TRANSFORMING VISION: WRITERS ON ART Introduction
Transforming Vision is a book of encounters and responses, of imaginative acts of attention. Here a group of poets and prose writers seek to “translate” visual into verbal emblems, to find linguistic correlatives for what they are seeing. Description often initiates this activity (and these writers bring a great deal of descriptive acuity to their projects) but is invariably transformed into interpretation, into a space where one work of art generates and interpolates another. These pieces are personal interventions and meditations, creative inquiries, acts of inheritance. They illuminate individual works in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century collections of The Art Institute of Chicago by imaginatively entering into them, by teasing out their origins and implications—charting their methods, situating them in history or in experience, creating parallel or analogous literary worlds. Embodiment is all. The process is akin to what Robert Frost called “counter-love, original response.”
The Art Institute of Chicago has always seemed to me an unsurpassed urban splendor, a Beaux-Arts chunk of the sublime carved out of Indiana limestone. “It is not unlikely that the Chicago Art Institute, with its splendid collection of casts and pictures, has done more for the people of the Middle West than any of the city’s great industries,” Willa Cather wrote in 1895. Over the past century, a large number of writers have drifted along with everyone else through the light-filled galleries. The experience is indelible, and many have felt special affinities with a collection at once so suggestive, so surprising, and so diverse, both intimate and expansive, central, transfiguring. How well I remember my first solo trips to the museum in the mid-1960s: the nervous excitement of coming downtown on the El, the freedom of drifting through the crowds on State Street toward the open spaces of Lake Michigan, the scarcely concealed exaltation of rushing up the stairs between the tutelary bronze lions. Like innumerable others, I countered my world by entering the Art Institute’s imaginative precincts. I, too, have stood, awestruck and amazed, before Edward Hopper’s vision of American loneliness, before Georges Seurat’s monumental rendering of a bourgeois afternoon on the Seine. (“This is the celebration of contemplation,” Delmore Schwartz once wrote, “This is the conversion of experience to pure attention.”) What better place to engage the visual terms of modernity, to write one’s fledgling poems (for me, it was literature for art’s sake, and vice versa), to read Wallace Stevens’s “Man with the Blue Guitar” in the shadow of Pablo Picasso’s Old Guitarist. (“Is this picture of Picasso’s, this ‘hoard / Of destructions,’ a picture of ourselves, / Now, an image of our society?” Stevens’s poem asks.) Here the words gain strength from their blue light. Meditation in turn colors what we see. “One of the characteristic symptoms of the spiritual condition of our age,” Charles Baudelaire said about Eugène Delacroix, is that “the arts aspire, if not to take one another’s place, at least reciprocally to lend one another new powers.”
Transforming Vision begins with two personal encounters with the museum itself: a section of Willa Cather’s “On Various Minor Painters” and of Stuart Dybek’s book The Coast of Chicago. Nearly a century apart, these two appreciations capture a sense of the museum’s persistent and unsettling magic, the urgency of being pulled back by certain talismanic paintings. Each subsequent piece then takes up and confronts an individual work in the collections. (For practical reasons we have limited ourselves to the past two centuries.) More than two-thirds of these writings are new; they were written expressly for this book. These have been supplemented by a number of other relevant examples—among them paragraphs from novels by Willa Cather and Saul Bellow; poems by Mina Loy, Carl Sandburg, Robert Hayden, and others; a sizable passage from Blaise Cendrars’s memoir of Robert Delaunay, and so forth. Taken together, these fictions, poems, and personal essays constitute a richly varied set of responses to an equally varied set of prints and drawings, photographs, paintings, and sculptures.
This book began to come into focus last year when we invited a number of writers to respond to work in the permanent collections. We asked for short pieces in any form the writer deemed appropriate. It seemed better to avoid duplications, but the writers were otherwise left to their own devices to choose—to be chosen by—any work that intrigued them. The response was immediate and enthusiastic, unwavering. Feeling for the Art Institute runs high. Many asked for catalogues and photographs to jog and supplement their memories; others recalled with rapturous exactitude their many visits to the museum, their experiences with the art itself. It would seem the Art Institute was a secret each of us had discovered on his or her own. Many felt called upon to testify to what they had beheld.
I am responsible for the list of imaginative writers invited to participate. Their contributions have more than confirmed my high regard for their work. At the same time, however, space limitations have been rigorous and there are many marvelous poets and prose writers who have not been heard from this time around. I regret their absence, and I recognize that we could have made as fine a book with an entirely different cast of writers. I have also had to exclude a number of poems because they address well-known works otherwise represented—most notably, Frank O’Hara’s “On Looking at La Grande Jatte, the Czar Wept Anew” and Ira Sadoff’s prose poems “Seurat” and “Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ (1942).” It would be possible to make a small, first-rate anthology consisting entirely of works that deal with Seurat’s and Hopper’s masterworks.
Not everyone we invited was able to participate. A few were puzzled by the ekphrastic mode; others were already committed to long-standing projects and deadlines. One writer, Sandra Cisneros, was so dispirited by the scarcity of Chicano artists represented that she simply listed the names of the only two Chicano photographers and wrote, “We’re the only ones here.” On the other hand, Philip Levine was so impelled by Lyonel Feininger’s work that he wrote three fine poems about Feininger’s paintings (we have been able to include only one of them). By and large, the writers we contacted responded to the project with a certain exaltation. They warmed to its conception, its process, and its premises, to the challenge of enacting their aesthetic reactions in equivalent works of their own devising.
Transforming Vision is not a guide to the collections, for many important artists are not represented. In the end, the writers spoke only to what spoke to them, to works that instigated their own voices. Their pieces are self-revealing, their registers personal. William Maxwell articulates the reigning spirit when he recalls, “The first time I saw the little Boudin beach scene, in the gallery devoted to nineteenth-century French painting, I cried out with pleasure.”
I have been aware, in editing this collection, that there is always something transgressive in writing about the visual arts, in approaching the painter, the sculptor, or the photographer’s work in words. A border is crossed, a boundary breached as the writer enters into the spatial realm, traducing an abyss, violating the silent integrity of the pictorial. Writing about Camille Corot, Paul Valéry warned, “We should apologize that we dare to speak about painting.”
Yet, as Valéry also acknowledged, “There are important reasons for not keeping silent [since] all the arts live by words. Each work of art demands its response.” Works of art initiate and provoke other works of art; the process is a source of art itself. Responses to a given work become part of the complex history of that work. There is also an intricate history of reciprocity and sibling rivalry between the arts, especially “the sister arts,” poetry and painting. The writers in this collection are participating in a long occidental tradition of ekphrasis, the verbal description of pictorial or sculptural works of art. That tradition comes down to us in a more or less unbroken line from Homer and Theocritus to Keats and Shelley, Baudelaire and Gautier; it extends from Horace (whose famous phrase “Ut Pictura Poesis”—“as in painting, so in poetry”—had had a controversial history of its own) to William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden and Randall Jarrell. Ekphrastic modes inevitably address—and sometimes challenge—the great divide between spatial and temporal experience, eye and ear, visual and verbal mediums. They brave the mystery dividing the seen from the unseen, image from text. They teach us to look and look again more closely. They dramatize with great intensity the actual experience of encounter. That is why the proper response to a work of visual art may well be an ode or an elegy, a meditative lyric, a lyrical meditation.
The range and diversity of this book are among its pleasures. The formal cornucopia includes short stories (Charles Baxter, Charles Johnson), aphoristic meditations (Susan Mitchell, Susan Stewart), and prose poems—or are they a kind of essay (Charles Simic, John Yau)? There is a splendid villanelle that mirrors elements in a Giorgio de Chirico painting (Mark Strand), a dramatic monologue in sonnet form (Ellen Bryant Voigt), a rich adaptation of a Japanese form, the tanga (Cynthia Macdonald). Richard Wilbur’s consideration of transcendence in the work of Edgar Degas commences with a deft translation of a sonnet by the artist. The strategies diversify as Richard Howard apostrophizes Henri Fantin-Latour and Joyce Carol Oates projects the hidden thoughts—the interior reality—of the figures in Nighthawks. In “Listening” John Edgar Wideman ascribes to a painting by William Sydney Mount “something like the all-encompassing memory of music” wherein he hears—we hear—the agonizing tune of “Jim Crow” in the background. Like “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” this piece suggests that a painting not only can be seen, but also entered and heard. Its context may speak volumes.
Time and again, these writings ask us to rearrange and redefine what we are viewing. They collect and focus our attention. “Let us look at this painting to which we are blinded by familiarity and parody,” Guy Davenport says about Grant Wood’s American Gothic. At times they surprise the painter in the self-conscious act of creating: “He paints what he sees, seeing what he paints,” John Hollander reflects about Charles Sheeler’s The Artist Looks at Nature. Rita Dove imagines Ivan Albright arranging his model and “applying paint / like a bandage to the open wound.” The colors themselves are given declarative voice in Adam Zagajewski’s ecstatic lyric on Degas’s Millinery Shop. Still others lead us to contemplate our own aesthetic principles and values. In thinking about Jules Breton’s Song of the Lark, once voted the most popular painting in America, Amy Clampitt examines the reassuring innocence—ultimately the very function—of banality in art. John Updike’s encounter with Claes Oldenburg’s giant Clothespin becomes a graceful defense of the democratic spirit in Pop art.
There is something large and fundamental at stake in most of these pieces. They attend closely to artistic considerations—to the imperative of looking itself—but they are not aestheticized. “This is not an exhibition,” the artist storms at the conclusion of Stanley Kunitz’s metaphysical lyric “The Sea, That Has No Ending,” “it’s a life!” I think of Susan Sontag’s passionate response—a lament really—to Francisco Goya’s shockingly contemporary series The Disasters of War. “The problem is how not to avert one’s glance,” she writes in “Looking at the Unbearable,” “How not to give way to the impulse to stop looking.” This insistence on staring down—on reading—the unbearable is also at the heart of C. K. Williams’s fierce response to the eternally cruel situation declared by Leon Golub’s Interrogation II. Compellingly Gerald Stern finds Chaim Soutine’s haunted self-portrait as a Jew dispersed through his painting of a dead fowl, and Francine Prose engages the problem of seeing her own image in Diane Arbus’s photograph of two women in an Automat. In a highly personal poem, Li-Young Lee responds to a painting by his brother Li-Lin Lee.
The pieces in Transforming Vision are filled with intimacies attained, with reflections, refractions, revelations. The writings and the reproductions of works of art are before us here in their complex interplay and correspondence; this is a book of sights crossed by sounds, of visionary transformations.