Thursday, August 17, 2006

Comeraderie of writers and artists

Everyone will recall the opening situation of Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. The curtain arises to reveal a bare attic occupied by a quartet of Bohemians, a poet, an artist, a musician, and a philosopher. The cold is so intense that they burn the manuscript of the poet’s drama to warm their frozen fingers. And so forth.

The opera is based on a set of stories written half a century before, the Scènes de la Vie Bohémienne by Henri Murger (1822-1861), first published as a series in 1847-49. Murger, who lived in poverty and suffered from poor health, based the character of the poet on himself.

While Murger and Puccini’s works are fiction, they reflect an authentic social reality of nineteenth-century cities in which rundown quarters of the inner city (“Bohemias”) attracted impoverished, but ambitious creative people. This residential proximity naturally led to a comradeship of writers, artists, and musicians.

These creative types often shared a commitment to the avant-garde in their respective fields. It was natural, therefore, that Charles Baudelaire, Emile Zola, Jules Laforgue would defend their artist friends in print. Beginning in 1873 Stéphane Mallarmé made almost daily visits to the studio of his friend Edouard Manet. While the poet was not a prolific art critic, these visits did result in memorable writing about the painter’s work. For his part, Manet produced a memorable oil portrait of his writer friend, as well as illustrations for his translation of “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. Later Mallarmé kept up a long friendship with the painter James Whistler.

As the nineteenth turned into the twentieth century these alliances proved particularly crucial. This is true especially of such poets as Pound, Pessoa, Marinetti, Apollinaire, Kruchonykh, Khlebnikov. One thing that is noteworthy of them is nomadism. Ezra Pound, for example, was born in Idaho, raised in Philadelphia, made a name for himself in London, went through a Paris phase, and finally settled in Italy (a stay interrupted by twelve years in a Washington, DC insane asylum). Paradoxically, this expatriation seems to have induced both cosmopolitanism and a renewed (sometimes-odd) sense of national identity and attachment.

What drew these writers to the visual arts, especially at this time? One answer is comradeship: they wanted to help their artist friends. Also, a few bucks from art criticism relieved their strained financial circumstances. At a deeper level, they came to see mutual benefit from cross-fertilization between the two media. There was also perhaps a shrewd calculation: artists may have had their troubles obtaining publicity, but these were nothing compared to the situation of poets.

Let us glance by comparison at the present situation, which features poetry readings, poetry in the subway, a Poet Laureate, and so forth. But these signs of activity cannot conceal the truth: today, when all is said and done, poets are marooned, and no rescue parties are being sent out. Other poets are virtually the only consumers of a poet’s work. Today the near vanishing of the art of poetry is a major cultural tragedy.

The poets themselves bear some responsibility for the neglect in which they find themselves. There is the blight of the notorious obscurity of modern poetry. Modern poetry seems hermetic, replete with recondite allusions, quotations in foreign languages, and suppression of normal syntactic connections. Compared with work of the past, poetry has suffered the loss of some major functions, including mnemonics (“Thirty Days Hath September”) and patriotism (“America the Beautiful”). What is left is individual sensibility, which is often not enough.

By contrast, exhibitions of modern painting, even difficult work, just pack them in. During the Belle Epoque too, people flocked to the big events, such as the great exhibition of Postimpressionist painting in London, 1911, and the Armory Show in New York, 1913. Perhaps poets saw that, in the words of Emerson, they could hitch their wagon to a star. Painting was getting the attention, and they too could bask in this by coming forward as prominent supporters of the new art.

REFERENCES. D. B. Balken, ed., “Interactions between Artists and Writers,” Art Journal (Winter 1993), 52:4 (special issue); P. Collins and R. Lethbridge, eds., Artistic Relations: Literature and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth-Century France, New Haven, 1994; U. Finke, ed., French 19th Century Painting and Literature: With Special Reference to the Relevance of Literary Subject-Matter to French Painting, New York, 1972.


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