|Articles, Barack Obama, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2014-12-21 22:44Z by Steven|
Department of Art, Religion, and Cultural Sciences
University of Amsterdam
Remember Vincent, saint
of all sunstroke…!
The sun explodes into irises,
the shadows are crossing like crows,
they settle, clawing the hair,
yellow is screaming.
Dear Theo, I shall go mad.
Jean-François Millet – The Gleaners (1857)
Speaking here is a young Antillean artist, in a poem by Derek Walcott (1930), a writer from the island of Saint Lucia. The wish to identify with Van Gogh is a theme from Walcott’s own past: originally he wanted to be a painter. Together with a friend he decided to depict every corner of their windswept island. This ambition explains why Walcott’s vision of poetry is so often characterized as “painterly.” He calls his writings “frescoes of the New World,” and declares: “I still smell linseed oil in the wild views / Of villages and the tang of turpentine… Salt wind encouraged us, and the surf’s white noise.”
Walcott’s artistic role models were the nineteenth-century masters. Recently he dedicated an epic poem, Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), to the impressionist Camille Pissarro. The hybrid origins of Pissarro, born in the Danish colony on the Leeward Island of Saint Thomas, son of a mother from the Dominican Republic and a Portuguese-Jewish father, meant he connected well with Walcott’s work. Here the Antillean melting pot of different cultures is an important theme. Before this, Gauguin had already been one of the poet’s heroes: his journey to Martinique supposedly turned him into a “Creole painter.” Moreover, Walcott was strongly attracted to social themes. He describes the continued impression made by a reproduction of Millet’s The Gleaners in his childhood home.
So it should come as no surprise that, in his younger years in particular, Walcott was inspired by Vincent van Gogh. The Dutch master played a role in Walcott’s descriptions of sun-drenched landscapes: he sought after a creative intoxication “as Van Gogh’s shadow rippling on a cornfield.” In this way Walcott’s poetry opens an Antillean perspective on the shadow of Van Gogh and how it shifts over issues of birth ground and origins.
Although Walcott’s more recent poems have paid less attention to Van Gogh, a political revolution returned him to the love of his younger years: the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. This event confronted him once more with themes such as racial and national identity which had already played a major role in his early work. Walcott wrote some lines in response to the election results. Here, he uses Van Gogh’s imagery to give poetic form to the history and future expectations of black people in the New World.
Walcott’s poem, which features both Van Gogh and Obama, combines artistic imagination with historical and social themes and political reality. This means it can be interpreted in a number of ways. The following interpretation takes a specific viewpoint, namely that from the person the poem is dedicated to: the 44th American president. After all, Obama himself has written extensively about the themes that determined the course of his life. The president and the poet have each at some time labeled themselves as “mongrel,” referring to their mixed European-African origins. As it will become clear, they agree on yet more things, such as their idea that poetical imagery can improve the world.
Shortly after the elections in November 2008, Obama was photographed carrying a book under his arm: Walcott’s collected works. What was the significance of this photograph?…
Read the entire article here.