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Posts from the ‘Tess Jaray’ Category

Vienna Exhibition Focuses on Sebald

Croy Nielsen

Tess Jaray, “Sketch from a letter to W.G. Sebald,” circa 1999. Pencil on photocopy.

“All’estero & Dr. K.’s Badereise nach Riva: Version B,” a group exhibition at the Croy Nielsen gallery in Vienna, takes its inspiration from two chapters in W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo (Schwindel. Gefühle). Curated by Saim Demircan, this is part of an annual “gallery share” event called, appropriately, “curated_by,” which involves twenty-one galleries across Vienna.

The exhibition runs from September 13 to October 27, 2018 and includes work by Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Whitney Claflin, Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, Stephan Dillemuth, Georgia Gardner Gray, Rochelle Goldberg, Philipp Gufler, Ernst Herbeck, Tess Jaray, Martin Kippenberger, Nick Mauss, Marina Sula, Mark Van Yetter, Dario Wokurka, and Miriam Yammad.  Here’s the explanatory text from the gallery’s website:

In the second and third chapters of Schwindel. Gefühle, writer W.G. Sebald makes repeated trips from Vienna to Venice, firstly as himself, or rather, a version of himself in 1980 and 1987; and then again following a certain Dr K. in 1913, who travels on to a sanatorium in Riva at Lake Garda.

As well as dizziness, on its own the German Schwindel also means swindle, deception and legerdemain. Similarly, the text is a confidence trick. In the chapter ​‘Dr K. Takes the Waters at Riva’, Dr K. is Franz Kafka, and the passage between Austria and Italy is based on a documented business trip made by the Czech writer when he worked at Prague Worker’s Insurance Company.

Duplicitous mirroring of literary figures and historiography through mental projection and travel is an inherent characteristic of Sebald’s writing. Authors, playwrights and poets cameo throughout these chapters, either directly or obliquely. In Vienna, he thinks he sees Dante on Gonzagagasse and meets Ernst Herbeck. Dr K. dines with Grillparzer at Hotel Matschakerhof and visits the Prater with Otto Pick and Albert Ehrenstein, whose similitude can be seen in a photograph of them ​‘taken as if passengers on an aeroplane, which appears to be flying above the big Ferris wheel and the spires of the Votivkirche’.

Elsewhere, in Venice, Sebald meets Salvatore Altamura, who shares the firstname of the burgomaster in Kafka’s short story The Hunter Gracchus, and is reimagined by the writer as ​‘Salvatore, the podestà in Riva’. He also speculates on whether Dr K. saw the 1913 German Expressionist film Der Student von Prag at the cinema Pathé di San Sebastiano and ​‘recognized a kind of doppelgänger’ in the scene where the reflection of the eponymous hero walks out of a mirror.

Recurring symbolism, paranoiac doubling, and in-between states such as hypnagogic hallucination distort the text with signs and both chapters are rich with premonition. As such, ​‘All’estero & Dr K. Takes the Waters at Riva: Version B’ creates another layer of duplication through exhibition-making, using narrative devices that connect these two chapters to illustrate the writer’s complex fictionalization of his own life. Intertextuality, resemblance, and the mnemonic in relation to place feature prominently in artworks, ephemera and literature that take inspiration from Sebald’s writing. With an accent on the city as the origin of this journey, the show charts an ambulatory route connecting events, characters and affect.

Text by Saim Demircan

Croy Nielsen

Installation view.

Croy Nielsen. Parkring 4, 1010 Vienna, Austria.

Tess Jaray’s Blue Cupboard

Jaray Sebald Letter In Tess Jaray’s new book The Blue Cupboard (Royal Academy of Arts, 2014), there is a tantalizing illustration that reproduces the first page of an undated letter written by W.G. Sebald to Jaray, with whom he had collaborated on the 2001 book For Years Now, which paired his brief poems with her artwork. The letter, written on a curiously narrow and long piece of paper, makes me wish for Sebald’s letters to be collected and published one day. Here is my transcription of the visible part of the letter:

Dear Tess, Your letter did not come too soon by any means. I was much amused by your likening the company of the formidable Musil to the sensation of having a large rock in your room. When I first read The Man Without Qualities, in the winter of 1966/67, that was pretty much how I felt about it. There is this anecdote about Musil & Joseph Roth (a great favourite of mine): the two had always studiously avoided each other until one day in a Vienna coffeehouse, a mutual friend brought them together. Well, what do you think, the friend said to Roth afterwards. Well, said Roth, he speaks like an Austrian but he thinks like a German. [Perhaps that explains his intransigence.]

Blue Cupboard Jaray Although Jaray doesn’t mention why she initially raised the subject of Robert Musil, it undoubtedly had to do with Vienna, which is a touchstone for her throughout The Blue Cupboard. As an infant, Jaray and her parents were the only members of her family who managed to flee Vienna, Austria just before the Holocaust began in earnest. Everyone else in the family would eventually perish in concentration camps. For Jaray, the story of her parents life in Vienna, the last minute escape, their new life in England, and her own intense artistic curiosity is embodied in a hand-painted blue cupboard that she inherited from her parents.

It is not just plain blue, but inset with four panels painted with bouquets of flowers – frontal, formal, childlike in their conception of what flowers should look like, and painted in reds, pinks, white and blue, all now faded to that patina that can never be achieved other than over time. The panels are surrounded with garlands, which also wreathe the edges of the cupboard, almost turning it into a painting.  A date is written at the top, in decorative Gothic lettering: 1815. But the cupboard is much older than that, and you can see the underpainted date, 1778. if you look carefully against a glancing light.

Her parents acquired the cupboard in Salzburg, on their honeymoon, and they later told her that they paid for it with 100 light bulbs. “I don’t know why my father had 100 light bulbs with him on his honeymoon, but he was like that.” Her father, a serial inventor, remained certain all of his life that one of his many patents would change the family fortunes, though none ever did. Not surprisingly, some of the finest passages are Jaray’s responses to works of art. She writes about the Renaissance painter Rosso Fiorentino, Matisse, Picasso, and more contemporary artists like John Stezaker and Alison Wilding. In an essay on Watteau, Jaray writes:

There is a great difference between looking at a painting and looking at a drawing. Perhaps its like looking at a person dressed in their best clothes, in contrast to how they look when they are wearing nothing. In painting, artists can separate themselves from the world. Colour, and the stuff of paint, are weapons of distancing  as well as of enticement, and they are used by artists to give to the world those experiences, thoughts and feelings that they have decided to present. But with a drawing artists are undressed and defenceless. They cannot hide behind a drawing. Drawing is the artist’s connection to the world, a way of reaching out. And it cannot be done without expressing something of the spirit.

In her 2010 book Painting: Mysteries & Confessions, Jaray wrote eloquently about the creative and technical processes involved in her own work, alternating with meditations on the artwork of a wide range of other artists. The Blue Cupboard is, likewise, a painter’s memoir but overlaid with the story of her family. There is a serendipitous structure to The Blue Cupboard, as Jaray weaves her life, her parent’s lives, and the world of art into a single fabric. Along the way, she tosses out brief, but alluring breadcrumbs that made me wish for a full autobiography one day. Jaray writes of foxes (for which she seems to have a fondness), living next door to the singer Amy Winehouse for a spell, staying in the same Tangiers hotel where Matisse stayed and painted in 1912, and her very brief encounter with Samuel Beckett. There is a short video on Vimeo of Jaray reading from The Blue Cupboard, along with a few glimpses of the cupboard itself.

After Sebald

After Sebald Full Circle

Even before I opened up the book, I wondered about the front cover of Full Circle Edition’s new title After Sebald. The list of the nine contributors (excluding Jon Cook, the volume’s editor) – three visual artists, four writers, and two academics – suggested a welcome new approach to Sebald, a possibly refreshing change from the steady appearance of theory-infused academic volumes that have been appearing regularly for years.

But first I had to ask if my tally of four writers was correct. Was “John Coetzee” really J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize winning novelist? I had never, ever seen his name written this way. So I turned to the two pages of Author Biographies to confirm the identification, only to find that Coetzee was missing. The Contents page also listed him as “John Coetzee,” but turning to the actual page on which his essay began I found that the author was suddenly “J.M. Coetzee.” Not an encouraging sign.

Jon Cook, whose two-sentence bio is included in the Author Biographies, is a Professor of Literature at the University of East Anglia, where Sebald spent most of his academic career. In his Introduction, he tells us:

A collection of this kind does not have a single purpose, other than to help readers enjoy and think further about Sebald’s work….If these different readings give us the opportunity to gauge the scale of his achievement they suggest something else as well: that Sebald is an author whom we are still learning how to read and one whose works can stand the test not just of time but of different interpretations.

Fair enough. The presentation of such a wide range of responses in a single volume actually does say a great deal about Sebald and his work. Writers, for instance, tend to have a very different way of analyzing and examining the work of  fellow writers than do academics. And it is difficult to think of another writer who has attracted the attention of visual artists in the way that Sebald has.

Robert Macfarlane, whose simply-titled essay “Sebald” is given the task of batting first in After Sebald, wants to focus on the elusiveness of Sebald’s writing and the varied ways in which readers respond to that. “The extreme resistance of Sebald’s prose to interpretation is one of the reasons why he has already attracted so many interpreters. His writing operates as a mood, rather than as a set of propositions, and as such it is often its own best expression. Certainly, Sebald’s work incites inarticulacy.” Macfarlane’s piece wants to serve as a warning to those who parse and dissect ever smaller bits of Sebald’s work, a warning to those who see only “a set of propositions” that through the examination of the lone branch or the single leaf they risk misunderstanding the entire forest. In short, Sebald’s work is vastly greater than the sum of all its parts. Macfarlane also attempts (in nice Sebaldian fashion) to catalog “the case against Sebald,” beginning with the impression “that he is the Eeyore of contemporary literature whose glum pessimism is relentlessly mistaken for profundity,” but it seems pretty clear that he doesn’t give much credence to any of these concerns

I would argue that Will Self’s “Absent Jews and Invisible Executioners” would have served as a better opening essay. Macfarlane gives a quirky first impression of Sebald and is often hobbled by his own perspective as a  writer who is most at home in the wilds of nature, which limits the range of responses he can give to much of Sebald’s work. Self, on the other hand, meanders over Sebald’s life and work in a compact, determined way, touching, even if lightly, on nearly all of the major issues raised in Sebald’s primary books. In “Loosed in Translation,” novelist and writer Ali Smith focuses on “what gets lost, what gets found, what gets loosed, freed, liberated in the work of Sebald.” Her essay centers on writerly issues like language, silence, and translation. “Reading Sebald in translation is, in many ways, the whole point,” she decides. J.M. Coetzee’s essay “W.G. Sebald, After Nature,” was the most disappointing and dated of the writers’ responses. Originally written as a review of After Nature in 2002, it suffers from its book review brevity and its focus on a single book. I would have much preferred to hear what Coetzee would think of Sebald’s legacy today, after a dozen more years have passed.

Artists observe writers with a completely different set of eyes and concerns. Tacita Dean’s essay-like piece called, simply “W.G. Sebald” (which I have written about at some length earlier) is perhaps the best Sebaldian homage to the writer ever written. She combines descriptions of her own art-making practice and travels, her reading of Sebald, her family history, and numerous photographs into a terrific tale that demonstrates the way in which the uncanny operates in Sebald’s works. Tess Jaray’s “Two Pieces” is the only essay in the anthology which deals with Sebald the man. Jaray recounts several meetings with Sebald at her studio, leading up to the collaborative book that used his poems and her artwork, For Years Now. Her insights into Sebald’s personality seem as incisive and clear as an X-ray. Finally, artist Richard Long contributes a piece called “LIFEDEATH” that consists of two color photographs of a landscape stretching over a pair of double-page spreads, followed by a fold-out text work that has the subtitle “A Four Day Walk on Dartmoor.” Dartmoor, of course, is a long distance from Sebald’s East Anglia, so it’s hard to determine if Long created something specifically in relation to Sebald or merely contributed an image of existing artwork that seemed appropriate. The text piece (without the photographs) can be found on Long’s website dated 2011 with no reference to Sebald.

Gillian Beer turns her scholarly sights on a nice overview of “Sebald in the City.” Sebald’s cities are places where continual renewal and never-ending self-destruction are one and the same. “Cities carry the past and they obliterate it,” Beer writes.

I was particularly interested in Clive Scott’s essay “W.G. Sebald: Enumeration, Photography and the Hermeneutics of History.” Scott carefully binds together Sebald’s endless fascination with lists and repositories of all types with his use of photographs.

The enumerative principle makes itself manifest in many different Sebaldian institutions and activities: the artist’s studio, the graveyard, the collection, the repository, the library, the museum, the catalogue, the treasury, the inventory, the dictionary, the encyclopaedia, the pawnshop, the second-hand shop (where Sebald is in the habit of picking up old photos), the antiques shop, the country house, the attic and the photo-album….my approach to enumeration …here is treated as an existential pivot, a perceptual crux which generates a dialectic between the paratactic (close-up) and the hypotactic (the long view), between a jamming mechanism and the flow of history.

And a few pages later:

The more we discover, the more, proportionately, our ignorance increases; the more we do not know, the more injustices we do, the more we misrepresent reality, the more prejudiced we are, the more unjustified is the store we put by what we do know, the photographs we do have. Sebald’s photos do not fill holes, they create them. We must, then, write the kind of history in which we not only take responsibility for our ignorance, but acknowledge that it is a guilt that subsumes all others, and that it is always in excess of memory’s capacity to redeem it.

After Sebald is a useful, if flawed, book, pulling together a number of helpful articles and presentations on Sebald that are generally hard or impossible to find. Like all of Full Circle’s books, it’s a very handsome volume and reasonably priced at £16. Unfortunately, After Sebald is marred by sloppy editing that permitted several misspelled names, including Sebald’s own first name – which appears (incorrectly) as “Winifred” in Macfarlane’s essay but is later correctly spelled as “Winfried” in Self’s piece. Even the origins of the various contributions are sometimes obscured. As far as I can tell, the only essay being published for the first time here is Clive Scott’s, but even the book’s Acknowledgements page is inconsistent when listing the place where essays were first published or presented as lectures. Coetzee’s piece is simply credited to “Random House,” when it actually first appeared in the New York Review of Books years before being anthologized in his book Inner Workings (2008), and there is no acknowledgement whatsoever that Ali Smith’s piece was presented as the 2011 Sebald Lecture at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Yes, for the most part these are small issues, but if these happen to be merely the mistakes that I caught, I have to wonder what other ones I might have missed.

Jon Cook, ed. After Sebald: Essays & Illuminations. Suffolk: Full Circle Editions, 2014

Sebald-Related Book Launches in London, Oct. 2014

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Propolis, the publishing arm of Norwich’s The Book Hive, is holding a London book launch for Philippa Comber’s Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald at the Chelsea location of Daunt Books on Friday October 17, starting at 6:30 PM.

Daunt Books
158-164 Fulham Road
London SW10 9PR

RSVP: henry@propolisbooks.co.uk

Daunts launch invitation

Blue Cupboard

Five days later, the Royal Academy of Arts is having a launch for Tess Jaray’s new book The Blue Cupboard: Inspirations and Recollections. It will be held on Wednesday October 22 from 6:30-8:00. In 2001, Jaray and Sebald collaborated on the book of artwork and poems For Years Now. In addition to be a wonderful artist, Tess is an excellent writer. Here’s a link to my piece on her earlier book Painting: Mysteries & Confessions (2010).

The Academician’s Room
The Keeper’s House
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Picadilly
London W1J 0BD

RSVP by October 16: tessa.daniel@royalacademy.org.uk

The Blue Cupboard Launch

In the Eye’s Mind: Tess Jaray

Tess Jaray’s art is a commitment to the unknowable, a desire to understand how the patterns of the world and the patterns of the mind reflect each other.  Thankfully for us, she is an unblinking and articulate observer of herself as she goes about looking at art and making art.  Her collection of writings, Painting: Mysteries & Confessions, contains thirty-nine brief essays.  Many of the pieces are about works of art that span some seven hundred years, including a pair of Resurrections by Giotto and Piero della Francesca, a simple drawing of a window by Leonardo da Vinci, Ingres’ The Turkish Bath, and a painting of a red square by Malevich , along with works by a few of her contemporaries, such as Onya McCausland, Andrea McLean, and Martin Creed.  Jaray looks hard, the way artists tend to.  But it isn’t just that she looks harder or more knowingly than the rest of us, her entire mode of apprehension is different from that of most laypersons.

Kasimir Malevich, Red Square, 1915

Jaray is especially attuned to the myriad decisions that come into play as an artist moves from the glimmer of a concept to final product.  Looking a Malevich’s Red Square, painted around 1915, just before the onset of the Russian Revolution, Jaray notices that Malevich clearly changed his mind after painting a perfect square and he painted over a sliver of red so that the red section was no longer exactly square.  “You can tell this  by the way the paint has dried: it may be the same paint, the same colour, but if it was put on after the first coat, and is ‘joined up’, as this is, it can never match exactly.”  Why, she wonders, did Malevich feel compelled to do this?

Would it have been too dull, too predictable, too obvious?  Does it appear to be more of a square through being less of one?  Perhaps a square is just a square, but one that is not quite a square draws attention to its squareness.  It can’t be as simple as that, because what he was doing was so astonishingly radical, so utterly unlike anything that had been done before, that a simple square would have done the job…creating an entirely new aesthetic philosophy for future artists to develop, signifying at least the hope of replacing the brutal system he was living under with the idealism of the new.

Jaray frequently examines both the meaning and the aesthetic impact of the materials that artists use.  Turning to British artist Onya McCausland, who often uses ancient earth pigments in her work, Jaray notes the slow methodology of applying the pigment, “layer after relentless layer, built up, erased, built up, erased, changed, transformed, until what remains seems to reflect the traces of time itself.”   The result is that “it is not space that is represented, but presence, the ‘hereness’ of the surface, its quiddity.”

Tess Jaray, How Strange, 2001

Jaray is uncommonly good in discussing the progress of her own artwork.  The best example is also the longest essay in the book, Red: Diary of a Painting, the work that appears on the cover of For Years Now, her collaboration with W.G. Sebald, which I wrote about recently.

I don’t think it’s possible to paint a canvas a single colour any more; it’s been done so often, and we’ve become so accustomed to seeing wonderful colours everywhere now.  But there’s still the mystery of how the colour at the edge of an area affects the centre.  If the area is handled properly the colour at the centre is released in some way.

She decides the paint she wants must be a cadmium.  But the challenge in selecting a red is that the color carries so much baggage: ketchup, British post boxes, London buses and phone booths, stop signs…  After a discussion of various reds ranging from Renaissance paintings to Bohemian glass to the stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral, Jaray decides the red she wants is vermilion.  This leads to an interesting riff on the history of vermilion and the difficulties in using it (it can turn black under certain conditions).  “Yesterday I stared into a jar of vermilion powder pigment,  It was everything I wanted, the most perfect, complete absorption into the fantasy of that particular red.”  But immediately, the artist must come to terms with disappointment, for the moment that the powder is mixed with something like oil or turpentine it begins to change.  And when it is applied to canvas, it changes again, losing the “fine, soft density” of the powder’s color.   “The canvas standing against the wall is now red.  The red is pretty close to what I have in mind, but it has sunk.  Horrible patches of matter alternate with the soft sheen needed to express the colour.”  A friend explains to her that that’s what this range of extremely expensive cadmiums tend to do, so she decides that trying to fix it with more cadmium would simply be throwing good money after bad.  She decides to abandon that canvas and start over, using acrylic paint this time.  “Finally, finally, after weeks and weeks of mistakes I’m getting my eye in.  That means, I now feel, as opposed to think.”  But the second painting, too, will disappoint.

I’ve come a long way in my search for vermilion.  I’ve finished one red painting that is so scarlet as to be almost orange in certain lights, and one using a make of vermilion that’s a lovely colour but certainly not made from any true mercuric sulphide or cinnabar. And now I’ve acquired two smallish tubes of Chinese vermilion which claims to be nearly 99 per cent pigment.  They’ve got a skull and crossbones on the tube, and are expensive beyond belief.

In the end, this pigment is yet another disappointment, even though it turns out to be the painting closest to the one she originally imagined.  It simply doesn’t work.  Only by going through this process of “getting it right” can she free herself of her original idea and see her three canvasses for what they are.  And at that moment she realizes the first two are “remarkable.”  They are “glowing, almost translucent, lustrous, happy-making.”   It’s a startling admission.  For Jaray, the process of art making begins by trying to create in an almost scientific manner what she sees in her mind’s eye.  But the process that she follows is decidedly non-linear and involves an internal battle to move the mind’s eye to the side so that the “eye’s mind” can take over.

Painting: Mysteries & Confessions.  Great Britain: Lenz Books, 2010.  [Quotations and images by Tess Jaray © Tess Jaray.]

The Sebald/Jaray Collaborations

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
Screenprints, 2001

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.

Sebald Jaray For Years Now

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.]

W.G. Sebald’s For Years Now

Sebald Jaray For Years Now

The publication of Sebald’s second book of poems, For Years Now, came shortly after his death. Published by Short Books in London in 2001, For Years Now was the only book written by Sebald in which the contents appeared first in English. (As of January 2007, the book still has not been translated into any other language.) The twenty-three poems in the volume are all very short; none are longer than ten lines (plus the title) and most of the lines contain fewer than four words. The haiku-like poems alternate with images by Vienna-born artist Tess Jaray, who now lives in London. Jaray’s images are rigidly geometric and colorful with each image being a single color. They seem to suggest the complex order of the cosmos and I find them stunningly beautiful. The book is described by the publisher’s website as a collaboration between Sebald and Jaray, who first met in 1999.

For Years Now is a delightful object, with fire engine red french wraps for a cover. The pages are of substantial, almost stiff paper and are well-suited to convey the lush, exotic colors of Jaray’s images. Because Sebald died shortly before final book production, there are no copies signed by him. But copies signed by artist Tess Jaray exist (I know, because I have one that is signed by the artist).

The pairing of each Sebald poem with a Jaray image appears to have been a methodology for the two artists’ work to appear together in book form on equal terms. In the same year, London’s Purdy Hicks Gallery published a set of eighteen paired screenprints by Jaray. Most (if not all) of the images in that portfolio were the same images that appear in For Years Now. But in the Purdy Hicks portfolio, they were paired with different texts by Sebald, suggesting that there isn’t a fixed relationship between the poems and images. In the portfolio, one half of each Jaray diptych consisted of a monochromatic geometric image, while the mate (a similarly colored screenprint) consisted of a brief printed quotation from The Rings of Saturn or Vertigo. The gallery also issued a small illustrated folder promoting the set.

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