An introductory note on the poem “Ex-Voto” by Dr. Michael Cunningham:
I have been interested in portraiture, artists’ renderings of the human face and figure. And I am interested in self representation, especially in the two forms where it is commonly found: the memoir/autobiography and in paint.
My “Artists at Their Easels” project is a result of the convergence of these two interests. At first the subjects came to me; for a long time I have been familiar with and provoked by the mischievous Rene Magritte’s “Clairvoyance.” The same is true for Jan Vermeer’s “The Artist in His Studio.” I have been fascinated by the photography of Vivian Maier, the North Shore nanny who shot thousands of street scenes in Chicago at the middle of the 20th century, none of which were reproduced until her negatives and proof sheets were discovered at a garage sale in the last decade. I was delight to find that, in some cases, Maier had turned the camera on herself, capturing her fleeting image in a huge department store window.
In other cases, I have deliberately looked for self-portraits in studio settings. I was familiar with the work of British avant-gardist Lucien Freud, but didn’t know that he had done self-portraits until I investigated.
If the limited number of poems that comprise this project can be classified, it would be in this way: poems in which the artist speaks and those in which an observer speaks. In the first category, I am challenged to be a good mind reader, that is, to take what information I may gather about the artist and imagine what he or she might be thinking. The poem about the Frida Kahlo painting shown here is such an instance. My research is not extensive. Though I have seen and enjoyed “Frida,” the 2002 biopic, and have seen a number of exhibits of her work and that of her contemporaries at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, I have not read Hayden Herrara’s biography. I suppose that this leaves me open to the charge of “historical error,” but then complete fidelity is not my goal. The Frida who speaks in this poem is the Frida that I imagine.
In fashioning poems in the second category –- those about viewer responses – I rely on my own engagement with the poems. The speaker in these poems is some version of myself. The voice found in the poem about Vermeer is close to my own. It’s me that finds something intriguing about the use of red, an unusual color in the painter’s palette. The voice that you hear in the poem about the naked and aging Lucien Freud is my own; in the painting I find an image of my own increasingly decrepit form.
Dr. Michael Cunningham is the Director of the Lewis University Arts & Ideas program.