Monday 16 July 2012

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Edvard Munch

One of the main themes of the Edvard Munch exhibition at Tate Modern is how Munch not only reworked paintings over years but also painted multiple versions of the same subject over decades. For our last session of my Poetry from Art course we sat in the centre of the large deep red 'Reworkings' room, in between two facing versions of Girls on the Bridge, The Kiss, Vampire, Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones, Ashes and The Sick Child. It was like inhabiting a slightly warped mirror.

We read the tightly formal poem 'Girls on the Bridge' by Derek Mahon, where each stanza is a diamond of mirroring rhymes and syllables, and the very moving 'The Sick Child' by Adam Thorpe, which is in two alternative parts, responding to the multiple version idea. Munch's sister Sophie died of TB when he was thirteen and the first painting in The Sick Child series was his breakthrough into his signature style, away from impressionism. He worked at the painting until the composition and colours expressed the force of the memory.

Munch has written about his process in his journals, here he is writing about colour as joy:

I made an observation as I walked along the street one sunny day on Karl Johan and saw the white houses against the spring blue sky – rows of people which in a give-and-take crossing stream like a ribbon drew themselves along the walls of the buildings. At that moment music reached in – playing a march – I saw the colors immediately change – it quivered in the air – it thrilled in the yellow white façade – the color dances in the stream of people – in the brightened and white parasols – yellow, light blue spring costumes – against the deep blue winter wraps which flickered in the gold trumpets, which beamed in the sun – it thrilled in blue and yellow. I saw differently under the influence of the music. The music doled out the colors. – I got a feeling of joy.

 And this is what he wrote about the genesis of The Scream:
 One evening I was walking out on a hilly path near Kristiania – with two comrades. It was a time when life had ripped my soul open. The sun was going down – had dipped in flames below the horizon. It was like a flaming sword of blood slicing through the concave of heaven. The sky was like blood – sliced with strips of fire – the hills turned deep blue the fjord – cut in cold blue, yellow, and red colors – The exploding bloody red – on the path and hand railing – my friends turned glaring yellow white – I felt a great scream – and I heard, yes, a great scream – the colors in nature – broke the lines of nature – the lines and colors vibrated with motion – these oscillations of life brought not only my eye into oscillations, it brought also my ears into oscillations – so I actually heard a scream – I painted the picture Scream then.

We were surrounded by powerful emotions: grief, anguish, lust, greed, hope, loneliness. The task was to select a painting and its double and decide on the main emotion they contained, then write a poem about it, avoiding all abstract nouns such as 'joy' and 'grief'. It's a standard exercise in visualising emotions, to give them a colour, a smell, a taste, a sound, a texture, and I also asked if their emotion had a place: where did it happen? Finally, to include an animal: what animal was it?  If they felt particularly ambitious they could use the form of their poem to address the double-painting aspect as Thorpe has. They could also rein in their emotions by using a formal straitjacket as Mahon has with his necklace of diamond-stanzas.

I was expecting anguish but was amazed when they all read back by how many people chose The Kiss and Vampire to respond to – it was a romantic end to our course! The next course will be from 15th October to 19th November this autumn, but I've yet to dream that up.

Friday 6 July 2012

A Poem for Frida Kahlo's Birthday, 6 July 2012

The Wounded Deer or The Little Deer is my favourite painting by Frida Kahlo. She painted it for her surgeon, after he operated on her spine, but the surgery failed. It's a portrait of her pet fawn Granizo ('Hailstones') but she has given him her face. There is so much that fascinates me about this portrait: the Catholic reference to St Sebastian, the fact that she is a male stag with antlers, and the symbolism of the numbers nine and ten (nine arrows, nine tines, ten trees, ten branches). But when I saw it at Tate Modern to read the following poem in front of it, what struck me was how small and faint the painting is, as if it's about to disappear.

The Wounded Deer

I have a woman's face
           but I'm a little stag,
because I had the balls
to come this far into the forest,
to where the trees are broken.
The nine points of my antlers
have battled
with the nine arrows in my hide.

I can hear the bone-saw
in the ocean on the horizon.
I emerged from the waters
of the Hospital for Special Surgery.
It had deep blue under-rooms.

And once, when I opened my eyes
too quickly after the graft,
I could see right through
all the glass ceilings,
up to where lightning forked
across the New York sky
           like the antlers of sky-deer,
rain arrowing the herd.

Small and dainty as I am
I escaped into this canvas,
where I look back at you
in your steel corset, painting
the last splash on my hoof.

From What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo
available from Seren in the UK and Black Lawrence Press in the US. Also available from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Touch Tour in Poetry and Dream 2012

On our fourth session of my Image-Making: Shaping Poems course at Tate Modern we were given a Touch Tour by Marcus Dickey Horley, who usually only does this for partially sighted or blind visitors. We got to touch the three sculptures available for this tour at Tate Modern: Alberto Giacometti's Walking Woman, Henri Laurens' Autumn and David Smith's Home of the Welder, or 'the man's doll's house' as we nicknamed it.

Four of us at a time could touch the bronze
Autumn by Henri Laurens. Touching can only be done through lint free gloves but it's amazing how much you can feel through them. To write about the experience I handed out my Mental Imagery list of eight senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell, the organic or inner body sense, kinesthesia and synesthesia. I also brought Keats' 'Ode to Autumn'.

Here is Marcus introducing us to David Smith's Home of the Welder, behind him, so fragile (like a man's doll's house) that only one of us at a time could feel it.

Karen McCarthy Woolf touching Home of the Welder which is welded together.

 Only two of us at a time could touch Giacometti's bronze Walking Woman, she is so thin! At one point Giacometti had given her arms and a head; one arm ended in feathers and the other in flowers, and her head was a cello. This was while she was still made of plaster. The final cast form is classic and archaic, and we discussed Tishani Doshi's poem 'Ode to the Walking Woman' where she becomes various ancient earth and sky goddesses, including Astarte, Cybele, and figures from a 3000BC archaelogical site in Pakistan, who are invited to "Sit / you must be tired" and "resurrect yourself, /make love to the sky, / reclaim the world."

Autumn by Henri Laurens (Bronze, 1948)