Saturday, January 28, 2006

Withy Intertextuality: All the World's a Text

I mentioned this 1926 painting by Max Ernst (1891–1976) in a previous Bitter Withy post:

The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses: A.B., P.E. and the Artist

This oil-on-canvas painting measures over 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide (77 1/4 x 51 1/4 in. (196 x 130 cm)) and hangs in Cologne's Museum Ludwig.

I've borrowed the image from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Köln© 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris).

As I noted in the previous post referring to this painting, the well-known art critic Leo Steinberg wrote a remarkable letter on "Max Ernst's Blasphemy" to the New York Review of Books (Volume 52, Number 14, September 22, 2005) noting the connection between Ancient and Medieval infancy gospels, the Bitter Withy folk song, and high-art figures as Max Ernst and André Breton, both of whom depicted Mary spanking the child Jesus.

Concerning Breton, Steinberg asks:
"Is there a French cognate to the English carol? Had its irreverence somehow infected André Breton, who suggested the subject of the chastising Virgin?"
Interesting question. Does anybody know the answer to this?

By the way, I'm not the only blogger interested in The Bitter Withy and its link to other things. A certain Englishman not in New York, Laban Tall -- whose Blogger Profile identifies "Agriculture" as his "Industry" -- maintains a blog titled UK Commentators and has noted the link between Max Ernst's famous painting and The Bitter Withy -- perhaps also alerted to it by Leo Steinberg's letter?

Interestingly, Tall provides a variant on the song, which I suppose is also in the public domain (or sue me):
As it fell out on a high holiday
Sweet rain from heaven did fall,
Our Saviour asked his mother Mary mild
If he might play at ball.

"At ball, at ball, my own dear son
It's time that you were gone
And don't let me hear of the games of youth
At night when you return."

So it's up the hill and down the hill
Our sweet young saviour run,
And there he met three rich young lords,
Good morning to each one.

"Good morn," "Good morn," "Good morn," they said,
"Good morning," then said he,
And which of you three rich lord's sons
Will play at the ball with me?

Oh, we are lords and ladies sons
Born bower or in hall
And you are naught but a poor maid's child
Born in an asses stall.

Though you be lords' and ladies' sons
Born in bower or in hall,
Yet I will show you at the last,
I'm an angel above you all.

So he built him a bridge of the beams of the sun
And over the river ran he,
Three rich lords sons came after him
And drowned they were all three.

So it's up the hill and down the hill
Three rich young mothers did call,
Crying, "Mary mild, call home your child,
For ours he's drownded all."

So Mary mild fetched home her child,
And laid him across her knee,
And with a handful of bitter withy twigs
She gave him lashes three.

Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy,
The bitter withy caused me to smart,
The withy shall be the very first tree
That perisheth at the heart.
I've taken the liberty of 'correcting' some of the punctuation and have also altered "slashes" to "lashes" for the sake of sense and "Our sweet young saviour ran" to "Our sweet young saviour run" for the benefit of the rhyme with "one," which is how these words happen to appear in the liner notes to a Maddy Prior recording.

Not that it matters...


At 3:38 AM, Blogger Pandora Blake said...

I saw this painting in the flesh for the first time at the Pompidou Centre last week. They have an excellent temporary exhibition there at the moment called Traces of the Sacred, which is well worth investigating. Thanks for the connection to the Bitter Withy song - I'm a trad music fan (as well as liking both spanking and surrealist art) so I think I shall look up the tune and learn this one. Thanks for the interesting articles! I hope you don't mind my linking them from my blog?

By the way, you mention that Breton also depicted the Madonna spanking the child Jesus. I'm not familiar with this work either, and can't seem to find it by searching online. Do you have access to an image of the painting, or more details?

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Pandora, thanks for the visit. Feel free to link to anything that strikes your fancy. You need not ask permission. (I never do.)

On Breton . . . I've checked what I quoted from Leo Steinberg:

"Is there a French cognate to the English carol? Had its irreverence somehow infected André Breton, who suggested the subject of the chastising Virgin?"

Was this what you were referring to? It doesn't seem to mention a painting by Breton.

But if you're referring to some other remark, let me know, and I'll look into this.

Incidentally, if you like surrealist art, you might want to visit the WAHCenter sometime.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:52 PM, Blogger Pandora Blake said...

I was referring to your remark

"high-art figures as Max Ernst and André Breton, both of whom depicted Mary spanking the child Jesus."

But it sounds like I've misunderstood?

At 7:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh . . . I see. Well, I'll have to look into this. I either found an image or paraphrased something that Steinberg or another art expert stated.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In retrospect, Pandora, I believe that I misunderstood Steinberg -- or expressed myself particularly badly, though I no longer recall which -- but Breton's role seems to have been limited to making the suggestion that Ernst paint the scene.

I apologize for the wild goose chase.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home