Tuesday, 2 September 2008

The virgin, the beautiful, and bright today

... so goes the opening line of Stéphane Mallarmé's The Swan.

I stumbled across it in some of the notes on Cy Twombly's earlier works in the Cycles and Season's exhibition at the Tate Modern. Stumbled across a whole series of white square drawings in pencil with splatters, splashes and markings of white oil paint. Each of them has a horizon line, drawn with a ruler, just a couple of inches below the top.

Cy Twombly Poems to the Sea i-vi (1959)
oil, graphite, wax crayon on paper
approx. 33x31cm
Dia Art Foundation

The series is entitled
Poems to the Sea. I thought of Joan Eardley and of Edwin Morgan's poem to Eardley and Floodtide (see post here).

On the surface Twombly's drawings and Eardley's seascapes don't seem to have all that much in common. One is white - classically white - sparse, restrained with some pencil marks and the faintest hint of colour. Well, for the other one - as Morgan says

All becomes art, and as if it was incensed
By the painter’s brush the sea growls up
In a white flood.
The artist’s cup
Is overflowing with what she dares

To think is joy, caught unawares

[Sorry, but you need to get the link to Morgan reading the poem again, too: here]

So, a whole wall full of these poems to the sea. The commentary remarks the influence of Mallarmé's poetry on these drawings. Notably: a play with words, connotations and sounds.

And it poses the question that if meaning is created by the relationship between words and sounds then surely the blank page on which these sit must be part of that relationality also. So, here the white, blank page for Mallarmé and Twombly.

I went hunting for the poem. Found it in French alongside some discussions on the difficulty of translation.
Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujoud'hui
Stéphane Mallarmé

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujoud'hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d'aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n'ont pas fui!
Un cygne d'autrefois se souvient que c'est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n'avoir pas chanté la region ou vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l'ennui.
Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l'espace infligée a l'oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l'horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.
Fantôme qu'à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s'immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l'exil inutile le Cygne.

And then there's the playfulness of so many translations and renderings, to keep the symbolism, to keep the obscurity, the creation of meaning and sounds and rhyme? John Holcombe's review of existing translations into English (see his site here), and various further attempts are intriguing: it is the play with words, meanings and translations which is fascinating in everyday use alone, but just leaves me speechless when it comes to poetry.

The virgin, the beautiful and bright today.
For us can the rapture of a wing-blow break
Beneath this frosted and forgotten lake
Snowy cascades of flights not fled away?

In past magnificence of another day
The swan remembers its freedom, but cannot make
A song from surroundings but only take
On the sterile dull glint of the winter's stay.

Out of white agony the whole neck lies
In a space inflicted that the bird denies.

Cold and immobile in its feathered being
Not in horror of earth but to brightness gone:
A dream wrapped in scorn, and a phantom, seeing
How futile is exile for the Swan.

(Translation John Holcombe

Cy Twombly Poems to the Sea xix-xxiv (1959)
oil, graphite, wax crayon on paper
approx. 33x31cm

Dia Art Foundation

So. The first post on Twombly is on whiteness, relationality and poetry.

It's the use of words, meanings - almost graffiti-like - that intrigued me in the exhibition. There'll be more on that. There's also some ideas on the playfulness of words and meanings in different languages - how it cannot be translated and the fact that purity of one language is just restrictive.

And having been in Germany for six weeks brought back some of those wonderfully idiosyncratic German words that I had already forgotten about. Like pingelig, Ausgleichssport, Dienstliches, sich so schoen vorfreuen, and many more... funny, can't think of them anymore already...

So many discussions I had on this over the past few months, quite a bit of writing done too. And Twombly's work picks up on that. I think there's something to be done around this. Let me think and write - and possibly eventually paint - on this a little bit more. Soon...

But there were more things in the exhibition. In fact, there were so many things that I did buy the catalogue. Only to add five more kilos to my other 25kgs of luggage to take with me on the final leg back to Glasgow. But that's been well worth it. Let me show you. Soon...


my croft said...

"Only to add five more kilos to my other 25kgs of luggage'
Gesa, dear Gesa, this is why god gave us Fedex.

White is my favorite color, I need to spend a lot more time with this intriguing post.

Gesa said...

hehehe... the parcel i sent ahead of myself from germany was well over 5kgs... :)
i remember you saying this about white in one of de stael's posts with a lot of black. it's an interesting one: the white paper, white household paint, and i think with the layering and overworking of so many different whites and materials, it of course is a colour and a powerful one at that.