Rhyming a landscape

Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917

Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 66 x 96.8 cm. Oil on canvas. 1917

In many sonnets, Shakespeare employs a specif visual impression, often a landscape, as an anchor, a visual embodiment of his meaning. For a painter on a quest like mine, a translation of poems into paintings, rhymes into colours, this presents both a relief and a special challenge.

The relief part should be obvious: it’s a path to imagery, which, albeit individual in its details, is universal enough for me to “ground” in my own visual impressions, which are the most immediate and “easy” painting material. This blog already contains a couple of paintings so grounded, most obviously this, “Sonnet 12″ painting. The challenge arises because Shakespeare doesn’t leave the intended “human”, emotional interpretation of the sonnet unnamed: we are told, more or less directly and in plain language, how exactly this particular imagery is linked to the sonnet’s meaning. A painter doesn’t really have this luxury, at least not within general stylistic constraints implicitly defining this project.

Consider Sonnet 33, which I am working on now. Its first two couplets seem completely devoid of personal feelings and dedicated to a (commonly seen) landscape:

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace.

Strictly speaking, there are rather two landscapes here: one with the sun flattering the earth with his presence, the other with the sun unseen, hidden by the basest clouds. But that would be the least of my problems in a “painterly” representation of this poem: as Shakespeare notes, these lighting conditions can replace one another so fast (both in England and in Northern California) that a depiction of one can suggest another. I, for one, have several plein air paintings which play on a combination of both impressions,
this one, for instance:

Lena Levin. Alameda -- rain and sun. 30.5 x 61 cm. 2010

Lena Levin. Alameda — rain and sun. 30.5 x 61 cm. 2010


But Shakespeare not only uses anthropomorphic vocabulary in his description of the landscape, he continues with a direct superimposition of human affairs onto the landscape just described, equating his beloved with the sun:

Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

The interpretation is not as straightforward as it might seem (I will return to it later, when I present my painting for this sonnet), but the fact remains: the identification between the sun and the beloved is stated as plainly and directly as possible.

But a fleeting temptation to do something like this in a painting (after all, it would be no problem to suggest a human face within a circle depicting the sun, or something to that effect), this fleeting temptation goes away as soon as we understand that this direct identification is not what makes the poem work. The genuine humanization of the landscape, its emotional interpretation, lies in the verse. And so a painter has to find the corresponding effects in the paint, in colours and lines.

This brings me back to the Chagall painting with which this blog post somewhat enigmatically begins. Here it is again, a bit larger:

This is a landscape (or, to be more exact, a cityscape); in fact, quite a detailed depiction of specific visual reality: there is a town on the other side of the river, with churches and large buildings, separate from the river by a wall (but reflected in it), and a poorly wooden cabin on “our” side of the river, barely holding together (and even a person inside, if you look closely); you can even see every piece of timber and every brick.

There is no “literal” information in the painting that another interpretation might be intended, but it nonetheless leaves us in no doubt that it is not “just” a representation of some visual impression. This information is conveyed primarily by colour: the “real” colours are heightened and intensified to reach the six core components of the “colour wheel”: its dominated by three primary colours, blue, yellow and red (in that order), with an additional minor role played by three secondaries, green, violet, and orange (also in that order). No “reality” would ever look like this, but this depiction (or reinterpretation) seems convincing and harmonious nonetheless.

We know for a fact that, although a house can be blue, a log cabin like this cannot; this color is as unrealistic as the green of Chagall’s green cows and fiddlers. That this blueness is contrasted to all other colors of the rainbow in the surrounding landscape and to conspicuously dirty yellowish sky, tells us to search for a human, personal interpretation as clearly as though were instructed to do so by some sort of Shakespeare’s “even so” (as in the third couplet above).

We might differ in the exact emotional interpretation (and our interpretation might differ from Chagall’s intentions), but isn’t this the same in the poem: does the speaker of the sonnet accuse his lover of betrayal and disgrace (as suggested by the language of the first two quatrain)? Does he still idolize him as “the sun”  (as in the third quatrain)? Does he remain philosophically neutral about it (as suggested in the couplet)?  Probably all of this, and then more.

Sonnet 28: When day’s oppression isn’t eased by night

Lena Levin. Sonnet 28: When day's oppression isn't eased by night. 20"x20"

Sonnet 28: When day’s oppression isn’t eased by night. 20″x20″. Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 28

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppressed?

And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me;
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.

I tell the day to please him thou art bright
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.

But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.


Sam Alexander reading this sonnet

This sonnet continues the previous one: another letter in an exchange in which we hear only one voice. Yet the first line of this sonnet implicitly invokes the other person’s response, the request to return in a happy plight. In my series, the two paintings are connected by continuation of the same color harmony, dominated by sorrowful blues.

Yet if the first letter tries to be optimistic, with the sorrow of distance between the lovers softened by the speaker’s imagination, which fills his nights with the shining shadow of his beloved, here it turns into the constant source of torture, which wouldn’t let the speaker to forget and have the benefit of rest. The dreamy vision of the first letter turns into a hopeless struggle with the combined forces of eternal powers of Day and Night.

And if my Sonnet 27 painting stayed very close to the specific imagery invoked by the sonnet, here the subject matter, irises, might seem entirely disconnected from the content of the sonnet. Yet irises, their twisted shapes and their range of blues, presented themselves to me as the right “anchor” for a depiction of the tortured sorrow of separation. My path to this painting lay through a series of different approaches to irises, described here. In this final painting of the series, the flowers nearly dissolve into pure abstraction, a woeful, broken world created by conspiracy between lights and darks, Day and Night.

Sonnet 27: Like a jewel hung in ghastly night

Lena Levin. Sonnet 27: Like a jewel hung in ghastly night. 20"x20".

Sonnet 27: Like a jewel hung in ghastly night. 20″x20″. Oil on linen

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 27

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:

For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see

Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.

Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find.


Sam Alexander reading this sonnet

Marc Chagall. The poet reclining. 77 x 77.5 cm. Oil on canvas. 1915

Marc Chagall. The poet reclining. 77 x 77.5 cm. Oil on canvas. 1915

This is about as close to a straightforward illustration as the sonnet series has gotten so far; probably too straightforward – as of now, I am not quite sure whether this painting is going to survive in this form, or be transformed into something more abstract. For now, though, this is the twenty seventh sonnet painting.

It’s very straightforwardness owes much, I believe, to the fact that my sonnets series has significantly intersected with my Chagall studies project (not a coincidence, either: one of the things I wanted to learn from Chagall is his child-like directness and playful seriousness).

Marc Chagall. Self-portrait with muse (Dream). 157 x 140 cm. 1918

Marc Chagall. Self-portrait with muse (Dream). 157 x 140 cm. Oil on canvas. 1918.

That said, there are two Chagall paintings which are related to this sonnet painting more closely (albeit loosely). One is “The poet reclining” (1915, above), which emboldened me to try for a composition with the main character confined to the bottom of the painting (although my poet is, of course, much less serene. The other is “Self-portrait with muse” (1918, left), which according to Chagall’s autobiography, “My life”, represents an actual dream-like vision of his beloved, Bella, as a white angel. The motive is the same as in Shakespeare’s sonnet: it’s not a long way from a white angel to a jewel hung in ghastly night.



Sonnet 26: To witness duty, not to show my wit

Lena Levin. Sonnet 26. To witness duty, not to show my wit

Sonnet 26. To witness duty, not to show my wit. 20″x20″. Oil on linen.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 26

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit:
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit;

Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it;
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought (all naked) will bestow it:

Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tattered loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect;

Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then, not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

Edward Bennett reading this sonnet

In the visual vocabulary, a sonnet is a postcard. And this is as close as a sonnet gets to it: a brief and rather formal letter. In the developing story of my personal relationship with the sonnet sequence and with William Shakespeare, this sonnet is reinterpreted as a symbol of the whole project: my own attempt to _witness duty, not to show my wit_ to the author of the sequence. At the very least, this reinterpretation makes the originally not quite plausible conceit that the addressee has more wit than the speaker much more believable.

Hence the central image of the translation: a symbolic gesture of humble obedience from a figure standing on a book larger than herself.


Sonnet 19: For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men (re-work)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 19: For beauty's pattern to succeding men

Lena Levin. Sonnet 19: For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men. 20″x20″. Oil on linen


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 19

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O! carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

Patrick Stewart reading this sonnet

This is the first post of this kind, but I have no doubt there will be more on this long journey: a re-work of an already posted sonnet painting. This is the way I generally work, after all: there are many paintings that seem complete in the process and some time afterwards, but then just call for a change.

Here, the color scheme was way too balanced for the powerful rhythms of the sonnet, and, in some places, the concept and structure of the painting was weakened by my hesitations about how strongly it should be linked to David. In the re-work, I suppressed the yellows and allowed the devouring time a freer reign in the picture plane.