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Publications Book Reviews
Michele Bottalico, ed., Literature and the Visual Arts in 20th-Century America

Michele Bottalico, ed., Literature and the Visual Arts in 20th-Century America. Bari: Palomar Eupalinos, 2002. pp. 211. ISBN 9-788887-467970.

In Michele Bottalico's compilation of essays, the reader is introduced to a wide array of interdisciplinary articles, focusing on the influence that visual arts have exerted on the formation of American literary and cultural production throughout the twentieth century. In particular, this collection closely examines the interrelationship that exists between the painted image and the written, cinematic, or photographic text, as well as between the conceptualisation of the Native American landscape and its textual representation by concentrating on the work of certain key American or Native American writers, poets and artists.

This well-presented edition commences with Bottalico's own introduction, which traces the liaison of American literature and the arts in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries through a number of references to certain American writers and artists. Bottalico then informs the readers about the themes to be pursued in this diverse and versatile collection, which would have been more successfully sign-posted if a paper-by-paper overview had been provided.

Rosella Mamoli Zorzi's article, entitled 'Edith Wharton, Painting, and Modernity', concentrates on Wharton's appreciation of eighteenth century Italian paintings, examples of which have been kindly reproduced in this book. This marks Wharton's "liberation from a conditioning tradition […], overcoming the 19th - century Victorian morality, which for American writers was so deeply rooted in their Puritan past". As explained in her writings - Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) and Italian Backgrounds (1905) - Wharton's fascination with the "joyous and sensuous" Italian art will influence her own conceptualisation of "foreground and background both as regards paintings and, […], the perception of cities". This will become apparent in her travel writings where her descriptions are endowed with an abundance of details and colours communicated to the reader via "Wharton's bright verbal palette".

With Peter Halter's 'Reading Robert Frank's The Americans as a Photographic Sequence', the reader is transposed to mid-twentieth century America. In his very thorough and excellent reading of Frank's photographs, samples of which are reprinted as part of this article, Halter is offering an insight into the "cultural and political climate of the United States of the late 1940s and the 1950s". Following the tradition of European street photography and American documentary photography, Frank chooses to satirise the superfluous wealth of the American society by juxtaposing "pictures of happy middle-class family life" with images of people "who are alone, be it that they are all by themselves or even lonely in the crowd". Through a series of leitmotifs, as shown in his car, flag or on the road pictures, Frank becomes a caustic observer of an apparently privileged but implicitly joyless and claustrophobic society.

In Antonio C. Márquez's paper, emphasis is placed on 'The Poetics of Chaos: American Abstract Expressionism and American Poetry'. Commencing with an appreciation of Wallace Stevens's views on painting and poetry, as stated in Necessary Angel (1942), Márquez focuses on the need "for felt experience - intense, immediate, direct, […], vivid, rhythmic" that both the American Abstract Expressionist artists and the New York poets shared. Throughout this article there are references to Jackson Pollock's "spontaneous, uncontrollable" art, William Carlos Williams' association with the visual arts, and Frank O' Hara's "poems on painters". However, Márquez's discussion would have benefited from a close reading of the poems cited which would have reinforced the connection between Abstract Expressionism and American poetry.

Caterina Ricciardi's well-informed essay on 'Frank O' Hara, George Washington and Pop Art' offers a well-documented commentary on Larry Rivers' 1953 and Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's 1851 paintings, depicting Washington's crossing of the Delaware river. Their chronologically diverse period of production facilitates Ricciardi's pre-modern and post-modern evaluation of the pictorial techniques that each painter employs in their attempt to interpret visually the Washington event. In particular, "Rivers asks for a revision of American history" in his depiction of a "desolate, tragic human landscape", while Leutze concentrates on "the perpetuation of Washington as a national myth and a visual cliché", as proven by the images of the paintings in discussion. The act of "mis-reading" or "over-reading" history is further complemented by Ricciardi's stanza-by-stanza analysis of O' Hara's poem entitled 'On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art" (1955). With attention paid to O' Hara's verbal puns and word plays, Ricciardi concludes that "no interpretation, or reading, either of history or of art is final, true, or correct for all time".

With Maria Vittoria D'Amico's paper, 'Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife: William Gass's Visual Experiment', the reader is introduced to Gass's graphic and visual textual variations. D'Amico's interest in the metafictional quality of Gass's novella offers readers the chance to appreciate the "dynamic" and "alliterative density" of its language games "woven through the journey of reading, which is the existential journey of Lady Language and all her infinite personifications". D'Amico's evocative discussion extends to the visual pop art experimentations of Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Tom Wesselman, which could have been evaluated further.

The liaison that exists between John Hollander's poetry and Edward Hopper's paintings is explored in Cristina Giorcelli's essay entitled '"Sun in an Empty Room (Edward Hopper)" by John Hollander'. In her well-balanced account, Giorcelli carefully juxtaposes Hopper's Sun in an Empty Room (1963) and Rooms by the Sea (1951) with Hollander's synonymous "ekphrastic" poems. In its attempt to verbalise "the mute poetry of painting", Hollander's poetry complements and reinforces Hopper's scenes and "sense of loneliness" in the creation of certain language effects that closely emulate Hopper's light shadings, as shown in the accompanying images. Giorcelli effectively examines Hollander's verbal experimentations and echo patterns alongside Hopper's play with shadows, silences, and vacant spatial representations. What these artists have in common, as Giorcelli notes, is the desire to express both "the impersonality of today's world" and its transformative qualities.

With Andrea Mariani's article on 'Reading Momaday's Visual Art: A European Perspective', Bottalico's essay collection turns to the examination of Native American art and fiction. Mariani sets off to examine Navarre Scott Momaday's dual function as a writer and an artist which is attributed to the Native American tradition, wanting every "written" word to be "at the same time, voice, […] hieroglyph […] a brushstroke, a graphic trait". What is distinctive about Momaday's artworks and writings, according to Mariani, is their absence of intense colour, since Momaday exclusively resorts to black, whites and grays. Mariani notes that "the absence of colors, […], suggest, and foster, the discovery of the inner dimension, force the revelation of feelings, allow the subject to "unwind" himself out". In the discussion that follows, Mariani effectively analyses how the absence of colour or abstraction works in the designs that Momaday produced between 1976-1987 as a means of "reviving the power of native civilization".

Martin Heusser's paper, entitled 'Redefining the Visual Heritage: Landscapes in Native American Literature', revolves around the strategies that contemporary Native American writers adopt for the appropriation of the Indian landscape. According to Heusser, "landscapes are by no means given realities, existing simply to be described; they are much rather cultural productions". For that reason, Heusser commences his commentary with a section on nineteenth century white pictorial representations of the Native American landscape often presented as an "object of contemplation". In the following two sections, Heusser analyses Momaday's and James Welch's fiction in relation to the "reciprocal relationship" their characters establish with the landscape, now featuring as "a source of strength, healing, and comfort". In this well-structured piece of work, Heusser carefully traces how it has now become possible for Native American writers to surpass the nineteenth century white American pictorial discourse of "cultural imperialism" by redefining the Native American landscape as "the experience of individual and social sense of belonging".

Hartwig Isernhagen's essay 'Of Deserts and Gardens' is part of an on-going project attempting to examine the garden motif principle in relation to Leslie Silko's writings and Georgia O' Keeffe's flower paintings. The article printed in this collection primarily focuses on Silko's Gardens in the Dunes (1999), as an example of post-modern Native American writing. Isernhagen explains that the motif of the garden in nineteenth century texts functioned as a symbol of "expansionism" and "colonization". In Silko's narrative, an attempt is made "to overcome the culture/nature dichotomy" by reclaiming "the garden as a cultural icon and emblem for indigenous writing". In the arts, a similar strategy has been employed by O' Keeffe in her desert paintings. As for her flower depictions, O' Keefe's modernist rhetoric is based on an "identitarian aesthetics of purity". Silko's novel takes a step further: the ornamental or hybridised garden types described in her text bear the character traits of the novel's two main female characters, Salt and Indigo. However, Silko's narrative structure, according to Isernhagen's thorough analysis, is not based on a "discourse of identity" but on a "discourse of exchange". Silko is after the construction of an "ecofeminist alliance" founded on the reinforcement of "the "spiritual" and emotional bond between self and world".

The collection concludes with Katherine E. Manthorne's article on 'American Modernist Painting and Film: the First Half Century', which centres on the examination of four distinctive periods: 1905-1909, 1913-1915, the 1920s and the 1930s. This essay offers an overview of the main viewing strategies and techniques that the American film and painting shared which led to the emergence of a "new movie language" and to the re-evaluation of the "dynamic between movie spectator and spectacle". For this reason, Manthorne's commentary is embellished with references to a number of filmmakers, painters, and actors. The use of close-ups, the invention of the montage style, the variety of angles of observation, the introduction of a "universal pictorial language" with the breaking of the sound barrier, are few of the innovations that emerged from the interrelationship between painting and film which made the later "part of the common cultural landscape" and shaped the "American vision".

Overall, Bottalico's book might be described as a collection of an array of diverse and well-informed essays attempting to bring together a wealth of information that would be of great appeal to undergraduates, postgraduates and scholars with an interest in the conjunction of text and image.

Tatiani Rapatzikou
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

 

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