Sonnet 2: Forty winters

Sonnet 2. Forty winters

Sonnet 2. Forty winters. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The landscape follows the overall geometry of the previous one, with the horizon line at the golden section, and the foreground tree supporting the golden section vertical on the right.

Vincent Van Gogh. "View of Arles with Trees in Blossom" (1988).

Vincent Van Gogh. "View of Arles with Trees in Blossom" (1988).

The motive for this landscape was loosely inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s “View of Arles with Trees in Blossom” (1988), with an older bare tree in the foreground set against a blooming background. In the sonnet, the future winter (or even forty of them) is juxtaposed to a possible future spring/youth (in the person of the addressee’s possible child), yet both are contrasted to the implied present (when the addressee himself is young and blooming). Van Gogh’s motive provided the needed contrast between the old and the new, and the potential for ambiguity between the winter and the spring.

The central image of the poem integrated into the landscape is the deep trenches in thy beauty’s field, which separates the wintery, “old age” foreground from the youthful, springtime background, but also defines the overall inevitable movement from the foreground to the distant background – yet the field is painted in such a way, texture-wise, as to defy the implied perspective and allow for optical ambiguity between the “spring” background being faraway or on the same plane as the old tree. At the same time, the branches of the old tree strive to establish a link between the two.

The core of this attempt at a translation, however, lies in colour, playing at the possibility of seeing something “warm” while feeling it “cold” (in the couplet of the poem): the dominant colours are cold but they are used to set off the vibration between colder and warmer hues. Although the warm colours can be seen, they do not change the feel of coldness.


Sonnet 1: “Thyself thy foe”

Sonnet 1. Thyself thy foe

Lena Levin. Thyself thy foe. 20"x20" (50.8 x 50.8 cm), oil on linen, 2012

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

This is the opening sonnet of the whole sequence, and the opening sonnet of the smaller “procreation” sub-sequence (1-17), in which the speaker of the sonnet plays the role of a “fatherly” figure, trying to persuade the young man being addressed to marry and procreate – and thus to ensure whatever immortality is accessible in this world. I am not genuinely interested in anti-childfree rhetoric as such, which means that content-wise, I rather focus on the accompanying themes invoked; even more so, I am interested in rhythms, composition, esthetics of the language – and how it may translate into the (modern) language of color.

The overall motive of the painting is due to the momentarily invoked reference to the injunction to increase and multiply in Genesis, that is, to the Garden of Eden. Hence the painting represents, more or less, a garden. Yet this garden is not really the garden of Eden – it is subverted by the refusal to procreate, described in the sonnet in terms of two conflicting metaphors – one is a flame/candle, and the other is a rose bud. So, the greens and blues of my landscape and the sky above it are subverted by reds and oranges.

The painting follows the overall design scheme I’ve decided to use to “represent” the structure of a sonnet: the composition is defined by a horizontal and a vertical at golden sections; here, the horizontal (the horizon line) is more prominent than the vertical, but the vertical is there, suggested by the possible pass through the mountains and by the location of the furthest bush/rose bud in the spiral.

Within this general structure, this sonnet follows a more specific compositional scheme: the first quatrain presents a calm, rather cold, overall description of the desirable state of affairs, which represents a human’s possible path to the distant future; the second and the third quatrains, much more urgent and nervous, enact the young man’s refusal to follow this path in two ways, both associated with (generalized) red. The fire, which makes a famine instead of abundance, and the bud, which refuses to open, “contracted” to itself.

In my painting, the first quatrain is loosely referenced by the grand diagonal curvy movement of colder and calmer colours from the bottom left to the remnants of blue in the sky, through the narrow pass in the distant mountains. The fire — the self-substantial flame – burns out the sky; and the bud that refuses to open is represented by the ambiguous spiral of rose bushes on the right, which look, due to their colour, increasingly like roses – and culminating the spiral in the distant bud, shown against the darkest spot in the background. In contrast to the green curve, which does find its way into the sky, the “rose” curve stops short of it, contracts into itself – instead of reaching the furthest distance.


The first step

A collage of first nine sonnet paintings

This image is a collage of the first nine sonnet paintings.

Apart from the first glimpse into this series, it is intended to introduce the major “constants” of its geometry: each painting is a 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm) square, and each is composed around a vertical and a horizontal located at the “golden section”. These divisions can be more or less prominent, there is some variety as to whether the horizontal is closer to the top or to the bottom, and the vertical, to the left or to the right, but the basic geometric structure remains constant throughout the series.

This geometric constant is intended as my visual counterpart to the constants of the sonnet structure. Like the classical structure of the sonnet, it allows for an interesting balance between constraints and flexibility; visually, this basic structure creates a variety of overlapping golden section rectangles which work well independently of the subject matter.