W E B   E X C L U S I V E S

Lisa Alther's Introduction to Birdman and the Dancer

One spring afternoon I went to Solo Press, high up over Broadway in Soho, where my friend Francoise Gilot was making monotypes. Several times before I had watched her ink the plates with a rag or a brush, and cut up and collage beautifully patterned or textured papers, along with antique maps, bank notes, lacy doilies from the bakery downstairs, whatever else of interest she’d collected. The printers would feed each monotype through the lithography press several times, after Francoise had laid down a different design and color for every run. This would alter underlying tones in some areas and not in others, yielding magnificent pieces of great subtlety and complexity.

As a novelist, I normally spend four or five years on half a dozen drafts of a book. So I was especially intrigued by Francoise’s fluidity and spontaneity during this process. Although she had a guiding impulse, she was constantly reacting to unexpected results as they occurred on the paper, turning them into advantages. In addition, she was usually working on several pieces at once, with sheets in various stages of completion pinned to the wall behind the huge press. And the pressroom itself was an active place, with people coming and going and discussing, with artists at work on other presses, with take-out food arriving for impromptu coffee breaks. Yet in the end there was almost always a harmony to Francoise’s finished pieces that occurs only when all the elements – color, line, form, texture – are in balance. I didn’t see how this was possible, since I myself need endless stretches of utter silence and solitude in order to write.

That day Francoise showed me a series she had just finished – a dozen monotypes, each 31”x44”. I was reduced to an uncharacteristic muteness by the vivid, almost lurid, colors – poison greens, contusion purples, transfusion reds. Jung says that bright colors stimulate the unconscious. As Matisse puts it, they “unleash the wild beasts within.” And Francoise’s palette from hell definitely stirred and disturbed me on some elemental level.

The central figure of this series was some sort of mythological being, an angel maybe, with wings which seemed to dissolve in a couple of the monotypes, and to drip blood in others. Dressed in a short tunic, this mysterious creature looked Egyptian or Roman. Because of his beaked nose and a kiwi-like tuft of hair at the back of his head, I nicknamed him Birdman to myself.

In the somewhat sinister shadows cast by Birdman’s giant wings lurked some lesser mortals who appeared and reappeared in various combinations and locations throughout the series as visual leitmotifs. A crowd of people in sackcloth clutched each other’s hands like prisoners awaiting their turn at the guillotine. An enchanting little girl with a bird soaring above her head was gaily imitating Birdman’s pose, arms outstretched like a glider. And a suited man sat alone, elbows on his knees and chin in his hands, gazing directly at the viewer through hollow, haunted eyes. In the background of a monotype titled “Descent to the Netherworld” stretched an eerie waterscape that reminded me of Charon boating across the River Styx.

Whether figurative, abstract, or poised on the border between the two, Francoise Gilot’s work is always visually sophisticated, usually intellectually challenging, often witty or moving or unsettling, sometimes langorously beautiful. But this was a startling new note. Birdman, I suspected, was the angel of death. Yet his guided tour of Hades wasn’t unremittingly grim. There seemed at least the possibility of transfiguration. One piece called “Illumination” featured Birdman in tones of white on wheat. Although his wings cast ominous shadows, like a masked fugitive caught in a searchlight, Birdman himself pulsed with an exhilarating iridescence.

In the final monotype called “Taking It Lightly”, Birdman had been transformed into a woman in a vibrant scarlet dress, who was dancing exuberantly, despite the anguished crowd all around her. At that time my fourth novel BEDROCK had just been published, and this monotype seemed the embodiment of my epigram for that book, taken from THE KASIDAH by Richard Burton: “We dance along Death’s icy brink,/But is the dance less full of fun?” So I nicknamed this woman The Dancer.

After studying this series for a while, I remained perplexed, curious, wanting to know more about these unusual creatures. Francoise gave me some black and white photos of the monotypes to take home. Periodically I shuffled and rearranged them like a Tarot deck, trying to figure out what the sequence should be, what story they were trying to tell. Francoise had her own sequence, yet, not being possessive, she didn’t insist that I agree with it. But a story is words, and Francoise had previously told me that visual art is “thought without words.” How was I to translate my version of her characters’ tale into my own language so that I could better understand it?

This was a strange situation for me because I was accustomed to inventing my own characters. Usually when I’m starting a piece of fiction, I see a scene in my head involving someone unfamiliar. So I take qualities and characteristics from half a dozen real people – one person’s nose, someone else’s car, another’s voice, and so on – attempting to approximate this unknown personage, like a police artist who tries to sketch an assailant from the victim’s dazed description. I compress these attributes into one sodden lump. After several weeks or months of pinching and poking at my ball of clay, trying to blow life into its nostrils, I feel it begin to stir like Frankenstein’s monster.

But this time I was coping right from the start with someone else’s full-blown characters, who clearly had their own agenda. They even started dragging in some of Francoise’s previous and subsequent monotypes for me to incorporate into their narrative – especially a series that featured a droll vagabond named The Wanderer, who had almost the same beaked nose and tufted hair as Birdman. The Wanderer seemed the personification of the concept, found in the works of such Continental philosophers as Heidigger and Levinas, of L’Errance – the quest of the solitary being, stripped of all encumbrances, searching through bleak and punishing landscapes, seeking the transformation that will finally allow a return to the cosmic source from whence he or she came.

I also became intrigued by a witty quartet of pieces concerning the war between the sexes in which the warriors’ armor was composed from anatomy diagrams of insects that Francoise had cut out of ancient engravings. One I especially liked featured a soldier, menacingly holding a club, as he studied a tree full of birds. (The monotypes included in this book were selected from some two dozen, not to illustrate my story, but rather to convey the moods and images that inspired it.)

Head invaded by a team of bizarre aliens, I felt quite indignant. Finally I wrote a hurried first draft of my unfolding drama about them, just to get them off my back. I put it away in a drawer. For several months I ignored their clamor because I was preoccupied with characters of my own.

When the first Gulf War erupted, I was snowed in at my house in Vermont. Like many others, I was shocked and depressed to realize that we as a species had apparently learned nothing from the carnage of the twentieth century about non-violent resolution of conflict. Determined not to watch this neo-Crusade on television, I pulled out my draft of the Birdman story and plunged into it so deeply that I became blessedly lost to this wounded world. Only once I surfaced, as the dust from Desert Storm settled, did I realize that I had written a parable applicable to any situation in which know-how is mistaken for wisdom, and power for strength.

Francoise Gilot's Preface to Birdman and the Dancer: WANDERINGS AND MUTATIONS

In the same way that a poet uses words, rhymes, rhythms, cadences, refrains to imprint the memory and allow recitation, a painter ignites a fireworks of colors finely attuned or contrasted, recurrent inflections of lines and volumes orienting each element in the image toward a specific mood that he or she wishes to convey. A mere surface will open up like a window to display the vastness of unlimited space, the movements of a dance, or the presence of a crowd through the use of visual metaphors. The eye will be captured and the mind compelled to believe in the global truth of the icon.

While watercolor frees the imagination and drawing disciplines the mind, oil painting is a medium that must be approached with passion and should suffice to fulfill an artist’s desires and expectations, yet I have always found special fascination in work done for the lithographic press. It acquires for me a finality of its own that comes from the process itself. Once the stone or plate is rolled over with printing ink, a great deal of pressure is applied to allow the transfer of the design to the paper. Any tone or element of the image, once printed, penetrates the paper deeply in an irreversible manner and can no longer be altered. It is possible only to build up the image by working on another plate and printing a new shade or a new color on the same sheet, superimposing elements that will contribute to the final effect. In other words, when printing, an artist can always add but not subtract, and this requires foresight and decision.

Primarily, I am a painter, but there is hardly a year when I don’t spend a month or more facing with delight the challenge of printmaking. Changing media often channels new thoughts. Also, it’s always stimulating to discover new solutions to technical difficulties. I started lithography in 1950. Throughout the 1950’s I mainly illustrated a number of limited edition books, and during the 1960’s my attention was focused on color lithography. By the end of the 1970’s, having experimented a lot and created a substantial body of work, I felt that my increased skills provided easy solutions that tended to preclude further discovery, so my interest proportionately dwindled. I needed a different stimulus for renewal. After visiting an exhibition of monotypes at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1980, I became intrigued by the multiple possibilities afforded by pursuing this more spontaneous venture.

As the name indicates, a monotype is a unique print, since the artist uses the press, not for the purpose of making an edition, but simply to embed the colors deeply into the paper of a single proof. From 1980 to the end of 1985 I battled the medium with highs and lows of success and failure, first on an intaglio press, then on a lithographic press. If it is difficult to know how to proceed to make one’s own personal mark in that field, it is even more difficult to know “what to say”, even if one knows “how to say it.”

In 1986 I started to apply torn or cut-out pieces of fine and very thin Japanese or Chinese paper, moving them along until they landed in strategic positions and were glued onto large sheets of Arches or Rives paper. I did this mostly for the purpose of bringing rich textures, refraining from introducing figurative elements so as not to impede the natural flow of consciousness in the creative process. From then on, and to my amazement, I seemed relieved of the inhibition I had felt in front of blank sheets of paper and started to free-associate with gusto on the Plexiglass plate laid directly on the bed of the press.

By 1989 Solo Press, where I worked when in New York, had moved to the corner of Broadway and Prince Street in Soho. Each morning in the taxi on my way to the print shop, I noticed more and more homeless people loafing in the streets or congregating under an overpass. Far from being indifferent to their plight, I empathized with their tribulations. Even though my work is fairly abstract, my feelings always find a way to come through and be expressed in symbols or allusions within the images. I felt deep concern for all those who no longer belonged anywhere, those whose very existence didn’t fit into any of the usual niches established by our society, those who had vainly migrated in search of a better place where to live and work. The point was not to know whether they were competent or not, worthy or not. My anxiety mounted as if I had been visualizing an endless line of present-day nomads, tiny silhouettes whose only home was the road and who must keep treading relentlessly along. I wondered how to express their predicament.

Emotions are the well-spring from which surges a fantasmagoria of flashing images, uncertain at first, and haunting until they find their way into forms and colors. Configurations emerge from one another at an accelerated tempo, each seeming to generate the next. A sarabande of possibilities, which the artist tries to sort out, or may become obsessed with, competes for attention. What sentiment could gain clarity from within this kaleidoscope of visions if not empathy for the solitude of each individual, consciously or unconsciously involved in a primeval quest for acceptance in a meaningful world? I thought that it was better to summarize in one individual what was happening to many, and in so doing, I discovered and became possessed by the theme of “The Wanderer.” I started to depict the plight of a creature not altogether human, rather birdlike.

The leitmotif of that series of prints was a figure wearing a hat tilted forward like a beak, walking against the wind through a barren landscape. His erratic forays took him through bogs, forests, moors and glades, through desolate mountains and vales, by night or by day, from springtime well into winter. His exertions made him prominent in one monotype and hardly visible in the next. He could scramble within the shambles of an inner city ghetto or get lost in the desert. At times a hermit, he retired into a cave. At times he sat alone by the sea, or was sighted gregariously whirling in the wind along with so many other human wastrels looking like falling leaves in their yellowish autumn attire.

By 1990 and onward the theme of “The Wanderer” became more than ever the main focus of my creative activity, and a compelling subject matter for my oils and gouaches, while remaining central to my work at the press. This figment of my imagination, human in body but hawk-faced and endowed with a pair of wings, took on the disquieting aspect of a stern angel of death deciding the fate of a motley group of long-nosed despondent human beings. They were gathered in a dull anteroom before being sorted out, and only a little girl unaware of or unperturbed by the impending doom innocently pursued a sparrow flying in this incongruous setting.

From monotype to monotype my images became more anxiety-ridden, the hawk-faced angel more tyrannical, the long-nosed population more hopeless and passive. Ultimately, the angel of death reached the nether regions, while his flock vanished in the shadows. In a subsequent print entitled “Chasm,” the messenger of doom reappeared on the surface of the earth, leaving behind a disconsolate female figure. I continued to free-associate and visualized the now wingless tyrant treading on human body parts, savagely severed under the unseeing gaze of a lamenting bystander.

Well, enough was enough, I decided that I had had it with my own tragic visions. Therefore, I suddenly metamorphosed the birdman into an ecstatic female dancer all clad in red. This monotype bore the title “Taking It Lightly.” It was as if after a descent into the realm of shadows, my Orpheus-like character, instead of being followed upward by his beloved Eurydice only to lose her upon returning to the light of day, had succeeded in bringing Eurydice back by merging their essences and becoming her. This was indeed a surprise solution to the sad ending of a well-known ancient Greek tale.

In 1986 I met the writer Lisa Alther in Paris, at the time when a French translation of her novel OTHER WOMEN was just being published by Editions des Femmes. She came for signatures and to meet the critics on the very day when I was giving an exhibition of my recent works at the gallery and bookstore of Editions des Femmes, rue de Seine. Both publishing house and gallery-bookstore were owned by a women’s organization called MLF and were operated under the direction of Antoinette Fouque.

Lisa Alther is very tall and very alluring, so during the opening and following cocktail party I could not help noticing her observant blue gaze peering above the crowd with detachment, but not without interest, and I suppose that with her bird’s-eye view she distinguished me too, even though my smaller stature made me almost invisible in the throng. Soon thereafter, I read her book OTHER WOMEN and was struck by the power of her style, which I found visually evocative. Later I had the opportunity to immerse myself in KINFLICKS and ORIGINAL SINS and was struck by the satirical vein she used, not to deprecate or belittle human beings, but to reveal the tragic aspect of life. We became friends, enjoying the parallel ways in which we used a dark sense of humor, not to cover up compassion or a deep sensitivity, but to denounce ominous prospects for the planet Earth and share our concern for humankind’s uncertain future.

Later, Lisa lent me her novel BEDROCK when still in manuscript form. It was a moving experience to read a novel when still vulnerable and not polished. It was, therefore, a treat to show her my series of monotypes on the theme of “The Wanderer” and related subject matter. I was elated to see that she not only shared my emotions and feelings, but that the sustained mood of my images triggered a creative urge in her own mind, where my own free associations were not only appreciated and assimilated so as to become part of her inner world, but also underwent a complete metamorphosis. Through the interplay of multiple permutations and interpolations, figures and symbols of my visual universe were to be projected in an altogether new narrative that belonged to her and her alone and completely reflected her creative imagination.

Reading BIRDMAN AND THE DANCER, I was both happy and bemused to realize that seagulls, sinuous women, creatures that for me had sprung like dreamy ghosts from a natural flow of consciousness during the process of print-making could also incarnate in very different yet related forms in an altogether different medium and tell such a different tale. Since painting is a language without words, I now leave words to my dear friend the writer, Lisa Alther.

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