Peter Milton, Interiors VI: Soundings (1989)
Notes to Poem:

"An Augustinian Awakening—
Peter Milton's Interiors VI: Soundings"

Peter Y. Chou

Preface: On Sunday, August 2, 2009, I visited Stanford's Cantor Art Center with an artist friend. We were interested in viewing the newly opened exhibit on July 29 "From the Bronze Age of China to Japan's Floating World". However the most interesting work of the day was in the "Pop to Present" exhibit— Peter Milton's etching Interiors VI: Soundings (1989). I'm not familiar with this contemporary printmaker, but this work intrigued me immensely. The curator's comment on this piece says the scene is from London's Hotel Ritz, that appears to be under water. But it could also be sandwiched between two tanks of water. Afterwards, I found Peter Milton's web site and also a biography of this American artist born in 1930. Milton's mentor at Yale (1950-1954) was Josef Albers. Since I love Albers' series Homage to the Square (1957-1971), I find myself also admiring Peter Milton's work. In 1962, Milton learned he was color blind and ceased painting in color, and began working as a black & white printmaker. After studying his Soundings, I had an Augustinian awakening that inspired this poem. Below are my Notes to the poem sharing my epiphany.

Commentary on Poem: "An Augustinian Awakening—
Peter Milton's Interiors VI: Soundings"

Is London's Hotel Ritz under water
or sandwiched between fish tank in front
and a whale aquarium in the back?

Hotel Ritz in London is located at 150 Piccadilly Circle. Milton's etching Interiors VI: Soundings (1989) resembles the Tea Room (left) with its marble columns and arched ceiling. At first glance, it appears that the Ritz is under water. Upon closer viewing, it seems to be dry and sandwiched between two bodies of water— fish tank in front and whale aquarium at the back. The tables were removed to give the floor a greater spatial expanse.

Are the conductor and musicians playing
Handel's Water Music, Schubert's Trout Quintet,
or Hovhaness' And God Created Great Whales?

Since the musicians are between two tanks of water, they may be playing water theme pieces:
George Frideric Handel's Water Music (1717) premiered on July 17, 1717 when King George I requested a concert on the River Thames. Soft music was played when the King's boat and the orchestra's barge with 50 musicians were close together, while louder, brisk passages were played whtn the boats drifted apart. Franz Schubert's Trout Quintet (1819) was composed when he was only 22 years old, written for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The 4th movement Andantino-Allegro has a musical motif picturing the trout appearing and disappearing in the water (depicted by rising and falling notes, respectively). Alan Hovhaness' And God Created Great Whales, Op. 229 (1970) used taped recordings of humpback whales. The piece begins with rushing sounds in the strings and a simple melody that emerges in the brass and high bells. The music becomes quieter, and a lovely and light pentatonic melody like a sea shanty occurs in the high winds and strings, with lovely harmonies beneath.

In the grand ballroom two couples are waltzing,
two birds flying above the floor, while wolves
watch a biker and his ghost double ride away.

Peter Milton seems to prefer pairs in Soundings— two couples waltzing, two birds flying off the floor, two cyclists (one ghostlike), two whales (a third is blocked off by the column), two choir boys exiting the frame, artist with two pencils drawing two dark figures, two tables one occupied by Colette and companion, the other by the artist Peter Milton himself drawing. Ten years earlier, Milton's etching Country Pieces I: The Couple (1979) shows a couple walking in the park with two dogs running before them in the snow. Are these dogs now watching in the background as this couple waltz at the Ritz?

Is the artist in Café Florian
Caffé Florian is a historical coffee bar in Venice's St. Mark's Square founded in 1720. Marble tables and cushion chairs are under the arcades where an orchestra plays from the late afternoon. It appears that Peter Milton has combined London's Ritz with Caffé Florian in Venice for his etching. Since only the mirrorlike lettering "ffe Flo" are visible in this print, it seems the artist is outside Caffé Florian, and the fish tank he's gazing at is inside the coffee bar.

or looking at it pondering the fishes
or the two dark figures he's drawing?

Artist in foreground drawing
from Interiors VI: Soundings (1989)

Peter Milton: Drawing Toward Etching, Brooklyn Museum (1980)

Photo of Peter Milton, Frontispiece
The Primacy of Touch (1993)
I didn't know who is the artist drawing in the foreground of Peter Milton's Interiors VI: Soundings. Attempts to find a photo of Peter Milton on the web were unsuccessful. When they retrieved Peter Milton: Drawing Toward Etching from Stanford Auxiliary Library, I had my first view of Peter Milton's photo. This pamphlet from Brooklyn Museum Exhibit (March 22-May 4, 1980) shows Milton with glasses and beard resembling the artist drawing in Interiors VI: Soundings nine years later. At Stanford Art Library, I located The Primacy of Touch: The Drawings of Peter Milton (1993) that confirms the artist's self-portait in Soundings.

At the table behind him is Colette
in deep reverie while her companion
strikes a match to light her cigarette.

Milton used André Kertesz's photo of Colette for his drawing of the French novelist who wrote Gigi (1944). Colette died in 1954, four years before her novella was made into a Vincente Minnelli film musical (1958) that won ten Academy Awards. However, Colette picked Audrey Hepburn for the 1951 Broadway play on Gigi. Google search for "Colette + Aquarium" turned up Colette Atherton, a 3-year old girl's tropical fishes, a short story "A Trip to the Aquarium" by Colette Georgil, and Colette Devou's Waikiki Aquarium.

Are we inside Colette's and her cat's interior dreams

Detail of cat beneath Colette's table
gazing at fish tank in the lower right corner of
Peter Milton's Interiors VI: Soundings (1989)

Colette and her cat in the Palais-Royal arcade.
Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh:
A Life of Colette

Colette & her cats in 1939.
Claude Francis & Fernande Gontier, Creating Colette, Volume 2 (1999)
Colette (1873-1954) was a prolific fiction writer with around 50 novels published, many with autobiographical elements. All her novels were marked by clever observation and dialogue with an intimate, explicit style. I'm unfamiliar with her work except seeing Vincente Minnelli's film Gigi, so I don't know whether Milton has any of Colette's work in this etching. Reading Colette biographies, water seems to be a theme in her life— Colette discovered herself to be a dowser, cutting a Y-shaped mimosa twig in detecting underground water. While living in a Saint-Tropez hotel in 1926, Colette jumped out of bed in her nightgown at night and rescued a fox terrier in the harbor from drowning. (Francis & Gontier, Creating Colette, Volume 2, p. 119). In Monte Carlo (June 1951), a 79-year old Colette wrote "The ponds of my countryside have caressed an abundance of fish known to the generation of my father." (Herbert Lottman, Colette: A Life, 1991, p. 295). When I spotted a cat under Colette's table gazing at the fish tank, it reminded me of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat. Peter Milton's Interiors III: Time with Celia (1986) shows a girl reading Alice in Wonderland with a cat on the stairs above her. Since Celia is an anagram for Alice, there may be a dialogue between these two prints as well as Interiors I: Family Reunion (1984) where a cat is edging out of the lower left frame. Colette quote: "Time spent with cats is never wasted." Colette bought a pearl gray Chartreuse at a cat show in 1926 (Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, 1999, pp. 396-397), and wrote a novel La Chatte (The Cat) in 1933 (See book review "Colette and a Cat" in New York Times, August 9, 1936). Since Colette was married (1912-1924) to Henri de Jouvenel, and had an affair with his stepson Bertrand de Jouvenel, it triggered my memory of Michel Jouvet who pioneered research on cat dreams, whose 1968 "Dreams Research" lectures I attended at Cornell.

choir boys leaving as though religion is exiting this world?
Irving L. Finkelstein's article Peter Milton Revisited: A Decade of "Interiors" Prints noted the choir boys behind Colette moving out from the scene and commented: "They are the only religious reference here, and it is as though religion were making an exit, disappearing from the contemporary secular world." However, as noted later, we'll see that there is much religious references in this work that span the Bible from Genesis to the Book of Revelations.

At the far left Venetian gondolas float
on the floor— are these rescue vessels
for the oncoming flood at end times?

In this etching Peter Milton has combined the interior of London's Hotel Ritz with Venice's Caffé Florian. Hence, it is not surprising to find Venetian gondolas's presence from the watery city in London. In Peter Milton: Complete Prints 1960-1996 (1996) there is a section "Twenty Questions: Peter Milton Interviewed by Robert F. Johnson. In Question 13, Milton discusses Interiors V & VI: Water Music & Soundings: "In Water Music a giant whale looms ambiguously behind the frolicking figures, looking down with an Olympian eye. In Soundings whales reappear in a fantastic Venetian piazza. I see the ambience in which the central figure (myself) is sitting with his one pencil and three erasers as a microcosm of the contemporary world: grand, filled with distractions and histories, sinking." (emphasis mine)

Suddenly, Augustine's awakening—
hexagonal beehive floor tiles hint at
God's six days of creation that's perfect.

The hexagonal honeycomb floor tiles in this etching gave me an Augustinian awakening. The first chapter of Genesis concludes with: "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day." (Genesis, I.31). God rested on the seventh day after completing his work. St. Augustine commented in The City of God, XI.30: "Six is a number perfect in itself, and not because God created all things in six days; rather, the converse is true. God created all things in six days." Six is regarded as a "perfect number", for it equals the sum of its divisors (1+2+3=6), and also it is divisible by both an odd and an even number, and so may be said harmoniously to combine elements of each. The Number 6 in Nature shows how this perfect number appears in the 6-cornered snowflake, 6-sided hexagonal honeycomb, and 6-pointed star eucalyptus nut. The fresco painting at left is Sandro Botticelli's Saint Augustine (1480) at the Church of Ognissanti in Florence.

We're in sacred space and Biblical times—
five musicians' soundings of water bringing
forth the whales on creation's fifth day

When I counted five musicians at the left, it occurred to me that they may be playing Schubert's Trout Quintet instead of Handel's Water Music. However, once I learned that the whales were created on the fifth day, Alan Hovhaness' And God Created Great Whales would be a more appropriate selection: Genesis I.21-23: "And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth. And the evening and the morning were the fifth day."
Whale Symbolism 1: The power of the cosmic waters, hence regeneration, both cosmic and individual; also the engulfing grave. The belly of the whale is both a place of death and rebirth, as in the Old Testament symbol of Jonah; being swallowed by the whale is entry into the darkness of death, and emerging from the whale, after the traditional period of the three days of the dark of the moon, is the emerging from the cavern of initiation into new life, resurrection. In Christianity, the whale depicts the Devil, its jaws are the gates of hell and its belly is hell. (J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, Thames & Hudson, London, 1978, pp. 190-191). Whale Symbolism 2: Symbolic of the world, the body and the grave, and also regarded as an essential symbol of containing (and concealing). Rabanus Maurus (Operum III, Allegoriae in Sacram Scripturam) lays particular stress on this aspect. Nowadays, however, the whale seems to have acquired more independence as a symbolic equivalent of the mystic mandorla, or the area of intersection of the circles of heaven and earth, comprising and embracing the opposites of existence. (J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, Philosophical Library, NY, 1962, p. 350)

to the two witnesses of Revelations
Although things look quite merry inside Hotel Ritz with music and dancing going on, the Venetian gondolas at the far left hint at ominous times ahead. If we are near end times, then the two dark figures in Milton's drawing may be the two witnesses of Revelations, XI.3-4: "And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth." The images of "two olive trees" and "two candlesticks" may be represented by the two olives (or cherries) in the plate near the artist and the two pencils in his hand. G. A. Gaskell interprets the Two Witnesses as symbols of Love and Wisdom— atma-buddhi, which witness the process of the soul's development in the lower nature. They appear to be killed out of the soul by desire (the beast) in its early stages of growth, but afterwards they revive and live through the power of the Spirit of Christ. (Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myths, Julian Press, 1960, p. 820).

that the Age of Pisces is yielding to
the Aquarian Age purifying us all

When I saw the two fishes at the top of the tank and the border between them, it reminded me of the astrological symbol for Pisces )-(. Since Christ was born at the beginning of the Piscean Age, when the Sun entered the Zodiac of Pisces (a period of 2000 years)— Christianity has dominated the human psyche for the last two millennia. Aquarius is the 11th astrological sign with the Zodiac symbol of "water bearer" associated with cleansing. The Aquarian Age follows the Piscean Age.

with seventeen fishes symbolizing
Simon Peter's catch at Galilee—
his unbroken net full of 153 fishes.

"Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now caught. Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken." (John, XXI.10-11). Saint Augustine was the first to interpret the symbolic meaning of 153, the number of fishes Jesus helped Peter & James catch in the Sea of Galilee Tractates on the Gospel of John, 122). Being adept in mathematics he knew that 153 is the 17th triangular number, the sum of 1 through 17. He called 17 a mystical number, combining the Ten Commandments (Exodus XX.2-17) with Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, awe of the Lord) (Isaiah XI.2-3). The number 153 is also the sum of the first five factorials: 1! + 2! + 3! + 4! + 5! = 1 + 2 + 6 + 24 + 120 = 153.
The number 153 also equals the sum of cubes of its digits: 13 + 53 + 33 = 1 + 125 + 27 = 153.
Béla Bartók's Mikrokosmos has 153 progressive piano pieces. The 17th day of the second month began the Biblical Flood of Noah when "the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights." (Genesis VII.11-12). On the 17th day of the seventh month Noah's ark finally came to rest "upon the mountains of Ararat." (Genesis VIII.4). By placing 17 fishes in the tank through which we enter Interiors VI: Soundings, Milton shares with us the Biblical Flood history of the 17th day as well as the miracle of 153 fishes. This is a visionary work ushering us in the transition from Pisces into the Aquarian Age.

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (8-17-2009)