Seamus Heaney and Jan Hendrix: A Shared Landscape of Inspiration

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©Omar Meneses, courtesy of Jan Hendrix

The long friendship and collaboration between Seamus Heaney and Jan Hendrix has been hitherto a little known story and began on paper and in inspiration many years before they first met in person. When the late Nobel prize-winning Irish poet and the Dutch-born artist and architect finally met backstage at the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam in 1993 it was, as Hendrix evocatively recounts, in ‘the good company of Joseph Brodsky, James Fenton, Bert Schierbeek, totally hilarious and carburetted by whiskey and vodka.’

In the late 1970s Hendrix chanced upon a copy of Heaney’s first published collection, Death of a Naturalist (Faber & Faber, 1966), and was, as he says, ‘immediately hooked’. One poem in the collection, ‘Lovers on Arran’, inspired him to create a series of prints which he sent to Heaney in Dublin. The prints generated an initially hesitant correspondence between the two, which then gained a far greater momentum when a mutual friend, Dutch poet Hans van de Waarsenburg, not only became their go-between but also suggested that the pair should collaborate on a book. In the end their collaboration grew to a trilogy of exquisite, limited edition, letterpress books combining Heaney’s words and Hendrix’s artworks, conceived, created, and published over a period of nearly twenty five years.

Their first book, The Golden Bough (Bonnefant Press, 1992), was Heaney’s translation of a section of Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI, whilst the second, The Light of Leaves (Bonnefant Press, 1999), was a collection of poems dedicated to fellow poets, including Joseph Brodsky and Ted Hughes. For their final collaboration, which they had been working on for a number of years before Heaney’s death in 2013, they returned to Virgil with Heaney’s full translation of Aeneid Book VI. This edition has just been published by Bonnefant Press, with the full support of the Heaney family, and launched alongside an exhibition of Hendrix’s artworks for the book presented by Maestro Arts in collaboration with Shapero Modern in London. Further events and exhibitions for the book are planned to take place in Ireland and Mexico later this year. To complement the works on show at Shapero Modern another exhibition, After Nature, featuring Hendrix’s large scale botanical prints and sculptures is also running at Maestro Arts’ own gallery space in London.

For the artworks in each of the books Hendrix was inspired by the landscape of Yagul, a UNESCO world heritage site in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Yagul, which means ‘old tree’ in the language of the Zapotec civilisation for whom the site was a former city-state, is situated on a volcanic outcrop looking out over the fertile alluvial land of Oaxaca’s central valley. The site contains both the ruins of the Zapotec city, which was still inhabited at the time of the Spanish Conquistadores and prehistoric caves with evidence of habitation going back thousands of years. ‘It’s a very small site,’ says Hendrix, ‘but with a brilliant topography and an astonishing vegetation of semi-desert flora, acacias, and giant cacti.’

He first visited Yagul after moving to Mexico in 1975, a move that was precipitated by meeting the Mexican woman who would become his first wife whilst studying in England in 1973. He arrived intending only to stay a few months and with, by his own admission, the scantest knowledge of the country gleaned from his love of TexMex music, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), and as he says, ‘some foggy knowledge on muralism, plus that Cuba wasn’t far away.’ As a coda to which, over forty years later he still lives there and indeed his own contribution to Mexican culture was formally recognised in 2012 when he was awarded the country’s highest award for foreign nationals, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, for his art and architecture. Over the years he has taken the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the country particularly to archaeological sites. ‘Landscape became my inspiration and my muse a long time ago,’ he explains, ‘and the more ruined and overgrown the more attractive it is to me – it becomes like a scarred landscape, a coming together of man and land.’ Yagul became the embodiment of this inspiration and muse.

Yagul also became an inspiration and muse for Heaney, initially on paper through the artworks for their first two books and then in person in 2000 when he and his wife, Marie, visited Hendrix in Mexico. The three stayed in Oaxaca, close to Yagul, for a number of days and travelled out to the site. ‘It was clear that he loved the place as much as I did,’ Hendrix recounts, ‘Yagul became Heaney territory, an outpost of mythological space to be explored as much by him as by me.’ Intriguingly, Heaney and Hendrix had both grown up on farms and had had similar experiences, as Hendrix explains, ‘being brought up on a poor and small farm in the north of Ireland or in the south of Holland makes no difference at all, the protocol and rituals are the same.’ Hendrix feels this added another layer of affinity to their collaborations and also to the shared creative impulse they took from Yagul. ‘Probably it’s a farming boy’s instincts,’ he says, ‘it’s like claiming land for future inspiration.’

Fittingly, the landscape that they had both claimed for future inspiration would be very much to the fore in the last collaboration which was set in motion by happenstance nine years later. ‘We met by chance in the café of Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid where Seamus had been giving a reading,’ Hendrix explains, ‘the next day we sat down for coffee and a good talk and he suddenly proposed that we go for one more book – he told me he was working on his translation of Book VI.’

Aeneid Book VI was something that had fascinated Heaney for a large part of his life and to a certain degree his translation was a lifetime’s work. In his final poetry collection, Human Chain (Faber & Faber, 2010), the poem ‘Route 110’ recalls his boyhood purchase of a secondhand copy of the book from a female shop assistant in a Belfast bookshop:

‘In the slack marsupial vent
Of her change-pocket, thinking what to charge
For a used copy of Aeneid VI.’

The poet particularly turned to exploring Aeneid Book VI after the death of his father in 1986 and in his collection, Seeing Things (Faber & Faber, 1991); in coming to terms with his loss he took inspiration from the afterlife visions of Virgil and Dante. The collection included a translation of fifty lines of ‘The Golden Bough’ from Aeneid Book VI which lead on to his first collaboration with Hendrix. For their final book Heaney wanted a ‘very dark feeling’, Hendrix says, ‘remember Book VI is all about the father and son, death, the underworld and afterlife.’ To reflect this in the ten lithographs in the book Hendrix chose to portray the Yagul landscape in a lowering Dantesque setting, deep with crepuscular shadow and portent. ‘The images are made in a panoramic fashion,’ he explains, ‘as if standing on the great rock watching over the surrounding valleys.’

The Aeneid Book VI, with Seamus Heaney, A. 2016, silkscreen on silver leaf, 117 x 38cm

The prints of the images from the book in the attendant exhibition are silkscreens on silver and gold leaf and aluminium foil. The use of the metallic backgrounds provides him with a way to reference both different times of day, as he says, ‘morning light – silver, evening light – gold’ but also to create another layer of reference to the landscape exploring the use of gold and silver in the icons of the Russian Orthodox Church in which he explains, ‘gold or silver represent the abstract space, the spiritual space’. The shimmering metallic backgrounds to the images of the Mexican landscape for their last collaboration also draw a pleasing echo of the poem through which the collaboration and friendship began, ‘Lovers on Arran’:

‘The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas’

With the publication of the book and the exhibition, Hendrix is not only saying farewell to ‘a dear friend’ but also ‘a dear place’ as he has vowed never to return to Yagul again. ‘It is a cycle coming to an end, Seamus was tinkering with the text right up until he died,’ he says, before continuing even more poignantly, ‘I got the feeling he didn’t want to finish it ever’. Compounding the poignancy he then adds that on his last visit to Yagul he noticed that, ‘strangely enough the cactuses that I portrayed in 1992 and 1999 and the years in between are now dying and disappearing.’

Although he has said farewell to his friend and collaborator and their shared landscape of inspiration, the inspiration of natural history that they both shared continues to inform Hendrix’s work as highlighted by the exhibition, After Nature, which complements the Aeneid Book VI Heaney – Hendrix exhibition. The large scale botanical prints and sculptures were informed by the unique access he was granted by the Natural History Museum, London, the specimens gathered by pioneering scientist, Sir Joseph Banks, in Australia in the 1770s. For Hendrix, these works follow on directly from his works inspired by the Yagul landscape. ‘It became totally logical to study its science, it would be  strange not to have plunged into the world of discovery, expeditions, the life of plants,’ he says ‘and observe the present and systematic destruction of all those great discoveries – now we are living the age of destruction of nature in general.’ He pauses and then concludes, ‘in a nutshell, nature provides me with all the forms I need.’


By Guy Sangster-Adams

Aeneid Book VI, Seamus Heaney and Jan Hendrix (Bonnefant Press, 2017)

Jan Hendrix
Aeneid Book VI – Heaney Hendrix
Shapero Modern
until 18 February 2017

Jan Hendrix
After Nature
Maestro Arts
until 13 April 2017