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 16: The lines of life

Lena Levin. Sonnet 16. The lines of life

Sonnet 16: The lines of life. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen. 2012.


William Shakespeare. Sonnet 16

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this Time’s pencil or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.

To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live drawn by your own sweet skill.

Fiona Shaw reads this sonnet in the Touchpress edition.

In the dramatic plot of the sonnet sequence, we find ourselves at the crossing of three motives:

  • Procreation as salvation, or Erasmian abjurations to marry. By all appearances, the speaker returns to this motive in this sonnet, yet it is about to dry out completely, to be replaced by
  • Prohibited romantic love, with its mild craziness and enraptured adoration, supported and reinforced by
  • Immortalizing power of art, from the poet’s cosmic view of earthly affairs – we have just been there in Sonnet 15 (to which this one is directly linked with the initial but of the first line), but now the speaker appears to have doubts about his power to make the young man live “in the eyes of men”.

Although this sonnet seems to return to the procreation motive, we are just a breath away from (temporarily) forgetting mortality and different strategies of overcoming it and losing ourselves completely in the enchanted garden of romantic love. Even if the sonnet doesn’t mention romantic love explicitly, it is already filled to the brim with its sweetness and adoration. This is one reason why my painting picks the central visual image of the sonnet – maiden gardens yet unset (vaguely referencing Vincent Van Gogh’s orchard paintings, but without (visible) flowers).

Here, however, the speaker still pretends to discuss the relative merits of immortalizing strategies. The major contrast is between art and procreation, with a sub-contrast between poetry and painting (by the way, it’s the first time that the speaker identifies himself as a poet, referring to his barren rhyme). The contrast is played out in two “linguistic” games.

The first game entertains the opposition and affinity between pencil (meaning painter’s brush) and the speaker’s own pen, creating a pun on penis (as the context suggests, that must be the instrument of the young man’s own sweet skill mentioned in the couplet). Just as the explicit mention of barren rhyme and maiden gardens create the empty place for the listener to fill in with fertile bride, so the explicit mention of inadequate “artistic” instruments of immortality, pen and pencil, suggest the only (yet shyly unnamed) adequate one, helped along by the phonetic similarity.

The second linguistic game is based on the multiple meanings of line:

  • lines drawn by a (visual) artist, and
  • lines of a poem, and, finally,
  • the lines of life (i.e. genealogical lines).

This is the game I try to pick up and continue in the painting – stressing the linear qualities of organic branches (standing for lines of life) and attempting to match the magnificent rhythm of the third quatrain with the upward rhythmical movements of my lines.

Sonnet 15: The conceit of this inconstant stay

Lena Levin. Sonnet 15: The conceit of this inconstant stay

Sonnet 15: The conceit of this inconstant stay. 20″x20″ (50.8 x 50.8 cm). Oil on linen. 2012.

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;

When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;

Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;

And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

Click here to listen to Fiona Shaw reading this sonnet.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 14: Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012

Sonnet 14: “Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck.” 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

Something strange happened here. As I was finding my way into Sonnet 14 (“Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck”), trying and rejecting various visual approaches to “mocking astrology”, the image that gradually clarified itself before my sight grew semantically closer and closer to this sonnet, with a beautiful human face engrafted against a cosmic view of stars and earth. I like to see it as a sign that I have really connected to the visual counterpart of sonnets’ deep underlying current of thoughts and feelings.

For this painting, then, I felt that I have to acknowledge the link between the two sonnets/images, to integrate it into the new image – and yet to shift the focus from the dominating presence of another human being, “you”, for a human observer towards the fragility, the acutely perceived inconstancy of our stay in this world.

In this sonnet, the speaker doesn’t mock an astrologer’s cosmic view of human affairs; he takes an even more cosmic view – from which he can observe both the stage on which the show of human affairs is presented, and the stars commenting on the show, and the debate going on between the global forces of Time and Decay. A mere human can directly witness this debate, this painful inconstancy of beauty, only if he looks at something with a life span much shorter than his – which, I believe, leads to Shakespeare’s mention of plants in the sonnet.

So these are two views my painting juxtaposes to convey the conceit of this inconstant stay: the cosmic view, mostly borrowed from the previous painting (and thus, indirectly, from Van Gogh) and the close-up of red roses. I have changed the landscape part of the painting, losing the stability of horizontals and verticals (intrinsic to the “human” view of a landscape) and adding a hint of a theatrical curtain to indicate its show-like quality for the cosmic observer. The roses, too, nearly dissolve into brushstrokes and color shapes – rather a momentary visual impression than a solid, stable “object”.

Sonnet 14: Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck

Lena Levin. Sonnet 14: Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck. 20"x20". Oil on linen. 2012

Sonnet 14: “Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck.” 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;

Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;

Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

Click here to listen to David Calder reading this sonnet in the Touchpress edition.

When I began composing this painting in my mind, I thought it would be some sort of comic relief from the previous, rather painful, one. After all, a large chunk of the sonnet is filled with mocking astrology (“astronomy” in Shakespeare’s language), listing common types of its mundane predictions and using markedly convoluted grammar to convey its pompous language.

(As an aside, a modern reader might be tempted to assume that the preposterous “oft predict” in line 8, where both words seem to have lost their part-of-speech affiliation in an attempt to sound more important, is just one more difference between Shakespeare’s English and modern English. This doesn’t seem to be the case: this phrase must have sounded as strange to contemporary readers as it does to us.)

Yet I could not quite find my way into the painting from the “mocking astrology” angle; the essence of the sonnet’s meaning lies elsewhere: another human being, “thou”, as the largest thing in the universe, brighter than the stars, the source of real knowledge.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Starry Night. 73.7 x 92.1 cm. Oil on canvas. 1889.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Starry Night. 73.7 x 92.1 cm. Oil on canvas. 1889.

I used Van Gogh’s Starry Night as a starting pointing for the painting. On the one hand, the original is one of the most powerful visual statements of insignificance of our little, negligible human affairs (reduced to the bottom of the painting) – in comparison to the ever-present influence of the stars above. On the other hand, the reproductions of this image are so ridiculously overused nowadays – it seems to be everywhere, from postcards to jigsaw puzzles to place mats and coffee cups – that its use in the context of our culture seems to match Shakespeare’s mock of popular mythology of his. My painting, therefore, tries to invoke both the original and its endless reproductions.

Mikail Vrubel. The Swan Princess. Oil on canvas. 142.5 x 93.5 cm. 1900.

Mikail Vrubel. The Swan Princess. Oil on canvas. 142.5 x 93.5 cm. 1900.

The second image referenced in the painting is less universally known; it’s Mikhail Vrubel’s Swan Princess (1900). At this time, Vrubel was working on the set and costumes for a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, “The tale of Saltan the Tzar”; the Swan Princess was played by Vrubel’s wife, Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel (the opera itself is based on a tale-poem by Alexander Pushkin). It might not be clear from this image (please click it to see a larger one), but the Swan Princess has a star shining from her forehead, which is, I believe, what “attracted” her into my painting.

The semantic contrast between unimportant things astrologists claim to predict and the answers to the essential, eternal questions to be found in the beloved’s eyes is formally enacted in the sonnet via the opposition of rhythms in the first eight lines and in the last six. Just pronounce to yourself and compare two “parallel” opening lines, line 1 and line 9:

Not from the stars do I judgement pluck…

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive

Feel how the scurrying rhythm of the first line is replaced by a slower and more powerful movement of the second one? This is the contrast I’ve tried to “recreate” in the painting, in the opposition between its “starry” part and the “swan princess” part. And both the chaotic movement of heavenly stars and the vertical spire of the church below ultimately lead the viewer to the constant stars that are human eyes.

And yet, in the end, it did turn out to be a whimsical and mocking painting, yet not quite as I imagined it at first.