“across a Greco . . . is written . . .”

I have been urged by Mr. Lee Simonson – who, if he would, could do it much better (I too have other pleasures) – to write about my own paintings.

At the start: “Why?”

Haven’t I, in a way, painted them?

Poems have been written by painters about their paintings, I know, and I have heard painters in my own time speak excitedly about their own work.  Colour and line can say quite a bit, unaided by words, when used by one for whom they are a means of expression.  Words are not to me a means.  I can only paint.  Many days I don’t feel that this is true, this “I can write.”  To me words explain too much and say too little.

If I could write and believed in having a cause, even a good cause – well, certainly I would write about the paintings which are being done at the moment in my country.  Good things – many of them – and some, to me, great works.  But I must leave this “cause” to time: time, the final critic and only creator of legend.  I feel certain time and I shall agree.

The idea of having painters write about their own paintings is to me not one which is likely to produce great results – add to the medium of words.  And unless this addition is accomplished, why write?  There comes to my mind only one thing written by a painter about his drawings which really added to literature; it is called “Venus and Tannhauser” [by Aubrey Beardsley].


Across the final surface – the touchable bloom if it were a peach – of any fine painting is written for those who dare to read that which the painter knew, that which he hoped to find out, or that which he – whatever!

Across a Greco, across a Blake, across a Rubens, across a Watteau, across a Beardsley is written in larger letters than any printed page will ever dare to hold, or Broadway façade or roof support, what its creator had to say about it.  To translate these painted sentences, whatever they may be, into words – well, try it.  With the best of luck the “sea change” will be great.  Or, granting a translation of this kind were successful, what would you have but what was there already, and as readable, and perhaps on repetition a trifle boring?

Paintings are – and I call complete drawings, paintings too – to be looked at.  If the “inner eye” does not glitter before certain contemporary “Calla Lillies,” certain American watercolours, certain of Florine [Stettheimer]’s or Peggy [Bacon]’s portraits, added physical words will not cause it to glitter, even though spoken or written by [Walter] Pater or [James] Joyce.  Your choice, ladies!

For the painter, paintings are, wet or dry, just paintings.  They are not arguments.  They are not signs on the way to that supposed Nirvana: culture.  They are not, however, “this must be printed in our new world” – so perhaps that “They are not,” cannot be said.

Paintings must be looked at and looked at and looked at; they, I think, the good ones, like it.  They must be understood, and that’s not the word either, through the eyes.  No writing, no talking, no singing, no dancing will explain them.  They are the final, the ‘nth whoopee of sight.  A watermelon, a kiss, may be fair but after all have other uses.  “Look at that!” is all that can be said before a great painting, at least by those who really see it.

“And cannot words, written or spoken, help those who have partial or little sight for painting?”

My answer to this question is No.  Only prayer, and looking and looking at painting, and – prayer can help.

But those two will help you who do not see pictures.  They will help, and some day when before a painting, you will see it without thought of the name of its author or amount paid.  You will see it in its glory – in the world of paint. You will have received the stigmata.



This assessment first appeared in the September 1929 issue of Creative Arts Magazine (3:5, 629-34).  In all likelihood, the editor, stage designer Lee Simonson, titled it after a phrase in the text itself.  Nearly a year before it was printed, Demuth had written to his friend and patron, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, to ask if he thought the article was “too light,” adding “tell Lee it will be under a thousand words – he wanted 1500. I couldn’t write a 1500 word thing on this subject [in] under fifty years.”

Although Demuth initially aspired to a career as a writer when he was in his twenties, and turned out a full-length play as well as several short compositions, he was no prose stylist.  In this breathless assessment of the aims of art – his own aims more by inference than explicitly – his syntax is often tortured, and his punctuation is as wild as that of a cheerful youngster decorating an enforced composition with squiggles, dots, and dashes when they happen to strike his fancy.  They do not assist readers threading their way through the morass of hesitations and jump-starts enroute to a “Credo.”

Demuth’s letters as well as this statement suggest that he wrote the way he talked, full of exclamation points, enthusiastic dashes, and self-interruptions.  We have altered no words whatever in his essay, but we have silently and conventionally corrected the punctuation, anticipating the possible bewilderment of some readers, and we have bracketed clarifying information.

— J. Joel Farber and Bruce Kellner