Sunday, February 28, 2010

Progress: Twombly & Rilke

This weekend the Chorale is in dress rehearsals for its upcoming program, EARS WIDE OPEN: Celebrating Women in Music, March 5-7.

In preparation for our final, open dress rehearsal this afternoon,
I am reading poetry, looking at modern art (in a monograph),
and reflecting and writing on the connections between them.

My title refers to Rilke's poem (in the original German: Fortschritt):

And again my inmost life rushes louder,
as if it moved now between steeper banks.
Objects become ever more related to me,
and all pictures are more perused.
I feel myself more trusting in the nameless:
with my senses, as with birds, I reach
into the windy heavens from the oak,
and into the small ponds' broken-off day
my feeling sinks, as if it stood on fishes.

(from The Book of Images, translated by Edward Snow;
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1991).

Anyone who does not understand the connection between the above and preparing for a choral rehearsal has obviously never stood on fishes.

I encountered Rilke's closing image while perusing some pictures
in a recent monograph of Cy Twombly.

Those readers who reside in the Commonwealth of Virginia can take pride (a portion of which must be tongue-in-cheek) that one of the greatest American artists of the 2nd half of the 20th century is an expat from Lexington.

It would be easy to link that fact to a diatribe against the idiots running the state government who are pushing for the elimination of ALL state funding for the arts by 2012 (Cy Twombly joins a distinguished list of Virginians--like Ella Fitzgerald, the "first lady" among musicians--whose artistic contributions have not only enriched the Commonwealth but the world. Never mind the overwhelmingly positive impact the arts have on local and regional economies: they are vital revenue-producing engines, and boosts to tourism! Moreover, vibrant arts communities are a universally positive barometer of the quality of life in the regions that support them).

Twombly's art is difficult to succinctly describe. His paintings reveal a debt to the Abstract Expressionist, "American-Type Painting" famously canonized by the eminent critic Clement Greenberg. Though indebted to Pollock, Johns, Rauschenberg (he and Twombly were traveling companions in seminal visits to Europe and North Africa), Twombly is equally indebted to Monet and Impressionism, Turner and Poussin, and is influenced by poetry as much as any of these.

Twombly is an artist--however reticent to discuss his works, much less their "meaning"--whose layering of contexts and connections emerges on the canvas as an organic and natural evolution from the process of making it. His chief biographer, David Sylvester, observed:

"Living, looking, making: Twombly seems to be someone for whom there is no break between those."

I know I am not the only artist whose experience resonates like a plucked string vibrating harmoniously with that observation.

Such "sympathetic vibrations" resound across the senses of the attuned artist, heightening the experience of and in every genre--poetry, painting, and music.

Twombly's epic series of paintings depicting the four seasons were my first exposure to the artist (and are supreme examples of this inter-contextual, multi-genre layering in his canvases). I first saw the Le Quattro Staggioni series at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Several years later I encountered a series (also called The Four Seasons) at the Tate Gallery in London (the monograph is called Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, and cleared up my confusion about whether the MOMA or the Tate owned the series--they both do, as Twombly did two cycles of Seasons).

Painted in the mid-90's (when the artist was in his mid-late 60's--he turned 80 in 2008, the occasion for the retrospective which produced the aforementioned monograph), the Four Seasons are huge panels which confront the viewer with more white than anything. Whether paint or blank canvas, white is an ubiquitous feature of Twombly's work, from the densely textured expressionist daubs of cream to the "unfinished" symbolism of the tabula rasa (ie: blank slate) canvas. White typically refers to the clouds &/or the foaming sea, and both natural references are resonant in Twombly's depictions of the seasons of the year. Besides the Baroque reference to Vivaldi's famous series of concerti on the four seasons (whose original title is also the Italian used by Twombly), the panels recall Keats' classic poem on the "Ages of Man." "The Human Seasons" contains lines that inspired the artist:

Four seasons fill the measure of the year;
There are four seasons in the mind of man

The poetic associations do not stop there for Twombly. As he has for decades, Twombly scribbles letters, words, and lines onto the canvas. Whether heiroglyph or cipher, object or signature, the juxtaposition of paint and word (now cliched in our post post-modern art world) is a striking feature of his work.

He returns to Rilke for inspiration, reworking the last quatrain of the 10th Duino Elegy. That poem opens with lines that are particularly resonant whenever an artist prepares to present her work (whether via exhibition, publication or performance):

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.
Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or a broken string.

A little further into that great poem the poet notes "how we squander our hours of pain." The difficult truth in that observation is obviated--if only minutely--by communion with works such as Twombly's. The canvases are so layered , so referential, so multivalent, "the emotion that almost overwhelms" (more Rilke) that is always present in them, is like a strange and immense forest one might miss for the peculiar, seemingly incongruent nature of some of its trees.

Twombly's work, like that of great artists throughout history, is open to interpretation. It has the necessary porous quality the critic and writer Umberto Eco cites as a prerequisite for the Opera Aperta (the "open work").

In an ultimate example of making connections across the tenuous threads that shape and color our artistic webs of meaning, Twombly nods to Alvaro de Campos, one of the many personalities adopted by the Portuguese poet and writer, Fernando Pessoa. (Reference within reference, meaning within meaning...)

To feel everything in every way,
To live everything from all sides,
To be the same thing in all ways
Possible at the same time,
To realize in oneself all humanity at all moments
In one scattered, extravagant, complete, and aloof moment.

I find such a motto enervating and energizing,
and take the last adjective, "aloof" neither
detached from, nor disinterested in the "moment"
but a welcome reminder of each moment's transience,
and its inherent possibility...

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