"Tiepolo's Hound," by Derek Walcott. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 163 pages. $30.
Since light was simply particles in air,
and shadow shared the spectrum, strokes of paint
are phrases that haphazardly cohere
around a point to build an argument
It is no secret that Derek Walcott paints with words. The Nobel laureate who prefers to write in couplets has been called a contemporary Homer. His latest poem reveals yet another talent: He knows his way around a palette.
Doubly blessed is doubly cursed. In "Tiepolo's Hound," his gifts come with mythic obligations. This is, foremost, Walcott's obsessive and epiphanic pilgrimage through Western and Caribbean culture and a winnowing of the roots of his own well-developed vision as an artist.
Read as an extended personal essay on art -- and art's place not just in a painter's life but in the making of human identity -- this is deliciously challenging. Along the way, Walcott tells the story of Impressionism in modern art, and its redefinition of the concepts of paint and light. He uses his pen as though it were a brush, squeezing tints from tenses.
His canvas is a biography of the painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), which he has embellished -- fictionally -- with anguish and ardor. Pissarro: associate of Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin; one of the fathers of the movement beloved now, but reviled in its day. Pissarro: If the name invokes values associated with turn of the century French and European art, Walcott lurks in the garden with a quiver to attack the assumptions.
Walcott, a child of St. Lucia, reclaims Pissarro for the Caribbean of their shared heritage. Pissarro was born a native to St. Thomas. His mother was a Dominican of Spanish ancestry. His father was a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese extraction. His childhood was full of color, sea, palms. But, Walcott insists, Pissarro's Caribbean character arose from geography and culture, not blood.
Then why are so many of our collective memories of fine art the images of chrysanthemum and Italian cypress, and not the bougainvillea and breadfruit tree? Walcott faults Pissarro for succumbing. What must have been Pissarro's interior arguments and his influences?
If Pissarro's choices constitute betrayal, what can be said of Walcott's passion for the work of the masters? He dissects his influences, and rails about clumsy hands, the creep of age and human frailty. His own, and Pissarro's.
And he searches -- in Paris, Venice, Spain, London, in books, in museums -- for the unidentified painting that awakened his understanding of the power of a single, perfect brushstroke. Poignantly, and almost whiningly, he searches for the image: the thigh of a dog, "a hound in astounding light," painted perhaps by Venetian painters Giovanni Tiepolo (1696-1770) or Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). He does not find it, but savors the lesson. And it gives him an engaging title.
If Walcott were not so willing to look beyond his brush, or to use his first gift to reveal the contradictions, frustrations, and even arrogance of the other, "Tiepolo's Hound" would be pure vanity. It is illustrated by 25 full-color reproductions of Walcott's own paintings -- evoking the island images he faults Pissarro for failing to provide.
Lacking reproductions of Pissarro's work, I rushed to the Internet and various art books often, searching for some of the famous paintings and places mentioned in the poem. Even better: Read this in a museum garden, close enough to the paintings to wander over for a closer look between chapters.
Jean Thompson is The Sun's assistant managing editor for staff development. She has been a reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Hartford Courant and -- for 11 years -- The Sun. She collects papers and photographs about African-American history.
Pub Date: 04/02/00