Lawrence Ferlinghetti once wrote about the intersection of poetry and painting by saying: “It chose me, I didn’t choose it.”
Becoming a poet, he said, happens “almost against one’s will, certainly against one’s better judgment. I wanted to be a painter but from the age of ten onward these damn poems kept coming. Perhaps one of these days they will leave me alone and I can get back to painting.”
Before his death in 2021 at age 101, Ferlinghetti was best known as a Bay Area literary icon. The San Francisco Poet Laureate who co-owned City Lights Bookstore in North Beach and famously published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for which he was arrested on an obscenity charge. His own collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, sold more than 1 million copies and was printed in a dozen languages.
But Ferlinghetti was a painter as long as he was a poet. This week, the Triton Museum of Art explores his visual art in its new exhibit Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Painter, Poet & Pacifist. The paintings are complemented by portraits by photographer Chris Felver, who directed the excellent 2013 documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder.
Ferlinghetti was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents who met on Coney Island. While a Navy officer during WWII, he visited Nagasaki just after the atomic bombing, a moment that he often said made him an “instant pacifist.” But it was while studying at the Sorbonne in the late 1940s that he started painting, later moving to S.F. in 1951 and taking up a studio in the Audiffred Building on Mission Street. A few years later he opened City Lights Bookstore, which became the celebrated hub for Beat poets and other writers.
In the new collection’s 50 paintings and other pieces, Ferlinghetti translates all of his life experiences—personal, social-political, artistic inspirations, etc.—through the use of frequent themes: people in boats, the sea, birds.
“He was a submarine chaser,” says exhibit curator John Mathias. “He had a real love of the sea from that point in time, not just in his paintings but in his writing.”
Mother Russia, for example, features a black-and-white silhouette with a hammer-and-sickle on its face standing next to a crow, while War sees an eagle carrying a woman in its mouth. Pieces such as Boat People, The Upper Classes and Liberty #2, in which a blindfolded woman and the Statue of Liberty are sitting in the same boat against a backdrop of yellow (another recurring theme), can be interpreted as commentaries on not just war, but immigration and wealth disparity. There’s an entire series of etchings called “Adrift.”
“One of the reasons he went to North Beach was because so many of the people were immigrants,” says Mathias. “And so many people on the docks. One of the things he loved about North Beach was that it was a two-story city as opposed to coming from New York, that’s a concrete 20-story city.”
Elsewhere, Ferlinghetti interprets other artists and literary figures such as Freud, Van Gogh, Picasso, Proust, Thomas Wolfe and E.E. Cummings. Sometimes he incorporates both of his loves—prose and art—painting with big brush strokes on banners that read: “Love Each Other and the Truth? Will Triumph” or “The Third World War Will be the War Against the Third World….”
“He had a fear of war,” Mathias says. “He was very much aware of the war being done by the military industrial complex against immigrants, against people that don’t have anything, against the rich and the non-rich.”
The oldest work on display, 1956’s Battle with the Image, depicts a man with outstretched arms, resembling the symbol that appears on City Lights Bookstore. The most recent, from 2015 and 2016, are more paintings of boats that seem unfinished, likely due to Ferlinghetti’s fading vision in his later years.
“In a painterly way, I don’t know that he changed the world,” says Mathias. “But he was an urban hero for San Francisco, he was an activist, he had a street named after him. I want the exhibit to remind people to read Ferlinghetti’s works and remember how important it is to ask yourself, ‘Is what I am doing enough to make a difference? Or, let it go?’ As Lawrence said, ‘Fuck art. Let’s dance.’”
Opens Sat, 11am, Free
Triton Museum of Art, Santa Clara