MEET UPS : January, February, April, 24th June Words & Images , July, September
PROJECT: To work on the creation of a first poetry pamphlet.
QUOTE: In search of words, I came to look at pictures. (The Exhibition )
JULY/AUGUST PROGRESS REPORT
The aim of my project was ‘To work on the creation of a first poetry pamphlet’ and I can feel reasonably confident of achieving that goal having written about twenty-two poems including those written before the start of the project. I imagine that’s a pamphlet’s worth but the problem is, is it a worthy pamphlet? Feedback from the meetups where we have chosen and discussed one of a pair of poems by everyone in the group has been helpful and encouraging, particularly as, on a couple of occasions, the vote has been fairly evenly split between my two offerings. Sue’s generous and very detailed critique of ‘Falling Man’ was particularly instructive and constructive though to my shame I have yet to work on her suggestions. I made a conscious decision to concentrate on producing poems until the last meetup and then to embark on the hard slog of revision, editing and submission to publishers/competitions.
Working on these poems has given me a great opportunity to look at pictures much more carefully and to undertake background research. It has been especially rewarding to study the work of my second cousin Arthur Horsfall. Although most of his work does not appeal to me I now have a much greater respect for his achievement. Coming to his work after visiting the Ozbolt exhibition in Bath made me realise that Horsfall was using similar surrealist techniques such as visual and verbal puns. His introduction of unfamiliar objects into familiar scenes alerts us to the dangers lurking just beneath the surface of a placid lake or a familiar downtown street. His use of the interaction between photography and painting feeds into my interest in the meeting of different art forms which, to me, is the essence of ekphrastic poetry. His fascination with reflections led me to artists such as Degas who use them and other means of going outside the frame.
On the downside, the photography route led me to the work of Jeff Wall and into an area so shadowy and ephemeral that I lost my way. In his ‘Picture for Women’ Wall refers to Manet’s Folies Bergeres picture with its mirrored image of a man who seems be propositioning the barmaid. Wall deliberately sets out to undermine the concept that photographs of women must automatically reflect ‘the male gaze’. In a life-size image the photographer and a woman stand on either side of a big camera and appear to be taking a photograph of the viewer. However, the photograph is actually a reflection of themselves in a frameless mirror. To complicate matters even further the photograph is displayed as a transparency projected on a light-box so that it actually has no substance at all, it is all a trick of the light. The gender identity of both figures is played down and both assume the same sorrowful expression as Manet’s barmaid.
The picture is too conceptual and insubstantial to make a good subject for a poem and I was completely out of my depth. I was rescued by Laura Knight’s bold and visceral ‘Self Portrait with Ella Naper’. Dismissed as vulgar by critics when it was first shown in 1913, it was never exhibited again and remained in the artist’s home until her death in 1970. It shows the artist at work on a painting of a nude female model. At art school in the early 1900s Knight was barred from life classes and the picture is usually seen as an emphatic statement of her equal right to paint the subject as her male colleagues. In my response to the painting I imagine Knight, brush temporarily forgotten, overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the model and the impossibility of doing justice to her in paint. The picture seemed to be directing me away from the world of visual representation that has immersed me for the last nine months and reminding me that there is a real world, a world of immediate experience, waiting out there. I am looking forward to stepping into it soon with Sue’s ‘Walking with Words’ workshop.
I started this blog with the opening line of my poem ‘Exhibition’ and I will sign off with the final lines:
‘I came in search of words, found so much more,
MAY/JUNE PROGRESS REPORT
Taking part in the Words and images Workshop on 24th of June provided me with a much needed opportunity to take stock of my project and to clarify my approach to it. Matching ten of my poems against Martyn Crucefix’s 14 categories of ekphrastic poetry (https://martyncrucefix.com/tag/ekphrastic-poetry/) confirmed what I already suspected that each poem fitted into 3 or 4 of his categories. There was something quietly comforting about this. Crucefix suggests that the categories might be a way of stimulating poems – ‘Try one a day’. At this point I part company with him. By focusing on the approach e.g. narrative, descriptive, interrogative etc., diverts attention from the very thing that gives ekphrastic writing its distinctive quality, using words to respond to visual images, bringing one art form into contact with another.
The first time I wrote about a painting I did not set out to produce a dramatic monologue, although that is what it turned out to be. What sparked my interest in a painting by Renoir usually referred to as ‘The Pink and the Blue’ was the subject matter and the strange tensions and contradictions that it contained. The painting made me feel uncomfortable, as if the artist himself was uncomfortable with his commission to paint the two young sisters. Was he irritable with the children and why? My interest in a picture is rooted in trying to extract meaning from it. But because we are dealing with a work of art, the meaning may be far from clear and open to interpretation. Moreover, it will be conveyed as much by the form and style of the work as by the subject matter. Renoir paints the girls’ faces in a detailed, naturalistic fashion but their lacy dresses more impressionistically. Was he rushing or genuinely experimenting with style?
Writing about art creates an interaction between one form of representation and another. This interaction is particularly stimulating when it involves more than two art forms. The Horsfall paintings that I have written about previously often contain an intriguing mixture of painting and photography. His painting of Lake Louise started from a postcard with a photo of a discarded eggshell pasted onto it. His street-scenes frequently contain words in the form of billboards and shopfronts that contribute to the meaning of the picture. Visual artists use a variety of different methods to ‘go beyond the frame’ of a picture. Painters have traditionally done this by including reflections of one sort or another as in Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergères’. Surrealist painters may do it by including objects that do not ‘belong’ in a particular setting.
As soon as I saw Richard Drew’s ‘Falling Man’ in the recent photographic exhibition at the Victoria Gallery in Bath it recalled a line from Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts, ‘Something amazing. A boy falling out of the sky’. The poem begins with a much more abstract statement, ‘About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters’. I found myself thinking more about the Auden than about the photograph. Why is his word picture more vivid than his analysis? Both the painting and the poem offer contrasting perspectives, particular and general, landscape and close-up. Is the image of the falling man more or less shocking because it lacks background and context? Do we need to be able to switch perspectives in order to reach a considered verdict about images of pain and suffering?
Struggling to write a poem about Drew’s photograph has taught me a useful lesson – you can have too many layers. Writing about visual art already involves enough tension between verbal and visual imagery without referring to yet more poetry. Auden had already said everything I really felt about the photograph: ‘Something amazing. A boy falling out of the sky’.
APRIL PROGRESS REPORT
April was almost over and I had nothing to show for it. During the week following the meetup I immersed myself in the copious follow-up work. Writing reviews of the short poems I had chosen from the pairs submitted by meetup participants was engaging and stimulating but also a painful reminder of my lack of productivity. I whiled away a few hours developing the spring poem I had started during the meetup. Nine lines expanded to twelve and then contracted to six. Could this be classed as progress?
I visited the photographic exhibition in the Victoria Art Gallery but it was Easter week and so crowded I could not get close enough to the images to appreciate their full impact. I would have to return at a later date. In the meantime I would have to resort to reproductions. Degas’ portrait of Helene Rouart which featured in the Holburne’s Impressionist exhibition last year made a lasting impression on me. I was struck by the way the girl was barricaded behind her father’s bulky chair and the obvious comparison between her and the Egyptian mummy imprisoned in its glass case. Perhaps I could find other work by Degas displaying such psychological insight and making use of unusual perspectives. I unearthed an old Folio Society volume of ballet scenes and leafed through it.
I noticed how frequently Degas returned to an image of a seated dancer bending forwards and clasping one ankle. Why was he so obsessed with this image? Was it a way of showing the dancer’s back and front at the same time or was it the way the human form looked more animal-like when bending down? This image is like the flip side of those showing classic ballet positions and moves. It emphasises the toll on the dancers’ bodies. Sometimes these cube-like dancers look exhausted, sometimes in pain, sometimes they are just doing up the ribbons on their ballet shoes. Degas’ dancers show the harsh reality of earning a living by doing hard physical work.
I kept on returning to one particular drawing entitled ‘L’Attente’. Which is the more important figure, the mother (if she is the mother) or the girl? Both exquisitely embody the nature of waiting. They remind me of Vahni Capildeo’s wonderful poem ‘Stalker’, ‘He waits / and in me he waits.’ Is the mother in mourning dress or not? If she is, it ratchets up the tension, so much more would depend on the outcome of the exam or audition. It is a study in contrast, black and white, a heavy and diaphanous clothes, girl and mature woman, actual and vicarious experience. The emptiness of the setting forces more attention on the lonely figures, the expanse of bare floorboards is like an empty stage, the vacant part of the bench suggests the previous candidate has already gone before the judges. It is a psychological study that has nothing to do with personality, neither of the women’s faces can be seen. There is something very modern, almost abstract, about the layout of the picture emphasising the overall shapes of the bodies, one square and light, the other dark and triangular.
I had found an image. The question remained how to respond to it.
MARCH PROGRESS REPORT
When Sue Boyle suggested writing inspired by Böcklin’s ‘Isle of the Dead’ as follow-up work I felt duty bound to step up to the challenge. I had recently completed three poems related to paintings by Arthur Horsfall (see February Report) and wanted a change of source material, at least for the time being. I was being offered a ready-made subject without the hard graft and uncertainty of searching for one. Immediately I was faced with a number of dilemmas. Firstly, despite the obviously striking nature of the image, the picture did not particularly appeal to me. Secondly, my instinctive reaction was that it was packed full sexual symbolism. Should I respond to its conscious or subconscious messages or both?
I knew that the picture had been commissioned by a grieving widow and considered addressing a poem to her that began, ‘And did you like your picture Madame Berna? / All you wanted was a dreamy pastoral vision of your husband’s tomb…’ only to discover that she had already seen the unfinished painting in Böcklin’s studio. So much for that idea! Then I became intrigued by the fact that the painting had so many famous and varied admirers including Lenin, Hitler and Freud. Did the image represent a charismatic leader’s ideal monument on an impenetrable rock, towering above the dark waters of humanity and glowing with supernatural light? In Freud’s case, perhaps the picture acted as a constant reminder of his theory that dreams were a gateway to the subconscious. Did the fact that the most famous admirers were powerful men confirm my instinct that the image played into male fantasies or possibly fears?
For a while I considered a two-part poem starting with a monologue in which a psychiatric patient recounts a dream of his own funeral followed by the analyst’s interpretation. Ludicrously ambitious, totally unrealistic and, needless to say, soon abandoned! In the end I settled for a short first person account of a dream as narrated to an unseen analyst leaving the reader to make his/ her own interpretation. It was not until I started to write about the dream that I realised that it was revealing a rather different set of anxieties from the ones I had intended to imply!
FEBRUARY PROGRESS REPORT
Canadian artist Arthur Horsfall (1915 – 1995) was my mother’s cousin. I never met him and, as far as I know, he only visited the UK once in his adult life. His mother (nee Wagstaff) came from Glossop in North Derbyshire and emigrated, together with other siblings, presumably to escape the fate of working in the textile mills that dominated the town at the end of the nineteenth century.
Canada lived up to its reputation as a land of promise for Arthur enabling him to go to Winnipeg School of Art and embark on a thirty year career as a commercial artist. Throughout this time he continued to produce his own work in his spare time. He joined a cooperative of local artists regularly exhibiting work in their own gallery called Subway and eventually he gained enough recognition to take early retirement and concentrate full-time on his own work.
Up to the early 70’s Arthur was best known for his large paintings of Winnipeg streets, often documenting buildings that have since been demolished. These paintings are in a distinctive photo-realist style suggesting that he frequently worked from photographs and postcards.
In 1972 he attended a summer workshop in Banff run by the well-known artist Roy Kiyooka. It proved to be a watershed in his career. Family legend has it that, as he was leaving home, he picked up a book on Magritte and that the course director advised him to put more of his own characteristic humour into his work. What followed was a whole series of surrealist paintings based on iconic Canadian images ranging from The Rockies to The Prairies and cowboys to fire hydrants.
Arthur was very proud of his English heritage and seems to have felt closer to his Wagstaff roots than his Canadian ones. I have letters to my mother in which he jokes about wanting to sign his work in the name of ‘Wagstaff’. He was keen to share his achievements with his English cousins and regularly sent them reviews, photos and prints. I am ashamed to say that the prophet went largely unrecognised by his English family and none of my relatives had the sort of houses that could easily accommodate large surrealist paintings. Interestingly, one of his prints sits quite happily on the wall of my daughter’s south London flat next to work by a local graphic designer who has made a name for himself painting local landmarks using similar techniques and even colours to those Arthur was using almost fifty years ago.
As my project is to respond to works of art it seems like a good opportunity to delve into the family archive and to take a fresh look at Arthur’s work in the hopes of gaining a greater appreciation of his very considerable achievement.
On a recent visit to the Holburne my attention was frequently diverted by the work of Djordje Ozbolt commissioned by the museum and scattered around the collection and grounds. The title of Ozbolt’s exhibition is ‘The Grand Detour’ referring playfully to the fact that many items in the museum were collected by Sir William Holburne during his traditional Grand Tour. Ozbolt’s work relies heavily on puns and word-play as well as such visual jokes as cartoon birds invading traditional portraits and takeaways finding their way into flower paintings. Ozbolt’s use of words like ‘ reply’, ‘response’ and ‘dialogue’ to describe his work raises intriguing questions. A piece of writing that responds to one of his pieces would be a response to a response to an original work. Is such a position valid?
Do Ozbolt’s paintings and sculptures have life of their own, or can they only be understood in relation to the works that inspired them?Should we see his huge technicoloured animals and plants as pieces of modern sculpture or only as comparisons to the tiny, intricately carved netsuke that inspired them? An immediate reaction would probably rate the traditional pieces more highly than the modern ones, but is this fair? Do the oversized modern sculptures invite us to think more carefully about the processes, techniques and materials used in their making? Such contrasts and comparisons fascinate me.
An information sheet states, ‘The exhibition considers what inspires commissions’. What inspires commissions in whom, the commissioners or the artists? Is Ozbolt questioning the nature his commission as well as the objects in the collection?
These are some of the questions buzzing round in my head as I attempt a response to an Ozbolt sculpture.