Monthly Archives: May, 2019

A Celebration of The Merry Month of May

By Laura Heyrman

As the month comes to an end, we celebrate May in art and poetry.

The Merry Month of May by Thomas Dekker

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolick, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!
O, and then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my Summer’s Queen.

Now the nightingale, the pretty nightingale,
The sweetest singer in all the forest choir,
Entreats thee, sweet Peggy, to hear thy true love’s tale:
Lo, yonder she sitteth, her breast against a brier.

But O, I spy the cuckoo, the cuckoo, the cuckoo;
See where she sitteth; come away, my joy:
Come away, I prithee, I do not like the cuckoo
Should sing where my Peggy and I kiss and toy.

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolick, so gay, and so green, so green, so green;
And then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my Summer’s Queen.

from Ernest Rhys, Thomas Dekker, London: Vizetelly, 1887.

About the painting:

One of twelve miniatures illustrating traditional monthly activities, the “May” page from “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (The Duke of Berry’s Very Fine Book of Hours), was painted by one of the Limbourg Brothers, leading painters in Northern Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The manuscript was commissioned by John of Berry, third son of King John II of France, and a lavish patron of the arts. Sadly, the manuscript was left unfinished in 1416 upon the death of the patron and the artists, as can be seen from the empty calendar grid at the top of the May page. Scholars have attributed the May Page to Jean Limbourg, the brother most associated with courtly scenes.

In the “Très Riches Heures” the calendar illustrations alternate between activities of the nobility and the peasantry. The settings of the calendar scenes are frequently identifiable as buildings belonging to the patron; the May page shows the Hôtel de Nesle, the Duke of Berry’s Paris residence. In celebration of spring, young men and women in ornate garments ride through a woodland. Many of the figures wear green clothing which was a traditional aspect of the “May jaunt.” Bedecked with ivy, the young nobles elegantly chat and flirt while a pair of dogs in the foreground express their springtime attraction more explicitly.

About the poem:

The poem “The Merry Month of May” is from the late 16th century and was written by Thomas Dekker, an Elizabethan playwright and pamphleteer as part of his play “The Shoemaker’s Holiday.” The play debuted in 1599 and was also performed on New Years Day 1600 as part of Queen Elizabeth I’s annual Christmas entertainments. The play is set much earlier though, during the reign of Henry IV. This would make its story roughly contemporary with the Limbourg Brothers’ May page. “The Shoemaker’s Holiday” is a romantic comedy set among London’s artisans, including three subplots dealing with inter-class romance and city politics. Dekker was known for works depicting everyday life.

“The Merry Month of May” is one of two songs or catches that are associated with the play. Though its exact position in the play is uncertain, an 1887 edition of the play places it in Act Three in association with a morris dance performed to entertain the Lord Mayor of London. The master shoemaker Simon Eyre counters his wife’s insistence that he be serious in the Lord Mayor’s company by saying that he will be serious at the Guildhall and we’ll all be old soon enough. The light-hearted love song and dance suit Eyre’s philosophy but the lyrics also hint at the tangled love affairs going on throughout the play.

Limbourg Brothers, May calendar page from “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (The Duke of Berry’s Very Fine Book of Hours), ca. 1412-1416. Ms. 65, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

Franz Kline

By Matt Carey-Williams, London   

A Franz Kline brushstroke is like a racehorse at full speed. His fluid, dynamic marks positively gallop across his canvas, simultaneously epitomising the energy and vitality of his abstract gesture, whilst still affording a scaffolding of structure and meaning. Kline arrived at his mature meditations of black on white in the late 1940’s. He was inspired by the de Koonings who suggested he break through something of a creative lull by experimenting with a Bell-Optican projector.

Amplified details of objects were projected on to his studio wall and Kline painted over them in these daring, brutal strokes of black. He never looked back and only a handful of his paintings would ever again embrace colour. By focusing on such an arrant display of startling tonal contrast, Kline was empowered as a painter to properly explore motion in a very condensed, even visceral manner. And that ‘motion’, of course, was noted both physically and psychologically; both aesthetically and conceptually. Meryon from 1960-61 is a very late painting by the artist and is now in the Tate Modern.

Muscular, chunky, calligraphic verticals soar upwards, suggesting an architectural thrust. Meryon represents something of a homophonic pun; Kline here refers to the French printmaker Charles Meryon, who famously made etchings of medieval Paris and its newly sprawling architecture (I cannot help but see Notre Dame in this painting). He also alludes to the Pennsylvanian town of Merion — home to the extraordinary Impressionist and modern art collection of Albert C. Barnes — which was a fast-growing urban centre and provided a swanky, chi-chi contrast to his own humble town of birth, Wilkes-Barre, which was but a couple of hours away.

Meryon is thus an anthem for enterprising construction — both present and past — yet still its signification slides in and out of several pockets of meaning. Content becomes process; process becomes object; object becomes concept. Concept is the content, no matter how concrete and materialistic the painting feels.

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Above: Franz Kline (American, 1910-1962): Meryon, 1960-61. Oil on canvas, 235.9 x 195.6 cm. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London