Issue 28 – Summer 2017 – Cole Swensen

Cole Swensen


Klimt Over Summer

And so it’s said: landscape is entirely 
a product of summer, the sun in butter, the lever that is light 
lost the thread.

And looking across to the Schloss (Schloss Kammer on the Attersee I, 1908)

the light on the water is the light of the house—the bright white of its face which must

just at this moment stricken by sun.              

                                                                   “Schloss Kammer”—as in “to castle”—
as in chess 
                       we simply change places. 
                                                                     Thus the face
of that which is always looking back
                                                                over a shoulder asking 
in the green water
flowing past the castle
                                           really just a large white house
falling into a house of cards 
                                               in shards
                                               in part
                                                              paint, but largely
                                               a handprint on the sun
                                                                                           alone, summer is.


How many of his trees are larger than the sky
                                                                                         So many of his trees are

why the frame was made
                                                                                         a broken thing

by giving way—by the trees arise
                                                                                         the tree as pure height

no longer attached 
                                                                                         Tall Poplars I, 1900

Young Birches, 1900—it was a year in which
                                                                                         we leaned back and looked up

and found that there was a limit
                                                                                         that the concept, but moreover, the fact

of a tree let us slip past
                                                                                         Fruit Trees, 1901, lost in a fire

at Immendorf Castle in 1945
                                                                                         and so now all the color is gone

and the tree that is beyond
                                                                                         must also have burned

in all its fruit, the fruit
                                                                                         must have burned from within.


Tall Poplars II, also called Approaching Thunderstorm, 1902.

It may well be
                            the same trees
                                                          but that doesn’t explain
the figure now leaning
                            in the doorway
                                                         of the white hut embedded at the base 
of the line of receding trees
                                                         red leaves and the field, red behind
perhaps just another product of thunder
                                                         its pale blue presence
a rent in the horizon
                            but the poplar walks still farther.

Farther back in the distance
                                                         —and it’s what creates the distance—
are the silhouettes
                            of two other trees
                                                          and it’s not the trees—
just to be clear—
                            that create the distance
                                                          but their silhouettes
and it doesn’t matter how far away they are.


Animals with Landscape 
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)

Ruskin compared her to a zookeeper.

All her life, she lived with the animals she painted—hares, horses, huge bulls, the sun 
filtering through leaves, the gold falling on all sides, washing over the face, the gold on the hooves

or the “pristine paths of snow” through Fontainebleau
                                                                                          marked only by the passage of deer. Looking there, the eye drawing back the leaves, the eye drawing bare trees.

On the one hand, Rosa Bonheur literally animated the landscape with the beasts that she loved, while on the other, the larger, she often masked it, the big, shaggy bodies of two rams, for instance, covering at least three-quarters of the canvas, rendering invisible the river in the distance and the distance along with it.

Or a line of oxen blocking out the world, except that, of course, they are the world, telling Ruskin that she didn’t want to paint every hair of the hide, “even a photograph wouldn’t do that.”

Every hair of her gazelle, of her mouflon, of her chamois, of her yak. Her wild boar, squirrel, and eagle—and all were usually plural. Her cats.

She captured their expressions so precisely because she believed that the glance gives away the soul. And that they gave theirs freely—the ferrets, green lizards, foxes, and parrots, and sometimes a person or two—usually Nathalie.

Rosa Bonheur lived her entire adult life with Nathalie Micus, also a painter, and Micus’ mother, Henriette, all of them devoted to Bonheur’s determination to “relever la femme.” She had the gift of being close, and to almost everything at once. Though her favorites were the sheep—up to 50 at a time.

Sheep Shearers, pencil, undated, with precision of measure; it’s a study, so the men are scattered, unrelated across the paper, and affectionate, they hold the animals softly, though in one, the sheep raises his head, looking up at the man imploringly. “We may not always understand them, but they always understand us.” Though oddly enough, she also hunted.

The next piece in the catalogue offers a striking contrast to the drawing’s meticulous care. Landscape with Animals, oil on panel, also undated and entirely devoid of detail; she is, at this point, just blocking out the shapes and placing the fields of color, ready at any moment to shift a vaguely sheep-shaped patch of white or what might become a shepherd in response to the demands of rhythm.

Back to the souls of animals: she disagreed entirely with Descartes and his view of animals as pure machines, noting instead the metempsychosis at the moment of death, the sound of a letter slipping out of its envelope or slipping back in.

And the land in its shapes (under certain conditions referred to as “scapes”) too has a soul and is also always plural and always gently moving off beyond itself or running if a river runs across it in its forces.

And what happens to a landscape when an animal enters?
                                                                                             Filling a sudden gesture
with color and heat. Becoming the gesture, the answer to space.
Space in the shape of a stag, a swan, a lamb, a crow
and perfectly exactly filled out to its edges with the larger presence of breath.

And the world beyond simply melds, becomes a field of fusing greens, a sweeping brush of tree into meadow, hedgerow, and grove—a wash of the thriving; all things entirely living need no form. And nothing can be more alive than green, not a thing but another force, like gravity or electromagnetism, she let it loose and unleashed a streak that wanders, winding around animals, holding them close.

The term “peinture animalière” was invented by Théophile Gautier in 1855, effectively inaugurating a genre spliced between portrait and landscape. Though usually in a landscape format, it’s the living being or beings that dominate, thus it counters the concept of landscape, but also that of portraiture, as it focuses on the entire body rather than on the face, as if an animal’s every inch held the capacity for the kind of expressivity that in the human is restricted to the facial features.

Such works are also sometimes referred to as “paysages animés,” an animated landscape, landscape as living organism, as itself animal—that it breathes, seethes, is composed of systems, circulatory, nervous, etc. with senses.

Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, her first government commission, one year after 
the revolution, with its renewed attention  
                                                                 a scene possibly suggested 
by the opening of Sand’s 1846 novel The Devil’s Pool
                                                                                   focusing, muscular, on the eye, the second 
ox from the right inclines his head toward the painter, now replaced by you and me.

The eye is alive, not just with the life of the animal but with a life of its own—
                                                                                                                           in that eye we are present 
                                                                                and we are the present time

and indignant and much more conjugated than the men, who are slightly misshapen and lacking detail—their eyes for instance can’t really be seen in the shadow of a hat or at the back of the line or not seeing a thing.

Even earlier: Two Rabbits, 1840, with exceptionally long and shapely ears, the one on the left sniffing a carrot as though suspecting a trap. A parsnip lounges off to the side. This was one of two paintings that her father urged her to send to the 1841 salon; it was her first attempt, and both were accepted.

Though not remembered universally today, Rosa Bonheur was arguably the most celebrated artist of her time, rowing around the Lake of the Carp at Fontainebleau with the Empress Eugènie, Eugènie herself at the oars . . . receiving honors from countries all over Europe and beyond, though the one of which she was the most proud was the Légion d’honneur, which was presented to her by the Empress herself in 1865. She was the first female artist ever to receive it.

She lived an independent life, insisted on it, never married, wore trousers—which at the time required the permission of the police—and traveled widely, bringing a wealth of images back from her trips:

Morning fog and up through fog, the way things come up through fog, somehow getting more distant as they yet get more distinct. They retain the ghostly—you can see the ghost inside them, a morning in Scotland, several cows in the morning, but because of the fog, they can’t settle into a finite number. Became Morning in the Highlands, 1857.

And another, across a lake which the cattle swam on their way to the annual market at Falkirk, some of them, almost drowning, held afloat by their horns by men rowing alongside them in boats. Became The Boat, 1856.

And later on the same trip, yet another lake singing in the dark, across a lake, around a lake, the dark makes the walk, and farther on, we hear (Nathalie in a letter to her mother) “It was the only time I ever heard her sing.”

1850: in the Pyrenees, admiring the “grandiose savagery” of the mountains from the back of a horse that she and Nathalie shared in order to save money. “You have no idea how hard it was not to bring back a sheep and a goat.” That was on a later trip, 1853, from which they brought back an otter who would often get into the house and join Nathalie’s mother in bed.

Bonheur’s whole family were artists: her father, a devoted Saint-Simonian, who abandoned his family for the cause, leaving Rosa with the firm conviction that a woman should never let herself become dependent on a man, and all her siblings—two brothers, a sister, and a half-brother—they were all painters except for one, who was a sculptor, and four of her seven nieces and nephews. They often painted or sculpted each other, often in the studio, often in the act of creating an animal.

She bought the Chateau de By near Fontainebleau in 1860 with its own forests and the light barely making its way through the overlapping layers of overlapping leaves. Studies of trees and of the structure of light, the tiny grains that dust over all things and the fragile sound as they settle on stone. She sat down on a rock to sketch the pattern of cross-hatched branches, sitting motionless to see what passes.
             Patch of shadow
willow scratching across the surface of the pond.

Rosa Bonheur: pink happiness; the joy of the rose, naming her stag Jacques, her lioness Fatma, her boar Kiki, and so on . . . Bonheur’s animals are never metaphoric, never symbols for abstract concepts, but always distinct individuals standing for nothing but themselves.

The power, for instance, of the horses in one of her most famous paintings, The Horse Fair, 1853, a coiled musculature that almost cracks the canvas, the violence inherent, which could be considered a displacement of her own rebellious spirit, but the particularity of the face of each horse argues against such a projection and suggests instead an acute observation, a grasp of the irreducible actuality of each one.

And there’s a connection between her interest in “raising up the state of women” and her recognition of the souls and individualities of animals; in 19th century France, animals, like women, were entirely at the mercy of men. Often loved, yes, often deeply valued, but with a love and appreciation that could be revoked at any time and that did not suffer the need to be requited.

Which may also be related to her increasing drift beyond the domestic—animals largely separate from the human sphere. Herd of Deer in a Forrest, 1898, the year before she died, each one looking in a slightly different direction, and, as in Ploughing in the Nivernaise from so many years earlier, one looks directly at her, who doesn’t seem to surprise them. And countless studies in pencil, doves, fawns, their lines still alive.

After the Franco-Prussian war, it was lions (she had five all together, though not all at once), which amounted to a complex confluence of the domestic and the wild; thoroughly the latter, hers had all been transformed into the former. And mostly they didn’t live very long. But they lived peacefully, affectionately, padding softly around the house and grounds, terrifying the guests.



Cole Swensen has published 17 books of poetry, most recently On Walking On, Nighboat Books, 2017, and a chapbook, Gave, Omnidawn, 2017. Her books have been finalists twice for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and once for the National Book Award and have won the S.F. State Poetry Center Book Award, the Iowa Poetry Prize, and others. Also a translator of contemporary French poetry, prose, and art criticism, she divides her time between Paris and Providence, RI, where she teaches at Brown University.