A Song for Turbulent Times: Melissa Dunphy’s “Farewell, Angelina”

A Song for Turbulent Times: Melissa Dunphy’s “Farewell, Angelina”

Reflections on Melissa Dunphy’s Farewell Angelina (2019)

Farewell, Angelina was included on the recital-film project, I take the long way there. For more information about this program, check out my projects.

Bob Dylan (b.1941) & Joan Baez (b.1941)

“Farewell, Angelina” was first recorded by poet, musician, and composer Bob Dylan (b. 1941) as an outtake from the recording session for his 1965 fifth studio album, Bringin’ It All Back Home. Originally recorded under the working title of “Alcatraz to the 5th Power,” Dylan rejected it from the album’s final song list, giving “Farewell, Angelina” to musician, singer, and performer Joan Baez (b. 1941), who was also Dylan’s partner at the time. Throughout his career, Dylan has never performed “Farewell, Angelina” in public, and in interviews, he has often demurred from offering a concrete explanation. In October of 1965, Baez recorded “Farewell, Angelina” for the release of her sixth studio album, and the song’s title eventually became the record’s title. Baez’s album “Farewell, Angelina,” which also included three other Dylan songs, signaled a shift from her prior focus on American folk songs and ballads to a more “contemporary” sound with the inclusion of bass and electric guitar.

“Farewell, Angelina” peaked at # 10 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, and Baez became associated with the song, even more so than Dylan. In the ensuing decades, “Farewell, Angelina” has been famously interpreted by a variety of artists, including Judy Collins, John Mellencamp, the Grateful Dead, and Jeff Buckley.

Folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan during the Civil Rights March on August 28th, 1963 in Washington, D.C.
Album cover for Joan Baez’s Farewell, Angelina (1965)

In Dylan’s “Farewell, Angelina,” its melody was potentially inspired by several sources, including “Farewell to Tarwathie,” a mid-nineteenth-century Scottish ballad by George Scroggie, which in turn inspired the “Wagoner’s Lad,” an American folk song that Baez performed on her second studio album. American cowboy songs from the Lomax Collection, such as “I Ride An Old Paint,” “The Railroad Corral,” and “Rye Whiskey,” may also have played a role in shaping the strophic contour and melodic material of “Farewell, Angelina.” Dylan’s poetry details the mindset of a protagonist’s “everyday love… set against the backdrop of a derailing, unhinged world.” [1] Throughout the six verses of “Farewell, Angelina,” each with nine lines, the protagonist warns Angelina that they must part from one another. With ominous descriptions of the sky’s transformation from on fire, to trembling, to folding, to changing color, to being embarrassed, and then finally, to erupting, a foreboding sense of an imminent apocalyptic event provides the song’s cohesive narrative arc. 

“Farewell, Angelina” performed by Joan Baez
℗ 1990 Vanguard Records, a Welk Music Group Company
Les Surprises et l’Océan (1927) by René Magritte

Beyond the protagonist’s unsettling farewell to Angelina, Michael Gray in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia observes that the remaining imagery in “Farewell, Angelina” is surreal, juxtaposing unrelated images and events to evoke feelings of ambiguity and uncertainty in the listener. Without explanation, a table stands empty by the edge of the sea. A host of card-like characters, jacks, queens, the deuce, and the ace, “forsake the courtyard,” but for what reason is unclear.

Menacing “cross-eyed pirates” shoot tin cans with a sawed-off shotgun as their neighbors gleefully applaud. On nearby rooftops, unique figures materialize; King Kong tangos with “little elves.” The final stanza of “Farewell, Angelina” climaxes with a terrifying hellscape from which the protagonist must flee. Dylan writes,

The machine guns are roaring

The puppets heave rocks

The fiends nail time bombs

To the hands of the clocks

Call me any name you like

I will never deny it

Farewell, Angelina

The sky is erupting

I must go where it’s quiet

It is impossible, however, not to observe the political and cultural critique of the violence, inequality, and corruption within 1965 American society inherent in Dylan’s text. In the year Dylan composed “Farewell, Angelina,” the United States was confronting the effects of the draft, the Vietnam War, as well as the increasing momentum of the civil rights movement. As President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed his vision of America as the “Great Society,” Malcolm X was assassinated in Manhattan. In Selma, Alabama, hundreds of peaceful civil rights protestors, demanding equal voting and Constitutional rights for Black Americans, were brutally beaten by state troopers on Bloody Sunday. Draft cards were burned publicly at anti-war rallies, while the US government increased troop numbers in Vietnam to 125,000, as draft numbers doubled.

As civil and voting rights protests spread across the nation, white supremacist and state-sanctioned violence against civil rights activists escalated. Again, it is difficult not to imagine that the puppets, fiends, pirates, cheering neighbors, and the makeup man who “shut[s] the eyes of the dead not to embarrass anyone” in Dylan’s poetry embody these pro-war, white supremacist factions within American society, who were committed to upholding their twisted vision of the “status quo” at all costs. 

Protesters march against the Vietnam War at the U.S. Capitol on November 15th, 1969
Photo: Associated Press
John Lewis (later U.S. Congressman) is beaten by a state trooper in Selma, Alabama, on March 7th, 1965
Photo: Associated Press

In 2019, composer Melissa Dunphy arranged Farewell, Angelina for solo voice and viola, commissioned by soprano Elise Brancheau for a concert benefiting coLAB Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Brancheau describes her impetus for the commission as follows,

The words, while strange and surreal, seemed to perfectly depict the sense of unrest and violence that fills our world today. The intimacy of the repeated ‘farewells’ to a loved one while the world literally falls apart feels especially poignant; the almost absurd contrast between lines like ‘I’ll see you in awhile’ and ‘the sky is falling’ reminds me of the feeling of wanting to draw inward and deny the frightening things happening around us while also being unable to ignore them. I began imagining what the music would sound like if it reflected the sense of chaos and destruction of Dylan’s poetry, and commissioned Melissa Dunphy to compose such an arrangement for voice and viola.

Protestors gather at the U.S. Capitol to march against police brutality and racial injustice on June 6th, 2020
Photo: Getty Images/AFP/R. Schmidt
Funeral director Omar Rodriguez looks over caskets of those who died from COVID-19 in Queens, New York (2020)
Photo: REUTERS/Bryan R. Smith
Protestors march on Juneteenth across Brooklyn Bridge in support of Black Lives Matter (2020)

Like Brancheau, I was drawn to Dunphy’s arrangement of Farewell, Angelina for both musical and textual reasons. Musically, Dunphy’s setting for voice and viola created a taut dialogue, in which the voice engaged with repetitive text and a strophic melody. In turn, the viola imbued each stanza with its own distinct musical motif, as the repetition of the melody and text coasted above the evolving viola line. Textually, I agreed with Brancheau that Farewell, Angelina “perfectly depict[ed] the sense of unrest and violence that fills our world today.”

I could not help but relate Dylan’s poetry to 2020, the year of the pandemic. It was a year of helplessly watching the number of COVID-19 fatalities in the United States rise to over 565,000 of a global death toll of 2.9 million human beings, the fear and trauma sustained by health care and front-line workers, the loss of jobs, opportunity, and stability for so many, and the powerlessness of having an administration that not only had no plan to save our lives, but filled the airwaves with lies and took no responsibility for their ineptitude, bigotry, and the cruelty of their actions. It was the year of witnessing the brutal killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, which culminated in a summer of sweeping and powerful civil rights protests. It was the year of the presidential election as proponents of active voter suppression, conspiracy theorists, peddlers of misinformation, as well as foreign entities joined forces to undermine our democracy. I find that the hellscape of Dylan’s imagination in “Farewell, Angelina,” although composed over 55 years ago, does not feel so completely surreal considering the past year’s events.

In the week after Thanksgiving, our original plan was to film Dunphy’s Farewell, Angelina on the National Mall amongst the monuments. By connecting this musical work to the Mall’s highly charged historical and political landscape, we wished to be, at least obliquely, in conversation with the cultural critique embedded in Dylan’s poem. We also, though, desired to connect Farewell, Angelina to our experiences creating art and confronting our roles as artists during the pandemic. We wanted this short film to explore our protagonist’s compulsion to create something from their lived experiences during these uncertain times.

For our concept, Flavia, the violist, busks to earn extra money from the scant tourists that still manage to visit the National Mall. As she and I pass through the monuments, we each have a different aim: she, to find her busking spot, and me, to simply take a walk on a sunny day. In doing so, we share the same path, our lives intertwining without our knowledge. I linger, listening to her music-making, and that, in and of itself, bonds us for a moment. As the Capstone plans solidified, however, we encountered COVID-19-related obstacles, and the shoot was cancelled two weeks prior. Still committed to our original concept, we rescheduled the film shoot in Washington DC for the week of January 11th.

Still of violist Flavia Pajaro Van-de Stadt from Farewell, Angelina
Photo: Elizabeth Van Os

Five days prior, on January 6th, 2021, the insurrection at the Capitol occurred. I watched, only a few miles away, as the violence unfolded on television. I felt a mixture of utter sadness and numbness. With little time to reflect on the insanity of our national situation, I turned to the film shoot, scheduled for five days later. Over the next week, National Guard troops amassed in the city by the tens of thousands to ensure a safe and peaceful inauguration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Pro-Trump insurrectionists attack the Capitol Police on January 6th, 2021
Photo: Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

I remember feeling ridiculous: were we really going to push ahead with our creative plans a week after an attempted coup against our government, not to mention the pandemic raging throughout the country? Were we intrepid, or terribly out of touch? I suppose, a combination of both. I am not yet quite sure how to define what we were in that moment, but regardless, we chose to set off for the Mall on January 13th. For safety concerns, however, we did not venture past the Washington Monument. Flavia and I traced a particular path: beginning at the Lincoln Memorial, walking along the Reflecting Pool, past the World War II Memorial, and finishing at the Washington Monument.

Six days later, on January 19th, President-elect Biden would stand on the path we had tread. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, he would mark the first instance of televised national mourning for the loss of 400,000 Americans to COVID-19. Along the Reflecting Pool, lanterns were lit against the backdrop of night falling, representing the lives of those who had died. Vice President-elect Harris, who days later would become the first woman and person of color to hold her national office, spoke, “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together.” [3]

President-elect Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff during a COVID-19 memorial at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool (2021)
Photo: Associated Press

Watch

Farewell, Angelina by Melissa Dunphy from I take the long way there

Notes

  1. Tony Attwood, “Farewell Angelina: How come Bob Dylan never played it again?” Untold Dylan, December 11, 2018, https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/9277. 
  2. Melissa Dunphy, “Farewell, Angelina (2019),” Melissa Dunphy: Composer|Mormolyke Press, https://www.melissadunphy.com/composition.php?id=92.
  3. Associated Press, “Biden Marks Nation’s COVID Grief Before Inauguration Pomp,” U.S. News & World Report, January 19, 2021, https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2021-01-19/biden-harris-take-break-from-inaugural-prep-to-mark-mlk-day.
Singing with Myself: Pandemic Virtual Performance & Melissa Dunphy’s June

Singing with Myself: Pandemic Virtual Performance & Melissa Dunphy’s June

Reflections on Melissa Dunphy’s June (2012)

June was presented as part of the recital-film project, I take the long way there. For more information about this program, check out my projects.

My family and friends will tell you that I am something of a Luddite, never acquiring comfortable fluency with my computer, outside of Internet searches, word processing tasks, and copious albums on Google Photos. As I navigated the beginnings of my career as a freelance artist, however, I reluctantly embraced certain means of marketing myself: a YouTube channel and a website, which I created after being told one too many times that I simply “did not exist” without them.

I must admit that after managing both for over eight years and finding some joy in controlling aspects of public self-representation, I still find these online landscapes overwhelming and insecurity-inducing. I will never be able to fully accept the callous and casual rejection of a “thumbs-down” from a total stranger, who may either completely dislike my work (and feel inclined to anonymously tell me so), or who simply wishes to inform an algorithm of their aesthetic preferences.

Woman turning on a radio (1927)
Photo: Library of Congress

I reveled in live performance because, no matter how much I wished to control, mold, influence, and shape the final product, I was always forced to eventually let it go; the performance did not exist outside of a single moment, and whatever versions of ourselves that my collaborators and I performed for a particular audience, they too dissolved.

As stay-at-home orders fell into place, and Peabody Institute shuttered its doors last March, my musical (and daily) life was inundated with new technology. Suddenly, to function in a virtual realm, I researched microphones, microphone stands, audio interfaces, headphones, audio and video editing programs, not to mention learning about Zoom, Cleanfeed, Soundtrap, Audacity, and DaVinci. I also procured a large pile of wires, some of which would clearly connect to certain machines, and others which are still a complete mystery to me. While many performers were already engaged with technology as an innovative means of creating, amplifying, and disseminating art, I, for better or for worse, had not. Overnight, live performances were cancelled, rehearsals became obsolete; all accompaniment tracks were pre-recorded, and in filming ourselves for various projects, lip synching was the necessary order of the day. Not only did I feel uncomfortable handling this technology, but I was inexperienced with acting for film, lip synching, and the most basic audio and video editing skills. To make matters worse, I loathed listening to recordings of myself, especially after years’ worth of emotional baggage from pre-screening tracks that never seemed quite good enough and were often followed by a stock rejection email. 

View from the car of a rainbow in upstate New York (2021)
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

In July of 2020, as I considered whether to continue virtually with the second year of my Doctoral degree or defer, my voice teacher offered a piece of excellent advice, which I found painful to accept at the time. She advised me that, if I chose to return virtually to our Peabody academic and creative lives, I needed to “buy in” to the experience in whatever way I genuinely could; it would be the best and only means of navigating whatever came next. She did not mean that I would disingenuously always enjoy our latency-riddled lessons, or the fact that I still cannot “share my screen” smoothly for a Zoom presentation without feeling the weight of a classroom’s eyes watching me fumble with my trackpad. She challenged me to see what I could make of a virtual performance world, which was simultaneously confining, confusing, but still full of possibility. The hard truth was that I also no longer had the immature luxury of rejecting it outright. 

Premiered in 2012 at the Voice of this Generation and Network for New Music, June is a two-movement work for voice and looper pedal by Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980) and poet Lauren Rile Smith. As a performer, poet, and founder and producer of Tangle Movement Arts, an all-female aerial dance theater company, Rile Smith describes the interconnected nature of the questions that she explores through her interdisciplinary work as both a poet and aerial artist. These questions often center around queer relationships and “representing bodies… and women and feminism, and what it means to have a body…” [1] In a 2016 interview with Cathy Hannabach for the podcast Imagine Otherwise, Rile Smith details her investment in “depicting female strength and relationships between women…Though this sometimes feels really basic, it also feels deeply essential to us, in part because we live in a world in which relationships between women are underrepresented in media or squashed into stereotypes, even in sometimes places where we would expect to have them made central.”[2]

In June, Rile Smith depicts two distinct visions of the month of June: one in which the protagonist is subsumed by the sweltering room of a house in summer, a veritable “oven” in which the passage of time slows. Surrounded by this sense of stasis, June’s protagonist reflects on what once was, stating, “I go shopping in my own past– those well-worn handles, broken jars, alone with you. Can you let me know, the sound that travels back…” The second poetic segment of June, from which I take the long way there excerpts its title, occurs a year later. The protagonist now finds themselves in nature, contemplating the clouds, trees, and sunset. Time inevitably rushes on, and the cycles of life and death continue. They observe, “The rush of days don’t care about your heart… Where were your words? Now, I am: soundless, happy, another pin on the trestle, spoke on the wheel.”

Hiking in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (2021)
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

In interpreting June, I was drawn to its depiction of these two very distinct states of being, both of which I have experienced over the past year of pandemic life: feelings of monotony, stagnation, powerlessness, deep sadness, a nostalgia for some sort of past self, as well as the grateful escape into nature with my partner and dog, hiking paths together, taking a multitude of walks, and marking time by looking out my window, all of which I took for granted previously.

While June was originally conceived for voice and looper pedal, for the purposes of I take the long way there, I created this rendering of June via looping with myself on Soundtrap, a multi-tracking audio recording platform, which I learned to use over this past year. Musically, June represents one of my attempts at “buying in” to a virtual performance life. It also flatly broke me of my pessimistic inability to listen to my own recorded voice, since I spent hours considering loops upon loops of myself. Ultimately, June serves as the first opportunity I have ever had to sing with myself.

Watch

June by Melissa Dunphy
Movement i
Movement ii

Notes

  1. Cathy Hannabach, “Imagine Otherwise: Lauren Rile Smith on Feminist Circus Art,” Ideas on Fire, March 9, 2016, https://ideasonfire.net/5-lauren-rile-smith/.
  2. Hannabach, “Imagine Otherwise.”
  3. Melissa Dunphy, “June,” bandcamp, https://melissadunphy.bandcamp.com/album/june.
An Ancient Poet Speaks: Finding the Voice of Sulpicia

An Ancient Poet Speaks: Finding the Voice of Sulpicia

Reflections on Jessica Krash’s Sulpicia’s Songs (2015)

Sulpicia’s Songs was featured on the film-recital project, I take the long way there. For more information about the repertoire on this program, check out my projects.

“And of course, Sulpicia won – here we are, 2,000 years later, hearing her words and thinking about her!”

Jessica Krash

Sulpicia (c. 40 BCE – date of death unknown)

Woman with Stylus (“Sappho”), c. 50 CE
Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

Born c. 40 BCE, Sulpicia was a noblewoman, who lived during the Augustan Age of the Roman Empire. As the legal ward of her uncle Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus (64 BCE – 8 CE), a military commander to Emperor Augustus and patron of an eminent literary salon, which included the famed elegiac poet Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BCE – c .19 BCE), scholars believe that Sulpicia was literate and well-educated. Corpus Tibullianum, a renowned collection of Latin poetry, may have been deliberately assembled to represent the literary works of the poetry salon under Messalla’s patronage. Divided into four books, Books I and II of the Corpus consist entirely of love elegies attributed to the poet Tibullus. 

The Augustan love elegy was composed of couplets of hexameter and pentameter, or groups of six and five poetic feet. As a Latin poetic form, the Augustan elegy was deeply indebted to the poet Catullus (c. 84 BCE – c. 54 BCE), who filled his verses with personal observation and emotion. He embraced the idea of a “subjective” poetic narrator, in which the poet writes from their own perspective about love, relationships, and desire, employing pseudonyms for their real, and sometimes imagined, love interests.

In Corpus Tibullianum’s third book, six love elegies are attributed to Sulpicia as author and poet. She details a clandestine romantic relationship with Cerinthus, her lover under pseudonym, and she boldly expresses her desire throughout the myriad turns of their relationship, which may have been upended by a difference in social rank within Roman society.  As we meet Sulpicia for the first time, she prays to Venus to “gift” her the perfect lover: Cerinthus. She claims, perhaps naively, that with the god’s blessing, they will be forever united. Triumphantly, Sulpicia longs to tell the world of her love, writing, “How I’d hate to keep what I’ve written under seal where none could read me sooner than Cerinthus.” [1] In the second elegy, with her prayers now answered, Sulpicia becomes furious with her Uncle Messalla for organizing a household trip to his country estate on her birthday. She vents that her celebration will be ruined without Cerinthus, who remains in Rome.

In the third elegy, with a sudden reversal of fortune, Sulpicia is permitted to remain in the city for her birthday. She plans to celebrate with Cerinthus, who, once skeptical of their relationship, should now be assured of her devotion. The fourth elegy marks dissolution: Sulpicia and Cerinthus’ relationship has ended. As she bitterly observes him with another, Sulpicia’s wounded pride and classist prejudice overwhelm her. By the fifth elegy, we are left to wonder: has the couple reunited? Sulpicia is now sick with fever, and she waits to hear from Cerinthus, interpreting his silence as lack of interest. At the sixth and final elegy, Sulpicia meets Cerinthus secretly once again, but ultimately departs, “favoring as I did that once to hide my own fire.” [2] Sulpicia worries that, by guarding her own emotions and desires, she has forfeited her relationship. In this moment, Sulpicia’s six love elegies conclude abruptly, leaving the audience to imagine the couple’s fate. Sulpicia’s date of death is unknown, and after the publication of the Corpus Tibullianum, she completely disappears from the historical archive.  

In her seven-song cycle Sulpicia’s Songs (2015) for voice and piano, composer Jessica Krash sets to music modern English translations of Sulpicia’s Augustan love elegies by writer, translator, and scholar Mary Maxwell. In constructing a seventh song with text from Sulpicia’s first elegy to conclude the overall cycle, Krash and Maxwell arguably engage in an act of reclamation, envisioning a musical resolution to Sulpicia’s story, one in which she and Cerinthus find some semblance of happiness together. As a personal, interpretive gesture in retaining the historical ambiguity of Sulpicia’s “end,” I take the long way there excerpts six of the cycle’s seven songs in their original order. Through film, we imagine each of Sulpicia’s elegies as a portrait, preserved within its historical frame, yet also as a living representation.

Flora (Women with Flowers), from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy
Women Reclining (c. 1-79 CE), from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy
Women Painting (c. 55-79 CE), from the House of the Surgeon at Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

As visual inspiration, we gathered images of Roman noblewomen, collected by the National Archeological Museum of Naples, from various Roman frescoes in Pompeii, Italy. They depict a host of activities: women gathering with one another, writing with stylus and tablet, painting, preparing their toilette, and gathering flowers. While these frescoes were constructed over a century after Sulpicia’s lifetime, the images still provide a fascinating visual context in which to imagine our protagonist and her environment, especially since no single artefact of Sulpicia’s likeness has survived.

Woman Looking in Mirror, from the Villa of Arianna at Stabia, Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Naples, Italy

The story of Sulpicia, however, does not end on the papyrus scrolls of the Corpus Tibullianum. From the sixteenth century until the present day, criticism of Sulpicia’s verses within the field of Classical studies has attempted to negate her contributions as author and poet. Wielding a gamut of gendered arguments, critics claim that her poetry was conceived by a male author in her uncle’s circle, or allege that, if a Roman female author indeed created the poems, they remain amateur in construction and expression. Since the 1980’s, however, Classical feminist critique has wholly rejected the erasure of Sulpicia’s authorial voice through research and analysis into the literary output of women in ancient Rome. To this day, Sulpicia’s six love elegies remain the only extant examples of Roman Latin poetry by a female author. 

Sulpicia’s Songs envisions an embodied Sulpicia, manifesting the joys and sorrows of her romantic life. Through her own words, Sulpicia’s voice occupies a liminal space between antiquity and our present world. As song cycle, Sulpicia’s Songs operates as a vital contribution in support of feminist critical attempts to reclaim Sulpicia’s personhood, as it textually and musically reframes and performs her first century poetic voice through the perspectives of twenty-first century creative women as translator, composer, and performer.

Watch

Sulpicia’s Songs by Jessica Krash
Eric Sedgwick, piano

i. At last, it’s come
ii. The hated birthday approaches
iii. Did you hear?
iv. I’m grateful
v. Fever
vi. No longer care for me
vii. Let it be known! (piano only)

Notes

  1. Mary Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 83-87.
  2. Maxwell, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry, 83-87.
Self-Portraits of Desire: Louise de Vilmorin & Gwen John

Self-Portraits of Desire: Louise de Vilmorin & Gwen John

Reflections on Francis Poulenc’s Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin

Francis Poulenc’s Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin was performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, check out my projects.

Louise de Vilmorin (1902-1969)

Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin by Cecil Beaton
Photo: National Portrait Gallery – London
Portrait by Cecil Beaton (1940’s)
Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London

Louise de Vilmorin, the French heir of a seed fortune dating to the reign of Louis XIV, had a private life which often eclipsed her recognition as a poet, novelist, and journalist. Vilmorin is often remembered more for her string of high-profile marriages and lovers, as well as her chic fashion sense, than the impact of her writing.

From the 1930’s through the 1960’s, she had well-documented affairs with powerful men: author of The Little Prince and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, actor and filmmaker Orson Welles, aristocrat Count Paul Esterházy de Galántha, British ambassador Duff Cooper, and French Cultural Affairs Minister and author André Malraux. She also married Las Vegas real-estate heir Henry Leigh Hunt and Hungarian playboy Count Paul Pálffy ab Erdöd.

Carrying herself with a slight limp due to childhood tuberculosis of the hip and dressed in designs by Azzedine Alaïa, Jeanne Lanvin, and Christian Lacroix, Vilmorin epitomized a certain French aristocratic charm, elegance, and razor-sharp wit. She was a complicated figure; although she believed feminists to be a “herd of vain she-asses,” questioned why young women would wear pants, and thought women who rejected using their “feminine” charms in society as “worringly pretentious,” she applied the same bruising commentary to her relationships with men, stating “I have no faith in my fidelity.” [1]

In her thirties, she began to write, publishing her first novel Sainte-Unefois in 1934. In all, Vilmorin published fifteen works of fiction, five poetry collections, and a series of society and culture articles for the magazine Le Promeneur. As a poet, she was encouraged in her writing by composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), who read Aux Officiers de la Garde Blanche in 1935, after Vilmorin gifted the poem to their mutual friend, French soprano Marie-Blanche de Polignac. Poulenc insisted that Vilmorin compose more poems, and their interaction resulted in the texts for Poulenc’s Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin, which he set in 1937.

Comparing Vilmorin to the likes of Paul Éluard and Max Jacob, both celebrated poets in the Symbolist and Surrealist movements, Poulenc wrote, “Few people move me as much as Louise de Vilmorin: …because she writes French of an innate purity, because her name evokes flowers and vegetables, because she loves her brothers like a lover and her lovers like a sister. Her beautiful face recalls the seventeenth century, as does the sound of her name.” [2]

I recall Vilmorin’s lengthy list of relationships because I find in Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin a potential self-portrait of the poet herself: an addict to the spontaneity of desire, to the come-what-may attitude, she will always throw herself head-first at love despite the glaring pitfalls. In “Le garçon de Liège,” Vilmorin handles her “ennui” with visits from the boy from Liège, “who won’t be caught in a trap” and floats in and out of her life. “Au‑delà” describes Vilmorin’s relationship to desire, which she flippantly views as a game of pleasure that ends in a sigh; she prizes the lover who makes her laugh. In the final song of the cycle, “Aux Officiers de la garde blanche,” Vilmorin pleads with the White Guard to protect her from an all-consuming attraction, writing, “Spare me the torment of pain/ Of loving him more one day than I do today.” As a set, Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin detail the poet’s own ambivalence towards intimacy, and she wryly keeps others at arm’s length as a means of self-preservation.

Francis Poulenc (1922) by Joseph Rosmand, Photo: J. & W. Chester, London

Watch

Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin by Francis Poulenc
Eunchan Kim, piano

i. Le garçon de Liége
ii. Au-delà
iii. Aux officiers de la Garde Blanche

Gwen John (1876-1936)

Gwen John by Bassano (1928)

Who is Gwen John, and how does she figure into the poetry of Louise de Vilmorin? Although they have no direct connection, except in my imagination, intersections exist between John and Vilmorin.

John was born in Wales, and later moved to London in 1895 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art with her younger brother, Augustus, who developed into the pre-eminent portrait painter of Western Europe after World War I. His creative output and public career significantly overshadowed Gwen’s work throughout her lifetime.

In 1899, she relocated to Paris, studying with James Whistler at his Académie Carmen. Her self-portrait, Gwen John, is a product of this period, as she stares dryly, even defiantly, from the canvas, her hand on her hip. John returned to London, where she presented a joint exhibition with her brother at the Carfax Gallery; he showed forty-five paintings, while Gwen showed three. In 1904, she moved to France permanently, settling in Paris, where she supported her artistic work by modeling for other artists, such as sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). They fell in love, and their affair lasted for more than a decade.

Attracted to both men and women, Gwen was passionate in her relationships, producing 2,000 fervent letters to Rodin. As their relationship dwindled in 1913, she converted, also ardently, to Roman Catholicism, painting portraits of the nuns at the local convent in Meudon, the suburb of Paris where she lived. Since Gwen financed her career through the sale of her paintings, she was able to forego modelling. American art collector John Quinn first met her in Paris, and from 1910 until his death in 1924, he purchased every work that she produced for sale. After Quinn’s death, however, Gwen suffered financially, and her artistic output decreased significantly. With the reputation of a recluse, she lived alone, producing self-portraits, portraits of women and girls, still-lives, and occasional landscapes. Considered a post-Impressionist, John used a muted, earth tone palette, creating small, square canvases, where her subjects often sat with their hands in their laps at a three-quarter profile. Gwen died in obscurity in Dieppe, France, and her grave was not identified until 2014.

Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford (1902)
Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Over the past ten years, there has been a significant resurgence of interest in her life and a recontextualization of the unique and eccentric qualities of her paintings, apart from her relationships with Augustus John and Auguste Rodin. Gwen John wrote to painter Ursula Tyrwhitt, “As to whether I have anything worth expressing, that is apart from the question. I may never have anything to express, except this desire for a more interior life.” [3]

Self-Portrait (1907-1909) by Gwen John

For me, Gwen John and Louise de Vilmorin share a kinship, since historical narratives about both women have focused on their affairs and associations, instead of their artistic expressions of an “inner life.” Both artists fiercely sought self-expression, although in distinct ways. Vilmorin was an aristocrat and socialite, while John was a religious recluse. As we weave Vilmorin’s words through John’s self-portraits, a woman appears. She displays a bold and unflinching gaze as both the observer and the observed. She molds her body’s likeness in the world; she devises representations from her own image; she defines her own desires.

Notes

1. Christopher Petkanas, “Chichi Devil.” The New York Times. February 19, 2009. Accessed November 21, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/22/style/tmagazine/22vilmorin.html.
2. Graham Johnson, Liner notes to Francis Poulenc: The Complete Songs, Hyperion Records, CD (2012).
3. Maria Tamboukou, “Mapping Gwen John.” In Nomadic Narrative, Visual Forces: Gwen John’s Letters and Paintings. (London: Peter Lang, 2010), 2.