“What really amused me was to find that in two instances [de Montebello’s] specific perception of certain visual details that appear in two different works of art in the Met collection were the very same observations I had made in two of my 28 poems on works of art about similar details in widely separated works of art.”
She refers to the “Bright Fictions” sequence collected in Taken in Faith: Poems (2002), a series of ekphrastic poems Helen devoted to paintings, sculptures, a photograph and other works of art. One is titled “On an Attic Red-Figured Amphora (490 B.C.) by the `Berlin Painter’ in the Metropolitan Museum”:
“The one young singer, clay-red on sheer black,
Flings back his head in joy, advances dancing.
Drawn lines of kithra, khiton, sash and back
Repeat the amphora’s fictile lines, hold time
Controlled, almost, in space’s turned dimension.
His will, Apollo’s now, seeks the sublime.
Archaic art. Yet clarity and tension
Seem threatened by the singer’s imminent rapture.
Quest for the god, young soul, might prove your capture.”
After quoting the third through the fifth lines of the poem, Helen writes: “That is, the lines of the garments worn by the dancers on the vase echo, or repeat, the outline (the molding or shaping) of the vase itself. About the same Greek vase De Montebello writes: `The epiphany came when I was able to put surface decoration and vessel shape together, and look at them as one. It is the only correct way.’ He continues by noting that he had learned that in Attica the potter was at least as important as the painter, and he was `able to see how the decoration espouses the shape [of the vase] and how the two work wonderfully together.’” Go here to look at photographs of the amphora. The vase looks clean, elegant and ideally proportioned. One wishes to touch it and savor the curves. Helen writes of “the amphora’s fictile lines.” Fictile is rather rare. It can mean “capable of being moulded, suitable for making pottery” (OED), but also, more pertinently “moulded into form by art.” “Fictile lines” might refer to an artfully crafted poem, like Helen’s.
She continues: “The detail of lines of the other work of art that he mentions as furnishing him a significant visual experience in a French museum is not quite so close and explicit. Rather it is the striking resemblance between a phenomenon observed in art and also in nature. That is, he notes how the flowing lines (folds) of a garment depicted by an artist (or many artists of a given school, can resemble the lines drawn by sea waves on the sand of a beach--any beach.”
In Chapter 20, de Montebello and Gayford visit the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris. They view the torso of a Buddha from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India. It dates from the fifth century. De Montebello says:
“What appeals to me immensely is how this Gupta-period sculpture demonstrates the way formal qualities in the art of one culture can seem to echo those of another elsewhere on the globe. For example, Romanesque sculptures from the Auvergne also have these repeated patterns in the folds. There is something about the recurrence of such patterns that seems universal, because to a large extent the model for all humans, whether they had contact with each other or not, is man himself and nature. In some places, the repeated lines are in the sand dunes, elsewhere in the waves of the sea. We are surrounded by them wherever we are, as we are with basic geometric, forms.”
Helen notes that in her poem “On the Virgin and Child Carved in Oak (Auvergne, 1150-1200) in the Metropolitan Museum,” she likens the folds of the robes of the Virgin and Child figures to folds in the sand on a beach:
“A single form, they sit in majesty—
His face and hers identical in feature.
Their simple robes compose a symmetry
In folds like those wind-carven sand assumes.
Immaculate again, the human creature,
Austere and almost arrogant, resumes,
Now full of grace, the hope of human solace.
Dreamers, whose curious steps invade these rooms,
Carry the image with you. It holds promise.”
Helen continues: “What this coincidence illustrates, I think, is, as de Montebello observes, that certain forms, lines, figures, `patterns’ are universal and can be universally pleasing. He liked the folds in the Buddha's robe as much as I did those in the robes of `The Virgin and Child,’ the works themselves having been created 500 years apart and on separate continents. He does not mention specifically the carved statue of the `Virgin and Child’ in the Metropolitan, but he surely knew it as a great example of the school of Auvergne.”
All of the works of art cited above – from Greece, India and France – were created by artists whose names are likely to remain forever unknown. That’s appropriate. The art trumps the artist every time, even in our narcissistic age. In the Louvre, in de Montebello’s native Paris, they view Man with a Glass of Wine (1460), which was painted by a Portuguese or a Frenchman. For de Montebello, the uncertainty is cause for contemplation:
“Beyond these art historical and cultural considerations, it is useful to remember, even before works that are almost perforce anonymous, that at some point an individual made them. This applies to many works from antiquity, or from Pre-Colombian America, and so forth. They may be strongly tied to a set of conventions but they are nevertheless the product of an individual artistic sensibility.”