Karen Strang: Illuminations

Publication: The Times.  
April 2014 

The poet Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891) was, by any measure, a prodigious talent.  A child protégé, he excelled in classics and wrote his first poetry before his teenage years. A short, intense period of creativity saw the publication of a number of works including Le Bateau Ivre and Une Saison en EnferIlluminations, published when he was just 20, was his last, and arguably his most influential work.

Rimbaud’s poetic legacy is enduring and his reputation continues to grow ¾ augmented by his bohemian life-style, which included a brief, torrid and violent affair with the older poet, Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud has inspired writers, singers and film-makers. Agnieszka Holland’s film Total Eclipse, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud, captured the petulance, romance and destructiveness of the adolescent poet.

Enid Starkie’s biography of the poet, first published in 1938 and updated in 1961, dispelled rumour, replaced myth with fact and became the benchmark by which all other accounts have been judged. In her account, Starkie mentions the possibility of a visit by Rimbaud, in 1874, to Edinburgh, when the poet was based briefly in London.

The Alloa-based artist Karen Strang, who is of Polish descent, has long been fascinated by Rimbaud. She has taken the poet’s putative visit as the starting point of a collection of work which includes a miniature theatre, portraiture, poetry, ephemera and expert commentary (by Helen Beale  and Jennifer Faichney).

Strang comments, ‘Three years ago I revisited his [Rimbaud’s] writing and attempted to solve some of the mysteries of his life and work, including the question of his disappearance in the second half of 1874.  These artworks are my answer to the burning question ¾ where was he?’.

Following Starkie’s lead, Strang contends that Rimbaud not only visited Edinburgh but also worked there for some time working as a French language teacher.  She believes that Rimbaud may have been inspired to visit the Scottish capital by reading publications such as The Illustrated London News, which featured the craggy cityscape in its pages.

Such material provides the basis for several of Strang’s images. She cites Rimbaud’s writing, including parts of Illuminations, as further evidence of a Scottish sojourn: “The official acropolis outdoes the most colossal concept of modern barbarity. Impossible to describe the dull light produced by the immutable grey sky; the imperial glare of the masonry, and the eternal snow on the ground.”

Whether or not Rimbaud actually came north of the border is a moot point, but the possibility, which has fuelled such an imaginative response, is certainly intriguing.

An impressive series of paintings, following the chronology of Rimbaud’s life, show how the artist’s sense of the poet is all-pervasive. He is seen by turns as a querulous adolescent (in Depart) and as an oddly androgynous youth, his haloed head wreathed in flowers (First Communion).

Rimbaud wrote almost no poetry after the age of 20. The remainder of his days were spent in a peripatetic existence with spells in the Dutch Colonial Army and, finally, as an arms and coffee merchant in Ethiopia.  He died in France, of cancer, aged 37.

Strang’s contribution to the body of work about Rimbaud is welcome, not least because it adds a new dimension to the long history of visual imagery defining the poet.