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E.E. Cummings: To My Valentine
When Edward Estlin Cummings met Marion Morehouse in 1932, he was in the middle of a painful split from his second wife, Anne Barton. But loss soon gave way to what Cummings later described as "an ecstatic arrival." This was Marion.
Morehouse was tall and thin, of Choctaw Indian ancestry, with brown eyes and a narrow face like a Modigliani. Edward Steichen called her "the greatest fashion model [he] ever shot." Aside from Steichen, she was a favorite of Cecil Beaton and French Vogue's Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, and was frequently featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair in the late 20s and early 30s. After her modeling career ended, she took up photography herself (Cummings supplied the text for Morehouse's Adventures in Value, published the year he died.)
The Library's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection has nine crayon and oil valentines, fashioned by Cummings for his wife. Most of these feature Cummings's signature totem, the elephant. In several of these, laughing elephants balance hearts on their noses, as if performing a circus trick. In an oil evoking the color palette of Indian painting, an elephant floating on a greenish-yellow cloud waves a banner spelling out "Love" against a deep cerulean blue. Nearly all are addressed, "To My Valentine."
The elephant had long been Cummings's favorite animal, and he had drawn them since boyhood. Cummings biographer Richard Kennedy attributes the poet's interest in elephants to early readings with his father of Kipling's The Jungle Book. The Berg Collection has over a dozen books from the Morehouse estate inscribed by Cummings's to his wife. In many of his dedications to Marion, the elephant reappears. A Berg Collection first edition of Cummings's Eimi features a tiny elephant holding a "love" banner, and is inscribed "For Marion Morehouse."
Cummings's valentines were only one expression of his considerable output as a visual artist. During the teens and 20s, The Dial published some of his abstract paintings, along with numerous drawings and caricatures. In a manuscript draft of a memorial piece written by Marianne Moore forThe Dial, available in the Berg Collection's Dial Papers, Moore compares the strokes of these early abstract works to "Chinese calligraphy which does not hesitate."
A second phase of artistic development brought more representational artwork — portraits, landscapes, nudes — complicated by a more experimental technique, and a more mature aesthetic. The Berg Collection has several examples of Cummings's artwork from this period. In an untitled portrait of Marian Morehouse, Cummings paints Morehouse in profile, with her eyes closed. His bold lines emphasize her long sloping neck, high cheekbones, and arched eyebrows. His subject looks both completely at rest, and yet simultaneously tense with energy.
An untitled country scene where a dark blue sky and horizon are obscured by a snowstorm of pink, white, red, and green splashes of paint, recollects the Fauvists. It also calls to mind Fairfield Porter's comment in his essay "The Paintings of E.E. Cummings" that Cummings used both words and paint sensuously and for impact, rather than meaning.
In 1949, Cummings's paintings were exhibited by the American British Art Center in New York. The rare program for the exhibition begins with an imaginary transcript of an interview between Cummings and an interviewer. Both parts are written by Cummings himself. An excerpt follows below, and offers a little-known commentary by the artist on his own work:
Tell me, doesn't your painting interfere with your writing?
Quite the contrary: they love each other dearly.
They're very different.
Very: one is painting and one is writing.
But your poems are rather hard to understand, whereas your paintings are so easy.
Of course--you paint flowers and girls and sunsets; things that everybody understands.
I never met him.
Did you ever hear of nonrepresentational painting?
I am a painter, and painting is nonrepresentational.
Not all painting.
No: housepainting is representation.
And what does a housepainter represent.
Ten dollars an hour.
In other words, you don't want to be serious--
It takes two to be serious--
Well, let me see...oh yes, one more question: where will you live after this war is over?
In China; as usual.
Whereabouts in China?
Where a painter is a poet.
And one additional Berg Collection valentine of note: The Berg Collection's Kerouac Papers include a homemade valentine card created in 1933 by 13 year-old Jack Kerouac for his mother, Gabrielle, in the shape of a tombstone.