zingmagazine10 autumn 1999







about zing


8 poets making it new
generation z
lutwidge finch
the back of beyond
stephane mallarmé; bertha and karl leubsdorf art gallery: hunter college ; new york, new york









Paul Gauguin, portrait of mallarme, 1891, etching

It is a hard task to precisely determine the importance, in all its nuances, of Stephane Mallarmé in the context of nineteenth century France. Any attempt focused in one specific aspect of his diversified influence—poetry, music, theater, criticism, fashion, visual arts—will inevitably evince the fragmentary nature of his legacy without necessarily underlying the fact that the idea of “fragment” was a quintessential Mallarméan concept. Such was this exhibition’s enterprise and fortune—for a brief period of time, the small space of the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery became a shrine to Stephane Mallarmé, the poet who took to the challenge of providing an “orphic interpretation of earth,” with fragments of various shapes and forms displayed around the theme of “a painter’s poet.” And there he was, the master of the invisible made visible through his associates, a mirror play whose irony would probably amuse him: the painters that he promoted and defended now delineating his stature.
In an essay for the wonderful catalogue that follows the exhibition, Yves Bonnefoy quotes Mallarmé saying that “destruction was my Beatrice;” and if one is to take that assertion seriously, as one should, the idea of Mallarmé as a painter’s poet becomes troublesome. Seen from this angle, Mallarmé’s path of “destruction,” which subsumed both the physical sense, ie syntax, as well as the spiritual, ie syntax, had little if nothing to do with the Impressionistic agenda. It is telling that Odilon Redon, in this group the painter who comes closest to sharing the poet’s cosmic vision, collaborated in only four etchings with Mallarmé.
In a paradoxical manner, much to his liking I suppose, Mallarmé’s influence is stronger in inverse proportion to his physical proximity. Despite his overwhelming stature he did not forge, among the group that constantly surrounded him, a school of Mallarmistes as some have claimed. Traces of his elusive influence is to be found rather through reflexes his oeuvre casts obliquely in other people’s work. And there are very few traces of Mallarmé’s thinking in the whole Impressionist enterprise worth examining. Certainly the issue of visuality is central to Mallarmé’s work, and the Impressionists’ interest in the blooming visual theories at the end of the nineteenth century could supply a common ground for an interesting dialogue, but in the specific case of their collaborations, the exchange did not surpass the constraints of the illustration format. There is not one single example, either on Mallarmé’s part or any of the painters presented here, of a major artwork deeply affected by each other’s input—billet a whistler, for instance, is rather a divagation around the resonance in Whistler’s name and ultimately tied in to Mallarmé’s fondness for names. Simply put, the fact that Mallarmé maintained close friendships with many in this group is simply not strong enough a reason to justify a serious defense of the “painter’s poet” theory.
That being said, this exhibition was a real feast, above all for the opportunity to see a group of diverse yet cohesive artifacts produced by Mallarmé and that has been written about extensively but rarely shown. Mallarmé, this exhibition makes clear, was a poet fond of handwork, and his idea of poetic invention extrapolated the realm of words to admit the materiality of its vehicle. Every surface presented an opportunity for him to exercise his poetic ingenuity, thus raising the stakes on his vers de circumstances, as pointedly observes Yves Peyré in one of the many insightful essays in the exhibition’s catalogue. Mallarmé’s view of poetry as the quintessential “gift” led him to explore new means of circulation for his verses other than simply through books. Therefore, it was only natural that he used as support some very commonplace objects that ranged from Easter eggs and envelopes to fans, imbuing them with an aura of spirituality. The exhibition gathered a varied sample of many of these Mallarméan emissions and successfully conveyed his awesome appetite for the new.
The two fans in this exhibition—in all their celebrated glory—looked more contemporary than one could hope for, since by now the work of Marcel Broodthaers has helped vulgarize the idea of the poète as visual artist. They also bring to mind Richard Tuttle’s offbeat experiments in bookmaking. évantail por mme mallarmé, a manifesto of sorts on the future of the verse or the verse of the future, is a silver fold with the text inscribed in red ink; the quirkiness of the whole concept wonderfully matched by the clumsiness of the brushwork. The other fan, with a quatrain for Nelly Marras, is also a typical piece of Japonaiserie with flower patterned paper and red brushwork. Their physical presence, grotesque if compared with the levity which the poems endeavors, made wonderfully clear Mallarmé’s longing for a thoroughly abstract art.
Also of great charm and visual appeal was a series of 16 hand-painted sheets which resembled game boards or sketches for theater stage sets, and which is titled, “Recreation English, or Box to Have Fun Learning English on One’s Own”. This work makes a wonderful counterpoint with Mallarmé’s more ambitious and complicated treatise on the English language, “Les Mots Anglais”. The versatility displayed in these works brings Mallarmé closer to Lewis Carroll, who also trafficked between the scholar and the whimsical.
A manuscript of Le Mystère, dans les lettres, a capital text in shaping the Mallarméan poetics, features oversized letters which suggest that that was a copy intended to the printer. Curiously, the title of this text, a response to an article by Marcel Proust criticizing a penchant for obscurantism among the poets of his time, shows a prominent virgule which is absent in the Pléiade edition of Mallarmé’s complete works. The comma subtly changes the reading of the title in a dramatic way with its stress on the word “mystery.” This change in the title also sheds more light on this difficult text: writing—art, after all—for Mallarmé will always be, first and foremost, about the mystery, which, as it happens, is to be found amidst letters.
The poem, “Un Coup de Dés” was presented in two different versions—the magazine Cosmopolis edition which first presented Mallarmé with the opportunity to develop the poem, and a printer’s proof for the Vollard edition with manuscript corrections by the Mallarmé himself. Complementing this presentation of the poem were the three framed lithographs by Odilon Redon which were commissioned for the Vollard edition, a letter from André Gide on Mallarmé’s poem, and Mallarmé’s reply to Gide. This presentation highlighted the difficulty one has to lay hold of this work as a closed affair. To this date, “Un Coup de Dés” remains a work in gestation, since Mallarmé’s original design has never been fully accomplished. As Robin Kaye Goodman writes in her essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, there was great dissatisfaction from Redon’s part with his attempt to interpret the poem visually; the printer Didot also reportedly complained about the “foolishness” of the whole project which he saw merely as a waste of space. The difficulties culminated with Mallarmé’s death in September of 1898.
“Un Coup de Dés” thus remains an utterly abstract artwork. A poem that we know about, that we read about, that we see attempts at materializing, but that at the end remains, as Mallarmé wanted, an idea. The several elements related to “Un Coup de Dés” in this exhibition helped frame the poem as an event and still left it open to other possibilities.
Among the invaluable manuscripts on display, those of “Igitur”, “Brise Marine”, “L’Azur”, and “Toast” deserve particular note. But equally inspiring were the manuscripts for “Entre Quatre Murs”, Mallarmé’s early attempt at poetry, as well as several letters, cards, an envelope with versified address, and a notebook of “Les Loisirs de la Poste”. Photographs by Nadar, and Degas, portraits by Monet, Gauguin, Whistler as well as several works illustrating or inspired by Mallarmé’s poems complement the installation.
The exhibition is documented in a thoughtful catalogue, a schriftfest of sorts, organized by curator Jane Mayo Roos. It includes contributions by well known Mallarmé scholars such as Mary Ann Caws and Yves Bonnefoy, and students of The Graduate School and University Center of CUNY. Designed to coincide with the colloquium, “Millennium Mallarmé”, also organized by CUNY, “A Painter’s Poet” is an exemplary exhibition, a small miracle, a reminder of what serious and committed scholarship can achieve.

Sérgio Bessa

Brooklyn, New York