Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Poetry from Art autumn 2010: Gauguin & Joan Jonas

The theme this term for my Poetry from Art course at Tate Modern is myth and fairytale. Paul Gauguin made up his own myths, part derived from Tahitian ones. He created this goddess Oviri as his alter ego. In Tahitian, Oviri means savage – she's stamping on a she-wolf and clasping a stolen wolf cub. Here's the suggestive shape of her back:

We started the course in the Gauguin exhibition and will return there for one more session. It was amazing to work in the galleries when the crowds had left! In the opening class I supplied lines from Polynesian myths, read out the myth of Hina the moon goddess, which forms the basis of his painting Hina and Tefatou (Moon and Earth)

and read out quotes by Gauguin on the genesis of his painting Manao Tupapau: The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch, where he wrote about his use of colour and Tahitian ghost god myths:

This is what he wrote in a letter about how he painted it:

"Here is the genesis: General Harmony. Dark dull violet, dark blue and chrome 1. The draperies are chrome 2, because this colour suggests night, without explaining it, however, and furthermore serves as a happy medium between the yellow orange and the green, completing the harmony. These flowers are also like phosphorescences in the night (in her thoughts). The Kanakas believe that the phosphorous lights seen at night are the souls of the dead. In short, it is a fine bit of painting, although it is not according to nature."

In his journal Noa Noa he added:
"One day I had to go to Papeete. I had promised to come back that same evening. It was one in the morning when I got home. Having at that moment very little oil in the house . . . the lamp had gone out, and the room was in darkness when I went in. I felt afraid and, more still, mistrustful. I struck matches and saw on the bed motionless, naked, lying face down on the bed, her eyes immeasurably larger from fear, Tehura looked at me and seemed not to know me. I too was caught for several moments by a strange feeling of uncertainty. Tehura’s terror was contagious. I had the illusion that a phosphorescent light was streaming from her staring eyes. Never had I seen her so frighteningly beautiful. I was afraid to make any movement which might increase the child’s paroxysm of fright. How could I know what at that moment I might seem to her? Might she not with my frightened face take me for one of the demons and spectres, one of the Tupapaüs, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights? Did I really know who in truth she was herself? The intensity of fright had transformed her into a strange being, entirely different from anything I had known before."

I asked the group of 30 poets to choose one painting, drawing, carving or ceramic and write a poem about it, responding to the colours, and to incorporate one of the lines from Polynesian myths I had compiled. This could be used anywhere in the poem, and could be altered to suit. They were invited to make up their own myths if they wished, but had to make the poem contemporary and were to be ruthless in writing about something that mattered to them, to be free in their interpretation. 

If myth was our focus with Gauguin, for our second week we discussed
Joan Jonas's magical but grisly The Juniper Tree installation based on a fairytale. It's a darker version of the Snow White story, and involves a boy who is beheaded then cooked by his stepmother. His bones are absorbed by the juniper tree and transformed into a shamanic bird who sings his story and eventually returns to kill his murderer. The installation is dominated by red and white and a haunting soundtrack. Originally The Juniper Tree was a performance (in 1976 in the US then 1979 in the Whitechapel Art Gallery). 

I asked everyone to free-write a response to the installation then offer one of those lines to the rest of the group. We discussed the Grimms brothers' 'The Juniper Tree' fairytale and studied Moniza Alvi's poem 'Mermaid' (from her latest collection Europa) which is based on Tabitha Vevers' painting When We Talk about Rapetwo responses to a fairytale and equally dark subject matter. We paid particular attention to the form of the poem, with its deep indents, the extra space between the spare lines evoking a feeling of shock. Everyone could select one of the group's gift lines to include in a short poem, with attention paid to the form and how it might hold powerful subject matter.

Next week we will work in the permanent display Poetry & Dream. Then we'll be back in the Gauguin exhibition. Our fifth writing session will be in the Ana Mendieta room, responding to an artist who made performances influenced by Frida Kahlo and rituals of indigenous South Americans.  Our last session on November 29th (at 18.45) will be a reading open to the public in Poetry & Dream on Level 3, when the group will read poems written on the course. Entrance is free. Everyone is welcome, so please come to listen and enjoy the stunning surreal paintings which inspired some of their poems.