Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Gravedigger

Though I was mainly concentrating on the two Fred Williams landscapes (see next blog) I found it hard in that small gallery room to ignore the graphic Jon Molvig painting, The Gravedigger.

Jon Molvig, The Gravedigger, 1962, oil on composition board, Purchased with funds from the Colin Hicks Caldwell Bequest, 2008

The image is very simple and would be sparse if it were not for the solidity of the objects – the gravedigger and his shovel.

Again I found myself writing a poem that responded directly to the painting.

Here’s the poem, as it stands at the moment.

The Gravedigger, Jon Molvig, 1962

The gravedigger is immense
    threatening the elements
        threatening even death itself
with his sharp shovel-spear that slices the earth
    with the bludgeoning weight of his hand
        and – ready to blot out the sun
            the vast shovel-blade of his face.

Another thing I’ve noticed since is the clay colour, not, as you might expect, of the earth, but of the grave digger himself, a very rich, strong brown.

There is nothing tentative or unsure about this painting.

Cheers – Barry Breen April 2013

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Mainly Tucker

The overwhelming detail in Boyd’s The Golden Calf (see my last blog post) meant that some diversion was needed on that afternoon. One distraction that offered itself was, right next to the Boyd, an Albert Tucker Girl, painted in 1951.

Albert Tucker, Girl, 1951, oil on plywood, Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat, Purchased, L.J. Wilson Bequest Fund and the Caltex Victorian Government Art Fund, 1982 © Barbara Tucker

Now Tucker, I knew, had in wartime spent some weeks in an army posting that had him drawing the faces in the Facial Reconstruction Unit at Heidelberg Repatriation hospital – a distressing job that didn’t last long, but that no doubt coloured his art for a long time afterwards.

A little later, in 1947, he was in Japan recording the devastation of the US bombings of two years before – another distressing role.

Then he came home to find that his wife, Joy Hester, had left him. No wonder, after all this, that a portrait of a girl would carry elements of seediness and immorality – as here on this wall, a Picasso-esque depiction of a young girl.

Here is the resulting poem with some additional notes, which show how one thing can lead to another as I have to restrain myself from sailing off into French poetry and its influence on English.
Girl by Albert Tucker

The girl as prostitute
see the rouge
see the painted smile
see the brazen buttocks
the upraised breasts
the dark vague bush
of lust implied there
the long luxurious black hair
the body cut up and reassembled
and is it an angel or the sun’s
golden glow shining down on her
or just the blue light on a police car
and the accusing glare of its headlights?
 Note: Tucker was much influenced by Eliot’s disillusioned view of the world as well as by Picasso’s disintegrating and distorted figures.
Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
(T. S. Eliot, 1919)

Which derives from:

Carmen est maigre – un trait de bistre
Cerne son oeil de gitana.
Ses cheveux sont d’un noir sinistre,
Sa peau, le diable la tanna.
Carmen is thin – a bistre track
Gives her gypsy eye a hint of evil.
Her hair is of a sinister black
And her skin has been tanned by the devil.      
(Théophile Gautier, 1852, translation by Barry Breen 2013)

-Barry Breen March 2013

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Golden Calf

February 21 was my first full afternoon ‘shift’ as Poet in Residence and I immediately showed my ignorance by plonking myself down in from of Arthur Boyd’s The Golden Calf. I did this because I know Boyd’s work well and I’m familiar with his favourite images – but I should have considered that his biblical paintings in particular are dense and full of characters and actions.

Arthur Boyd, The Golden Calf, 1946, oil and tempera on composition board, Purchased with funds from the Colin Hicks Caldwell Bequest Fund and the Ferry Foundation, 1995  © Bundanon Trust

Eight pages of notes later I had an overlong, unendable series of lines describing the painting.

This putative poem had started off:
Ah Boyd, such a conglomeration of shapes
a hill becomes people, people
become ants. An ant hill.
The calf so golden/on his makeshift stage
the naked lovers so lit up by spotlight…
Some of this poem survived in one or other of the two poems that I finished with.

The complexity of the task I had set myself should be apparent from the two pages (out of eight!) from my notebook reproduced here:

The more I look at The Golden Calf, the more detail I see and the less likely it will be that I can write anything all-inclusive.

I have been debating the merits of the prose poem with my friend, the poet E. A. (Anne) Gleeson - perhaps I could actually write a prose poem (even if I’ve argued that the two words are contradictory) that will represent the complexity of this painting by referring to items that stand out.

 Here is the result, deliberately unpunctuated:
The Golden Calf 2

The calf so golden on his makeshift stage ignored almost entirely by the manic figures around him the lovers cuddling or chasing each other the old man picking up sticks the ladders to nowhere where a man (is it Jacob?) climbs to that nowhere the coupling animals the cock the bird of paradise the man dozing against a tree a Christ down from the cross being carried off tenderly his bared legs an ironic echo of the naked lovers on either side or of the dark praying bridegroom figure by the edge of the scene the biblical clothes red for power browns greens blues for the earth gold for idolatry and maybe anger people are sometimes detached heads or anguished faces people are shouting crying making love carrying away a dead curly horned ram clambering big-eyed climbing harvesting coming out of a cave surging down from the hill towards us a man is counting on his fingers children are clinging to the golden calf’s uncertain platform and away from it all a hay-wagon fully loaded in an unmown field with mangroves in the distance two horses one black one brown grazing two workers two other dark figures further away to the left up to mischief or not and on the other side thick scrub impenetrable where another ram menaces a man who cringes behind a tree-trunk two men gesture at white birds and an eagle is carrying off something blurred and undefined there is so much too much a chaos around the golden calf that leaves it abandoned and unprotected everyone clawed by the twisted limbs of the Australian scrub and above it all a red clad figure lying serene with a white bird close above its head like a halo or like hope.
I then added this note:
Painted early in Boyd’s life, when he was about 25 or 26, one of several bible-themed paintings, this iconic painting contains just about every one of the multitudinous symbols that Boyd used for the rest of his illustrious career. Many are detailed in the prose poem above. (My main reference is Arthur Boyd A Life by Darleen Bungey, Allen & Unwin 2008.)

Meanwhile, back at the Gallery, a group of school children gathers round, upper primary, I would say. I tell them what I am doing. Any questions?

“What is the most interesting thing to you about the painting?”

I’ve got to think fast. I answer that it is the composition, the triangular hill with the figures flowing down the hill towards the viewer.

What will I do with my notes?

I’ll write a poem. Maybe a triangular poem.

How long will it take? Hours. I have to check a number of things about the artist. I have to shape the poem, decide what to put in and what to leave out. I have to write, edit, polish…

Here’s the triangular poem:
The Golden Calf 1

such a con-
glomeration of shapes
a hill becomes people people
become ants an ant hill flowing
down towards the viewer threatening to spill
out into the gallery and engulf us all in reds and blues
browns and golds in greens in light and shadow and in flight

The last entry for the day in my notebook is: Don’t always feel that you must describe the work.

-Barry Breen, March 2013