Gary Lehmann - Author

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Friday, October 12, 2007

The Poet in the Art Gallery

This past summer and fall, it has been my very good fortune to be able to visit some of the world’s best art galleries while accompanying my wife on some business trips. These lush long days spent in the presence of some of the best art in the world naturally led to some poetry.

Here is a sample of some of the poems that resulted and a running commentary on the museums.

The Mark Twain House and Museum is located on Farmington Avenue in Hartford, CT. It is a beautiful rambly late 19th century structure complete with a giant carriage house and immense servants’ quarters. You don’t generally think of Mark Twain living in this kind of luxury, with servants and a coachman and all. But I guess after he married Livy, who inherited a fortune when her coal-merchant father died, he could afford the best. Unfortunately, he thought to invest in the stock market and lost much of her money.

He once said. “I must note that October is a very bad month to speculate in stock market. The other months are January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, November, and December.”


Pilgrim’s Progress


When Mark Twain was a youth,
he did what he did best on the Mississippi

He drank, smoked and swore very loudly.

As a reporter in Sacramento,
Mark Twain indulged in the pleasures of urban life.

He drank, smoked and swore very loudly.

When he married and raised a family in Hartford,
he lived quite the suburban life.

He drank, smoked and swore very loudly.


Clothes Make The Man


Mark Twain was a messy dresser.
His coachman was dapper and neat.

Whenever Twain rode into Hartford to do business,
he’d exchange coats with his driver

so he’d look more respectable,
but then, he’d change back on the way home.


Directly next door to the Mark Twain House is the Harriet Beecher Stowe House and Research Center. It is a lovely building, Harriet’s home at the end of her life when her writings started to pay off , and she could afford a fancy Victorian house and garden. I imagine that the staid and proper Harriet had relatively little to say to the jokester who lived next door. This thought gave rise to a poem.


The Serial Visit


Mark Twain was rather proud of himself when
he made a visit to his neighbor, the elderly, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

He talked nice to her and didn’t swear too much.

When he returned home his wife pointed out
that he went without so much as a tie.

Twain called his butler.

Fetch a tie, put it on a pillow and
deliver it to Miss Stowe with this note.

The note read: This will complete my visit.

Dame Harriet kept the butler waiting
while she labored to compose a witty response.

You’ve invented something entirely new: the serial visit.

She knew it was not a response that rose to the occasion,
but then she was an old lady, a respected author, not a clown.


The Clark Museum is a little gem in the Berkshires surrounded by several hundred acres of woodland criss-crossed by a few very fine hiking trails. Not enough people visit this fine institution. It deserves more attention for the extraordinary collection it houses. The Museum is expanding to accommodate a school for art critics, which is already there in association with Williams College. I’m not sure how many art critics the world needs right now, but I’m sure that the Clark is prepared to meet the demand. This lovely museum generated several poems.

Keeping the Lid On



The English landscape painter, John Constable, once said,
“painting is but another word for feeling,”
and yet, he portrayed his scenes of rural England
with scientific precision.

His colors came in bladders of pigment
wrapped in thin leather and canvas pouches
tied with twine
and stoppered with a wooden peg.

When he needed a color,
he gently removed the peg and poured
a small amount of powder into a tiny cup
where he blended in a small quantity of water.

By eye, he added fragmentary dashes of other colors
until he arrived at just the right tone
for the lacey cloud or green English field
which lay before him.

He may have been right about painting being all feeling,
but his technique hardly compares with Van Gogh’s
eating the paint and spreading it on the canvas
with his tongue and fingers.


As I wandered around the museum, I found myself returning to a certain painting several times during the day. I later found out that there is some evidence that the painter and the subject had very differing viewpoints and that is probably the tension I felt on the canvas. Paintings are as much a part of life as anything. They capture the atmosphere in which they were created a much as a video camera or a tape recorder. All you have to do is be open to what the painting is saying...and it isn’t always what the artist intended.


Serving those who fancy themselves too much


When rustic painter, Ammi Phillips, approached his neighbor, farmer Campbell,
he did not have any idea what a willful half-child he had engaged to depict.

Young Harriet, half woman, half child, had watched for many patient hours
the engagement between the sexes and decided that there was only one good defense.

First, she wanted to be depicted in the latest gown, not the one she already had,
but the blue-green one with the ruff her father had been refusing her for some time.

Then she wanted her new purse in the picture and when it wasn’t fashionably depicted,
she insisted that it be rubbed out and painted over again until it looked just right.

She wanted her feet set sideways like an Egyptian queen, her eyes large and powerful.
Her painted face must have a clean complexion. Her hands long and delicate.

Her slippers must be of the finest white kid leather, delicate and pointed at the toe.
No real queen or potentate was ever more demanding or accusatory.

It’s hell being a portrait artist to those who fancy themselves more than they merit.
Ammi Phillips escaped with joy the house of neighbor Campbell, his hands quite unclean.


One lovely sunny Sunday, I visited the Benton Museum on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs. This hidden treasure is showing an exhibit of Rodin statues that fill several large exhibit halls. As I walked around, I started to come back again and again to a set of sculptures Rodin did to commemorate the famous French novelist Honore de Balzac. There was something incongruous about them, and as I read the little placards by each, I started to piece the story together. A bit more research at home yielded this poem.


Rodin tries to catch the wind

In 1851, the sculptor Auguste Rodin was commissioned to create
a bronze sculpture of the great French writer Honore de Balzac
by a Parisian writers’ group, but Rodin ran into a problem.

Few images were ever taken of Balzac in life. Balzac died 40 years earlier.
A force for modernism, he was extremely powerful, controversial and sexy.
He was large and physically overbearing, but how to convey all this in bronze?

Rodin tried a nude Balzac, but the corpulent Balzac looked flabby.
The statue failed to convey Balzac’s immense sexual power.
Only the face reflected his strong will and powerful beliefs.

So, Rodin tried an athletic Balzac, much slimmer than he appeared in life,
his hands only partially concealing a half erect penis.
The public reacted with shock. It didn’t even look like Balzac.

Finally, Rodin settled on an expressive face with the rest of the body
covered in a flowing dramatic cape meant to convey his potency.
The public ridiculed this version. Balzac’s head on a tree trunk.

Exhausted after years of effort, Rodin retired from the field,
sent the commission back and reclaimed his work.
Art is powerful but it cannot capture the wind.


I had a couple of occasions during the summer to attend the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. What a treasure! I discovered that the $20 admission fee is “suggested,” which means that if you just have an hour to browse, you can pay whatever you think is fair and gain full admission.

One exhibit that caught my attention was a set of mock-ups for buildings rendered by the great American painter Frank Stella. It interested me to find out that Stella designed buildings for 50 years and yet not so much as one was ever built. There’s a story here I decided and it yielded a poem.


Castles in the Sky

The painter, Frank Stella, was fascinated by architecture,
ever since he shared a studio with architect Richard Meier.
“I can’t stop thinking about architecture,” Stella complained.
He designed innumerable buildings from a bandstand for Miami
to a Kunsthalle for Dresden and a museum addition for Groningen.

But while Frank Stella couldn’t stop thinking about architecture,
it seems the world was quite content to conceive of architecture
without Frank Stella as not one of his designs were ever built.
Some of them, with their layered swirls and impossible joints,
might not even be possible to build, but that never stopped him.


On the main floor of the Met is a terrific exhibit of the dresses of the French dress maker and designer Paul Poiret. At first I took my time to view the exhibit but couldn’t find a poetic connection. When I returned another day, I read the materials posted on the wall about Poiret and started to sense a certain desperation in his rapid rise to power in the fashion world. The story about his contact with Coco Channel came out of subsequent research, but it explained the desperation I felt from the description of his life.


The King of Fashion


When flapper girl designer, Paul Poiret, met Coco Chanel
at a cocktail party, she was wearing her soon-to-be famous
classic black gown. Poiret tried to cut her by asking,
“For whom, Madame, do you mourn?”

Chanel quipped glibly “For you.” And it was true.
Her vision already superseded his, though he did not know it yet.
Years later, he reflected, “A creative dressmaker is accustomed to foresee...
the trends that will inspire the day after tomorrow.”

They both found the elusive pathway into women’s hearts,
after much labor, tremendous insight, some luck, and many mistakes,
but they both managed to lose it, as fortune accumulated and
one too many people told them they were fashion geniuses.


Quiet in Death, 1851


The children really died a terrible death,
boils that burst on their skins,
sweats that took the life from them,
and delirium that took the life from their parents.

In the cemetery, their marble likenesses,
cool, hard and shining in infinite repose,
rest peacefully in the lap of Morpheus,
the god of sleep and forgetfulness.


Fur Trapper Descending the Missouri
after a painting by George Caleb Bingham



The cat looks Egyptian with his pointed ears and watchful pose.
The boy hunches over his rifle seeking fish just below the surface.
The father scans the horizon with searching eyes while resting on his paddle.
He knows how easily a cat, a boy and a fur trapper with pelts can disappear.
The cat, indifferent to all these dangers, simply looks Egyptian.


On Gilbert Stuart’s
Portrait of Washington



Washington is sneering, really sneering,
as if he just stepped into something very nasty
as if he were experiencing acid reflux
or just realized that he was going to have to pay
this miserable painter some day.


On the Mezzanine of the American Wing, which is only open at certain times, there is a rather striking painting which was the center of a rather sad story.


Madame X


The stunningly beautiful Amelie Gautreau of New Orleans
resisted advances of the famous ex-patriot painter,
John Singer Sargent as long as she could, but eventually,
she saw the merit of being immortalized in paint as well as print.

Her goal was a rich European husband; his profitable patronage
from a lady sure to be a powerful presence in European society.
When the portrait was unveiled in Paris, it all went horribly wrong.
The critics and socialites competed to see who could hate it the most.

The American beauty was revealed for the goldigger she was,
and the American painter, the opportunist, escaped to England,
before word got around that he could no longer get anyone
to sit for him who valued her reputation in society.

Amelie, who could not afford to escape anywhere,
languished in the Paris of her dreams -- and died a recluse.


In Albany, NY there is a massive stone structure right downtown near the State Capital. After a brief visit with my state Representative to see that he is hard at work doing the people’s business, I spent a lovely day exploring the treasures of the Albany Art Institute which has a collection that focuses on New York history. A couple of poems came from this excursion.


Three Dollars

The steam-powered vessel Clermont was lying alongside the wharf.
A placard announced its return to New York the next day.
It would take passengers at the same price as the sailing vessels – three dollars.

So great was the fear of boiler explosions that
no one except myself and my companion dared to take passage.
We quitted Albany August the 20th in the presence of a great number of spectators.

From every point on the river when the Clermont’s smoke stack
announced our presence, the inhabitants waved their handkerchiefs wildly
at the two fools who didn’t know enough to value their lives at higher rate.


The DeWitt Clinton


When it came into view, around the edge of the hill,
the horses neighed and the geese discovered how to fly.
The first railroad arrived amid a shower of hot coals
that burned ugly holes into lady’s shawls
and sent top hats spinning in the dust.

The carriagemen scoffed. Ladies withdrew.
The businessmen jostled each other to get seats.
A crowd of farmers made shrewd estimates
of its mysterious mechanical motion.
Amazement circled the crowd.

The engineer stoked the fire and poked at it
with an iron rod that sent sparks flying.
Some of the boys, the future engineers,
gathered around the stink-pot boiler
in hopes of peering into the heart of the age of steam.


One of my most enjoyable trips was to Hartford CT where I examined the varied treasures of the Wadsworth Athenaeum. A number of old buildings were joined and totally renovated to create a new building of amazing integrity. The space is interesting and the exterior retains the old look of downtown Hartford.


No Slouching!


When Frank Lloyd Wright
designed
a secretary chair
in 1936
for S.C.Johnson’s administrative office,
he imposed a three-legged design
that
perfectly reflected his ethical values.

If a secretary were to temporarily lose her poise
and slump
even for just a second, the chair was designed to dump her
unceremoniously out on the floor with
a clatter
sure to draw the attention of S.C.Johnson

who whole-heartedly approved.


After I returned home from Hartford, I sent this next poem and The Wetmore Parlor to the curator of the museum for her enjoyment. Even though the poems criticize the museum, I thought there might just be a chance that the curator would appreciate knowing that people actually have reactions to the choices she made for the exhibit.

Indeed she did! Although I didn’t hear from her again, I did hear from the head of docent education who had used my poems to illustrate for new docents how visitors to the museum, though they may view in silence, are anything but passive about what they see in a museum. While she read my poems, she displayed copies of the installations they reference and quite a discussion ensued. It’s good to know that art and life still work together sometimes.


Art Reflects Life

Sometimes a painting gets bogged down in its own brush strokes.
Albert Henderson Thayer knew this problem while painting Seated Angel.

He had painted a thousand bird wings before, but this angel was not working.
It wasn’t the fault of the model or the paint.

It was the artist, the artist’s soul.
He was old and tired, sick and spinning his artistic wheels on canvas.

His angel had a 20th century body, a 19th century face,
surrounded by angel wings that were distinctly 18th century.

Every time Thayer retouched it, he just made it worse.
Finally, in 1921, he set down his brushes, went to bed, and died in his sleep.

Nonetheless, the state of the world being as it is confused by money and bad taste,
it hangs today in a respected museum -- as if it were a work of art.


The Wetmore Parlor


The Wetmore Parlor, once bountiful in 18th century paneling and joinery,
has been plucked from the remains of the old building before it was demolished
and the parlor now stands in a museum in Hartford with no more reason to live.

In 1746, when Judge Seth Wetmore ordered the carpenters to do their best work
in first-growth pine and hold back not a wide board or their fanciest molding
it emerged a work of art and artifice. It vibrated with athletic freshness.

Now, the old Parlor has been removed like an accident victim to this quiet place
the scuffs of life have been rendered from the flesh and blood of its boards
and the dried hide of the room has been stretched over phony walls.

The blank windows look out on florescent skies, like staring eyes.
The red light of the smoke detector blinks ON then OFF in the ceiling.
The exhausted room lives on a respirator barely clinging to life.


Here are some other poems that came from my highly productive day at the Wadsworth Athenaeum.


Seeing Life in Black and White


In 1953, during and extended trip to Mexico,
abstract expressionist Conrad Marca-Relli ran out of colors.

He had plenty of black and white,
so he started painting in shades of gray

and found

that gray is a color that can convey
almost all that needs to be said about life.



Yachting on the Namouna
Venice, 1890

The shoal-draft yacht Namouma is out for a pleasure cruise in the lagoon.
The passengers, 3 women and 2 men, loll on the deck under a canvas cover.

They cannot see the sky. From their deckchairs, they cannot see the sea.
A sailor looks out from the foredeck, another has the helm, and a third the sails.

The wind is too loud for them to talk, but they can see each other clearly.
They pose fashionably in their deck chairs striking the figures in their mind.

There is no level place on the deck to place a drink or play at cards.
They smile upon each other like Grecian statues as the wind blows their hair.


Rooster Roster

In 1880, a New England farmer
riveted together some tin pieces
to make a weathercock for his barn.

First, he painted it white, then black,
but, not liking these colors,
he daubed his rooster with iron red.

Then he lit his pipe and thought a while.
He added yellow and finally white.
What color is a rooster anyway?


No More Than They Deserve


In 1833, an unknown itinerant New England artist
painted the merchant and farmer Samuel Addison Shute
sitting in a Robert’s chair.

Roberts made cheap imitations of Hitchcock fancy chairs.

Later he painted
Ruth Whittier Shute
sitting in a Robert’s chair.

The background is an undistinguished uniform brown.

In his high-necked shirt and her proper black dress,
they look quite bored with the world.
They do not deserve more than a Robert’s chair.



I read an article about the conflict between New York art teachers William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri in The Magazine Antiques which suggested this trip to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich CT. The Bruce perches on a rocky outcropping overlooking a modern highway, but when you enter it, you feel like you have arrived at a sanctuary. This is another hidden treasure which houses many fine works one of which is the first commercially produced Frisbee. I felt sure there was a poem to be had in that lovely orb, but try though I might I could not wrestle anything from it. Too bad.


Behind the Mask


To the world, the New York art teacher
William Merritt Chase looked to be all of a piece.

His elaborate studio on 10th Street conveyed
the very essence of cosmopolitan sophistication.
His tapestries, paintings and furniture defined
tasteful decoration for a whole generation.
In accoutrement, his brushed top hat and
pin-nez eye glasses, pinched at the nose,
were the statement of gentlemanliness,
as was his always-fresh boutonnière,

but, when he took up canvas and mixed paints,
when he had a pretty subject before him,
all that restraint resolved itself into a flurry
of spontaneous brush strokes guided
by years of unharnessed animation.
The mind no longer guided the hand.
It followed instinctively
tracing the images of the eye.

All visual objects are but a pasteboard mask,
says Melville of the world at sea.


One of the little placards that explain something about the paintings referenced a baseball game played between the students of these two titanic art instructors. I felt this event was so rich in ironies that it had to produce a good poem. I think I was right.


A Matter of Artistic Differences


The conflict between New York art teachers
Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase
came down to a baseball game
between their two classes in 1907.

Barbs in the press and years
of emerging conflict sharpened the edge.
The game started civilly, but degenerated quickly.

A student at first base tripped the baseman just as the ball was struck.
A fielder purposely hit a runner with the ball.
A fight broke out which spread like fire through the dry stands.
The police were called to break it up.

“An artist must first respond to his subject,”
Henri told his bloodied class the next day,
referring to art – of course.


Since I got such an interesting reaction from the Wadsworth Athenaeum when I sent them my poems, I sent the following pieces to the curator of the Bruce. No response of any kind!


Showing Off


To prove his skill more than to teach his art,
William Merritt Chase did a complete portrait
before his adoring class in little more than an hour.

He picked out a bright young girl from the class
with sparkling eyes and lovely flowing blond hair.
He posed her on a stool and smiled at her warmly.

With bright, contrasting colors on a black background
he accomplished a sensitive portrait
with little more than a slap and a drag of the brush.

Then, he bowed and gave the young lady his hand
to descend from the stool. With a flair for the dramatic,
he gave her the portrait and kissed her hand.


It looks like art to me

When art teacher William Merritt Chase took his class to Holland,
he particularly wanted to visit the paintings of Frans Hals.
He saw in the Dutchman a talent that was very modern.

Imagine his surprise therefore when his students pointed out
that their revered instructor appeared very much like the image
of Colonel Johna Claeszoonlov rendered by Hals in 1633.

Chase was so delighted that he had a local tailor make up
the costume of a Sergeant of the Civic Guard of St. Adrian
so he could sit for a self-portrait in the manner of Frans Hals.

How splendidly proud he appears in the finished painting.
The slightest twinkle bejewels his smile as it pokes through his
over-sized moustache and excessively articulated goatee.



For much of the time, I found myself alone in the galleries of the Bruce Museum talking silently with images, only some of which spoke back to me. Suddenly I became aware of a young man who was stuck in front of a photograph of four musicians from the high age of jazz in the early 1950s. The figures were set conversationally but the body parts sort of went off in unexpected directions. It was odd. I asked my companion if he understood what was going on there and he let loose with the most interesting explanation.

Evidently, he knew each of these people by name. He gave me a quick thumbnail sketch of each and why they were posed in a certain way. So, to him, all the weird shapes and angles made perfect sense. He may be right. I assume he was, but of course the eternal question of all art is “How much inside knowledge do you need to know to make sense of a picture?” I feel like the less the painting or photo needs to reference outside information, the stronger it is, but I’m probably more literal than many.

At any rate, his photo may have generated a poem for him, but it did nothing poetically for me. I just had the fun of hearing how it affected him. I suppose it’s worth noting that different people will connect with different works and there is virtually no way to predict who is going to click with what.


Mission Accomplished
Based on a photograph by Carl Mydans


On the deck of the USS Missouri, January 9, 1945,
General Yoshijivo Umeya signed the surrender document
in bowed submission.

General Douglas MacArthur, at total attention, looked on
backed up by military representatives of the Allies,
shining with the deep glow of victory.

The US Naval officers presented themselves in their best uniforms,
but none wore ironed shirts or pressed trousers.
It was a long, demanding war.

Standing behind his general with a look of absolute defiance.
a Japanese diplomat, Tojo’s man,
stood, hands on his hips, legs apart.

His tuxedo and black, wool pants
bristled with cleanliness and tidy formality.
The crease of his pants traced his line in the sand.

His top hat, his white gloves, his intricately carved cane,
his round-eyed glasses all exuded defiance.
The war was won, but the peace had yet to be fought.


A conference on early American folk art brought me to the Yale Art Gallery right adjacent to the Yale campus. I stayed right down the street at a wonderful small hotel and enjoyed the street scene in the morning as students and locals jostled to get to class and work balancing hot coffee in paper cups all the way.

The conference turned out to be pretty academic and dry as baking powder for my taste, but I did enjoy watching a youthful photographer trying to take pictures of the luminaries as they talked before the start of the program. One minute, he’s pop up right in the faces of two elderly gents talking convivially and another time he put on this enormous lens so he could get a close up of animated conversation from far across the room. He was like a tiger or leopard hunting in his own style of jungle.

Having endured the conference, I wandered around the exhibits in the museum which included an entire room of modern sculpture. This one piece totally baffled me for some time. Finally, I asked one of the guards. “Do you understand this piece?” He turned up his nose. “None of it makes sense to me,” he replied. Finally, I figured out that the object I saw before me was a physical representation of the empty space under a set of tables pushed together in a room to make a conference table.


Space becoming what it wants to become


The modernist sculptor, Rachel Whiteread,
takes me to Yale to see her new installation.
It appears to be some blocks of plastic with
Square-ish holes facing each other in a rectangle.

“Tell me.”

“Well, by casting the space under ten ordinary,
mass-produced tables, I’m recalling
the forgotten spaces of everyday life.”

I look puzzled.

“It’s a spectral negative space that once
existed but doesn’t any longer.”
She places her right index finger peculiarly
under the right side of her chin.

“Oh.”


The Museum of the City of New York is a fun place, bigger than it looks outside and dedicated to the history of New York. It is forgotten now that in the 19th century, New York was the most powerful trading partner in the New World because it combined the power of the coastal colonies with the wealth that came down the Erie Canal and the Hudson River. This made New York the King of Commerce for a hundred years or more.

On the second floor there was an exhibit of the stained glass lampshades of Louis Comfort Tiffany, a progressive decorator and designer from the turn of the century who found a new way to get his work done. He went out west and found woman who would do his stained glass work for a fraction of the pay his male workers demanded.

Here’s the poem that resulted from some additional research I did when I got home.


The Birth of a Tiffany


It was hot, summer, 1898. The lazy fan on the ceiling barely moved the heavy air.
Louis Tiffany entered the room as if life were a burden he could no longer bear,
but when Clara outlined her plan for a new stained glass lamp, he came alive.

It will have yellow butterflies on a blue and white shade over a mosaic base
with yellow and white primroses, she explained. Instantly, he caught fire.
His big arm cleared the desk of papers in a single sweep as he seized a pencil.

Madly, he scribbled out sketches on the blank blotter, simultaneously
talking wildly to himself and each person in the room at the same time.
The fan lifted his curls around his brow like a halo, highlighting his energy.

His enthusiasm was infectious and everyone started moving uncontrollably.
The lamp mutht be tall and chlim, he said, like the flowerth and the thade—
Then, suddenly, the air went out of his hair like a collapsing parachute.

Well, work out your own idea, he said sinking down into a leather chair.
Suddenly, his original lethargy returned, his voice returned to normal.
The moment had passed, but the famous Butterfly Lamp took flight.


Museums are wonderful places to visit especially when you can do it without a timetable. Just wandering around and letting the artwork impress you as it might is a pure joy. You need to be free to wander at will, back and forth between rooms as the whim strikes, and you need to be able to read into what you see on the wall and do some research when you get home, but the net effect is a rich tapestry of multi-media experiences.

It’s even better if the museum has a reasonably decent cafe with handmade sandwiches and an Italian ice.