Pursuing the Elusive Whole: Ashley Haywood Reviews ‘3 Painters: Collected Works Volume 5’ by John Watson

Three Painters: Collected Works Volume 5 by John Watson Puncher and Wattmann 2014

three_paintersAlbert Marquet, Pierre Bonnard and Max Beckmann are early modernist artists who have in common a resistance to categorisation. Belonging for a time with the Paris-based Fauves, Marquet would go on to forge his own artistic path into outlier-wilderness with an obsession for coastal waters. After a time, Bonnard took a couple of side steps from Les Nabis, and went his own way, too. As for Beckmann, his artistic associations are, more or less, for the sake of comparison and art history, verist, anti-Romantic, Neue Sachlichkeit. However, we can imagine all three of them crossing paths in Paris, perhaps via Henri Matisse, with whom they each shared a friendship.

John Watson’s collection Three Painters brings these three artists together in three parts: ‘The Invisible Albert Marquet’, ‘Bonnard’ and ‘Carnival: 40 Max Beckmann Poems’. Suites of ekphrastic poems on the subjects of Marquet and Beckmann bookend a lengthy, middle prose poetry engagement with Bonnard and his paintings.

Resonating in each part’s distinctiveness are concepts: to visit and revisit, arrival and departure, glimpses and residues, completeness and incompleteness, ‘diverse harbours’, ‘diverging impulses’—complexity. ‘Fragments, interludes, tropes, anecdotes, sketches’ become more than the sum of their parts in this poetry collection.


Watson’s ekphrasitic engagement with Marquet’s ink sketches is introduced as a ‘loose collection of glimpses’: fictionalised biographical fragments based on ‘a detail or incident’ in the life of Marquet, a painter-traveller. From the opening long poem Sketches in Ink the reader is drawn into Watson’s pursuit of Marquet in pursuit of his always-elusive subject:

… The waves appear to be doing something
They’ve never ever quite precisely done before.

This surely must validate the endless attempts
To capture them in a few strokes …

Marquet’s flight is always to the next coastline, seaport, dockside or harbour. Seaside brothels continually promise shoreline subjects, as voiced by Marquet’s wife, Marcelle Matinet, in ‘Marcelle Enters the Picture’:

In Marseilles the brothel is near the water.
His subject is accordingly the fluidity of form
And its arrest in fitful moments of stillness,
Waves which curl and slide under one another.

We follow the rapid-sketching Marquet as he journeys—often by train—back and forth across most of Europe and North Africa. Marquet’s voice is also employed which gives breathing space to this restless pursuit, for example, again from ‘Marcelle Enters the Picture’:

… It’s late. I haven’t drawn a single line
That’s not expendable. But the window without curtains
Gives upon the harbour. Therefore, Yvonne, if you
Would stay like a mirror reflecting the snow
I’ll draw instead the seawater turning to ice.

Bodies are given the qualities of water in all its forms: they are ‘flesh-toned water’, things that ‘wake and turn entwining … like a stream’. Cephalopodan bodies—‘Within, the gaslight shines / Darkly white on white reflecting bodies / Requiring pen and ink’—also foretell what more like this is to come when we reach Beckman and his ocean.

In ‘Marquet’, and throughout, terrestrial landscapes are enveloped in aqueous metaphors, wherein they mingle (‘Hydrangea blue or hydra blue’) and become something singularly terraqueous: ‘Fields like harbours and harbours like fields’ or ‘The water / Is like a ploughed field’.

Watson’s concept of the poetic ‘glimpse’ evolves with Bonnard, but with Marquet it’s like catching a glimpse of the sea from a train window before the landscape quickly rushes in to obscure the view.

As we embark for Watson’s Bonnard, there may even be some anguish or admiration felt for this characterisation of Marquet who is so obsessed with coastal waters (and light)—who, furthermore, ‘delights in reacting’ to these subjects that epitomise the certainty of change.

Watson’s Marquet is less invisible than he is seemingly always a step-ahead, chasing change, while giving chase—‘And vanishing into the woods / Of ships tied up at anchor’—which can be a pleasure for the reader-in-pursuit.


On arrival at the subject of Bonnard, we encounter a new narrative voice. Contrast to pursuing Marquet, the narrator is inviting and forthcoming, very much like T.S. Eliot’s Prufock: ‘Let us go then, you and I’. And so we go into the ‘middle ground’ of Bonnard’s paintings: into ‘echoes, revelation, playful asides, forgetful lapses, abrupt transitions’. These modes of thought are proffered to the reader in the form of an admirer and storyteller’s ‘journal’, ‘written over a long period of intoxication with the paintings of Bonnard’, and in the style of prose poetry (for the most part).

With the narrator, we visit and revisit symbols—Bonnard and his paintings, oranges, flowers, water, weather, harbours, momentum itself, for example. Subjects or objects or ideas are sites of poetic reiteration, sites of telling and retelling, points of continual arrival and departure, where what has come before is added on to, allowing for an almost fractal-like narrative to emerge.

As the narrator claims: ‘ I conceived the idea …[to] make repeated attempts on the same subjects’. Or, in other words, allow for things to ‘grow in the telling’. This driving concept, or philosophy that embraces complex emergence, is explicit in the narrator’s storytelling; take, for example, this extract from the prose poem ‘Winter Days’:

There were days in winter where only ideas ventured out. While everything else struggled just to maintain the sum of its parts—the assailed garden, rooms with closed doors—ideas conspired to something vastly greater … They did not go outside all day and during the morning Pierre mixed a particularly warm vermilion laced with Naples yellow and spent much of the day finding places to use it up.

Watson’s philosophising narrator makes excellent use of Bonnard anecdotes, which, in a way, led to keys for the writer to enter the ‘middle ground’ of Bonnard’s paintings. Two anecdotes: Bonnard struggled to be in ‘the presence of the subject’, preferring to paint away from his subjects, and the artist also had a ‘habit of returning to paintings after many years’. With these anecdotes, the concept of the ‘glimpse’ as a key, for example, seems to grow or evolve with Bonnard and with his desire to detach from his subjects.

Watson’s narrator attempts, then, to deal with the subject, ‘glancingly, tangentially’, to leave it ‘intact, untouched almost’, preserving what was while it, at the same time, ‘takes us further on, away’. In other words, ‘residues’ of meaning are carried from one place to another (as in metaphor) toward the ever shifting ‘borders of the inexpressible … like things always about to be!’ As the narrator discovers: ‘Such … is the achievement of Bonnard—the preservation of possibility!’ The narrator returns to Bonnard’s paintings, revelling in his new discoveries with each viewing, similar to Rainer Maria Rilke’s experience with Paul Cézanne’s paintings in ‘Letters on Cézanne’.

Yes, falling apart at absolutely every point. Yes, falling apart like the distant vista of mountain slopes dropping down as we reach the top of the commanding hill. Yes, falling apart like the expanding universe celebrating the widening gaps between things. Like leaps of affection between objects.

As for Bonnard’s fetish for incompleteness—‘ he even carried a little paint-box with him to galleries or the homes of friends where he would discreetly add touches of colour to paintings sold or given away years before’—further gives the narrator cause to celebrate symbols’ potential for growth.

This is not the end. ‘Bonnard’ is concluded with an interlude: a narrative about a growing friendship between two characters, Barnard and Brunel, and the influence each has on the other’s philosophical thinking, thinking which is in vein of the mathematical and metaphysical philosophy sustaining ‘Bonnard’. This interlude is like a summary, but more like a new layer or outgrowing—and a delightful reading experience, wherein Watson settles most into his storytelling and philosophy.


We return to water with the Beckmann poems, ‘hovering between approach and retreat’, seeking the ‘inwardness’ the painter seeks, and maybe the ‘everything and nothing’ of a brushstroke.

Of the three ekphrastic engagements, Watson’s suite of poems with Beckmann were written the fastest over the course of, what I imagine to be, a feverish month. We are slowly taken further from watercourses and harbours, out into deeper womb-like waters, and ‘down into the realms of dreams and art’ and myth.

Beckmann’s character speaks: ‘I’m painting still lifes / Landscapes, beautiful women, visions of cities rising from the sea’. As like stage curtains, Watson parts these Debussy-like spectacles to enter behind the scene. We come to Beckmann-inspired sensations. The poem Pretty stands out to me as a poem about desiring to enter the sensation of painting:

We’re talking here about a pretty
Severe case of
We’re talking here about a pretty severe case

Of wanting to be where
Willingly compliant otherness –
I mean ocean-wave-waving nakedness –

Is like a sentient valley with uplands and fields;
We’re talking here about his wanting
To be part of, to enter, many abstract nouns

And to regard them as objects of desire,
Of his wanting
Of wanting to be where the action is.

The following quote is attributed to Beckmann: lf you wish to get hold of the invisible, you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible. ‘All over the midnight blue water’ there are sea-creatures and ‘dolphins bearing women, the men / Riding white swans into a squall’, women straddling birch on Walpugis Night, ‘Calypso walking on the water’, where ‘The half-naked siren must remain’. Watson’s ekphrasis attempts to plunge into momentum, happening, the interval between approach and retreat with a carnival of Beckmann symbols.


Watson’s poetry and prose poetry is at its best and most inventive when he fully embraces narrative and his painter-subjects as characters—when his philosophy courses between his words with ease. This was my experience, for the most part, of this collection Three Painters. Additionally, ‘Bonnard’ is an experimental mode of ekphrasis and an excellent resource for interested readers. Watson’s ‘Bonnard’ is a creative meditation on the ekphrastic performance (‘out-speaking’, ‘pointing-out’), the relationship between writing and painting, and the concept that objects evolve with each ‘telling’—what ekphrasis in itself demonstrates. ‘Life is the sum of distracting contingencies’: with glimpses, glances and residues, Watson pursues this elusive ‘whole’, (more than) the sum of distracting contingencies and possibilities that a painter holds in their brushstroke.

 – Ashley Haywood


Ashley Haywood is a writer with work published in Australia and performed in the streets of Paris. Recently, she received a PhD with her thesis Harlequin Blue and The Picasso Experiment. Most recently, her writing appears in Spineless Wonders’ anthology Out of Place. She also paints with pigments collected in her travels. Ashley currently lives between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

3 Painter: Colledted Works Volume 5 is available from  http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/three-painters


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