June 27, 2018

Soundings: Art, Music, and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”

JONAH HISTORICALLY REGARDED (DOME): Frank Stella (1936 —), hand colored etching, aquatint, relief, engraving, screenprint and stencil on paper, 186.69 cm x 134.62 cm. Addison Gallery of American Art, Tyler Graphics Ltd. 1974-2001 Collection, given in honor of Frank Stella, 2003.44.300 /©2017 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork.

On the hither side of Pittsfield sits Herman Melville, shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale, while the gigantic shape of Greylock looms upon him from his study-window.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, from The Wonder Book

By Stuart Mitchner

In a December 1850 letter to a friend penned while he was “shaping” the book that became Moby Dick, Melville writes, “I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, and I had better go on the roof and rig in the chimney.”

Frank Stella (Princeton ’58) highlights the image of the artist at the window in one of the Norton Lectures he delivered at Harvard in 1995, citing Kandinsky: “Instead of using his easel to prop up a window on the world, Kandinsky used it to support a windshield moving through the universe. We see Kandinsky in front of his easel at the controls, confidently aware that both he and his painting are in motion.”

It’s an appealing idea, the artist navigator in motion, full sail, full-tilt, whatever the vehicle, whether writing or painting, blank page or blank canvas.

Speaking of windshields and art in motion, I was driving along River Road the other day “shaping out” a column on the Moby Dick prints in “Frank Stella Unbound” and listening to Moby Dick: Scenes from an Imaginary Opera by Peter Westergaard (Princeton MFA ‘56). As I came into Millstone, the Pequod was sinking while Ishmael, “who alone is left to tell the tale,” sang of “each floating oar and lance-pole, and spinning, spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex,” carrying “the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.”

Size and Sweep

Inspired by the Passover song Had Gadya, Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales and The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, the other works in “Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking” are impressive, but nothing “looms upon” the viewer with the size and sweep of the Moby Dick series. According to Erica Cooke’s essay in the exhibit monograph, the epic undertaking evolved out of Stella’s observations of beluga whales in the New York Aquarium. Reminded of Moby Dick, which he probably read during his undergraduate years at Princeton, Stella went back to the novel and “the more I got into it, the more I thought it would be great to use the chapter headings … for the titles of the pieces.” Between 1985 and 1997, he produced one work for each of the 135 chapters, and 266 over all.

Linked Analogies

If Cooke is right that Stella had “no intention of mirroring literary content in visual form,” then there’s no point spending time looking for detailed correspondence between his art and Melville’s. Better to reread the nine chosen chapters in search of phrases that help heighten and express Stella’s creations. There’s a rationale for this approach in “The Funeral” when Ahab thinks, “O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.”

You can lose your way looking for analogies in the black and white print Stella titled after that chapter. Only the absence of color is funereal. The rest is a Rorschach free-for-all of grids and swirling patterns formed out of the “spatial incongruities,” “intersecting planes,” and “pictorial spillage” variously cited in Cooke’s essay. “Once the planes begin to bend and curve and deform then you get into what happens in Moby Dick,” Stella observes during an April 2001 interview in the Guardian. “It’s a way of opening things up for abstraction.”

While the quote from Melville posted by the curator is all image: (“The vast white headless phantom floats further and further from the ship …”), the novel offers something more in keeping both with Melville’s project and Stella’s. Noting that the sight of the corpse may be mistakenly set down in various ships’ logs as a warning to beware of shoals, rocks, and breakers, Melville/Ishmael concludes, “There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth …. There’s orthodoxy!”

And here’s Stella in the Guardian interview acknowledging the precedent of abstract expressionism: “They’re still the generation I admire. This is paying my debt, or not so much paying my debt as expressing my admiration for the … generation that I grew up with and that I admired the most, and that I still admire.”

Melville in the Gallery

The one work of Stella’s that could be cited as a “cunning duplicate” of Melvillian prose is The Counterpane, titled after the chapter in which Ishmael and the cannibal harpooneer Queequeg share a bed at the Spouter Inn. Whether or not he had “literary content” in mind, Stella’s design not only complements but aspires to the wildness of Melville’s imagery “of patchwork, full of odd little parti-colored squares and triangles,” and on Queequeg’s arm “tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth of a figure, no two parts of which were one precise shade … this same arm of his … looked for all the world like a strip of that same patchwork quilt.”

If Melville were to materialize in the gallery, a shadowy figure, modest, even self-effacing, how would he react? Would he cover his eyes and shrink back into otherworldly obscurity? My guess is he’d connect with the imagery of Stella’s Counterpane. Given the eye for the colors of exotic lands expressed in his travel diaries, his capacity for experience, his sensitivity to the richness of life, and his curiosity, he would hold his own against the disorienting effects of his 21st-century return. I can visualize him paying particular attention to the swirling blue microcosm of the ocean in Jonah Historically Regarded (Dome). While he’d look in vain for some sign of Jonah, the spectral author might see at least a semblance of the white whale buoyed on the swell of the work’s domed center. Melville’s years working among crews on various ships would likely make him sympathetic to a project involving a crew captained by Stella working with his surrogate first mate printmaker Kenneth Tyler. As it happens, Stella came to the Guardian interview wearing an outfit with “Team Stella emblazoned on it.”

The Wide-Screen Effect

Stella was clearly attuned to the themes and tensions of Melville’s prose in his rendering of the horizontal piece he titled after “The Monkey-Rope,” a chapter about teamwork taken to life-or-death extremes. Otherwise, he’d have given the work the looming vertical dimensions of the others rather than creating a wide-screen effect better suited to Ishmael’s narration, where the monkey-rope is “fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg’s broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one. So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake.”

The holding-it-together tension Melville builds on leads to a declaration that resonates with a challenge both author and painter have to contend with: “There is no staying in any one place; for at one and the same time everything has to be done everywhere …. It is much the same with him who endeavors the description of the scene.”

The same challenge confronts the composer attempting to sound the depths of Moby Dick in search of scenes for an opera.

Westergaard’s Version

It’s fitting that Peter Westergaard begins his preface to the 2004 recording of his Imaginary Opera by noting that Melville’s novel “paints a vast canvas.” After describing the obvious challenges facing a director attempting to stage Moby Dick, Westergaard says, “With a recording, of course, all these problems conveniently disappear as you, the listener, imagine from Ishmael’s words and the music that surrounds them what Ishmael sees in his mind’s eye as he tells the tale.”

Listening to that same recording, both in and out of the car, I recalled a visit to Westergaard’s Princeton home eight years ago. He was at work, a score in his lap, pages of music on the keyboard of a piano with the aspect of an old roll-top desk, the ivory worn off many of the keys, the wages of years of use.

I also couldn’t help imagining another materialization of Melville as I listened to Scene 7, “The Symphony,” titled after the chapter of the same name, arguably the most poignant — and operatic — passage in the novel. I think Melville would have approved of Westergaard’s haunting score, as performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia conducted by Michael Pratt.

But what about the music in Moby Dick? Of course it’s in Melville’s prose, and in creations like “Black Little Pip,” the “poor Alabama boy” beating his tambourine “in glory.” Another look at Stella’s Jonah Historically Regarded sent me to the sermon in Chapter 9 about Jonah’s flight from God and the hymn begun by Father Mapple “in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog,” the concluding stanzas bursting forth “with a pealing exultation and joy — “My song for ever shall record/That terrible, that joyful hour” — the hymn swelling “high above the howling of the storm.”


“Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking,” will be at the Princeton University Art Museum through September 23.