Demuth's portrait of a poet

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This zestful painting by American modernist Charles Demuth has achieved the dubious status of widespread familiarity. It has long been an icon of modern art. But confronted again head-on, "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold" startles you with its potent originality. It almost literally outshines and outmaneuvers any danger of its becoming a cliché. You might think about it absently as a well-worn part of art history. But to encounter it in its complex immediacy is to see what a dynamic invention it actually is.

The painting celebrates a poem. It is also sometimes described as a kind of portrait of the writer of the poem, William Carlos Williams. There are references to Williams in the painting that are like a subtext. Demuth even placed the poet's initials alongside his own. The poem is called "The Great Figure" and begins: "Among the rain/ and lights/ I saw the figure 5/ in gold/ on a red/ firetruck...." It is an Imagist poem, intended to have the objectivity of a painting. It captures a brief experience. (Williams described the moment also in his autobiography.) The poem is short, not narrative. Like a haiku, it is meant to be as instant and momentary as a procession of words can be. "Now," not a passage through time.

Demuth's painting is not an illustration of the words. It is not like a picture in a book that provides a pictorial equivalent to an episode in the story. But Williams's spontaneous vision of the figure 5 does determine the painting's dominating, magical image. A numeral is a graphic symbol, and only has two dimensions. To use this as the subject of a painting, while its realistic context – the fire engine – is relegated to the background, was surprising and original.

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Signs on buildings were features of the industrial world that had previously found their way into paintings by Demuth, but the golden "5" is not just part of a picture. Repeatedly enlarged as if it is, of itself, a forward momentum, it surges toward the viewer until it seems about to burst into our space. It is the painting.

• 'The Great Figure,' by William Carlos Williams, is from 'Collected Poems: 1909-1939, Vol. 1,' 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Used with permission.

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