These stories come from the depths of the ocean, where no light can reach, and one should look with one’s eyes closed in order to see. This book consists of three chapters, each devoted to a single painting in a narrative that mixes fact and fiction, biography and imagination.
All the stories are bound together by the themes of diving and deep sea, for two reasons, one of them obvious: two of these three paintings include aquatic elements. But there is a more obscure reason, and it lies within the Turkish language, my mother tongue; where the verb “dalmak” meaning “to dive” can be used in many contexts, including “to dive in dreams” that means “stargazing.” In Turkish, one can dive into sleep, reflection, memories, a book, deep thoughts, water… The book surely dives into the pool of a secret geography, but also swims in the depths of fiction, history, criticism, and artistic process through Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Whalers (1845), Jasper Johns’s Diver (1963), and Henri le douanier Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy (1897). The sections in each chapter take their titles from their definitive features like colors, gestures, and figures. The life stories of the painters gave me the bases for the historical fiction that I composed in each chapter. The facts grounded me, and also allowed me to indulge in some ambiguity.
The foundations of this book lie in New York, where all the said paintings carry on their lives now in museum collections: Whalers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Sleeping Gypsy and Diver in the Museum of Modern Art. Writing this, I looked at the paintings for a long time, sometimes with my eyes open, and sometimes closed; I listened to the little voice coming from the heart of the painting that told me there is more to this world than what we see at first. That is where the paintings really are from: a certain place, or a non-place that is not tangible—like Walter Benjamin’s dream cities: “To set up, within the actual city of Paris, Paris the dream city—as an aggregate of the building plans, street layouts, park projects, and street name systems that were never developed.”[i] These non-places are where my journey through these paintings starts and ends: in a dream ocean somewhere within this multiverse of never-ending possibilities. I see the frothy waters of the sea, a desert under scorching rays of the sun, and what is underneath the moonlight. Other parts of this otherworld also come up in real places like New York, London, Paris, and Mexico.
Looking at these paintings, I found out that they are, as their creators, in search of something profound, something beautiful; in our world that is surrounded with a very grounded, real darkness. As Ursula Le Guin remarked in her 2014 speech, the stories rise out of a reality that is greater than what one usually sees:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.[ii]
Each of the creators of these three paintings, I believe, had the ability to see this “larger reality” that Le Guin talks of, the ability to look beyond. That is why I wanted to track their footsteps on the path they led me towards that profound fantastic quality which, to me, is very real.
TJ Clark’s The Sight of Death was the first step towards this journey—this book taught me how to look at a painting, look at it again, and again; which eventually led me to see what of this “non-reality” that I was missing. I was also helped and inspired by the brilliant stories of Robert Walser, who became my springboard; and the inspirations of magical realists, bedtime stories, fantasy and science fiction writers fed my imagination with their magic. Walter Benjamin, writing in Dream Kitsch: “dreaming has a share in history. The statistics of dreaming would stretch beyond the pleasures of the anecdotal landscape into the barrenness of a battlefield;”[iii] showed me new paths to trace. Michael Ende’s Neverending Story helped me to see, with its fantasy world standing upon a thousand layers of forgotten dreams, that this study is made out of my own; for which I kept digging for years to get myself back, piece by piece, from the cold, dark dream mines. Almost at the end of his life, Walser scribbled this secret onto a tiny piece of paper: “The words I’d like to utter here have a will of their own, they are stronger and more powerful than I am, and it seems to me as if they choose to sleep, or as if it pleases them not to be what they are.”[iv] These stories I tell have a will of their own, too—my process is inextricably theirs. The research and scrutiny that went into these essays is what shapes them. I tried to let them follow their will as much as I could.
One has to find one’s own way to and through this dream-space. I hope, whoever reads these stories, will use it as a guide to looking at paintings in a different way, and with a different gaze—as if they were an atlas, or a personal map of imagining. When the dark times arrive, and there is need for a “larger reality,” I hope what I have written offers the reader a different way of thinking. “Carry it with you, at all times, and you may go through this atlas of dreams if you get lost in this adventure you’re embarking,” notes the dreamer in The Atlas of Misty Continents by Ihsan Oktay Anar. “But don’t you get carried away. Read the book that we call the World.”[v]
A three-mast whale ship floats on a cloudy, warm looking day in the ocean. Its three whaleboats are going after a Whale. The creature, injured from harpoons, blasts off of the ocean. Waves and splashes of water surround the Whale and the boats, which almost sink to the deep, as sailors try to hold on.
North Atlantic Ocean. November 1819.
It was the seventeenth day of their voyage when they saw her. The wind was fast and rumbling, filling up their unfurled sails; the waves were rustling, dashing against their ship; and their faces were dried out by the ever-shining November sun. They heard a silent, but almost visible “swoosh” of a spout from afar. She was far, far away; but yet, she was.
The whale ship Mallord and her crew were waiting for this day since they’d first set sail. The captain, the first mate, the second mate, the quartermaster, the gunners and the harpooners; the cooks and the shipwrights; the cleaners and the polishers; even the cabin boys were on the port side of the vessel, trying to see the so-called Leviathan. The salty, acrid waters of the Atlantic scrubbed their faces and burned their eyes, flowed over them and splashed the outworn, creaky wooden floors of the big boat. Soon, the storerooms beneath these floors would be full of whale oil, and sperm oil, and ambergris—a very solid, fatty substance that occurred as a biliary concretion in the intestines of sperm whales that was worth a fortune so hefty that they could live without sailing again for years to come. It was a deep, warm, and dark grey, and it smelled like soil.
The first mate shouted, “Lower the whaleboats!”
Margate, England. March 1844.
“Good day, uh, Mrs. Booth,” he said, buttoning his navy-blue vest.
He had mid-length brown hair, whitening on the sides and other random points of his slightly large head. Always-frowning, he had the eyebrows of an owl: long, bushy, disordered, and a little whitish on the ends. His nose was exceptionally beaky, crooked, and big. The skin on this remarkable nose was red, and also on his cheeks whenever he lost his breath murmuring and muttering to himself. His lips were firmly clamped tight at all times, “compressed,” Charles Hutton Lear would say; as “the evidence of an acute, calculating, penetrating intellect.” His eyes under heavy brows were like rumbling seas with their pale color and piercing gaze, “penetrating grey eyes!” They were big, bright, buggy, and deep.
“Good day, dear;” said Mrs. Booth.
William was wearing his long, dark green tailcoat, barely able to button it down the front of his potbelly. He was a small, chubby man—he looked like a sailor, as his friend C. R. Leslie later recalled: “Turner was short and stout, and had a sturdy, sailor-like walk. There was, in fact, nothing elegant in his appearance. He might be taken for the captain of a river steamboat at a first glance; but a second would find far more in his face than belongs to any ordinary mind.” The children of the World’s End neighborhood in Chelsea called him “Admiral” for a reason.
Grunting in response to Mrs. Booth’s greeting, he grabbed his little wooden case of paint, a sketchbook, and pencils and pens that he picked haphazardly from the stack on the table. He was not a man of words, but a man of constant mutter. He took his big, black top hat (an ‘abomination’ according to Mrs. Booth, but she would never say so) and incomprehensively gnarled something like, “I’m… going paintin’ up in ah, the coast, old’un.” She didn’t hear, or if she did, she didn’t answer.
North Atlantic Ocean. November 1819.
The canvas sails of the Mallord had turned to a muddy off-white with the years, yet they still shone brightly under the sun; hidden behind the pure, almost solid-looking, and vibrant clouds on the hazy skies above the ocean. Her sturdy jib boom made of dark brown wood was longer than twenty-five feet; leading them through the raving waves and dimming fog.
With the afternoon sun coming from the West, the sea looked more yellow than ever; a pale olive green, really, that shone with a glimpse of orange tinge would only show itself among the shades. They came together to form the perfect yellow ochre in the deep. The air was stuffy and warm, and the sailors were already sick of the endless days of cheap and tasteless meals and perpetual dehydration—nevertheless, they shouted and banged their feet on the floor, hurrah’d and sang and laughed, whistled and clapped. The creature was miles away, and the sprays of water it spouted from its blowhole were more invisible than visible. They needed at least half a day to reach it, and maybe even more time to hunt it. But now that they actually knew that the whale was within reach, the food at night inside the stifling crew chambers tasted better than ever. They ate their almost expired dry salted fish eagerly in order to get back their strength from a hard day’s work.They had no fear—except for the cabin boys eleven or twelve years of age, of course—because they were all Nantucket men, the ambergris was running in their veins and flame in their hearts, ready to take over the world in glory, in spite of the stories they had heard about the Essex and the French war ship Medusa, which would give an ordinary seaman shivers: the Essex, a whaler much like their own, which sailed with George Pollard, Jr. as captain and Owen Chase as the second mate, “on a calm day, with the sun at ease, was struck head on twice by a bull whale, a spermaceti about 85 feet long, and with her bows stove in, filled and sank.” The captains, mates, and the crew who did not immediately drown were stuck in little boats in the middle of the ocean; their last days were filled with horror, hunger, violence, and cannibalism. The same story of struggle for survival also smeared the pages of history when the French naval frigate Medusa ran aground, leaving more than a hundred men on a raft. Both events would later inspire two magnificent cornerstones of the world’s art history and literature.
Margate, England. March 1844.
There it was: the light. The beautiful, yellow rays of the sun he felt on his arms and paint smeared hands, warming him to the bones. The sea looked exceptionally beautiful today. Joseph Mallord William Turner, out of his mistress’ lodger next to the Harbour on the coast of Margate, and out of his partly unconscious disguise as Ms. Sophia Booth’s mysterious husband “Puggy” Booth, felt in his soul what he was again: a painter. A painter, with all his heart he thought, of light.
William Turner was a man with a deep, curious soul; a kind, yet brusque-mannered gentleman. His friend and champion John Ruskin—who had generously reviewed him in Modern Painters recently, he thought—would later recall the day the two met for the first time four years earlier: “I found in him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded gentleman: good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts.” This man walked as if he didn’t know his next step, and he spoke with an eccentric, solely unique way: His friend and fellow painter William Powell Frith spoke admiringly about Turner’s “stammerings, the long pauses, the bewildering mystery of it all.”
Turner felt the coastal wind from the sea, with its distinct smell—a smell that took him back to the days when he was a young’un spending summers here on the Kent coast. He preferred the open sea these days, to the city. He wasn’t spending much time at his home and gallery on Queen Anne Street whose fate he’d left to his faithful maid Hannah, along with some innumerable Manx cats who came and went at their will—and the irrevocable decay of time and oblivion. Some six or seven years ago, when he was much more active in the city of London and made proper use of his gallery, he sometimes wandered through the misty, plume-suffused streets along the River Thames. Later Alfred Tennyson wrote about this city with its glorious river:
Then I rise, the eave-drops fall,
And the yellow vapours choke
The great city sounding wide;
The day comes, a dull red ball
Wrapt in drifts of lurid smoke
On the misty river-tide.
This man William Turner, though, while breathing in the fresh air, was far less interested in the night and the terrors it may bring. No; he was interested in the sun, the light, the stinging rays of bask, the sea, and the color. He travelled the world, marched his way all through Europe from the Mediterranean shores of Italy to the flat hills of the Low Countries, looking for the same thing over and over, which was this pure yellow—existent within all the creatures, coming alive within them; purifying the feathers of a bird, the leaves of a tree, the gaze of a woman, and the waves of the sea. He was interested in the mystical and the curious, that came with nature hand in hand with literature and poetry. No other inspiration or discovery—except for recent developments in physics, and this new invention called the camera—was of more importance to him than the Sun, the God!
On this chilly March day, next to the shore of Kent, his steps led him to a bench along the frothy waters of the sea that washed the old boardwalk. He had one of his favorite sketchbooks with him, full of watercolor drawings and sketches of maritime subjects from his travels to Folkestone: the sea, whales, and the whaling business. He was fascinated by these creatures and their stories, and was eager to keep painting them.
Only recently he became interested in whales, although this wasn’t the first time he’d thought about them: Elhanan Bicknell, one of his patrons—who bought six works of Turner in the last year—was a partner of a firm that specialized in refining spermaceti. Bicknell was a friend and neighbor of the Ruskins, and Turner met him at a dinner given at the Bicknell estate in Herne Hill around 1838. Turner visited him at his house several times, befriending his daughters and admiring his collection. It was there that he saw a painting by William John Huggins, A Whaler in the South Sea Fishery. Owned by Bicknell’s firm, it depicted one of their whale ships on the hunt, and also pictured the beast. And it was after one of those days when he prepared two canvases of the same size—90 centimeters to 120 centimeters—to work on which he painted two whaling pictures the same year—both intended to be sold to Bicknell. He also talked to captains Elisha Ely Morgan and George Manby, both of whom, accepting Turner’s invitation to his gallery on Queen Anne, offered great insight about whaling. As did also his friend, the founder of the Natural History Museum, Sir Richard Owen. When Turner thought of the whalers, he felt the fiery excitement of discovering new territories, the danger, the mystery—the ambition, and the power of nature that he believed was the Sublime.
His interest in whales, though, had peaked the previous week, when he was in town, where he had serendipitously walked into a little bookshop. Bumping around the tight bookshelves covered with dust, he smelled the books that smelled like lavender, rotten apples, and old bags. He found there what he was looking for: The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale. Turner knew that Bicknell had four copies but he wanted his own.
“How very interesting! And what mystical, wonderful creatures they are!” he thought that day, peaking through the pale pages of the book. “Every thing around solemnly still, with the sun pouring its intense rays with dazzling brightness,” was the first line he read.
New York. July 10, 1850.
The writer was looking within his mind, at a memory of this painting by the English master Turner that he had seen one year earlier, when he spent a few weeks in London. He had read Ruskin’s glorifying review on Turner in Modern Painters. He had been to the National Gallery, Vernon Gallery, and the British Museum; but it was only after seeing The Prince of Orange he’d asked their—apparently—mutual friend C. R. Leslie to show him more of Turner’s work. He unfortunately hadn’t had the chance to go the gallery on Queen Anne Street, but as a lovely coincidence got himself introduced to a certain Mr. Bicknell, who was a partner in a whaling firm. And there on the floor in his drawing room, waiting to be sent back or hung up, he saw for the first time Whalers.
The painting had not long ago been finished, and had “too much watercolor” for its patron. But it fascinated him, and now, one year later, it was still fascinating, as much as he remembered: A whaler, all sails set, far away under a luminous winter sky, all warm yellows and glorious crimsons and oranges shining in and out of the thick white clouds. Then, the fantastic creature: The Whale, harpooned, deathful, fighting for her life. What a wonder. It was everything he wanted from a story: “an epic confrontation between humankind and the natural world.”
As Herman Melville was sitting at his desk, thinking about all of those things, he opened Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, and noted on the title page: “Turner’s pictures of Whalers were suggested by this book.” Rolling his tobacco, he looked out of the window and up at the New York sky, and tried to see the same colors: tones of orange, warm cadmiums and golds were slowly filling up the afternoon sky as the sun was setting. One of his favorite books, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Poe fell on the floor with a loud bang. Poe’s Grampus and Turner’s Whaler all in all, but in particular the stories of The Essex of Nantucket were silently, subtly, weaving the foundations of a new idea––the best one he had yet.
He opened his little notebook, and wrote:
Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvelous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through. –It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking- up of the ice-bound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great Leviathan himself?
The White Whale, a gloriously white sea monster a hundred feet long with a grudge that could outrange humans’, was born.
Depths of the North Atlantic Ocean. Time nonexistent.
Her voice sounded like a flame coming to life, dancing; at first an ultramarine, almost dazzling with a neon glow, and then, for a second, a very dark blue—like the night with no moonlight, a deep azure; and then finally, pure white.
The deep abyss of the oceans and its inhabitants are, for humankind, still a mystery. Once the oldest ancestors of humankind dwelled in the sea. But man doesn’t belong there anymore, even though he yearns to. Underneath the sea, where all the noise is cancelled out into a stuffed, encapsulating feeling of silence, is like the hidden corners of space, or constellations light-years away. Like once the oldest ancestors of humankind did, deep down, creatures of water bide. And some of them sing.
John Berger, one of the greatest writers about art for the century to come, wrote in Once in a Story: “Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity,” and then continued: “The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.” It would also be the work of storytellers to speak of the world underwater. Who but they could describe the intensely white, humongous, yet caring and graceful creature living a thousand miles below, singing with her hypnotizing voice to find her way? A beast so big that in her veins children could swim; and with whose oil, humankind would produce power and light and color? During the time when Turner and Melville lived, the oceans were the deep space of the next century—a mystical realm, hiding great fantasy creatures and horrific monsters within its depths, where no man ever went. But the distances a great mind can go cannot be mapped, or limited.
“Dive,” she used to sing. “Dive. Deep.” Uninvited, a poet heard Her across time and space.
In the year 1809, William Turner wrote a poem on a small, wrinkled page of his Hastings notebook:
To mark thy once domain
Where pleasure seemed to reign
Gently lifted over the azure main
That humbled at the feet rest.
Was he thinking of the Whale? He was a storyteller, and he was in love with the sea, and the ocean, and the unknown. In his mind, the Mallord, a whaler very similar to the Essex from that disaster of the last decade, was about to capture a marvelous whale. This scene was later to be described by William Thackeray: “That is not a smear of purple you see yonder, but a beautiful whale, whose tail has just slapped a half-dozen whale-boats into perdition; and as for what you fancied to be a few zig-zag lines spattered on the canvas at hap-hazard, look! They turn out to be a ship with all her sails.” William Turner dived into the abyss of his own mind, and there he found the Whale. When he swam back out, his mind’s eye had already seen a ship—a ship called the Mallord that never existed, except on a canvas. Its fate was bound with that of the Essex within the ocean.
New York. July 1850.
Herman Melville thought of the painting again, that day. A novel was being born, and he was dreaming of an inn. The Spouter Inn, in his mind, was slowly coming to life with its creaky floors that looks like a real ship’s, harpoons and whaling weapons and a giant whale jawbone hung on walls, and the salty smell—and the painting of Turner would be there. He closed his eyes, and tried to remember. He thought, though, that maybe Thackeray could help him remember: “A smear of violet,” he described. Or did he say purple? Not long after, he was scribbling this paragraph:
But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the center of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted.
North Atlantic Ocean. November 1819.
The second mate watched the whaleboats pull away. Three boats, with six men each, armed with harpoons and darts, moved further and further away into the foggy horizon. Once or twice they were concealed in the foamy outbursts of briny seawater, caused by their prey splashing underneath. From the size of the wave, the mate on board knew that this spermaceti whale was a big one.
The bigger the beast, the more fame and glory it would bring them—he tried to imagine how proud he would be if they returned home with their cellar full. Capturing a Whale in this age meant money, power, and eternal reputation; but most of all, a successful hunt meant a victory against Mother Nature, against God, against all the earthborn men and women and species of the world; won proudly and gloriously. Human race ruled the world, fought tooth and claw with the rest of the creations of nature for thousands of years; and it was they who defeated monsters as big as their ships and turned them into gold—and no one would take that away.
These men, ordinary folk from the land of Nantucket who grew up with stories of oceans from generations of fishermen, were arrogant and greedy. They yelled and fought and rowed with all their strength to reach the Whale; none cared how soaked they were, or how tired.
If she could growl, she would.
All three harpoons had hit their mark. The Whale, in all her magnificence, splashed her flat, giant tail to the sea; and fell. White foams turned into a morbid pink, and the sea, crimson.
On a starless, black Friday night in New York, Herman Melville drank two bottles of fine whiskey by himself. Tomorrow, the 18th of October, was the day his book was being published in Britain. He would have been happy, if he could have known back then, that Hawthorne would later praise him in a letter—so much that Melville would reply, feeling deeply content:
So now I can’t write what I felt. But I felt pantheistic then—your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable socialities are in me.
“Dive,” sang the Whale.
She was wounded, and her blood was painting the olive tinted glimmering sea in crimson, vermillion, and a diluted pink. The drops of blood blending in the saltwater shined like golden flakes on a snowy day. She went deep inside the ocean, fearful, diving to hide herself in the farthest corners of her home, to get away from the rage and greed and brutality of men—a pawn in their game, their war with everything that was not them. The three harpoons on her back didn’t pierce deep, and the ropes of those little men couldn’t be longer than the lengths she would go.
After he finished his sketch on a sunny day on the coast of Margate, William Turner noted on the side: “He breaks away.” And she did.
With a roar of splashing water, and a crash of a magnificent streaming wave she hauled out of the ocean. Her grandiosity, more than all the men on their (now seeming pathetically, ingloriously small) ship and even smaller whaleboats could ever imagine, was bewitching. She emerged from the surface with all her power, all the Sublimity she’d got. The sailors in the boats were bathed, drowning, with the surf she had burst; they tried to hold on, hopelessly although, to the edges of the cracking, watering boats. Her tail, as big as five cannons altogether, wrecked the boats; and Mallord in the distance could only watch.
William Turner died, looking at the sun, in his house on World’s End that he shared with Mrs. Booth on December 19th that year. It was only two months after a great admirer of him, Herman Melville, published his book about a white Whale called Moby-Dick. The painter’s last words, muttered almost choking to catch his breath and growling as he always did, were: “The sun is God.”
The canvas is made up of two plates equally sized, 220x91centimeters each, painted with a pale yellow ochre and white, and then drawn on with charcoal and white pastel. Two pairs of handprints and a pair of footprints combine with arches and arrows, evoking a gesture of a grand dive. On the lower left corner, are capital letters forming the word DIVER in stencil.
The Gulf of Mexico, S.S. Orizaba. April 27, 1932.
The poet, standing on the edge of the ship’s slippery, narrow gunwale, looked down at the waters raging and frothing beneath his feet. They were 275 miles out of Havana. He felt, at this moment, that everything was upside down; as if the sea was the infinite night sky where he could fly high and reach the moon, and the ship’s railing was only there to hold him from his ascent to the high and above. Falling was flying, and floating was sinking.
He never knew that all his life had been leading up to this very moment: A binding act that would gather his life altogether with one, single gesture. That act, along with all he had created and gone through, which eventually led him to this teetering on the edge, would prevail the creation of another artist. It would take decades, but this moment—when he stood at the railing—seemed longer. It felt like a year had passed since that he’d said to Peggy, his fiancée: “I’m not going to make it, dear. I’ve utterly disgraced myself;” but in fact, it was just that morning. He slightly paused to take off his coat—it was pushing him down, and now he had somewhere else to be.
He felt the wind behind his eyelids; burning his eyes, wetting them; his dewy face washed with flying drops of salty water from the waves. He opened his eyes and looked back.
“Goodbye, everybody,” said the poet, his feet nearly slipping on the gunwale. His name was Hart Crane. He was a small, skinny man. He made almost no sound when he finally met the rumbling waters of the Gulf.
The clouds had cleared. It was a beautiful day in spring.
New York. April 1963.
It was a beautiful April day in 1963 when the artist finished it. A big canvas he started as a sketch, “a way to figure out a diagram for the painting,” had curiously turned into a work on its own. The canvas was made up of two separate plates, joined to form a metaphorical—and almost literal, he thought—diving board about 220 centimeters high and 180 centimeters wide. From this canvas the artist dived into his own creations, his thoughts, and his dreams—dreams in which he always fell from the side of a ship into the cold, dark abyss of the North Atlantic, where whales sing to find their way. He always woke up with a sense of relief from these dreams.
It was around this time when from the gray mists of England, the Beatles were about to start a journey in a legendary-to-be yellow submarine to save an imaginary dream world: “Once upon a time, or maybe twice, there was an earthly paradise called Pepperland. Eighty thousand leagues beneath the sea it lay… or ‘lie.’ I’m not too sure.” Could the artist have passed, after falling down, the Sea of Time, the Sea of Monsters, the Sea of Green, and make it there? Whenever he imagined the feeling of underwater, he thought of the American poet Hart Crane who took his own life in the ocean. How amazing it would be to find him with a periscope under the sea. The voyage to end in the sea of green started with a gesture.
One day, around 5162 years after the Sumerians invented the written word, Jasper Johns woke up with a different feeling than usual—not a sense of relief, but something waiting to come alive, like a long-forgotten memory. It was a gesture, an action even, on the tip of his fingers, waiting to be executed in its pure form. Once ensued, this gesture he felt in his bones this morning would move from his hands, high above in the air, all the way down to the sides, through his arms stretched, tightly, straight—so tight that he could feel his arms’ stretch in his legs. He held his hands up high, and waited for the motion to complete itself: soon, his hands fell, with a straight angle, to the sides.
It was a gesture full of love. It was maybe what Vilém Flusser would identify as a gesture of presenting; but in a counter-chronological way: “The gesture of presentation, conversely, is a gesture of love. It donates, gives something away, it offers itself and gives itself up. As they present their work, the hands offer themselves to another.” Yet this one started with love, beyond resignation. It all came to him naturally, as an instinct; and with this movement of his body he felt weightless like he could float in the air. Or was this a fall?
Infinite consanguinity it bears—
This tendered theme of you that light
Retrieves from sea plains where the sky
Resigns a breast that every wave enthrones;
While ribboned water lanes I wind
Are laved and scattered with no stroke
Wide from your side, whereto this hour
The sea lifts, also, reliquary hands.
The lines of Hart Crane from Voyages were vividly reciting in his head, flowing out of his hands.
Jasper Johns imagined the sea, lifting up Crane’s body. But it felt wrong. The Diver was not floating but consciously going deeper, like flying but overturned, as if it’s in a mirror image. He’d written some years ago in his sketchbook a moment’s scribble—at the time he didn’t know where it came from—which only now made sense: “The air must move in as well as out—no sadness, just disaster.”
The Gulf of Mexico, S.S. Orizaba. April 27, 1932.
In Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours, his ficto-factual Virginia Woolf thought in her room, one gloomy April day in 1923 as she was trying to write Mrs. Dalloway: “Clarissa, sane Clarissa—exultant, ordinary Clarissa—will go on, loving London, loving her life of ordinary pleasures, and someone else, a deranged poet, a visionary, will be the one to die.” Woolf imagined, smoking her hand-rolled cigarettes in a room of her own, a poet falling. It was always the visionaries that died; but they were also the ones that lived.
Hart Crane used to describe his childhood as a “bloody battleground.” All his life he never was able to belong somewhere: He went back and forth between Ohio and New York, trying to be the poet and the artist who received the acclaim he deserved. Yet he had always been poor—financially and mentally. Lately he had started to doubt his talents as a poet since the life he was living gave him, he thought in pain, nothing back. He was in love with New York, but he always suffered there. He used to think about this destructive relationship between him and the city, while looking at the Statue of Liberty from his window under the Brooklyn Bridge. He did, in the end, try going away for inspiration—the “epic” he intended to write during this trip to Mexico he was going back home to, ended up being a simple, total failure. This day he committed suicide started off improperly, too:
Hart Crane spent the night of 26 April 1932 as he did many other nights in his short life. He drank compulsively, and then he sought out sailors who might be interested in quick, no-consequences sex. This time, he chose badly. He received a thorough thrashing. While unfortunate, this outcome was no surprise. He had previously been beaten, robbed, and otherwise humiliated during his nocturnal escapades. Part of the pattern, too, was morning-after remorse.
He was overwhelmed by the realities in his life, along with the perpetual remorse. He was done with chaos.
“Whatever ‘chaos’ might be found in his poems was even more dramatically evident in his life. Crane had already become one of the emblematic figures of the Lost Generation,” wrote Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker in 2006: “thanks both to his conspicuous alcoholism, which was not uncommon in Prohibition America, and to his relatively open homosexuality, which was.” Crane was in his essence more than one person, just like Johns, though he did not know this. He felt alone. But he wasn’t. He just belonged to another time of this world—a more gentle, kind world. His untimely greying hair and wrinkling skin was maybe a symbol not for the pain he suffered, but for the time in literary and social history he belonged to.
Hart Crane let himself go, floating in tides of foam and azure. He blanketed himself with waves that surrounded him, and went down under the water, without feeling the need to breathe, struggle, or fight back. He held his hand up, one last time. Hart was the poet, the visionary; the one to die. He gave away his breath, and dived.
Under the water, he held his arms on top of his head, then straightened them tightly; and finally opened them up wide around his water-enveloped body. His feet, straight and side-by-side, let the waters take him deeper and deeper within their world.
His hand was the last thing any living human saw of him. His body was never found.
Sweep and Smudge
New York. 1962-1963.
“Bodily gestures became meaningless except with respect to their display of the body;” wrote John Elderfield in Artforum 66 years after the poet dived, “which only stimulated the desire to find explanations—the exegete is the exile’s critic—or, more precisely, to remember the stories that the gestures used to tell.” Jasper Johns used, on the day that he woke up from his dream, a gesture he had forgotten from another lifetime, when he was on a ship coming to New York from Mexico, and remembered then, three decades later, in front of the canvas. He was more than one person, after all.
Johns was a man who made himself. He came from South Carolina, where he had lived in many places, with many people: with his grandfather (of whom he was terrified), with his Aunt Gladys, in Allendale, in The Corner Lake, in Columbia—numerous cities of South Carolina. After his first year of college, he moved to New York—without ever having seen a real painting. “For as long as he can remember, he has wanted to be an artist. His grandmother had been an artist,” wrote Michael Crichton, borrowing from John Cage: “He grew up with the idea that an artist was socially useful, as well as a ‘good, exciting person.’” Other than this fond memory, he had never let his past become his matter. He was always, and most definitely, in the present. He was an intelligent man, with a face that “resembled William S. Hart, the silent gunslinger of the silent Westerns.” His movements were subtle, slow, and precise. He was a Southern gentleman with the most literal mind and good manners. Johns always said that he was not disciplined. “I never developed good habits,” he used to say. But that April day in 1962 felt like a good day to work. He started by picking up two canvasses and binding them together to form his idea on.
He tracked his dream gesture on the canvas, first painting with yellow ochre and white; and then he used the springboard within his mind to reach deeper and deeper, with a black charcoal in his right hand. With simple, small, gracefully bold and mindfully crude strokes of hand and arm he painted his canvas black—though he left areas to smudge and smear into the colors behind, letting them be: be transparent, be different shades and tones of grey that found themselves on the surface of the canvas. Crichton once saw him paint, secretly:
Johns held a small brush, and was in constant movement, working rapidly—darting forward, stepping back, darting forward again to make a mark with the outstretched brush. His movements were fluid and quick. I had the impression of athleticism: a dance, or a fencing match.
This time, his movements were flowing on the canvas not like a dance, but a swimmer at sea. The soul of the movement became the image of a dream once lost.
The previous year he made a series of drawings that he called Studies for Skin: he had covered his skin with oil, and then pressed it onto paper, and afterwards scrubbed over the oil remains with charcoal. He did the same thing with this canvas—he pressed his oiled hands onto the painted surface first, then held his arms up, and, with a little help from a stool, he then pressed his charcoal-covered hands onto the painting; one hand on the left plate, and one hand on the right. Afterwards, he made two distinct hand imprints; lifted his hands, very slowly, and on each side, lowered them down on a 90-degree angle, with one single, strong gesture of body. With a swift, sharp sweep, he drew arrows in white and black to show the quartile-circular motion. He followed the movement by transferring hand imprints in the lower middle part of the canvas, smudging two straight lines, reached the handprints at the top. With the charcoal in his hand, he kept on drawing; with the darkness of the coal and the ochre in the background, there appeared, as in his 1959 painting Shade, “a nocturnal space with bursts in it of white lights that radiate from suspended points, like bursting and falling fireworks misted over.” When he copied the motion he had captured on the stillness of the canvas, he found himself swimming in the air: One movement of the arm after the other, he drifted away up above the sky, or fell even more rapidly down to the depths of the ocean; lost in action, lost in memory.
He put the canvas down on the ground of his studio where he sometimes watched the East River from the window. Carefully, he smeared charcoal under his feet, and stepped on his painting, which now became the real diving board. He placed his feet on the edge of the plane, and jumped.
Depths of the Gulf of Mexico. Time nonexistent.
“Dive,” sang the Whale. “Dive. Deeper.” And he did.
In the water there was no time, just like in some midday reveries where timepieces are warped, and in those dreams that were two seconds long, but at the same time lasted five hours. The sun was a memory from days of old now for the poet who didn’t breathe anymore. There was no sound, not even his own heartbeat. It was a sense of ultimate isolation from everything else in the world except for water and darkness. His arms making circular motions above and beside and behind him, he fell deeper with each little gesture. Eventually he stopped trying to see. Instead he listened. He felt.
And then he heard.
The voice of the Whale was like glitter in vocal form, sparkling, reflecting, and shimmering with the nonexistent light of the ocean blue. Her song was everywhere and anywhere and anytime, at the same time; wherever Crane turned he was engulfed in these shiny particles of enchanting sound. He didn’t have to see with his eyes to know that She was omniscient and omnipresent, and that he was small and trivial against Her white, candescent grandiosity. She moved in musical notes a thousand leagues beneath the sea—it seemed like all these waters were only there so that she could swim in them, singing hymns of magic.
When he finally saw Her, all the poet could think about was the whiteness of the Whale. He remembered Melville’s Ishmael in a flash.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all- color of atheism from which we shrink?
She moved with such grace, unexpected, because of Her greatness. Now he saw Her, after hearing Her voice, and when She came close enough to the poet, She looked at him.
New York. April 1963.
Jasper Johns took from a cupboard in his studio the stencils he liked. Once, the critic Leo Steinberg asked him, obviously not fully comprehending what Jasper meant, about the stencils: “Do you use these letter types because you liked them or because that’s how the stencils come?” He answered: “But that’s what I like about them, that they come that way.” Decisions were made for him by the things themselves, the way they were—he only invited these decisions, and welcomed them.
Johns grabbed the letters D, I, V, E, and R, and with a large piece of tape pinned them onto the left-hand plate, all the way below to the lower edge of the canvas. This way he gave the painting the name, after Hart Crane, and gave a non-pictorial form to the main element of the painting that he consciously and intentionally left behind, and left formless: it was only an idea, to be found within the charcoal marks of these stencil letters. The word DIVER at the bottom of the painting told him about the part of the painting he didn’t know about— “An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does it speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them?” The disappearance of the main figure and its reappearance in meaning was what made the Diver what it was. Elderfield ended his piece on Diver, years after the painting was finished, with this paragraph:
The unseen figure in the drawing is lost in action as an absorbed figure might be lost in thought, catches me performing in this drawing the memory of somebody diving, then rising, then falling, then lost in action to me. Just how lost becomes painfully clear when I see that the drawing’s two panels resemble a closed double door, and that the hands sealing the base of the drawing have become a skull on the ocean floor.
Robert Morris found traces of this approach that Jasper started taking on in the 1960’s in his Targets, and Flags, and Numbers, all preparing him for this allegorical good-bye. His personal references in titles increased for the last couple of years—“unavoidable is the impression of a world gone awry, tumultuously churning up one’s experience… These works…tend to convey an underlying desperation.”
Depths of the Ocean. Time nonexistent.
The bottom of the sea was not cruel. Looking eye to eye with the Whale, Her pale, monstrous body contrasting with the azure steeps, the poet wondered if Melville, too, had visited the depths of the ocean in his dreams. He had once looked down from the R.M.S. Tuscania, and wondered at these depths—it was no coincidence, then, that he was reading Melville. “How much that man makes you love him!” he wrote to a friend in a letter afterwards. Seeing in the Whale’s eyes constellations of stars and galaxies, he closed his eyes. “No farther tides,” he thought.
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides … High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.
Under the moonlight, a desert scene is formed with large planes of color. In the middle of the painting, a woman wearing a colorful, striped gown is sleeping while holding a stick. Next to her, there is a mandolin and a vase at the very right bottom end of the canvas. A lion stands next to the woman, sniffing, but doesn’t hurt her. A full moon along with seven stars fills up the sky.
The mind of the Sleeper. 1896.
She was dreaming of the ocean. The waves of azure carried her, at first on the surface; and the slow flows of the cold, refreshing water licked her face and bathed her like a mild autumn breeze. She floated on the surface, letting herself go completely; swinging her arms up and down, with a silent gesture surrounded with the glimmers of the soft, frothing little bubbles that made no sound. Her eyes were closed and her limbs were freely moving with the stream, gliding gently, carelessly, washing her dark skin which was shining with drops of water. She was smiling. Only a buzzing sound could be heard—a humming, deep drone, reminiscent of the sound planets make in the sky. One had to listen to them for light years, but once they were heard, they would never, ever be forgotten. The ocean sounded like the planets to the Sleeper.
And then a strange logic came to play, and everything turned upside down. It felt very natural, like it was the course of things that was supposed to happen. The water surface became the horizon, and the open night sky started, slowly, turning into the sea. Mirror image became reality. She felt the waves slipping away from her spine towards her neck and her chest, as if she was spinning around to face the sea without moving. Sheet-like streams of water covered her face but her eyes did not hurt, nor did her lungs choke to breathe. Her gown, made up of a thousand colors, was weightless as she was, billowing around her body but following its own tune within the waves. The full moon, once in the sky, was a mere reflection of what once was. The desert she was in was no more. The sound of the ocean, in her expedition, was delicately humming like the jingling of a mandolin. She held her arms up above her head, closed her legs tightly, stretched, and dived.
The Desert. Time nonexistent.
When he roared, it was like a polyphony of a hundred howls—the deepest, the most frightening sound ever heard. The Magician’s Nephew recalled it once,
A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. It was hardly a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.
It started from the farthest end of silence, and grew with a slow, quiet pace from one heartbeat to another; until it finally reached the pit of its listener’s stomach and froze every drop of blood with staggering horror. And with this sound that shook the ground on which he walked, the Lion trudged.
The full moon was shining brightly in the desert sky. It was a place of mystery, with no known borders. In this land physics were of no importance, at least its laws that are known to be true on Mother Earth. The Lion, wandering in the desolation of human presence, had dark brown, glossy fur that shined golden under the moonlight. Its mane was made up of stardust and glitter and of the softest fur imaginable, surrounding his magnificent head like a gilded crown. With every step, his mane flowed in the wind with a gentle ruffle, more gracefully than silk frills of the finest merino. His nose was as big as a human hand, leathery and craggy, but velvety too—softer than a cloud, or cotton candy. His eyes were ochroid, penetrating; and his pupils were so deep that the oceans would look like ponds next to them.
Not far away, the gypsy was sleeping.
Also hereabouts, a man was walking fearlessly on the powdery sands of the barren Sahara. He had tall, black boots up to his knees, a creamy beige shirt, and black cotton pants suitable for a safari. He looked marvelous. At first sight an observer would know that he was an adventurer—his skin was tanned, contrasting with his white, bushy moustache and politely backswept white hair: A gentleman, in the middle of the desert, with a red striped cravat!
Salon des Indépendants, Paris. 1897.
He stood at the entrance. It was a breezy September day, and the painter was breathless. Underneath the confident look he thought he had in his eyes, he was almost breathless with excitement and, to be honest, a little anxious. He was wearing a black suit, a white shirt, and a red striped cravat, tied tightly around his neck. He wore his Rembrandt hat that he saved for these occaisons artistiques. He was a short, stout man about 5’6’’ tall, with deep, naively honest and tender eyes, and a “bushy beard” that he sported fashionably and proudly: His entire look not even said but yelled that he was an artist.
He was ready to go inside. Henri Rousseau, le Douanier—that was his sobriquet: the customs officer. He used to work for the Paris customs service collecting tolls, although he was not exactly a customs officer but a gabelou, but he never corrected the misnomer. “I retired years ago,” he frowned with a certain pride, “to become the artist that I am.” He did, indeed, retire from his job to create his art full-time almost two decades ago. He kept muttering disapprovingly for a few more seconds—and rightfully so, the history would show. He was here to see his new painting in the most exquisite art exhibition in Paris.
The year 1897, and this day in particular that he introduced his realist painting with a sleeping woman and a lion bathing in moonlight was an important turning point for Henri Rousseau’s life, but he did not know it just yet. He had met and was even praised by very famous names in the Parisian art scene a few years back, like Paul Gauguin. But this came only after years of public embarrassment which he never let lower his spirits and love for art. Rousseau was a part of the Salon des Indépendants since his first debut in 1886: With his painting Carnival Evening, he took his place in the Salon which was then run by Odilon Redon, a talented but very pessimistic man in Rousseau’s opinion. Redon and his Salon was part of a growing opposition towards the academic painting’s high standards and discipline, and the famous Salon d’Automne exclusiveness where those ideals passés were actualized. It was that year, 1886, when Georges Seurat caused the biggest scandal with his A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
Rousseau was there to witness, and be part of it all, included but also away from all the -isms and manifestos. Instead, he was his own self and cared about nothing but creating.
This was the time when Paris was changing the dynamics of the art world, shining like a star—the city was living an era that was later to be called La Belle Époque: “the twentieth century could not wait fifteen years for a round number; it was born, yelling, in 1885.” The Eiffel Tower was only built temporarily as an entrance to the 1889 Exposition, which fascinated and inspired Henri Rousseau deeply. A period of economic progress and political stability was in play after a long time, and the city was boiling up from the core with art and entertainment, all, at the same time, feeding each other. The Golden Age of Paris was running in the veins of the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge, the can-can dancers and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and infamous dance parties accompanied by absinthe. During these years of privileged comfort between two history-defining wars, a twenty-something Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque were slowly and silently laying the foundations of something called Cubism. The “beasts” were about to start having their own exhibition halls at the Salon, curiously, with Henri Rousseau by their side. Only several months earlier had the Lumière brothers introduce the autochrome technique. Edgar Degas’s dancers were giving way to the wickedly colorful courtesans of Toulouse-Lautrec; and some five or six hundred miles south, Italians were manifesting a new movement called Futurism.
And there he was, Rousseau, an old man with an endless faith in his destiny, dismissing all the laughter and insults he had endured for years. For the most part up until then, his paintings were mocked and diminished by fellow artists, critics, media, and the public. He waited patiently, making a scrapbook that he filled with clippings of horrendous critiques he had received, and he even wrote to journalists about his bad reviews. Although, all those years, he apparently was on the right track: “All the better if visitors jeered and laughed, since that authenticated the art as revolutionary. There was a tradition for that,” Arthur Danto wrote, many years later, about those times of the Paris modernist scene. Talking about Henri Matisse and his process before Leo Stein bought his work, Danto added, nevertheless: “But he was, in the end, human, and he had begun to doubt his gifts.” But if this ever happened to Rousseau, the most naïve of them all, the art history was not aware of it—except in one sentence, included in his autobiographical sketch for publisher Girard-Coutances, in the second volume of “Portraits of the Next Century” did Rousseau himself write ambitiously about his life and art: “It is only after very great hardships that he succeeded in making himself known to the numerous artists around him.” Painting scenes from dreams, gardens and his borderless imagination, just like the one he was there to exhibit in 1897, he was the “master of Plaisance” of an ever-evolving, modern, vibrant period of Parisian art, he “worked alone without any master but nature and some advice from Gérôme and Clément.” Standing alone, he infamously lacked the necessary culture, education and the know-how: he was the Douanier. “Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, which unfolded during his lifetime, simply did not exist for him,” wrote Dora Vallier; “However, the transgression embodied in his own painting is much more far-reaching than the ways and means of those innovative artists who would bring about the concept of avant-garde.” All Rousseau wanted to do was to be one of those; yet he was destined to achieve much, much more in the future. About him, and his naiveté on keeping up with the rest of the art world, Guy Davenport wrote:
What, psychologically, was most useful to Rousseau was not childishness but a quality wholly mature: the ability to fool himself. In a lifetime of supposing he had achieved what most mature people achieve (as Ibsen shows us in all his plays), an inaccurate and fictional idea of themselves and their world, Rousseau certainly saw his paintings as he wanted to see them, as academically finished as Bouguereau or Rosa Bonheur. In this he was a kind of Don Quixote; and as with the Don, Rousseau wins us over to his way of seeing.
Rousseau was a visionary in his way of seeing—he was the adventurer and survivor of exotic jungles, the lover and savior of beautiful women, the victor of godforsaken forests of mysterious lands across the ocean. His ability to see the world as Davenport’s quixotic character enabled him to call himself a realist, and his Gypsy a masterpiece of realism. He talked about the aspects of the painting as items with reasonable and realistic explanations:
A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic.
However he saw himself, with his powerful way of looking at the world around him he created his own, and then conquered both worlds.
The Desert. Time nonexistent.
The brave Adventurer walked on the infinite dunes of the desert, hoping to find an oasis—the stars in the sky, the seven shining astral dots within the profundity of the teal, azure, cobalt, cerulean, indigo, and violet tinges of a thousand shades of blue were leading his way.
The geography of this desolate part of the multiverse could never be mapped. With every moment and every dream, the desert rewrote itself. A new idea sparked up a new constellation in the sky, or a brand new tone of blue; or an unseen formation of an unseen dune appeared on the farthest ends of this bottomless ocean of sand. “If it is but a dream, a dream which I have placed in my surroundings, and which comes back to me at will, what of it?” wrote Émile Zola in Le Rêve, which would inspire the Adventurer in the coming years: “It saves me, it carries me away spotless in the midst of dangers.” Zola must have visited and changed a few things on this land himself, but that’s never to be known.
Henri the Brave climbed up the hills of sand and suddenly froze, drenched in panic. He saw, not far away, the Lion. The thumping of his giant steps were echoing on the emptiness. Henri heard his roar. Every inch of his body trembled with horror—but he quickly overcame the fright despite the bedazzling looks and sound of the beast. A moment later, he came to his senses and kept approaching this uncanny scene.
A figure, a woman with skin as dark as coal, was lying down on the sand, fast asleep. She slept right there in peace, as if she were atop a cluster of soft clouds. She had luxuriant, reddish-brown hair that was spread on the ground beneath her, like a waterfall of shiny locks. She wore a dress with stripes of colors, and a lot of them—from lemon yellows to crimson reds and viridian greens and azure blues. Her fragile, tiny hand held a stick—one uncannily similar to his. Next to her, a mandolin lay on the sand, and a vase filled with—as he assumed—clear, cold water to quench her thirst during the voyage through this barrenness. “A gypsy,” he thought. “She has to wake up before the Beast comes!”
But dreams have their own systems of thought and existence. They can bend the rules as they please. What happened next was to prove that fact to Henri.
Paris, France. 1908.
After 1897, Henri Rousseau’s life and career changed drastically. When this man, “a small, modest figure, with a sweet piping voice and the simplicity of a child,” as recalled by his student Max Weber, painted his realist picture The Sleeping Gypsy, he unknowingly opened up a glitch in the art history: While trying so hard to appraise his master Gérôme’s highly depictive, and for him, “respectable” paintings of wild animals and nature, Rousseau set up a dream-like version of reality of his own, using the large surfaces for “a vision expressed in purely plastic terms.” The artist, with his never-ending tirades on the War and songs from his childhood on one side, and his violin on the other, sat in his small studio on 2 bis rue Perrel on the 14th Arrondissement, painting with an unwavering confidence in himself for years. He advanced himself with every new painting, preparing a hundred different tones of green on his palette to put on canvases that every year grew bigger and bigger. It was only after the Gypsy, though, when he seemed to find a different meaning in what he was doing. With the turning of the century, he got better and better in understanding the planes and surfaces and colors, and how they worked together. And then, to this composition of the real he added something unreal, something poetic—the secret ingredient that gives the uncannily dreamy feeling that the modern artists then would yearn to achieve. “Hence the powerful tension in all his pictures, as if he were the living embodiment of the rift between avant-garde and academicism that bore the mark of his time,” wrote Vallier; “Hence also the thorough break which he inflicted on art history in forcefully exploding its conventional patterns.”
Only then was Rousseau praised by young artists of his era—in 1906, to be exact, just a couple of years ago he met Robert Delaunay, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Pablo Picasso. They were among many other friends he made within the shining art world of Paris: Alfred Jarry discovered him although Roger Shattuck argued that he was never discovered. Jarry was his close friend now, and Rousseau also saw his ambitious student Max Weber very much as a friend, with whom shared his process with an open heart. But the closest of them all to him and his heart was the twenty-six-year-old poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire.
Henri Rousseau, strolling down the streets of Paris along la Seine early one morning with the luminous sky, smiled when he recalled his friend. He had met Guillaume in an opening of the Indépendants, and he then seemed less than excited about his work— “he didn’t know me back then,” thought Rousseau, with a tiny little embarrassment that he felt deep in his chest, clenching his heart. But now years had passed with since their first acquaintance, and it was Apollinaire who accompanied him to most of his social outings. The two of them were among the significant figures of their era, so much that it was later defined by on the two men’s characteristics, along with Alfred Jarry’s and Erik Satie’s: “the logic of the child, of dream, of humor, or ambiguity.” Those years were The Banquet Years, and it was Henri and Guillaume who formed it the way they were.
The mind of Henri Rousseau. 1896.
The rules made for Earth made no sense here, because it was only a dream. The desert did not exist. Not in the real world. But imagination, like the Desert, had no boundaries. Although he already knew it: he had never set foot outside of France, not even once, even though he told a lot of friends that he went to Mexico with the army and convinced Guillaume of this. But Rousseau felt, nevertheless, like he had travelled a lot. He was a great adventurer! For a customs officer, ironically, he cared very little about borders.
The full moon shined brightly with a moonlight effect that was very poetic. The wandering gypsy, the Sleeper, was in deep sleep—she was dreaming about the Ocean. Little did she know that she was, herself too, someone else’s reverie. Henri Rousseau, the fearless gentleman Adventurer, was having the strangest dream: After seeing the gypsy woman sleeping and the huge, monstrous lion with her Henri kept walking—and in a moment’s notice, water surrounded him. Guillaume’s poem was spinning in his head:
I have built a house in the middle of the Ocean
Its windows are the rivers flowing from my eyes
Octopi are crawling all over where the walls are
Hear their triple hearts beat and their beaks peck against the windowpanes.
He understood, then, that he was in the Ocean.
Paris, France. 1908.
“In honor of Rousseau,” said the banner, right at the entrance. Guillaume Apollinaire turned and smiled to the small, stout man standing next to him, almost trembling with excitement with his cane on one hand, and his beloved violin on the other. They had no idea that they were about to step into the party of the century: Le Banquet Rousseau, in honor of Rousseau; hosted by Pablo Picasso at the famous Bateau-Lavoir.
Pablo, a very young Spanish artist whom Guillaume had met some years ago and admired—one who would be very famous in the years to come—had recently bought a painting of a woman standing in front of a beautifully textured curtain, wearing a black dress. “Truthful,” he would say later; “one of the most truthful of all French psychological portraits.” The painting was signed by Henri Rousseau, one of Guillaume’s favorite artists, and young Pablo found it fascinating. Delighted as he was, he decided to throw a party for this sixty-four-year-old eccentric he admired. And that day had come.
Guillaume knocked on the door.
Amidst the general uproar, three gentle knocks at the door cut all the noise dead. In the complete silence, the door opened; it was the Douanier, wearing his floppy felt hat and carrying in his left hand his cane and in his right his violin… This was certainly one of the most moving pictures by Rousseau. He took a look around the room, the lanterns enchanted him, his face lit up.
After waiting for two hours for a meal that never arrived (because of Pablo’s confusion about the date), their guest of honor was finally here. Guillaume looked around the room, at the Chinese lanterns, a big dining table with a special “throne” for Henri, his painting hung on the wall next to various in-the-process works of Pablo. Everything seemed in order. After Pablo welcomed them in with a wide grin, Guillaume nudged Henri towards the hall, giving him a little courage. “Too innocent to be in the spotlight, perhaps;” thought Guillaume, watching him walk towards his seat, sit, and raise his glass. Henri looked ecstatic. A drop of wax from the lantern dripped onto his head. Guillaume smiled.
Among the guests were Juan Gris, Jean Metzinger (who lived downstairs anyway), and the always-glowering Gertrude Stein with her brother. About this most reputed party of La Belle Époque, Henri’s friend the writer André Salmon said: “Here in these shadowy corridors lived the true worshippers of fire… Here one evening in the year 1908, unrolled the pageantry of the first and last banquet offered by his admirers to the painter Henri Rousseau called Le Douanier.”
After a night of drinking, eating, poetry reading and violin concertos, and a terribly belle-époque-appropriate visit by a local and his donkey, Guillaume realized that Henri dosed off in his seat. The painter, in deep sleep, still heard Guillaume’s words in his head in a drunken chimera, mixing up with another dream within a dream, about himself from the toast Guillaume gave tonight:
Glorious painter of our dear Republic
Your name is in the flag of the proud Indépendants
And it is in white marble wrested from the Pentelic
That your features will be sculpted, pride of our age.
The Ocean. Time is nonexistent.
The dream was in another dream, and in another one.
The Lion approached the sleeping gypsy, and with all its glory, he slowed down his pace with each step. His eyes were still glimmering but now with a softened gaze, and his footsteps that once shook the core of the earth were now lighter than feathers. His existence became one with a creature of the sea, a force of the Sublime, monstrous and beautiful like him: a whale. He sniffed the sound sleeper and growled. His growl sounded like the Ocean’s song. The woman smiled.
“Dive,” She said. “Dive. Deeper.”
So I did.
My journey started on the railing of a whaler ship called Mallord in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I looked up to the sky, to the clouds that were like compressed batches of cotton gathered with their faint yellow shade, humid and stuffy; and I saw the Whale swimming below, but only a gist, deep down under the froth and waves. I wanted to follow Her wave. And so I jumped.
It was a profound moment of clarity when my body met the cold water—I dived headfirst, eyes closed, and without fear. The ocean accepted me. She was gentle and kind when I let myself go deep down into her waters. It is the lungs that ache the most at first, when you dive. But something else was growing inside me that was more powerful than the constant struggle of my lungs or the urge to breathe, more persistent: The will to dive further took over my being. I had been scared of the ocean all my life, but now my arms moved instinctively through that subaqueous mind of mine. The deeper and deeper I submerged, the more liberated I became from the air and my fears.
The underwater stream led me from the ship towards the Kent coast and the Thames, where I found missing pieces of the life of a painter who worshipped the Sun. Instead of simply watching him grunt to himself by the coast, I dived even deeper; and only there could I drench myself beneath the waves of his painting and his mind. The gorgeous white Whale took me on her back to tell me her story. I listened. Her voice, sparkling under the azure sea, told me the tale of a writer who lived in New York, the place where my earthly body was fast asleep. Then I listened to his story about a whale called Moby Dick—I opened my eyes to the darkness of the water where I saw all the string-like, buzzing connections between these two men’s lives and hearts. I had to dive even deeper to catch them.
The Whale took me on her back and started singing. I could hear it, without my ears; that sweet, profound humming that makes even babies go to sleep. I slept while we roamed in the water, for I don’t know how long. Time was non-existent. When I woke up, we were down by the Gulf of Mexico, and face to face with another man, a poet. I saw through his skin, saw his eyes; like mine, they were open to all the wonders of the world and beyond.
“From black embankments, moveless soundings hailed,
So seven oceans answer from their dream,”[i]
He said. His story took us back to New York’s East River, where another man, an artist, looked out of his studio’s window—in my dream, I followed his; and I believe he followed the poet. We silently streamed through, dream within a dream. Were we real? We were in the dream of a gypsy sleeping in the middle of a desert. That desert, the mysterious non-place made of other people’s dreams, waited for us in the abyss.
The Ocean was omnipresent. I thought that the Ocean was, in essence, the Whale; and since I was with Her, the Ocean could never end. We moved with and within the deep sea, deeper and deeper through the bottomless tones of blue—and only there we found the Creator of the desert: it was a man with white hair and white moustache and a bushy white beard; and he was wearing a red striped cravat. His were the kindest, the most compassionate eyes I have ever seen, and they gazed around the abyss as if nothing was out of the ordinary. And in that moment, I understood something about him: his idea of what was real was not the same as the world’s. “A larger reality,” I thought. He would look at Paris and see Benjamin’s Paris-the-dream. This Ocean’s grandiosity was saved for those who could see beyond.
When W. G. Sebald wrote about Robert Walser, he said: “Since then I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time.”[ii] It was the same for me: I perceived, underwater, that one man painting the sun on the English coastline was connected to another who thought more and spoke less and liked the way stencils are so standard. A poet let go of his body, then a customs officer quit his day job to become a full-time painter, changing the way the world saw reality. Ishmael spoke his name, and Apollinaire lit a cigar—I imagined, all of them, having a quiet dinner in a darkened hotel room. And only after understanding this heartfelt connection I slowly floated up to the surface. The Whale swam away.
Throughout my journey underwater, as a result of that unearthly feeling of direction I only have in places I know very well, I drew all the places I have been in my mind into a map. After the long, astounding odyssey I lay on the surface of the water, breathing the air again. I heard her song, still.
It was the first time that I saw the color azure so bright.
[i] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002), 410.
[ii][ii] Ursula Le Guin, excerpt from National Book Awards 2014 speech.
[iii] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 236.
[iv] Robert Walser, Microscripts (New York: New Directions, Christine Burgin, 2012) 114.
[v] Ihsan Oktay Anar, Puslu Kıtalar Atlası [The Atlas of Misty Continents] (Turkey: İletişim Yayınları, 1995) quotation translated by Cigdem Asatekin.
 Alison Hokanson, Turner’s Whaling Pictures (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 2016), 14.
 Anthony Bailey, Standing in the Sun: A Life of J. M. W. Turner (London: Tate Publishing, 2013 e-book), 801.
 Ibid., 812.
 Ibid., 818.
 C. R. Leslie, ed. Tom Taylor, Autobiographical Reflections (London: J. Murray, 1860) p.48
 Bailey, Standing in the Sun, 795.
 Charles Olson, Call me Ishmael (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997) p. 3.
 Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (USA: Vintage International, 1990)
 The Essex was the primary source and inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and The Meduse gave life to the famous Theodore Gericault painting The Raft of the Medusa.
 Bailey, Standing in the Sun, 795 quoting Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner Vol. II (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1862).
 John Ruskin, Praeterita (London: George Allen, 1907), 276.
 Martin Gayford, “JMW Turner: The Man Behind the Masterpieces.” Telegraph, October 15, 2013: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/6197141/JMW-Turner-the-man-behind-the-masterpieces.html
 Alfred Tennyson, Tennyson: A Selected Edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 572.
 Alice Rylance-Watson, “The Kent Coast and Whaling c.1844–5,” February 2013, in David Blayney Brown, ed. J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, June 2013: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/the-kent-coast-and-whaling-r1142164
 Hokanson, Turner’s Whaling Pictures, 7.
 Barry Venning, “Turner’s Whaling Subjects ” (The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 127, No. 983), 75.
 Hokanson, Turner’s Whaling Pictures, 18.
 Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (London: Manning and Mason, 1739),162.
 Hokanson in her essay investigates the possibilities of Melville seeing this painting. With no tangible facts and the possibility of him only reading about the Whalers from Thackeray, I wanted to restore here a ficto-factual meeting between Melville and the picture.
 Hokanson, Turner’s Whaling Pictures, 43.
 Venning, “Turner’s Whaling Subjects ,” 75.
 Ibid., 40.
 Hokanson, Turner’s Whaling Pictures, 40-41.
 Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (London: Wiley and Putnam, 1838).
 Owen Chase, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex (Paphos Publishers e-book, 2016).
 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002), 26.
 John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 8.
 Hokanson, Turner’s Whaling Pictures, 15.
 Andrew Wilton, Painting and poetry: Turner’s Verse book and His Work of 1804-1812 (London: Tate Gallery, 1990), 165.
 Robert K. Wallace, Melville and Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 325-330.
 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002), 26.
 Herman Melville, The Letters of Herman Melville (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1960) included in: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~ehrlich/361/melville_letters.html
 Hokanson, Turner’s Whaling Pictures, 23. Also see fig. 5—What Turner did not know was that the Whale was a she.
 Bailey, Standing in the Sun, 925.
 Numerous sources, including John Ruskin, quote him forming this sentence in various parts of his life, but there is unfortunately no way to be sure that he actually did say it on his deathbed.
 Clive Fisher, Hart Crane: A life (New Haven: Yale UP, 2002), 500-1.
 Jasper Johns and Christel Hoolevoet, ed., Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), 246.
 Lee Minoff and Al Brodax, Yellow Submarine, dir. George Dunning, 1968.
 Vilem Flusser, Gestures (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 47.
 Hart Crane, Voyages in F. O. Matthiessen, ed., The Oxford Book of American Verse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952), 968.
 Christel Hoolevoet ed. and Jasper Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), 49.
 Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Picador USA, 2002), 316.
 Hart Crane and Harold Bloom, ed., Hart Crane (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003), 28.
 Brian M. Reed, Hart Crane: After His Lights (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 2.
 Adam Kirsch, “The Mystic Word”, The New Yorker, October 2006: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/10/09/the-mystic-word
 Adam Kirsch, “The Mystic Word.”
 “Poet’s Death Linked with Father’s Loss” New York Times, April 29, 1932: http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/18/specials/crane-death.html
 John Elderfield, “Jasper Johns: Diver, 1963” (Artforum, January 1998), 81.
 Crichton, Jasper Johns, 13.
 Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 20.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 17.
 Crichton, Jasper Johns, 21.
 Ibid., 47.
 Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 44.
 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002), 165.
 Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art, 32.
 Ibid., 31.
 Robert Morris and Nena Tsouti-Schillinger, ed., Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993-2007, (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008), 238.
 Elderfield, Jasper Johns, 81.
 Morris, Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993-2007, 239.
 Crichton, Jasper Johns, 47.
 The last verse of Crane’s poem Voyages part I.
 Warner Berthoff, Hart Crane: A Re-Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 23.
 Brom Weber, ed., The Letters of Hart Crane: 1916-1932 (California: University of California Press, 1965), 331.
 C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Harper Collins e-books, 2006), 72.
 Dora Vallier, Henri Rousseau, the Douanier: A File (Naefels: Bonfini Press Corporation; 1979), 66.
 Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 46.
 Daniel Cotton Rich, Henri Rousseau (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1942), 15.
 Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 7.
 Cotton Rich, Henri Rousseau, 38
 Ibid., 18.
 Arthur Danto, What Art Is (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2014), 6.
 Vallier, Henri Rousseau, the Douanier: A File, 7.
 Guillaume Apollinaire, Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews 1902-1918 (Massachusetts: MFA Publications, 2001), 350.
 Cotton Rich, Henri Rousseau, 14.
 Vallier, Henri Rousseau, the Douanier: A File, 5.
 Guy Davenport, Every Force Evolves A Form (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 26-7.
 Harriet Schoenholz Bee et al, ed., MoMA Highlights: 350 Works from The Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013), 23.
 Émile Zola, “The Dream” (e-book: http://www.fiction.us/french/zola/thedream/chap15.html)
 Cotton Rich, Henri Rousseau, 39.
 Ibid., 30.
 Vallier, Henri Rousseau, the Douanier: A File, 75 (quoting Guillaume Apollinaire).
 Vallier, Henri Rousseau,7.
 Apollinaire, Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews 1902-1918, 339.
 Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 47.
 Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 37.
 Apollinaire, Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews 1902-1918, 213.
 Guillaume Apollinaire, Ocean of Earth (tran. Ron Padgett, Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/58343)
 Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 66.
 James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1974), 138.
 Vallier, Henri Rousseau, the Douanier: A File, 83.
 John Malcolm Brinnin, The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World (Massachusetts and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), 111.
 Vallier, Henri Rousseau, the Douanier: A File, 83.
[i] Hart Crane, The Bridge: Atlantis. Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43272
[ii] W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (New York: Modern Library, 2015), 158-159.