Monday, January 16, 2012

`Onto a Small Flat Canvas'

“I am an elderly man in a straw hat
Who has set himself the task of praising God
For all this welter by setting out my paints
And getting as much truth as can be managed
Onto a small flat canvas.”

“Devotions of a Painter” (The Transparent Man, 1990) is a marvel of blank verse, an undramatic dramatic monologue and an artistic credo by Anthony Hecht. Today, “devotion” most often suggests romantic loyalty, fidelity to a spouse or friend. The word carries religious connotations, as in a prayer or other private act of worship – etymologically, a vow of allegiance. Hecht hints at these meanings and others.

He refers to a statement attributed to John Constable (1776-1837) by C. R. Leslie in Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Composed Chiefly of His Letters (1843). In reply to “a lady who, looking at an engraving of a house, called it an ugly thing,” the painter said:
There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, — light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.”
Late in the poem, Hecht piles up images of wealth – “crushed jewel,” “oily golds,” “immense loose change,” “moldering gold,” culminating in “corrupted treasures” in the final lines:
“I am enamored of the pale chalk dust
Of the moth’s wing, and the dark moldering gold
Of rust, the corrupted treasures of this world.
Against the Gospel let my brush declare:
“`These are the anaglyphs and gleams of love.’”
Hecht reverses, without blasphemy, Matthew 6:19-20: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
The artist – painter, poet – transmutes the ugly and transitory into something beautiful and lasting. An anaglyph is a stereoscopic photograph in contrasting colors. When viewed through corresponding filters, it creates the impression of a three-dimensional image:  
“…getting as much truth as can be managed
Onto a small flat canvas.”
Hecht was born on this date in 1923 and died Oct. 20, 2004.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

This poem and your citing of Hecht's vital dates calls to mind the French painter Paul Cezanne (January 19, 1829 - October 22, 1906). Stylistically one could note the similarity between Hecht's typically heavy and overwrought diction with Cezanne's heavy and overwrought impasto, but the deeper connection comes through the painter portrayed in the poem. With gentle irony, the poem celebrates the brazenness of the painter continuing on at great personal cost amid the acknowledged falsity, vanity and unholiness of his project. Cezanne famously endured such critiques too but soldiered on as if they were but a tiny part of the struggle, the will to carve out an impossible truth with his brush strokes.