As Anti-Figurative as Music

Study for the Montée, František Kupka


Study for Around a Point, František Kupka


Circular Forms, Robert Delaunay


Joy of Life, Robert Delaunay


Untitled, Sonia Delaunay


Orphism or Orphic Cubism, a term coined by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire at the Salon de la Section d’Or in 1912, referring to the works of František Kupka. During his lecture at the Section d’Or exhibit Apollinaire presented three of Kupka’s abstract works as perfect examples of pure painting, as anti-figurative as music.

This movement, perceived as key in the transition from Cubism to Abstract art, was pioneered by František Kupka, Robert Delaunay and Sonia Delaunay, who relaunched the use of color during the monochromatic phase of Cubism.The meaning of the term Orphism was elusive when it first appeared and remains to some extent vague.

The Symbolists had used the word orphique in relation to the Greek myth of Orpheus, who they perceived as the ideal artist. Apollinaire had written a collection of quatrains in 1907 entitled Bestiaire ou cortège d’Orphée (Paris, 1911), within which Orpheus was symbolized as a poet and artist. For both Apollinaire and the Symbolists who preceded him, Orpheus was associated with mysticism, something that would inspire artistic endeavors. The voice of light that Apollinaire mentioned in his poems was a metaphor for inner experiences. Though not fully articulated in his poems, the voice of light is identified as a line that could be colored and become a painting. The Orphic metaphor thus represented the artist’s power to create new structures and color harmonies, in an innovative creative process that combined to form a sensuous experience.

Even after 1913, when Apollinaire had separated from the Delaunays and Orphism had lost its novelty as a new art form, the Delaunays continued painting in their personal shared style. They may not have always called their work Orphic, but the aesthetics and theories were the same. Robert continued painting while Sonia delved into other media, including fashion, interior and textile design, all within the realm of Orphism.

Bestiary or The Parade of Orpheus

Apollinaire’s first book of poems has charmed readers with its brief celebrations of animals, birds, fish, insects, and the mythical poet Orpheus since it was first published.


Le Bestiaire ou Cortège d’Orphée is a poetic album of 30 short poems by Guillaume Apollinaire with woodcuts by Raoul Dufy, published in 1911.

Though Apollinaire would go on to longer and more ambitious work, his Bestiary reveals key elements of his later poetry, among them surprising images, wit, formal mastery, and wry irony. X. J. Kennedy’s fresh translation follows Apollinaire in casting the poems into rhymed stanzas, suggesting music and sudden closures while remaining faithful to their sense. Kennedy provides the English alongside the original French, inviting readers to compare the two and appreciate the fidelity of the former to the latter. He includes a critical and historical essay that relates the Bestiary to its sources in medieval “creature books,” provides a brief biography and summation of the troubled circumstances surrounding the book’s initial publication, and places the poems in the context of Apollinaire’s work as a poet and as a champion of avant garde art.

Guillaume Apollinaire, was a bibliophile and a specialist in medieval bestiaries. In 1906 Pablo Picasso, a friend of Apollinaire’s had made some experimental woodcuts of animals. Apollinaire published eighteen poems figuring all kinds of semi-mythical animals in 1908 in La phalange, an experimental journal and promised his readers an illustrated edition. Picasso was not willing to cooperate and the poet persuaded Raoul Dufy, an engraver, to provide the woodcuts. Orpheus is present in four of the 30 poems.

Several composers were inspired by these poems to set them to music: Francis Poulenc (1919), Louis Durey (1919), Jean Absil (1944) and others. Francis Poulenc originally selected twelve poems, but only published six. His friend Louis Durey composed a complete cycle (26 short songs; he omitted the poems about Orpheus). Both wrote for baritone solo accompanied by piano.

A Geometric Garden for Orpheus

“This woman who was loved so much, that from
one lyre
more mourning came than from women in mourning;
that a whole world was made from mourning, where
everything was present once again: forest and valley
and road and village, field, river, and animal;
and that around this mourning-world, just as
around the other earth, a sun
and a silent star-filled sky wheeled,
a mourning-sky with displaced constellations–:”

Rainer Maria Rilke

From Orpheus, Eudydice, Hermes


A Garden for Orpheus, Paul Klee, 1926


A rhythmic relation with the universe, like that expressed by Rilke, finds expression in Paul Klee’s series of garden pictures dating from 1926, which includes A Garden for Orpheus and Classical Garden. In these works a system of horizontal lines interwoven with ornamental arrangements of interlocking parallell bands is united in space by overlappings and interpenetrations.

Like his other garden and park pictures, Klee’s drawing A Garden for Orpheus reflects his search for rythmically coherent formal structure inspired by the orderly divisions inherent in the garden, as well as his attempt to reduce the plant kingdom to archetypal forms and recurring patterns that demonstrate the inner laws of nature, itself a skillful geometrician. Drawings such as A Garden for Orpheus demonstrate Klee’s sense of the interrelationship of nature, music and art.

On Abandoment and Disappointed Love

d4051821r(c) Watts Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


George Frederic Watts first painted the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the late 1860s. This decade saw a revival of classical subject matter in British art. It is a measure of Watts’s flexibility as an artist that, in the middle of his career aged about fifty, he should become deeply involved in a new movement in art, sharing the aims of much younger painters such as Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones. His Orpheus and Eurydice paintings are among the most powerful early masterpieces of this ‘aesthetic classicism.’ As with most subjects that gripped his imagination, Watts treated it several times, refining the composition until it fully realised his ideal.

The story of Orpheus is recounted in many ancient sources. The most accessible account, and probably the one used by Watts, is found in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses (book X).

Three subjects from the story were particularly attractive to artists:

Orpheus playing in hell;
Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice’; and
Orpheus’s head and lyre, which continued to sing after his own death.

In the 1860s Watts treated many themes of abandonment and disappointed love. Clytie whose yearning for the sun god Apollo turned her into a sunflower and Ariadne deserted by Theseus, share similar themes with Orpheus and Eurydice. Watts probably exposed deep personal emotions in such subjects, for his first marriage, to the young actress Ellen Terry, ended in separation in 1865, after they had been together for only eleven months.

But Watts’s impetus was not simply personal for the Orpheus and Eurydice theme was also popular with his closest artistic friends in the 1860s. In Victorian High Renaissance, Allan Staley suggests that Watts took it up in direct response to Frederic Leighton‘s 1864 Royal Academy picture (Leighton House). This is a distinctly odd treatment of the theme in which Orpheus pushes Eurydice away. Watts’s painting may be intended to criticise this version. Leighton became Watts’s near neighbour in Kensington in 1866, and the two men exerted a strong influence on each other for the next six years. In the late 1860s Burne-Jones produced illustrations to William Morris’s unpublished Orpheus and Eurydice poem. (He later re-used them for the 1880 Graham piano, the designs for which inspired John Singer Sargent‘s portrait of Comyns Carr. Watts painted portraits of his friends Burne-Jones and Morris in 1870 (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and National Portrait Gallery).

There are many studies for the various versions of the work. Most appear to date from the late 1860s when Watts conceived and developed the subject. Two drawings are in the Royal Academy, London, among the collection selected by Edward John Poynter, as President, under the terms of Watts’s will. A head study for Orpheus is in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham’s collection (Cecil French Bequest). A drawing for one of the horizontal format compositions is in the collection of David Loshak. Most interesting among the drawn studies is that in the collection of Sir Brinsley Ford. The upper half is very close to the composition of the present picture, but the figures are full length and a third figure (omitted from all known painted versions) appears in the bottom right corner. This emphasises the placing of this version in the sequence of Watts’s paintings between his abandonment of the horizontal format and his development of an upright one. Watts also produced sculptured studies for the figure and head of Orpheus to help him realise the difficult pose of the figure and the tormented expression, both hard for a model to hold. (Two studies, plaster casts from clay or wax originals are in the Watts Gallery, Compton.) Watts’s interest in sculpture developed in the 1860s, when he made both finished works (such as the bust of Clytie) and such studies. The production of sculptural studies for paintings was a Renaissance practice and passed into the academic tradition. The studies and the finished painting reveal Watts’s fascination with dynamic twisting poses and especially with the stretch and turn of the neck. This seems to have been a personal idiosyncracy. Found in many other works of this time (such as Clytie), it should be seen as an aspect of Watts’s enthusiasm for the Renaissance artist that earned him the nickname of ‘England’s Michelangelo.’

From the Remaining Chord

Hope, George Frederic Watts, 1886


Hope is a Symbolist oil painting by George Frederic Watts, two versions of which were completed in 1886. The painting was intended to form part of a series of allegorical paintings by Watts entitled the House of Life. The painting shows a female allegorical figure of Hope. Hope is traditionally identifiable through the attribute of an anchor, but Watts took a more original approach. In his painting, she is depicted sitting on a globe, blindfolded, clutching a wooden lyre with only one string left intact. She sits in a hunched position, with her head leaning towards the instrument, perhaps so she can hear the faint music she can make with the sole remaining string. According to Watts, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord”. The desolate atmosphere is emphasised by Watts’s soft brushwork, creating a misty, ethereal scene, in tones of green, brown and grey. Watts’s melancholy depiction of hope was criticised, and G. K. Chesterton suggested that a better title would be Despair.


A Sea Spell (1877)


Dreamers (1882)


The Wheel of Fortune (1871)


Watts may have been inspired by the pose of the siren in Dante Gabriel Rossetti‘s  painting A Sea Spell, or the sleeping women in Albert Joseph Moore‘s painting Dreamers. Watts may have taken inspiration for the blindfold from the allegorical figure of Fortune in Edward Burne-Jones‘s  painting The Wheel of Fortune, which Watts owned. The painting was displayed at the 1897 Manchester Jubilee Exhibition, alongside other works by Watts including Love and Death, The Court of Death, Psyche, and Mount Ararat.

Hope inspired a scene from a 1922 film of the same name by Herbert Blaché and Lejaren à Hiller, featuring Mary Astor as Hope. It has been suggested as an influence on Pablo Picasso‘s early Blue Period paintings, especially the hunched musician in The Old Guitarist. Martin Luther King Jr referenced Hope in his sermon Shattered Dreams in his collection of sermons, Strength to Love. Nelson Mandela reportedly had a print of the painting on the wall of his prison cell on Robben Island. After Egypt was defeated by Israel during the Six-Day War the Egyptian government issued copies of it to its troops.

To Hope

Keats Listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath, Joseph Severn, circa 1845


When by my solitary hearth I sit,
When no fair dreams before my – mind’s eye – flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head.

Whene’er I wander, at the fall of night,
Where woven boughs shut out the moon’s bright ray,
Should sad Despondency my musings fright,
And frown, to drive fair Cheerfulness away,
Peep with the moon-beams through the leafy roof,
And keep that fiend Despondence far aloof.

Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,
Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;
When, like a cloud, he sits upon the air,
Preparing on his spell-bound prey to dart:
Chase him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,
And fright him as the morning frightens night!

Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

Should e’er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

In the long vista of the years to roll,
Let me not see our country’s honour fade:
O let me see our land retain her soul,
Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom’s shade.
From thy bright eyes unusual brightness shed –
Beneath thy pinions canopy my head!

Let me not see the patriot’s high bequest,
Great Liberty! how great in plain attire!
With the base purple of a court oppress’d,
Bowing her head, and ready to expire:
But let me see thee stoop from heaven on wings
That fill the skies with silver glitterings!

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half veil’d face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving thy silver pinions o’er my head.

John Keats
February, 1815.

As If in The Act of Blessing

«…Dürer portrayed himself as the Christus. Robert often fantasized and photographed himself as the Christus.»

Jack Fritscher
Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera


Portrait of Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1986


Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar, Albrecht Dürer, 1500  


Painted early in 1500, just before his 29th birthday, it is the last of his three painted self-portraits. It is considered the most personal, iconic and complex of his self-portraits, and the one that has become fixed in the popular imagination. The self-portrait is most remarkable because of its resemblance to many earlier representations of Christ. Art historians note the similarities with the conventions of religious painting, including its symmetry, dark tones and the manner in which the artist directly confronts the viewer and raises his hands to the middle of his chest as if in the act of blessing.


Blessing Christ, Hans Memling, circa 1433–1494  


Dürer chooses to present himself monumentally, in a style that unmistakably recalls depictions of Christ—the implications of which have been debated among art critics. A conservative interpretation suggests that he is responding to the tradition of the Imitation of Christ. A more controversial view reads the painting is a proclamation of the artist’s supreme role as creator. This latter view is supported by the painting’s Latin inscription, composed by Celtes’ personal secretary, which translates as; “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg portrayed myself in appropriate [or everlasting] colours aged twenty-eight years”.

Ode on Melancholy

Melencholia I, Albrecht Dürer, 1514


NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globèd peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight 25
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

John Keats


Ode on Melancholy is one of five odes composed by John Keats in the spring of 1819, along with Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on Indolence, and Ode to Psyche. The narrative of the poem describes the poet’s perception of melancholy through a lyric discourse between the poet and the reader, along with the introduction to Ancient Grecian characters and ideals.

While studying at Enfield, Keats attempted to gain a knowledge of Grecian art from translations of Tooke’s Pantheon, Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary and Spence’s Polymetis. Although Keats attempted to learn Ancient Greek, the majority of his understanding of Grecian mythology came from the translations into English. Ode on Melancholy contains references to classical themes, characters, and places such as Psyche, Lethe, and Prosperine in its description of melancholy, as allusions to Grecian art and literature were common among the “five great odes”.

Return to Earth

“…His first touch of the earth went nigh to kill.
«Alas!» said he, «were I but always borne
Through dangerous winds, had but my footsteps worn
A path in hell, for ever would I bless
Horrors which nourish an uneasiness
For my own sullen conquering: to him
Who lives beyond earth’s boundary, grief is dim,
Sorrow is but a shadow: now I see
The grass; I feel the solid ground – Ah, me!
It is thy voice – divinest! Where? – who? who
Left thee so quiet on this bed of dew?
Behold upon this happy earth we are;
Let us ay love each other; let us fare
On forest-fruits, and never, never go
Among the abodes of mortals here below,
Or be by phantoms duped. O destiny!
Into a labyrinth now my soul would fly,
But with thy beauty will I deaden it.
Where didst thou melt too? By thee will I sit
For ever: let our fate stop here – a kid
I on this spot will offer: Pan will bid
Us live in peace, in love and peace among
His forest wildernesses. I have clung
To nothing, lov’d a nothing, nothing seen
Or felt but a great dream! O I have been
Presumptuous against love, against the sky,
Against all elements, against the tie
Of mortals each to each, against the blooms
Of flowers, rush of rivers, and the tombs
Of heroes gone! Against his proper glory
Has my own soul conspired: so my story
Will I to children utter, and repent.
There never liv’d a mortal man, who bent
His appetite beyond his natural sphere,
But starv’d and died…”

John Keats

Endymion (Book IV)



Orpheus series, Return to Earth, Fred Holland Day, 1907

Orpheus or Philosophy

Orpheus’ Death, Jean Delville, 1893




“The story of Orpheus, which though so well known has not yet been in all points perfectly well interpreted, seems meant for a representation of universal Philosophy. For Orpheus himself,—a man admirable and truly divine, who being master of all harmony subdued and drew all things after him by sweet and gentle measures,—may pass by an easy metaphor for philosophy personified. For as the works of wisdom surpass in dignity and power the works of strength, so the labours of Orpheus surpass the labours of Hercules.

Orpheus, moved by affection for his wife who had been snatched from him by an untimely death, resolved to go down to Hell and beg her back again of the Infernal Powers; trusting to his lyre. Nor was he disappointed. For so soothed and charmed were the infernal powers by the sweetness of his singing and playing, that they gave him leave to take her away with him; but upon one condition; she was to follow behind him, and he was not to look back until they had reached the confines of light. From this however in the impatience of love and anxiety he could not refrain. Before he had quite reached the point of safety, he looked back; and so the covenant was broken, and she suddenly fell away from him and was hurried back into Hell. From that time Orpheus betook himself to solitary places, a melancholy man and averse from the sight of women; where by the same sweetness of his song and lyre he drew to him all kinds of wild beasts, in such manner that putting off their several natures, forgetting all their quarrels and ferocity, no longer driven by the stings and furies of lust, no longer caring to satisfy their hunger or to hunt their prey, they all stood about him gently and sociably, as in a theatre, listening only to the concords of his lyre. Nor was that all: for so great was the power of his music that it moved the woods and the very stones to shift themselves and take their stations decently and orderly about him. And all this went on for some time with happy success and great admiration; till at last certain Thracian women, under the stimulation and excitement of Bacchus, came where he was; and first they blew such a hoarse and hideous blast upon, a horn that the sound of his music could no longer be heard for the din: whereupon, the charm being broken that had been the bond of that order and good fellowship, confusion began again; the beasts returned each to his several nature and preyed one upon the other as before; the stones and woods stayed no longer in their places: while Orpheus himself was torn to pieces by the women in their fury, and his limbs scattered about the fields: at whose death, Helicon (river sacred to the Muses) in grief and indignation buried his waters under the earth, to reappear elsewhere.

The meaning of the fable appears to be this. The singing of Orpheus is of two kinds: one to propitiate the infernal powers, the other to draw the wild beasts and the woods. The former may be best understood as referring to natural philosophy; the latter to philosophy moral and civil. For natural philosophy proposes to itself, as its noblest work of all, nothing less than the restitution and renovation of things corruptible, and (what is indeed the same thing in a lower degree) the conservation of bodies in the state in which they are, and the retardation of dissolution and putrefaction. Now certainly if this can be effected at all, it cannot be otherwise than by due and exquisite attempering and adjustment of parts in nature, as by the harmony and perfect modulation of a lyre. And yet being a thing of all others the most difficult, it commonly fails of effect; and fails (it may be) from no cause more than from curious and premature meddling and impatience. Then Philosophy finding that her great work is too much for her, in sorrowful mood, as well becomes her, turns to human affairs; and applying her powers of persuasion and eloquence to insinuate into men’s minds the love of virtue and equity and peace, teaches the peoples to assemble and unite and take upon them the yoke of laws and submit to authority, and forget their ungoverned appetites, in listening and conforming to precepts and discipline; whereupon soon follows the building of houses, the founding of cities, the planting of fields and gardens with trees; insomuch that the stones and the woods are not unfitly said to leave their places and come about her. And this application of Philosophy to civil affairs is properly represented, and according to the true order of things, as subsequent to the diligent trial and final frustration of the experiment of restoring the dead body to life. For true it is that the clearer recognition of the inevitable necessity of death sets men upon seeking immortality by merit and renown. Also it is wisely added in the story, that Orpheus was averse from women and from marriage; for the sweets of marriage and the dearness of children commonly draw men away from performing great and lofty services to the commonwealth; being content to be perpetuated in their race and stock, and not in their deeds.

But howsoever the works of wisdom are among human things the most excellent, yet they too have their periods and closes. For so it is that after kingdoms and commonwealths have flourished for a time, there arise perturbations and seditions and wars; amid the uproars of which, first the laws are put to silence, and then men return to the depraved conditions of their nature, and desolation is seen in the fields and cities. And if such troubles last, it is not long before letters also and philosophy are so torn in pieces that no traces of them can be found but a few fragments, scattered here and there like planks from a shipwreck; and then a season of barbarism sets in, the waters of Helicon being sunk under the ground, until, according to the appointed vicissitude of things, they break out and issue forth again, perhaps among other nations, and not in the places where they were before.”

Francis Bacon
Of the Wisdom of the Ancients

Orpheus Emerged


Orpheus Emerged is a novella written by Jack Kerouac in 1945 when he was at Columbia University and was just 23 years old. It was discovered after his death but not released until 2000 (by his estate).

It chronicles the passions, conflicts, and dreams of a group of bohemians searching for truth while studying at a university. Kerouac wrote the story shortly after meeting Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and others in and around Columbia University who would form the core of the Beats.

The journal Kerouac referred to as “The Plan For The Novel Galloway,” provides deep insights into Jack’s growing organizational skills. The Galloway notes contain 22 sections which break down potential scenes for the novel, plus there are revelations about Jack’s characters (himself, his family, friends, etc.) and how they would be developed. Although, eventually Kerouac would not choose to include many of these scenes in The Town and The City, he would later utilize some of them in Maggie Cassidy and Vanity of Duluoz. Jack was driving towards a literary feeling, something uniquely his own that could answer his artistic callings. In section 19, Jack wrote: “Whereas, in most novels, the climax of the narrative is dramatic, this, not being so much a narrative as a fugue of moods, must be a musical climax – the climax in Galloway must be referred to as such: – it is not the dramatic outbreak of a narrative’s laborious building up, but sheer triumph erupting like a mood without cause over the mass of life – moods strung and woven thereunto. The same method I applied in Orpheus Emerged, where realism was established in order to vent full and glowing truth of a mystico-spiritual experience…although that work, in itself, was of the poorest quality, really.”

So Kerouac originally planned to write his first novel in an improved but similar style to the experimental short novel Orpheus Emerged. It resembles the work of Camus and Sartre far more than the edited, published version of The Town and The City. Journals from 1943 and 1944 reveal Kerouac’s outline and intended symbolism in Orpheus Emerged and are interesting when compared to Galloway. The charts of symbols are much the same, and the stated themes of both intend to deal with the search of a “young American Artist.” The artist’s search centered around the choice to live life for art or to live it for life itself. Orpheus Emerged pursued this theme through its main character, Michael, who was described as “the genius of imagination and art.” He was a mysterious sufferer who followed his artistic “calling,” yet strangely only shared his poetry and money with a possible twin, Paul, “the genius of life and love.” Both men are 22, they are linked to Marcel Orpheus (also 22) in ways only understandable by the appearance of “Helen,” the beloved of Marcel Orpheus.”

Orpheus, of course, from Greek legend was the gifted poet and musician who after receiving a lyre from Apollo became supernatural is his artistic abilities. Helen, the daughter of Zeus represented the magnificence and joy that beauty can bestow, yet with it came the promise of doom. With the glow of these mythological characters as a back drop, Michael’s story evolved; he was attempting to transcend man’s mortal emotions, and through art achieve immortality. The other characters in Orpheus Emerged, Leo (a bright student possibly based on Ginsberg), Arthur (a student who writes possibly Lucien Carr), Anthony, a struggling alcoholic, and the women who are manipulated by these men, are all mystified by the oddness of Michael’s emotional state. It is only Paul who appeared to have some understanding of and connection to Michael. At an innocuous party, Paul revealed to Michael that: …”She’s (Helen) coming here soon,” which launched Michael into an unexplainable, violent attack on Paul.

This behavior and a subsequent doomed affair between Michael and Marie (Anthony’s wife) began a downward spiral and unraveling of Michael’s personality. In a drunken rage, he rebuked Leo’s attempts to console him while the two men drank in a neighborhood bar. Later, Michael wandered the rainy city streets until, so distraught, he contemplated ending his life by plunging into the cold depths of the river. But Michael decided to postpone his suicidal act because he desired to once more see Paul, and “hurl curses in his face.” Michael found Paul in his room, but also discovered that Helen had, indeed, returned, and in her presence he descended into a complete nervous breakdown. Strangely, he announced to Paul that both of their lives were about to end, and to Helen, he declared that he was not worthy of her for, like other ordinary human beings, he had settled for merely living his life.

The baffling scene ends with Helen holding both men’s hands, and the notion of Michael and Paul being one and the same person, though unstated, was implied. Like the “fugue of moods” Kerouac had promised, the story mysteriously ended with Leo, Arthur, and another student arguing. The men had observed Helen riding off in a trolley car with either Michael of Paul, there is not agreement over which one it was. Finally, Arthur, we are told, reached some understanding of this bizarre episode after finding a note in his mailbox which made reference to and was signed “Orpheus.”

As an unfinished work of fiction, Orpheus Emerged is a strange and tantalizing story that suffers from numerous structural flaws. The lack of clarity, intentional or not, diminishes the novels seriousness, the setting is poorly focused, and the dialog is barely believable. The overall effect is one of sheer bewilderment. Yet, viewed as a journal entry one can better understand that “Orpheus” was more of a thematic experiment, and that Kerouac recognized it to be a stylistic failure. It’s influence on the Galloway journals is also purely thematic. Kerouac’s own artistic journey and his struggles with choosing between the artist’s life and the life he knew from his family and the town of Lowell, undeniably are the source of inspiration. But, Kerouac realized he needed to broaden his scope and therefore wrote The Town and The City in a classically structured style where “the climax of the narrative is dramatic.” He had come full circle from his intentions of style in Orpheus Emerged.

Later in life, Kerouac, no doubt, must have found it annoying when he was said to have been an undisciplined writer. Jack took the brunt of that criticism knowing full well how hard he had worked, in a “disciplined” sense, to evolve into a writer who could write brilliantly from multiple styles: as an objective narrator, a first person confessionalist, an expressive poet, a creator of mythical characters, and a chronicler of history. Kerouac’s journals are the unarguable evidence of the dues he paid.

Spontaneity in the work of Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, and Jack Kerouac

During the decade following World War Two, a body of artistic work was created that clearly articulated for the first time, a distinctly American aesthetic, independent of European models. This is not to say that celebrated works like The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Appalachian Spring and Roy Harrisʼ Third Symphony are not recognized as American masterpieces; but their American characteristics are expressed through content, rather than form or methods of production. Fitzgerald and Hemingway all furthered their apprenticeship in Europe during the 1920s while Copland and Harris studied in Paris with Boulanger. It remained for the next generation of the avant garde, living for the most part in New York, to create original schools through the modes of Abstract Expressionism, the new chromatic jazz of Be Bop, and the literature of the Beats. The singly most important characteristic of the new American expression was the central role played by spontaneity and improvisation yielding works of astonishing vibrant surface detail.

The emphasis on the spontaneous as an alternative to the careful and rational reflected larger cultural and philosophical issues. In seeking a subjective, existential view of reality, honesty, authenticity, were prized over the objective world view, process over product. Whether expressed in gesture painting, spontaneous bop prosody, or the chromatic flights of bebop, the emphasis was on the experience, rejecting the academic craftsmanship of revision as antithetical to the glorification of the now.This emphasis plus the incorporation of elements from African and Native American sources were interpreted as an attack on the privileged hegemony of the Anglo-American academy. Beat writers were ridiculed by proponents of the New Criticism who vaunted T.S. Eliot as their model. Kerouacʼs spontaneous prose was dismissed as “mere typing” by Truman Capote. While mainstream journals such as Life magazine devoted some attention to abstract art, it was more often of a patronizing nature, referring to Pollock as “Jack the Dripper”. The new jazz faced opposition even within its own ranks, even prompting a revival of New Orleans music, now called “Dixieland”. Louis Armstrong dismissed bop as making about as much sense as “Chinese music”. So with its fusion of modernist complexity with vernacular) or “street”) immediacy the new art represented a third alternative to European elitism and mainstream pop culture. In an even larger context, the avant garde of the late 1940s represented a reaction to Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Gulag – the latter having a dampening impact on the leftist Communist idealism of the 30s. Whether implicit in words or explicit in painting and music, the avant garde became a central voice in the new bohemian counterculture criticism of United States political and corporate globalization with its strategy of cold war xenophobia and domestic consumerism. The full effect of this will not be fully realized until the mid 1960s when the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Viet Nam galvanized many to question the policies of the government.


Jackson Pollock photographed by Arnold Newman for LIFE Magazine, 1949


Charlie Parker, at the Carnegie Hall, New York. Photo by William P. Gottlieb, 1947


Jack Kerouac in his Long Island home displaying one of the scrolls on which he composed his books, unidentified photographer, 1964.


Three artists, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Charlie Parker (1920-1955), and Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), play a central role in the emerging post war avant garde, each incorporating elements of spontaneity to their arts. The outline of their biographies shows many similarities. Roughly of the same generation, each were born and raised in provincial settings, Pollock in Cody, Wyoming, Parker in Kansas City, Missouri, and Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. Each came from working class blue collar maternally dominated families, with dysfunctional (Pollock and Kerouac) or nonexistent (Parker) relationships with their fathers, Pollock and Kerouac becoming highly misogynistic. Each produced their most important work in New York beginning around 1945, where they all habituated the same Lower East Side and Greenwich Village neighborhoods, often hanging out in the same bars and coffee houses. All three experienced difficult personal lives, cut short from substance abuse resulting in early deaths (Pollock at age 44. Parker at 35, and Kerouac at 47). What is of great interest is the mutual interest and influence among the artistic intelligentsia of the period. Much of Kerouacʼs innovative spontaneous prose sketching achieved most notable in Visions of Cody and The Subterraneans were heavily indebted to his sophisticated knowledge of jazz. Several of the “choruses” in Mexico City Blues are profiles of Parker, Lester Young, and other musicians. Lee Krasner, Pollockʼs wife, has documented the painterʼs interest in jazz as well as classical music. Night Clubs, such as the Five Spot, doubled as jazz venues as well as art galleries.



A Pollock painting illustrates the cover of Ornette Colemanʼs, Free Jazz, released in 1959. Some artists worked in several disciplines, most notable saxophonist Larry Rivers who became a prominent painter, composer-novelist Paul Bowles, pianist-poet Cecil Taylor, and poet-painter-composer Weldon Kees. Poetic recitation with jazz, begun with Kenneth Patchen and Charlie Mingus included performances at the Village Vanguard with Kerouac who recorded with tenor men Zoot Sims and Al Cohn as well as recited on television with Steve Allen backing him up on piano. The image of these performances, with their “beards,bongos and beatniks” became simplistic cultural clichés in the late 1950s. perpetuated by the mainstream media in an attempt to trivialize and ridicule the movement. To reiterate the central thesis of this argument, the main thread that unites this rich period of American creativity is the use of improvisation for the purpose of creating art characterized by great emotional and intense expression.


American Zeitgeist: Spontaneity in the work of Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, and Jack Kerouac
Randall Snyder