Review of the Tibor de Nagy exhibition, Elizabeth Bishop, Objects & Apparitions, New York City
Peggy Samuels, Drew University
The exhibition is accompanied by a 48-page book of the same title with brief texts by Lloyd Schwartz, Dan Chaisson, and Joelle Biele. Tibor de Nagy Gallery, in association with James S. Jaffe Rare Books, 2011.
Exchanging Hats: Elizabeth Bishop Paintings, Ed. and intro. and afterward by William Benton. London: Carcanet; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, rev. paperback edition, 2011.
The recent Elizabeth Bishop exhibition at Tibor de Nagy (December 8, 2011 through January 21, 2012) includes many of the objects that had been in Alice Methfessel’s possession (other works have been sold previously or are already owned either by private owners or by the Vassar College Library). In addition to Bishop’s own works, Tibor de Nagy has gathered objects as disparate as Bishop’s Brazilian writing desk, her binoculars, the Gertrude and Arthur portraits, two Gregorio Valdez paintings, as well as items that Bishop collected in Brazil, including a birdcage, an 18th C wooden Madonna, a votive cabinet, a small saint’s statue, and a paddle that she purchased on the Amazon trip.
The primary sensation is of the hand-made. Face-to-face with Bishop’s paintings, one feels intensely the modesty of materials (the non-archival brittle paper), the tangible sense of making (the wobbliness of lines, one line superimposed on and correcting the other, passages unfinished), and a certain off-handed air, that says: I just happened to find this collection of objects, this particular building, this arrangement of colors, this perspective of interest, and you are quite free not to share my affections or delectations. There is a quietness and privacy in the making, as if each scene would have gone unnoticed except that the painter has had the humanity and simple respect to set up a warm, congenial, but non-intrusive relationship with her subject.
Although the dimensions of the works have long been recorded in William Benton’s Exchanging Hats, the tiny scale of some of the works can still surprise. “County Courthouse,” in the original, gives off an even more palpable sense of leaning, instability, and fragility: the tower seemingly composed of tiny matchsticks, the few trees on the left, one falling onto the other, a bent telephone pole that can’t stand straight—all give off a slightly humorous air and above all become suffused with a sense of humility in scale, touch, intimacy, fallibility, ephemerality. Indeed, some of the works are beginning to alter. The wing of the large butterfly in “Anjinhos” has lost its gorgeous blue. And, yet, encountered here, the tactility of the assemblage’s materials become fully available: the harsh brittle feel of crumbled shell fragments mingled with glass and sand, the glitter paint interspersed with the opalescence of the shells, the fragility of the frayed string and the worn-out leather of the sandal thong, the beat-up quality of the wooden sole with its broken notch, the sand burying one of the angel figures that has slipped down from the group. Startling and delightful to discover that there really are white rice and black beans in the tiny shell-dish “offering” in the foreground. Other aspects become visible in the originals of the water colors. Because of the non-absorbent vellum-like paper used for some works, the objects stand out from the plane of the paper, hovering as if suspended in space strangely unattached to the two-dimensional surface. In “Tombstones for Sale,” the leaves seem to hover off the Poinciana tree and then become just swirls of green paint; the blossoms, saturated red, hang even farther off the page. In “Table with Candelabra,” the objects, even though in a confined space, appear remote from each other: Bishop uses a distinct drawing style and materiality of surface for each object—the soft neutral tablecloth with its red scrawled patterning, the bright white sheen of the decorated porcelain, the dull opacity of the mirror, the straw-seated wooden chair.
One of the joys of the exhibition is the small Gregorio Valdez, the first that Bishop bought. Symmetrical rows of stately Royal Palms line a simple rural road that comes straight at the viewer. Far underneath them appears a diminutive man, the same exact size as his donkey, on which he is seated face front. With the focal point of the painting way above him—the palms and an expansive sky– the man calls no attention to himself and belongs in his environment without any fuss. There is a tiny white house tucked into the flat grassland behind him. The whole picture gives off the effect of that “peculiar and captivating freshness, flatness, and remoteness” that attracted Bishop to Valdez’s work.
Among the objects that Bishop owned, the most expressive is a carved wooden Santo with its combination of terror and humor, partly deriving from the vertiginous divergences of scale. The Santo, in blue vest, red knickers, white long socks and curly beard, looms as a visionary, looking out and ahead, balanced above five sailors lying– some on their stomachs and arching upward—and forming, with their bodies, the shape of a small boat. They are sorrowful and anxious (afraid of drowning?), all with hands raised in supplication or fear. With red streaks on their foreheads and cheeks, they look both wounded and clownish. Noting their made-up red cheeks and swashbuckling mustaches, one cannot help wobbling from pity for them into amusement. In one of his hands, the Santo standing over them holds a tiny ornate church, complete with three rows of bells, and in the other hand, now empty, he must have held a lighted candle. He serves both as their savior and as a hugely indifferent force, not seeming to register any awareness of the men over whom he strides. Given that Bishop did not leave any written description of the work, we are left only with conjecture about her own reading of it. Likewise, we are left to speculate about the votive cabinet, with its worn bleached wood, pink paint almost rubbed away to grey, simple iron hasps and block of wood for a handle: did Bishop enjoy the humor of living with a votive cabinet empty of its deity?
The accompanying catalogue, published by Tibor de Nagy gallery in association with James S. Jaffe Rare Books, includes three brief texts by Lloyd Schwartz, Dan Chiasson, and Joelle Biele. While both Schwartz and Chiasson find a deep kinship between the sensibility evident in watercolors and poems, these critics diverge sharply in their readings. Where Schwartz sees “delicacy of touch, the fineness of line, the quirky jokes . . . unpretentious earthiness [and] honesty,” Chiasson finds an “illusion of aesthetic modesty,” and declares that “the first thing you notice about the works of art here is their calculated simplicity, their impression of naiveté” [emphasis mine]. Chiasson feels an irony in Bishop’s act of humble witnessing, and emphasizes “Bishop’s felt incongruity with the facts of her life.” Reminding us about Bishop’s lifelong feeling of “unresolved strangeness” of the ordinary human “predicament” of being “’an I’, ‘an Elizabeth,’” Chiasson clearly experiences the paintings with a strong sensation of Bishop’s mind registering the unlikeliness of the ordinary objects that she paints. In her brief essay, Joelle Biele usefully introduces a whole other category of relationship between poems and paintings, enumerating a list of paintings that overlap with drafts of poems, offering scholars a new avenue to explore.
Farrar, Strauss, &Giroux has also published a paperback edition of William Benton’s Exchanging Hats: Elizabeth Bishop Paintings, for which Benton has written an “Afterward” and added lovely descriptive comments to the facing-page captions of some of the works. In a few cases where the work itself must have deteriorated, the colors have become blunted or lost (e.g., “Harris School” has lost the beautiful bluish-gray–almost a periwinkle gray–of the doors, and so forfeited the magical sensation of the darkening building hosting a color effect produced by but not actually seen in the sunset sky). A few of the works have been re-photographed, often giving a somewhat more tangible sensation of the materiality of the works and sometimes brightening them (although sometimes making them more blurry). Even for paintings that have not been re-photographed, the coloration in many of the reproductions has changed considerably from the hardcover first edition. In that previous edition, there seems to have been a blue-green cast to many of the works, and the removal of that filter sharpens the colors and color contrasts, in some cases considerably enriching and enlivening the work (e.g., “Unfinished Fireplace,” “Interior with Calder”). It is fortunate to have a paperback edition of the book, making it more affordable to use for courses that include both poems and paintings.