One of the most famous poems based on painting is W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" (and the first word needs an accent, but I'm not sure how to add it using the blog-program), which argues that the old [European] masters knew how to represent suffering in their paintings. The poem alludes to several paintings but most obviously refers to Breughel's paiting, "Icarus," which hangs in a Belgian museum that lends the poem its title. You've no doubt seen the painting. If by some chance you haven't, it's easily found on the Internet. You'll see immediately that Icarus isn't existly the center of attention.
I've tried to write a few poems that respond to paintings. Addressing one art by means of another seems like a great idea, but it's often more difficult to do well than one might imagine. Painters try to tell stories; composers write "tone poems"; poets try to have a poem embody a painting somehow; and so on.
I wrote the following poem quite some time ago, after being mesmerized by a reprint of a painting by Edouard Manet, "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère," which depicts a scene from the famous nightclub, of the same name, that thrived in Paris toward the end of the 19th century, at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, and even into the 1920s. Maybe it was the place that made the dance, "the Can-Can," famous--I'm not sure. The renowned American icon Josephine Baker danced there. Allegedly, the nightclub was based on one called the Alhambra in London; one always imagines the British imitating the French in these sorts of things, but in this instance, the reverse seems to have been true. Apparently this painting by Manet (1882) is considered his last masterpiece. From my point of view, it focuses a lot on mirrors and glass, especially on the double-image of the woman in the painting, who appears to look at "us," but whose back we can see in the mirror. --A side-note: I wonder when bars and nightclubs started using mirrors and why. I wonder if the main reason was practical: the bartender could keep his eyes on the customers when he or she turned his or her back. From the customer's perspective, is the mirror-behind-the-bar a good idea? I guess much depends on how much you like looking at yourself. If you've had a tough day, followed by a few drinks, are you really that interested in looking at yourself? Of course, there are types of bars that try to create an atmosphere full of light, so mirrors assist that project. Then there are bars that announce themselve as dark. I suspect that serious drinkers prefer the latter kind, but that's just a guess. The poem:
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère
If you’re interested, the mirror
will show a flat, brilliant image
of our lustrous clutter, of much
white flesh draped in black, of
green bottles, brown bottles, other
mirrors, crystal, lanterns, jewels—
glass and gems we’ve arranged
as a barricade against dawn.
The woman behind the bar lets
her gaze wander until you express
your pleasure. She wears black
velvet trimmed in lace, a brooch
depended on a black ribbon,
a golden bracelet on her arm.
After you order, your gaze wanders
to the mirror behind her. There her
back looks earnest and endearing.
There’s our society, too—busy,
cramped, posing, political, small.
Your gaze prefers the solitary woman.
Nonetheless you take it and your drink,
and you join the tables, and sense
someone gazing at you, too.
Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom