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A tale of two artistic cities
Brancusi. Bird in Space, 1928. Picture: ADAGP / Licensed by Viscopy.

I'm standing among some of the world's greatest works of art, by geniuses such as Picasso, Pollock, Matisse, Mondrian and Warhol. But the poetry's not only on the walls - it's in the air:

You cannot find his pain inside immaculate lines.

You cannot find the sleepless hours spent alone.

His brush moving non-stop till his fingers blistered;

a pause to double over in dry heaves; when done,

begin again, breath hitching; snot and tears

as unyielding stripes forced order on the primal;

sketched first on the page, each new cage designed

to perfect the prime balance.

From Mondrian's War by Mike Allen (2008)

"That's very moving," says Art Gallery of Western Australia guide Trish Sanders to fellow guide Alan Ruda, who's just recited those words in front of Mondrian's black-gridded, primary-colour crazy white expanse, Trafalgar Square.

Sanders and Ruda are treating me to a Literary Links tour of the Art Gallery of WA's Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters, which features major works from New York's Museum of Modern Art. It's a real eye and ear opener.

"There are some big literary links here," says Sanders. "One of the first people Picasso met in Paris was Max Jacob, who introduced him to avant-garde writers such as Apollinaire. Picasso actually wrote a lot of poetry himself. But he was a much better painter than he was a poet."

Sanders goes on to talk about Joan Miro, who was also a poet; Matisse, who read poetry every morning; and Brancusi, whose sculpture Golden Bird was the subject of a poem by modernist poet Mina Loy, below. Brancusi's similar Bird in Space is included in the exhibition. "It's a very special poem," says Sanders. "It sums up Bird in Space so beautifully and is a wonderful way of explaining abstraction."

As we hit Jackson Pollock I'm reminded of the New York school of poets, such as John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and Frank O'Hara. A Literary Links tour is really a tale of two cities - Paris and New York, both of which share the honour of having been the centre of the cultural and artistic universe. Which is almost how Perth feels when you're standing among these magnificent works of art listening to equally magnificent poetry.

Brancusi's Golden Bird

The toy
become the aesthetic archetype
As if
some patient peasant God
had rubbed and rubbed
the Alpha and Omega
of Form
into a lump of metal
A naked orientation
unwinged unplumed
— the ultimate rhythm
has lopped the extremities
of crest and claw
from
the nucleus of flight
The absolute act
of art conformed
to continent sculpture
— bare as the brow of Osiris
this breast of revelation
an incandescent curve
licked by chromatic flames
in labyrinths of reflections
This gong
of polished hyperaesthesia
shrills with brass
as the aggressive light
strikes
its significance
The immaculate
conception
of the inaudible bird
occurs
in gorgeous reticence...

Mina Loy (1922)

Literary Links tours run 2pm Mondays and 6pm Fridays. Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters is on until December 3 at the Art Gallery of WA. For more information visit www.picassotowarhol.artgallery.wa.gov.au