Cubist Aesthetics in Stevens' "The Man with the Blue Guitar": Defence against Surrealism

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ABSTRACT

The critics have discussed the influence of either Cubism or Surrealism on Stevens' "The Man with the Blue Guitar". The paper examines the impact of both of these movements on the poem. It claims that Stevens referred to Cubist aesthetics to protect himself from Surrealism which he round too radical. The argument is partly based on considering artistic events which were taking place in the United States around the rime Stevens wrote his poem. It also analyses the importance of Picasso with whom Stevens identified himself in the poem, and Cezanne, who enabled Stevens to come to terms with modern developments in art.

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Both Cubism and Surrealism were essential for Stevens who throughout his poetic career was determined to "establish his relation to contemporary ideas" (Letters, 340). (1) The aim of this paper is to examine the analogy between the Cubist perception of reality and Stevens' "The Man with the Blue Guitar". It also claims that Stevens used Cubist aesthetics as a means of defence against Surrealism.

Before a proper analysis of Cubist aesthetics and Stevens' use of it, it is important to point out the essence of ekphrasis in his poetry. Stevens does not imitate the means of painting, but conceptualizes the effects of it by means of an allusion. According to MacLeod (1993), the inspiration for Stevens to write ekphrastic poetry came chiefly from what he referred to as "the literature of painting". By the literature of painting he meant art magazines, periodicals, and museum catalogues which he read eagerly as a great lover of art and frequent gallery visitor (1993: xxiv). Stevens had the chance to live and write during the time when art was in its heyday: movements such as Dada, Cubism and Surrealism were revolutionizing the conventional approach to life and culture, which obviously was hot insignificant with respect to his verse. He did not write his poems in isolation from contemporary life, but always participated enthusiastically in what was taking place in the art world of his day. Around the time when "'The Man with the Blue Guitar" was written (1937), the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford held the first retrospective of Picasso (1934), the New York MOMA displayed works of Hans Arp, Joan Miro, and Alberto Giacometti in an exhibition "Cubism and Abstract Art" in 1935, and in 1936 it exhibited "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism" with paintings by Picasso and Dali.

In the 1930s, Surrealism, a movement that developed from Dadaism, was challenging America. One of the major events that contributed to the Surrealist venture into the unconscious was the expansion of Freudian ideas which spread so rapidly that by 1938 it appeared widely accepted that America had become the centre of psychoanalysis. The art world did not remain indifferent towards these ideas, and artists started to indulge in the processes of the unconscious mind unconstrained by logic and reason. This direction was the basis of Surrealism, which was then one of the most important of all the contemporary movements.

Wallace Stevens was as usual determined to establish his "relation to contemporary ideas" ("What is there in life except one's ideas / (...) Is it ideas that I believe?" CP, 175) which is well seen in "Sombre Figuration", a poetic surmise of Freudian psychoanalysis. The poet was well aware of the Surrealist impact on his poetry: "In the camera of the subconscious, things are not (may not be) what they are in the consciousness. The locust may titter. The turtle may sob. Surrealism (...)" (L, 375). Owl's Clover, a series of which "Sombre Figuration" is the last poem, is an important but poetically failed experiment, a judgment Stevens himself confirmed by excluding it from his Collected Poems.

Before having finished Owl's Clover, in December of 1936 Stevens started writing his new long poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar". The poem, which soon turned out to be one of his most successful, was completed by the spring of 1936. …

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