Invective Against Swans
Rodin and Ageing

Strolling through the gardens of the Musée Rodin, I am thinking about getting older. Inevitable, seeing as it is my birthday – always a time for taking stock of the things I have yet to do, as well as the things I have done (and some I would rather forget). The sky is cloudy, there’s a light drizzle in the air, just enough to make me reach for my umbrella. Autumnal, rather than high summer. The manicured paths remind me of Last Year at Marienbad, which I’ve just seen again. The film made no sense to me when I first watched it in my twenties, but now I get it. It’s all about time – how memory is unstable, unreliable; how the mind twists narratives, creates new ones, until it is impossible to know what really happened, especially between two people with different motives towards an outcome. Some memories are like sealed rooms, like the over-decorated salons of the hotel in the film.

I move from the gardens into Rodin’s house, the Hotel Biron, a grand rococo mansion he occupied at the turn of the last century. It has a faded splendour about it, although perhaps too overly-restored to resemble the ramshackle palace that Rodin knew. Room after room of dusty nudes, all that passion stilled. Again and again the same theme: the elderly artist reaching upwards to embrace the torso of a young woman, his muse, both of them emerging from the marble or stone or clay, only half-realised.  It is Pygmalion, no doubt, but also perhaps the mature Rodin, straining to hold on to the youthful Camille Claudel. Rilke, who was for many years Rodin’s assistant, and who lived with him here, said:

Rodin developed his memory into a resource that is at once reliable and always ready. During the sitting his eye sees far more than he can record at the time. He forgets none of it, and often the real work begins, drawn from the rich store of his memory, only after the model has left.

These are visions which visit the artist; he conjures them from air and sets them in stone. It was Rodin who told Rilke that in order to understand a thing you have to observe it intensely, burn it into memory. While living in the Hotel Biron, the young Rilke wrote: we transform these Things; they aren’t real, they are only the reflections upon the polished surface of our being.

 In a breezy new building next to the old mansion, there are sculptures by Twombly and Giacometti and Beuys – Rodin’s successors, or as the exhibition describes them, ‘ambassadors’, I suppose because they are the bringers of the new. Their pieces sit alongside Rodin’s and re-envigorate them, lift them from the airless salons of the Biron to make us see again how modern they are. But what I find most moving is a corridor of Rodin’s studies for various busts, the heads of the great and the good awaiting commemoration, running alongside Ugo Rondinone’s Diary of Clouds, amorphous lumps of clay sitting side by side in pigeonholes which as you walk alongside them, take on moving, altering shapes.

 Something about these busts to be set in stone next to the embodiment of clouds drives home this idea of the haze of memory that we increasingly occupy with age. The longer we live, the more experiences we need to store and process, and eventually pull out of ourselves to set down in whatever form we find to record them.

Wilder shores of love

I can think of no other recent painter whose work has been so intricately and delicately linked to poetry than Cy Twombly, who died yesterday at the age of 83. Incised directly into the paint in pencil are snippets of Keats and Rilke and Eliot, his ‘gauche scrawl’ (as Barthes called it) often compared to graffiti; but his ‘scrawl’ is more considered than that – like notes, like the artist reciting beautiful words that come back to him while painting, and then whispering them to us, his gestures meeting those of the great poets he loved. He said that painting was a ‘fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere’ – the way these phrases float up to the viewer from the turbulent surfaces of his canvases. He was an artist who looked to the old world of Europe rather than the new world of America – surrounded for most of his adult life by the ruins of Rome, their grand inscriptions fragmented, worn away.

Those small snippets of poetry are like coded messages, a chart of the artist’s moods and desires, often mixed with scatological sketches of cocks and cunts (there the comparison to graffiti seems apt – his canvas like a blank wall waiting to be defiled). Twombly was drafted into the US army in the early 50s and assigned to the department of cryptography. At the same time he experimented with drawing blind, at night, to try and ‘unlearn’ what he had been taught. The paintings are there for us to work out – he gives clues, but no answers. We have to meet him in the dark.

I wrote a poem in response to the ‘Inverno’ canvas of his great ‘Quattro Stagioni cycle. It is for me is the most poignant, the most secretive of his seasons; sparse words obliterated by a storm of black and yellow veiled in bright white – like snow, like the sky wiped clean by coldness. Nicholas Cullinan describes it as a ‘mist of sorrow’. I wanted my poem to tell a story in fragments, ‘in a language no one understands’. The link to the poem at Tate Etc. is here:

A box of dreams

We are discussing the sonnet in my Tuesday night class, the merits of Petrarchan versus Shakespearean, rhymed versus unrhymed, and where the all-important turn should occur. I go back to Don Paterson’s introduction to his 101 Sonnets: from Shakespeare to Heaney, where he describes the sonnet as ‘a box for [poets’] dreams.’

And that phrase always makes me think of Joseph Cornell, whose boxed collages Bonnie Costello describes as ‘physical poetry’ which ‘invite the beholder to dwell in the work as he would in a poem.’ Cornell was an admirer of poets such as Apollonaire, Mallarmé, Dickinson and Rilke; and in turn, poets such as Marianne Moore and John Ashbery admired him. What Cornell did was to collect random objects, which were truly from the rag and bone shop, and catalogue them; by assembling them he made sense of them – a scrapheap cabinet of curiosities. Ashbery said of his collages that ‘he establishes a delicately adjusted dialogue between the narrative and the visual qualities of the work in that neither is allowed to dominate.’ He goes on to say, ‘Cornell’s work exists beyond questions of “literature” and “art” in a crystal world of its own making: archetypal and inexorable.’ This is poem as diorama.

So back to the sonnet, which Don Paterson says ‘represents one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take.’ It is a gathering of ideas into a small, perfectly-formed space. Or maybe the sonnet is more a window than a box, a window onto understanding (because the best sonnets set up a conflict or argument, and seek to find a resolution), just like Cornell’s collages are a window onto the unconscious, onto memory. I hate when artworks are described as “poetic”, and Cornell’s work often is, but perhaps it’s better to say that the logic of his work operates in the same way as a good poem (and the poetic form his boxes most resemble is the sonnet) in that it brings together disparate images, which, collectively, take on a new meaning.

To repel ghosts

I am staring at the iconic photograph of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Lizzie Himmel, the one where he is posed on a red leather chair in his studio. Painted directly onto the wall behind him is a lumpy black figure, part cartoon, part gremlin, with bared teeth. Gremlin and artist are facing each other. Basquiat is wearing a pinstripe suit and a tie, but he is clearly artist rather than businessman; the cuffs of his trousers are dirty, he is barefoot. One foot is propped against a toppled chair. He holds his paintbrush aloft. It is 1985 and he is at the height of his fame. Three years later he’ll be dead.

The photograph is blown up to fit the wall so that he is larger than life, confronting visitors arriving at his Musée d’Art Moderne retrospective. People are streaming into the museum to see his work; they are photographing his photograph, posing in front of his image. Mostly young girls; too young to remember him. But he is forever 25 years old in this photo – cocky, beautiful, haunted. If he had lived, he would have been 50 this year.

As I am walking through the show, I’m thinking about Jackson Pollock. Not necessarily the first artist you might connect with Basquiat, but since I’ve been immersing myself in Pollock’s life and work for the last few months, he is never far away. They were both ‘untrained’ talents. True, they both went to art school, but what they created was not something that was taught to them. Both were undisciplined, liberated, self-destructive, and what they brought to their art was an expression of chaos, the world turned on its side. If Pollock had lived, he might have admired the young Basquiat, from the perspective of the older artist who had ‘been there, done that’.

Basquiat’s world is bright and throwaway, but there are always gremlins and ghosts in the background, random scrawls crossed out, eradicated. He is often referred to as a graffiti artist, but the graffiti here are the jottings of the psyche, the ‘heart as arena’. These jottings link him most closely to Twombly, but the latter artist had a greater library from which to draw, quoting Rilke and Keats on his canvases. Basquiat’s references mix the high and the low; the language of billboards and ad campaigns merged with snippets from Greek myth, the names of gods and kings (which makes me think of O’Hara at his best, as in ‘The Day Lady Died’). The texts in Basquiat’s paintings give the viewer a way to read his mind. In Eroica II, one of his last paintings, the images disappear completely and the canvas is given over to words; a litany of ‘b’s from a slang dictionary: ‘balls: testicles / bang: injection of narcotics or sex / bark: human skin’. It is as if his gremlins are speaking directly to us, mischievous and deathly in the same breath. On the side, the phrase “man dies”, written in shadowy grey. In the end, he was not able to repel his ghosts.