Sunday, July 17, 2005

Picasso and Matisse look at Pollock

It seems to be important for most of us to align ourselves one way or another for or against a kind of poem with, if not a narrative structure, at least some kind of semantic framework or, conversely, with the kind of poem termed Language or Avant Garde, where meaning is disbanded in favor of surprise, novelty, or texture. (Please forgive me if these descriptions are inadequate and feel free to correct my definitions.)

Often comparisons are made between poetry and music or poetry and the visual arts, as both these other fields have had their own controversies concerning what can loosely be termed abstraction. I thought it would be interesting to talk a little about Picasso and Matisse, both giants in the field of painting and both pioneers, in the early years of Modernism, in turning painting away from purely representational art. (I have done a lot of research on Picasso in recent years for a work on the women in Picasso's life.)

I find it interesting that although both Picasso and Matisse were abstract painters--Picasso and Bracque can be said to have invented Cubism, and Matisse had complicated theories about the language of color--neither Picasso nor Matisse was able to embrace abstract expressionism (for instance, the paintings of Jackson Pollock).

There is a discussion of each of their attitudes toward Pollock in Francoise Gilot's book Life With Picasso. Picasso and Matisse were rivals and sort of friends and often paid each other a visit. During one of these visits, Matisse pulled out a catalog containing reproductions of Pollock's paintings. Neither artist could stand Pollock's work, but for very different reasons.

Matisse pronounced himself incapable of understanding the work, "for the simple reason that one is always unable to judge fairly what follows one's own work... It's completely over my head." He related a story of Renoir's reaction to his own painting, when Matisse, in his youth, had approached Renoir. Renoir didn't like what he did but recognized that what he was doing was not inconsequential.

Picasso, however, dismissed Pollock's work out of hand. He said, "I'm against that sort of stuff... I think it is a mistake to let oneself go completely and lose oneself in the gesture... there's something in that which displeases me enormously... Whatever the source of the emotion that drives me to create, I want to give it a form which has some connection with the visible world, even if it is only to wage war on that world."

I wanted to share this story because I think it is very telling--though I don't exactly know what it's telling. I think I'm more inclined to take Matisse's stance when it comes to Language poetry. (Though part of me does think that the Emperor has no clothes.)


Lisa said...

Hmm. Part of me likes to think I am the sort of person who would react as Matisse did, and I think that a little humility toward what "comes after" is always a good idea. However. It seems to me that written language, and so poetry, is far more tied to linguistic meaning than is music or even the visual arts. And inverting, varying, or even subverting that meaning is, I think, in itself a way of playing with the art form, an expansion of our tools. But where I diverge from those we may as well here call Language poets is in wanting to use those tools to make a (new?) kind of meaning. I'm just not that interested in language unmoored from its meaning. It's... well, boring. The way in which that unmooring is most interesting to experience is through the lens of theory. And I'm not very interested in that, except greedily, inasmuch as I can use/steal/respond to theoretical ideas in my attempt at (a kind of mutant) meaning-making. This is, of course, just my own view, driven largely by what is useful to me as a writer, and how my particular mind is strung together. When you get into those larger questions of "is it poetry?" or "is it art?" or even "where is the art form going?" I confess I start to yawn. (Not that others are wrong to be interested in those questions, of course.)

Robert said...

I'm not sure if I'm Matisse or Picasso or Pollock. Mostly I just think people don't want to be jerked around. You can take a terrible poem like "Trees" ("I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree ...") and use a bit of erasure and make it sound almost profound and moving for a moment:

shall never ... tree
hungry mouth
... flowing ...
her hair ... fools
... only ... make

"Wow, Sappho lives!" you think for an instant before you realize you've been had. But I think readers will accept the challenge of difficult work if they sense there's something genuine.

Diane K. Martin said...

Well, I give most poets the benefit of the doubt--that they are genuine, at least, and not interested in playing a big joke on readers or jerking them around. What would be anyone's motive to do that? Fame? Fortune?

I'm also not sure of the difference between making something sound profound and moving and having it be profound and moving, unless the emphasis in that sentence is for a moment.

But Lisa, if I understand you, I agree. I like to wring everything that's possible out of the words, not deny myself one tool because someone has declared that today Meaning is uncool.

I do find that I create very differently, however, when I am not going down some railroad track to a destination of Meaning, but rather kind of rolling around in the flower beds and using all the scents, sounds, and meanings that are unleashed. If you know what I mean....

Robert said...

Well, for example, I've probably heard a couple dozen people say they feel "jerked around" when they read John Ashbery. I am NOT one of those people! But that's the sort of response I mean. Some people may feel jerked around by John Ashbery and others may feel jerked around by Billy Collins, but surely most people feel that way sometimes, no?

Diane K. Martin said...

Hmm. I wonder if John Ashbery writes differently (let's say from when he started writing) knowing he can get away with practically anything. Nevertheless, I think people feeling they are being jerked around is different from a poet intending to jerk people around. I do sort of feel manipulated by the kind of poem that intends to be stirring, one of those "moving" poems like Tennyson's 'Ulysses."