Museum wall labels are generally pretty humdrum, but not in the Martin Family Gallery at the deYoung in San Francisco. Here, each label includes a poem by an elementary school student responding to the piece in question. This is new to me. Clearly, these kids had a rich experience, and we have some teachers/docents/curators/administrators who are on to something wonderful. Three examples:
Untitled, by Julien B. Fifth grade, the San Francisco School
Her hand crushes the handkerchief
as she becomes ashen,
pale with secrets buried in her mind.
Her beautiful, folded, crisp white cloth
becomes crumpled up into a ball.
Her memories, her thoughts, all her life
everything that has ever happened to her
Rushing through her mind
like a cheetah through the jungle.
Her silky shawl cloaks her, protecting her
from the brushing clear wind!
She tries to be peaceful,
but her thoughts trouble her.
Midnight Depress, by Lucy B. Fifth Grade, Frank C. Havens Elementary School
I stare into space
My tattered champagne coat is rough
but falls delicately to my leather shoes,
my lime chiffon scarf settles,
and my coal colored hat
with its shiny buckle tilts to the side,
but my face stays the same, a bored depressed look,
or I do not care what has to come
Untitled, by Kendall T. Fourth grade, Ohlone Elementary School
I softly express winds of cold, dark rage.
My face is red as fury. It escapes my emotions.
A fine lady ignores me.
She gossips as if I am not here.
But I am. I feel rose expressions
On my face growing hot.
I am still graceful as the music.
End of scene.
Speaking of Kathe Kollwitz and her fixation on the theme of the peasants’ revolt (as we were last week), this etching hangs in my living room. Its powerful description arises from its monumental abstract strength– like a Franz Kline, with narrative.
On the wall next to Kollwitz we have David Levine’s puckish adaptation published in the New York Review of Books. In the corner he wrote, “Thanks, Kathe.”
Great as my admiration is for Levine’s work, and convincing as Stalin’s face is, it has to be admitted that for strength of drawing and boldness of design, Kollwitz is clearly the top dog here.
Vincent Van Gogh’s early work is heavy on the hardships of peasant life.As time passes, however, he becomes less involved with subject, and more with execution. Manner overtakes matter. The subject is much the same, but the dancing, suggestive brush strokes are what engage the viewer, and set a lighter tone. As opposed to Georges Seurat, who in his mature manner could depict hard labor without distancing or diminishing it. Then there is the Victory Garden poster of WWI: it’s work, but redolent of spiritual uplift. And the Victory Bond poster, which manages to extol hard, unglamorous labor without presenting it as absolutely dismal (how clean their clothes are!) or reproachful; someone else will drag the plow, all you’re expected to do is buy bonds.
But with Kathe Kollwitz we come back to early Van Gogh, and even beyond him. Kollwitz never did progress to light-heartedness. To grim observation and dreams of peasant revolt she added only the terror or, alternatively, the liberation of death.