Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, May 16, 2016

Tales of men and women

Cold morning with something unusual for here: a couple of orioles in the lilac bush. Lilac bushes are about as common as dandelions in the northeast (hence the lilacs of Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," but a morning with orioles in the lilac bush and goldfinches at the feeder? That's like a flash of sunset at noon. Despite the cold and yesterday's snow flurries, this has been a good week for songbird color with goldfinches and purple finches. I'm drinking tea and reading the distressing article in "The Atlantic" article on "the collapse of a large, wealthy, seemingly modern, seemingly democratic nation just a few hours’ flight from the United States"--socialist Venezuela. If you are drawn to Kafka on the toils of a man caught by the system, or else want to know about exactly how helpless a mother and father can be in the face of government corruption and abrupt loss of essential goods like drugs and food, have a read. The stories are heartbreaking.

Interesting to me for a number of reasons, most of them obvious--one of them local, as there is a Cooperstown connection--is this article, "The Diminution of Women Writers: An American Tradition." I'm not surprised that the author mentions Hawthorne's influence on Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, and his dislike for much of the "scribbling" mob of women. I adore Hawthorne and always feel congenial with him, but wouldn't it be good to have some stories by Sophia, and not just her paintings? The writer gives Constance Fenimore Woolson, named in part after her great-uncle, James Fenimore Cooper, as a prime example: "Woolson’s work and career are a reminder that women’s literary ambitions are not a recent phenomenon. She was a writer who aimed for and reached the heights of literary recognition, despite even greater obstacles than those facing women writers today." She and Henry James were very close friends--close enough to have destroyed their letters to each other--and she influenced his work. Various people have suggested that The Beast in the Jungle is based on his feeling for Constance Fenimore Woolson. I have read that it was William Dean Howells who buried her reputation as a writer after her suicide, and unfortunately James did not defend her in print. Now her books are at last on the rise again.

Painter Yolanda Sharpe reminded me of the case of married painters Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, and how Pollock received far more attention. So I dug up this marvelous little quote from ARTnews (1949): "There is a tendency among some of these wives to 'tidy up' their husband's styles. Lee Krasner (Mrs. Jackson Pollock) takes her husband's paint and enamels and changes his unrestrained, sweeping lines into neat little squares and triangles." Aren't those phrases interesting? The name of the show, the tidying wife, the "Mrs. Jackson Pollock," the neatness, the "littleness." "Some of these wives." So the reviewer "sees" that masculine lack of restrain and "sweeping" lines beat female, so little and neat. (I find it hard to apply either adjective to Lee Krasner.)

And painter Ashley Cooper reminded me of the much-shared article about Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, "Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art."  I went back and looked at it again, Frida Kahlo photographed in what the journalist calls her "foolish little ruffled apron," tied over a black silk dress. She is "a miniature-like little person." Her "miniature-like technique" is opposed to the "heroic" figures of Rivera. The author clearly admires the work, though, describing "a skillful and beautiful style." Perhaps the most interesting element in the article is how well Kahlo knows that it is useless to defend her work or expose her secret ambition, and how she employs truth and laughter. He is the art star, come to Detroit to paint his Detroit industry murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts, and her own work is just beginning to flower. Listen to how she tells the truth of what she knows is inside her, beginning to break forth: "Of course, he does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist." She laughs and mocks her questioner, but in the end she is right. At that moment, he is the better artist. Later on, she will surpass him.

***

And for a postscript, a little Emily Dickinson and Billy Collins...

4 comments:

  1. i think about Frida K. fairly often-i really like her work; when i lived in Mexico i used to see Rivera's murals all over the place, or replications thereof, and always had the same reaction: big and interesting, but not very whatyou'dcall art, now is it, really...? more like advertising...

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    1. Sort of like him, I expect--big and interesting. I'm always surprised when I see a Kahlo that the paintings are fairly small; clearly they are only small in size.

      And now I know (if I knew, I had forgotten that puzzle piece) that Mudpuddle lived in Mexico!

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  2. Orioles at your feeder! We've been waiting weeks to see one. We even have an orange-colored feeder with fresh oranges and a lovely dollop of grape-jelly chaser. They seem to have bypassed Maryland and gone straight for the northern hinterlands; clearly they know they're needed there more.

    I've never liked the styles of either Rivera or Kahlo, but it's always been clear to me that Kahlo was the better artist. Her painting comes from someplace real, a specific reality I'd rather not visit, while his work...well, the propagandistic aspects of certain prominent paintings just gets in the way of me even wanting to appreciate him, alas.

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    1. I have only rarely seen any orioles here, but it's always a red-letter day. (Perhaps it's the new shiny red enamel feeder?) I hope they're still around.

      Yes, I agree with you--it's impossible not to see that her work is more lasting, although the genesis of it is something so painful. There's the terrible accident and its after-shocks, and I believe she started painting seriously in Detroit, after her castor-oil-and-quinine induced abortion. I say that even though I despise autobiography as explaining art. But with Kahlo, it is in your face (as in Plath, say.)

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.