Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Poetry On Canvas: The Art of E.E. Cummings

by Stephen J. Gertz

Marion Morehouse in Gray-Green
Original oil sketch on cardboard, 8 1/2 by 11 1/4 inches, of Cummings' third wife,
Marion Morehouse. Her fully realized face peers out from gray-green background
and lightly indicated body. LPC #46. Lopez #1105.
While most of us are aware of e.e. cummings as a modern poet, who, amongst other innovations, integrated typography into his poems, many may be unaware of his work as a visual artist.

Marion Morehouse in Gold and Dark Gray
Original oil painting. Oil on canvasboard, 10 by 14 inches.
Portrait of Cummings' third wife, Marion Morehouse.
She is depicted to the waist with her arms crossed in sketchy
 brushstrokes against a dark gray background. Her skin tone
is indicted with lines of pale gold paint. LPC #732. Lopez #1091.
He considered it as important as his writing and devoted an enormous amount of energy to it.

Portrait of Marion Morehouse
Original oil painting. Oil on canvasboard, 10" x 14".
Portrait of Marion Morehouse, Cummings's third wife;
she is nude to the waist and posed with her arms raised
with her hands behind her neck. LPC #731. Lopez #561.
He began to paint at about the same time as he began to compose poems, in the immediate post-WWI years, and followed the avant-garde currents of Cubism and Abstraction. Later, however, he turned his back on the artistic establishment and, while integrating the principles he had explored in modernism, settled into a distinct and highly personal relationship with the representational and human. Yet, he maintained an exuberant and uninhibited approach to color; he had written extensively on color theory and it appears as if his retinas were drunk, their rods and cones guests at a chromatic orgy.

Sketch of Dancing Nude
Original oil sketch. Oil on canvasboard, 8" x 10".
Light brushed sketch of dancing nude woman,
using mostly purple paint. LPC #785. Lopez #880.
"Why do you paint? For exactly the same reason I breathe. That's not an answer. There isn't any answer. How long hasn't there been any answer? As long as I can remember. And how long have you written? As long as I can remember. I mean poetry. So do I" (e e cummings).

Kneeling Nude
Original oil painting. Oil paint on cardboard, image size 6 by 8 1/4 inches,
 matted in board frame, 16 by 20 inches. Thickly painted study of
kneeling female nude in impressionistic forest setting. Dated on the
 verso "Aug 18 1940." LPC #368. Lopez #1136
"Critics have generally divided Cummings' career as a painter into two stylistic phases. The first phase, about 1915-1928, was represented by his experimental large-scale abstracts and his drawings and caricatures published in The Dial. During the 1920s Cummings started to drop out of the gallery scene, and he came to view the art establishment as anti-intellectual. The second phase of his art was from about 1928 until his death; this phase was characterized by representational works: still lifes, landscapes, nudes, and portraits" (Harry Ransom Center biographical sketch).

Sitting Blonde
Original oil painting. Oil on cardboard, image size 8 by 17 inches,
matted in board frame, 15 by 25 inches. Study of seated blonde nude
with her arms upraised. LPC #375. Lopez #1045.
"A distinct throat. Which breathes. A head: small, smaller than a flower. With eyes and with lips. Lips more slender than light; a smile how carefully and slowly made, a smile made entirely of dream. Eyes deeper than Spring. Eyes darker than Spring, more new . . . These, these are the further miracles . . . the breasts. Thighs. The All which is beyond comprehension - the All which is perpetually discovered, yet undiscovered: sexual, sweet, Alive!" (e e cummings).

Standing Nude with Red Scarf
Original oil painting. Oil paint on cardboard, image size 8 by 13 1/2 inches,
matted in board frame, 16 by 20 inches. Study of standing female nude with
blonde hair, holding a red scarf. Dated "3-4-45" on verso. LPC #346. Lopez #1137.
"In viewing the art of e. e. cummings, it's tempting to say he was even more of an artist than a writer, especially inasmuch as his art seems easier to digest than his writings. In fact, indications are, he devoted much more time to his art. cummings was a purist when it came to his art. He viewed representational painting as more of a challenge than abstraction, calling those who worshipped Picasso as "super submorons" who ignored the fact that their hero himself had once declared that there was no such thing as "abstract" painting, crying out instead for artists to "respect the object." Whether painting in a representational or non-representational manner, Cummings rose above even that. He painted more than 'things.' He painted art, and always generously imbued it with the power of reasoned of aesthetics" (Lang, Jim. E.E. Cummings, the Artist. At Humanities Web).

Standing Female
Oil on cardboard Size: 8-1/2" x 14"
Dated: 1945-05-27. Lopez #1164.
"Your poems are rather hard to understand, whereas your paintings are so easy. Easy? Of course - you paint flowers and girls and sunsets; things that everybody understands. I never met him. Who? Everybody. Did you ever hear of nonrepresentational painting? I am. Pardon me? I am a painter, and painting is nonrepresentational. Not all painting. No: house painting is representational. And what does a house painter represent? Ten dollars an hour. In other words, you don't want to be serious -   It takes two to be serious" (e e cummings).

Cummings did not enjoy being categorized. Poet, painter, abstractionist, representationalist - it was all the same to him. It was art, and art defies category.

The above is but a small sample of Cummings' artwork; he was extremely prolific as a painter.

Images courtesy of Between the Covers, with the exception of Standing Female courtesy of Ken Lopez. The paintings are currently offered for sale by both dealers.

Bookseller Ken Lopez has established a website-gallery dedicated to the paintings of e.e. cummings.

The Harry Ransom Center has posted their inventory of Cummings' artwork here.

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