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A note on reverie

Michael Bird describes the inspiration behind the poetry, talks and exhibition of paintings by Felicity Mara: The Eye Made Quiet: Poetic Landscape, Belgrave Gallery, St Ives.



Our aim in this exhibition was to make a space, a kind of transient, provisional arena shared by painting and poetry: large paintings, with small fragments of verse alongside them on the walls, and poems read aloud so that images could be heard as well as seen.

Seeing, or hearing, connections between these arts is nothing new. Two-and-a-half thousand years ago the Greek poet Simonides of Chios declared that ‘Painting is silent poetry. Poetry is painting that can speak.’ Not everyone since then has agreed. It has been pointed out, for example, that the way poetry works is essentially diachronic, meaning that, like music, it unfolds through time. Even if you read a poem silently, you’re still moving from start to finish. In this sense, the argument goes, poetry is quite different from painting, which is a synchronic art. A picture is there in its entirety the moment you see it; even narrative paintings, like the Renaissance fresco cycles in which episodes from a saint’s life stride across entire walls and ceilings, are there all at once. You do not usually have to wait to find out how the story will end.

If shared ground does exist, it lies elsewhere - perhaps in the intense atmosphere of place, redolent of a particular time yet strangely free of temporal boundaries, that you can get from both poems and paintings (abstract, representational – in practice any such distinction blurs). You could think of such ‘poetic landscapes’ like this: however instantaneous a painting’s impact, or however long a poem takes to read, it’s not really possible to absorb either of them in a hurry – both demand a similar sort of attentive stillness, an absence of clamour or urgency. And in this state of imaginative reverie, even if its measured duration is brief, you feel as though you’re in a place where time – the hands of the clock or the digital flicker – is suspended or ceases to operate. Whatever else they are, painting and poetry are both ‘slow time’ arts.

The word reverie has taken a curious path through the English language. When it started out as a medieval borrowing from French, it meant wild joy or anger; it was only much later, via the sense of a crazily impractical idea, that it came to mean being lost in contemplation. This state of mind isn’t generally accorded much weight in contemporary cultural rhetoric, with its high valorisation of fast-time adjectives like ‘vibrant’ or ‘sensational’. Reverie, by contrast, is seen as a detached and open-ended form of consciousness, a fuzzy-focus opting-out from real life. So it is worth remembering that for poets and artists of the Romantic era, it was strongly associated with creative potency. In one of the texts we used on the gallery walls and adapted for the exhibition title, Wordsworth speaks of ‘an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony, and the deep power of joy’. This is not, as he insists by repeating the word ‘power’, a vacant, passive quiet. It is like the stillness and depth of water in a reservoir that drives the turbines.

Face to face with painting, art historical or critical language provides fairly rudimentary kit for entering the realm of the visual. It is, I’ve often felt, like trying to illuminate an underwater cavern with a box of matches. A poem, on the other hand, makes words on the page turn into pictures in the head. When the word ‘paved’ crops up in a design feature or an estate agent’s brochure, its intended meaning is strictly finite, not meant to be dwelt on. When Shelley describes the waters of the Venetian lagoon ‘Paved with the image of the sky’, you see at once the water surface, hard, clear and still, the illusory depths of the reflection and the corresponding depths (or heights) of the sky above. The word has, as Paul Valéry defined ‘the poetic state’, acquired value ‘at the expense of its finite significance. It has created the need to be heard again’. The time it takes for such visual or verbal echoes to spread is infinitesimal but feels unbounded. And since we see with the mind rather than with the eyeball itself, the mental images (that is, the process of imagination) that result from reading a poem may not be so different from those produced by looking at a painting.

Our wall texts also included a few lines from Keats, in whose poetry a lot of quiet contemplation goes on – the kind of looking that feels so close to touching that it’s as though he were trying to abolish the space, the ‘unbridgeable gulf’ John Berger called it, between words and images. This gulf is like the gap between two electrical poles; and there are poets such as Keats (Rilke is another) who get them to spark again and again. A picture at which Keats looked long and hard was Claude Lorrain’s 'The Enchanted Castle', more precisely (though not necessarily accurately) known as 'Landscape with Psyche at the Palace of Cupid'. This famous fictional landscape was one of our references for this exhibition – it’s an image that has exerted a strong and constant pull in both our working lives and whose astonishingly quiet power seems endlessly able to replenish itself. Part of the painting’s effect stems from the fact that, while its shadowy, crystalline leafiness and misted horizon emit the almost breathable atmosphere of a real place, you can’t tell whether the light in the sky is growing or fading. The hour is both dawn and dusk – in other words, you perceive as real a time and a place that, in real-world terms, cannot be described or measured. They do exist, even so, in ordinary experience: if the girl in the painting is indeed Psyche, whether shown on the evening before she enters the palace of her lover, Cupid, or the morning after her expulsion or (synchronically) both, her story reminds us that time in this landscape is not diurnal time but the slow, alternative time of sensual reverie.

Our second visual reference was a photograph taken by Eugene Atget in the 1920s, late in his career, in the old royal park of St Cloud outside Paris. In this most public yet empty of formal landscapes, the early-morning quiet is hauntingly palpable. The cloudlike shapes of the huge trees above the pool are almost equally sharply defined in real space and in the illusory mirror-world of their towering reflections. If reverie was our abstract theme (a word, an idea), reflection was its most obvious visual equivalent. Not only in the literal sense of Atget’s photograph but also in the way in which, when looking at a painting or an actual landscape, it can feel as though, in Rilke’s phrase, ‘what is inward surrounds us’ – the more strongly an image attracts us, the more we find ourselves reflected in it. With a slightly different emphasis again, reflection is one of the themes in Eva Hoffman’s recent book Time (which could be subtitled ‘A Slow Time Manifesto’). Describing time – ‘the one dimension of experience we cannot leap out of’ – as an essentially subjective, if inexorable, phenomenon, she proposes that ‘the need for reflection … is time’s paradoxical gift to us, and possibly the best consolation for its ultimate power’.



The Eye Made Quiet: Poetic Landscape Felicity Mara (paintings ('St Cloud', 'Acis&Galatea', 'Lapis' pictured above) and Michael Bird (gallery talks) was at the Belgrave Gallery, St Ives, 22–28 September 2009.