Thursday, September 20, 2012

`And the Funniness of Things Too'

How often are prizes for works of art reliable gauges of merit? To publishers and gallery owners, they give free publicity. For artists, they boost the ego and, perhaps, the bank balance, but serious readers and viewers can confidently ignore them. For these reasons, I’m uncertain what to make of the English artist Sarah Pickstone who last week won the £25,000 John Moores Painting Prize for her painting Stevie Smith and the Willow. Pickstone says she based her picture on Smith’s 1957 poem “Not Waving but Drowning”: 

“Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning. 

“Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said. 

“Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.” 

The BBC quotes Pickstone as saying: “It's a very dark poem. The poem was one of many sources for the painting. I've always been intrigued by Stevie Smith and how she worked, and I had a sense of wanting to make something more joyous out of the poem." But why? “Not Waving but Drowning” is Smith’s signature poem. It distills her trademark mingling of the funereal and the funny. Smith was a comic poet and novelist, but joy is seldom on her palette. Philip Larkin called her “the authority of sadness,” but she also makes us laugh (as does Larkin). When asked to explain why she writes poems and where they come from, Smith said “pressure is the operative word”: 

“…the pressure of daily life; the pressure of having to earn one's living, possibly at work that is not very congenial; the pressure of one's relations with other people; the pressure of all the things one hears about or reads about in philosophy, history and religion for instance, and agrees with or does not agree with; the pressure of despair. And the pressure too of pleasures that take one's breath away - colours, animals tearing about, birds fighting each other to get the best bit of bacon rind. And the funniness of things too...” 

Pickstone misses all of this. Her painting is pleasant enough, though it looks rather casual and incomplete, like a cartoon sketch. In the background is the drawing Smith made to accompany her poem. Pickstone adds a canopy of willow fronds in autumn, judging from their color. They resemble a shower curtain.  In Smith’s drawing, the figure appears to be smiling and certainly isn’t weeping, if that’s what Pickstone is suggesting with her choice of willow. Her goal seems to be an easier-to-swallow version of Smith – Smith-lite. If the prize accomplishes anything worthwhile, I hope it attracts a few readers to Stevie Smith’s poems and novels (especially Novel on Yellow Paper). Smith was born on this date, Sept. 20, in 1902, and died in 1971. Go here for her reading of “Not Waving but Drowning.”

1 comment:

Don said...

Awards serve to draw attention to works and their creators that I might not know. Some of them I find have merit, others not. I don't worry about the ones who don't; I am grateful for the ones who do. And now this painting prize has indirectly brought Stevie Smith into my ambit. That works pretty well for me.