Elizabeth Bishop: Poet & Quiet Artist

Look on the quiet side, the side in shadows, present, but not yet seen. A writer with an artist's eye may live there. Who knew that the poet Elizabeth Bishop was an admirer of Joseph Cornell's work and made her own art as well? A small article in the New York Times alerted me to a small show at the Tibor De Nagy Gallery in New York that also exhibited some of her possessions, such as her desk from many years spent living in Brazil. The exhibit is called Objects and Apparitions, also the title of a poem by Octavio Paz that Bishop translated, dedicated to Joseph Cornell (169).

The number one hundred is a weird catalyst—as if we are waiting for an excuse to celebrate. And so, here it is, the centenary of Elizabeth Bishop's birth. Known for her writing, Bishop won, among other awards, a Pulitzer prize for a book of poems in 1956 and she taught at Harvard in the 1970s. Bishop's poetry, such as "At the Fishhouses," (50) shows an observant eye and startlingly clear imagery. We might say that she wrote with her artist mind, so it is not too surprising, after all, to find out that she painted. Apparently, the art critic Meyer Schapiro also remarked that she "writes poems with a painter's eye."

The gallery website refers to her artwork and the objects on display as her "private, domestic world," but I wonder if they are just different forms of reference to her travels and the larger world around her. At what point, when the subject matter is public, does the object become intimate? The watercolor and gouache painting Sleeping Figure (#6 of 28 images available for view), is certainly a more intimate subject. The paint is handled with care, the lines have personality. She has paid attention to the woodwork around the window and the stripes on the coverlet. The bed seems to sink in under the figure, giving it weight. Other artworks are: Mérida from the Roof, Red Flowers on Black, Table with Candelabra, Tombstones for Sale, an assemblage in a box called Anjinhas (which, according to the notes in Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters (Library of America) , was "inspired by the high infant mortality rate in Brazil and, in particular, by the drowning of a young girl in Rio," p. 937) and two more small paintings: Tea Service, and County Courthouse. As you may be able to tell from the titles, some are focused closer to home, some look out into the world. All are rendered carefully and with emotion. You can see this same treatment as she writes about the comic book, the begonia, the taboret, and the doily in her poem "The Filling Station" (123). The feelings she stirs in both her writing and her art are unsurprisingly similar. The paintings are like poems, capturing a moment.

Much of her writing is autobiographical, sometimes disguised, sometimes not. I was happy to see that she had translated from the Portuguese one of my favorite short stories, "The Smallest Woman in the World" by Clarice Lispector (302). I also found Bishop's own work equally or more compelling. Bishop's short story "In the Village" (99) is a fascinating and touching account of a young girl, her grieving mother, her maternal relatives, the sounds of a scream and a blacksmith's shop, and which also beautifully paints a picture of a batch of postcards on page 102:
Some are plain, or photographs, but some have lines of metallic crystals on them—how beautiful!—silver, gold, red, green, or all four mixed together, crumbling off, sticking in the lines on my palms. All of the cards like this I spread on the floor to study. The crystals outline the buildings on the cards the way buildings never are outlined but should be—
Bishop's father died eight months after she was born. Her mother entered a mental hospital four years later and little Elizabeth was mostly raised by her maternal family. Perhaps you could say her work (although perhaps not her life) incorporated and transcended these early traumas. She died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm in 1979.

A 48-page hardbound catalogue from the gallery is forthcoming. Exchanging Hats: Paintings is a previously published book containing forty of her works. The book shares the title with a poem about roles and gender, which begins with "unfunny uncles" trying on women's hats and ends with aunts in shadow as "we wonder / what slow changes they see under / their vast, shady, turned-down brim" (198).

The gallery website features a wistful quote that she wishes she had been a painter. It seems that she was, she just didn't use the label.



Anonymous said…
Wonderful post! Thank you for telling us about this artist!!