Sunday, September 20, 2015

Jean Cooke and La Beauté

Jean Cooke, Jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris, ca. 1972
This self-portrait by Jean Cooke is one of my all time favorite paintings, I think.  I can't be sure because I have not seen it in person.  But someday I hope I can confirm that.  She captures such a specific type of day and light and season.  That light and space, in a sweater, coupled with her piercing gaze makes me feel like I am looking back at myself.  Like the painting has become a mirror.  I look at this image and feel like I know what the rest of the world she lives in looks like, I know the rest of the room and the adjoining den and the warm kitchen and the quaint neighborhood and I have taken a walk down that street on a blustery day.  Her outstretched arm references the canvas beyond which she is painting this painting on.  And everything folds in on itself.  

She titled it "Jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris (I never cry and I never laugh) after a line from a Baudelaire poem La Beauté.  I took french in school but can not get the subtle meaning that poems possess so I looked for translations.  Adding to my thoughts on translating literature re: Murakami post below, translations of a poem are even more complex.  There are many english versions but at the bottom is the one I like best.  The way the painting simultaneously succeeds and fails at capturing a fleeting moment in time seems just like Baudelaire's expression.  On the one hand that gaze painted more than 40 years ago feels like it is in the present, like it is my own gaze.  On the other, the simple existence of the painting which references its own making in her outstretched hand means the moment has passed, fleeting.

La Beauté

Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre,
Et mon sein, où chacun s'est meurtri tour à tour,
Est fait pour inspirer au poète un amour
Eternel et muet ainsi que la matière.

Je trône dans l'azur comme un sphinx incompris;
J'unis un coeur de neige à la blancheur des cygnes;
Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes,
Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris.

Les poètes, devant mes grandes attitudes,
Que j'ai l'air d'emprunter aux plus fiers monuments,
Consumeront leurs jours en d'austères études;

Car j'ai, pour fasciner ces dociles amants,
De purs miroirs qui font toutes choses plus belles:
Mes yeux, mes larges yeux aux clartés éternelles!

Charles Baudelaire


I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,
And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself
Is made to inspire in the poet a love
As eternal and silent as matter.

On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,
I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;
I hate movement for it displaces lines,
And never do I weep and never do I laugh.

Poets, before my grandiose poses,
Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,
Will consume their lives in austere study;

For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers,
Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful:
My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!

— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)


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