Painting a Poem: Herman on Eliot

Bruce Herman

Out of a dinner conversation between artists and friends, a unique collaboration of “poetry, paint and music” was born. QU4RTETS, a touring exhibit featuring the paintings of Bruce Herman, Gordon’s Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts, opens in the Gallery April 13 and runs through May 1. Here’s how Herman describes his work in his artist’s statement:

“My work here is painted in parallel form to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets—not as a direct illustration of specific lines. I’ve steeped in the beautiful language and imagery of the poem but avoided attempting a visual equivalent of Eliot’s text. I’ve tried rather to find a fitting means to respond, in the medium of paint, to the same realities that moved the poet.

“Eliot’s ideas on cultural memory have been a guiding light to me over the course of four decades as I’ve tried to bridge traditional figure painting and modern abstraction—looking for an objective correlative (Eliot’s term) in order to achieve significant emotion in painting. He emphasized the necessity of submitting oneself to tradition in order to make something authentically new, and this resonated deeply for me growing up in the 1960s, an era of massive cultural upheaval.

“In this collaboration with Mako Fujimura and Chris Theofanidis, I am addressing an old painterly tradition: the Four Seasons and Four Stages of life (implicit in Four Quartets). I’ve also interacted directly with Eliot’s use of the Four Elements—earth, air, fire, and water—especially as seen in ‘Little Gidding,’ in which Eliot employs Dante’s terza rima style to create a set of meditations on death and resurrection (‘This is the death of air’ or ‘This is the death of water and fire’). I’ve also tried to point toward the mysterious ‘fifth element’ (quintessence) known to the classical and medieval mind as the æther, that element believed to suffuse and enfold all things.

“Working with the rule of four, pointing toward the fifth element, I’ve laid out a gold and silver grid that is interwoven with every other layer of the paintings. This grid functions both as a time signature and, because of the unpredictability of the light reflections, as an emerging temporal narrative both inside and outside of the painting (the viewer completes the work with his or her reflection—in effect giving me a chance to disappear as author of the finished work). As the light changes or one passes in front of the image, the reflective surface of the gold and silver shifts, bending the light and invoking that liquid, spiritual light in which we live and move and have our being––the quintessence or presence of God.

“I’m grateful to Mr. Eliot for leaving behind a path I could follow in order to locate a place of ‘complete simplicity costing not less than everything,’ to bear witness to the very same hope that is repeated twice in the poem in the words of Julian of Norwich: ‘And all shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.’ A costly hope that is only possible, in Eliot’s setting, ‘When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and rose are one.'”

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