Sunday, 30 August 2015

First Contemplation

Alice Spawls reminds us that, besides poetry, Elizabeth Bishop's other great love was painting:
Throughout her life Bishop remarked that she wished she had been a painter and in her letters more often enthused about art and artists than writers, once telling Robert Lowell that he was the one living poet she could bear to read. Yet it was only when an exhibition of her paintings was organised in 2011 that those who don’t pay attention to the credits of book-cover artists (Bishop’s paintings adorned three of her collections) discovered that she did indeed paint, even if she didn’t consider herself a ‘painter’. The 40 or so surviving works inevitably drew comparisons with her poems. They are mostly small, 8 x 10 inches or less—the size of an exercise book, painted with gouache or watercolour on thin paper and torn around the edges or beginning to disintegrate. Their scenes are quiet and usually peopleless: a tea set, a lamp, an empty room, flowers, buildings. Many were given as gifts, others are records of places and things. A lifelong stipend from her father (he died not long after she was born) allowed Bishop to travel and she would complain if she came across something she admired and didn’t have her paint box. Though her paintings are of settled scenes rather than fleeting moments, their freshness suggests a desire to preserve the first contemplation.

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