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Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Language and Painting

  • Stephen Scobie (Author)
    Earthquakes and Explorations: Language and Painting from Cubism to Concrete Poetry. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Catherine Gibbon (Editor)
    On the Edge: Artistic Visions of a Shrinking Landscape. Boston Mills Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Joan Murray (Author)
    Tom Thomson: Design for a Canadian Hero. Dundurn Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • John Koerner (Author)
    Unseen Dimensions: Musings on Art and Life. Sono Nis Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Jack F. Stewart

"Painting is mute poetry and poetry a speaking picture," said Simonides of Ceos, and there has long been a desire to compare literary and pictorial styles. Critical grounds, however, have been shaky: Wendy Steiner, in The Colors of Rhetoric (1980), pointed out hazards, such as slippage in metaphorical terms. Stephen Scobie’s lucid comparison of Cubist painting and language fills a discursive gap. His use of the Derridean concept of the "supplement" puts "mutual illumination of the arts" in a new light. Abandoning the illusory grail of exact equivalence, he shows how poetry reaches for visual space and painting for language and time. Using a post-structuralist concept of language as "the systematic perception of difference," he sees it as having a supplementary, rather than hegemonic, relation to painting: "the verbal inside the visual and vice versa." While painting can be appreciated for its silent being, it reaches for the supplement of words, as words desire the visual sense.

Scobie discusses the semiotics of painting, including the ontological status of signs like Cezanne’s apple. Signs are a lin-gustic concept, showing the immersion of painting in language. A painted sign has a double function, representing a thing and acting as a plastic form. When such signs do not signify anything outside themselves, as in non-objective painting, their function resembles that of the arbitrary signs in a linguistic system. Yet, in an analysis of D.-H. Kahnweiler’s The Rise of Cubism (1920) and Juan Gris: His Life and Work (1946), Scobie notes that painting "transmits" or "communicates." Writing and painting are semiotic activities, and in Cubist painting conceptual and plastic are mutually interdependent.

In "Metaphor and Metonymy in Cubism and Gertrude Stein" (chapter 6), Scobie uses Jakobson’s binary distinction under erasure, pointing to the way the two tropes supplement each other. He tests Roman Jakobson’s statement that Cubism is "metonymical," Surrealism "metaphorical," and concludes that "Cubism is predominantly metonymical through all its phases" although Synthetic Cubist "puns and rhymes" function metaphorically. In Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans and "A Long Gay Book," Scobie finds "a progression from metaphor towards metonymy, from the diagram towards the list, from representation as identity towards representation as difference."

Scobie proceeds through a discussion of "Abstraction in Poetry"—Dada, Sound Poetry, bpNichol—to Concrete Poetry and a concluding chapter on Ian Hamilton Finlay. Concrete Poetry involves modernist "juxtaposition," rather than "transition," and is characterized by "suppression of syntax." Following Jacques Derrida, who deconstructs the "post" in postmodernism, he concludes that "Concrete Poetry, although its basic orientation is modernist and metaphoric, unravels into postmodern metonymy." Finlay’s medium is "visual language"; his concrete poems tend to be ironic and conceptual plays on words and images: a drawing of a guillotine is entitled "A model of order even if set in a space filled with doubt." Scobie argues that Concrete Poetry is itself a "model of order" that asks to be examined by the reader.

Scobie’s own style is marked by economy and wit; despite the complexity of the subject, it is admirably "uncluttered" (a favorite term of Finlay). Of a pond at Finlay’s Stonypath, a Lanarkshire garden where ways of seeing are artfully constructed by signs, Scobie says: "Step into this poem and you’ll get your feet wet." The book ends with Scobie paying tribute to "Finlay [. . .] paying tribute to Kahnweiler paying tribute to Gris," the latest link in a métonymie chain of writers and painters.

Interarts theory and practice have rarely been so well illuminated: despite his rigorous analyses, Scobie has not lost his love of "Beauty" or his aesthetic intuition. His alert and clear thinking across shifting and dissolving borderlines makes Earthquakes and Explorations an essential guide for anyone interested in language and painting in modernist or postmodernist contexts.

John Koerner takes a relaxed look at creativity. The text of Unseen Dimensions is a pleasure to read and the layout with inventive use of typography and contrasts of black-and-white and color has strong visual appeal. As Koerner’s paintings have a sense of distance and vision, so his musings have spiritual dimensions. At one point, where he explains the direction of the creative impulse, the layout is like a concrete poem: on the left page, an inverted pyra mid of text points down to a tremendous eel-like brushstroke (symbol of plastic power); on the right, a textual pyramid points up to a white flower on a black ground. These verbal shapes are self-reflexive diagrams (in Peirce’s sense). Koerner worked with Ann West and Jim Bennett on the book design and they are to be commended for their artful interconnection of text and images.

Scobie, in a discusion of Apollinaire’s and Delaunay’s "framing," invokes Derrida’s concept of the parergon, which divides yet joins inner and outer space. Koerner, in his Balcony series, uses the window-frame similarly. There and in his Lighthouse series, he meditates on distance and vision, while in his Garden of Eden series, he illuminates the natural world with a spiritual light. Series allow him to develop perceptions, combining space and colour in subtle ways. Outside and inside, pattern and spirit converge.

Joan Murray, in Tom Thomson: Design for a Canadian Hero, sees Thomson as a "pleaser," who often suppressed anger or hurt feelings. His love of plants, animals and nature became a creed that demanded expression, giving spiritual force to his colour contrasts. Thomson had trained as a designer: he looked for patterns in nature and imposed decorative harmonies. He learned post-impressionism and pointil-lism from A. Y. Jackson, who had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, and came to Van Gogh through J. E. H. Macdonald. Thomson read Shelley, and Murray relates his romantic expressionism in The West Wind (1916-17) to the famous "Ode." As an artist, Thomson makes the invisible wind visible, painting "[the] tumult of [its] mighty harmonies." He found a "numinous significance" in the natural world to which he added an exquisite sense of design: these seemingly diverse qualities come together in The Jack Pine (1916-17), where the effect of colour and form is "hallucinatory." Abstraction and representation are intensely balanced and the flat rectangular brushstrokes remind Murray of Tiffany’s stained glass landscapes. Thomson’s modernism is evident in the way he chose European models as a "springboard" to his own inventions; at the same time, "he meant to create a Canadian tradition, distinct from American and European ones." The legend of Tom Thomson is based on his power to communicate a vision through the forms of landscape art. Murray’s crisp and eloquent account of his all-too-brief career and mysterious death is a study in art and mythmaking that does much to explain Thomson’s extraordinary achievement and continued cultural significance.

On the Edge: Artistic Visions of a Shrinking Wilderness interfaces poetic and ecological texts with colour reproductions of paintings, combining regionalism with univer-salism. Three areas of the Niagara Escarpment near Hamilton, Ontario, are featured. While the full title underlines the urgency of the project—contemplation of art is meant to lead to "social, political, ethical" action—word and image supplement each other in a celebration of natural forms, arousing the will to sustain them.

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MLA: Stewart, Jack F. Language and Painting. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 192 - 194)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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