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The Figure 5 in Gold

Artist: Charles Demuth
Created: 1928
Dimensions (cm): 75.6 x 91.4
Format: Oil on composition board
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Among the rain and lights I saw the figure 5 in gold on a red fire truck moving tense unheeded to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city

That is The Great Figure, one of William Carlos Williams' most famous poems. Charles Demuth's Figure Five in Gold is a direct tribute to that poem. The piece is perhaps a mix of genuine praise and simple promotion: Williams and Demuth were friends and colleagues. Still, Demuth's painting both effectively evokes the powerful image of Williams' poem and expands on it.

The painting reflects the fundamental nature of Williams' poem: image-focused, non-thematic, and chaotic. The prominence of the gold 5 is of course essential. However, the receding image of the 5 hints at the insistent forward motion of the fire truck in the poem. Like the poem, the painting is thus able to convey the urgent, rapid motion of its subject without even directly alluding to that motion. In the painting, that sense of urgency is strongly reinforced by the construction. The images and colors surrounding the three 5s are sharply disjointed and overlaid. Different shapes and colors are packed so densely together that proper perspective is impossible. The colors, light, and the omnipresent 5 hammer home the cacophony and chaos of the scene.

Though he focused on capturing the image evoked by Williams in his poem (Williams was an Imagist poet after all), Demuth also made other allusions to Williams and his work, some subtle, others less so. For example, aside from the letters C.D., an obvious reference to Demuth himself, BILL, CARLO[S], and W.C.W. are all visible at various places in the painting's periphery. All these are clearly nods to Williams. More subtly, and perhaps most important, is that Demuth captured the multiplicity of experience inherent in a single moment. This was a key element of Williams' poetry, and Demuth captured it beautifully on canvas.


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