A pause


There has been a long pause in this blog’s reports of my work on the sonnets series. On the surface, it’s just because we had been delaying a photo session: so, although there are many more completed sonnet paintings, I didn’t have a proper photo to share. But there is a deeper reason (isn’t there ever?): I’ve been feeling like I’ve lost track – not with the painting process per se, but with my writing about it here.

It seems I’ve fallen into the life-long habit of academic writing, which implies “proving”, justifying an original insight in the manner currently accepted within the corresponding academic discipline; making it compelling to one’s peers according to established conventions. Except almost neither of these words and concepts apply here: there is no discipline of translating poems into paintings; no conventions; and it is not remotely possible to make a painting compelling with words if it doesn’t stand on its own.

What’s more, it seems increasingly clear to me that this writing style wasn’t designed to reveal, but rather to hide, even (and primarily) from myself, the profound, overwhelming effect this endeavour has on me (or, as Shakespeare would have probably written, on my self), how it has been changing me. That’s exactly what I wanted to happen, but, apparently, I wasn’t prepared for the enormity of this effect. See, for this whole thing to make any sense, I had to let these sonnets deep inside, very deep indeed; and they are powerful poems. Still, after all these centuries, with more energy in them than there is in some human beings, it seems. And however far removed from my life’s outer circumstances the dramatic plot of this sequence, yet the themes they touch, the internal conflicts they lay bare – they are as essential and fundamental to me as they are to anyone; including you.

This basic truth is one of the major motivations behind this series, and the writing on this blog can only be meaningful inasmuch as it brings it closer to you. But, as it seems, I am having a hard time internalizing this truth myself; maybe because these poems are telling me more about my self than I am quite prepared to acknowledge? I am not quite sure. One thing is clear, though: I have to resolve this whole thing within before I can find a new, more authentic, approach to writing here; and it’s much more important than to keep a regular schedule.

I honestly don’t know how long it will take. It maybe that I will write about the next sonnet tomorrow. Or maybe I will delay it till the pre-birthday process of taking stock of my life is over (the process which is more profound this year than it had ever been before): then it will be after April 13. Or even after Shakespeare’s birthday…? I frankly don’t know anything except this: if I am to write about this, it has to be done as genuinely, authentically, openly as the sonnets call for. I have to give it my all, and I will: I just have to figure out how…

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.

My Shakespeare: Readiness is all

MICHELANGELO, Buonarroti - Pieta

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Pieta. 1898-1899.

This post continues the series I began about a month ago, “My Shakespeare”, and I want to begin to talk directly about one of Shakespeare’s deepest and most essential contribution to our worldview (or even, arguably, the deepest one): his construal of death, and of our relationships with the dead.

What if fascinating about the sonnets sequence is how unabashedly atheistic its speaker’s attitude to death is. For him, there is no eternal after-life, nothing beyond death’s eternal cold – in a striking contrast to, say, John Donne, or even to somewhat more complex and ambiguous approach in Shakespeare’s own plays (about which I will also probably talk somewhat later). It is even more striking when one recalls that the structure of the afterlife, and the ability of the living to influence their loved ones’ fate there, in the wake of their death, was a hot political issue of the time.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day // and barren rage of death's eternal cold

Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death’s eternal cold. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

For the speaker of the sonnets – and he does talk about death, and the fragility and fleeting nature of human existence, quite a lot – there are only two paths to eternity: procreation, and art (which is to say, human memory). No other routes to salvation, no options of life beyond death. The immediate reason for this post is that, in the course of the last week’s work, I suddenly clearly understood how is that possible – not in our times, when atheism is more or less common, but in his time.

And the answer was: the speaker of the sonnet is always in the world of the survivors, the world of the living. In other words, he is not concerned with his own death and what will come after it; he only thinks of the future death of his beloved, and the empty world left behind. Whatever one’s specific spiritual beliefs, they don’t really matter from this point of view: we mourn independently of whether or not there is a promise of heaven.

Recall this mother in Michelangelo’s statue shown above? For all we know, if there ever was a mother who had no reason to mourn, who could feel assured that her son’s troubles were over and his glorious future assured, it is this one. But mourning doesn’t really know reason, and is not assuaged by beliefs, and so she mourns. Isn’t that the truth for all of us? Isn’t it the empty mortal world left by our beloved ones, not the future after our own death, that’s really frightening?

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…)