A Web Del Sol Chapbook Selection
William Slaughter


Freedom Light

        “To me, a painting is a large surface with objects represented in a certain order... for example, the headless woman with a pail of milk who appears in one of my canvases executed in 1910-11; if I had the idea of separating her head from her body, it is because I needed an empty space right at that spot.” Chagall said that about his painting To Russia, Asses, and Others. But he might just as well have said it about other paintings of his, including “The Poet, or Half-Past Three.” What interests me in Chagall’s explanation is his phrase “an empty space” and his need for it.

        Apollinaire—“that gentle Zeus,” Chagall, liking poets, called him—viewing Chagall’s paintings at the same time, 1910-11, in Paris, uttered the magic word surnaturel which, translated, meant Chagall had a “vision of the world,” his own peculiar way of seeing it. But Chagall himself admitted only to solving a compositional problem when he separated that woman’s head from her body. He needed an empty space.

        So do I, as a man who writes poems about Chagall’s paintings. The need I have for an empty space is this: without it, I am helpless before a painting. I can’t find my way in—as if the painting’s first and last message to me were KEEP OUT, as if I were being intentionally and aggressively excluded from the painting’s action. And so much is going on in Chagall’s paintings. That’s why I like them... because Chagall put empty spaces in them for me. They invite me. In.

        At the same time, 1910-11, Chagall was worried about laying himself open “to the accusation of falling into ‘literature.’ I confess,” he confesses, “that when I heard this word uttered by young avant-garde painters and poets, I went a little pale.” The word literature was deadly to him, inasmuch as it suggested “everything,” in painting, “that could be explained and told from beginning to end.” Understandably, Chagall summoned up in himself all his capacity for resistance to meaning of that (literary) kind. It would deny his paintings their mystery, which mattered greatly to him. “Perhaps, it seemed to me, other dimensions exist—a fourth, a fifth dimension, that would not simply be that of the eye, and which, I insist, did not seem to me to have anything at all to do with ‘literature,’ with ‘symbolism,’ or with what is called poetry in art.” He said. His paintings in 1910-11 were about the “astonishing freedom light” of Paris. That’s all. They didn’t mean anything else. He was (merely) solving compositional problems... separating bodies from heads. His reality was “elsewhere.”

        My relationship to Chagall’s paintings is different. Once admitted to them, through the empty paces he has left me, I can do with them whatever pleasures me. I am free, in Chagall’s light, to collaborate with him, to re-create his paintings in my own (mind’s) eye. Line, to me, is not “a thin, continuous mark, as that made by a pen, pencil, or brush.” It is story-line; it is narrative. That’s what I would fill Chagall’s empty spaces with: poems that tell stories. The story of The Poet Lying Down, the story of The Drinker, the story of The Rabbi with a Lemon, the story of The Poet, or Half-Past Three...

Older Men | Selections