The lyrical nature of T.S. Eliot’s words continue to resonate well into the 21st century, and, in the case of one Gloucester artist, inspire.
Bruce Herman is not alone in his attraction to the work of the 20th century poet. Herman attended a dinner party with friends in New York City four years ago when the conversation encompassed a shared fascination and affinity for Eliot’s masterpiece, “Four Quartets,” written in 1943 during World War II.
That animated discussion inspired the massive musical and artistic collaboration “QU4RTETS,” so named in reference to Eliot’s provocative work, which is actually a suite of four poems. Besides Herman, the artistic friends included internationally acclaimed artist Makoto Fujimura, Yale musician Christopher Theofanidis, and Duke professor, theologian and pianist Jeremy Begbie.
The depth of Eliot’s words, which some of the friends had committed to memory, propelled the artists to paint canvasses and create music in this collaboration now on tour. It comes to Gordon College in Wenham this Saturday after stops at Baylor University, Duke University, Carnegie Hall and Yale University, and before traveling internationally.
“This is a rare opportunity to work with gifted artists who are also friends in response to one of the 20th century’s greatest poems,” said Herman, an art professor who serves as gallery director and Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts at Gordon College in Wenham.
The April 13 event starts with a public reception at 4 p.m. followed by a panel discussion at 5 p.m. during which portions of an original score for piano and string quartet, titled “At the Still Point,” will be played.
“In our collaboration, we are addressing an old painterly tradition: the four seasons and four stages of life, implicit in Eliot’s poem,” Herman said. “I’ve tried to interact directly with Eliot’s use of the four elements — earth, air, fire and water — to create a set of meditations on death and resurrection while pointing toward a mysterious fifth element (quintessence).”
Herman described the exhibit as a “communion of art, music, poetry and time.”
Eliot (1888-1965), who was born and raised in St. Louis, Mo., has a connection to Cape Ann, having summered on the prestigious Eastern Point where his family built a large home. He was an avid sailor. The Harvard-educated Eliot had previously attended Milton Academy. He would leave New England to settle in England, where he became a British citizen in the land of his ancestors.
Always a man of letters, Eliot studied philosophy in college, and that interest becomes evident in the poem. The opening lines read as follows:
“Time present and time past
“Are both perhaps present in time future
“And time future contained in time past.
“If all time is eternally present
“All time is unredeemable.”
Herman has been reading the poem since he was a graduate student. His artistic mentor, Philip Guston (1913-1980), introduced him to “Four Quartets.” Guston, a noted 20th century American artist, painted works inspired by the poem.
Herman said Eliot’s use of language first and foremost captured his attention.
“The beauty of the language and the imagery are rich. When you read it out loud, it’s rather musical,” said Herman, adding that there is a paradoxical and mysterious quality to the language.
Herman recommends reading it out loud first, a couple of times, before trying to delve into its depths.
“It’s deeply philosophical. The phrases are emotionally packed. It deals with the passage of time, mortality and memory. He’s evoking enigmatic memories,” said Herman.
The four parts to the quartet are named “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” East Coker is the name of a British village that Eliot’s ancestors came from and Little Gidding is a village of Cambridge, England.
The third poem, “The Dry Salvages” is named after the rocky outcrop off Cape Ann, which Eliot notes is pronounced similarly to the word “assuages.” The words are evocative of the sea. One stanza reads:
“It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
“The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
“And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
“Many gods and many voices.”
Herman said that evening conversation in Manhattan years ago continues to bear fruit in continued conversations about the nature of the human existence.
Before this collaboration, both Herman and Fujimura had done paintings in response to the poetic quartet.
Herman completed both his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in painting at Boston University School for the Arts. His work has shown internationally, and is featured in public and private collections including the Vatican Museum of Modern Religious Art in Rome, The Cincinnati Museum of Fine Arts and the Hammer Museum Grunwald Print Collection in Los Angeles.
Fujimura’s work is also exhibited at galleries around the world. A presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003 to 2009, Fujimura served as an international advocate for the arts, and is one of the first artists to paint live on stage at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Theofanidis holds degrees from Yale, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Houston. The prize-winning musician has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, six ASCAP Gould Prizes, a Fulbright Fellowship to France and a Tanglewood Fellowhship. In 2007, he was nominated for a Grammy for best composition for his chorus and orchestra work, “The Here and Now,” based on the poetry of Rumi.
“QU4RTETS” will be on view until May 1 at Gordon College’s Barrington Center for the Arts (Exit 17 from Route 128) from Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is free to the public. For more information, visit http://www.gordon.edu/qu4rtets.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reflecting Eliot What: "QU4RTETS," an exhibit of art of music inspired by T.S.Eliot's "Four Quartets. When: Saturday, April 13, public reception with the artists at 4 p.m., followed by discussion and music performances at 5 p.m. The exhibit is open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., until May 1. Where: Gordon College's Barrington Center for the Arts (Exit 17 from Route 128) in Wenham. How much: Free.