Ceri Richards – Self-portrait (1934)

by Ceri Richards, oil on composition board, 1934
Ceri Richards, Self-portrait (oil on composition board) 1934

Ceri Richards (1903-1971) was born in a small village near Swansea. He and his younger brother and sister were brought up in a highly cultured, working-class environment. His mother came from a family of craftsmen; and his father, who worked in a tinplate foundry, was active in the local church, wrote poetry in Welsh and English, and for many years conducted the Dunvant Excelsior Male Voice Choir. The children were all taught to play the piano, and became familiar with the works of Bach and Handel. In later years music would be an important stimulus to Richards’s painting – as would his youthful sensitivity to the landscapes of Gower and the cycles of nature. Richards trained initially at the Swansea School of Art before completing his studies at the Royal College of Art, (where in later years he became a teacher).

In this beautiful self-portrait from 1934, the influence of the surrealists is quite apparent, particularly that of Picasso. Nevertheless, the portrait remains very much rooted in Richards’s Welsh background, with the dark earthiness of the colours capturing the tone of the valleys where the artist grew up. It is very much the ‘portrait of the artist as a young artist,’ but an artist emerging from a very specific landscape, which the rugged shapes and the simplicity of the composition evoke so well. It is an action painting in the sense that the subject is proudly presenting the tools of his trade, the palette and brushes which he carries as emblems. The thick black lines enhance the notion that the artist is an accumulation of elements, yet the eye is drawn to the bright complexion and the affirmative expression which underline the pride Richards took in his work and his vocation. This self-portrait is quite simply his coat of arms.

Richards wrote: “One can generally say that all artists — poets, musicians, painters, are creating in their own idioms, metaphors for the nature of existence, for the secrets of our time. We are all moved by the beauty and revelation in their utterances — we notice the direction and beauty of the paths they indicate for us, and move towards them”.

The beauty to which Richards refers is intrinsic in every detail of this self-portrait which so clearly and affectionately references his roots in the Welsh valleys —which he appears to be wearing about his shoulders— and his belief in the rugged powers of art. Former pupils have described Richards as a cheerful, boisterous teacher, and these traits come through in this marvellous celebratory painting which is there to be admired any day of the week in the National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road.


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Aldo Pellegrini – two poems

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Aldo Pellegrini

The Argentinian poet, Aldo Pellegrini (1903-1973), was the founder of the first Surrealist group among Spanish-speaking writers. In his writing he called for a poetry “free from the schemes of reason, free from social norms, free from prohibitions, free from prejudice, free from cannons, free from fear, a poetry free from its own preconceptions.” 

Below, along with two poems dating from 1952, I have translated the first two paragraphs of an essay he published in Buenos Aires in 1965 which outlines his poetic manifesto.


Aldo Pellegrini: The subversive effect of poetry (extract).

There is a force in man, that comes from the simple fact of living, it conditions his destiny fatally. This force is visible at every turn through the manifestations of love, which tends to transcend the individual in communion with the whole, has its own laws that are irreducible to rational schemes. Poetry appears as an expression of that impulse toward fulfilling a vital destiny, and the inevitability of that fate is revealed in poetry as an indisputable fact. Poetry is not, therefore, an amusement or luxury, but a necessity, just as love is. All other needs, even the most urgent, are subordinate to those two, which ultimately are the two aspects of the same primordial energy that gives true meaning to life. If we penetrate deeply into the meaning of the old saying “Man does not live by bread alone,” we will see that the lucidity of popular wisdom reaches a similar conviction. To go without poetry would be to renounce life.

Considered thus, the poetic exists not only in words; it is a way of acting, a way of being in the world and existing with people and things. Poetic language in its different forms (plastic form, verbal form, musical form) merely objectifies in a communicable manner through the appropriate signs of each particular language, the expansive force of the vital. As a result, the poetic world is in everyone, to the extent that every individual is an integral being. Lautreamont’s clear slogan, “Poetry should be made by everyone,” has no other meaning. Whoever ignores poetry is a mutilated being, as is whoever ignores love.


No subject

He who sings out of not knowing
he who saturated with ignorance
runs along the belly of the dark Fridays
he who throws fingernails into the street
and hides his life in corners
who enraged chews on silence
seeks his subject.

A subject
a subject that changes
a subject that changes with the steam of digestions
a subject illuminated by the glow of parched tongues
a subject pursued by the rumble of empty eyes
the subject of luminous hunger, the subject of the cry of ecstasy
the subject of resounding brows
the subject of ears where words are liquefied.

The eyes out of their sockets
a shaft of light that causes the gaze to bleed
staring in the direction of microscopic subjects
hands outstretched
that reach the final disintegration of subjects.

Subject that changes in a man who doesn’t change
in the cave of subjects, unchanging man
I am condemned by the time of times
to be myself.

*

The spiders’ feast

O so you’ve woken up?
a prodigious morning opens wide the windows
last night’s tree has left a mark
on the skin of your forehead.

Yes, you’ve woken up
shaking off your mantle of cobwebbed sleep
You’ve put to flight the crowd of blind rats
that gnawed at you as you slept.

You’re awake, where you off to now?
you abandon your night wealth for the great void of day
and with pale weakness you build your aimless march.

You’re awake, let’s mount
the narrow stairs to the end of time
there to surprise the lost minutes
life escapees.

No
a sudden discouragement holds you back
before a heavenless space where terrified mists
of inexplicable gentleness
transform those who advance into wind.

Marine algae of hope
pointless hours lurk behind the golden door
words chained to a deep secret
diamond discouragement shines inwardly
those who dare to smile lose their place in the world.

Where’re you off to without me? looking for your solitary feast
your drunkenness of signs and cataracts
your cage of freedom
where unknown friends sup your fluid gestures
and poison glares at you with phosphorescent eyes.
Prepare for your feast
the feast of hands that crush each other
the feast of creaking sweat
there where the lethargy of your flesh
throws itself into a dark dance.

Your feast is the feast of spiders
that ferociously devour your night wealth
to feed their endless misery
there submerged in boundless oblivion
you’ll buy reasons to laugh
You’ll purchase a roar to fill your silence