Tess Jaray and W.G. Sebald, How Strange… and I Suppose it is…, two works from the series From the Rings of Saturn and Vertigo
The images as I worked on them seemed to me to strongly correspond to the images evoked by Sebald’s prose, by his distortion of and evocation of space, and strange ability apparently to focus both on distance and nearness simultaneously: to make space and memory appear to be the same thing, giving a sense of spinning between past and future.
In 2001, the artist Tess Jaray published a series of monochromatic, geometric screenprints that she paired with quotations from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. These books had appeared in English at a time when Jaray said her life was full of profound changes, and Sebald’s writing “not only expressed in mood the emotional impact of these events, it also shaped them….” Jaray had met Sebald and had received his approval to use his words in connection with her images.
A clear and absorbing process followed of selecting the various texts both for their relevance to the image and as poetry that stands on its own, and of developing text and image together in such a way as to suggest links between the two, and which would change the way the text is seen. Taking it out of context constitutes a literal and metaphorical kind of framing. [Quotations from: From The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, Tess Jaray W.G. Sebald, a gallery brochure produced by Purdy Hicks Gallery, London, 2001.]
By “framing” sentences from Sebald’s texts, Jaray removes the context and turns the fragments into something new, almost like freestanding prose poems. The result are different from pull quotes, excerpts intended to represent the original text. This is a personal, transformative response by Jaray. For Sebald, it must have represented some risk and, presumably an element of trust.
How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time.
In the same year, Jaray and Sebald collaborated on a book called For Years Now, which appeared in print just after Sebald’s death on December 14, 2001, the only book by Sebald to have appeared first in English. Here, twenty-three short poems by Sebald alternate with images of Jaray’s work. When I wrote about For Years Now in May 2007, the book felt a bit as if it had been orphaned upon Sebald’s death – and it still seems that way today. It has never been translated and is seems to have never been reviewed.
The British publisher Lenz Books has just released Painting: Mysteries & Confessions, a wonderful book of short writings by Jaray. She writes about her own artwork and on other artists, both contemporary and historical, including Giotto, Ingres, Gustav Klimt, Zoran Music, Malevich, Martin Creed, and others. I will write about that part of the book in a future post. But significantly, the piece on which the book’s title is based is about Sebald. A Mystery and a Confession tells part of the story of the evolution of their collaborative work in For Years Now. Jaray explains that, encouraged by his cooperation with her screenprints, she dared to mention to him the idea of doing an artist’s book “in relation to his verse, if he had any he would consider letting me have.” Surprisingly, Sebald reached into a drawer and handed Jaray a long poem written in German.
On the train home the next day I read it. Several times. Although I speak German only very badly and would be neither qualified nor able to describe it with justice, I could see that it had the same wonderful voice that his books have – and I was again bewitched by the language. It had twenty-three stanzas, and told how he, Sebald/the poet, had been in Marienbad: and had there so clearly imagined the Famous Poet who had been there before him.
Sebald obviously gave Jaray the poem Marienbader Elegie, which had been published in 1999 in an issue of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and which can now be found in the posthumously issued collection of his poems Über das Land und das Wasser. Jaray writes that she quickly found a student to make a straight translation into English. As she discovered, Sebald had modeled his poem of twenty-three six-line stanzas after Goethe’s Trilogie der Leidenschaft (Trilogy of Passion). Jaray never tells us how this poem came to be rejected in favor of the twenty-three short poems by Sebald, but it is hard not to notice that the number of poems is the same as the number of stanzas in the long poem Sebald originally suggested. Perhaps Jaray was paying quiet numerological homage to Sebald’s original idea.
W.G. Sebald in front of Tess Jaray’s work, photograph by Tess Jaray
[All images copyright Tess Jaray.]