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Online Feature: “Four Proofs” by Richard Siken

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905-1906

When she saw herself, finished, she said, It doesn’t look like
me. Picasso said, It will. Perhaps it will look like her
because it is the document and will remain, while she is
just a person who will fade. Now, when we think of her,
we think of this painting. Picasso was planning ahead.
The painting is evidence but not proof. There’s no proof
that she looked like that, even though we have
the document. She existed enough to be painted. She could
have been an idea, but that’s another kind of existing.
The hand is a tool. The brush is a tool. The paint as well.
There is no machine here, but the work gets done.
A hammer is a tool when banging its head but a lever
when pulling up nails. A lever is a machine, has a fulcrum
which can be moved to change the ratio of something
or other, effort for distance. There is a fulcrum in
the mind that can be moved as well. I do not know what
else to say about this.

Raphael, Saint George and the Dragon, 1504-06

It’s hard to talk about what you believe while you are
believing it. Fervor reduces thought to shorthand and
all we get is an icon. Give a man a weapon and you
have a warrior. Put him on a horse and you have
a hero. The weapon is a tool. The horse is a metaphor.
Raphael painted this twice—white horse facing east
against the greens, white horse facing west against the
yellows. The maiden flees or prays, depending. A basic
dragon, the kind you’d expect from the Renaissance.
Evidence of evil but not proof. There’s a companion piece
as well:  Saint Michael. Paint angels, it’s easier:
you don’t need the horse. Michael stands on Satan’s
throat, vanquishing, while everything brown burns red.
All these things happened. Allegedly. When you paint
an evil thing, do you invoke it or take away its power?
This has nothing to do with faith but is still a good
question. Raphael was trying to say something
about spirituality. This could be the definition of painting.
The best part of spirituality is reverence. There are other
parts. Some people like to hear the sound of their own
voice. If you don’t believe in the world it would be
stupid to paint it. If you don’t believe in God, who
are you talking to?

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-1610

Wanted for murder, a price on his head, Caravaggio
does what he always does—he tries to paint his
way out of it. This bad boy—whose moodiness came to be
called the Baroque, this thug whose soul
was as big as Rome and full of anvils—paints his own
face on Goliath’s severed head and offers himself
up as villain, captured, to escape the hammers of the law.
Allegory, yes. A truth as well. But truth doesn’t count
in law, only proof. He took the gods and made them
human. His Bacchus was a worn-out drunk. An animal
likely to sleep in a pool of its own sick. He raised
the status of the still life, made subjects out of objects,
turned nature into drama—the bloom on the grapes,
the bloom on the boys, leaves as important as
nudes. Exaggerated light, pure theater. Evidence
of a mind he delights in. Evicted from Rome, he wants
back in. They want his head, and he’s prepared to
give it to them. He paints David in yellow pants while
the pope’s nephew arranges his pardon. July 1610—
Caravaggio rolls up his paintings and sets sail
from Naples, heading north. They stop for supplies. No one’s
heard of the pardon. Jail. He pays his way out,
but the boat and his paintings have sailed on without
him. He follows. Malaria. He dies three days before
his pardon arrives and three days after Rembrandt’s
fourth birthday. His painted head arrives in Rome weeks
later. All painting is sent downstream, into the future.

René Magritte, La Clairvoyance, 1936

Odin had ravens. Zeus was a swan. Magritte saw an egg
and painted a bird. Part of heroism is being able to
see the future and still remain standing. If you don’t
believe in God or Fate you still must believe in narrative.
I am waiting for you, here in the trainstation, says the
trainstation. Philosophy is thinking. Prophesy is wishful
thinking. It’s easy to find evidence of the future but
harder to make people believe you. This is only obvious
if you have tried. Odin had proxies. Zeus had disguises.
Magritte saw the back of his head in a mirror. Not
hindsight, not really. A debriefing. He claimed that an
image was treacherous. He was right about that but
he might not have understood directionality. His paintings,
though mysterious, conceal nothing. A possible world
and its incomprehensibilities. A purposeful distortion.
Dreaming in the service of. True in the sense of carpentry.

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This poem originally appeared as “Three Proofs” in Indiana Review 37.1, Summer 2015, and as “Four Proofs” in the fourth printing of War of the Foxes (Copper Canyon Press). 

Emily Corwin (Poetry Editor):  In this sequence of epistolary poems, Richard Siken pushes me gently into the textures, the layers here—both the sensual and the philosophical embedded in these art objects. In each section, I gather information about the context, the associations, the physicality of the art—each piece like a lesson, an opening outward for the reader. Gorgeous and thoughtful, I always look forward to reading Siken’s work.

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Richard Siken is the author of Crush (Yale University Press) and War of the Foxes (Copper Canyon Press).

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