- Elizabeth Bishop and Paul Klee
In a letter that Bishop's biographer, Brett C. Millier, considers "may have been the most important single piece of criticism Elizabeth ever received," Marianne Moore posed the aesthetic problem of "depth" to her young protégé, Elizabeth Bishop.1 Moore wrote: "I can't help wishing you would sometime in some way, risk some unprotected profundity of experience." 2 Responding to the 1930s pressure for artists to engage with the political left, Moore urged Bishop to turn, as the older poet herself had, to the "deeper" moral and metaphysical Christian critique of culture provided by the cultural critic and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Although Bishop admired Niebuhr and read some of his books, she could not rely on Christian metaphysics to provide a ground for her work. Bishop's second volume of poems, A Cold Spring, published in 1955 but written almost entirely during the 1940s, constitutes Bishop's solution to the problem of depth. Paul Klee's experiments with the construction of deep space provided Bishop with a means of imagining a poetics of aesthetic and ontological depth. In drawing on the work of modernist painters in order to solve a literary problem, Bishop participates in what Charles Altieri has called the "dialectic between painterly achievements, writerly appropriations, and painterly responses" that was integral to the story of modernism.3 As Altieri has shown, poets often used the work of modernist painters to invent models of subjectivity, positions for the "I" in relation to landscape or world.4 Drawing on Klee's innovative use of a fluid deep space, Bishop located the eye/"I" deeply, extensively and expressively within the complex relations of a mobile environment of other motifs, bodies, and textures that carried multisensory and emotional experiences. [End Page 543] The eye/"I" almost without skin becomes witness to and host of the "events" of the environment in which it hangs.
Bishop's lifelong engagement with the visual arts is well documented, although it has been examined only partially.5 A brief listing of the range of her interests would include her early attraction to Van Gogh, before Van Gogh's work was widely known in the U.S.; her report in a 1939 letter that she "almost lived" at MoMA;6 her frequent comparison in letters and notebooks of people, animals, and places to particular paintings or painters; her long friendships and extensive correspondence with Margaret Miller, research associate and then associate curator at MoMA, the American painter Loren MacIver, and the English painter Kit Barker; her own amateur work in watercolors and her construction of two Joseph Cornell-like boxes; her frequent visits, sustained over a lifetime, to exhibitions and museums; her frequent purchase of art books and art; and her reading of art criticism in the small American and British magazines as well her extensive reading of major art historians: Irwin Panofsky, Alfred H. Barr, Ernst Gombrich, Meyer Schapiro, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Eugene Fromentin, and Arnold Hauser. Occasionally, we can even glimpse the intensity of Bishop's encounter with particular paintings. In 1949, at a moment of personal despair, Bishop begs MacIver to finish "that little picture with the lights" so that it can accompany the poet as life raft or talisman for her upcoming dreaded year in Washington D.C. where Bishop was to serve as Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress.7 During that year in Washington, Bishop felt a special attraction to the Phillips Collection, and years later, returning to the museum, two Daumiers so overwhelm her that she reports feeling her "entire life has been wasted."8 In 1959, she claims that she can remember almost every Calder that she had seen in an exhibition of 1932.9
The wide range of paintings and sculptures with which Bishop was familiar and to which she responded passionately in her correspondence and notebooks may overwhelm any scholar wishing to discover how she drew on visual art in creating her own aesthetic. Yet deeper affinities for particular works and artists emerge in the course of her career. Bishop most consistently names three painters as fundamental for her: Edouard Vuillard, Paul Klee, and Kurt Schwitters...