Sonnet 22: Bearing thy heart

Lena Levin. Sonnet 22: Bearing thy heart

Sonnet 22: Bearing thy heart. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 22

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?

O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.

Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gavest me thine not to give back again.

Diana Quick reading Sonnet 22

Semantically, this sonnet exploits one of Shakespeare’s core strategies: returning a common metaphor – so common as to be nearly devoid of its metaphoric power – to nearly absurdly “literal”, direct and straightforward level, so that the original meaning of the metaphor stands naked before the reader’s amazed sight, in all its primal power.

In this case, it is a romantic metaphor of “exchange of hearts” in love: the sonnet follows repercussions of such an exchange, just in case it really happened. The result may seem quite extraordinarily silly and superficial, at least for a modern reader, if not for painful tenderness filling the verse to the brim.

My painting exploits essentially the same strategy, but with the next-level metaphor:

Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill

– the rhythms and and color areas of the picture plane create an emerging image of a tender nurse bearing in her arms – what? Her babe? Thy heart? My love?

For me, it was one of the instances when the very process of painting clears and opens up the power of the poem, stripping away all hurdles and obstacles piled up by devouring time.

New series: My Shakespeare

MICHELANGELO, Buonarroti - Pieta

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Pieta. 1898-1899.

This post introduces a new category on this blog, “My Shakespeare”. I borrow this name from Marina Tsvetaeva’s essay, “My Pushkin”, which impressed me very powerfully as a girl (and Pushkin is, in a sense, the Russian counterpart to Shakespeare, albeit much closer to us in time). In this first post, I will try and begin to approach the core question – what is it all about?

Marina Tsvetaeva begins her story with a very early childhood, when she first met Pushkin, in the form of a monument, in the park where her nanny used to bring her, and her brother and sister,  for walks. She didn’t even know then that “Pushkin” and “monument” were two different words; as so often happens with small children, the words were glued together, unanalyzed, as a single concept. The monument was very, very large and very, very black; and as such, it was in a stark contrast with a small white doll she used to bring with her. She recalls comparing their contrasting sizes with her own self, and thinking that however many of such dolls one might put together, one on another, one wouldn’t get a Pushkin-monument. And even a hundred, or a million, such dolls together wouldn’t make one me, she thinks to herself; but – with a pride – maybe, just maybe, a hundred of me, put one on another, might just make one Pushkin-monument! The very concept of building such a tower out of one’s self must have made a powerful impression on me, because isn’t it what I am striving to do here, when all is said and done?

But what I really wanted to tell you about is a somewhat later memory, when she was about to see a sea for the first time in her life; she knew that her name, Marina, referred to sea, and she was in love with a poem, by Pushkin, about sea. The poem’s rhythms and words were so powerful, so magically enchanting, that she expected to be overwhelmed by her own, “real life” meeting with a sea – but the actual impression was nowhere even close to the image created by the poem in her mind. And so Pushkin’s sea, the one embodied and enacted in his poem, remained the real sea, even as she later learned to love “geographical”, real-life seas herself.

Why have I chosen Michelangelo’s Pieta as the image for this post? Because there is a distinct affinity, in my mind at least, between Tsvetaeva’s sea and Michelangelo’s grief of a mourning mother. At the time this sculpture was made he was in his early twenties – a boy, really; there was simply no way he could have known the feeling he so powerfully conveyed here from personal experience. And yet he had to know it – otherwise, this work would have been impossible. Where from? One theory argues that it was from “The Divine Comedy”, but whatever specific sources might have been, I have no doubts whatsoever that he got it from the ocean of Art, and made it his own – so much so that he could express it in this nearly unbearably real way, and thereby share it further.

(To be continued…)


Sonnet 21: A couplement of proud compare


Lena Levin. Sonnet 21. A couplement of proud compare

Sonnet 21: A couplement of proud compare. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 21

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,

Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.

O let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fixed in heaven’s air:

Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

Tunji Kasim reading this sonnet

This is a sonnet about poetry, and so my painting is about painting.

The sonnet contrasts two kinds of poetry, the true and authentic poetry inspired by love, vs. the false and exaggerated poetry based on hearsay. True to himself, Shakespeare enacts poetry of the latter kind within the sonnet and then “corrects” it; this juxtaposition is highlighted by repetition of rhyme-words and rhyme-sounds of poem-within-poem in the “real” poem (in violation of general rules of Italian sonnet righting [Vendler 1997: 131]). So the overall concept of this translation into painting was rather straightforward: there had to be a contrast between the painting and a painting-within-painting.

Lena Levin. Unbearable strangeness.

Lena Levin. Unbearable strangeness. 12″x12″. Oil on linen panel. 2012

My first approach to this idea involved a juxtaposition of three stylistic versions of approximately the same still-life set up (with a nearly hidden internal reference to a painting of Adriaen Coorte’s. This sketch (now called “Unbearable strangeness) is shown on the left. It didn’t quite work.

To begin with, while concentrating on the contrast between how things are compared by different Muses, I’ve lost the contrast between what they are compared with, essential in the sonnet: the false poetry compares love and beloved with every fair and rare thing on earth and in heaven, the true poetry remains on the earthly level of humanity (any mother’s child). Secondly, I have lost the key (word) of heaven (repeated in every quatrain of the sonnet) as the ultimate standard of comparison, both in the colour harmony and in the (lack of) vertical movement within the “real” areas of the picture plane. It also turned out that repeating the same set-up in a painting-within-painting creates an ambiguity between a painting and a mirror, which doesn’t align with the poem’s meaning.

Therefore, the final painting approaches the same idea in a different way. Most importantly, there is now heaven with gold candles in its air instead of one of still-life versions: it opens up this “chamber” painting into a larger universe and defines both the vertical dimension of the painting and its overall color harmony.

Willem Kalf. Still life with Silver Jug.

Willem Kalf. Still life with silver jug. 73,8 x 65,2 cm. Oil on canvas. 1655-57

Secondly, the subject matter of the “real” still life and of the painting-within-painting is now different: the real one, with bread and onions is decidedly more earthly, the “painted” one, with its lemons, silver and china, more exotic and “fine” (rare and fair). I did, however, retain one common element, the wine glass, for the sake of purely stylistic contrast and to acknowledge the repetition of rhymes in the sonnet.

There is another important difference as well: in the first study above, all three versions of the still life were done from life; here, the painting-within-painting is borrowed from several still life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age (I show here the one most explicitly referred to in my work, by Willem Kalf). This introduces the visual counterpart of “hearsay” in the poem: the rival poets don’t invent their hyperbolic comparisons themselves, but borrow them from others (stirred by a painted beauty).

There are two other, purely visual, contrasts between the two still life areas:

  • Geometrically, the painting-within-painting is a vertical plane (corresponding to “vertical” metaphors condemned in the sonnet), whereas the “real life” set-up is horizontal, earth-bound, almost falling out of the picture plane towards the viewer;
  • Colour-wise, the painting-within-painting borrows its colour harmony from the heaven area and intensifies it as far as possible, that is, heaven itself for ornament doth use. In contrast to this, the real-life area of the painting is saturated with earthly reds and ochres.

All in all, it turned out that a humble still life can offer ample opportunities for creating visual counterparts for a poetic commentary on poetry.

Helen Vendler. The Art of Shakespeare Sonnets. Cambridge, Massachusetts &ndahs; London, England. 1997.

Sonnet 20: All hues in his controlling

Lena Levin. Sonnet 20: All hues in his controlling

Lena Levin. Sonnet 20: All hues in his controlling. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 20

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion.
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Simon Russel Beale reading this sonnet

This sonnet is a remarkable combination of playfulness and despondency. On the one hand, it jokingly plays around the impossible conceit of Nature pricking out someone who was originally designed as a woman because she fell in love with the person and wanted them for her own pleasure. On the other, it talks of what is construed as an insurmountable barrier, an ever-present distance between the speaker of the sonnet and his beloved.

As a painter, my attention focused on the somewhat mysterious idea of all hues in his controlling, which suggested that the painting should play around “all hues”, that is, all colors of rainbow. This is really a case of strange serendipity, I thought, because this sonnet, for obvious reasons, is at the centre of debate on Shakespeare’s “real” sexual orientation; yet the association between the acceptance of all sexual orientations and the symbol of rainbow certainly belongs to our times, not to Shakespeare’s. And yet he does mention “all hues”, without any clear reason. Building the painting around a rainbow also conveys the feeling of insurmountable distance, impossibility of real closeness, accentuated by the water barrier between the viewer and the rainbow with all its hues.

Bringing together and controlling all hues with equal, or nearly equal, intensity is not an easy challenge for a painter. Here, I tried to carry this idea further than just a rainbow – splitting the colors into multiple hues in almost every single area of the canvas, pushing it to the same level of playful absurdity as the original conceit of the poem.