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UN English Language Day: Abstract painting, calligraphy and William Shakespeare
By Daniel Kany
Full Fathom Five
Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc.
129.2 x 76.5 cm
“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
From Ariel’s Song in The Tempest by William Shakespeare
What – if anything – does abstract painting have to do with English Language Day? It’s a fair question to ask. It is also an interesting question to answer because it shines light on how meaning makes its way into poetry, painting, language and writing. We’re going to try our best here to keep it simple, clear and fun. The fun part is easy because there are reasons why so many people adore the work of Shakespeare and Jackson Pollock, a notorious guy who was arguably America’s most important painter as well as the most famous. Great art might not be so simple to explain, but it’s very easy to appreciate.
Let’s start with the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616). We know extremely little about him, but he is widely considered the greatest wordsmith in the history of the English language. His plays and poems are the most performed, the most studied, the most influential and the most beloved of any English language writer. Ever. April 23 is the date his birth and death are traditionally observed. (I wasn’t kidding when I said we don’t know much about him.) Hence, UN English Language Day is celebrated annually on April 23 – Shakespeare’s birthday.
Why is there an English Language Day? Along with French, English is one of the United Nation’s two working languages. The UN has six official languages, and each has its own annual day of celebration. Arabic is December 18.
The specific question that ties all of this together has to do with a painting that Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) made in 1947 titled Full Fathom Five, a phrase from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Why did Pollock name his painting with a specific reference to Shakespeare? Well, let’s be careful with that. For the un-curious, it might be enough to know that a neighbor suggested it. (Knowing that neighbor was likely the dad of one of my best friends, it only raises more questions for me.) Pollock became famous as “Jack the Dripper” because he made his best-known paintings by dripping house paint onto huge canvases with a stick. His looping rhythms are widely recognizable, and his paintings are oddly difficult to recreate. Full Fathom Five was a very early one of Pollock’s drip paintings. Pollock was certainly not illustrating the idea from the play, so how could the phrase add meaning to his painting?
Here is the relevant snippet from Ariel’s Song, from TheTempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.
TheTempest was the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays, and this is from a song of Ariel, a mischievous and airy spirit. Ariel sings the song so that Ferdinand hears it. Ferdinand and his father were just in a shipwreck. Ariel is recounting how Ferdinand’s father is drowned and his body is beyond retrieval. A fathom is six feet in length, so five fathoms is 30 feet deep – the depth beyond which nothing would have been retrievable at the time. Except, it’s a lie. Ferdinand’s father is not dead.
This text is the original source of the contemporary English term “sea change,” which means a profound transformation. In Ariel’s song, a body becomes coral and pearls. It is claimed and made into the seabed. Pollock’s paintings do a few things that were new to the history of Western painting. First, the lines are so dense and rhythmically insistent that they do not appear as shapes. Secondly, the painting doesn’t have a composition in the traditional sense – there is no structure made by balancing visual elements. Finally, there is no figure/ground distinction, no distinction between a thing painted and a background, one of the (previously) fundamental assumptions of Western painting. What the body does in Ariel’s song is transition from something distinct to being a part of a much broader fabric. (“Text” and “textile” are related; a text is actually “something woven together.”) What Pollock achieves in his painting is the idea of this fabric, this textile, something unified. The word for this kind of painting structure is “allover painting,” and it was coined in relation to Pollock’s work.
With the title Full Fathom Five, Pollock announces his intentionality and his goal. We can say that poetry is language that is up to something about language. Calligraphy is writing that is up to something about writing. Generally, abstract painting is painting that is up to something about painting.
When you see any cultural production that is radically different than anything that came before it, it can be hard to understand. Abstract painting and music can be particularly difficult to discuss because their authors generally are thinking in musical or visual forms rather than words. Pollock was doing something radical and he suspected it could bring about a sea change in painting. And it did. Pollock was essentially the poster boy for the American Abstract Expressionist movement, and it became the most influential art movement of the post-war Western world.
With Full Fathom Five, Pollock took the audience away from seeing anything within the painting. He drained the linguistic element from the painting: It wasn’t a painting of something. The painting was not an illustration of something else. It’s like taking the meaning from a word. The word “cat” is not a cat, after all. The word “word” is a word, and that might be THE exception. Both Pollock and Shakespeare set up friction between fiction and literalism. Ariel’s deception is a reminder of the ability of words and images to lie and mislead. You can read Pollock’s paintings as formalism, meaning that they’re only concerned with visual issues. But Pollock’s physical interaction with the work was apparent in the physicality of the gestures as well as the handprints and footprints he would incorporate into his work. We can feel his paintings being made and we generally see them as maps of their own making. At a certain point, it is hard to deny that Pollock’s drip paintings are not ultimately about integrity and ethic – honest maps of their own making, not pretending to be something they are not.
Abstract painting came about in a funny way. On the tail of the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, a movement dedicated to understanding legibility in painting, abstraction suddenly popped up all over the world. Cubism never was abstract, but it went to the very edge of legibility. Suddenly in about 1913, it seems that all around the world, it occurred to painters that it was enough for a painting to be recognized as a painting: Delaunay in France, Mondrian in the Netherlands, Malevich and Kandinsky in Russia, Balla in Italy, the Czech Kupka, Dove in the U.S and so on.
Painting was up to something about painting. And the problem it was trying to deal with was language. Early Cubism was about words like “still life” or “portrait,” and later Cubism was about exploring possibilities of representation. One way forward was through writing. Andre Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. It defined Surrealism as “automatic writing.” What an opportunity for painters: Instead of contriving content, the idea was that you let your subconscious make the decisions for you. This approach – which was fundamentally a type of expressionism – ultimately resulted in American Abstract Expressionism. Pollack had more in common with the Surrealists than the academic painters of Paris. In the postwar economy, that was a good thing.
Mark Tobey (1890 – 1976) was an American artist who seems to have led the way for Pollock. Tobey began making his calligraphic “White Writing” paintings in the early 1940s. Influenced by Asian calligraphy, Toby covered his paintings with thousands of tiny calligraphic strokes, creating cloud-like forms over his canvases. In person, these look quite solid because titanium white – the most common white paint – is the most opaque pigment on the palette.
Did Pollock find in Tobey the idea that the arbitrariness of writing was a way out of making pictures that work but don’t look like specific things? After all, while Tobey’s marks have the close-up appearance of Asian characters, Pollock’s swirling lines have the flow of pen-written script, looping and rarely leaving the page. In Saudi Arabia, 2020 is the year of Calligraphy. And many cutting-edge contemporary Saudi artists work from the tradition of calligraphy – writing, as we just said, that is up to something about writing.
Lulwah al Homoud, for example, is a contemporary artist who was trained in traditional calligraphy. Her contemporary work reflects the associated ethic of skill and finish. Al Homoud was selected to create a work for the Saudi Arabian pavilion at the 2018 London Design Biennale. The Ithra-sponsored digital video installation set in mirrored rooms, Being and Existence, featured intricate, radially symmetrical webs of fine lines (sound familiar?) — geometric symbols Al Homoud derived from the Arabic alphabet in the belief that Arabic letters have proportions that reflect mathematical codes. She used this set of underlying codes to break each letter down into its simplest possible components and then set this in motion through a multimedia presentation.
On extended installation at Ithra is a work by the 2019 winner of the prestigious Ithra Art Prize, the London-based Saudi Arabian artist Daniah al-Saleh. Her multi-screen multimedia artwork Sawtam (Arabic for “phoneme”) explores the structural aspects of written/spoken language by deconstructing it to the basic element of spoken language, the phoneme.
What we see in the works of both al Homoud and al-Saleh is the starting point of the written work which is then deconstructed to the point of revealing nothing other than its own systems logic. This is Shakespeare’s sea change and Pollock’s depth in Full Fathom Five.
The Tempest probably written around 1610 and it appears likely it was the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone. It is also unusually explicit about its being a play, again and again comparing the acts of the magician Prospero (the protagonist – a former king who was intentionally stranded on a desert island with his daughter) to the illusion of theater. One interpretation is that Prospero is reference to Shakespeare, which is extremely compelling if The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last solo play. Prospero swears that, once he achieves his goals, he will set Ariel free and give up his own magic – in terms that are oddly close to Ariel’s Full Fathom Five:
I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
— Prospero, in The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1
The end that Prospero sees, however, is a return. Within the story are notions of dreams and transformations, and Ferdinand – the intended target of Ariel’s song – does fall in love with and marry Prospero’s daughter. Prospero lays out the fiction of theater that was used to accomplish his goals. And here too, we find the terms of Pollock – the fabric, dreams (Surrealism was all about dreams and Pollock was a Jungian) and a bittersweet hint that while our physical bodies will ultimately be lost, gone and forgotten, there is something else that survives. This could be read cynically, but Prospero has his loving daughter and restored position. Instead, I rather think that Shakespeare, like Prospero and Pollock, was looking to the survival of something else – the works, the stuff of culture and people, even if they live on merely as whispers in dreams. Pollock and Shakespeare may have died many years ago, but there is no question that they live on in history and in culture.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
— Prospero, in The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1