The MET in New York

This post includes the morning tutorial on To Kill a MockingBird and on the insights gained from the literary tours. Go to the end of the blog for these….

Group Shot.jpg

We had a great tour through the Modern and Contemporary Gallery today looking at early 20th Century Regional Art – in the form of Thomas Hart Benton (America Today) and some of the early, cubist-inspired modernists like Charles Demuth I Saw The Figure Five In Gold and then the New York School of Artists inspired especially by Jackson Pollock.

We began with Charles Demuth, who in I Saw The Figure Five In Gold was acknowledging and celebrating in his own terms the work of his poet friend William Carlos Williams who was a minimalist imagist poet and was pruning his poetry back essentially to a series of tightly wrought visual images. His friend Demuth was attempting through visual art to make the visual image as succinct and powerful as the image created through text… but he couldn’t resist bringing text images into his visual field…. so this was an amazing painting to explore from the point of view of the deep links between literature and the visual arts.

demuth fiveHere is Ginsberg’s beautiful interview with William Carlos William and his relationship to artists- especially his relationship with Demuth:

Thomas Benton was also an extraordinary artist to explore from our literature context. So much of the world of Gatsby, of Hart Crane (especially “The Bridge”), even of Salinger, is embodied in this massive mural.



In this last image we see Benton moving into a kind of Vorticist technique (away from the social realism of much of the rest of the mural) in which he is celebrating speed and kinetic energy as entities that are moving towards abstraction (but not quite!). Here is good description of all the details of this work:

benton instruments of power1

And it was really interesting to note the possible links between Benton and the Harlem Renaissance which was happening at exactly the time this paintings was completed (1931). Benton’s statuesque African American figures showed his wish to embrace this new, enlarged element of the now truly American population- pity that this impulse has not persisted into the 21st Century- if Aaron Sorkin’s drama adaptation of To Kill A Mocking Bird is any indication of where the contemporary American population is at????

Here is Benton’s sketch for the major panel in America Today which depicted the African American as a solid, working part of the American 20th Century Industrialization:

benton sketch for america today

Now one of the figures in Benton’s canvas – one of the hard working navvies- was none other than the young Jackson Pollock who, then an art student of Benton, would become one of the major innovating forces in New Art in the next generation: Jackson Pollock:

benton pollock

You can just sense the muscles and sweat of this robust figure who would tragically drink himself to an early death. But here is one of the wonderful images that he produced through a kinetic energy in which his whole body became involved in art creation:

pollock 1pollock 2

And it is fascinating to observe that while one might think that Pollock is indulging in some kind of crazy modernist subversion of all techniques, he is actually inspired by the most ancient of traditions of art making in the work of American Indians and their sand painting- famous for its methodology which metaphorically embodied ideas about life’s impermanence.  And Pollock’s art was also so centrally influential on poets like Frank O’Hara (celebrated in the poem “A Step Away from Them”  we looked at in tutorials):

….. First

Bunny died, then John Latouche,

then Jackson Pollock. But is the

earth as full as life was full, of them?

The main influence – as Deborah seemed to suggest- was the way O’Hara, like Pollock emphasised the complete openness to immediacy, to change, to events… nothing is tied down to any predetermined form. So paint, like sequences of words, can tumble out and sound their specific eccentricities…

One of the last artists that Deborah took us to was  New York Abstract artist Mark Rothko, renowned for creating art work that touched the viewer in ways that took them into subliminal space, beyond the immediate here and now. I must confess I went back into the Rothko room for around an hour after our time together and did experience something of this quality in the following painting- simply entitled “No 16, 1960”:

rothko 1

This painting really did represent/ embody/ project/ and experience of the different states that a human being can experience: it is like a psychic projection of the human inner self in its various shades of light, dark and luminescence…. It is always incredibly hard trying to translate paintings into words, but one can but try! The famous American poet T.S. Eliot, in this context said something really profound and relevant: “Words, after speech, reach/ Into the silence”. You can read this in the context of the whole poem right here:– scroll through to section 5.

Before I leave Rothko I would just like to repeat my plug for a conference that I am helping to create in October this year. We have just published the first flier for this conference and it has Rothko on the front. Click here to see its content (and if you are interested please forward it on to whoever!):  flier 1x

Now, before we left the MET we had a very quick “Cooks” tour of the American Wing. You can read all about the architecture of this wing right here:

We were hoping that we would have a guide to take us through this section, but this did not happen so you had to do your best with me!!

At all events you saw the core images that I wanted you to see in order to set our literature in the context of American History. George Washington and his crossing of the Delaware, and George Washington as the General of the new American Revolutionary Army are central disciminators for the way that the Americans defined themselves against their oppressors, the British. Here is Washington (by Charles Wilson Peale) as the Military Commander- you can read all about this painting here:

washington trumble

I wanted you all to compare this with the painting done of the English King George III which was done around the same time. Here is one very similar to the one which had been hanging in the MET last year. This shows the dramatic difference between the leaders of the two countries in their relationship to their people: back then at least! You can see how the posture is exactly the same, but the clothing, and especially the direction of the look in the eyes, tell a very different story!-

king george iii

We had a very instructive day at the MET and tonight we are off to The Waitress on Broadway….. !!!!!!!



How does the content a the painting mirror or amplify the content of a work of literature?

What overlaps are there in the media that are used by the painter and the writer? For example how is free-flowing sentence structure and fragmented syntax picked up in the style of certain visual artists?

How do the themes of paintings and writings (fiction/ poetry/drama) mirror one another and/or tell a different kind of story? Are there certain things that are more effectively expressed in words than in images?

Why do you think some writers wish that their words had the power of the artist or the musician in their ability to reach meaning without specific verbal connotations??


Recording of myself and guide at the MET:

Recording of this morning’s tutorial on img_5392 (1)

can be found right here :



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