Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
The painter does not paint in order to fill the canvas with colours, any more than a poet writes to fill a page with words. — René Magritte
There are things in each of us as humans so fragile they exist nowhere except in ourselves. These watercolors by Bishop seem like fragile pieces of the poet, each a small poem in a way, providing some glimpse into the interior of her life. In 1977, she wrote in a letter to some friends, How I wish I’d been a painter . . . that must really be the best profession — none of this fiddling around with words — there are a couple of Daumiers at the Phillips that make me feel my whole life has been wasted.
Bishop had been the poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, a Pulitzer prize winner in 1956, and a Neustadt prize winner in 1955, and yet she could say she was a “poet by default.”
The paintings in this post are from the book Exchanging Hats, published in 1996. The text in parenthesis by the title is from the editor, William Benton.
Nova Scotia Landscape (watercolor and gouache, 5 1/4 x 8 inches)
Nova Scotia Landscape: What interests me about this painting are the colors she chooses. The pale blue of the waves seem to be diffused with light. By painting the lake in the foreground, she gives us a sense of space, a wide area of water and a landscape that expands out from that. The lake dominates the foreground as a living, working cluster of brushstrokes crowded together to form its own sky. The water gives a sense of time and motion, splinters in time and the illusion of movement. She uses flat, overlapping strokes to form the water as Van Gogh sometimes does.
Vincent Van Gogh. Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889
Bishop claimed to be a primitive painter. By definition that is art with an awkward relationship to the formal qualities of painting. Difficulties with drawing and perspective result in an awkward and charming vision, strong use of pattern, unrefined color and simplicity rather than subtlety of tones. But however primitive Bishop’s paintings are, in looking at them we begin to realize a painter was at work when she wrote her poems. An example of this can be seen in the second stanza of “Poem”:
It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see gabled wooden houses
painted that awful shade of brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple
-that gray-blue wisp-or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows;
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.
The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky
below the steel-gray storm clouds.
(They were the artist’s specialty.)
41 Charles Street (watercolor, gouache, and ink 8 1/4 x 6 3/4 inches)
41 Charles Street (A candidate for Bishop’s earliest-known painting. In 1934, she lived at 16 Charles Street in New York’s Greenwich Village – a block away from number 41.) In many of Bishop’s paintings we see layers of bricks. The repeated patterns here train our eyes on the painting in the same way the brush strokes do on the lake in Nova Scotia Landscape. Repeated patterns in painting as in poetry give the image a sense of rhythm. They remind us that patterns are everywhere in the shapes and figures around us and that familiarity gives our world a sense of balance.
Sha-Sha (1937, watercolor, 9 x 6 inches)
Sha-Sha (Sha-Sha is the nickname of Charlotte Russell, a Florida friend of Bishop’s. It would be nice to know the story behind the silly arithmetic 1 + 4 = 7; although something of the same spirit exists in the relation between the loosely handled figure and the fancy realism of the wood grain, complete with mildew.) I’m not sure what Charlotte Russell looked like, but I know how difficult it is to paint a human figure. Once again, we see a pattern in her sweater and in the wood grain.
Sha Sha is set against the wavelike pattern in the wood, as if she’s not part of the natural world. When you paint a person, you want to communicate some level of experience you have with them. Sha Sha seems only a decorative part of this world set against the shifting patterns behind her. Even though this painting seems partly doodled because Bishop didn’t finish the arms, the light complexion of Sha Sha and the spring-like color in her clothes set against the dark complexity of the wood suggest to me the relationship between the two women, light and dark.
Bishop painted Sha Sha during two months she spent in Keywaydin camp in Naples, Florida, with her friend Louise Crane in 1937. According to Brett Millier in her biography about Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, the poet met “Charlotte (Sha Sha) and Red Russell, newlyweds spending their honeymoon at the camp, who remained her friends for forty years . . . . She discovered her love for fishing on that trip to Florida and pulled in a sixty-pound amberjack days after she arrived. Her notebooks show lines and images that later became the poem The Fish.” (p. 113)
Palais Du Senat (1938, watercolor and gouache, 5 1/2 x 9 inches)
Palais Du Senat (Henry Miller, a fellow watercolorist, wrote ecstatically about his discovery of Chinese white. Bishop uses it off and on in her work, here perhaps for the first time.) When I look at Bishop’s paintings, I often question what perspective I would use if I were doing the same one. Here she paints the tops of these buildings against a pale sky. The Chinese white makes the buildings more three-dimensional than the figure of Sha Sha is. To paint roofs and windows and walls and solid spaces in contrast to a washed open sky, you must know how to build up the surface of the building to make it look powerful enough to stand on its own. Contrasting white with black gives any painting a sense of detail and structure.
Sleeping Figure (watercolor and gouache, 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches)
Sleeping Figure (The figure here is Louise Crane, with whom Bishop traveled in Europe and lived in Key West. They were lifelong friends.) Louise Crane met Bishop at Vassar in 1930. The two traveled extensively in Europe and bought a house together in Key West in 1937. Crane’s father was a millionaire and her mother founded MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She and Crane toured many art galleries together while they were in Europe, and this may have contributed to Bishop’s desire to paint.
Bishop’s paintings don’t have shadows or contrasts in delicate grays or blacks. They are point blank tone color next to tone color. There are no mists in Bishop’s paintings or the difficult graduating of tone. One central figure usually dominates the image. She paints Crane here asleep in a bed. Crane looks small and distant in the patterns of the blanketed wood-framed bed and not as sturdy as the wooden panels surrounding her. She seems impossibly small in relation to her heavy surroundings and almost untouchable. She lies in contrast to the horizontal lines of the blanket, stuck and unmovable, not going with the flow but firm-lipped and stolidly wrapped in her robe and scarf.
When I look at this painting, I think of a car accident Bishop was in with Crane and Margaret Miller, another friend of Bishop’s. Crane was driving fast at about five thirty in the afternoon through the Burgundy countryside of France when a passing car forced them off the road. The car rolled and all three women were thrown out. “At first I thought we were safe,” Bishop wrote. “Then we realized simultaneously, I think, that Margaret’s right hand and forearm were completely gone.” (Millier, 124) Bishop was traumatized by Margaret’s injury, not only because this happened to such a close friend but because it meant the loss of the right arm to an aspiring painter. From the apartment on the Ile St. Louise near the Quai d’Orléans where they stayed after Margaret left the hospital, Elizabeth wrote Quai d’Orléans and dedicated it to Margaret. The poem ends:
We stand as still as stones to watch
the leaves and ripples
while light and nervous water hold
“If what we see could forget us half as easily,”
I want to tell you,
“as it does itself–but for life we’ll not be rid
of the leaves’ fossils.”
E. Bishop’s Patented Slot Machine (undated, watercolor, 10 x 8 inches)
E. Bishop’s Patented Slot-Machine (The rainbow arc at the top of the picture – resembling the handle of a suitcase – bears the legend “The Dream.” In the diagram of the slot machine the notations read: “Crystal Ball; spark: handle; opening in glass case.” The two sets of numbers are: 2 3 8 10 7 1 and 3 2 5 4 1.) This is one of the most fascinating paintings by Bishop. How is a slot machine a dream? A dream is a response within us in search of new ways to respond to our emotions. But this is a thing made of metal and wood, a strange surreal house with a crystal ball. This hollow image with its openings and closings is assembled in the center of the painting. It isn’t three dimensional but flat and square. The contraption is an expression of opportunity, the different ways numbers can fall and are woven with fate. This dream is a simply constructed machine, but it enjoys the challenges of effort and numerous directions our lives can take.
Interior With Calder Mobile (watercolor and gouache)
Interior with Calder Mobile (The interior of Samambaia, the house built by Lota near Petropolis, in the mountains outside Rio de Janeiro, where she and Bishop lived. Rosinha Leao, to whom it is inscribed, was a friend of theirs in Brazil.) Lota de Soares was Bishop’s domestic partner for 15 years. Another thing that interests me about Bishop’s paintings is what she chooses to paint, interior and exterior landscapes. Her book titles also reflect this same relationship to space: North & South, Questions of Travel, Geography III. This painting celebrates the warm interior space around a stove. The placement of the stove is juxtaposed with a mobile, the desire in the painting and perhaps in the painter for imagination and spontaneity. Life isn’t all solid and stable. Part of it is out of control. The mobile represents a more abstract part of Bishop’s mind, one that isn’t grounded in reality. It’s not furniture, it’s not flowers, it’s not bricks, it’s a floating, evolving object, like planets revolving in space.
Red Stove And Flowers (1955, watercolor and gouache)
Red Stove and Flowers (The inscription reads: May the Future’s Happy Hours/Bring you Beans & Rice & Flowers/April 27th 1955/Elizabeth. This is one of the very few pictures composed as an explicit symbolic statement. It contains a poem – and a formula of proportion – for domestic balance. The stove is “magic”; and against a wall of blackness, the aggregate whites voice an impassioned reassurance. All underlined by one of her specialties: wood grain.) This painting like the last centers around a stove. The stove is the same size as the vase of flowers and proportionally incorrect. I think of the small stove in Bishop’s poem Sestina, which begins:
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
Some of Bishop’s paintings have softer edges than others. Red Stove and Flowers, emphasized by a black background and a red brick box is very simple to take in visually. Red box, blue circle, two pans with opposite facing handles. It’s a study in balance. Everything has its place. All the shapes fit in a space inside the puzzle. It’s a simple, strong painting about the most important things in life, food for our bodies and beauty for our souls.
Red Flowers On Black Devil's Paintbrush (gouache, 9 1/2 x 6 inches)
Red Flowers on Black Devil’s Paintbrush was painted in Maine a year or two before Bishop’s death. I have made numerous attempts to paint red flowers and appreciate that Bishop came up with a way to do it using a black background to give the petals a sense of delicacy. Alienating the slender flowers in the black space brings out the intention of the flowers and how we are to relate to their fragility. Our eyes are drawn to the arch of the stems. In this painting as in all of Bishop’s paintings, she recreated the images as authentically as her skill allowed. Magritte said, “The language of authenticity ‘gives the word’ to words by making them say what they never said.” In other words, representing something as authentically as we can gives it all the depth and mystery it needs.
Pansies (1960, watercolor and gouache, 12 1/2 x 15 inches)
Pansies (Ambitious in its realism, it is also, as far as we know, Bishop’s largest painting 12 1/2 x 15 inches.) These pansies in contrast to the red flowers are surrounded by patterns. The weave in the basket and the vertical and horizontal lines in the tablecloth give our eyes a lot to take in. The circular shapes of the flowers contrast the square patterning in the cloth and the books. When I look at a painting, I ask myself what I would add or delete if I were painting the same thing. There are no unwanted objects in this painting, and the objects find relief by being placed inside patterns as the subjects often do in Bishop’s poems.
Brazilian Landscape (watercolor and gouache)
Brazilian Landscape There are so many places for the eye to go in this painting, it’s hard to take it all in at once. Thick and thin strokes, short and long lines end up on top of each other. This is a painting almost entirely about movement and about efficiency of space, fitting in a landscape so that all the surfaces meet each other at the right places. It’s made more complex with dots and a rich mix of colors. No particular object dominates the painting. It’s a package of details.
When I look at this painting, I think of Japanese prints of waterfalls and mountains with a tiny human figure in the foreground to show the insignificance of man in the scheme of things. There aren’t any humans in Bishop’s Brazilian landscape either, and they are rarely central in her poetry. She never did a self-portrait that I know of, but all her paintings are self-portraits in a way, with well-designed, rhythmic spaces where little is exaggerated and everything seems slightly understated. We can hear the painter at work again in her poem about Brazil. It begins:
Brazil, January 1, 1502
… embroidered nature… tapestried landscape.
— Landscape into Art, by Sir Kenneth Clark
Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage—
big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
blue, blue-green, and olive,
with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a stain under leaf turned over;
in sliver-gray relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves—
purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
rust red and greenish white;
solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
and taken off the frame.
Graveyard With Fenced Graves (watercolor and gouache, 5 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches)
Graveyard with fenced Graves The Poinciana Tree in Key West, also called The Flame Tree, is said to be one of the world’s most colorful trees. When I see this painting by Bishop, I think of the Japanese woodcut by Hiroshige that Van Gogh made a copy of. When Bishop painted her poinciana tree, she must have had the Hiroshige/Van Gogh plum tree image in mind.
Comparison of a woodblock print by Hiroshige (left) to its copy painted by Van Gogh
In looking at both Bishop’s paintings and poetry, I have been trying to discover more about the person behind the work. There are no sensuous surfaces in either her paintings or poems but reality made in thin brush strokes. These paintings represent an intuited need in Bishop to express the limpid fluidity of her own life. She stands back away from her subjects and regards them, not with thick heavy brush strokes or harsh outlines but with a close embrace of details and a strong sense of composition. In many paintings, I see a woman not surrounded by a whorl of activity but a woman sitting alone in a room, trying to discover her place in the space she finds herself in. She painted what presented itself to her in dimly lit rooms. She was a watercolorist, and all these paintings of rooms and islands and flowers and horizons originally lived in water, something that’s never solid. There’s a mutability about watercolor we don’t have with oil. I think flowers are anchored better in water than they are in oil. It suggests the vulnerability of the image. The 42 paintings in Exchanging Hats represent their own form of lyrical interludes in Bishop’s life. It was a new way for her to absorb the details around her.
Tombstone For Sale (undated, watercolor, gouache and ink, 6 x 9 inches)
Lillian Hellman said in the opening of her book Pentimento: “Old paint on canvas as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines. A tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento, because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it is as well to say that an old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”
What interests me about both the poetry and paintings of Bishop is that underneath the surface of her text or her paint seems to be something else waiting to reveal itself, another poem, another painting. In her art, whatever form it takes, are things, objects, places she manages to save on paper and beneath the surface of each lies a mystery. I read one of her poems and think, there must be something I’m missing. So I read it again, searching for what lies beneath the exterior, a song of love or of pain or of some vision she had of life, some truth about the human condition. I search to find the dress, the child, the dog beneath the open sea.
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