Monday, September 28, 2009

`A Genial Imagination'

Last week my brother made three pictures, each based on a poem by Zbigniew Herbert – “Our Fear,” “In the Studio” and “Mona Lisa.” He was particularly struck by this stanza from the first poem (translated by Alissa Valles):

“our fear
is a scrap of paper
found in a pocket
`warn Wójcik
the place on Długa Street is hot’”

In their paranoia and fragmentation, the lines are a fitting epitaph for the 20th century. Like Beckett, a kindred artist, Herbert was hounded by the Gestapo, and the Pole was later shadowed by the KGB. In his notes my brother writes of his picture based on “Our Fear”:

“5x7 inches -- black ink, black pencil, watercolor and applied paper on same paper as above [“Arches 100 lb. paper”]. On the right side looms what on closer inspection reveals the side of a bleak house. On the left side rising from off plane a shape not unlike the top of a Lombardy poplar drawn in a squiggly hand sits waiting. Suspended between the two masses is a large potato shaped rock stained with iron and moss.”

“In the Studio” and “Mona Lisa” are among Herbert’s many poems devoted to artists and works of art, though the abattoir of the 20th century isn’t far away -- as in these lines from the first stanza of “Mona Lisa”:

“Through seven mountain frontiers
barbed wire of rivers
and executed forests
and hanged bridges
I kept coming –”

Ken writes:

“Black ink and watercolor. 9 x 7 inches on Arches 100 lb. paper, the same firm that produced 70 tons of paper to print the works of Voltaire. It is a series of curvilinear grids mingled with circles of various diameters with all of the defined areas colored in varying shades of cerulean blue cadmium yellow and Indian red.”

“In the Studio” is a vision of the artist-as-representative-human, one of Herbert’s greatest poems:

“With a light step
he moves
from spot to spot
from fruit to fruit

“the good gardener
props a flower with a stick
a human being with joy
the sun with deep blue

nudges his glasses
puts on a tea kettle
mumbles to himself
strokes the cat

“When God built the world
he wrinkled his forehead
calculated and calculated
hence the world in perfect
and impossible to live in

“on the other hand
a painter’s world
is good
and full of error
the eye strolls
from spot to spot
from fruit to fruit

“the eye purrs
the eye smiles
the eye remembers
the eye says you’ll last
if you manage to enter
right into that center
where the painter was
he who has no wings
wears floppy slippers
he who has no Virgil
with a cat in a pocket
a genial imagination
an unconscious hand
correcting the world”

A world of divine perfection is inhuman, uninhabitable. We were not made to dwell in utopia – whether Eden or a Worker’s Paradise. In contrast, “a painter’s world / is good / and full of error.” Ken writes:

“13x7 inches. Black ink and watercolor on the same paper as above. Two arcs begin their ascent from the bottom corners. The left arc reaches apogee at the top and melds into the edge. Arc two rises from the opposing corner and abruptly veers left and collides with arc number one creating a rectilinear space with left side being arced. 2 inches from bottom right a chisel shaped armature juts into the picture. all painted in warm bleeding yellows and reds with the exception of the curvilinear rectangle which is pale wedgewood blue.”

Ken answered to something in these lines:

“a genial imagination
an unconscious hand
correcting the world”

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