Saturday, June 08, 2013

Master Drawings V: Cain and Abel

The fifth part of a series, exploring literature which springs to mind when looking at works in the Master Drawings exhibition which is running in England from May 25 to August 18, 2013. This time the arts-and-literature pair is Francisco Goya's Cain and Abel and an American author's "Woodman, Spare That Tree!" The painting is not apparently much written about, though I was able to read* that it was created around 1817-20, and not much photographed. So other paintings will have to suffice for this blog post.

To begin, a potted biography of the artist:

Goya's earliest paintings, like La cometa from 1777 or 1778, are residue of the Rococo era in their peaceful boisterousness, but his style changed considerably and with conviction. Not as successful as he had hoped at first, he lived and worked in Italy as well as in Spain; then he gained recognition in the 1780s and at last became a court painter in 1789. Despite his comfortable situation he was clearly by no means complacent; according to the wisdom of Wikipedia, "His portraits are notable for their disinclination to flatter, and in the case of Charles IV of Spain and His Family, the lack of visual diplomacy is remarkable.[Footnote: Licht, Fred: Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, page 68. (...)]." Around 1793 he lost his hearing and this seems to have been a watershed for the mounting darkness in his artistic efforts, too. With the turmoil of politics and armed conflict as Spanish subjects became fodder to the juggernaut of the Napoleonic Wars in 1807 and until 1814, war scenes began to be a focus. Even before that he had drawn tortuous scenes of prisoners. Nevertheless he had continued as a painter under the French occupation — though one of his projects at the end of these years was a uniformed oil-on-mahogany of Wellington — and harboured some sympathies for the Revolution; and apparently relations to the royal family were lastingly strained. He died in the year 1828 in Bordeaux.

Illustration: Colossus by Francisco de Goya (1746–1828)
(Painted 1808-1810, oil on canvas, 116 × 105 cm; in the Museo del Prado [via Wikimedia Commons])

ON the one hand,
Francisco Goya's paintings which I know best (The Third of May 1808 and his Colossus) deal in man's inhumanity to man. The scene in the Ashmolean sketch captures the moment at which a victorious fighter must know whether to be merciful to his prostrate enemy or not — or perhaps even where he is savagely and undoubtingly determined on a coup de grace. So the duel between Turnus and Aeneas, even the Count of Monte Cristo, or a Shakespearean drama could be suggested, as well as the terminally depressing Balin and Balan thread in Arthurian legend if one wants to describe literal fratricide, or the murder of Gilda in Rigoletto if one wants to venture into operatic libretto and into unintentional interfamilial heaving-ho of cutlery that is not between brothers.

On the other hand, I feel that in drawing these characters in biblical garb, Goya may not be intent on recording the warfare of his contemporaries except in an allegorical manner. So I have decided to take an earnest but rather lighter poem to accompany the painting. In this poem it is a plant and not a human being which is in a fix.

*Teaching the Bible, Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray, eds. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005 [Google Books]), p. 77

"Francisco Goya" [Wikipedia]
Master Drawings at the Ashmolean - Blog - RA Magazine and Blog - Royal Academy of Arts (May 31, 2013), by S. Phillips
"Francisco de Goya | The Duke of Wellington | NG6322 | The National Gallery, London" [National Gallery]


The verse was written by George Pope Morris (who lived from 1802 to 1864) in 1837 and goes as follows,

Woodman, Spare That Tree!

WOODMAN, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I'll protect it now.
'T was my forefather's hand
That placed it near his cot;
There, woodman, let it stand,
Thy axe shall harm it not.

That old familiar tree,
Whose glory and renown
Are spread o'er land and sea—
And wouldst thou hew it down?
Woodman, forbear thy stroke!
Cut not its earth-bound ties;
Oh, spare that aged oak
Now towering to the skies!

When but an idle boy,
I sought its grateful shade;
In all their gushing joy
Here, too, my sisters played.
My mother kissed me here;
My father pressed my hand—
Forgive this foolish tear,
But let that old oak stand.

My heart-strings round thee cling,
Close as thy bark, old friend!
Here shall the wild-bird sing,
And still thy branches bend.
Old tree! the storm still brave!
And, woodman, leave the spot;
While I've a hand to save,
Thy axe shall harm it not.


PERHAPS it is a sign of a petty soul that I don't particularly like these reasons to Fell Not a tree. The tree has a worth in itself — ecological, aesthetic, and I suppose as a piece of Earth — and it seems self-aggrandizing to christen it as a monument to splendid vignettes in one's own chronology. Nor is it necessary right to claim solitary ownership of it; undoubtedly other people have appreciated the tree in its span of existence, and will continue to do so.

Yet it sounds like a romantic to accept credit for bringing Nature to life by intelligently admiring it — unlike the yokels who goggled at it before — and to claim that Nobody Else understands a tree or a rock or a branch as much as an artiste; and that said tree or panorama or picturesque cottage or what-have-you will fall into oblivion once the artiste's interest (and thereby the interest of the artiste's admirers) in it has vanished. The example which will always come to mind here is the excerpt from Byron's Childe Harold where the narrator claims kinship with the ocean and rambles on about myriad drowned sailors with a stunningly sweeping indifference. It's usually, however, a relatively amiable fallacy as well as an irritating one.

Morris's logic, if taken a step further, is not nearly as environmentalist as it sounds; for by his logic if one falls out of a tree and breaks a limb or two it would be perfectly natural to start a bonfire around its trunk, and perished be sentimentality. Somehow other great writers have endowed far more of an own character on trees, too; remember "The Oak and the Reed" by Jean de la Fontaine, or dryads in mythology, through the ages to the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series.

IN ADDITION there is perhaps an irony in complaining about the slaughter of a tree, when presumably Mr. Morris wrote this as he benefited from the warmth of trees (and any attached memories) dying their daily deaths in his hearth; still more ironic that this poem is broadcast to its sympathetic readers through the medium of tree pulp. Cynicism aside, I am unhappy if even single flowers or shrubs are uprooted, let alone an old tree hewn down, so in other respects I am all for the aim of the poem.

IT MUST be confessed that I haven't read the entire poem before. The reason it came to mind is that it appears in Kate Douglas Wiggin's children's classic, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, as a standard recitation piece in American schools.

The relevant passage in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, which describes how Rebecca of the title spends the time walking to school with her friend Emma Jane, is nice enough to reproduce at this spot:
Another early favorite (for we must remember that Rebecca's only knowledge of the great world of poetry consisted of the selections in vogue in school readers) was:—

"Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I'll protect it now."

When Emma Jane Perkins walked through the "short cut" with her, the two children used to render this with appropriate dramatic action. Emma Jane always chose to be the woodman because she had nothing to do but raise on high an imaginary axe. On the one occasion when she essayed the part of the tree's romantic protector, she represented herself as feeling "so awful foolish" that she refused to undertake it again, much to the secret delight of Rebecca, who found the woodman's role much too tame for her vaulting ambition. She reveled in the impassioned appeal of the poet, and implored the ruthless woodman to be as brutal as possible with the axe, so that she might properly put greater spirit into her lines. One morning, feeling more frisky than usual, she fell upon her knees and wept in the woodman's petticoat. Curiously enough, her sense of proportion rejected this as soon as it was done.

"That wasn't right, it was silly, Emma Jane; but I'll tell you where it might come in—in Give me Three Grains of Corn. You be the mother, and I'll be the famishing Irish child.
AT ANY RATE the poet would doubtless be happy to know about the institution of landmarked trees, which I think might not have been around in his time — and which, in my 'hood, permits raras aves like a plane tree from the imperial period of Germany to sprout betwixt the very modern constructions of Potsdamer Platz.


Illustration: Caza con reclamo, by Francisco de Goya (1746–1828)
(C. 1775, Cartones parra tapices, óleo sobre lienzo [tapestry draft, oil on linen?], 112 × 179 cm (44.1 × 70.5 in, in the Museo del Prado [via Wikimedia Commons])


131. Woodman, Spare That Tree! by George Pope Morris. Stedman, Edmund Clarence, ed. 1900. An American Anthology, 1787-1900 []

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