While it is now well known that Elizabeth Bishop (1911–79) was a gifted amateur painter as well as a poet, her lyrical watercolors (reminiscent of Charles E. Burchfield and Jane Freilicher) remained something of a secret during her lifetime and even for many years after her death. When plans were hatched in the early 1990s for a seminar on Bishop’s work in Key West (where Bishop lived for a decade beginning in 1938), the poet William Benton inquired whether her paintings would be shown as well. No one knew what he was talking about. In fact, Benton himself hardly knew Bishop’s artwork, but he had been struck by her paintings that had recently appeared on the dust jackets for her collected poems and prose—Mérida from the Roof and Tombstones for Sale. (Another watercolor, of flowers, from the collection of the artist Loren MacIver, is reproduced on the jacket for One Art, the edition of Bishop’s letters that appeared in 1994.)
Benton’s detective work began with Cynthia Krupat, who had designed the books for fsg (and whose mother had been Bishop’s friend since high school). Krupat directed Benton to Vassar College Library’s collection of twelve paintings. As Benton writes in Exchanging Hats: Paintings, a full-color book of Bishop’s artwork, “They were loose, in folders, unmated, on fragile paper that in some cases was frayed and torn at the edges. They looked like pressed butterflies.” But the two pictures that had been used as jacket art, which Benton had so admired, were present in the archive only as slides. (Many of Bishop’s paintings, such as her lovely, strange watercolor of a stein of flowers beside a small red stove, with the inscription “May the Future’s Happy Hours Bring you Beans & Rice & Flowers,” are known to us only though reproductions at Vassar.)
Benton hit pay dirt in his search when he made the acquaintance of Bishop’s companion and executor, the imposing Alice Methfessel (1943–2009). Methfessel invited him to visit her in San Francisco to see her collection of Bishop paintings—“The best ones,” she added, including the two cover images. The eleven paintings and two assemblages that had been part of Bishop’s estate, and are now part of Methfessel’s, may currently be seen by appointment at James S. Jaffe Rare Books in New York.
For anyone interested in Bishop’s poetry, it is well worth the trip. Bishop pays scant attention to painting in her critical writings or in her letters, but these works on paper—combinations largely of watercolor, gouache, ink, and graphite—speak directly to her sensibility as a poet: the almost spiritual modesty of the view, the acuity of observation, the lucent (and idiosyncratic) rendering of visual detail. As Anthony Hecht, who participated in that Key West conference in 1993, wrote years before Bishop’s paintings were ever exhibited:
She has rightly been praised for an eye that misses no detail of the soiled modest furniture of our lives. . . . She has rightly been praised for a Veronese amplitude: all light, color, and bustle. She has been rightly praised for a Shaker plainness: a strict, almost moral, unwillingness to exaggerate. And this grandeur and plainness seem vaguely associated—but in no fixed or exact way—with her settings of “North and South,” her scenes of Canada and Worcester, Massachusetts, contrasted with views of the lushness, the sometimes dirty and unkempt lushness, of Florida and Brazil.
Ut pictura, as they say, poesis. Bishop’s paintings glory in the slightly shabby but elegant details of life in much the same way that her poems do. Like the poems, they are often occasional and personal, balancing without the least strain a quiet intimacy with the formal structures of art.
In a gallery note that Bishop wrote for the painter Wesley Wehr, she describes the prepossessing scale of his work: “I have seen Mr. Wehr open his battered briefcase (with broken zipper) at a table in a crowded, steamy coffee-shop, and deal out his latest paintings, carefully encased in plastic until they are framed, like a set of magic playing cards. The people at his table would fall silent and stare at these small, beautiful pictures.” One feels a similar sense of wonder looking at Bishop’s pictures, each letter-sized watercolor infused with the same quietude found in the poems. As Bishop says of Wehr: “Who does not feel a sense of release, of calm and quiet, in looking at these pieces of our vast and ancient world that one can actually hold in the palm of one’s hand.”
Frequently self-deprecating, Bishop downplayed the seriousness of her painting. Her pictures were, she said, “Not Art—not at all.” Yet though she pursued painting only sporadically—in order to record a place or mark an occasion—it clearly meant a good deal to her personally. In the first year of her relationship with her lover Lota de Macedo Soares, for example, Bishop presented her with a delicate watercolor of a lamp, with the inscription “For Lota, Longer than Alladin’s burns,/ Love & many Happy Returns.”
Bishop called herself a “primitive” painter, a style that she characterized in her essay “The U.S.A. School of Writing”: “Primitive painters will spend months or years, if necessary, putting in every blade of grass and building up walls in low relief. . . . The primitive painter loves detail and lingers over it and emphasizes it at the expense of the picture as a whole.” In the works on view at Jaffe, one finds such quirky and winning “primitive” details in the brick façades of 41 Charles Street, in the countless palm leafs in County Court House from Key West, in the windmills of Mérida from the Roof, and in the fine-grained realism of Pansies.
Details of this kind receive almost obsessive attention in poems such as “Filling Station,” in which Bishop questions the place and purpose of such odd inclusions in the mise en scène and then answers her own queries with irony and, more importantly, a lightly proffered sense of the transcendent aptness of all things. In the midst of a dingy gas station, she observes:
Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.
Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)
Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
Like the paintings—which typically zoom in on an embroidered tablecloth, an arrangement of flowers, or the varnished wood grain of a table—her poems discover, in their solitary moments of contemplation, a human connection.
In conjunction with offering these pictures for sale, Jaffe has produced a full-color limited-edition catalogue of the collection, with a fine introduction and notes. Particular care has been taken with the color matching, and it is a welcome addition to Exchanging Hats. Also for sale are several paintings, artifacts, and pieces of folk art from Bishop’s house in Brazil, including a wooden bird cage in the shape of a church, a hand-painted Amazonian paddle, a polychome statue of Santiago, and a carved figurehead or carranca.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 7, on page 53
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