R.S. Thomas Responds to Henri Matisse’s “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress”

Henry YellowMy last post ended when my mind hit a wall while chasing a poem by R. S. Thomas about a painting by Henri Matisse.

I mentioned my plan to be in London later this month, said I was looking forward to seeing an exhibit titled Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Tate Modern, then added: Speaking of Matisse, didn’t Thomas write a poem about one of his paintings?

The wall has given way, revealing the poem, which is called “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress – Henri Matisse.” It follows Thomas’s meditation on Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” in his book titled Ingrowing Thoughts (1985), which exhibits poems dealing with works of art he found in two of Herbert Read’s books on twentieth-century painting.

Matisse’s young women sits with her back to a window, giving Thomas his opening line – a line that allows the poet to suggest that artists use windows as backdrops, while poets use windows as outlooks. Certainly, that is the case with Thomas’s “The View from the Window”:

Like a painting it is set before one,
But less brittle, ageless; these colours
Are renewed daily with variations
Of light and distance that no painter
Achieves or suggests. . . .

So is this post going to get to Matisse, or is this whole Matisse thing a teaser?

No, here’s Thomas’s take on Matisse’s painting:

Windows in art
……….. are to turn the back
on. Facing the public
she challenges it to prefer her
……….. to the view. The draught
cannot put out
……….. ……….. her flame: yellow
……….. dress, yellow
……….. ……….. (if we could come close
enough) eyes; hands
……….. that, after the busyness
of their migrations between cheek
……….. and dressing table, lipstick
and lip, have found in the lap’s
……….. ……….. taffeta a repose
whose self-consciousness the painter
……….. was at pains not to conceal.

A painter creates a painting, leaving it to us to see what we can see in it. A poet creates a poem, leaving it to us to discover what we hear in the reading of it.

We have Matisse’s painting and Thomas’s response to it. Now the interplay between them can be a way that we read our self.

 

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

“Like a painting it is set before one” – “The View from the Window,” Poetry for Supper (1958), 27.

“Windows in art” – “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress – Henri Matisse,” Ingrowing Thoughts (1985), 10.

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Mildred Elsie Eldridge: R.S. Thomas’ Painter Wife and “The Huge Talent in This Family”?

Mildred Elsie Eldridge self portrait

Mildred Elsie Eldridge self portrait, from the BBC Wales website

A recent posting on the Wales Online website piqued my interest: “Mildred Elsie Eldridge: Celebrating the woman behind R S Thomas.”

Eldridge, an artist of some renown, was Thomas’s first wife. The online article deals with a retrospective exhibition of her works mounted at a gallery in Pwllheli, Wales, this past spring, and summarizes her accomplishments as a painter. (You can view a gallery of paintings by Eldridge on the BBC Wales website.)

She painted Welsh landscapes in oil and watercolor, sketched persons and places, was a weaver and sculptor, and designed altar cloths, stained glass windows, and wrought-iron chandeliers – two of which are in churches where her husband was the vicar: Eglwys-fach and Aberdaron.

Eldridge’s husband once contrasted the “watercolour’s appeal / To the mass” with “the poem’s / Harsher conditions.” Her drawings of him portray him as a poet of life’s “Harsher conditions.”

A commenter on the Wales Online article asks: “Why have we not heard more about this wonderful woman? It would seem that she was the one who was the huge talent in this family. . . . It couldn’t be because she was English ???? could it ????”

Cheeky, understandable, but not true.

I have not seen any of Eldridge’s paintings and drawings, only being able to study reproductions of them in books and such websites as the Victoria and Albert’s. But art critics who saw them in the 1930s wrote:

Eldridge’s work “gives more than the promise of achievement” – that was Tommy Earp, London’s best-known art critic, writing about Eldridge’s one woman show at the Beaux Arts Gallery.

Other critics hailed her “delicate taste in colour,” and noted that she lived in “a paradise of her own so that all her work is other worldly.”

I evaluate Eldridge as having a seeing eye, a light hand, a soft-pedaled palette – an appealing, talented artist, but not “the huge talent in this family.” No critic wrote about her the way a host of critics wrote about her husband:

1955 – Kingsley Amis: “R. S. Thomas is one of the half-dozen best poets now writing in English.”

1978 – British Book News: “. . . the most rugged, honest and original poet writing in English today.”

1981 – Ann Stevenson: “All his poems possess that authority of tone which is the hallmark of a master.”

1986 – Alan Bold: “. . . in his attempts to give utterance to the ineffable Thomas has created some of the most profoundly religious poems of the century.”

Art critics did not rank Eldridge among the six best English artists of her day. Although she was one of the artists selected for the Recording Britain project during the Second World War, the V&A’s website dealing with the project does not list her among the painters singled out.

The truth is this: R. S. Thomas is a Welsh poet who has a worldwide reputation that was initiated by London-based literary critics, and he was nominated by the British literary establishment for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Mildred Elsie Eldridge is an English artist who painted many Welsh landscapes, who was noted with appreciation by English art critics early in her career, but whose paintings never gained high acclaim in either England or Wales. Perhaps because they are too delicate in color, too other worldly, for an age characterized by life’s harsher conditions.

Yes, her work deserves renewed appreciation, but R. S. will remain “the huge talent in this family.”

His poems capture truth, her paintings beauty, and truth, as R.S. reminds us, is not necessarily beautiful:

  . . . One thing I have asked
Of the disposer of the issues
Of life: that truth should defer
To beauty. It was not granted
.

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

”watercolour’s appeal” – “Reservoirs,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 27.

“One thing I have asked” – “Petition,” H’m, 2.

“Panoramas Are Not What They Used to Be” | A Memory of R.S. Thomas

claude lorrain

The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, Claude Lorrain, 1648

It’s been a heat-wave July, and I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to be looking at instead of the view from my study window. Getting up before dawn and going out to the rim of Bryce Canyon to wait for the rising sun to illuminate a hoodoo-accented panorama. Rolling over on my back in the Sea of Galilee and slowly turning my head from side to side to take in panoramic views of the hillsides.

Then I remember a letter from R. S. Thomas, in which he says: “The cruise we went on was not aimed at birds, so I didn’t see many. Mainly I had an overdose of scenery. As Wallace Stevens said: ‘Panoramas are not what they used to be’.”

That quote is the first line of “Botanist on Alp (No.1);” the second line is: “Claude has been dead a long time.” In fact, the French artist died in 1682, and the panoramas he painted now appear, to eyes brought up on Cézanne, emotionally sterile.

Back to R.S.’s overly panoramic cruise: He’s referring to an Alaskan cruise that he and Betty took – all, he claims, because “Betty still has an appetite for travel.”

Several months after R.S. wrote that he hadn’t seen many birds, Nancy and I had dinner with him and Betty. In the course of our conversation, he recalled that he had seen about thirty new species of birds on the cruise, including the bald eagle.

Always with Thomas there’s but . . . but . . . butting, which he makes no effort to hide. Indeed, he parades the contraries that are endemic in human nature.

So it’s not surprising that, in fact, Thomas continued to find certain panoramas what they used to be – Welsh panoramas that were close to home; preferably, just outside his door.

snowdon mountains

The Snowdon Mountains, Wales

In July of 1998, in a letter giving me his new address, he said:

After many delays we are in our cottage, still trying to impose order. I have lost sight of the sea although it is only some 3 or 4 miles away. This is the pick of Welsh mountain scenery. I can see Snowdon from just outside the cottage and other mountains are about us, though they do not pass the qualifying altitude of 3000 feet.

All of which convinces me that R.S. must have remembered the final stanza of the poem by Wallace Stevens:

The pillars are prostrate, the arches are haggard,
The hotel is boarded and bare.
Yet the panorama of despair
Cannot be the specialty
Of this ecstatic air.

Stevens’ use of “ecstatic” surely must have delighted Thomas. For he had written: Stevens’

       . . . adjectives
are the wand he waves
so language gets up
and dances under
a fastidious moon.

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

“adjectives / are the wand he waves” – “Homage to Wallace Stevens,” No Truce with the Furies, 62.

Are Humans Created by Words? | Poems of R.S. Thomas

One of my indelible memories: My son cradling his son in the crook of his arm, holding a book in his other hand, walking back and forth in the living room, reading Shakespeare aloud to a weeks’ old infant.

My grandson: Created by vocabulary?

A cautionary tale: In her recent mystery novel The Golden Egg, Donna Leon describes Venetian neighbors, many of them inveterate gossips, who are somewhat aware of a young man who never speaks, who hangs around a drycleaner’s shop and occasionally carries packages home for customers.

Then, the young man is found dead, and Commissario Brunetti begins to dig through multiple strata of untruths, quarter-truths, half-truths, and almost-truths, patiently piecing together Davide’s story.

After Davide was born, his mother shut him up in a room and didn’t speak to him. Never did he hear a voice, never learn a word.

Davide Cavanella: Not created by vocabulary?

A work of art: During the First World War, Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico painted “The Child’s Brain.”

child-brainLooking at it, I see constricting interior space. A figure closed in by blank walls and heavy drapery. The sky squeezed between buildings, one of which has openings that are, with one exception, dark.

The figure, whose eyes are closed, is obsessed with his facial hair. His arms are spindly in comparison with his massive torso. There’s a table with a closed book; its placement suggests that if the man put it there, he had no intention of opening it.

The painting’s dominant colors are black and a grayish flesh tone. In the best reproductions, the book cover is a dull yellow, its marker is a ribbon of red to rhyme with the red adjacent to the sky’s blue.

The painting’s title is, to repeat, “The Child’s Brain,” from which we draw what conclusion?

The man has the brain of a child?

The painting is a metaphor for the brain of a child?

Or . . . ?

R. S. Thomas’s response is found in his book titled Ingrowing Thoughts.

Published in 1985, Ingrowing Thoughts contains poems triggered by Surrealist paintings that Thomas found in two books by Herbert Read: Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (first published in 1933) and Surrealism (1971).

Perhaps my favorite poem in Thomas’s book is his take on Picasso’s “Guernica.” More about that in a future blog, sometime after I’ve finished reading T. J. Clark’s new book Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica.

Back to Thomas’s reflection on “The Child’s Brain” by Giorgio de Chirico; R.S. spells it “di Chirico.”

The book is as closed
as the mind contemplating
it, vocabulary’s
navel in all that gross flesh.

While the school reminds,
windowless at his left
shoulder, how you open
either of them at your own risk.

Thomas calls the building in the upper right-hand corner a windowless school.

“School” is his reading of the building, which is not, strictly speaking, “windowless.”

There are window openings in the walls, but they are glassless. Perhaps their panes were blown out by Taliban-like reactionaries who fear schools, in particular, schools for girls. Perhaps their window sashes were left to rot out by voters who chose to feed the wallets of the rich while starving the minds of the young.

It’s risky to open a book or a mind.

I know a young man who was homeschooled by a fundamentalist Christian and rockbound Republican mother. She took a risk . . . opening his mind. Now he’s organizing campaign offices for Democratic candidates.

Going back to the poem’s first stanza, we find the closed book identified as “vocabulary’s / navel.”

Without vocabulary, are humans simply gross flesh? Perhaps well-barbered gross flesh?

Is a book the navel through which vocabulary passes in order to nourish the gross flesh of a developing mind?

Is a brain simply gross flesh until vocabulary enters it?

Are humans created by vocabulary?

The book in de Chirico’s painting is facing us: It is there for us to open.

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

“The book is as closed” – “The Child’s Brain – Giorgio di Chirico,” Ingrowing Thoughts, 29.

“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.

“Art Is a Sacrament in Itself” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas told me that you cannot understanding what Jesus meant when he picked up bread and said, “This is my body” (Mark 14:22), unless you understand poetry.

“How,” Thomas asked, rhetorically, as we talked on a dreary November afternoon in 1994, “can this man give me his body to eat?”

“One needs,” he continued, “an understanding of metaphor in order to respond.”

When we use a metaphor, we say one thing is another thing, while all the while knowing that it isn’t. The one I love is a red rose, but she isn’t a flower. My friend is a prune, but he isn’t a dried plum. “Prune” and “red rose” point to qualities that are red-rose-like and prune-like.

In the Christian sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, bread is a metaphor: It is Christ, but it isn’t the physical body of Christ. The bread is pointing to something bread-like that transcends the here-and-now substance that we call bread.

The sacramental bread is a metaphor pointing to the spiritual nourishment found in Christ. Something like that is what Thomas means when he says, “Art is a sacrament / in itself.”

Alyscamps at Arles

Les Alyscamps, Paul Gauguin, Musee d’Orsay

That affirmation comes near the center of Thomas’s impression of Gauguin’s painting “The Alyscamps at Arles.”

In this painting, we see the ruins of the chapel of St-Honorat rising up behind a clump of trees. Many leaves are autumnal yellow-orange. Three black-garbed figures walk along a stream. A bush burns.

All of these painted realities become metaphorical in Thomas’s poem. Three figures? Perhaps the Trinity. The walkers “have the stiffness of candles,” and are passing “the living water, and the leaves // over them have the crispness / of bread.”

For Thomas, an Anglican priest trained in Christian doctrine and liturgy, there is something sacramental, something metaphorical, about the painting.

How do we, Thomas’s readers, read the painting?

Before the chapel was ruined, the doctrines and sacraments of its priests pointed to the transcendent, to the mystery at the heart of matter. Now, the work of art, like a sacrament, is a window through which we catch impressions of what is between the here and now.

“We are,” Thomas suggests,

      art’s mercenaries,
firing our thought’s arrows
at the mystery of things.

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

“Art is a sacrament” – “Gauguin: The Alyscamps at Arles,” Between Here and Now, 59.

“We are art’s mercenaries” – “Paving,” Residues, 62.

“The Interval Between Here And Now” | Review of a Book by R.S. Thomas

Between Here and Now, the title of one of R. S. Thomas’s books, announces a vagueness between two specifics.

“Here” indicates a specific location in space, the apartment in which I’m thinking and writing. “Now” points to a specific moment in time, 8:55 a.m., June 3, 2013, when my coffee has gone cold.

In the here and now, that’s something we understand. Thomas reports: “I take up apartments / In the here and now.”

But what can be between here and now?

Art.

Thomas uses the poems in Between Here and Now to nudge us toward that answer. The book, published in 1981, features thirty-three black-and-white reproductions of Impressionist paintings that were in the Louvre and now are in the Musée d’Orsay.

The paintings are presented in color in Germain Bazin’s volume Impressionist Paintings in the Louvre, where Thomas came upon them. As he looked at the works of such artists as Monet, Cézanne, Pissarro, and Van Gogh, Thomas formed poetic impressions of the artists’ painterly ones. With the result that there is a poem by Thomas to the right of each reproduced painting.

Following this first section titled “Impressions” is a second titled “Other Poems.” Two of these additional thirty poems contain the phrase “between here and now.” I quoted the first above; in the second, Thomas refers to “the interval between here and now.”

How does Thomas understand this interval? This vague break between two specifics?

“Landscape at Chaponval” by Camille Pissarro

“Landscape at Chaponval” by Camille Pissarro

Perhaps his “impression” of Camille Pissarro’s “Landscape at Chaponval” opens the way to an answer:

It would be good to live
in this village with time
stationary and the clouds
going by. . . .

The village with its terracotta-tiled or gray-slated roofs is timeless. The woman waits quietly for the cow to munch her fill. While clouds sail by, and the wind ruffles grain, leaves, and grass.

Impressionist art, by its choice of pigments and use of brushstrokes, gives us a sense of both time stopped and time moving.

In another impression of a Pissarro painting, “Kitchen Garden, Trees in Bloom,” Thomas says that “Art is recuperation / from time.” One more Pissarro painting, “The Louveciennes Road,” moved him to speak of “exchanging / progress without a murmur / for the leisureliness of art.”

By visualizing an interval between here and now, art enables us to recuperate from the clock’s operations on our lives. It provides the leisure that allows us to gain impressions of something that somehow ‘exists’ in the gap between specific place and specific time.

In the penultimate poem in Between Here and Now, Thomas tell us:

            . . . Art
is not life. It is not the river

carrying us away, but the motionless
image of itself on a fast-
running surface with which life
tries constantly to keep up.

Those of us who have tidying-up minds, who want sentences to roll smoothly and logically from first word to final stop, may find those lines so convoluted that we close our eyes in despair.

Thomas hopes so.

For when our eyes are closed, we may receive impressions of a mysterious realm between here and now, a realm in which meanings that transcend the mundane slip into our consciousness.

When I read the lines following “Art / is not life,” I recalled an earlier poem in Between Here and Now, Thomas’s impression of Paul Cézanne’s painting “The Bridge at Maincy.”

“The Bridge at Maincy” by Paul Cézanne

“The Bridge at Maincy” by Paul Cézanne

In his poem, Thomas wonders if Cézanne should have depicted someone crossing the bridge. After all, isn’t that what bridges are for? Yes, but this bridge is for us to look at and wait for a traveler to return to from the world of noise and activity. This bridge is for us to stop at long enough for the returnee to linger at the railing and wait for his face to emerge like a “water-lily” from the stream’s dark depths.

“Art / is not life.” “Art is recuperation / from time.” Art creates an interval of leisure between the place in which we’re stuck and the ticking clock.

In the poem in which Thomas declares that “Art / is not life,” Thomas sees a traveler always “Taking the next train / to the city, yet always returning / to his place on a bridge / over a river.” “So,” he continues,

                will a poet
return to the work laid

on one side and abandoned
for the voices summoning him
to the wrong tasks. Art
is not life. . . .

The task of the poet, the task of the painter, is not to create something that we can speed-see and speed-read and speed-comprehend. The task of the artist is not to officiate at “the marriage of plain fact with plain fact.”

Rather, the artist presides at the divorcing of facts, at the opening of gaps in the world that we call “real.” The artist creates an interval in which we catch glimpses of something that transcends reality, something that transforms the quotidian.

In art, we may sense a “stupendous presence” that no here and now is large enough to contain . . .

God.

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

“I take up apartments” – “Flat,” Between Here and Now, 101.

“the interval between here and now” – “Pluperfect,” Between Here and Now, 89.

“It would be good to live” – “Pissarro: Landscape at Chaponval,” Between Here and Now, 45.

“Art is recuperation” – “Pissarro: Kitchen Garden, Trees in Bloom,” Between Here and Now, 41.

“exchanging / progress without a murmur” – “Pissarro: The Louveciennes Road,” Between Here and Now, 33.

“Art / is not life” – “Return,” Between Here and Now, 109.

“water-lily” – “Cézanne: The Bridge at Maincy, Between Here and Now, 49.

“the marriage of plain fact with plain fact” – “The New Mariner,” Between Here and Now, 99.

“stupendous presence” – Van Gogh: The Church at Auvers,” Between Here and Now, 65.