Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 2: Transcendent: Cezanne, Rousseau, Quentin Morris

(Cezanne's large bathers from Philadelphia Museum of Art)

(Cezanne's Large Bathers from the National Gallery, London)

(a Quentin Morris drawing)

Transcendent: Cezanne, Rousseau, Quentin Morris

In a way (or many ways), all art is involved with the transcendent. Perhaps then this is a good place to begin with our investigation of spiritual dimensions within art. To be transcendent is to be ultimately concerned with that which is beyond our immediate surroundings, consciousness or abilities; and to not just "ascend" – rise physically, within time and space literally—but rather to "transcend"; to move beyond to another time; another place; another level. For the disciplined seeker, this is almost second nature and a common occurrence; but for most of us some focus and investigation, both inwardly and outwardly, will be needed to prepare us for taking the shape and mind of transcendence, and thus being able to notice it, to discover it, in the form of artworks.

I began by noting that all art is in a way transcendent: to clarify that point, all good art takes us to a new, different place – either (or all): mentally, physically and spiritually – where we had not been before. We may come upon a new inner truth which speaks to our immediate concerns; a new revelation of our connectedness to the world, or be outwardly moved to see our situations or surroundings differently. In other words, good art moves us, in the true sense of the word. That said, some art does this more consistently, either through the artist's intent, or through the work's chance context joining with our need. Additionally, I believe one part of an artist's oeuvre – one piece even – may do this, while the rest of their work does not seem to. This may speak only to a lack of intent or consciousness on the artist's part, not on the opportunity afforded us by the piece to investigate it. Wassily Kandinsky said, “Each genuine new work of art expresses a new world which has never before existed. Thus every genuine work constitutes a new discovery. A world which was not known up to this point takes its place along side the world that we know already. Every genuine work of art must announce ‘Here I am!’” (Niggli, Verkaut, p. 214).

Case in point: the Large Bathers of Cezanne. One may rightly question the distinction of Cezanne as being "spiritual", or his work having a "spiritual" dimension – but this disagreement, I think, focuses mainly on giving narrowly human distinctions to spiritual qualities, (i.e. that the spiritual requires the human) which are addressed elsewhere more sufficiently – here we are concerned with the unmistakable alteration of space, color and form which point us to the spiritual dimension of the work. Lipsey says, “There was a metaphysic implicit in Cezanne, a peering from oneself—anxious, temporary, yet part of the communion of all things—toward the stability and grandeur of Nature. He discovered the experience of consciousness in the world as a question and as the inexhaustible basis for a quest” (30). Also, Cezanne was near the end of his life, a point at which many finely attuned artists clarify their work and execution in an intense and fertile way, as if the life preceding it was somehow flying into clarity, upon sensing the ghost of the end. Klee is another prime example of this, but we'll discuss him next time.

To encourage (or foster) transcendancy, as every acolyte of orthodox religions would recognize, the end is aided by an appropriate space, or the appropriate manipulation of space. It is therefore no accident (nor chance, I think) that Dr. Barnes installed the Large Bathers both here, in the largest and highest-ceilinged gallery, and also close to the ceiling, which with its gentle, creamy vaults, accentuates and continues the vault already existing within the painting (note the repeated triangles: from the trees, to the clouds, the background foliage, and even the cloth the two central bathers hold). It is a vault of nature, but an altered nature. The vault of which I speak is the meeting of the outlying lines of trees, moving towards the center like the flying buttresses of a cathedral, creating an arch which draws our eyes – and subsequently our spirits, if we are ready – to another space; another understanding – transcending the gallery; transcending the painting; transcending our immediate surroundings: an arrow which points beyond itself. (Additionally, the ornate door knocker which Barnes installed directly overhead of the painting metaphorically invites us to knock, and gain entry into a mysterious and complex world beyond both the painting and the frame). Cezanne is appealing to our "eyes for art", as Lipsey (through Merton) puts it; drawing out the extraordinary from the ordinary; tweaking our perceptions to something rarer. In fact, the word “rare” brings to mind its original etymology, related to the scientific meaning of “thin”: something fugitive, but definitely there. An even more primary motion of vaulting is occurring within the bathers' bodies – with their gestures, they lean into the space, encouraging us (as fellow humans) to move on into the forest space, and up. We occupy, so to speak, the negative space – the earth, the lake – created beneath the vault, but are drawn by that arrow to keep moving towards the ceiling – a metaphorical reminder that not all we may know and experience is on the forest floor, or on the lake's reflective body. Thus, Cezanne's composition -- with its meditative, almost brooding blues and greens and violets draws us up into a place we were not in before. And where we go from there depends on our particular spiritual needs and tendencies – which we also need to attune ourselves to. Like a chapel, cathedral or temple, the space is the opportunity and initiative, not the result. What is desired inwardly needs to be fostered outwardly. Again we might turn to Kandinsky, who said, “Form in the narrow sense, is nothing but the separating line between surfaces of color. That is its outer meaning. But it also has an inner meaning, of varying intensity, and, properly speaking; form is the outward expression of this inner meaning” (Kandinsky, 29).

Cezanne's vaults are an example of a strongly positive, strongly concave, encouraging space; a space which fosters spiritual contemplation and reaching. Even bathing is a cleansing, meditative, repetitious and ameliorative action which has long been associated with fostering and preparing for both transcendent experiences generally, and for religious experience specifically. Several religious traditions hold this belief and practice (e.g. the Jewish mikvah; Christian baptism, etc.). Now, as an instructive example of an opposite experience – and again, as I mentioned before, one piece of an artist's oeuvre may focus on this or that characteristic more than the rest – we might turn to Rousseau's Scout Attacked by a Tiger. In both paintings we've looked at so far (Large Bathers and this Rousseau) we find some basic similarities: both pieces feature centralized human activity; both have a space which moves back into an expansive darkness, and both have a dominant presence – though, quite different dominant emotions, as we will consider. Recall that we noted a fairly immediate movement upwards in the Cezanne, as encouraged by the vaulting forest; the natural arrow; the accentuating of the ceiling; and the relaxed, reiterative human movement. The dominant action of the space was upward; the space was concave and inviting; providing a place for us: an invitation of the night sky. In the Rousseau, however, the space is decidedly more convex; and less inviting; in fact, there are feelings of danger; oppression; harm and a jarring reminder of immediacy, rather than a movement out of immediacy. In fact, as a contrast to the numinous, mysterious night sky of the Cezanne, the brightly-lit sky of the Rousseau beyond the dark forest, reminds us of those same immediate concerns. The danger of physical harm, here embodied by the scout being mauled by a tiger, tends to push our consciousness to physical, immediate and unmistakably earthly concerns: our self-preservation, safety and health. Transcendent ideals are not immediate, nor very possible, when imminent danger may easily snatch all of that possibility from our grasp. In a way, self-preservation preserves our capability to once again (in the more peaceful future) experience life spiritually – but this is not often our usual focus in the midst of immediate danger. (Granted, some may experience spontaneous experiences of transcendancy in the midst of danger [out-of-body experience; visions, etc,]. These seem to most often happen on the very cusp edge of death. St. Stephen the Martyr, (who lives on our balcony) when dying of stoning for blasphemy, said in his rapture, "Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” In the Rousseau, there are various parts of the work which accentuate a situation lethal to transcendancy. We have mentioned the convexity of the dark forest, which presses down upon us, threatening us in its supposed harmful exoticism (the different; the “savage”; the Other), a concept titillating and threatening to Rousseau, and his Victorian contemporaries. Indeed the possibility of our life being extinguished, forces us into the face of an unknown which is unexpected, strange, unpredictable and brutal in its speed. This is the flip-side of the positive, transcendent Other; in this painting we hardly have time to be concerned with it – and perhaps that is the rub. Rather than the darkness of calm invitation in the Large Bathers, the Rousseau Scout is a speedy threat, darkly emotional.

In these pieces, we've investigated two sides of the concept of transcendancy in art. Both were also encapsulated in the artwork itself, even though they either pushed us out into another space, or we were pushed by another space back into the violence of our own. But how might a sense of transcendancy be encouraged on an otherwise "normal", domestic painting, by an unrelated, outside force? In other words, how might we pick up on the sense of transcendancy through intentional manipulation outside of the artist...or even the work? In the Cezanne, we noted the possibility of Dr. Barnes' influence and accentuation of meaningful vaulting, by placing it close to the ceiling. If we observe his ensemble in Gallery 12, west wall, we may find an example of this "manipulated transcendancy". First, on our level, we see the Glackens portraits: the closer, more intimate portrait below; the park scene in middling space; and then above, high up on the wall and further from our “reach”, is a piece by the purveyor of the finely-crafted crowd scene, Maurice Prendergast. All in all, a gradual pull back in perspective from the close, to farther human investigations, from the bottom to the top. We are pulling away slowly from individual, to crowd, to humanity more generally; to contemplate not one person's psyche or spiritual status, but the implications of a crowd; of a group; community; our wolrd. Directly overhead, as we are moving into group contemplation, hovers a strange object -- a household chopper, deliberately placed upside down by Dr. Barnes. Here seems to be the culmination of our "outside influence", pushing us towards the concept of transcendancy. Lacking a "vault" (save the more disconnected groin vault of the ceiling) or the vaulted sky in the primarily frontal, horizontal and screen-like Prendergast, Dr. Barnes has placed a domestic item which, neatly requisitioned, suddenly opens up a transcendent possibility (this is related to the use of the door knocker above the Large Bathers in G 1). How long and how often have humans cast their faces up -- mimicking the sky and moon – contemplating the skies, and the vacuous and giant questions that fall into our mind when faced with the eternal arc of the sky – especially the speckled night sky? What more monumental vault could one discover? And what a reminder, by using an humble kitchen utensil, which the craftsperson has lovingly punched with stars, that the transcendent is often as close as our daily lives; directly under our noses; that special spaces, temples or cathedrals are helpful, but not necessary, to garner a transcendent sense of the Other; the One; the Eternal. The use of stars in the chopper also continues another concept related to transcendancy, which is the mystery of the firmament. The Psalmist affirms this when he exudes, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork / Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge / There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard” (Psalm 19: 1-3, KJV). One further wonderful detail we might mention about this ensemble, which may or may not be incidental, is that we are given control over the chopper – the handle reaches down for us; it is a tool for us to use for our perception; to “cut open the sky”, so to speak.

In contemporary art, as in much of early modern art, the concept and strain of the spiritual is hidden and subsumed under the preponderance of work -- much of it high-quality -- which is preoccupied with excessive and intentional materiality. Spirituality in most of this work is clearly and matter-of-factly incidental and unintended, and only opens its nut of to the persistent student or seeker. However, as Lipsey makes clear in his introduction, just because art concerned or moving towards the spiritual is not well-known or given cultural accolades per se, does not mean it is not living, active and prescient; one just needs to be willing to invest time; to search and ask questions. One such artist we are fortunate to call a Philadelphian, is Quentin Morris. For the last several decades, Morris has been working almost exclusively in two related veins: in one color, black, and in a repeated shape of the circle. The reason for the extremely limited parameters is related both to his religion (Buddhism) and race (African-American). For these and several other reasons, Morris is a wonderful artist to look at and investigate the spiritual in art – and specifically transcendancy, as related to the collection works we've already looked at. In the absolutely minimal palette of a single color – black – Morris has come upon the ancient paradox of finding volumes in the one, a mystery which religions have cultivated and harvested from for millennia – and which nuclear science has validated, in its own way. The direction which is most often established by color, space, light or other formal elements is here reliant upon an exceedingly spare and rudimentary group of elements. Yet the possibilities are no less ripe. Instead of directed, purposeful color arrangements, such as in the Cezanne, Morris relies on both the movement of the drawings as air currents sway them, and the light catching the highly-worked and layered permutations on the drawing's surface. These reflections repeat and reinvigorate the accumulated movements and marks, which are part of Morris’ working process. The movement is thus very much in action like a circle itself: all over; grid-less; formless; omnipresent; essentially endless. Thus, like Buddhism imparts, the possibility of transcendancy is all around us, even in our movements, and in what our eyes take in. Multi-color complexity is also not a concern in a Morris; one is not preoccupied with the relationships between colors and what that might convey – what might be called an observant space, a "landscape" or theater of color. Rather, we interact directly with one color, regardless of all its versions therein, as if person to person; an intimate conversation with a color, as opposed to the theatrical "scene". Shape-wise, Morris' disks of black are firstly the prototypical circle: eponymous and eternal. But as part of a theology which is interested (concerned) with wholeness and oneness, both sides of transcendent art-space we saw contrasting in the Cezanne and the Rousseau are here together joined – the inviting and the threatening – much like an amoebic yin and yang, writhing in a harmonized and finely-tuned balance. Much as goodness is a part of the Other, so is a realization of evil or harm. Without the one, then the other would not make sense (or even really exist): they only make perfect sense in each other's presence. Most of us, if shown a half-circle, would feel an innate desire to “finish” it, with a conjoining half-circle, creating unity; an impulse related to observed nature, etcetera (e.g. sunset). In a circle, both concave and convex are joined; both transcendent peace and transcendent fear are included (envision a reflection of the sky in a deep lake, the illimitable depths of each mimicking the other). If one divides a circle either way, top to bottom or left to right, the conjoined forces may be clarified. They work together, and keep themselves unified by opposite forces, all within the harmonious shape of a circle. From this we could venture into traditional ideas of heaven and hell; of East and West, etc., but the most important transcendent point of seeing Morris is this: rather than a pointer to transcendancy, as the Cezanne and the Prendergast ensemble seem to be, or as a contrast to peaceful transcendancy, as the Rousseau seems to be, the Morris circle, in many ways, IS transcendancy. It is a picture of and a symbol for what we are moving towards, in our transcendent action. Of course, this is a symbol or form which Buddhists would find most approachable, and people from or more familiar with Western traditions might be uncomfortable with; either because of an inculcated fear of the Nothingness; the Vacuum, which Buddhism embraces and the black and circle teach us; or negative, lifetime associations with the color black. In one way, though, this is all beside the point. What we may glean from the circular drawings which Morris has been making for decades, is that the possibility for transcendancy need not be relegated to one space; or one emotion; or one object or person: it is all encompassing. It is within us, being drawn out; not just out there in a Cezanne or other art work. Morris encourages us to draw out that ladder of transcendancy, and begin walking up it, however unusual the places we may find it.

(for images of the works mentioned here, please visit:


Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 1: Intro.

(above, one of the paintings featured in the Lipsey selection, Chardin, Blowing Bubbles)

Last post, I mentioned that I'd be leading a class entitled Investigating Art and the Spiritual at the Barnes Foundation, for the Fall 2009 semester. Well, that semester has begun, and I will be posting various things related to the class, on this blog. It will take various forms, but hopefully will normally include my class presentation and notes; perhaps a link to our reading if available; and a selection of questions and discussion that emerged. We have a good group of students (all returning students of the Foundation, incidentally) so I look forward to some great investigating!

The first week consisted mostly of my presentation on the scope and concept of the class; a reading-together of the weekly reading text (since the mailed papers had reached the students late); and a discussion time of that reading (this week, a selection from the introduction to An Art of Our Own: the Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, by Roger Lipsey: a major inspiration for the class's core concept.

Even though I was somewhat nervously counting off hours before the first class period, hoping I had enough to fill the time, it's amazing how quickly two hours are eaten up by good discussion!

So, here are some of my introductory notes to the course:

-The class's title is not coincidental; in fact, I conceive of what we'll be doing truly as an investigation, in that we are not completely certain about the eventual outcome: much like a criminal investigation (deductive reasoning and intuition). Some of the questions we will ask may be complicated, and perhaps if we do find answers, they may not be what we expect.

-Generally, this class will be focused on investigating (and then identifying) those characteristics which present, determinedly yet however mysteriously, formal -- (by this I mean both Barnes' plastic elements: light; line; color; space -- as well as texture, composition, brushwork, etc.) clues that point beyond themselves, towards spiritual (i.e., non-material) concepts, ideas or even intent.

-Seeing the class, then, as a true investigation, I'd like us to think of ourselves as a team of investigators, picking up on clues from what we SEE in front of us; asking how our previous EXPERIENCE might connect with and inform those clues; consider what those things we SEE might be telling us, and identify what they may be pointing to spiritually, in light of what we've collected as KNOWING. (In this way, it is a cumulative process).

-In that case, since we will be working as a team, we must help each other along in our investigation, sharing our viewpoints and opinions, from our own unique perspectives and experiences, however either tentative or bold they may be.

-To that end, I've chosen a set of general characteristics which would almost universally be considered as distinctives of a spiritual focus and experience. Some examples include Timeless; Formless; Revolutionary and Transcendent. These will function as our weekly "skeletons of focus", and help to influence how we look and see and further understand the selected works each week.

-(Reflection on our reading will help establish some footing in definitions of what we mean by "spiritual", and "spiritual in art".) We will come to that presently.

-BUT, looking at the Barnes collection will constitute only part of the class's focus. The other large component will be to take what we identify as formal pointers to spiritual ideas and intent, and look for continuing and similar currents occurring in contemporary art (and by contemporary, I draw the distinction of "contemporary" meaning work by an artist who is still living). So, every week we will be looking at contemporary art and artists who seem to be interested in, addressing, and working with ideas rooted in spirituality in the arts. Since the Barnes collection is largely 2D work, we will normally link up with contemporary 2D work, so as to create an easier continuity of formal characteristics; though we may occasionally deviate from this.

-The general direction of each class time will look something like the following: I will lead us initially through some of my already-garnered clues and concepts gained through my experience with the collection, and having crystallized them on paper. We will accomplish this, normally, by moving throughout the galleries, talking about various works and ensembles having to do with our topic. Following this, we will open up the field for questions and comments, and then move into a group discussion about the weekly reading, finding some focus and direction through our collected direct questions to the reading. And, I hope for some lively discussions! (Think of the readings as a sort of outside nourishment, added to what we already have here at the Foundation...or grease for the wheels of conversation).

-This is a class led/facilitated by an ARTIST, not an Art Historian. (I make no claim of being an Art Historian). Of course, art history will continually inform us as we investigate, as to important and telling context, etc., but it’s important to note that our direct interaction and experience with the work and with its formal messages, is what we will mainly be concerned with. As art history augments that: all the better. I learned about, and to love, the collection face-to-face, so my teaching approach will lean heavily upon that style.

-A few general statements about my teaching philosophy: I will field all pertinent comments and questions within reason and the scope of the class topic. I love topical discussion, so I expect everyone to thoroughly read the weekly readings, and bring some questions to hand in and share with the rest of us. I will encourage each one of you to prepare, over the semester, a 15-25 minute presentation focused on spirituality in the arts (perhaps one which we’ve not covered), related to the Barnes collection in some way, and present it to the class near the end of the semester. And if it seems more to your liking, an alternative will be to write, again over the semester, a 6-8 page term paper, on a topic related both to spirituality in the arts, and the Barnes collection. Ideally, every presentation and paper would also incorporate some contemporary connections, though I'll leave this optional.

Our discussion on the reading centered around the question, what is the balance between finding the mystery in the ordinary, and the mystery in the intentionally transcendent? Other keywords that emerged were "pilgrimage"; "duality" [in the form of the artist's challenge of their greater purpose of sharing a spiritual and metaphysical message, and the material fact of hard-nosed decisions about timing, composition and when, literally, to stop/finish]; "everyday"; "intent" and so on. In some ways we were finding our footing as a group, and what form our conversation would take on (each group has a slightly different dynamic), but the conversation was still titillating and rewarding; leaving us (at least me) wanting more.

Our reading for next Monday is from catalog The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890--1985, and a wonderful essay by Donald Kuspit entitled "Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art" (playing off the title of Kandinsky's seminal book). More on that next week!

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