“Art Leading Modesty Astray” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas never struck me as a prude. Neither was he an erotic poet. But sex slips into his impressions of paintings.

At least eight of the poems he wrote in response to the 33 paintings reproduced in his book Between Here and Now have sexuality as theme or sub-theme.

The women in the group of five couples that I took to visit Thomas in 1993 would not be surprised to learn that he wrote these lines: “. . . urgencies / of the body; a girl beckoned.”

Thomas was not like eighteenth-century Anglican priest John Wesley, who thought that artists who painted “stark naked” boy babies (Jesus and John the Baptist) and women lacked both decency and common sense.

Thomas included a Renoir painting of two “stark naked” bathers in Between Here and Now, and in the accompanying poem he tells us they are “naked / for us to gaze / our fill on, but / without lust.”

If you feel the need to say “but / without lust,” doesn’t that suggest that lust has sashayed into your consciousness?

Moving on, since there’s the whole matter of living in glass houses, we come to this blog’s poem by Thomas in response to a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec.

“Justine Dieuhl” by Toulouse-Lautrec

“Justine Dieuhl” by Toulouse-Lautrec

The black-and-white reproduction in Between Here and Now left me with no idea of the stark red at the throat of Justine Dieuhl in Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting. Then I bought a used copy of Bazin’s Impressionist Paintings in the Louvre, the book that Thomas was perusing when he wrote his poem, and was startled by Justine’s, at first impression, bloodied neck.

In Thomas’s poem,

          . . . The red kerchief
at the neck, that suggests
blood, is art leading
modesty astray. . . .

Was Justine, in truth, modest? Are her hands, as Thomas goes on to say, “in / perfect repose”? Or do her arms and hands draw the color red, suggestively, downward?

Whose modesty is being led astray? Justine Dieuhl’s? R. S. Thomas’s? Mine? Yours? Indeed, how did “modesty” and “astray” come up for consideration?

The art of the painter and the art of the poet reveal that what we put forth as “truth” is often just our impression of what we’re seeing – on occasion, an impression that has a hormonal component.

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“urgencies / of the body” – “The Casualty,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 21.

“naked / for us to gaze” – “Renoir: The Bathers,” Between Here and Now, 77.

“The red kerchief” – “Toulouse-Lautrec: Justine Dieuhl,” Between Here and Now, 69.

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