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Reciprocal Relationship of Poetry and Art Explored

Thursday, 27 April 2017

  • Art & Poetry Michael Howard with pupils
  • Art & Poetry Michael Howard

The Girls’ Division was delighted to welcome art historian Michael Howard to talk about ‘The Poetry of Art and the Art of Poetry’. Michael is the President of Bolton Decorative and Fine Arts Society and a practising artist and poet in his own right, as well as being married to the artist Ghislaine Howard. He also taught in the History of Art department at Manchester School of Art and Design at the Manchester Metropolitan University for over thirty years.

In his fascinating talk, Michael took the audience on a guided tour of the complex and collaborative relationship between art and poetry, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Throughout, he focused on specific paintings and poems and linked them, showing how one had influenced the other. He was also able to give interesting historical notes about the messages or moralities these works contain.

Using examples such as Millais’s Ophelia, inspired by Gertrude’s description of the character’s death in Hamlet, and Waterhouse’s famous The Lady of Shalott based on the poem by Tennyson, he discussed the level of detail included. He described Victorian artwork as “time bombs of symbolism”: the Victorians “read” paintings, spending much longer studying artwork than modern gallery visitors.

Moving on to the works of Picasso, Michael turned the relationship between poetry and art on its head to talk about artwork that had inspired poets to write. He talked about ‘The Man With the Blue Guitar’ by Wallace Stevens, which takes the form of a conversation with the figure in Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, and the fact that Les Saltimbanques inspired Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Fifth Duino Elegy’.

On the subject of creating poetry from art, Michael shared his process for creating haiku with the audience and suggested that they try it for themselves. He also read several drafts of the haiku he is working on based on Vermeer’s The Milkmaid as an example.

He explained to the audience that artists change the world, rather than simply showing it through paintings. This led him to talk about the Dada art movement: an attempt to “resurrect language” as a reaction to the First World War. Dada gave language a sense of magic and fun, exemplified by the poem ‘Karawane’, written and performed by Hugo Ball in 1916 and read by Michael on the night.

He also talked about later twentieth century works and their influences. He read extracts from Sylvia Plath’s diaries in which she mentions being intensely inspired by looking at artwork, including The Disquieting Muses by Giorgio de Chirico, and considered the relationship between the work of David Hockney and poems by C.P. Cavafy. He also analysed Cy Twombly’s Orpheus in detail.

In closing, he said, “What we celebrate is the joy and magic of communication as a reciprocal action. We break apathy by talking, writing books and poetry, making art.”

He ended with an extract from ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ by Wallace Stevens, illustrated by one of his wife Ghislaine’s paintings of their daughter: the poem presents the idea of each person “singing” their own world into being. The audience was able to ask questions and chat with Michael afterwards.

Mrs Julie Hone, the Academic Enrichment Coordinator for the Arts, said, “I thought the lecture was superb and was certainly a wonderful inspiration to the girls for seeing their education as a whole rather than in in compartments. Michael’s subject matter traced a track through Art, Poetry and History with fluency.”

Michael’s talk was the final event in a successful year of Arts and Sciences enrichment evenings organised by the Girls’ Division. Members of the public have been invited to join the School community for talks from a range of diverse speakers, including poet Lemn Sissay, particle physicist Professor Jeff Forshaw, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, Northern Lights expert Dr Melanie Windridge and more.

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