Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Who Says A Painting Must Look Like Life? - Su Shi

After fifty days of poems on-theme, I'm taking the license to insert the equivalent of a "palate cleanser" before getting back on course.  (It is,  after all, my blog...)  And,  it's a "twofer": two poems separated by almost a thousand years, the second one illustrating the topic of the first.

I have always been interested in the relationship between poetry and painting, which was best defined, around 2,500 years ago,  by the Greek poet Simonides as: " Painting is silent poetry, and poetry a painting that speaks".  

There is a tradition of poets writing "about" paintings, though not of the reverse (to my knowledge).  So, below, is a poem on that relationship by the great poet of the Song (or Sung) Dynasty, Su Shi (also known as Su Tung-p'o) who lived 1037-1101.  He was also a government official, having passed the highest level civil service exams on his first try at age 18.  (This would be the equivalent of perfect scores on the SAT, GRE, and the Achievement tests.  ALL of them...)  His life's fortunes became tied to the political vagaries of such positions, as he was exiled twice, back in favor three times - a pretty high price for a "steady" gig. Many of his letters and poems have survived and have been translated into English.  The link here will take you to a site with a selection of his poems.   (This link will go to biographical info.) This translation is by Burton Watson.   

Following it is an example of a poem inspired by a painting.  The poem is mine; the painting - a Degas - belongs to The Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I'd gladly make a trade!  Until recently, it was on display in the Johnson Gallery at the PMA, but it's been removed, possibly to be loaned.  It's one of my favorites now, since stopping me on my tracks when I first "met" it over thirty years ago.  ("Click" inside the image to magnify.)

Who says a painting must look like life? (1087)
                                                                       translated by Burton Watson

Who says a painting must look like life?

He sees only with children’s eyes.
Who says a poem must stick to the theme?
Poetry is certainly lost on him.
Poetry and painting share a single goal –
clean freshness and effortless skill.
Pien Luan’s sparrows live on paper:
Chao Ch’ang’s flowers breathe with soul.
But what are they beside these scrolls,
bold sketches, with spirit in every stroke?
Who’d think one dot of red
could call up a whole unbounded spring!
                                                                                 Su Shi (Sun Tung-p'o) - Chinese
The painting below, "Le Intérieur" by Edgar Degas, hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It is fairly large (46" x 32", rounded) and, of course this image does not do it justice.  Degas painted it in 1868 and it is one of his most atmospheric...


Le  Intérieur -  Degas

Whether he is dressed again
or never shed more than cape,
Whether two bodies one imprint pressed,
in passion or by duress,
and finished, the bed remade...

Whether his eyes, with sated lust,
fix far into a sharded past
released from promises and regrets,
or hers, inflamed, mull the words
to claim a maidenhead at last...

By one mute lamp’s carousel of light,
their faces in penumbral relief,
her cowered shape, resigned?
his spectral form, transfixed?
two frailties forever frozen
in a moment outside Time,
two hearts forever questioning 
decisions made... or yet unmade.

                                                                                      Harrison Tao
It has also been called - erroneously - "Le Viol" (The Rape). As best can be researched by art historians, the scene fits a climatic point in a story by Emile Zola depicting the moment of truth between lovers who had conspired to and killed the woman's husband, and are now reuniting at an inn, per agreement, after a year without contact (to avoid suspicions).  

We are drawn as voyeurs into their psychological moment, one that will determine their future relationship, and invited to wonder about their "interior" and, by extension, our own in such a situation.   What drew me to it was the ambiguity presented by the painting: has something happened already or is it the aftermath?  I deliberately did not read the monograph about the painting until after the poem was finished.

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