At the New York Review blog this month, William Benton celebrates the paintings of Elizabeth Bishop, a body of lesser-known art by a poet whose reputation has eclipsed the reputations of many others in her generation. In 1996, Benton edited a book of Bishop’s paintings, Exchanging Hats, so his post is not news so much as a reminder that we should return to these peculiar products of Bishop’s discerning eye.
Bishop’s paintings fit neatly into the way readers have learned to talk about her poems: their scope is small, and they look to the quotidian and the domestic rather than to grand subjects. Examined more closely, they reveal an artist interested in subtle gradation, careful in rendering how wood grain runs at different angles in a floor and a paneled wall. Benton jokes that one rule of a Bishop painting is that if there is a table, flowers must be placed on it. The same could be said for tablecloths, which all tables in Bishop paintings require, and which she lavishes with attention to pattern and texture.
Bishop insisted that her paintings were not art. As an eager reader of that inartful genre, the diary, I am happy to take her at her word. What I find most appealing about Bishop’s painting is similar to what I find in Virginia Woolf’s diaries. Here is the artist’s notebook, a testing ground for aesthetic ideas. Bishop approaches these trials with characteristic care and wit.
One reason I go back to Bishop over and over is for her meditation on imperfection. The failures in her poems may be minor, but these instances of weakness, pettiness, and provincialism feel more familiar—uncomfortably familiar—than large-scale tragic faults. While the visual art doesn’t lend itself to ethical questions quite as the poems do, Bishop regularly paints in the flawed and unbeautiful. The paintings seem almost gleeful, for example, in tracing out power lines and electrical cords, an impulse that undermines the apparently decorative additions of flowers and tablecloths.
Seeing these paintings again reminded me of Peggy Samuels’s book on Bishop and art, Deep Skin. Samuels describes Bishop as a poet uninterested in writing conventional ekphrastic poems, describing or otherwise responding to single works of art, and yet thoroughly engaged with contemporary visual art and theory. I was most excited by her chapter on Bishop and Kurt Schwitters, who creates his textile and paper collages on a principle of subtle variation. A collage in shades of tan, for example, draws attention to the opacity or translucency of different kinds of paper, the patterns created by pulp and by print. Samuels calls this technique modulation, “a kind of connection by likeness, but a likeness that still preserves difference and partial difference.”
We don’t tend to think of Bishop as a collagist; her most intimate literary connections (George Herbert is foremost among them) reach back before the era of modernist collage and cubist perspective while her hesitating, self-revising voice has more in common with postmodern poetry. Like Schwitters, however, Bishop is occupied in observing fine distinctions. Her poems often proceed by visual and conceptual gradation: the landscape of silvery, scaled surfaces in “At the Fishhouses” or the drops of tears on a child’s face merging into the of condensation on a tea kettle in “Sestina.” The technique of modulation is on display in her paintings as well. In “Brazilian Landscape” the overall greenness of the fields is divided into patches mottled, striated, and sprigged.
Interested readers can find more of Bishop’s paintings in an online exhibition by James Jaffe Rare Books. This site also features a few examples of her Joseph Cornell-inspired assemblages, which are probably matter for another discussion.
Stefanie Wortman is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Missouri.