A few weeks past, I attended an event in Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago—mainstage actors Barbara Robertson and Larry Yando from the Goodman Theatre, in conjunction with the Poetry Foundation, performed excerpts of prose, plays and poetry by modernist, avant-garde writers, as part of the “500 Ways of Looking at Modern” series. The lead speaker articulately bridged the works within the overarching avant-garde movement. Projected images of great works of art in the very pretty Fullerton Hall created a magical atmosphere (perhaps answering the residual memories of excitedly witnessing projected images in the darkened assembly of art history classes).
Paul Cezanne, The Bathers
As we dragged to light in the 20th century “the recreation of the perception of our world,” we witness self-referential works—we investigate “thinking about thinking.”
Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Cubism is “simultaneous awareness”—the “shatter” of a surface, allowing us to view the subject from an infinite number of angles.
Apollinaire, the “tireless supporter of the cubist arts,” heralded the new in his poem “Zone”—it is perhaps a love poem to the 20th century, a casting off of the deathish past—“In the end you are weary of this ancient world.” Apollinaire attended Picasso’s Parade and subsequently coined the term “surreal.”
Apollinaire read the works of Pascal to Picasso as he painted. Apollinaire made arrangements that after his death, Pascal’s Pensees be delivered to Picasso.
Verdone proclaimed, “The artist must be in the avant-garde” as in the military; Robertson and Yando sang a marvelous duet about the army—visualizing a new world through the metaphor of war. As in Mina Loy’s “shattered glass/ into evacuate craters” from “Lunar Baedeker,” read by Barbara Robertson,
to shatter a surface into different angles requires a certain violence, like tapping at a mirror with a little hammer, and admiring the disjointed, infinite views emanating from the broken surface.
To quote Stein, this is a “violent kind of delightfulness.”
Picasso, Gertrude Stein
The avant-garde artists orbited about the scene built by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Barbara Robertson gave a generous and lush reading of “A Substance in a Cushion” from Stein’s Tender Buttons: “What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude” (Stein 10).
Stein, at once ironic and earnest, wittily defended the intelligibility and accessibility of her work, proclaiming, “If you enjoy it, you understand it and lots of people have enjoyed it so lots of people have understood it… all you must enjoy my writing and if you enjoy it you understand it. If you did not enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it? There is the real answer”. (Check out the superb sound recording here: http://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Stein/Stein-Gertrude_Interview_1934.mp3).
Various mediums interpenetrated to arrive at new art forms in music, painting, poetry, theater (as in Stein’s libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera).
Robertson reciting Stein
Orphism, Imagism, Futurism, the Dada, Surrealism—all sprouted from the body of the avant-garde.
Larry Yando roared out Marinetti’s futurist manifesto: “Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind!”
Robertson indeed sang the “love of danger” in “we want to exult aggressive motion”:
Tzara turned inward to confront the artist’s psyche; following his instructions to cut up a newspaper, place the pieces in a bag, and then select the clippings to construct a poem, Tzara declared that “the poem will resemble you.”
Kandsinsky asked, “Why couldn’t painting be more like music?” (and then made it so).
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)
Theo Van Doesburg aimed to “turn up the volume on color and constancy”; his poetry runs parallel to Mondrian’s aesthetic.
Theo Van Doesburg
Kurt Schwitters declared, “The basic material of poetry is not the word but the letter”; the actors performed his “W.”
Yando performed Eluard’s “Nearer To Us” (“run and run towards deliverance/ And find and gather everything/Deliverance and riches/ Run so quickly the thread breaks…” and sang Brecht’s lyrics for the ballad “Mack the Knife” from TheThreepenny Opera—the final line is so satisfyingly abrupt, cut knife-like: “There in darkness/ drop from sight.”
The evening closed with a moving excerpt from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, executed cleverly and with a great deal of sensitivity; an appropriate end with its modern sensibilities, its ambiguity and existentialism.
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Written and Researched by Jessica Savitz
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Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991.