On the Night Train, with P.D.

A “Real Talk With Dead Folks” installment featuring French painter Paul Delvaux, who would have been ninety-eight today.

Today is one of those days for Real Talk with Dead Folks, an occasional Breadcrumbs feature. I knew it this morning when I learned it was the birthday of French painter Paul Delvaux, and I spent my coffee silence with his work.

Joyeux anniversaire, Paul Delvaux. You would have been ninety-eight today.

You are known for your nude women, your long shadows, your anxious isolation.

I like your Break of Day, the topless figures gathered in what is either a palace courtyard or its ruins. At first I think they are women, then I see what appear initially to be the finned tails of mermaids. 

But that is mossy bark, not scales, and those are roots, not tails. And then I look closer: the faces, the pose of their hands, their stiff necks. These are not women, exactly, but statues of flesh and trunk. 

I consider the roots, how tight they look, not quite spread and not quite rooted, and so close to one another. It seems impossible for them to make it very long like that, in such arid land. Behind them, a clothed woman is running, the desert floor behind her. 

Mountains congregate in the distance, under sky. 

Elsewhere, Gestapo were making arrests, Stalin was enforcing his Great Purge––mere preludes to the next world war. Your skeletons were often more animated than your fleshy counterparts. 

The home of your childhood was burned during the war years. What became of your beloved trains? Desire and horror met on your platforms. You studied music in the museum room, while skeletons in a glass cabinet appeared to watch.

You knew the anxious city, haunted with skeletons. You called it the climate of silent streets, with shadows of people who can’t be seen.

Mirrors, moon, candles, books: these were your favored elements. Around the nudes and the flute players, your skeletons danced.  Always in your paintings, this sense of waiting: of separation, this terrifying emptiness; this ongoing cycle of arrivals and departures.

It’s the little girl in the dress I am wondering about, the one with her back to the viewer. She is watching the trains by moonlight. What else does she see?

Always in your paintings, there she is: the beautiful but inaccessible muse. You painted her anyway, unable to keep from looking. 

It is for this that I bow to you. The way you saw death everywhere, and still looked for something else. The way you seemed to know your salvation to be just out of reach, while you reached anyway–– seeming to accept, by your actions, some unspoken contract. We all sign it to live here, but most are afraid to read the fine print.  It’s enough sometimes, to live for the unseen, the untouched. I like to think that this is what makes your skeletons move the way they do.

More about Paul Delvaux’s work:

Metropolitan Museum of Art

More Real Talk with Dead Folks

Real Talk With Galileo

Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work

Here’s to W.G., absurdist O.G.

The Paper Artist

Seeking insight on working with these unwieldy pages, I turn to an artist known for making sculptures of paper.

I was wondering what to do with these blank pages, the ones that need to be written to make these other ones make sense. Developing a manuscript sometimes feels like the messy middle of a construction project, with the piles of debris everywhere, and material under tarp, and the eyesore of scaffolding all you can see, one of those that inevitably leads to someone asking, what is going on here?

It seems like they haven’t been doing much.

Maybe the funding ran out. I forget what it was supposed to be.

Then I learned about the paper artist. He makes these vivid sculptures from the pages.

How does he do it?

Begin with a single fold, he says, and curiosity. The first action causes a transfer of energy. This leads to subsequent folds. I follow to understand, he says, about how the energy moves. If I knew where it would go, he says, I wouldn’t have to do this.

Where do you find it? They ask him.

Everywhere, he says. Music, architecture, Islamic tile patterns, protein misfolding. 

My favorite is this: I have this habit of misunderstanding, he says. It helps me see what is often overlooked. 

Thank you to My Modern Met for publishing the article, Paper Artist Crafts Incredible Three-Dimensional Relief Sculptures Entirely by Hand, featuring the work and words of artist Matt Shlian. I especially appreciate Shlian’s descrition of his process. Phrases from the interview are featured in this post.

World in a Grain of Sand

Celebration of wonders that are easily missed by habitual lenses, and of the transcendent potential of the the act of looking closely enough.

Reading about the father of microbiology for yesterday’s post inspired me to return to one of my favorite forms of photography, the extreme closeup, which has been a fascination of mine for some time, most likely because it so aligns with other perennial fascinations: the unseen world, the right-before-the-eyes wonders that are easily missed by habitual lenses, and a belief in the transcendent potential of the the act of looking long enough and closely enough, with a willingness to appreciate unseen wonders, bowing to them over a lens, in postures of awe and reverence––for the wonders themselves, and for the artists who knew how to look, who took the time to wait, sore necks bowed over lenses, so that others might see: not what might or can be, but what already is.

Such as?

Look!

Sweep of obsidian, the curved form of a new age creature, the decorated ponytail extending from an avian head, the fine grain of its surface, the smooth luster of the skin. Where is it looking, so made up, and what is this creature?

That is the hind leg of a beetle.

What can I make of this glowing-red canopy from Alice’s wonderland, bright orbs giggling on top of it, a party of yellow puffer fish around the birthday cake?

Anther of hibiscus.

What is this now? Jungle of Pleistocene Forest, before the age of leaves, where the burgeoning woods are a viscous pink, part fiber and part gel, growing up and across like the storms of Jupiter, cooling in a mold, catching globs of supernovae?

That is cotton fabric, pollen grains.

Now a dreamscape: cloud bands fertile with wheat fields, above the twilight river, bodies of unborn fruit floating in it, their impish sweetness like thumbnail fairies?

Cross section of agate. Think you know rocks? Look at this.

That isn’t rock, but concentric circles of prism: green, blue, pink, suspended in snowflakes, but I don’t have the words right; the colors themselves are not even colors, but light in translation.

Check out this guy. He’s looking at you.

Look at this ant, his face grizzled with three-day-old whiskers and his Whatchou doing there? look, wearing the attitude of the widened trickster on the corner, the crazy uncle calling out the trouble you’re about to get into before you’ve even thought about it. He looks like he started in early on the rum punch and he’s cornering you with what you can already tell is going to be a long story.

These close-ups are really something, but look at this. Is this a lost Rothko, or an arial view of the ruins of some ancient cousin to Babylon’s gardens? Yes, it must be the gardens; look at this rich wood, these leaves, translucent gold petals of gossamer fabric. This must have been what the seraphim wore to blow trumpets; it must be–– 

That is a table salt crystal, and there is the vein and scales of a butterfly wing. 

But what is this wild celebration of light, like a Van Gogh vision of Mardi Gras after the absinthe kicks in, like a pointillist’s version of stained glass?

That is a brain tumor, laced with a virus.

Even this?

Even this.

Oh, this world.  

It’s almost too much.

To take in.

How does anyone ever do anything but look?

And wonder.

And take the hand of the next person, hold it and say, Look, look!

There it is. 

There it is.

This reflection was inspired by a feature in The Atlantic on the winners of Nikon’s 2021 Small World Photography Competition.

Old Shells, New Forms

Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

On this day in 1883, English poet and critic T.E. Hulme was born.  Considered “the father of imagism” his work influenced the modernists who were seeking new forms across the arts, finding that the old forms, like shells ready to crack, no longer served the honest vision.  At the age of thirty-four, he was killed by a direct hit from a shell during the first World War.

I will not pretend to give an overview of Hulme’s career. In honor of his birthday, I am assembling a verbal collage of phrases from A Lecture on Modern Poetry, an influential paper Hulme delivered at the Poet’s Club in 1908, which was published and widely circulated after his death.  The verses below are mostly collected from Hulme’s text, rearranged as one does with “found poems,” which are one of my favorite forms for listening to unfamiliar texts.

Toward verse, I anticipate criticism. Don’t call it the means by which a soul soared, but a means of expression. I suspect the word soul in discussion, its hocus-pocus like selling medicine in the marketplace.

We are not the Mermaid Club, but a number of modern people. I have no reverence for tradition, and certain impressions to fix. I read for models but found none that fit. Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

For the living, burdened with thought too difficult to express using old names, what possibility is there? The actor has no dead competition, as the poet does. Immortal arts need new techniques with each generation or risk an age of insincerity.

Consider decay of religion: dead carcass, the flies upon it. Here’s what happens when the spirit leaves the form.

After decay, a new form. I wish you to notice: the marvelous fertility, the fluidity of the world, its impermanence. If you prefer the ancients, consider the Greek theory of universe as flux, and how they feared it. The disease that followed? A passion for immortality. You know the rest.

Now we focus on impermanence. Leave the siege of Troy to the ancients. Let’s linger instead within the mind of the child by the drying lake. We cannot escape from the spirit of our times.

It’s a delicate and difficult art. A shell is a very suitable covering for the egg at a certain period, but when the inside character is entirely changed, to become alive, the shell must be broken.

Events in Light and Color

Some saw wonders, others the portents of doom.

This week marks the anniversary of the 1859 Carrington Event, the largest geomagnetic storm on record, which resulted from a shock wave of solar wind interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. Apparently, there are holes in the sun, and these can work like wind tunnels. A cloud of plasma resulting from a solar flare can reach the earth in a few days.

The event started fires, disrupted telegraph systems, delivered electric shocks to the operators. Rocky Mountain gold miners began making breakfast in the middle of the night, thinking it was morning. The light was bright enough to read by, and it was described in one paper as something of indescribable softness which covered the whole firmament . . . like a luminous cloud. 

A miner witnessed lights of every imaginable color. As each one faded, he recalled, the next to emerge would be more beautiful than the last. Northern light auroras were seen as far south as Mexico, Cuba ––even Colombia. Some saw wonders, others a portent of coming doom.

Later that year, abolitionist John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry. He was soon captured by the soon-to-be Confederate general Robert E. Lee and executed for inciting a slave rebellion. Later that year, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Later that year, hundreds died in a steamship wreck on the coast of Wales. 

Also, John Dewey was born, and painter Georges Seurat, and artist Paul César Helleu, whose idea it was to install a ceiling mural of night sky constellations in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. So was LL Zamenhof, who conceived of the international language, Esperanto, as a pathway to the end of nations and the oppressions they spawned. He was called the Doctor of Hope.

It is said, of Georges Seurat, that he was moved by an idea that laws of visual harmony might be learned as one learns harmony in music. He was only thirty-one when he died, and his son died soon after. Before this, they say that he was constantly moved to imagine and reimagine the symbolism of lines on a canvas, the language of color and light.

Bury My Ash and Plant a Tree

What if we gave it up, this whole habit of protecting these temporary husks?

I have an idea.

About what?

How to die.

Please. I’m trying to just––

No, it’s about that too, hear me out. Let’s not put these bodies in boxes when we’re done with them.

Ah, the boxes. What size, what wood, what level of cushioning? Where to put the box, and what shoes?

Let’s give it up, that whole thing.

You mean––?

The whole habit of protection, when it comes to these temporary husks.

From?

The inevitable ends we want to rage against. The humiliation of decay.

Not to mention of a bare face, unpainted.

Exactly. What were we doing with all of that, anyway?

What were we hoping to keep?

Look at the fate of cut flowers, gathered with the same impulse. I mean––

Any vase, however flimsy, will outlast its contents, destined in most cases to wind up broken.

Or on a Goodwill shelf with a sticker.

Let’s try something else. What if we burned as we lived, saving none?

Fuel for the living. What if––

we used the container we keep––

––for growing, instead?

With all the dirt, filth, worms––

Husks of fruit––

Let the falling seeds have at it.

If I’m going anyway, let me spend what I have on the living.

Here it is, take it. This hand.

Not to chain, but to comfort.

Yes, and this face. Not to photograph,

To hold a gaze. These eyes, even.

Don’t cover them with coins. 

Eat this vision, I am giving it up.

Don’t strike me down.

Don’t box and bury me. 

Let the fire eat my excess.

Let me prefer this and the way it reduces

––my body from its confines, to magnify

––Its purpose?

Infinitely. Then put me at the base of a tree.

Let me be dust. I am going now. Hold none of me.

In the spring, I will bloom for you, reminding you back.

To what?

To an original question: what is beauty without death?

To make it something we ache to be, hold; being held inside it, holding.

Wait. It comes for you also, but also coming is this impossible bloom. 

A thousand bursts. Like cotton balls when you squint, in baby-blanket pink.

Rest against this trunk.

Of my shade. There will be nothing to hold

but there you will be, cool inside it.

Cool from burning?

Yes, you will be cooling from the burning

there, in the shade of my ash, for a little while.

And you will welcome me there?

Yes.

For how long?

How long will you stay? Don’t answer.

Why not?

Because when the time comes, you will burn it all up again. 

But––

Still, I will be at the end of the burn and the beginning of this tree––this cooling shade, waiting.

Wait.

This post is inspired by an article I read this morning in My Modern Met (one of my go-to haunts for inspiration), about new environmentally friendly developments in burial rituals: vertical gravesites, human compost, and the option of burying ashes at the base of a new-planted tree.

Seeking Anon

Considering the message board as installation piece––or as altar to a mysterious deity.

From time to time, when I am looking for material, I look for anonymous inspiration on various message boards. It feels like being at a museum installation where a thousand notes are penned on backs of cardboard boxes and gas station receipts: some in pen, some in green marker, others in something that could be ketchup. I like to imagine that I am a time traveler from the Bronze Age, puzzling over this strange shrine, with these messages from the mysterious god, Anon. 

Today, it seems that Anon is concerned about the people who do not follow through when they inquire about the availability of motorcycles, and is also very disappointed with this heat pump. They want certain things known, these are enthusiastic points, and want it known that they are praying.

They would like whoever was driving the busted black four-door to stay off the freeway, especially in early morning hours, and wants you to be forewarned that if you have your baby at St. Mary’s, you may be waiting awhile to take it home.

Anon is happy to help, but not if it enables those who take advantage, like a co-worker who never– Not once!– offers gas money. Anon would like an explanation, if not for themselves then for the children, as to some recent decisions. Plus, they would very much like the woman who wore a red dress into Hobby Lobby to know that an encounter by the check stand was much appreciated.

Also, it is written: they are still looking for a few things: an old flame, old classmates, Mr. Thursday, surf girl, the guy in the sidecar in Hillcrest, some help, a missing Siamese, a new home for this bearded dragon, and a phone call from whomever is awake, also looking.

Garden Notes, August

Reviewing what it takes to tend to the project of growing something in this world.

In August, remove dead heads from spent flowers, teasing new growth. Teasing new growth, harvest fig, cucumber, pepper. Watch the ants, can the beans, make notes for the next season. Give extra support to limbs heavy with fruit.

This is what you do for a garden in August, unless you are fleeing the blooming fires, unless you are fleeing what will take your life, unless the tending of your tendencies tends in other directions. Still, aren’t we all, always, tending them? Unless we are setting the fires, unless we are taking what others have grown, unless we forget, unless thoroughly spent.

It still seems useful to review what it takes to tend to the project of growing, to review the detailed list of threats that are forever angling to choke out anything that anybody tries to grow, any month of the year. It still seems useful to make note of how there they are anyway, all these gardens and these gardeners, keeping on.

Man and Nature

As with some people, the beauty of the composition can only be known through direct witness.

On this day in 1956, Jackson Pollock died. He was forty-four. This morning, I’m reflecting on his legacy.

I am nature, he said, challenging ideas of Man. They said, of his work, it filled out space, going on and on, with no beginning and no end. The drip paintings are what people remember most, his whole-body dance with color on canvas.

Critics divided into camps, either praising the immediacy of the “action paintings” or categorically dismissing what appeared at first to be a random composition. I was sympathetic to both camps until I stood in LACMA before one of these paintings (No. 15, 1950, oil on Masonite) and it wasn’t even a large one. As with some people, the beauty of the composition can only be known through direct witness. From where I stood, at an intimate conversational distance, the intricacy, balance and depth of the composition was immediately clear in ways that it hadn’t been in any of the photographs I’d seen in books. 

Before he was known as The Artist, he was expelled from two high schools. Before he was widely known, he married Lee Krasner. She introduced him to principles of modernism, and also to those responsible for his career as we know it. She meant to define her own work as separate from his, but most struggled to see the distinction, except as the othered Pollock. The idea, I suppose, was that she had sprung somehow from his rib, this man who had claimed to be nature. Extending the logic, they called her only nurture, even though she was a serious artist herself.

As nature, who did he admire?  The sand painters he loved, and the muralists. His favorite was Orozco’s Prometheus, the muscular embodiment of the liberator who saw man’s terrestrial plodding and envisioned a shift in being, stealing fire from Olympus to offer the earthbound. It changed them. They could cook, gather around, watch the smoke rise, and from this came wonder and religion, science and art, song––and yes, dance. For this, he was sentenced for life, in accordance with customs regarding the official treatment of visionaries–– those forces of nature who, by virtue of knowing how to look, defy the smug authority of the keepers of knowledge, the armed guards at the borders between us.

Curating Questions

The museum is a whole. If one part defies its philosophy, the integrity of the whole is compromised.

I was working out a problem in a story last night, and it led me to wonder about museums. I have a character who is making one on a small scale, as people do. We collect, we preserve, we save, we arrange, we project, frame, curate, acquire. How and why? Reasons vary. Wondering about her motives led me to consider museum philosophy. 

Museum: a place where something is preserved. It’s different from a gallery, where works may be brought in for a certain period and taken away again.

An institution may be designed to trigger art or manage those who presume to create it. In this way, it serves as the interface between creation and exhibition.

Possible functions of a museum include: to preserve, to celebrate, to provoke, and to expand or constrain the boundaries of a concept, idea, or form. The function must be established and revisited regularly, especially with regards to how the space and the people in it support or detract from the intended function.

The museum is a whole. If one part defies its philosophy, the integrity of the whole is compromised. If the architecture of the museum space is compromised, you cannot give attention to the art.

In developing a philosophy the central question to consider is, What is this for? A space of entertainment? A showcase? A place to inform without judgement, or to voice social criticism? Is the goal to foster self and community awareness or to uplift?

There is also the possibility of museum as monument. In this case, the emphasis is placed on the exterior of the building, which may leave those in charge of content with limited resources, so that they have to keep seeking out borrowed works for a limited amount of time. 

It all comes down to certain questions for founders, developers, and leaders of any institution: What do you want, and how much? What can you spend, and where will your resources go? One might extrapolate from this an consider similar essential questions for every artist, innovator, and educator. No museum without a clear institutional philosophy can answer these questions with any degree of consistency. 

I am not on any board or decision-making panel of any museum, but I find these questions interesting and useful beyond my initial goal, which had to do with a character.  I suppose it fits with my developing awareness that the role of any artist is also curation (“The Artist and the Curator”). By extension, any curator is naturally connected to the museum; the museum connected to specific philosophies and value systems, and these connected to ideas about being in the world.  At every level, fulfillment of a vision necessitates a clarity of purpose. Are all the parts of this organization (including myself) working toward this purpose? If not, what can be changed or rethought?

Notes and found phrases for these reflections were gathered from the article, “The Museum as Concept and Philosophy”posted at Raussmüller Insights.