“Happy Rimbaud’s Birthday,” Patti Smith said to a scrum of journalists, as she walked into her exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut, yesterday. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud would have been 157. Ms. Smith has been celebrating the day for 47 years.
She was wearing black glasses, black shoes and a long black jacket, which was designed by a friend, the Belgian fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester, she said, pointing to her in two of the tiny black-and-white photographs that lined the galleries.
Nearby was a long replica of the wooden litter that once carried Rimbaud, stricken with gangrene in one of his legs, down a mountain in Ethiopia and hundreds of miles to a boat bound for Marseilles, France, where he sought a doctor.
“Ann’s such an angel,” the singer said, “and it’s nice for Arthur to have a guardian angel.”
Death is everywhere in the exhibition. Ms. Smith photographed the graves of Modigliani, Brancusi and Blake, Percy Shelley, Susan Sontag and Walt Whitman. She begins with a simple Polaroid snapshot, which she then photographs again and prints as silver gelatins. There are about 70 in the exhibition, which is called “Camera Solo”—“a room of one’s own,” loosely, in Italian.
Some images show the beds of artists, including those of the poet Jim Carroll (gray and austere), Victor Hugo (held by rich, polished wood), and Keats, whose simple white bedding is cloaked in shadows. “You can feel the sickness in his room,” Ms. Smith said. “There is an instant sense of melancholy.”
“My own bed is littered with crap,” Ms. Smith said, when asked if she ever depicts her own sleeping quarters. “I work in my bed, and I watch Law and Order in my bed.” After speaking for a while, she excused herself to test the sound for the evening’s concert, an annual tradition on Rimbaud’s birthday.
A few vitrines function as reliquaries, holding the artist’s prized possessions: photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s blush Belgian shoes, monogrammed with a golden “RM,” photos of her parents (Rolodex cards inscribed “Mommy” and “Daddy” in her ornate script sit below them) and the original image that adorns the cover of her recent memoir, Just Kids, which shows her with Mapplethorpe in 1969 at Coney Island. They are celebrating their second anniversary.
Wadsworth director Susan Lubowsky Talbott, who curated the exhibition, likened Ms. Smith’s photographs to “symbolic portraits,” with objects taking the place of absent subjects: Roberto Bolaño’s chair, the river Ouse (in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself), the life mask of Blake.
“Her aesthetic is rooted in the 19th century,” Ms. Talbott said, describing Ms. Smith’s practice, which often points into the past, back to Romantic poets or her own life in 1970s New York, in poverty and surrounded by artists. “She is never irreverent,” the curator noted. The works radiate sincerity. “Beauty,” she said, “has been such a difficult subject for contemporary artists.”
Later, in the evening, hundreds–trustees, museum donors, assorted guests–arrived for the opening reception, and after a few drinks, noisily, giddily moved into the museum’s plush theater, where, Ms. Talbott noted, Gertrude Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts debuted in 1934.
Ms. Smith walked on stage cradling a large stack of books, accompanied by longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye, who held a guitar, and her daughter Jesse, who sat at a grand piano. She opened with “Grateful,” a tribute to Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia, and then read Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” alternating throughout the evening between songs and poems.
She read from her preface to a Rimbaud reissue, and from the final letter she wrote to Mapplethorpe, which arrived after he had died of AIDS in 1989. The room was silent.
Near the end of her set she spoke of a recent visit to Madrid, as protests swept through the city, and she brought up the Occupy Wall Street movements now sweeping the world, which recently arrived in Hartford.
“I think the important thing is that they are there, declaring their existence,” she told the crowd. “We should look at them with love and pride. They want what we all want. They want to rebuild the world and make it better.” There was scattered applause and a few cheers.
“The people rule,” she cried, ending a fierce version of “Peaceable Kingdom” later in the evening, her first raised into the air. “Occupy.”
It took only a single motion of her hands for Ms. Smith to have most of the audience clapping in unison when she wanted them to do so, as she did closing her set with “Because the Night.” She left the to a standing ovation, and then returned to the stage with her band., motioning the crowd to remain standing as she launched into “People Have the Power.”
“It’s decreed, the people rule,” she sang, and many in the crowd sang along with her. Some danced, hands waving above their heads. “It’s decreed, the people rule.”