SPEAKING OF MARIA BLANCHARD*
Maria Gutierrez Blanchard was born in 1881 in Santander, Spain, extremely disfigured by a fall her mother took during pregnancy. Blanchard studied art in Spain, lived and worked awhile in Paris, and returned for a while to Spain where she taught at Salamanca University and exhibited her artwork. However, she was plagued by backward Spanish attitudes toward disability. (The poet Lorca noted the harassment caused by one particular Spanish superstition that it was good luck to touch one's lottery ticket to a crippled person.) Blanchard left Spain to spend the rest of her life teaching, painting, and exhibiting in Paris until her death in 1932 after years of health problems and accompanying pain and penury.
I came to write about Blanchard in 1989, while rereading a translation of Federico Garcia Lorca's prose collectioni , which opens with a eulogy to Maria Blanchard. I wondered who she was. Lorca said when he came across the first Blanchard painting he had ever seen, he was fascinated by the image, but what everyone wanted to tell him was that she was "a hunchback." In the eulogy, Lorca talks about this woman he had never met: her family, her famous artist friends, but most about the struggles she endured because of her physical condition. What intrigued me, though, were his brief references to her painting, "energetic color…laid on with a palette knife." Because I had been writing ekphrastic poems on Frida Kahlo's paintings with some success, I wondered if Blanchard's paintings might also be an inspiration. Both women were short in stature (as am I), both produced their art despite years of debilitating pain from back problems, Kahlo's from the famous bus accident, Blanchard's from birth.
And yet finding her art seemed impossible for me in 1989, off in the hinterlands of western Ohio as I was without means to travel back to Spain. I researched and found a book of Blanchard prints in interlibrary loan, and was crushed when it arrived: nothing but blots of black that one got in those pre-color photocopy days. The prints were simply unseeable.
So I began writing poems about what I had of the biography of Blanchard from a few snippets that I had found. In addition to Lorca's eulogy I located (also on interlibrary loan) a brief personal memoir of Blanchard by the South African painter Maud Sumner, who was a student and then an apartment mate. Finally, I found the briefest reference to Blanchard in a footnote of the standard biography of Diego Rivera with whom Blanchard had once share a studio.
Out of these, I drafted three biographical poems. One, a free verse poem, "Marie Blanchard's Mother" uses facts from the Lorca eulogy, from which I imagined more of the strained relationship between the mother and daughter. In publishing the poem in Kaleidoscope, ii I first encountered the difficulty of how to discuss Maria Blanchard's disability today. The historical accounts are in Spanish and not necessarily accurate. I continue to struggle, too, with very clinical language on the one hand which sound too Latinate in English and the plain terms which sound disrespectful. So the one definitive art catalogue to date states [my translation]: "Maria Blanchard suffered from birth a kyphosis, which is to say, a double deviation of the vertebral column with posterior and lateral curvature…with a prominent humpback." In the final publications, I asked input on diction in referring to Blanchard from the journal's editors, who chose the word "kyphotic."
My second biographical poem, "Maria Blanchard, 1914" is a narrative poem in rhyme and slant rhyme (every four lines but cast as one long stanza) that retells an amusing (and yet telling) incident about Blanchard and Rivera from their time sharing a studio in Paris. The incident reveals Blanchard's feistiness and her refusal to back down and kowtow to Rivera, making her in fact, the opposite of the more solicitous Kahlo in her relationship with the famous male. (This poem was first published in an anthologyiii and is available at my website at http://dianekendig.com/MB1914.htm.
The third biographical poem was titled "Lorca on Maria Blanchard," a found poem from lines in Lorca's eulogy. For years, it remained a stalled draft until recently when I decided that I needed to explore something I hadn't yet realized about Blanchard. I tried adding Maud Sumner's words to Lorca. Then I came on the line (now the epigraph), "And to speak of Maria Blanchard cannot be, should not be, a cold literary exercise." In choosing the form of a found poem did I have a cold, literary exercise? Did I need something warmer? I decided that translating Lorca's original words in Spanish to the slant-rhymed quatrains I used in "Marie Blanchard 1914" might create something warmer. The result is published in this issue as "Speaking of Maria Blanchard."
Interestingly enough, the task I set for myself as a translator was not the usual task I have had in the past of trying to express a rhyme in English from another language. In this case, I was trying to express a rhyme in English from a non-rhyme in Spanish, since Lorca was not performing poetry but speaking in prose. Rhyme is almost always a more difficult task in English than in Spanish, since Spanish is so much easier to rhyme. However, rhyme in any language tends to be more memorable that non-rhyming language.
Then too, I thought that some of the 1975 translation phrases seemed to strain today, so "bozo naciente," could be "peach fuzz," but I wanted something more contemporary, which I hope "teen face fuzz" is, while also carrying some assonance and alliteration with "between" and "family" in the same line. I took some liberty by way of addition. The phrase, "illuminated snails," is an exact translation of Lorca's "caracoles iluminados," so I hoped I could allow myself the invention of "ship with full sails" to rhyme with "snails." The end words "Connoisseur" and "pure" are cognates from the Spanish, one from early in the eulogy, one toward the end, and they made for a useful rhyme with "lure," my own addition.
In preparing for publication, I suddenly remembered some lines from a Columbian folk song set in the city of Cartagena: Caracoles y corales formarán/ Un sender tapizado hasta al mar. ("Snails and corals form a tapestry path to the sea.") I was struck with translator's guilt (i.e., the sin of omission) by the sudden memory of the Columbian who told me that "caracoles" in this song referred to the snail-shaped streetlamps in that Colonial city. Was Lorca speaking literally here, of carrying a woman up to his room illuminated by streetlamps? Or was that definition a Latin American regionalism he would never know? I wrote fellow translator Don Cellini, who compounded the problem by pointing out that the word "caracol" in addition to meaning "snail" and "streetlamp" was also the word for a winding staircase, not to mention an Andalusian poetry form. (And Lorca was Andalusian!) I have decided to leave the word as "snails," but here I turn them over to your imagination to see mollusks, street lamps, stairs, or poems in that line.
As a translator then, I recognize that the first half of this poem involves some invention that I would not allow myself in a pure translation. However, as a poet and a student of Lorca, I feel this poem conveys how he thought of—and spoke of—Maria, and how Maud Sumner thought and spoke of her: not coldly, but as two friends, one she'd never met, the other a dear companion, both of whom deeply admired her passionate life and her work.
About once a month now, when I google her name, I find more references to Blanchard: a college has begun to collect and show her paintings, and several of her paintings are newly up for sale in galleries. Meanwhile, in a Temple University Disabilities Study blog someone asks if anyone has explored her work from a disability history perspective. There is no answer, but I believe there will be one some day. Blanchard's Wikipedia biography is now available in English as well as Spanish, and it is accompanied by a photo of Blanchard, standing in the shadows giving an art lesson to a female student who is herself seated in wheelchair. Perhaps just by being Maria Blanchard she is giving a second lesson from her position, a lesson in getting the work done, despite disability and pain, despite poverty, despite gender and the lack of critical acclaim. Despite all that, an artist finally is not necessarily the one with wealth or health or fame: she is the one who creates art.
i "Elegia a María Blanchard," in the original Spanish online. The translation referred to here (in addition to my own) is that of Christopher Maurer's in Deep Song and Other Prose by Federico Garcia Lorca. Edited and Translated by Christopher Maurer (NY: New Directions, 1980.)
ii Kaleidoscope: Exploring the Experience of Disability through Literature and the Fine Arts: Issue 58, "Reflections on Disability and childhood."
iii In Letters to the World. Ed. Moira Richards et. al., Red Hen Press, 2008 (223).
iv María Blanchard: Catalogo Razonado: Pintura 1889-1932. Ed. María José Salazar. Madrid, España: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2004.
*Editors Note: A later essay, “Speaking Even More of Maria Blanchard” corrects some errors in this essay. Please see: http://www.wordgathering.com/past_issues/issue25/art/kendig.html