Sonnet 29: When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

Lena Levin. Sonnet 29: When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 29: When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 29

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Patrick Stewart reading this sonnet

Vincent van Gogh. Vincent's Bedroom in Arles. 1988.

Vincent van Gogh. Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles. 1988.

The composition of this painting is derived from an amalgamation of two classical images, Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles (left) and Marc Chagall’s “The Birthday” (below). There is an obvious similarity in subject matter between two paintings: we see a barely furnished room of a poor man, distinctly in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, the room of the artist himself. Apart from the subject matter as such, there is this distinctly claustrophobic geometric grid of the mundane in both of them, and similarly skewed perspectives in how this environment is represented.

Marc Chagall. The Birthday. 1915

Marc Chagall. The Birthday. 1915

There is also, of course, the striking difference created by the presence vs. absence of love: Chagall’s beloved Bella is there in his room, and so he depicts himself like to the lark at break of day arising; Van Gogh’s is a solitary room of an outcast and hermit. In the geometry of Chagall’s composition, love disrupts the angular skewed grid with a graceful curve, which nearly carries the artist to heaven’s gate, out of the picture plane — there are no curves, not even a hint of an upward movement, in Van Gogh’s composition.

This is precisely the contrast that creates the tension of Shakespeare’s sonnet, which breaks the rhythmic grid of the first two quatrains with a slow, graceful upward movement in the third. Except, of course, it’s not an appearance of the beloved that creates this change: the speaker’s imagination, a mere thought of the beloved, is enough. And that’s why I don’t introduce any floating figures in the composition. Instead, the grid of the room is broken by an upward outburst of abstract brushstrokes.

The viewer, however, is invited to float together with the author, insofar as the perspective of the room suggests that it’s viewed from above, by someone whose imagination has just lifted him up from solitary confinement behind the writing desk, alone with his books and his drink.

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.