Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 9: Video, Paul Klee: The Silence of the Angel

This week the class watched and discussed the DVD, Paul Klee: The Silence of the Angel. We found it to be a well-crafted and illuminating, but not heavy-handed, biopic of this "artist's artist", as one class member called Klee. We recommend it highly. Following are the questions we considered after viewing the film; feel free to use them to establish some lines of thinking if you decide to rent the film (it is available through Netflix).

Discussion Questions on Paul Klee: The Silence of the Angel

1. Do you find the connection between Klee’s art and music to be convincing and meaningful? Does this connection inform about, or confirm for us anything about the Klee pieces in the Foundation?

2. What about the documentary do you think speaks most clearly about the spiritual in Klee’s art?

3. What spoke most clearly about timelessness (our investigation through Klee’s work) in the documentary?

4. A phrase in the documentary refers to Klee’s finding the “prehistory of the visible”. What do you think this means?

5. What does the documentary, if anything, get wrong, in your opinion?

6. It is mentioned that Klee’s aim was not to represent nature, but to find its essence. Do you think this is



Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 8: Ritualistic: Rouault, Joseph Beuys, Tom Friedman

Georges Rouault, Le Pierrot sage, 1943, oil on paper

Joseph Beuys, I love America and America Loves Me, action, 1972

Tom Friedman, Untitled, soap and hair, 1999.

Tom Friedman, Untitled, toothpicks.

Ritualistic: Rouault, Joseph Beuys, Tom Friedman

Why might ritual be important to a spiritually-attuned artwork? And especially why might it be important to glimpsing the spiritual (the transcendent) in early-modern artwork? Hadn't much of modernity moved past needing the reminders, repetition, reiterations; the keeping of “rites” or passages which earlier generations had considered so important? As mentioned before, there are some artists who merely suggest or casually point to a spiritual vein or aspect in their artwork; and there are others who display it on their artistic sleeves, so to speak, and establish it as the core of their practice (Klee, I’ve mentioned specifically, as falling within this category). The artist we'll begin with to examine that sideline of early-modernity is Georges Rouault. But firstly, a few more words on ritual itself and its importance as a means towards a spiritually-attuned artwork. Ritual is normally involved with specificity: specific in its place, time and manner in which it's done – appropriate technique, order and materials are all important to performing a ritual correctly. Writ large, a ritual is a practice (or rite/passing through) grounded in place and material, which removes us to things larger than ourselves; gives us a picture of purposes and realities outside of our regular routine, and reminds us that we are not the be all and end all of life. Prepositions are often used to describe the proper role of ritual: outside; beyond; above; between. Anthropologist Victor Turner says of ritual – be it ancient, traditional or modern – that it is “quintessentially, a time and place lodged between all times and places” (Suquet 151). With most traditionally religious rituals, the place where it is done is important, but even more important is the realization that, once begun, the ritual itself is essentially “time”-less and “place”-less – that is, an appropriate and powerful ritual is both specific and universal in its meaning, import and effect. It is a kinetic symbol; a symbol in action. Therefore, in an artist's work such as Rouault's, there are always certain aspects of it which will be consistently touching in their universality and timelessness (i.e. they touch our hearts and existence). There are, of course, critics, critiques and disparagements of ritual – those who say that it's antique in the worst way (a relic), is meaningless and rote; and should be dispensed with in order to let in fresh tropes and means. Interestingly enough, similar critiques were (and still occasionally are) leveled at the first artist who we'll look at, who used a fresh, re-imagined concept of ritual in the making of his art, and the forwarding of his beliefs.
Rouault was a lifelong, devout French Catholic, who surely became familiar with the pattern, style and meaningfulness of ritual early on. After his teacher Gustave Moreau died, Rouault began adopting the style for which he is best known even now: his thickly-applied and repetitiously layered paint; the recurring themes of grotesqueness in his use of prostitutes, clowns, acrobats and other figures which represent the extremities of human life and emotion. So, how is ritual made alive, active and prescient in the work of Rouault? I believe we can effectively divide his practice into three aspects which speak to and use ritual (and around which various techniques and formal elements will arrange themselves). Firstly, there is a ritual of technique (through particular means of creation); secondly, there is ritual of subject or theme (by what is depicted and addressed pictorially); and lastly, there is a ritual of repetition (directly ritualistic, to accentuate the two former aspects).
To illustrate what I mean by ritual of technique, we'll look firstly at his painting here in G 8, The Little Maid (by the way, this could be considered along with Acrobat and Dog, in G 19, which also shows a definite ritualistic technicality). To begin with a visual explication of what I'm after, let me show you what I mean by “raking light”, a technique used by conservators to gain a better sense of the actual topography, so to speak, of the painting's surface (proceed to demonstrate raking light). What had been fairly flat in the normal gallery light, suddenly takes on a new dimension; a new depth, explicating the actual process of applying paint, used by Rouault. In some ways, this recalls the technique and surface of Tobi Kahn's paintings – they have been built up so significantly over time, so as to seem nearly carved out or excavated from the paint – even though this is a definite additive process; not reductive. And that is a distinction which is important: an additive practice or technique in painting implies several points from which to choose: obsession; devotion; deliberation or decisiveness. For Rouault, it may have been a little of each of these, but I believe the dominant reason for the thickly repetitious layering-on of paint is due to his devotion firstly (ritual) and subsequently his decisiveness. That is, ritual is one of the means (tools) by which we reach a certain decisiveness or resolve, out of our residual indecisiveness of life. We pick this up like silt in our shoes by walking those well-trodden paths of doubt; denial and the idolatry of the new. So, ritual here seen in paint is firstly a devotion to a belief in line; used equally to remind, comfort, rejuvenate and reorient (in relation to the above disorientation). Besides layering of paint, however, we can note the devotional use of both luminous color, and the color being encased or “set” in a way, in visual “leading”, reminiscent of stained glass (probably a reminiscence of Rouault's first exposure to religious expression and ritual in the Catholic church buildings). The delineation we discussed last week in relation to Matisse and Prendergast, is here used towards a very different look and purpose (though harmony is still at work in Rouault as an impetus). The figure and objects (positive space); that which the “light” works through, is what is meant to be the subject; the carrier of emotion: the leading role, if you will. The “packaging” or delineation of the dark, leaded lines, on the other hand, is the “encouragers” of emotion: they are the core of the ritual; the place and material; the engine of that which Rouault and his work are conveying – or, the supporting role, to continue the theatrical metaphor. Thus, the thickly dark lines are often the very areas which are subjected to the most vigorous, ritualistic reapplication of paint, towards reiteration and reminder.

To illustrate the next connection between Rouault and ritual, let's move to G 11 (Clowns) to consider the idea of ritual of subject or theme. In an early (1953) review of a Rouault exhibit, the writer says “Rouault emerged from this period [after the death of Moreau his teacher] with a new style, his mark; violent paintings of prostitutes, clowns, jugglers painted in gouache and watercolor in a predominantly dark blue tone. The surfaces of many of these pictures were alive with a storm of violently expressive brush strokes, frequently at odds with the main forms, sometimes bounding them. The shadows and contours are often arbitrarily placed, vigorous gestures to nail down some feeling of disgust or horror. Yet underneath the furious surfaces these paintings have an extraordinary solidity. The figures sit heavy and firm in opposition to the movement about them” (Lansner 456).
Two words used in the page following this quote continue the two possible approaches to Rouault's work and technique: “obsessive”, and “repeatedly”. There is some gravitas, besides the loaded technical and formal choices, which clearly caused Rouault to continually revisit the subjects and themes of clowns, prostitutes, acrobats, etc; indeed, the head of Christ. But what might that be? Perhaps this is an iota of a direction: each one of these groups is involved in an entertainment or diversion: circuses are meant to entertain; escorts or prostitutes' services are meant to both divert and entertain – but each of these are also an exaggeration of their origins: the prostitute is meeting a natural need, unnaturally; the clowns and acrobats are certainly skilled, and of course entertaining, but they are so in an overly artificial way. They seem to be exaggerated surrogates for the real thing. In other words, the characters that Rouault chooses over and over to depict in his paintings are all involved in diversion of a vicarious manner. These characters are both antithetical to his depiction of Christ (considered a true vicarious figure; and also a repeated theme in Rouault's art) as well as ritualistic vehicles for Rouault to deal with his own feelings of discontent; disorientation; discomfort with the world around him. He dealt with a modern spiritual anguish, in an artistically modern way, but with a traditionally ritualistic manner. Lansner says again, “these subjects, particularly the degraded prostitutes, are only the necessary vehicles for Rouault's own intense feelings of revulsion” (456). And this anguish, both personal ennui and a malaise with the world condition, was revisited time and time again, through the figures of grotesqueness, carrying his emotions; acting out their opposites in a dark and subliminal manner, but effectual enough that Rouault kept calling upon them repeatedly. (Of the pieces by Rouault here at the Foundation alone, five of the seven incorporate one of the character types mentioned above). All of this, ironically, was pulled off with the greatest sense of “compulsive restraint”, the very opposite of what these exaggerated characters represented (Lansner 456). A final important point is Rouault’s strong identification with his revisited characters: he is never judgmental, but commiserating, and offers an alternative through the ugliness to a beauty beyond; within.
So, the third ritualistic aspect in Rouault combines these first two into one: the ritual of repetition. We've discussed this aspect in a sideways manner already, with the discussion of ritual of technique (being repeated to make a visual and metaphorical point), and the ritual of subject or theme (a deliberate revisiting of cathartic vehicles). In each of these, repetition was already an important element. But repetition should be talked about within its own relationship to ritual, outside of any particular means. This is because, as we've mentioned before, ritual is ritualistic partially by virtue of being repeated, and is most often repeated within a particular framework: specificity of time, place, materials and words if applicable; all arranged in a specific way. Here in Acrobats and Dog, in G 19, is an example of repetition’s power as ritual. An acrobat is an oft-visited theme for Rouault: a symbol of the bounded yet unbounded freedom within the paradoxical human dynamic. Acrobats follow a type of ritual according to a strict discipline; they soar, fly and spin – but they always come back down. (Transcendence is not useful if one never comes back “down” again.)
In a way, the repetition of a ritual is a dialing-back for the human psyche: we return for a time to previous state of timelessness and place-lessness. Dug deeply into a ritual in the here and now, we may dig right through to a fresh realization or fresh understanding. This, it must be stated, is the ideal for ritual. Some things and means called ritual have become rote, tired and powerless, through negligence or lack of skill. Indeed, some may say this about traditional art; others may claim modern or contemporary art to be this way. Unless we repeat a ritual for the right reasons, this seems to be an inevitable result of our efforts. Instead of repetition additively creating a place, texture and understanding for transcendence, we create instead a “rut”, which we get stuck in, repeating an empty, hissing note.
In the Rouault works we've seen continual repetition of mark-making and paint-application; searching for an assurance of transcendent possibility. We've also seen continual repetition of subject or theme, to therein understand ourselves and our emotional needs and foibles more clearly. Finally, while we have revisited briefly here the idea of “additive” practice in Rouault, let me mention the related but different ritualistic act we might see in some of the African figurines here in G 22. Several of these figurines you may notice have what seems at first glance to be broken off, or splintered limbs. But upon closer inspection, the breaks look very old, so that the broken edges have a similar patina to the undisturbed surfaces. This is partially due to a belief among some tribes that, if they broke or carved off a tiny scrap or splinter of this figurine, which to them was possessed of a life power, a portion of that figure's power would go with them, and benefit, heal and protect them. In contrast to the Rouault ritualistic technique, this one is clearly reductive, rather than additive. However, an analogous sentiment or belief is active here: rather than mentally or visually internalizing a concept through repetition on a surface (paint), the devotee is actually taking and themselves tangibly possessing a portion of that figure's power for alteration – on their person, and at their disposal. And actually, the community, through their mutual belief and action, is together acting to make this an even more powerful ritualistic activity. So, not only does the actual look of the Rouault works mimic and have some affinity with the look of the African figurines, but also a similar ritualistic response is happening; one additive and the other reductive: in both instances, the human core realizes the transformative power in a repetitious act (reminder/rite), both psychologically and physically.
Now that we've considered Rouault fairly thoroughly, let's discuss an artist of the latter part of the 20th century, who was immersed quite deeply in the concepts, practices and especially the possibilities of ritual in artwork; ritual to repair, revitalize and remind: all appropriate functions of true ritual, and connected with what Rouault was involved with, in his own more comparatively traditional manner. That artist is Joseph Beuys, a German artist who dealt with such diverse expressions such as Joseph Cornell-style box constructions; actions; as well as more traditional mediums such as watercolor, graphite and sculpture. Most famous for his real-time actions, Beuys considered himself to possess a shaman-type expression, sharing a message of healing and reparation to all people, all of whom he considered to be artists – everyone to a person. In his actions, which were replete with what were highly-loaded and symbolic materials and objects, he interacted with those materials and occasionally animals or other people, to create a sculpture-in-time, as it were, with a definite message and meaning. A few examples of his occasionally unusual but very deliberate material choices are fat (tallow), felt, honey, copper, iron and wax. He saw each of these materials, especially fat, as deeply symbolic and almost alchemically (tenuous/fugitive) engaged entities. For example, whenever he used the material of fat, it was directly related to a desire to instigate a dynamic of warming, and also a sense of change or organic fluctuation. Fat itself easily moves from solid to liquid with a slight temperature change; it is also paradoxical in that it is mildly repulsive to some as a pure material, but desirous in that it is consumed and craved after. We all are, after all, keepers of fat, if you will. Therefore, it is a material of highly transmutable and almost fugitive (easily changed/capricious) properties. It is influenced easily; and easily influential. Ritual for Beuys was a theatrical opportunity for invoking change and healing, within the message and manipulation of a limited set or group of materials, each of which had or carried a particular, significant body of meaning. And as he manipulated them, that desire, message or vehicle would be made more obvious. It was almost as if an alchemist was letting an audience in on the process, watching him work; there existed an explication of sorts by watching the action, but also a persistent and intriguing mystery, even though the materials may have been explained. In this way, the ritualistic expression in Beuys was both highly personalized (his way of working), and universally applicable (the egalitarian or workaday materials, requisitioned by Beuys's personality). All this to say, despite his desire to reconnect us to the natural world, the hovering spiritual world, and indeed to our own disenfranchised selves, there is a persistent, lingering mystery surrounding him and his work, which either serves to give him an aura of an artistic holy man, or a complete and utter madman and poseur – both of which he has been defined as being. This is related to Rouault’s desire to withdraw from the world, and so to engage life from a place of ritual, to re-engage with the imaginative natural world. To sum Beuys up, perhaps better than I have so far, is this quote from an article comparing anthropologic ritual and Beuys:
“All of Beuys work is oriented toward the idea of the 'transformational process of human consciousness' and of its relation to the world, by the effect of the methods that can show reality in a different light. It comes as no surprise that Beuys's strategy should have something in common with archaic rituals, if we accept that many of them are 'ways of saying and doing,' aimed at transcending the given and at conjuring up, through some 'exceptional perception,' a form of 'presence which common perception lacks.' Suquet goes on to say, “The imperceptible, the seminal reason of things, throbs at the very heart of the concrete. Archaic thought perpetually dwells on the matter that the world is made of, and so does Beuys. It is through matter that what cannot be represented can be experienced. The equilibrium of man's relation to the world lies in this experience that reveals to us the unpresentable from which we proceed and that comprises us. Creating the conditions for this revelatory experience – within the bounds of meaning, time, and space – is the aim of many archaic rituals and Beuys's work” (Suquet 151).
So as Rouault's work is involved with rituals of technique, theme and repetition, Beuys’s work takes the idea of a ritual seriously, to the point of actually performing a ritual, in the milieu of modern art. And his careful, material-specific preparation of a space in which to act, corresponds to what we noted as important to a ritual; an action or rite within a controlled space and time, which allows us to transcend that enclosed and defined place, to experience psychological, spiritual and ideally physical renewal and reorientation, and then a subsequent return to where we began, with the ability (and materials) with which to repeat the ritual as necessary for our equilibrium and well-being. How much we are open to the possibilities, in both Rouault's and Beuys's expressions, depends to a large deal on us. In other words, do we feel a need to respond to these invitations to contemplative, transforming ritual?
A third and final artist who we'll visit briefly, and who works with a ritualistic sensibility – again with common, banal materials, but this time with their own symbolic possibilities, uninfluenced by the artist – is Tom Friedman. (I will mostly introduce you to Friedman's work and thought, and you may investigate further if you are interested.) Friedman deals with some of the same ideas of ritual, repetition and intellectual and psychological prodding as our first two artists, but with a slightly more American, casual spirituality; more individualistic and 21st century: as if to say, if you respond to his obsession with materials fine, but if you don't there's no skin off the artist's back. Friedman employs household items or materials, such as glue, straws, pencil shavings and pencils, string, aspirin tablets, sugar cubes, laundry detergent and sheets of paper...engaging them on their own terms, but also mining them for any metaphorical, ironic or spiritually-questioning possibilities, in such ways as to make your household chores never be the same again. To really help explain Friedman's work, and its role in our discussion of ritual, let me read a portion of an interview with him: (read Hainley, et al, 11—13). (Quote on its way...)

To see a documentary on Joseph Beuys, in seven parts, please visit the following links:

Joseph Beuys documentary, Arena-1987, Parts 1 – 7 Links:

Part 1:


Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 7: Harmonious: Matisse, Charles Prendergast, Robert Mangold

Robert Mangold, Violet/Black Zone Study, 1996

H. Matisse, The Music Lesson

Charles Prendergast, Figures on a Mule

Robert Mangold, title unknown

Robert Mangold, titles unknown

Harmonious: Matisse, Charles Prendergast, Robert Mangold
Harmony, when first approached (and indeed when first looked up in the dictionary) seems to reference a musical sensibility first of all. And this sense will in fact be important as we investigate how spiritually-attuned artwork addresses (or utilizes) the idea, execution and look of harmony. And indeed, music plays a crucial part in the well-being of the spirit and the psyche, and the promotion of all levels of harmony: the notes play on our spirits as surely as they are played on an instrument; and as surely as the elements of a well-crafted artwork play upon our emotions. A first implication of something possessing harmonious elements, is that that thing must be composed of various components among which harmony is accomplished – otherwise, the harmony will not be contained or internal within the piece, and not emanate from it. An impetus for harmony may come from a single thing, but true harmony requires numerous constituents. In fact, both definitions of harmony I found in the dictionary used the word “parts”. In addition, the root from the Greek from where “harmonious” is derived, is the word for “joint”, as in elbow, shoulder, etc. This suggests our first implication, and suggests another: a joint is not only two parts, but it is two parts which may work together, to accomplish more than the individual part may – together, a joint (harmony) can encourage success; a means towards a better end. Our forearm and bicep can accomplish much more than just the forearm; and combined with the parts of the hand, wrist and fingers – the possibilities for working in harmony are almost endless. A third implication is a shift from here – for harmony to be derived, and thus for it to achieve something (even if only greater harmony) their goal needs to be a common one. If a joint (partners desiring harmony) work against each other – nothing will be achieved. On the other hand, what Jehovah said about those working on the tower of Babel, in the book of Genesis: with a common language, “nothing will be impossible for them”. So common cause and common belief – towards a particular end, even, like I said, if only more harmony – are necessary. (This brings to mind some of the early American utopian experiments, especially one named “New Harmony”, in Indiana.)
There are numerous signifiers in art that can point towards harmony, and a harmonious desire. We will turn to that next. And as I mentioned, music; dance; as well as pattern and repetition, will play their parts here in their investigation of spiritual harmony through artwork. Each artist we examine will utilize the idea and tool of harmony somewhat differently, but commonalities will arrange themselves around some themes: harmony within oneself (our individual parts); harmony with others (direct communal harmony as individual parts); and harmony with nature (a different party altogether, but inextricable connected to us – and often requiring reconciliation).
The first artist we’ll look at will be Henri Matisse. Now, even Lipsey admits that Matisse, if not fully agnostic, spoke little about a spiritual content or concepts within his artistic practice. (This can also be said about the last artist we'll look at, Robert Mangold). This however, does not dissuade us from noticing a very real pattern of desiring of (generally) a spiritual nature in his art, and more specifically a desiring and implication of true harmony in his expression. In fact, Lipsey states a belief that “the spiritual potential of equilibrium is easily overlooked. Nothing sticks out, no brows are furrowed, no weighty vows are taken, no grinding remorse is experienced. Yet the balance in Matisse's pictorial world is not slack or routine; it gives the impression of being earned over and over again by a return to first principles and rediscovery of wholeness” (Lipsey 263). And connected to this, Matisse himself said, “What I dream of is an art of balances, of purity, of tranquility, with no anxious or worrisome subject, which would be, for all cerebral workers – for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that relaxes his physical fatigue” (Lipsey 250). (Notice any inklings of an early Barnes in that last quote?) In the first Matisse we'll look at, The Music Lesson in G 19, there is a strong current of harmony which pulls from two harmonizing elements we've noticed: the harmonious nature of a community (here Matisse's family), and the harmonizing nature of music (and actually, addresses how they might be connected, by showing two members of the family involved in making music together). In fact, a third element of harmony is implied here as well, which is internal harmony, which is harmony within oneself. Observe each of the figures of Matisse's family – each one is (besides the mother and son at the piano) absorbed with their own activity, and seem to exude an inner harmony, while at the same time implying harmony among the various family members – they are happy to be with each other, it seems, as Matisse has included all of them within his framing of the picture. In fact, some think that he included the violin as his own presence within the family portrait. (Framing, incidentally, will be come important as we continue, in achieving a sort of harmony; for one, within the painting itself, but also as a tool which encourages a harmonious feel or spirit within the painting's scene). But firstly, a few more words on the use of musical themes in spiritually-attuned art, and its use in the encouragement of harmony. Music, among many other things, draws together; attracts; it soothes, comforts, encourages and inspires; it levels out, democratizes (like all good art). Think of the story of how young David was hired as a skilled harpist to comfort the tortured soul of the Israelite King Saul. When music is present in an artwork's composition, much of this is inferred. We know that, as in many families, there was conflict in Matisse's. But music in The Music Lesson could perhaps be an emotional linchpin for an otherwise tenuously-relating group of people. In other words, music served to make them more of a family. Matisse may actually be implying this by the inclusion of his violin – music, he might be saying, is one thing that unites; helps hold us together as a family; soothes our emotions; draws commonality (mother and son, e.g.). And that is how I (he might go on) as the progenitor of both this family and painting, have chosen how to convey that harmonizing impulse. More could be said about this painting and its implied harmony: for example, by the inclusion of a garden – the touchstone, often, for human and nature harmonization – but music especially plays a large part in this piece and its harmony.
Another dominant element that Matisse utilizes in his paintings that evokes, or even reaches back to an important precedent for desire for harmony, is that of mythological themes. And this harmonizing element will allow us to continue on into our next artist – but first a few more words on Matisse. Let's look next at Joy of Life, to investigate this. In fact, this important painting again combines mythological themes with two other elements that we've already mentioned: music, and of course nature. By mythological themes, I refer to a particular type of Arcadian state; a Garden of Eden, with an idyllic spirit of freedom; the utopian harmony of a former, more pristine state, prior to inter-human wrangling – the kind of idea that was both attractive and insidious as exoticism in certain times. There are implications of classical myth in the playing of the Pan flutes, and in the agora-like philosophizing groups, free-thinking in free time. The overall feel, too is as said, of an idyllic space in which music, dance and free-thinking is both the result of, and the cause of, a great harmony; a self-perpetuating harmony of a self-reliant, enclosed place (as nature is occasionally viewed). This form of mythology seems to have acted as a touchstone of ageless consistency for balancing out or harmonizing Matisse's pictorial and aesthetic relationship with the seen world – it is an idealized standard of sorts; a visual and metaphorical pitch-pipe. Here too, is the place to reiterate how Matisse utilizes groups of figures, again encouraging the concept of harmony in his artwork. It can be seen in this painting, and in the last one, and combined with the further harmonizing of music; music shared between people, or the mere implication of space for sharing of those elements, such as we see here in the Joy of Life. That providing of space, whether natural or domestic, which we can see in this painting and the last, is in and of itself an important element of a spiritually-encouraging harmonizing. Space implies the availability of freely-associated or created communities – peaceful relationships that mediate; modulate; bring sanity and calmness to one's soul.
On this note, let's move to G 16 to look at Charles Prendergast's work on panel, Figures and Mule . We last mentioned appropriate space as being evocative of or facilitating to a harmonizing nature in Matisse's work. As far as color, the almost-shocking yellows, pinks and greens also serve to heighten the senses, and illustrate the unique opportunities afforded in this space of freedom: the color is at a high pitch. Space also plays an important role in Charles Prendergast's works on panel. Not unlike (and perhaps even more so than) his brother Maurice's works, Charles' utilizes a clearly frontal and flattened picture area – all the figures, foliage, even the crafted and geometrically undulating hills and streams are up in the front – delineated strongly by carving of the gesso layer. Here is an even more idealized natural space, to the point of almost feeling alien or other-worldly – but not negatively; heaven rather than Hades, or purgatory. There are several other elements, as well as connections to Matisse, which illustrates a sense of harmony as well. Firstly, like some of Matisse's works, Prendergast has created a new-world mythology; an Eden where figures, angels, animals and plants all are interacting and cooperating incredibly harmoniously. It is like a gilded, Transcendentalist version of Edward Hick's Peaceful Kingdom paintings. And even though Prendergast has populated it with varied figures, it is a type of personal yearning at the same time it is universal: an on-going Eden left from before the Fall, a place one may return to and re-mine for its spiritual treasure of peace, and co-laboring among sundry groups and elements. To convey this “treasured space” sense, Prendergast has utilized a material treasured for its value, and beauty as well as its metaphorical, mystical properties: gold. And mixed with the baser materials of paint, bole (an undercoat for applying gold leaf) and plaster/gesso, Prendergast is enacting a type of psychological alchemy; seeing if what is depicted may produce a gilded spirit as well as surface – and by using gold, suggesting that it might very well do so!
There are other signifiers of a desire for harmony: music in some of Prendergast’s paintings; charity between beasts and humans, as well as celestial beings – but by far, the most important formal signifier may be the clarity with which he conveys and crafts all of this within his framed Arcadia. By virtue of his talent, work and materials, Prendergast has both made all elements of the picture incredibly clear and therefore valued – each leaf, flower, limb, feature and detail of the panel is afforded equal value – and this I think conveys an incredible sense of and desire for harmony of a spiritual nature. Each detail is given equal clarity; and thus nearly equal devotion and time to craft. This may speak not only to the conscientious craft and technique of Charles Prendergast, but also to the spirit in which it was conceived and made. Along with this, the integral frame, also gilded, holds it together as a package; a place-away; a transcendent place of harmony, peace and good-will to all who desire it – not only for Charles Prendergast the person and artist, but also for all viewers who spend their own time perusing the space he has crafted so lovingly.
Since we have now mentioned the integral frame, and therefore the idea of delineation, packaging, and other forms of framing, let's continue with that idea, in front of a Matisse, again. Looking at Le Danse, here in the balcony, a thematic continuation can be seen, in the form of an arch, and subsequently, a repeated arch. One may protest that this was simply the space which Matisse was given, by Dr. Barnes, and that he had to aesthetically deal with it regardless – but I think both Matisse's spatial acuity and willingness, as well as Barnes' insight into the motifs and technique of Matisse, easily move us beyond that protest. In other words, an arch ended up being a natural boon for Matisse, and may even predict his later commissions for more directly religious spaces. The second thing the arch suggests, which is reiterated by the careful outlining of the forms with subsequent “edging” brushwork, is the neatness and care with which the dynamic dancers are flattened and delineated by the deliberate brushwork. This serves both to allow their activity to contrast, and fine-tunes, in a way, the poignancy of their expressive dancing. This is not unlike the seeming effective incongruousness of his later cut-paper pieces being incredibly and unexpectedly vivacious and animated. So, here as in many other Matisse works, the delineation and reiteration of edges and therefore shape/form show a care to harmonize not only internally within the composition, but also psychologically and spiritually – for are these not integrally connected, as we've been seeing repeatedly – the physical/formal with the spiritual/psychological?
Along with Matisse in the “internal compositional” harmony which seems to suggest a yearning, however verbally unexpressed, for a spiritual harmony, is the work of Robert Mangold. Among artists reticent to expound on their work, Matisse must be counted – but Mangold must surely be near the top of this list as well. In the spirit of mid-century trained Abstract Expressionists, Mangold adamantly refuses to talk about his work in any contextual, metaphysical or symbolic way – he insists all that is necessary is there, within the piece itself. So, why include Mangold in a discussion of how formal means may point to spiritual concepts? Well, in a way my response nearly answered it. The clues are already there for us to pick up on, so let's take Mangold at the rules of his own game. On the face of them, Mangold's paintings are formal arenas – color, shape, line and layering of paint are all extremely important, and really, are all we have to begin working with. The first thing we may notice, piqued as we are for it, is the arched shape of many of his canvases. Inspired by a painting by Pontormo, Mangold has incorporated this shape repeatedly. To me, this seems to suggest a search; a yearning for not only a compositional harmony, but also an “overarching”, and comprehensive, corresponding life harmony. An artist (almost) always does a piece (and here it's a series!) for more reasons than are evident “on the surface”, regardless of how they may protest. Case in point: Mangold responding to the classical harmony within the Pontormo. Someone reaching back for inspiration and answers belies a desire for something which is not in immediate grasp. An arch (as we discussed briefly in front of the Kulmbach last week) suggests a stability; an internal, pre-existing harmony, to which the rest of the formalism that Mangold introduces responds to (the ovals, for instance, or the color relationships) and move along with towards an even tighter, more peaceful, self-perpetuating (as in Prendergast) harmony among all elements, and I believe the artist and viewers themselves.


Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 6: Revolutionary: Redon, Pippin, Matthew Ritchie

Matthew Ritchie, Proposition Player, 2005 (aerial view)

Matthew Ritchie, Proposition Player, 2005 (detail)

Revolutionary: Redon, Pippin, Matthew Ritchie

The concept of a revolution most often brings to mind a political revolution – in the guise of Karl Marx, who said fundamental change can only be brought about by the revolution of the proletariat masses against the government. And this type of revolution is normally seen as a one-time occurrence – something permanent, violently replaced by something else permanent. And yet, as a spiritual idea, that of hope in renewal, revolution has a somewhat different meaning or connotation. Revolution in this sense is meant as more of a “revolving”; to go or come around again; a pattern of re-cycling. It connotes the opportunity for our continual personal renewal and refinement, within the continually returning possibilities for such, much like the seasons, birth and life, etc. In this sense, the future comes from the past; and life comes from death – death never being the complete end it is often seen as, and the future not necessarily being brand-new as is often implied. For the seed to be viable, the fruit needs to die and rot away. The concept of revolution could also be seen as having the further permutations of continual refinement, or of a tearing down/razing – related, but one more negative towards a positive end, and the other more positive overall (a gradual tweaking or refinement). But put simply, to effect spiritual change, a revolution is often refreshing in three senses: firstly, as the good and timely opportunity for change in general, and two, the sense that it is a returning opportunity; that is, the person moving on to new things is renewed by the realization that they are involved in a grandly recurring pattern of often difficult, but necessary, change, upheaval and refinement. And finally, revolution can be a spiritually refreshing concept in it's implication that the opportunity is arriving as part of a community; revolution often being a communal opportunity. But, as we've already alluded to, this revolution – any revolution, really – has its own very real risks – physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
Taking with us this thought, let's first consider the Odilon Redon painting, St. George Slaying the Dragon, in G 14. There are several important elements in this picture which speak to revolution, and spiritual revolution especially, but we will begin by speaking a second about who St. George was, and how his story is usually approached; historically, mythically, as well as metaphorically – especially being in a painting by a known Symbolist such as Redon. St. George managed to get an entire city to convert to Christianity, by means of subduing a dragon who'd previously required appeasement by being fed the town's maidens, if no suitable animals were available. In one of these instances, the city's princess was drawn by lot to be this maiden, and was exiled to the edge of the city, to await her fate. St. George happened by on his horse, heard of the princess's plight, and stayed with her until the dragon appeared. He corralled the dragon; took and presented it to the entire city, and promised to slay the dragon permanently if the entire city converted to the Christian faith...which then transpired. However, many historians say that the legend most likely predates Christianity, possibly as far back as an ancient Hittite legend, among other possible sources. Now, in some ways it really doesn't matter how this is related to the legend of St. George and the dragon, since regardless of the legend it's associated with, we (1) have this particular painting here in front of us, asking us to consider it in its autonomy – it's own independent entity outside the legend, and (2) Redon has used the legend in a quite different metaphorical and symbolic way. We alluded to universality and the cyclical nature of a concept like revolution – that is more of how this story is put to use in this painting. Focusing firstly on the composition of the picture, we can note how the picture field is essentially composed of three dominant elements: the ocean; the group consisting of St. George and the dragon; and the agitated, luminous sky with a piercing sun. Two subsequent things become clear here, once we acknowledge this composition: firstly, St. George, as a symbol of the individual (or the ego, as Jung would put it) is significantly alone, and caught in a revolutionary struggle against the old; the past; the insidious; the individual's former self, or “old man”: the dragon, standing in the way of revolutionary change. Secondly, the sea and the sky subsequently evoke the necessarily lonely place that the psychic arena can be when faced with effecting necessary, revolutionary change and upheaval in one's life. In this place, St. George is no longer a religious icon, slaying the symbolic dragon bent on evil in front of a large crowd, to effect their change: no, here St. George is Everyman, attempting to effect personal change, psychologically and spiritually, in a seemingly risky environment.
A second element that is dominant in this picture is color. Essentially, we have a primary color scheme, complemented by some secondary colors, such as the green of the troubled sea. A word or two about primary colors, along with an association. Primary colors, firstly by nature of their name, carry something of the “primal” within themselves; they seem to possess an elemental drive. Thus, it is no surprise that primary colors are often associated with such things as flags (which are often, incidentally, involved in revolution), children's toys, and logos. Flags may make most sense in our consideration of revolution – they are rallying symbols for groups; identity points for ideas and drives: they are our strongest emotions and beliefs put to symbols; generalities that speak of larger, grander aims; they are of things larger than the individual, and even the family (seen by some as the building block of society). Looking at a guide to the world's flags, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that the great majority of them use primary colors to great effect; standing in for such things such as homeland; honor; bloodshed; peace and justice – as we said, “primal drives”. Just as an example, our country's first secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thompson, said of the colors given to the Great Seal (same as the Stars and Stripes) that red stood for “hardiness and valor”, and blue “the color of the Chief signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice”. To relate this to the Redon, we can contrast this with the idea of a personal, interior, psychological struggle; the red, blue and yellow, and the green which mediates between them, tell something of the psychological, largely internal struggle that Redon is portraying. We are a step or two removed from the transcendently challenged struggle in the Rousseau, Scout Attacked by a Tiger – there, there is hope shining past the oppressive band of jungle there is hope in the companion whom is able (ostensibly) to assist the scout in danger and peril. But in the Redon, there is nothing besides the dragon, the harsh elements, and St. George: a struggle against the accentuated, elemental consciousness; the past we are attempting to revolt against. After realizing the strength that is in these primary colors, we can begin to feel both the internal, personal revolution that is portrayed in the Redon, as well as the allusions to societal change that primary colors, extrapolated from the personal, seems to suggest. In the sense of Naturalism, this harsh, natural condition is not unlike a roiling ocean, battle or port scene of J.M.W. Turner, mirroring the upheaval of the soul in the forms of humans caught in those same forces of nature. Think of Marseault, Camus' hapless character in The Stranger, who is accused of killing an Arab on the beach, but seems utterly subject to the fateful whims of natural fate, to be condemned for something he barely realizes he's done. The main point to grasp on to here, though is that, despite sometimes manifesting themselves in very different ways, interior psychological revolution has much to do with the larger, societal “sea” changes through physical revolution: both are integrally connected to the universal phenomenon which is the revolutionary concept. After all, the spark of a revolution happens firstly in the heart of one or a few, then between the interpersonal sticks of a larger group or community, until it begins to consume vast forests of a society or a generation, in its conflagration of change. So, too, a spiritual change: both are alluded to here in the Redon.
A quite similar internal compare-and-contrast is active within the Horace Pippin painting in G 12 (Woman at the Well). A few words about the story related here may help us on our way. This was a woman with a history of having many partners, a life of being an outsider and societal pariah among pariahs (being a Samaritan, the much-hated race considered “mongrel” by pure Jews). Christ talks to her as an equal, at her everyday workplace, and offers her a new way, a way in contrast to her old ways. She is astounded at his insight and clarity, and is seen to accept the change, and share with her neighbors near the end of the story. As far as the composition used by Pippin, it's somewhat similar in elements to the Redon: there is a central group of interaction, composed of Christ and the Samaritan woman; the scene of the well and the copse, which is almost silhouetted; and the harshly-lit pinks and magentas of the sky in the background. And much like the Redon, through whose painting and composition style (colors, etc.) we can gather some sense of the psychological upheaval taking place – the point of spiritual threshold – so we can here too; and this sense is again accentuated as an image of the forces of nature: instead of the roiling sea and lonely beach, it is a somewhat secluded well on the edge of a village, which sits under this shockingly colored sky. From what we know about the story, we can know that the woman is being invited to make a change in her life; in a sense, she is a step behind the figure of St. George in the previous painting – she is still on the cusp of the crucial decision; not yet able to wield the sword, and slay the dragon of her former self. A few words about the colors in this painting: the pinks used in the sky, ranging from deep rose to cotton candy, definitely seem momentous; revelatory and important: mirroring the edgy feeling of someone with the opportunity to make an important life change. But can we tell whether it is a sunset or a sunrise? And is that clue important? Firstly, if it is a sunrise, then it is a beacon of hope; a symbol of a new day; a fresh start that we are all (ostensibly) given. This implies newness; and the former woman lost in the night that is nearly over. As a symbol of change, of personal revolution; this symbolizes the afterglow of revolution: a new day dawning – the rise of victory. If this is a sunrise, then, we like this woman, are hopeful for what is to come. However, if this is a sunset, it is a symbol of a revolution beginning: the old is about to be extinguished – the new is not on its way; there is still too much to be done. Spiritually, the change is beginning – the end of the old; the impeding ways and beliefs; the demise of that which has held us down for too long. A final point about this Pippin can be made, relating the discussion of sunset versus sunrise to Pippin's traumatic experience in the second World War. Pippin was severely injured in battle, and lost the use of one of his arms. This affected him deeply, and put him into a sort of depression. Of course, as we know, he struggled his way through that time, and was able to make the necessary “slayings” of his demons, or dragons if you will, to turn into a fine, deep and consistent painter. The specter of war can be seen in the light of a sunset or sunrise, being both a harbinger of terror, as well as a dubious spark of peace. Perhaps some thoughts of the conflicts he had been involved in were going through Pippin's mind when he was painting the picture of this story of quiet revolution.
Two additional things can be said about the similarities we see in these two paintings: for one, both of them are a visual door (pictorial door) of sorts into a metaphor of a mental, spiritual changing point – that is, we are viewing the pause before the sword enters the dragon and he is killed; we are seeing the pause before the Samaritan woman decides to leave behind her former life, and follow a new way. Secondly, both pictures attempt to portray the spiritual aspect of revolution, through especially strong and emotionally evocative colors. Both pieces, through these drastic, revolutionary colors, accentuate and exaggerate the momentousness of that mental, spiritual changing point mentioned before, thus reinforcing these paintings as beacons shining between the universally revolutionary, and the utterly personal. Instead of clearly illustrating one or the other, the viewer is reminded that each is really another version of the other, and they are integrally related and connected. Thus, these two paintings continue in the more illustrative pattern of paintings, as opposed to a more contemporary expression of “being” the quality rather than “showing” it. That is, in contemporary thought, a story is not absolutely necessary; the art work may already function as the plot in its entirety.
As far as revolutionary material, especially as far as incorporating the more holistic sense of revolution as an idea of “re-cycling” and “re-peating” – that is, the cyclical aspect of revolution – one artist that comes to mind, as being in this mold, is Matthew Ritchie. Ritchie is a British artist, currently based in New York. Rather than being illustrative of, or pointing to the revolutionary, Ritchie's work takes the very idea of universality and begins pulling it apart – looking for the seed of revolution. His work for Philadelphia's Fabric Workshop in 2005, called Proposition Player, is expressly interested in trying to engage all of human consciousness into its purview – a rash and bold motive, but the result of the work is a beautiful, layered and complex mix of the mystical and visual. Ritchie works with contemporary, industrial materials such as vinyl, and laser-cut tiles, both suspending the filigrees of visually-referenced material, and plotting them out on the floor like a map. When observing his work, one might get overwhelmed by the hugeness and complexity of the universe – past and present – and this might actually be right along with Ritchie's intent. The laser-cut vinyl ebbs and flows like a cloud of data and tortured charts and graphs; they roil like Redon's waves, carrying the possibility of revolution along with them. In Proposition Player, the ceiling-hung vinyl cutouts, evoking masses of woven thoughts, hover over the multicolored stream of interlocking colored tiles, flowing on the floor under the filigrees like run-off from a paint factory. But these two elements – upper and lower – are also connected by sticks or rods, which act as flimsy connectors between the collective consciousness of the filigree – the ephemeral universal belief and truth which we can tap into, invoking the call of revolution (fundamental change) into our lives. As Jung would attest, the collective consciousness, that vast, ageless amassing of myth, knowledge and unfathomable darkness and light, can be tapped by our egos for both detrimental bad, or revolutionary, life-changing / altering good. We, in a way, are this flow on the floor of Proposition Player, and the filigree above is that universality we tap into. A preview of the Fabric Workshop show says it well: “While the works contain seemingly chaotic arrangement of colors and forms, each piece is in fact a deliberate map of the limitless connections that make up the universe's implicit order. The visual and underlying order in Ritchie's work mirrors the chaos and order of the universe”. Another article states, “Ritchie...sees the whole universe as one big experiment”. And how more revolutionary can one get than that? Nothing is ultimately permanent; it is simply a continuing pattern of trying new things; improving our lives and others': a continuing, re-cycling, sublime revolution.

Related Posts with Thumbnails