I didn’t read all of Will Self’s commentary on De Chirico’s The Uncertainty of the Poet. Already, after the first few words, the picture became loaded with too many meanings; with too much weight. The picture turned into a book, the paint into ideas.
Of course, paintings do have meanings; this is a failing in Fry’s Vision and Design – too much attention to form, and not enough to representation (something he himself later recognised). There is the intention of the artist, and the artwork’s own meaning; and later the critics’, and of the poet’s too, let us not forget. But the question is always the same: do our sentences capture something of the painting; or are they merely the ugly scaffolding built for virtuoso display.
Let’s have a look at this picture:
• Torso. Clearly a statue, but something in its movement, its sinuousness, suggests a human being. It is both an object and something alive.
• Bananas. No doubt these would have attracted Breton. And yes they are incongruous; altogether in a group, except one, a little apart.
• Arcade. It cuts across the side of the painting. It encloses large dark arches, and casts a deep shadow.
• Planes. These slide and intersect, and create a sense of dislocation, of movement, and perhaps fall.
• Train. How it speeds and puffs! Towards the top of the painting.
Unless the artist tells us we have to guess what these objects mean; if anything at all. It is possible they are part of a picture puzzle, with each object a designated symbol (a popular idea of the time – think of Kandinsky and his colour symbolism). A Breton reading, or more accurately, a Freudian one, would reduce these objects to unconscious ideas – this would have the same effect, but take the symbols out of the painting and locate then within another symbolic system. Or it could be that the ‘feel’ of the overall piece is what’s most important, each object fitting together to create an atmosphere; here something dark, a twilight feel of change, and the erasing of sharp outlines, removing the clarity of the daytime.
My preference is for the latter interpretation – for a picture to work you have to feel it, and that can only come from its effect; which will be an aesthetic not an intellectual one (here I do agree with Fry!). That said I think you can interpret the picture intellectually, looking at the objects depicted, but keeping as close to the painting as possible.
Titles can be important too!
The torso. The poetic persona, the muse? That source of the words and images, the rhythms, that is below the human consciousness. That mixture of the individual and the general, the mind and the body, the personal and the monumental, that is the artist (at work)?
…there is “emotion evident in the situation”, an emotion which attaches itself naturally to the events there described. But it is not this emotion, common to all human begins confronted with like situations, that turns Dante’s account to poetry. The quality which is peculiarly “poetic” is something arriving automatically, independent of the poet’s will, and finding its place in the poem’s “complexity of detail”, in particular “phrases” and “images”. This “detail” is thrust up from below the levels of consciousness. (C.K. Stead on Eliot. My emphasis)
When Yeats talked of his poetry he would compare it to something dead; it had a quality that is not human. He was referring to that sense of art that seems above, or outside, the range of our daily feelings and thoughts; a quality that is independent of us.
The bananas. What comes out! those momentary and transient extravagances of Schiller’s? That must now be selected and refined, shaped into the final work…
The arcade. Classical form behind which exists… the blackness. That murky borderland where the words become a poem, and the brush strokes a painting. Or the strange atmosphere behind the words and images, or the lines and brushwork, that the artwork tries to express, and put into form. That form? Tradition, fashion, the styles you inhabit…
There is, first, he says, an inert embryo or ‘creative germ’ (ein dumpfer schöpferischer Keim), and, on the other hand, the Language, the resources of the words at the poet’s command. He has something germinating in him for which he must find words, but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order. When you have the words for it, the ‘thing’ for which the words had to be found has disappeared, replaced by a poem. What you start from is nothing so definite as an emotion, in any ordinary sense; it is still more certainly not an idea; it is – to adapt two lines of Beddoes to a different meaning – a
Bodiless childful of life in the gloom
Crying with frog-voice, “what shall I be?”
(Eliot paraphrasing Gottfried Benn)
The right order: Classical, Post-impressionist, Cubism, Pop Art…
Sliding planes. Art makes you ill. Being full of images is a bit like indigestion – the body giving birth is unsettled and uneasy; and then there is the rush when it comes out. Rather glorious, but also strange and disturbing (just where does it all come from?):
It is very difficult to define. It’s something that is, as it were, brought into the human domain from apparently outside it though quite possibly from deeper profundities in the realm of human possibilities than have been conceived of before. It seems that it is the voice of a spirit, but it is a spirit that is talking human language or articulating itself in terms of human experience. It’s the other, if you like. But it also tends to be a force or a factor that articulates itself sometimes violently. It may just whisper a word or two at the right moment, but it’s quite often associated with a lot of turbulence, either in private life or in a certain intensity of discourse, but it is certainly at play in those moments when you just don’t know what this is all about but, gosh, is it splendid. Goethe writes of it as an interruptive agent, something of which nobody can tell whether it’s the outside breaking in or the inside breaking out. (Christopher Middleton).
The train. It steams away, from the arcades, and from the direction of the pointing bananas. The train is tiny, made so by distance. Also, it is the only thing that moves in an otherwise static picture. The fingers on the keyboard, the brush moving on the canvas? The energy of the artist let out in the moment of creation….
And if we put all these together, we see that Friedrich Schiller must have been looking at this picture when he wrote:
…where there is a creative mind, Reason – so it seems to me – relaxes its watch upon the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it look them through and examine them in a mass.
The poet’s uncertainty? Which banana do you select? What arches will you choose; and will the train have gone before you have chosen… Here is Benn again:
…but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order.
All these choices, but what rules can you follow? The mind can help, but too many ideas and its in the way, so you’re left with ‘feel’, ‘atmosphere’, intuition… everything slides and falls; everything becomes uncertain!