Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Old Testament prohibits the making of images of God. Early Christianity saw the whole world of the senses as a snare and a delusion, distracting the soul from the higher world of the Spirit. Plato saw art as an imitation of particular things that were themselves already imitations of some divine and unchanging order of archetypes, the idea of a tree, the idea of a table.
Why paint? Why write? Why compose music? Why make careful representations of things, when you can look at the real items for yourself? Perhaps to see them in a different form; to eliminate their “realness” and offer them as religious metaphors or symbols, as metaphors of human identity, as art objects to be studied, as metaphors of material transience.
A rose or a lily can be painted or written about because it can be made to signify the passion of religion, or the purity of the Virgins. In previous centuries, there was an idea that things in and on the earth were mystical signs put there by God to help us to see heavenly truths – a kind of hieroglyphic language.
Intensity of colour, meaning death and transience. Paintings depicting glass as something solid that could be at once seen and seen through; “bleak paleness” of age and death.
This doubleness of enticement and rejection is stranger in language than in painting. A delightful painting after Carlo Dolci, where the Virgin and Child play with flowers: a pink, thorned rose signifying the Passion and Christ’s future suffering, a stem of white lilies signifying female purity, red carnations symbolising blood – carnation means flesh-coloured, and is cognate with incarnate. A painting of a skull that juxtaposes the eyeless hollows and nasal cavity of the gleaming bony surface of the skull with other surfaces – pearly shell, gleaming metal, a rotund pot – and places silent instruments, a flute, a shawm, next to the broken teeth and the unhearing ears. Historically, many noted painters have painted images of transience that, at first, seem disturbing, until your attention is brought to the meticulous beauty of the despised stuff of the ended or rejected worldly life. All are “about” the painter’s excitement over, and his skill in rendering, the cabbageness of cabbages, the bloody lean and creamy fat of a hanging leg of beef, light on woven baskets and abundant spheres and globes of fruits.
In a famous painting by Francisco de Zurbaran, painted in 1630, “A cup of water and a rose”,the artist shows a white ceramic cup, almost full of still water, on a thick silver platter, with a fragile, slightly blown pink rose. The surface of the water is a miracle of rendering of transparency in solid pigment. The excitement of the painting is in the way the artist represents the complicated process of seeing itself, the way the brain reconstructs liquids and solids, roughs and smooths. And then the way the paint makes a new object, also solid, representing this seeing and understanding. This painting understands and reproduces vision. It is Zurbarán’s endlessly varied, endlessly repeated obsession with stuff, with cloth, with different folds of different weights of monks’ habits. Zurbarán is a visionary of the material.
In a painting by Velázquez, an angry cook, wielding a pestle, glares out at us with the rage of all women confined to kitchen tasks. Beside her, are four fish, some papery-skinned garlic roots and two gleaming eggs. There is great emotion exhibited in these simple, everyday objects. Frederick Elwell’s English interior full of harmonious objects and Peter Blake’s “found” collection of miniature bottles, both are examples of images depicting everyday things, some common, some exquisite. These are all, at some primary level, a contemplation of the work of eye and brain, first in really seeing something, in making vision – and then in reforming the vision in new and other material. Some art teachers urge their students to draw crumpled paper so as to see clearly, without preconceptions, and to record what we see. Crumples and folds – as in the shimmering 17th-century Dutch skirts of silvery satin, as in Zurbarán’s brown and creamy habits – are random abstractions that make us think about seeing, and about light. Because once your vision is transformed from merely seeing the object, to “seeing” the object fully, you new vision transforms your life; you are expanded. The painted metaphor becomes reality in the change that has occurred in you. For it is within our material bodies that we experience and record interactions with other material life; it is in seeing the detail of the objects that we realize that their true value to us is what we learn about impermanence….about transience….about what we actually miss seeing. Art can teach us that all of life is representational. It really stands for something else, something we usually don’t “see”. But, if we look hard enough, we can make ourselves aware of what lies behind the everyday objects in our lives. And then, no matter who we are, what we have, or what we have experienced, our lives are changed.
There is a famous Buddhist story about a man and his beloved cat. He places a bowl of food on the floor some distance from the cat. And to draw the cats attention to it, he points his figure in the direction of the bowl. Instead of looking at what the man is pointing to, the very thing that provides primal sustenance….food….the cat, instead, sniffs the end of the mans finger. Perhaps we all go through life merely sniffing the ends of fingers, rather than actually seeing the real source of nourishment that we need. As we spend our days obsessed with sports, reality tv, hamburgers and beer, maybe we are just sniffing the fingers of those pointing us away from what we really need. A metaphor for life? Art? Language? Music? Only if you try to see.
(Inspired by an article in the Guardian about an exhibit at the National Gallery in London.)

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