painter ..John Ashbery
The best part about this poem is that it can be interpreted in any way you would like.
He repeats the word "canvas" 7 times, "portrait" 8 times, "buildings" 7 times, "brush" 7 times, "subject" 7 times, and "prayer" 7 times.
The artist is sitting out in front of the sea, imagining what he wants his protrait to look like. He expected ideas to come out so he could draw the sea, but he sat there in silence.
He didn't end up painting anything until the people who lived in the buildings told him to select a new subject to write about, something that may fit his mood better.
He picked to draw his wife, but he never ended up drawing her because she is art already, like ruined buildings.
Unsatisfied, he went back to the sea and wished for his ideas to come out from his soul already.
"Imagine the painter crusified by his subject!" means, imagine a man so powerful, who can draw anything he sees, be taken aback by the thing he is supposed to be drawing. Picture a man whose soul is so strong, yet he doesn't know how to put it on a canvas.
He looked back at the other artists, and said there is no way they can get the sea to sit still so they could paint it.
"Others declared it a self portrait" means, whatever he drew came from his soul. What he put on the canvas, was what he was. He drew nothing.
They threw away the portrait from the tallest building.
The "portrait" in this case can symbolize any type of worry, since the artist danced around his portrait for the longest time, ended up drawing nothing, getting annoyed, and just throwing it out. Nothing good can come from worrying, and you just have to let go. It can also stand for life.
The sea, can be the bigger picture. The man was trying to draw the sea, but he could never get it to sit still because things keep changing. When he didn't draw the sea, and others declared it a self-portrait, it's saying that the man wasn't consumed by the bigger picture (other people).
Like I said, this poem is open for debate. You can interpret it any way you like. I think as long as you have a good analysis and reasoning, your teacher will accept it and even praise you for thinking on your own outside of the box. There's no right or wrong answer, and you can't find it on the internet. It's up to you what you want this poem to mean.
Critically evaluate the poem, The Painter by John Ashbery. (P.U. 2006)
In The Painter, Ashbery touches upon some of the basic concepts in imitative arts. He does not attempt a poetic reconciliation of the warring schools of criticism. Rather he presents a situation in which the artistic creativity may come in direct conflict with the demands of modern society. The poem presents the situation of an artist who wants to paint the sea. His ambition is to present the sea rather than paint it. He wants that “nature, not art, might usurp the canvas”. Ashbery concludes that such an ambition would result in a total denial of modern urban values and would be met with violent rejection.
Ashbery establishes a relation between the sea and the buildings in the very beginning of the poem. The artist sits between the symbols of nature and the urban jungle of cement and steel. He was enjoying his work and expected that his subject would easily yield to creative reproduction, but his expectations were thwarted. Reality refused to be captured so easily by art. Ashbery compares his ambition to children’s view of prayer showing the simplicity of his desire. Ashbery contrasts the artist’s expectation to realistic theory of art asserting that even the most naturalistic presentation of life is still not nature as it exists in a different medium which changes its attributes. The artist with this realization is unable to present reality and so “there was never any paint on the canvas”.
Ashbery contrasts the artist with the people in the buildings. He emphasizes the basic difference between their modes of thinking. They want to “put him to work” desiring him to paint something less “angry and large”, something “more subject to a painter’s mood”. It is obvious that they consider art to be an imitative skill in the service of urban, commercial interests. It is “more subject to…a prayer” or as one may say ‘an order’. The concept of presentation of reality in the sense that reality may actually “usurp” the canvas is alien to them.
The artist’s choosing his wife for a subject and making her “vast” is Ashbery’s way of defining bathos. Ashbery being a gay poet could hardly have expressed matrimonial love in any other way. However this time it was as if the portrait “Had expressed itself without a brush”. With this encouragement the artist now arises to paint with seawater, letting the medium of reality to be the medium of artistic expression. This was as if the artistic creation would “wreck the canvas”, putting an end to the illusion of presentation and letting the reality to be expressed without any alien medium of expression.
This new mode of creation in which the artist is overtaken by his subject is blasphemous to the people in the buildings who consider it to be the case of “a painter crucified by his subject”. Others declare it to be the egotistical expression of the artist’s self and not presentation of reality.
The work of the artist is such that “all indication of subject began to fade”. Immaculate reality untouched with art is the final expression and provokes a destructive violent response form the people of the buildings. The portrait is tossed into the sea where it becomes one with its subject and thus the expression of the subject remains a prayer.
The poem presents many contrasting views related to art and its relation to reality and society. Ashbery finds an appropriate locale for the presentation of ideological discord. The artist sits between the sea and the buildings, i.e., between nature and the urban civilization. The buildings are tall and overcrowded, apt representation of overpopulated urban scene. The tallness of the buildings also reflects the way the people look down upon the artist. But the artist has his back to the buildings. His independence of thought is met with advice from the buildings. People want to “put him to work”. Ashbery with his usual figurative way of presentation makes the artist paint his wife whom he makes “vast, like ruined buildings”. He very cleverly hides whether the portrait of the wife was made in paint on the canvas or if it was a real-life portrait.
The poem makes use of figurative language throughout thus making every simple detail stand for a more complex thought related with theory of art. Phrases like “sea’s portrait, plaster its own portrait on the canvas, the brush as means to an end, usurp the canvas. As if forgetting itself the portrait, had expressed itself without a brush, wrecks the canvas, crucified by his subject, all indications of a subject began to fade, to howl, that was also a prayer, the sea devoured the canvas and the brush”, all have figurative meanings expressing or reflecting significant artistic concepts. Ashbery uses the word prayer several times, in this poem every time meaning something different. The artist’s prayer and the people’s howl which was also a prayer have contrasted meanings and so Ashbery uses the same word to mean different things to show how reality can be seen from many different perspectives.
Critical Analysis of the “The Painter” by John Ashbery
Ashbery makes a genuine effort to portray the poetic vision of an artist’s mind by concentrating on the dictum "ut pictura poesis"--"as is painting, so is poetry". Through poetry he glorifies a mere painter’s struggle to find his true artistic form and inclination towards a specific way of being creative in The Painter.
“For some people the fear of inner torment is such that the desire to create has to be repressed: ‘He does not embark on any serious pursuits commensurate with his gifts lest he fails to be a brilliant success. He would like to write or paint but does not dare to start’ (Horney 107). Or if the desire to create is not repressed, the creative process will be wracked with anxiety or hampered by self torment.” This quote from the book Therapeutic dimensions of autobiography in creative writing by Celia Hunt aptly captures to some extent the condition the painter in the poem who seems confused on whether to draw sea or not and how to capture the sea just the way it was.
A similar theme is also tackled by the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. In her short poem she writes: “Artists wrestle here! /Lo, a tint Cashmere! /Lo, a Rose! /Student of the Year! /For the easel here/Say Repose!” This poem lays bare the face that the artist always juggles with his tools and crafts in order to create what he wants. For him to relax is unthinkable likewise the painter in the poem faces a lot of troubles in making this special piece of art (the sea). The painter seems to self actualize himself by materializing the urge to paint a portrait of the sea which will give the chaos of his creative world a poetic and appeasing feeling.
Ashbery is known for his surrealist poetry and in The Painter he uses his skill to masterfully create connections between varied images. Using the modified form of sestina (last words of the verses are mostly changed) he is able to make these images jump into a creative hotchpotch. But the irony of the poem is that the artist portrayed in the poem seems to go through a rough patch in his life yet the creativity by which the poet himself writes speaks volume of it; the poet is able to create with the painter in the poem a smooth imagery of an artist’s struggle towards his creative independence -- a mere human’s effort to fight for what he deems right. For his creative vision to evolve he goes against all the odds set by the society. Ashbery was himself a painter and his surrealist automatic writing in the poem seems to give power to the automatic drawing the painter is trying to achieve in the poem, as the artist wishes: “he expected his subject/ To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,/ Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.
Interpretation of this poem is complicated. On the surface level one can judge what is happening but on a deeper level the reader may not be able to interpret the unfathomable depth. One reason quite evident is the surrealism employed. Just like the artist’s mind the poem is also free of conscious control. It takes on its own route and it paints with its own brush strokes with the artist’s creative vision.
Ashbery takes into account many aspects of syntax and rhyme in his poetry and one of it is the repetition of words. The reader may not notice immediately about it but after a careful examination it comes to light that, Ashbery repeats the word "canvas", "buildings", "brush", "subject", "prayer" seven times and "portrait" eight times in the poem. This repetition creates a surrealistic effect in the poem.
The painter in the poem is on the beach and contemplates his tempestuous subject. Sea here symbolizes the freedom, the chaos, the harmony of the waves and the creative space for the painter. The sea symbolizes freedom as it liberates the painter from the hustle bustle of the city life behind him (“the building”). The painter is like a child imagining a prayer. His innocent imagination muses over what to draw on his canvas. Though the painter loves to paint the sea but he is confused by the daunting question of how to draw and live in one’s own creative vision, how to capture the universe around us. Even though he has brush in his hand but his canvas seems empty, this paint-less canvas brings out the fact that the painter himself has lost his creative vision, or he is going through the phase of imagination blockage and he is unable to take a plunge into mind's eye where haphazard brushes could be waved like a magic wand and a beauty of its own kind would emerge into a classic piece of art. His lack of strength to take on a decision leads the people around him to take control of his mind. They ask him to make a portrait of “Something less angry and large”, that is to say; do not draw the sea due to its turbulent nature and gargantuan effect which is unfathomable by human mind to capture. The painter seemed unable to convey “his prayer” to the people that he wants “nature, not art, [to] usurp the canvas”.
The skillful painter then tries to paint his wife. He does that without really making a creative endeavour because she seemed a ruined building in the first place that is not something he would want to paint. He does make an attempt, though unwillingly. It is throttling to the painter as an artist is a free will creature and no matter what happens he has to go to his roots of desire that is he has to be a creative by not conforming to traditionalists. He has to fulfill his urge to create his own tradition. His desire to go back to the sea appears to be the only right thing to do.
"Imagine the painter crucified by his subject." signifies a powerful figure that could draw faultlessly the things he see, and be astonished and spiritualized by the creative vision he has with the drawing. The painter in the poem proves his creative vision and creative authority when “He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings”; suggesting their eagerness to stick to the roots; the traditional way of painting. The poet clearly implies that the traditional painters are bent towards following an authority by which they could judge the painter and his work.
The people, the critics and the painters of traditional sort did not appreciate the effort of the painter and thus life’s way of taking the unconventional approach irrationally by not getting accepted by his own people fell upon the painter as they threw the portrait of the sea from the tallest building. This "portrait" symbolizes something that the people, the critics and the painters of his age were not able to handle the pressure posit on them by the painter or his creative vision of the sea. Such non-conformist and cavalier attitude is also visible in Ashbery’s life, as he nonchalantly says that his goal is "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.”In the end of the poem “the sea devoured the canvas and the brush”. It signifies that the portrait drawn by a mere artist cannot be fathomed by man himself because chaos of the sea is unfathomable and it was as if “his subject had decided to remain a prayer”. Thus the freedom and turbulence the sea entails with it consumes man’s creation as well. The chaos of the world cannot be painted in a canvas, at least people around them would not let the painter do that, yet his creative drive would urge him to create what he instinctively desires. Neither the painter would stop nor the chaos around him would end. The cycle of life would go on like this.