In yesterday’s blog I brought up the topic of ecphrastic poems, and today’s visit to the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) offered a chance to think about the topic again. Suppose I begin with the Brueghels. (That is, the paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. His father Jan was a good painter, on a smaller scale, and his son Pieter the Younger at least made decent copies of his father’s work.) One Brueghel not among the KM’s holdings is The Fall of Icarus, which led Auden to write “Musée des Beaux Arts,” about the work that is found in the Brussels museum whose name is Auden’s title. The poem begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters…” and goes on to explain why. Auden focuses on the “incidental” character of a painting’s central drama as portrayed in the context of onrushing, indifferent human activity. Auden observes that, while a martyrdom is underway, the torturer’s horse “scratches its innocent behind on a tree,” and, meanwhile, it’s business as usual for bystanders in the picture. When some pivotal event in sacred story occurs, there are always children around “who didn’t especially want it to happen.” Brueghel takes the same approach in some of the KM pictures, for example, The Conversion of St. Paul, where the viewer is hard put to locate the missionary saint in his tumble from the horse he was riding on the road to Damascus. Hundreds of people are trekking through a mountain pass (somewhere entirely un-Syrian, with figures dressed in 16th century, as opposed to biblical, fashion)—some are riding, some are soldiers in armor, but others are just trudging along. Near the center of the picture we eventually do find a small figure of a man who looks as though he has just had a sunstroke, next to his horse, which is lying down. A couple of fellow travelers pause to offer assistance, but most don’t. It’s not so much an instance of La Rochefoucauld’s “We all have strength enough to bear the sufferings of other people,” so much as a sort of cruel imperviousness: people just don’t notice.
No doubt it was the impact of Auden’s poem that led William Carlos Williams to write his sequence Pictures from Brueghel, a sequence based on those paintings where the artist depicted village life in northern Europe. Williams’s poems have a down-to-earth, galumphing charm but they are not in the same league with Brueghel’s portrayal of peasant life in the Low Countries. This fact should remind us of the risk involved when we choose artworks of great magnitude as the subject of our poems: the disparity between the original and our version can be crushing. In Brueghel’s picture of a peasant wedding feast, there are many good reasons to be overwhelmed. First, the exacting realism of the piece, where nearly every square inch of the picture attests to dedicated observation and precise rendering—the matte finish on a terracotta wine jug, a child sucking its finger, the bagpipe player’s cheeks belled out as he puffs at his instrument. Yet Brueghel’s draughtmanship is not photographic. Human characters are rendered in his own inimitable stylized manner, with a strong feeling for volumetric form, almost as though his people were clothed statues that he has painted. (You get the same feeling from Piero della Francesca’s figures, but Piero allows them to remain static and statuesque, while Brueghel humanizes his characters through bustling action and vocal interaction we can almost hear.) The faces sometimes have a caricatural aspect, to a degree tapping into Northern Renaissance painting’s tradition of the grotesque, as found in painters like Bosch, Altdorfer, Mabuse, and even sometimes in Dürer. But Brueghel is laughing with, not at his peasants. These are celebratory pictures, carnivalesque, down home, reassuring.
The next ecphrastic painting in the Brueghel series is Berryman’s “Hunters in the Snow,” after the painting of the same name (it hangs in the KM). This is one of the artist’s most powerful pieces, pushing toward the monochromatic as he works to give us the sense of a snowbound winter evening under verdigris skies. The silhouettes of the three hunters and their dozen hounds (some with with curled tails) are nearly black, sharply contrasting with the bone-white snow. And figures further in the background skating on a pond are simple silhouettes, with nearly all color and detail suppressed. Only one hunter has only one dead fox hooked to his pike; the day’s sortie hasn’t resulted in much, and who can eat fox anyway? You feel that it is cold, cold, a day “when icicles hang by the wall,” as the Shakespeare lyric puts it. Berryman’s poem comes closer to matching the power of the original. He is aware of the implied hardship and his spare language amounts to a verbal equivalent thereof. He enters the painting and senses what its figures feel.
No one yet (so far as I know) has written a poem about Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, and it is probably wiser not to. His rendering of the subject belongs to the tradition of imaginary and unbuildable architecture; though I suppose skeptics said the same about Cheops’s pyramid when ground was broken for it. An unforgettable image, this circular tower of brick and limestone, with the truncated high-rise shouldering aside a cloud or two. The destructive proliferation of languages is imminent, and humankind will never be the same again.
Let’s make a switch and go to Francesco Mazzola, better known as Il Parmigianino. I missed his works here when I visited forty years ago for the simple reason that the KM is so huge, with so many side galleries, it takes ingenious perseverance to see everything hanging there. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t know about Mazzola at that time. But I’ve come to admire him a lot, and recommend paintings in the Naples Museum and the National Gallery, London, for anyone who is curious. But the KM has a work I particularly wanted to see: that was his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the stimulus for one of John Ashbery’s most celebrated poems. And there it was, considerably smaller than I imagined. Which didn’t mean it didn’t have presence or wasn’t moving. Mazzola was so young. I think he died in his thirties, and in this portrait he seems little more than an adolescent, with tender features and a gentle expression. Not only the image, but the physical painting itself is convex, which separates it from flat representations of convexity, as in the background mirror found in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage. Looking at it, you have the eerie feeling that you are seeing your own reflection, only, it’s not your face. And in the foreground there are the much enlarged four fingers of his right hand, the thumb hidden; presumably he is at work drawing the portrait we are seeing.
To turn anecdotal, I recall when I first read the poem, I believe in the summer of 1974. John sent it to David Kalstone, an English professor and critic of poetry (see his Five Temperaments and Becoming a Poet), who had sort of volunteered to serve as a mentor for me in those years. David and John happened to live opposite each other on 22nd Street in New York and became friendly. Anyway, David was spending the summer in James Merrill’s house in Stonington, Connecticut that summer and invited Edmund White and myself up for a weekend. During the visit, we sat down together and David read out the poem. Our jaws dropped; we were stupefied. And when “Self-Portrait” came out a year later in the book with the same title, it sort of swept the board, raking in three major prizes for that year. John had been pretty thoroughly marginalized before then, but that book changed everything. Not that the work is typical, on the contrary. It’s the most discursive poem he ever wrote, and among the longest. It makes arguments, includes autobiographical details, and even quotes art history scholars. It also develops some of his lushest imagery—not without a certain disquieting undertow of implication, however. For example, in the passage about there being one bullet in the chamber, a trope that transforms the painter’s room into the magazine of a revolver. I don’t automatically assume he was aware of all that the poem contained back then. No more than I assume the poem is a product of “automatic writing.”
And, yes, of course I spent some time with the KM’s staggeringly beautiful Vermeer, The Artist in His Studio. Though I’ve seen it several times since 1968 and spent hours going over every detail, there is always more to notice. One sensation I experienced today was the feeling that the scene was actually filled with some indefinable, pellucid gel, as clear but not as liquid as water. And if it can contain a liquid, then the picture space must exist in three dimensions, not two. Its spatial terms are like ours—a brilliant acquarium, filled with hallucinatorily believable creatures, no matter that the painter’s back is rudely turned to us. What other painting shows the principal figure with its back turned? No actor ever allows that to happen onstage, but Vermeer took the discourteous risk, one that is supposed to alienate audience attention. Why? Because he and his avatar are absolutely wrapped up in the second world that painting is. He doesn’t care that we are there behind him watching. We don't exist for him. The model turns her head in our direction, granted, but looks down and can't see us. She is an allegorical representation of Clio, the Muse of History. But also a young woman, demure, pleased at being painted, and ineffably lovely.
Around five o'clock I stumbled out of the museum in bright sunlight. Football (soccer) fans thronging the streets, yelling and creating fan-type ruckus. With my genius for timing, I scheduled a trip to Vienna for the week when the city is hosting the Europe games for 2008. I realize I don't live in the same world as the one most people believe they are inhabiting. But Somebody loves us all," as Elizabeth Bishop said in "Filling Station."