Archive for September 24th, 2009

Gassed  John Singer SargentI’ve always loved the work of the great John Singer Sargent, best known for his exquisite portraiture.  Several years ago I saw a large retrospective of his work at the National Gallery in DC and was overwhelmed by the quality of his work in the show.  It was not in a style in which I work nor was the subject matter always my cup of tea but the beauty of his brushstrokes was gorgeous.  There was something beautiful in  how a nose on a portrait that appeared so perfectly modeled from a distance when inspected up close was a slash of paint, singular and perfect.

But for me the star of the show was his epic painting, Gassed, shown above.  It is a massive atmospheric  painting, nearly 8 feet by 20 feet, and depicts soldiers in World War I who have been the victims of a gas attack.  Blinded, they struggle ahead, linked  together, seeking help.  A departure from Sargent’s  trademark portraiture, it’s a powerful image and really captures the horror of  the first truly modern war that was hitting the entire world at that time.  The War to End All Wars –if only that were true.

I am reminded by this painting of a poem written in that same time, decrying the horrors that had been unleashed and the feeling of chaos that seemed pervasive.  It’s The Second Coming from William Butler Yeats.  The first verse is particularly powerful and the last two lines of it are often quoted and could apply to just about any time of turmoil, such as the present.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Both the painting and poem are interesting spotlights on the time.  I don’t know why either sprang to mind this particular day.  Maybe it’s all the doom and gloom, end of the world, here comes Jesus and he’s carrying a really big hammer stuff that is bombarding us around the clock.  Maybe the chaos and consuming din has caused us to not be able to hear our own falconer, our own guiding voice.

Or maybe I simply like the works of Sargent and Yeats.  It’s a mystery…

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