Monday 2 July 2012

Ut pictura poesis: Or, poetry in stillness

Paul Writing, c.1894 by Camille Pissarro
Forgive the Latin pretension but I'm talking about poetry and it's a licence to be pretentious, sadly. I occasionally word dabble, people I know are prone to versification and it turns out theatrical types enjoy mangling the recitation of it (more of that anon). But despite its perceived inaccessibility, for me it remains a perfect tool to try to describe art and reactions to art because 'poetry (more than anything else) resembles painting'.

My poetic weekend started Friday with Edmund de Waal, potter and author giving a lecture at the National Gallery. Ostensibly it was about how he approached the challenges of writing about art and his art collecting forebears. However given his thoughtful sensitive approach, his talk went much deeper and he shared what has happened to his art as a result of his writing and it set me thinking about poetry.

He began the talk where he begins his book, with his great relative Charles Ephrussi. The late nineteen/early twentieth century and a new art movement was causing excitement in Paris, Berlin and London; Impressionism. Charles counted Manet, Monet, Morisot and other artists among his friends and their work was lovingly hung in his study. He fulfilled the role of patron, critic but above all, art lover/obsessive, demonstrating an eclectic personal taste. From those mentioned above to Gustave Moreau...with Renoir branding Moreau's work as 'Jew art' on account of the gold colours he used.

It seems that - rightly - for de Waal establishing emotional connections is the most important aspect of writing about art; family history, reconstructing surroundings, creating a belle époque mind atmosphere, listening to the music of the Paris opera house. This apparently enabled him to connect with what he described as the 'stillness' of art.

This brought him on to the genre of Still Life, which Norman Bryson describes as 'looking at the overlooked' and de Waal as stilling the world momentarily. He recalled the impressionists' skill of capturing a moment very quickly in paint, eg., bathers poised on a jetty, plump fresh asparagus, a glance of a child. He then brought together painting and poetry, saying poetry with its pared down words also 'make things stop'. He paired Giorgio Morandi's extraordinary paintings of pots with quotes from Wallace Stevens's 'Anecdote of the Jar'

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
Words reflecting art, art reflecting the poetry. Those quiet, still, intense jars, taking gray dominion over the canvas.

His experience of writing made him think about the 'physicality of language' and how it can be crafted. This in turn helped develop his pottery practice where he has explored objects in a frame as if they were words on a page.His beautiful mirrored vitrine, 'Word for Word' reflects an open book; the sequence of pots providing the structure of text. As a contrast, 'Origins of Silent Reading' is a vitrine concerned with the gaps in the texts. He explained that as reading became internalised and private occupation, words needed to be printed with a space in between them so the text made sense. He suggests that what is not said is as important as what is said. And the shape of poetry on a page can be as important as the words to convey the ideas.

I would concur that art, of any genre can provide a moment of stillness. It's a joy to stand in front of a painting, sculpture, piece of music or whatever and have a moment of moved abstraction. If you are minded it can inspire poetry or as I prefer, a simple 'word sketch' of your emotional reaction.

Poetry, like any literary art form is also a personal experience and its presentation even more so. Despite some of his earnest ideas regarding art, De Waal's simple hesitant recitation of Wallace was more moving than some of professional/drama student readings at an event I went to on Saturday. Where the Wild Flowers Are was performance art combining music, space and poetry. What can I say? It trod a fine line between perfection and pretension but no poetry should ever EVER be recited whilst lying on the floor, rolling around benches or running through a church.

Let's move away from this idea of poetry being inaccessible, luvvyish and daft, and accept it as a beautifully apposite way of capturing and communicating momentary ideas of still thought. Pretentious, moi?!

The National Gallery's Encounters Lecture series runs into mid July, catch James Elkins and Hilary Mantel.
City of London Festival runs until the end of July

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