Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Poetry in paint: The art of Elizabeth Bishop

December 14, 2011

Had Elizabeth Bishop got her way, she may never have become one of North America’s finest modern poets. “How I wish I’d been a painter,” she once wrote, “that must really be the best profession—none of this fiddling with words.”

“Objects and Apparitions”, an exhibition of Bishop's artwork at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York, lends a glimpse of her private life as a painter. The show gathers together a selection of the relatively unknown pieces she produced in her lifetime—for friends, lovers or as gifts, never intended for public display—along with some of the objects she adorned her homes with in Brazil and America.

The result is illuminating. As in so many of her poems, Bishop’s paintings—all small, averaging around 8 by 8 inches in size—are intricately detailed. And yet they can trip you up with a sudden, vertiginous shift in perspective (as in “Table with Candelabra”, in which objects on a flowery tablecloth seem to be poised somewhere between forever slipping off the table, and forever staying still), just as the break of an enjambment in her poetry might suddenly lift you to another, unexpected plane. These paintings feature pansies for one lover, Lota de Macedo Soares; or capture another lover lying asleep on her bed. One depicts a lonely tea service laid out, a single cup and saucer ready for use.

As in her poetry, these domestic details have a darker undercurrent. The sleeping lover looks more dead than alive, whereas the provenance of “Pansies” goes on to describe how the painting was returned to Bishop after de Macedo Soares’s suicide. In “Tombstones for Sale” a row of white tombstones with “FOR SALE” signs written upon them shine out of the landscape she has set them in, like a collection of a child’s gleaming white milk teeth. Her assemblage “Anjinhos” touches on the theme of infant mortality in Brazil, with rows of paper-cut cherubim placed next to a small, discarded sandal.


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