January 21st, 2013

Provide, provide

On one of the recent art threads, commenter “Smock Puppet” offered a link to a sculpture by Rodin entitled “She who Used to Be the Beautiful Heaulmiere”:

The sculpture ‘Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière’ is also known as ‘The old Woman’, ‘The old Courtesan’ and ‘Winter’. In 1884-85, Rodin modeled it after a 82 year old woman named Caira , mother of an Italian model, because he was fascinated by the inevitable decline of human beings with its different mouldings of ugliness and personality. Like for the model of his ‘Man with the Broken Nose’, Rodin found that what we call “…commonly […] ugliness in nature can in art become full of great beauty. […] In art, only that which has character is beautiful. Character is the essential truth of any natural object.”

Here’s the piece itself:


The sculpture was associated with a poem by Villon about vanished beauty and age that begins (English translation):

“Ah, wicked old age
Why have you struck me down so soon?
[You] have stiffened me
so that I cannot strike
And with that kill myself!

When I think, alas! of the good times,
What [I] was, what [I] have become,
When [I] look at myself completely
And I see myself so changed.
Poor desiccated thin, shriveled,
I nearly go mad!…

It probably works better in French, because I have to say that, in English, it’s not much of a poem. I much prefer the English poems I know that begin with the same theme but then take it in another direction.

The French poem is a lot more straightfroward; the woman mourns her lost youth. Okay, we get it. But here’s Yeats’ “Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop,” which leads us into deeper territory:

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.

‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

And then of course there’s Robert Frost, with his deeply cynical “Provide, Provide.” You may not quite recognize the Frost you know here. But it’s Frost, all right:

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag,

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

And why “Abishag”? This is why:

According to the Old Testament, Abishag (Hebrew Avishag אבישג) was a young woman of Shunem, distinguished for her beauty. She was chosen to be a helper and servant to David in his old age. Among Abishag’s duties was to lie next to David and keep him warm; however, David did not have sexual relations with her (1 Kings 1:4).

The theme of tempus fugit is a favorite one for art, and the beauty of the human body is a common exemplar. But clocks will sometimes do:


As for old-fashioned still lifes, they almost always had such a theme, sometimes subtly expressed but sometimes clearly spelled out:

Virtually all still lifes had a moralistic message, usually concerning the brevity of life – this is known as the vanitas theme – implicit even in the absence of an obvious symbol like a skull, or less obvious one such as a half-peeled lemon (like life, sweet in appearance but bitter to taste). Flowers wilt and food decays, and silver is of no use to the soul. Nevertheless, the force of this message seems less powerful in the more elaborate pieces of the second half of the century.

Back then, when it was not unusual for people to die young, it didn’t take as much to remind people of the vanitas theme. They were well aware of it. Fortunately, we have greatly diminished the prevalence of scourges that used to kill younger people so readily, and we have even made old age begin much much older. But time still flies, does it not?

And no, I’m not in an especially morbid frame of mind today. It’s just that when I looked at the photo of Rodin’s “She who Used to Be the Beautiful Heaulmiere” (which I’d never seen before), Frost’s poem immediately popped into my mind. That’s how posts sometimes begin—with a connection between two seemingly disparate things.

12 Responses to “Provide, provide”

  1. Otiose Says:

    Well, when you do start posting in a “morbid frame of mind” I hope you include a warning at the top.

  2. rickl Says:

    You’re trying to avoid talking about the coronation, right? I can’t blame you.

  3. carl in atlanta Says:

    Hah! This is like going back to my old liberal arts college days; reading poems and pulling all-nighters memorizing art history slides.

    Morbid maybe, but I’m enjoying it. Especially the post on prehistoric art ( in a former life long ago I was an anthropology major).

    I say keep them coming; it helps keep the awful Other Thing that happened today out of mind….

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    rickl: nope, wrong!

  5. George Pal Says:

    Hath gloom a limit from which we rebound,
    Or has it depth in which we’re never found?


    To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
    Robert Herrick

    Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
    Old Time is still a-flying;
    And this same flower that smiles today
    Tomorrow will be dying.

    The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
    The higher he’s a-getting,
    The sooner will his race be run,
    And nearer he’s to setting.

    That age is best which is the first,
    When youth and blood are warmer;
    But being spent, the worse, and worst
    Times still succeed the former.

    Then be not coy, but use your time,
    And while ye may, go marry;
    For having lost but once your prime,
    You may forever tarry.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    George Pal: I thought of including that one, too. But the post was getting long.

  7. Ann Says:

    The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., houses one of the casts of this sculputure. I saw it just once there, and it was so unsettling I’ve never forgotten it.

    I always think of Camille Claudel in connection with Rodin because of their love affair. And it’s interesting that she used the model Rodin used for this work for one of her own rather disturbing sculptures, Clotho.

  8. Ann Says:

    Make that “sculpture.”

  9. stu Says:

    neo I admire your breadth of knowledge, particularly as regards the arts.

  10. Victor Krueger Says:

    That sculpture was mentioned and described in Robert A Heinlein’s _Stranger in a strange land_. I have read that novel several times but never saw a picture of the sculpture. Now I have.

  11. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States and some Canadian provinces Says:

    }}} George Pal: I thought of including that one, too. But the post was getting long.

    Never let that stop you, neo. We can always skip to the comments if we’re more in the mood for Short-Attention Span Theatre…

    Funny, I can never hear that poem without thinking of Dead Poet’s Society. I love the scene at the end of that film, it seems to me to be the reason for making that entire movie. It’s a brilliant scene, one of the best in all movies ever made.

  12. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States and some Canadian provinces Says:

    }}} It probably works better in French, because I have to say that, in English, it’s not much of a poem.

    LOL, yeah, some things just don’t work well in translation. The flow of the language is different, tones that carry mood are lost in the word switch (also phoneme coupling and transitions that helps the same is lost). Poetry is too closely related to song.

    Even when you’re not changing the language, things break — I’ve always hated My Fair Lady, not the least of which reason is because Shaw is arguably the second greatest English playwright ever, and changing his cadences and rhythms and flows of language to set them to music can only ruin his work. Even though it is “old style” acting, I am a big fan of the 30s version of Pygmalion. Since Shaw had a strong hand in its adaptation to film (though he was forced to change the end, as I understand), it is a masterpiece of film, easily one of the best films of the 30s.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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