. Amateurs, despite their goodwill, are restricted to dabbling in past forms.

Furthermore, not all ideas can be expressed in any art. Painting, for instance, can not create narrative, or suspense (drama), but (as said above) can present a spectacular simultaneous depth. These art forms are radically different, and achieve originality and greatness only insofar as they stay true to their material nature: for example, language in the case of poetry.

Art Durkee said...

I have to add one more thing, because there's one small point of disagreement with your overall view, Dave. Namely, that painting and poetry are closer together than the other arts.

I think one can make a case for poetry and music being closer together than poetry and painting. There is the obvious connection and overlap in the field of songwriting, where in a really good song you can no longer separate the words and music, they are an indivisible whole. One can make the case that no other two artforms can be so indissolubly wedded. (I'm not saying that I would make the case, but I think it's a good one that could be made.)

I think one can also make an argument that ALL the arts are this close together, and that picking one pairing as more special than another pairing is rather pointless. It's that all pairings have something special and important to teach us, but grouping them into a hierarchy is not very useful.

As Frank Zappa once quipped, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Frank didn't mean, it won't work; I think he meant, it's a challenge, but you have to do it anyway. He certainly took up the challenge. (His one full-length published book, "The Real Frank Zappa Book," is masterful.)

in my experience, artists in every media occasionally claim that their artform is the greatest of them all. I have had poets try to convince me that poetry was the highest artform of them all because it is the most symbolic and abstract, since it uses language. But it's easy to shoot holes in that argument: Music can be thought of as higher, by that criterion, because non-verbal music is MORE abstract yet than poetry. (And nowadays one can add non-verbal cinema to that estimation, such as the films of Godfrey Reggio or Ron Fricke.) I find it typical of dancers to say that dance is the greatest, and poets to say that poetry is the greatest, and so on and on. As a multi-media artist, I find that hierarchies such as this are heavily biased by practitioners towards their own arts. What does that tell us? Well, first, that lots of poets don't really know a thing about music; and vice versa. That dancers are often very verbally INarticulate; that architects can draw to die for but often can't paint. And so on and on.

My point is that establishing these sorts of hierarchies, which you sort of hint at, Dave, doesn't really get us anywhere. Most artists will cheerlead for their own artform, and be unable to see other artforms from the inside. Speaking as an artist who practices different artforms, again, it's all one creative force, to me, that comes out through different channels at different times. I don't find any use in ranking the artforms that I practice. The only ranking that means anything to me is my personal preferences—which don't mean a damn thing to anyone else. You see?

Art Durkee said...

Wow, I'm living in a hippie dreamworld. Who knew?

Not I.

QED. I rest my case.

Dave King said...


Yes, I agree, I went for a double take on that one, intending to go back to it later - which I have not yet done. Quite intriguing, though. His how to look at a painting also deserves a bit of further study, I think.

Dave King said...

Thanks for the comment, though. All gladly received.

Dave King said...


I have to admit that the same thought did occur to me. Had I been Michelangelo the bopok would have been with me, no worries!

Dave King said...

... and a thought-provoking comment, if I might say so. I must confess that I had not thought to liken the inspiration of a painting to that of a walk, but yes, now you've said it, it is obvious!! Much thanks!

Dave King said...


I think I follow what you are saying and basically agree, though I don't think it necessarily conflicts with what Art is saying. A couple of points I would appreciate some elucidation on, though;"mastery of form leads to content that is the register of the times,"I'm not sure I understand that; and why "standstill" content is per se existential.

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

I think I did write somewhere - maybe in a reply to a comment - that the closer connection (if it exists - and most commentators and artist/poets seem to think that it does), is anti-intuitive. That fact alone, coupled with its prevelance, would seem to create a strong presumption of its existence.

I don't think anyone would disagree that music is the most abstract of all the arts.

Art Durkee said...

The Zappa quote reinforces that a closer connection, if it's there, is counter-intuitive. (I don't think we can say anti-intuitive in this context, since intuition is at play in the very feeling that something is there.) I also don't see any evidence to support "most commentators" etc. (I'd buy "many" but not "most." I was reading a book on Rothko's works on papers this past week, and the point was made repeatedly that Rothko (and all of the commentators in this tome, at any rate) felt the strongest connection was between painting and music. (Poetry was nowhere around.) Rothko depended heavily on music, and almost always used it fuel his workspace to higher levels of creativity.

Sorry to be a stickler on this. My underlying point is that all the artistic couplings are capable of this closer connection you intuit, or none of them are. It's not possible to say that one coupling is more so than another, because every group involved in the couplings is going to say that theirs is the more profound and real. That was my point before, and I stand by it, hippie dreamworld or no.

That Rothko saw a closer connection in painting-music, and ignored painting-poetry, doesn't mean that for other painters that painting-poetry isn't the stronger connection. But Rothko is also not alone in finding a closer connection in painting-music than in painting-poetry. So, frankly, this closer connection you're seeking still strikes me as poet's bias. To be clear, this is not a judgment, just an observation.

Dave King said...

Art Durkee
I happily concede many commentators and counter-intuitive although my dictionary gives the same meaning to counter as to anti. As to the closer connection between art and poetry, I was simply referring to the tradition of calling them the sister arts in recognition of what has been taken to be exactly that - the closer relationship. I think we are not too far apart in our thinking - just in our language!

Roxana said...

again so interesting, Dave [and thank you so much for your comment and use of that word that you don't like, "awsome" :-) me neither]
of course I have to ask: when will you do a post on painting and photography, for ex? or poetry and photography?

as regards Baudelaire, I totally agree with you, but there is one thing that is usually overlooked, i.e. the influence of german romanticism on his aesthetic ideas. and it shouldn't be a surprise that he initiates modernism because the aesthetics of the first romantic wave (the so called Jena romantics) contains a whole modern, some critics argue even post-modern artistic programme. I think we can trace back this influence even in the art definition you quote here in your post. and the concept of 'arabesque' comes from Schlegel and it's central to his artistic conception. actually I had no idea that Baudelaire uses it too.

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