Saturday, May 23, 2015

Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- a reprise (May 2009)


Each day at college, as I go to collect my laptop, I pass the Art Department's bulletin board. And, in recent weeks, I have been drawn up short by an announcement for a gallery show by the New England artist Janet Rickus, with this illustration of one of her works.

Why? What is it that so attracts me to the painting? A collection of ceramics and a fat vegetable arrayed on crisp cloths. The original painting, I understand from the internet, is life size. I also see from the internet that this is typical of Rickus' work.

Technical proficiency? The artist is indeed stunningly adept at portraying objects realistically. But that alone cannot account for the emotional reaction to her work.

The subject? There is a certain intellectual appeal to the juxtaposition of the organic and inorganic, but surely there is more to it than that. After all, these are commonplace objects, stark in their simplicity.

Maybe it is the stark simplicity of the objects that is their appeal -- shape, color, natural light, shadow. Then too we recognize the intentionality of the artist, her careful selection of the objects, their arrangement, their likenesses and contrasts.

And, yes, now we are getting at it. It is not so much the paintings themselves that grasp our attention, as it is a certain way of seeing the world. A certain way of making the world that we see.

Simple elements. Artfully arranged. Elegantly expressed. These are the same qualities we look for in a scientific theory. When Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity, physicists knew immediately they were in the presence of truth, even though -- initially -- not a single experiment confirmed the theory. The mathematics of general relativity was just too beautiful not to express reality. Beauty is the resonance of a pattern of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world. And that is why beauty is nature's signature of truth.

"Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes my friend Scott Russell Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."

Friday, May 15, 2015

...of elements and an angel sprite -- a reprise (May 8, 2007)



Let me say a few words about another painting that came up in a conversation lately, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini ("Behold the handmaid of the Lord"), painted in 1850. (Click - and again - to enlarge.)

The theme, the Annunciation, was a common one (scroll down for gallery) in Late Medieval and Renaissance art. Rossetti has adopted many of the conventions of that time, but given them a new interpretation.

In the earlier paintings, Mary is generally portrayed as a mature woman, up and about, dressed for the business of the day in red and blue. She is slightly abashed by the words of the angel, but usually appears as if she were expecting the message and accepts her fate with equanimity.

Rossetti's virgin is a young girl, perhaps just woken from sleep, in her night clothes of virginal white. The traditional red is seen here as an embroidery hanging on a folded embroidery frame (we have seen it before in an earlier Rossetti work, The Girlhood of Mary). A blue screen is in the background, and a blue sky.

The lilies, the white dove, and the just extinguished candle (here a wall sconce) are all Medieval and Renaissance conventions.

Something new is going on here.

The angel Gabriel is a slightly androgynous young man, wingless, naked beneath his simple gown. He hovers just above the floor on fiery feet. The stem of the lilies points to Mary's womb. Here are the usual three blossoms, representing, presumably, the Trinity, but one of them is still in bud.

Mary is -- well, you tell me. She seems to be looking at something -- a hint of angelic tumescence? -- that Gabriel's turned posture does not allow us to see. She is aroused, embarrassed, fearful. She doesn't seem to have a clue that she is being invited to be the mother of God.

We are a long way here from the Age of Faith. We are witnessing a very modern drama, one that has less to do with the salvation of the world that working out the tangled scripts of Rossetti's -- and our -- psychosexuality.

If yesterday's Pontormo painting anticipated Copernicus, Vesalius and Agricola, this 1850 work of Rossetti anticipates Darwin and Freud. If we want to understand the painting, it is not to the theology that we must turn, but to evolutionary psychology.

In her big fruitcake of a book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia has a lot to say about Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite "decadence" (although, curiously, she does not mention this early painting). She does mention the influence on Rossetti of "Italian Catholicism's vestigial paganism," and I think here she is close to the mark. In its sacramental colors and symbols, its frank sensuality, and its mythic interpretation of dreams, Rossetti's Annunciation -- this very Catholic painting -- takes us away from the supernatural drama of sin and salvation and back to the forest groves and caves where our neural circuitry acquired its primal wiring.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Sacrament -- one more reprised nod to Vermeer



Tom is here (Ireland) for a visit. He and his wife have just spent a few days in Amsterdam where they visited the Rijksmuseum. The hit of that visit was the four Vermeers, including The Milkmaid, which I have blogged here on several occasions.

Also in Amsterdam is The Little Street, another of my favorites (click to enlarge). It is unlike the other Vermeers I have blogged –- The Milkmaid, Woman Weighing Gold, The Geographer -– all closely observed interior scenes with a single human figure dominating the composition. Here the humans have been reduced to doll-like figures, faces averted -– a woman scrubbing, a woman sewing, two urchins playing on the stoop. What we do have is another exercise in close observation and quiet domesticity, the two things for which Vermeer is universally loved.

As I have said on previous occasions, I admire Vermeer for his Catholic attention to the materiality of the world, the is-ness of things. Whatever is transcendental in his paintings is sacramentally mediated through stuff. Surely, his stuff is there to be accumulated, as one might expect from a citizen of practical, acquisitive, Protestant Holland. But Vermeer sees through the surface of things to the mystery that lies within.

The Little Street is at first glance little more than a pile of bricks, but the bricks speak of an inner life. They bleed their lime. They crumble. They surrender at street level to a calligraphy of whitewash. The lines of perspective converge on a vanishing point deep inside those two dark windows, somewhere below the surface of the painting. The alley, too, hints of interiority.

Vermeer did not choose this scene because it was pretty; it has to the eye untouched by grace a proletarian dreariness about it. Rather, he takes ordinary matter –- brick, mortar, wood, lime, cloth –- and consecrates it with attention, this is my body, this is my blood. To the attentive eye, stuff speaks of its own transcendence, its infinite interiority. A pile of bricks is the journeywork of stars.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Natural and metanatural -- Part 2


"It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things which alone is true living," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch in The Voice of the Desert.

The nail. The iron nail. Vermeer is committed to exact observation and description of the natural world, no detail too small to be overlooked. There is no obvious metaphorical meaning here. The painting does not direct our attention to another reality. It celebrates this reality, the one in which we live and breathe and have our being. Vermeer's life overlapped Galileo's and Newton's. He may have known Leeuwenhoek. He is immersed in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution.

But the nail. How can the experience of a nail be -- dare I say it? -- numinous? Not numinous in the sense of the dictionary's first definition -- of or relating to the supernatural -- but of the second -- spiritually elevating, sublime.

Experience is not passive. It is a conflation of an external object and the experiencer's knowledge and imagination. A numinous experience is one that ignites a firestorm in the brain, a thrill, a rush of pleasure, a sense of the mysterious, of beauty, of overflowing fullness.

I hold an iron nail in my hand, cold and hard. There is first of all the tactile pleasure, purely sensual. But there is more, much more, that knowledge brings to the experience. What I hold in my hand is both a human artifact, rich in history -- an object that pierces wood and plaster -- and an element that is unusually common in the universe for a reason that points us to the deepest mystery of what is.

The Earth's core is mostly iron. There is iron in the crust, too, but iron has a propensity to form alliances with other elements and therefore hides in combination. The solar system swarms with iron meteorites. Iron drops onto the Earth from the sky.

All of which takes us into the cores of stars, where the heavy elements are forged from the primeval hydrogen and helium of the big bang.


Without going into detail, here is a graph familiar to any physicist, the nuclear binding energy curve for the elements. (Click to enlarge.) On the vertical axis, the energy required to break apart the nucleus of an atom into its constituent protons and neutrons. On the horizontal axis, the elements, from hydrogen to the heaviest elements. And there, at the very top of the curve, is iron (Fe), mass number 56, 26 protons and 30 neutrons, the most stable of elements.

If a star were to burn to its end, it would become a ball of iron. But before that happens other forces intervene, which can cause a star to explode and hurl its freshly forged elements into space, ultimately to become part of my body, my brain, and the iron nail in my hand.

The key to numinosity is to perceive the commonplace as part of a cosmic drama we only faintly understand, churning with powers that are perhaps beyond our capacity to know, to feel that drama unfolding in every jot and tittle of the ordinary, to be aware of being swept along on a unfolding tide of being, stars seeding the universe with the elements of life and mind -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin.

A nail. A hole in plaster. As Krutch said, it is not easy to live with a continuous awareness of things. We are grateful for the all too infrequent moments of numinous insight.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Supernatural and metanatural -- Part 1



I first wrote about Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid back in the late-summer of 2009, when the painting was the star of a show at New York's Met. I was so enchanted with the painting that I made it the desktop on one of my laptops, where it has remained ever since. I wrote about it again here and here.

What I like about the painting is the way it celebrates the commonplace, especially the way it illuminates simple material things -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin. We see these things as they are, but also -- though the artist's genius -- as part of a transforming radiance that shines in even the most ordinary things, what in one of those earlier posts I called "the isness of things that overflows our knowing."

Well, here I go again. The Milkmaid is still on my desktop, and for the last day or so I have been fixated on two tiny details -- a nail and a nail hole in the plaster wall. Click image to enlarge. And here is the full painting.

Our first reaction might be surprise that the artist would register such homely details, but that is the charm of the painting -- the re-enchantment of the everyday.

And that, after all, is the challenge of religious naturalism: to experience the mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum -- the fascinating and awe-inspiring mystery -- in every aspect of the natural world.

I am, of course, borrowing these terms from Rudolf Otto, the German Lutheran theologian of the first half of the last century. Otto sought to ground the religious experience in the ordinary physical experience of things, a numinous grasp of something awesome and exhilarating behind the surface. For Otto, that something was "wholly other," a glimpse of the transcendent divine.

Mircea Eliade took up where Otto let off, and spoke of the sacred and profane. He too emphasized the experience of the transcendent in the ordinary, "the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane" world."

Both Otto and Eliade had a huge influence on my generation of seekers, especially in their insistence that religion be grounded in the experience of natural things. All of this meshed well with the Roman Catholic sacramental tradition in which I was raised. But Otto, Eliade and Catholicism saw the numinous experience pointing beyond nature. Eliade wrote: "We cannot speak of naturalism or of natural religion in the sense that the nineteenth century gave to those terms; for it is 'supernature' that the religious man apprehends through the natural aspects of the world."

For the religious naturalist, the intuition of a "wholly other" is a step too far, not just beyond the physiological and psychological experience, but into a kind of anthropomorphic idolatry. What then is it that gives the experience its numinous quality, what I called in one of those earlier posts "metanatural," as opposed to "supernatural"? Tomorrow I will try to answer this question -- by reference to that iron nail in the milkmaid's wall.

Reprised from May 2011.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The geography of spirit -- a reprise (June 2008)



I offer here Jan Vermeer's The Geographer, painted in Holland in 1668-69, as an iconographic image of religious naturalism, particularly that with a Roman Catholic flavor. (Click to enlarge.)

But first, a few words of context.

In the academic year 1968-69, a National Science Foundation grant enabled me to study history of science at Imperial College, London, with A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall. Few scholars know as much about the foundations of modern science, and especially about the beginnings of the Royal Society, established in 1662, the first scientific society. While with the Halls, I had the opportunity to read widely in the early Transactions of the Royal Society, and in the communications of Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Society. What comes across in these documents is an insatiable curiosity about every aspect of the natural world. It is almost like the excitement that attended the discovery and exploration of the transAtlantic New World in the previous two centuries, but this time the "new world" is that in which we live our daily lives, revealed in its depths and dimensions for the first time by telescope and microscope -- and by awakened attention.

Oldenburg was in communication with Vermeer's exact contemporary and fellow citizen of Delft, Anthony van Leewenhoek, the famed microscopist, whose simple instrument revealed an unexplored universe of the very small. Many scholars believe that Leewenhoek my have been the model for The Geographer, and might even have commissioned the work. If so, here we have art and science converging in the lives and works of two remarkable men.

The Geographer is surrounded by the implements of the new secular quest for reliable public knowledge: maps, charts, globes, dividers, square, cross-staff. It is clear that Vermeer shared a respect, even affection, for these objects. His painting offers unmistakable homage to the scientific enterprise.

But more, the painting invites us into the interior thoughts of the Geographer. He is caught in a moment of private reflection, when public and personal knowledge flow and ebb together like a tide on a shore. What is he thinking? What meaning does he glimpse?

Vermeer converted to Catholicism at age 20, probably as a condition for marriage to his Catholic betrothed. But there is no reason to doubt that his conversion was sincere. The scholar Daniel Arasse has suggested that Vermeer's "religion of painting" drew him to, and was reinforced by, the Catholic "dogma of the mysterious union of the visible and the invisible, along with a faith in the power of the image to incorporate a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable." If Arasse is correct, in the distracted gaze of the Geographer we encounter the Catholic sacramental tradition, in which the sensate world of color and materiality invites us to participate, even as spectators of the painting, in an intuited world of inexpressible Mystery.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Landscape as art 2 -- a reprise (May 2009)



A few more thoughts on those Wayne Thiebaud landscapes I shared the day before yesterday. I suggested that the terrestrial environment is inevitably going to be a human artifact, that we might as well make that artifact a work of art, and that artists as well as scientific ecologists might lead he way.

Whenever I hang out with my nature writing pals, they cringe when I mention artifact. They have another notion of what the environment should be, something wild and beautiful and untrammeled by humans. Their notion of what we should strive for is rather more Bierstadt than Thiebaud.

Albert Bierstadt was a 19th-century German-born artist who made his reputation with large, romantic paintings of the American West as it was -- or was imagined to be -- before the coming of those defiling white folks from the East (click to enlarge). Oh, there were humans in Bierstadt's nature, native Americans, but they were imagined to be as seamlessly a part of the natural world as eagles and deer.

Bierstadt's landscapes are no less idealized than Thiebaud's. It is a different esthetic at work -- the esthetic of an unspoiled Eden -- but what you see on the canvas is what you want to see, not what is actually there. If pre-Columbian Americans had a lighter touch on the land it was only because they had less advanced technologies. It is possible that they were implicated in one of the most extensive mass extinctions in recent Earth history (the demise of large North American mammals at the end of the most recent Ice Age). They were certainly engaged in almost constant warfare among themselves. Give Bierstadt's "noble savage" a gun and a steel plow and there goes whatever untrammeled nature you might find in his paintings.

Which is not to say that we might not have much to learn from native Americans about the kind of landscapes we want to create, or that in managing the Yosemite Valley, say, we might not have more to learn from Bierstadt than from Thiebaud. What is important is that we recognize our responsibility toward the future Earth, decide upon a spiritually-nourishing esthetic, and then use the surface of the Earth as an artist might use a canvas.

Two things will work against us: greed and the idealization of the wild. We either create a work of human art, or concede the environment to the exploiters.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Landscape as art -- a reprise (May 2009)


Paul's "Use it or lose it" applies most of all to me. And I've resigned myself to losing it. Mind you, I miss it. Ten years of daily habit. And as I approach 80, I need that stimulation most of all. I miss too the friendship of all of you whom I only know through Comments, some going all the way back to 2004. You've been remarkably stimulating, steadfast and civil porch mates.

But the shakes make writing more pain than pleasure.

In the meantime, I've been trolling through art-inspired posts from the past, and here's another.


..................

I'm still thinking about our walk along England's Ridgeway, the splendid landscapes. Nature,yes. But human cunning too. Careful planning. An ethic of neatness. Respect for the past. Landscape as a work of art.

And I think of the landscape paintings of the California artist Wayne Thiebaud, the ones he did in the 1990s. Thiebaud is perhaps best known for his pop-arty cupcakes and gumball machines. Those pretty confections do nothing for me. But the landscapes! The landscapes stick in my mind like glue.

By all accounts, Thiebaud is an affable fellow. That he has a sense of humor is evident from his paintings. Even his cupcakes exude a genial kindness. Critics talk about the relationship to de Kooning, but for me the spiritual affinity is with Saul Steinberg. And the landscapes! Let's put Thiebaud in charge of the countryside.

The paintings are inspired by the waterways and agriculture fields around Thiebaud's home in the Sacramento Valley, but the viewpoint is clearly some airy place in the artist's imagination. Light, pattern, color, perspective. Wit and ease. An affable grace. Nature, yes. But human cunning too. The cunning of the horticulturist, the animal husbandman, the orchardist, the arborist, the hydrologist. And the cunning of the artist, who informs our vision of what a landscape might be.

Thiebaud's work is all about the sources of our happiness. Cupcakes. Gumball machines. Water making its way to the sea through fields of shimmering color. So fragile, and because they are fragile they are shadowed with the possibility of loss. Nowhere is that loss more tragic than in the uglification of the land itself.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

In the clinic --- a reprise (September 2013)


The American artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is perhaps best known for his paintings of rowers on Philadelphia's rivers, but two of his major works are interesting documents in the history of scientific medicine.

The Gross Clinic (1875) is a huge painting, 96 by 78 inches, and took a year to execute (click to enlarge). It shows Dr. Samuel Gross and his surgical team removing infected bone from the thigh of an adolescent boy (or possibly girl) before an audience of students in the amphitheater of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. We see little of the patient but the exposed thigh and buttocks. The patient's mother (presumably) cringes nearby. A clerk make notes of the proceedings.

Ether and chloroform had been in use for surgery since the middle of the 19th century, and Dr. Gross's patient is presumably feeling no pain. Surely, few discoveries have more radically transformed medicine than the use of effective anesthetics. By 1875, Joseph Lister in England had pioneered the idea of sterile surgery, including the sterilization of surgical instruments with carbolic acid, greatly reducing deaths by post-operative infections. Gross was defiantly behind the curve in this regard, in spite of his lofty reputation.

A second painting on the same theme, The Agnew Clinic, followed in 1889, depicting Dr. David Hayes Agnew and assistants performing a partial mastectomy at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. Everyday frock coats have been replaced with clean, white over-garments, hands are washed, instruments are sterilized, and a nurse (a woman!) is in attendance. As in the earlier painting, the artist has placed himself in the audience; that's him at furthest right. The other spectators are doctors associated with the school, individually recognizable.

In my opinion, The Gross Clinic is far superior as a work of art. The composition forcefully draws the viewer into the scene. The lighting focuses our attention on the brow of the surgeon and the patient's incision. The audience is in semi-darkness. Blood is in evidence, especially on the scalpel in the surgeon's hand. Everything is contrived for dramatic effect. The viewer might as well be there leaning over the patient with instrument in hand, or shrinking like the woman from participation. It is impossible to be emotionally uninvolved.

The Agnew Clinic, on the other hand, is not only biologically sterile; it is emotionally aseptic too, as represented by the apparently bored attitudes of the audience. Only Dr. Agnew's open right hand suggests a hint of passion. This, of course, is what we have come to expect of scientific medicine: cool dispassion and sterile scrubs.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Stands Outside Time


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Art and democracy -- a reprise (November 2010)



We've seen this painting here before, William Merritt Chase's Ringtoss (1896). Well, no, we haven't. But it is certainly evocative of Charles Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit that I commented on earlier this year. The resemblance may not be accidental; Chase may have been influenced by the Sargent painting, which was made about four years earlier. (Click to enlarge.)

Right now I want to contrast the Chase painting with John George Brown's The Card Trick, from about the same era. The two paintings were part of an exhibition last year at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, called American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915.


They could not be further apart in style and subject.

There can be no question about which painting I like best. Ringtoss works in a number of ways. The composition is riveting. The contrast of the crisp peg and quoits in the foreground with the more impressionistic young ladies sends the eye spiraling through the air along with the quoits. The coloring is exquisite. The black toe touching the chalk line on the hardwood floor draws the viewer inexorably into the scene.

The Card Trick is pure kitsch, although impressive in its photorealism.

In Ringtoss we see the rather aristocratic daughters of the aristocratic painter, trying to entertain themselves in their splendid isolation. In The Card Trick we have four street urchins -- bootblacks -- engaging in streetwise smarts.

Drawing room elitism versus curbside democracy. Nineteenth-century European class-consciousness versus the American melting pot.

In an essay on culture in poetry, former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky draws our attention to some observations of Alexis de Tocqueville earlier in the 19th century. "Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests -- in one word, so anti-poetic -- as the life of man in the United States," wrote the aristocratic Frenchman in Democracy in America. The arts in Europe drew upon a rich classical tradition, legends of gods and heroes, larger-than-life themes that lifted men up and out of the ordinary. What, Tocqueville wondered, would inspire poetry "when skepticism had depopulated heaven, and the progress of equality had reduced each individual to smaller and better-known proportions"?

Was Tocqueville's initial diagnosis correct? Is art in a democracy doomed to kitsch? The Card Trick has a democratic sweetness about it, and Brown's paintings of street urchins were popular with the masses, but by the general consensus of critics they never rose to high art. Are the critics snobs, cultural aristocrats? Or, to succeed, do artists necessarily have to remove themselves from the hoi polloi, not necessarily into a Sargent-Chase upper-class drawing room, but at least into a bohemian aloofness?

In spite of his doubts, Tocqueville held out hope for the arts in America: "Among a democratic people poetry will not be fed with legends or the memorials of old traditions…All these resources fail him; but Man remains, and the poet needs no more…[Man himself], with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness, will become the chief, if not the sole, theme of poetry among these [democratic] nations."

Art in a democracy, and especially in America, I would suggest, derives its unique energy from a negotiation between high academic art and street kitsch, finding a home somewhere between William Merritt Chase and John George Brown -- that is to say, somewhere between Chase's matchless aristocratic taste and Brown's redeeming eye for "rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness" -- a political negotiation that gave us such quintessentially American artists as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A little Grimm -- a reprise (April 2010)



The American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a superb draftsman. He also veered successfully towards impressionism. He could be pompously formal, or endearingly sentimental. But here is the painting that seems to have evoked more comment and analysis than any other, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, painted in Paris in 1882 (click to enlarge). It normally resides in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where it is prominently on display.

Four girls, ages four, eight, twelve and fourteen, receding from the illuminated foreground into an ominous dusk. There have been any number of interpretations, compositional and psychological, and I've read them all. But...

Rudolf Arnheim, the art theorist, begins his little book on Entropy and Art with this observation:
Order is a necessary condition for anything the human mind is to understand. Arrangements such as the layout of a city or building, a set of tools, a display of merchandise, the verbal exposition of facts or ideas, or a painting or piece of music are called orderly when an observer or listener can grasp their overall structure and the ramification of the structure in some detail. Order makes it possible to focus on what is alike and what is different, what belongs together and what is segregated. When nothing superfluous is included and nothing indispensable left out, one can understand the interrelation of the whole and its parts, as well as the hierarchic scale of importance and power by which some structural features are dominant, others subordinate.
Well, that's all well and good, but what does it mean? Entropy is a physical concept, a tendency of the universe towards disorder. But clearly this is opposed by ordering principles in nature, or else we wouldn't be here. Entropy may grind everything to dust in the end, but in the meantime nature -- and art -- builds islands of order at the expense of a greater diminishment of order elsewhere.

As Arnheim suggests, understanding requires order, and science thrives best where order is most manifest. But perfect order is not the natural habitat of the human mind. Utopias and heaven smack of boredom, says Arnheim, and he is surely right. Our aesthetic sense seems to require some encroachment of entropy, some hint of degradation. And our aesthetic sense is best fulfilled when -- in art, or music, or the layout of a city -- we have an ordered focus that invites repose and a mildly threatening ambience of adventure.

Little four-year-old Julia fixes us with her innocent gaze. Her eight year-old sister Mary Louisa is slightly more abstracted. Twelve year-old Jane illuminates the shadow. Fourteen year-old Florence has turned away from us; she stands like a caryatid at the porch of darkness.

I would propose that Sargent's Daughters transfixes us with the same attraction as a Grimm fairy tale -- Snow-White and Rose-Red, for example -- that same exquisite balance of invitation and menace, order and entropy, that is the natural playground of the human mind.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Wonder and humility -- a reprise (December 2008)


My generation is the last who will remember these old Mobil gas pumps with the round glass globes on top and the sign of the Flying Horse. Or, for that matter, the two-lane blacktops that threaded their way across America in the days before the Interstates. Here we see them in Edward Hopper's 1940 painting titled, simply, Gas. Click to enlarge.

So much of Hopper's work evokes solitude and loneliness -- somber loners in spare hotel rooms, store fronts on deserted streets, Victorian houses on desolate hills. Gas, too, captures a moment of isolation. A filling station on a road to who-knows-where, the attendant -- that 1940's tie and vest! -- shutting down the pumps for the night. Soon he will flick off the station lights, casting the road and the trees across the road into darkness. The ellipsis of the three white globes at the top of the pumps points down the road into unlit possibilities, like a declarative sentence suddenly suspended in ambiguity.

Technology superimposed on uncertainty. Light pours out the station door; the road plunges into darkness. Of all of Hopper's paintings, this is the one that stays with me. Not only because it captures a seductive moment in my own life, but as a metaphor for the uneasy equilibrium between technology and nature that characterizes our time.

To the right of the road, the warm security of civilization. To the left of the road, beyond the verge, unsullied nature, wild, free, but frightening too. Who is willing to walk at into those woods at night, to forego the benefits of artificial light, to risk the forest primeval?

We can't live without the Flying Horse and all it represents, but part of us remains attached to the organicity out of which we came. I think of something Hopper said about the future of art and the lure of abstraction: "There will be, I think, an attempt to grasp again the surprise and accidents of nature, and a more intimate and sympathetic study of its moods, together with a renewed wonder and humility on the part of such as are still capable of these basic reactions."

Friday, March 20, 2015

Hanging on -- a reprise (October 2010)


Here is the painting I've had as my desktop in recent weeks, Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip, 1872, one of America's sentimental favorites. Click to enlarge.

A simpler, more innocent time. Boys at recess, barefoot in the grass. Hand-me-down clothes. Autumn wildflowers, trees turning to red and gold. A fumbling Ulysses S. Grant is in the White House, the country is at peace after a horrendous civil war, and the Panic of 1873 and subsequent depression is still in the offing. Anyway, all of that political and economic stuff is a bit of a pother and far away. The sun is high in the sky, there's an apple in the pocket, and only the oldest boy is thinking yet about the eternal mystery that is girls.

Yes, a lovely sentimental anecdote to the busy rancor of our own time, the incessant noise of the television, the attack ads, the news of war. How blissful to be twelve years old again, fit and healthy with the grass between your toes. Never mind that these boys had a life expectancy at birth of about 40 years, and that many of them had probably already lost a sibling or parent; when the sun's out, and it's recess, and you've got eight pals to play with…

But that's not why I like the painting. I love the way the arc of the whip reflects the curve of the hill. The vanishing point of the red schoolhouse and three white shirts -- everything converges on the two adults in the distance, the grown-up world that inevitably awaits.

Between the three boys who anchor the whip and the six who resist the centrifugal force that breaks the chain is the schoolhouse, the open door and window bracketing the anchor's grip. Maybe it's because I was a teacher all my life, but I like to think that the "message" of the painting has to do with education, with what goes on when the boys and girls are called back inside by the teacher's bell -- the glue that holds a civil society together when the whiplash of events threatens to tear us apart. Not indoctrination. Rather, reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, the basic skills that enable an individual to explore the world creatively. History, geography and science, with their lessons of diversity, tolerance and respect for empirical fact. The ameliorating influence of poetry and art.

And one of these boys, maybe the oldest in the center, will become a teacher himself, maintaining an unbroken chain of accumulated knowledge that anchors us to the past and propels us together into a mutually supportive and secure future.