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A beige modern painting by Diane Szczepaniak

A Poem By Wallace Stevens Set To Painting


Painter Diane Szczepaniak made the series Sunday Morning based on verses of the Stevens poem of the same name. This is what happened.

Death is the mother of Beauty.

Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

In the philosophy of Wallace Stevens, any act of intense perception is a kind of poem. And a poem, he says, is created and received as a duration of time. If one accepts the premise that a poem may not be, formally, a poem but a piece of time and an act of intense perception, then the series Sunday Morning by Diane Szczepaniak is an admirable example; a kind of poem.

The series of abstract paintings bases each on a verse of the poem of the same name and which Stevens wrote in 1915. It meets the sophisticated task of not only highlighting the changing experience of each verse but also expresses the theoretical insinuations that Stevens infused in his words. The paintings could be described as parts of a supreme reality fused with imagination, as Stevens always wanted poetry to be understood.

Recently, The Paris Review published an article in which the daughter of Diane Szczepaniak, Marissa Grunes, related how her mother conceived of the series and how abstraction and color branch harmonically with various levels of reality and the fiction of the poem “Sunday Morning.” At first, she says, her mother began by memorizing the poem every night, stanza by stanza, as a kind of ritual. While building each verse in her memory, she began to paint the experience of the images, music and emotions that charge the language. The paintings were converted from this series.

If the purpose of the poet, as conceived by Stevens, is to interpret the external world of thought and feeling through imagination, Szczepaniak does so in a way that is intensively perceptual and also meta-textual. It takes as its source the reality not of the external world but of the poem – which is already filtered by the imagination –, and the result is an abstract refinement that never loses the umbilical connection. As Grunes points out, the paintings “[…] solicit the sort of ardent attention that Stevens pays to textures, colors, smells, and sensations.”

It is true that “Sunday Morning” is one of the most complex poems in the body of Stevens’ work (one that deals with the search for spiritual meaning in the modern era, and where death hovers like a dark transparency over the jovial elements of a Sunday morning); but if this series of paintings fulfills its role to refer us the poem, to read it on the side of each part of the series, then it’s an extraordinary culmination. There are few greater pleasures than to understand something after looking at it with an intellect fused with imagination. Szczepaniak challenges the cursive look we use when reading and highlights that painting can ultimately be the ballroom of the poetic experience.

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