The Beauty of a Whistler ‘Arrangement’

 

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, by James McNeill Whistler (1871)

This post continues the prior one featuring Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold (scroll below)

 

Whistler was sensitive to some similarities between his approach to painting and the realm of music, and often gave his paintings titles that suggest this connection. He chose words for naming them like arrangement, harmony, symphony, as well as nocturne – a word the composer Debussy (upon whom Whistler’s art had a profound effect) chose for some piano works. Perhaps the most significant commonality between music and some of Whistler’s paintings (as well as with modern abstract art) is that instrumental music is rarely representational in the sense of being about depiction. Instead, such music seeks to convey meaning by evoking sensation and emotion within the listener. For example, Ferde Grofé’s orchestral Grand Canyon Suite is less an effort to describe or portray that magnificent geological locale than it is a means by which the composer can express, and evoke in listeners, the sublime experience of wonder encountered by many who visit there. Understanding this point helps us appreciate Whistler’s goal with many of his paintings, and especially his nocturnes.

For these reasons, Whistler’s most famous painting is probably his most misunderstood. His Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (note Whistler’s title), yet commonly referred to as Whistler’s Mother, clearly demonstrates the painter’s ability as a gifted portraitist. As with many such paintings, Whistler communicated a positive regard for his model, inviting us to share his appreciation for the person. Yet, by comparing this painting with a photograph of his mother helps us perceive his primary intent.

For Whistler did not choose in the painting to represent his model by a frontal or three quarter view (as in her photo), but from the side, in profile. With the title providing an important clue, Whistler’s principal goal with this painting was less to depict his mother than achieve an overall tonal composition. In a large painting, predominantly comprised of a study of shades and of subtle color, these tonal elements nevertheless help highlight the beauty of his sitter’s face.

As different as the three paintings featured here and in my prior post may appear, they have much in common in terms of the painter’s sustained interest in continuing to study a range of shades and subtle colors, as well as in an overall composition or ‘artistic arrangement.’ In this respect, the work of the 19th century Whistler in some ways foreshadowed paintings like those of the 20th century abstract expressionists, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, as well as the figurative works by Francis Bacon.

The Beauty of a Whistler Nocturne

Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, by James McNeill Whistler (1875)

 

One of Whistler’s most remarkable paintings, Nocturne in Black and Gold, subtly rich in tone and with bright bits of color, bankrupted him as a result of a libel suit. A famous art critic, John Ruskin, had accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,” and for the nerve of asking two hundred guineas for the result. Whistler asked the court not to consider this work as a traditional representational painting but rather as what he termed an ‘artistic arrangement.’ Its purpose was therefore not strict visual representation, for which a photograph would be more suitable. Instead, he sought to evoke the experience of having been at the depicted waterside gardens after dark during a fireworks display.

When asked by Ruskin’s attorney how long it had taken him to paint the canvas, Whistler frankly admitted that it was just a few hours. But then, he added, that even so, it took a lifetime of learning to create the work.  Whistler won the lawsuit. But he was awarded the smallest amount possible, one farthing, which financially ruined him.

Whistler had identified himself with the at-that-time daring phrase, ‘art for art’s sake.’ Viewers new to his work may find themselves using the title, Impressionist, to characterize his ‘artistic arrangements.’ With such paintings, he may appear to be connected with other painters identified by that label, as he was a contemporary with many of them. He shared their strong interest in newly discovered Japanese wood block prints by artists such as Hiroshige. And, like the Impressionists, he often sought to capture his subjective apprehension and experience of a particular scene, rather than depict it objectively in the way that ‘photorealist’ painters more recently have sought to do.

And yet, in contrast to those formally identified as Impressionists, Whistler often worked with a more limited palette, extensively employing black and various shades of gray as well as those of taupe, while seeking what he called a tonal harmony. As a result, though he was not averse to working with bright color, his use of it tended be more limited as compared with paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir. Further, while valuing atmospheric effects like his predecessor, JMW Turner, Whistler was also a gifted draftsman who periodically pursued precision in representation. This can be seen in many of his portraits, and in the way his paintings often feature linear boundaries for defining areas of tone and color within a composition (such as in his self-portrait, Arrangement in Grey, below).

I will follow up on this posting with a second one regarding Whistler’s painting, next week, when I will reflect upon the connection between his Nocturne in Black and Gold, and his Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, commonly mis-titled as Whistler’s Mother.

The Beauty of The Sagrada Familia

Interior view of Antonio Gaudi’s The Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, Spain

 

Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) designed the now famous basilica of The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, to which he gave himself fully for the last 43 yeas of his life. The basilica remains unfinished. Although we most often associate structures like gothic cathedrals with the 12th through the 14th centuries, Gaudi’s visionary work has assured us that there will be a 21st century future for them.

The genius of Antonio Gaudi’s vision for The Sagrada Familia lies in his wedding of a modern understanding of mathematics with a timeless appreciation for the power of light, color, and the shapes and rhythms of the natural world around us. As much an engineer as a visionary architect, Gaudi shared with Frank Lloyd Wright an intuitive appreciation for how the mathematical and geometrically describable structure of trees, seashells, beehive combs, and other aspects of the natural world could inform the architectural integrity of a building. And, like his medieval predecessors, Gaudi recognized the continuity between what we learn from the Book of Nature and what we learn from the Book of Scripture. How paradoxical it is that one of the most modern cathedral-sized churches in Europe may also be strongly traditional, and historically rooted.

Being aware of the etymology of words often associated with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright helped me to understand his work and that of Gaudi. Wright used the word ‘organic’ in the title of one  of his influential books. Another word, ‘radical,’ is also often used to describe his apparent departure from traditional architectural design. Yet, here is the curious thing. When we hear the word ‘radical,’ we think a departure from tradition is being signaled. But dictionary definitions of that word alert us to what it really means. Radical means, in one way or another, of the root. Radical therefore means less a departure from tradition than it does a rediscovery or re-appropriation of it.

To speak of Gaudi’s radical vision for The Sagrada Familia can be a way to discover the organic character of its nature-inspired design. For the ‘roots’ of this building lie in Creation, both in terms of the multiplicity of form, and yet also in consistency and uniformity of structure, and in the extensive and subtly evocative use of color – not simply in the windows, but on the columns and walls.

Moved by the visions of St. John, as recorded in Revelation, Gaudi perceived the Church – both as the community of the Body of Christ and also as a physical structure enabling our assembly for liturgy – as having come down from heaven, so that the divine presence would now be tangibly among us. The words of Revelation 21:1-6 appear to have been at the heart of Gaudi’s vision for his new church, which seems to express the promise of “a new heaven and a new earth,” and be an embodiment of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

As at least one observer notes, while diligently preparing the design for The Sagrada Familia, Gaudi shaped a building. In the process, God shaped Gaudi. Te Deum laudamus! May our encounter with the result of Gaudi’s work have the same effect upon us.

Sagrada Familia basilica still under construction in Barcelona.

 

For deeper insight concerning the design and structure of Sagrada Familia, see the video, The Gaudi Code, with this link: { https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3e8sckgWqQ } For a further and deeper exploration of Gaudi and his approach to Sagrada Familia, read The Sagrada Familia: The Astonishing Story of Gaudi’s Unfinished Masterpiece, by Gijs van Hensbergen. Also very helpful is the visual guide book, The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia: A Temple Converted into a Universal Work of Art.

 

 

The Beauty of Lutyens’ Approach

Rashtrapati Bhavan, originally known as Viceroy’s House, New Delhi (1912-29)

 

Edwin Lutyens was a British architect who approached the challenge of producing new homes and buildings in several historically sensitive and imaginative ways. He was born about the same time as Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work also adapted historical architectural themes and patterns in a modern manner. Lutyens’ approach, while equally inspired, tended to be less daring and perhaps more compelling to a wider swath of his contemporaries, especially with regard to his public buildings and monuments. And like Wright, Lutyens showed a sympathy with and appreciation for architectural features and elements from other regions and cultures (if not always their people) than his own.

Lutyens lead a group of architects to lay out and design a new capitol for India at what would be called New Delhi. Combining aspects of buildings from the western classical tradition with those of the Indian sub-continent, Lutyens with his team produced some notable structures. Among the most beautiful is Rashtrapati Bhavan, originally known as Viceroy’s House and Government House (shown above).

While he excelled at producing public architecture on a large scale, Lutyens was also adept at designing homes, with an early example being one for the noted horticulturalist, Gertrude Jekyll. Equally fascinating to me is his adaptation of the 16th century Lindisfarne Castle into a home on Holy Island (1901-14 / shown below). This residence provided the setting for the 1960’s film, Cul-de-Sac, through which I first became familiar with Lutyens’ work.

Lutyens was commissioned to design an astonishing number of war memorials, perhaps the most impressive being the Thiepval Memorial in France (1928-32, photo below), to honor the some 72,000 British and South African men who died in the WWI Battle of the Somme. His unrealized project for the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (1930/ not shown) demonstrates another facet of his remarkable ability as an architect, once again blending an historical design awareness with attention to contemporary needs.

One of my favorite Lutyens buildings is his design for the British Ambassador’s residence complex in Washington, D.C., his only completed project in North America (shown below). I had the opportunity to visit the residence in the 1980’s in connection with a charitable fundraising event. Though the building, completed in 1928, is in an unmistakably Queen Anne style, as were some early Frank Lloyd Wight Chicago homes, its scale and proportion also have a forward-looking appearance.

A significant aspect of what I consider the beauty of Edwin Lutyens architectural vision was his ability to inhabit the design sensibility of an earlier age, or that of a culture very different from his own. At the same time, he was able to produce structures that do not simply mimic the influence of their sources but which also achieve a somewhat timeless synthesis that is rather contemporary. Lutyens died in 1944 just after the birth of the kind of modern European architecture we associate with the Bauhaus, Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. Examples of what is now referred to as ‘post-modernism’ in architecture show a return to a design approach that sometimes seems to evoke the work of Edwin Lutyens.

Lutyens’ 1939 Runnymede Bridge, UK (completed 1961), another example of his extensive architectural portfolio.

 

 

The Beauty of a Beach

An 1890’s photo of visitors on the northern Gulf coast

 

After almost 40 years as a member of the clergy, I have recently done something that might have worried me when first ordained: I gathered with members of my wider family for an Easter weekend at the beach. We had Easter family devotions, but I was not ‘in church.’ And yet…

For Anglicans, and others in the broader Catholic tradition, nature and the supernatural are not seen as being antithetical, poised to combat one another in an adversarial way. We see nature as ‘graced;’ a view significantly different from one that confuses nature with Grace and or with the divine. We acknowledge the reality and power of sin, and our consequential human separation from God. Therefore, we fully appreciate the Grace of the Holy Spirit in offering us the opportunity for redemption without price or penalty (except for the need to renounce our pride).

A frequently used opening sentence for Daily Morning Prayer is this versicle and response: “The earth is the Lord’s for he made it: Come, let us adore him.”

And much loved are the opening words of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.”

Having grown up near the sea in Japan, and having crossed the Pacific Ocean five times by ship over those years (14 days each way), I have a strong sense of affinity with coasts, salt water, and ocean passages.

At the age of 21, I spent much of Lent camping and fasting as a solitary on the south shore of the Greek island of Crete. I traveled there by bus, from London to Athens, and then by ferry to Crete, the cheapest way I could find. It was between terms at Oxford, and I limited my reading to the New Testament and the recorded sayings of the Desert Fathers. The beach on the Mediterranean Sea was my place of rest, reflection, and refreshment. I am sure that many others find being on the beach the most alluring experience of the sea.

Why is finding peace on a beach such a common experience? Here are some briefly stated reasons why this might be:

⁃getting away from routine, stress, etc
⁃getting away to beautiful surroundings and relative quiet, accompanied by relaxed interchange with people outside of daily business interactions
⁃the seductive rhythm of the lapping waves, whether small or large
⁃often an onshore breeze, due to water and air temperature disparity
⁃the opportunity to just sit, doze, and or walk slowly on the sand

And yet, the paradox of our often-sought experience of being on a beautiful beach lies in its contrast with our biblical forebears’ pronounced ambivalence about the sea, and their sometimes downright fear and disparagement of it. For the Israelites, the sea was a context that evoked community memories of the flight from Egypt and the deliverance at the Red Sea, an experience relived symbolically in the later Jordan crossing into the promised land. Much Old Testament imagery, some of it memorably recorded in the Psalms and also in Jonah, shaped New Testament appreciation for Jesus’ ministry when he calmed waves and storms on the Sea of Galilea.

All this is not to provide justification for the idea that we can be just as close to God on the golf course or at the beach as we can be at church. Instead, we should treasure experiences of the beauty of the sea, and opportunities to encounter them. But we should even more treasure celebrating the Eucharist in church, not as a duty, but as a joyful re-experience of God’s unification of the natural with the supernatural.

For many people, times by the sea evoke a sense of wonder about purpose and meaning in life; they rekindle a sense of possibility in relationships; and provide opportunities to reimagine the future. Surely the Grace of the Holy Spirit is in all this.

 

I would like to credit my friend and former colleague, the Rev. Dr. Ralph McMichael, for his succinct and helpful delineation of ways of understanding the relation between nature and grace in his teaching and writing. In this regard, his essay in the book he edited, Creation and Liturgy: Studies in Honor of H. Boone Porter, is helpful. He is also the author of The Eucharistic Faith.

Easter, Eggs, and Mary Magdalene

 

Mary Magdalene, an icon by Robert Lentz

 

Artists help us see, intuit, and understand in not always rational ways. In my view, this does not uniquely qualify or disqualify their work. Instead, it challenges us to try to see more perceptively what we apprehend, what moves us, and what prompts us to make assertions regarding the truth-value of what we have visually and conceptually encountered.

Over the years, I have purchased a number of wood-mounted reproductions of icons by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. I continue to value his ability, spiritual perception, and sensibility in sharing with us insights about the holiness and character of many of those whom he has portrayed. Many of his portrayals are stylistically highly refined (see his two images of Julian of Norwich, or his James Lloyd Breck) while he takes a more playful approach with certain other historical figures (e.g., Simone Weil or Damian of Molokai). Examples of the latter have led some to criticize Lentz for not strictly adhering to traditional Eastern Orthodox practice when creating his icons.

Lentz’s vocation has been as a friar and follower of St. Francis, whose life and subsequent Franciscan Order bequeathed to us the tradition of Christmas creches in churches. Lentz’s humanistic regard for so many facets of our experience, as illustrated in the lives of those he has chosen as subjects for his work, has fit well with his Franciscan tradition. His icons have much to teach us, for he has sought through sacred art to communicate what he perceives to be biblical and spiritual truth.

One icon so fitting for this Easter week is Lentz’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene. It has been noted that,

according to the ancient tradition of the East, Mary Magdalene was a wealthy woman from whom Christ expelled seven “demons.”  During the three years of Jesus’ ministry, she helped support Him and His other disciples with her money.  When almost everyone else fled, she stayed with Him at the cross.  On Easter morning she was the first to bear witness to His resurrection.  She is called “Equal to the Apostles.”

After the Ascension, she journeyed to Rome where she was admitted to Tiberias Caesar’s court because of her high social standing.  After describing how poorly Pilate had administered justice at Jesus’ trial, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead.  To help explain the resurrection, she picked up an egg from the dinner table.  Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red.  The egg turned red immediately, which is why red eggs have been exchanged at Easter for centuries in the Byzantine East.

Mary did not end her days as a penitent hermit in a French cave.  She traveled the Mediterranean preaching the resurrection.  Like Peter and Paul, she died a martyr and she bears witness to the important roles women play in the Church.

The inscription at the bottom of the icon reads: “Saint Mary Magdalene” in Syriac, a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus.  The Gospel comes to us, not from Rome or Greece, but from the deserts of the Middle East.  We owe our faith to Semitic Christians like Mary Magdalene.  Her feast day is July 22.

 

As has been observed, there is a similarity between Lentz’s icon and the well-known National Geographic cover photo {June 1985} of ‘the green-eyed young woman’ from Afghanistan. Her possible inspiration for Lentz’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene is noted here: { http://art-for-a-change.com/blog/2006/02 }. The text quoted above is borrowed from the Trinity Stores website (I have no commercial connection with them), through whom copies of Lentz’s icons may still be available.

The Beauty of the Imperial Hotel

The preserved but relocated lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Tokyo Imperial Hotel (1923)

 

Having grown up in Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan, with parents attentive to the arts, I remember visiting the Imperial Hotel on several occasions. It was a favorite place for my parents in the 1960’s, to go for dinner and dancing given the fine hotel orchestra. In connection with family visits there, I first became aware of some legendary aspects of Frank Lloyd Wright’s reputation as an architect, and his penchant for self-promotion. As one wag has said, ‘he was by his own admission the world’s greatest architect!’ And yet, with some artists and architects, pride sometimes reflects aspects of correct perception.

The Imperial Hotel project for Wright came at a particularly fortunate time, following a series of misadventures and personal tragedies. Offered the opportunity to design what would become the second Tokyo Imperial Hotel, replacing the largely wooden original in 1917, Wright embraced the project and designed a building that might provide a hybrid between Eastern and Western aesthetics. Having first visited Japan in 1905, he was becoming known as an emerging connoisseur of Japanese woodblock prints.

Among the features of Wright’s remarkable Imperial Hotel, which continue to evoke interest to this day, were the textured bricks Wright designed to provide pattern and a distinctive character to the exterior and interior surfaces of the building. Through my parents’ friendship with some former hotel staff, I have one of these bricks.

Here is an example:

The most notable feature of the hotel was Wright’s ingenious response to the challenge of designing a large project in an area quite vulnerable to earthquakes. With more than 60′ of spongy material between the ground surface, and any subterranean rock upon which to anchor a foundation, in a city adjacent to a large bay and the sea, Wright settled upon a unique solution. Just as an experienced restaurant waiter might carry a selection of plates and dishes upon a large tray, Wright proposed to ‘float’ his hotel upon a huge concrete slab. Astonishingly, on the very day of its opening, September 1, 1923, the great Kanto earthquake struck Tokyo, destroying much of the city, accompanied by extensive fires. Wright’s hotel survived largely intact, establishing the genius of his design, and his providential provision of large water features around the property helped not only to save the hotel, but other buildings in the area.

Here is an early, color-retouched, view of the site:

Sadly, Wright’s Imperial Hotel was demolished in 1968. This amazing structure had withstood the Kanto earthquake as well as the later fire-bombing of Tokyo in World War II. Despite its incredible beauty and innovative engineering, it could not compete with hotels built to more modern standards of efficient design and construction, with its by-then antiquated plumbing and electrical infrastructure, as well as its dated room sizes and land-use configuration. Here is a view of the interior of the original lobby area. Walking through this space as a child was nothing short of inspiring:

And here is a view of the original lounge bar, preserved within the later Imperial Hotel as I remembering seeing it about 20 years ago:

Very happily, the entrance court and lobby of the hotel, as depicted in the upper photo, was preserved and rebuilt at the Meiji Mura Architectural Museum, in Nagoya, Japan. I hope some day once again to visit what remains of this beloved building.

 

Note: in my view, one of Lego’s finest architectural reproduction kits is that of FL Wright’s Tokyo Imperial Hotel entrance and lobby. I enjoyed assembling it helped by my Lego-savvy grandson, James, using a set involving about 1,000 plastic bricks remarkably similar to those Frank Lloyd Wright designed about 100 years ago.  {PS – bought the kit, used status, on ebay / no commercial connection implied here}

The Beauty of Audubon’s Birds

 

This past weekend, West Feliciana Parish (a Louisiana county) hosted the first of what is hoped will be an Annual John James Audubon Symposium. As with so many other events of this kind, COVID delayed the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the 1821 summer during which Audubon painted a large number of his famous bird pictures here in the St. Francisville area of Louisiana. Feliciana is a Spanish and Latin-derived word which means happy, and Audubon -we are told- was indeed well-pleased and contented by his time here to study and portray an amazing number of birds that still inhabit this region, whether by seasonal migration or by providing year-round company to local human residents.

The inspiration for this festival was provided in large part by local and regional historian, David Floyd, whose recent premature death added a special poignancy to the symposium. He had provided a succinct but heartfelt introduction to a beautiful little booklet, titled Audubon & Louisiana: 200 Year Love Story. David’s nuanced sense of Audubon’s place in the history of this region, and his perhaps Audubon-inspired vision for the future was captured for us by the author and presenter, Danny Heitman. Heitman noted how often David would begin a sentence with the word, imagine. “Imagine this…” or “imagine that…,” David would often say, and then invite a sense of possibility within his listeners. This led Heitman to observe something that may have been true of both David Floyd and John James Audubon. It is how a genuine sense of wonder about the world around us instills a sincere humility, and how both then lead to wisdom.

Danny Heitman’s book, A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House, is focused on that seminal 1821 summer during which Audubon discovered and then came to love West Feliciana Parish. During his presentation, Heitman commended three themes that help us appreciate the unique sensitivity of Audubon’s perception and artistic vision that so profoundly shaped his subsequent life’s work.

For Audubon, ‘nature was a verb,’ and something to be portrayed as alive with activity rather than displayed in a static, ‘pinned butterfly,’ way. In so many Audubon paintings, we find the birds pursuing what they might prey upon, or eluding what may be seeking to pursue them.

Second, and especially as assisted by his young associate, James Mason, Audubon was as attentive to the characteristic flora where he found his birds as he was to the birds themselves. Thus, the plants, shrubs and trees of this region are an intrinsic part of each composition.

And third, Audubon’s paintings were huge in size, and dramatic in the extent of their detail and range of color, and thus very compelling to viewers when they were first displayed. One contemporary commentator has likened their effect upon folks in early 19th century London as likely to have been akin to the remarkable effect upon first time viewers of movies in modern IMAX theaters.

We can be grateful, on this extended bicentennial celebration of Audubon’s summer at Oakley, for guides like David Floyd and Danny Heitman. For they help us see, and perceive more appreciatively, the immensely beautiful 200 year old bird paintings of John James Audubon as assisted by James Mason.

 

Pictured above is Audubon’s painting of the Louisiana or Tricolored Heron.

The Beauty of a Horse

 

Arthur Kern, Silent Myth (2006)

Those who know Grand Rapids, Michigan, and who appreciate sculpture, will be familiar with Meijer Gardens. A principal monument among their collection of sculptures is the impressively large rendering of Leonardo DaVinci’s horse, by the artist Nina Akamu. As remarkable in size as that sculpture is, it is a fine example of how so many artists have been fascinated by the equine form. Consider among others, the ancient Etruscan horses; the ceramic figurines from the Chinese Ming dynasty; as well as Degas’ rendering of lithe race horses, or the roughly contemporary western bronzes of Frederick Remington and Charles Russell. In all these, this historically important animal companion to both our human community and our many activities has so often received sculptural tribute through artistic imagination.

Recently, I had the wholly unexpected opportunity to discover the powerful work of a 90 year old Louisiana sculptor, whose output until 2016 had largely been out of the public eye for over 30+ years. The Callan Contemporary Gallery in New Orleans has until late April an impressive show of 18 cast resin sculptures almost all featuring horses with riders, or with some representation of a human form. Two of the works are at a stunning life size, while the rest are roughly around twelve inches in height and width. I was not previously familiar with the artist’s work, and was bowled over by its beauty. Here is an example of a smaller work:

Here is another:

And another:

Wherein does that beauty lie? I think it is found in Kern’s studied sensitivity to the anatomic beauty of horses, while he also takes obvious liberty in moving beyond literalistic portrayal of particular equine breeds. Though some observers use the term ‘surrealist’ to describe his approach, I prefer the admittedly cumbersome phrase, ‘representationally explorative.’ Further, Kern’s employment of a lost wax process for producing the molds has given him an opportunity to play with the plasticity of the resin in those molds, as well as to manipulate the coloring of the results. And because of his employment of this casting process, originally used for bronze sculptures, each of the pieces in this show is one of a kind, and not an example of a numbered series.

Just as compelling is the knowledge that after a successful career as a painter and professor of art, Kern then burned his remaining paintings, and moved to a largely hermit life as a sculptor, working privately without any assistants while casting in several cases significantly large works at his home or in his garage. The series of horse sculptures, among other works, is the fruit of several decades of dedicated work, outside the notice of the commercial art world.

It is not evident whether Kern’s loving regard for the human and animal form reflects a religious or spiritual appreciation for the source of the beauty they represent. Yet, his sensitivity to these forms evidences a spirit of positive regard for the world around us that parallels voices of praise that we hear in the Psalms and in many other passages of Scripture. Men and women, throughout history, have loved and admired the form and structure of so many examples of ‘flora and fauna,’ and that of the horse in particular. To me that is surely due to the way that our appreciation for what enriches our lives reflects the transcending and loving regard of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for both us and all of Creation.

 

Photographs are by the author (all rights reserved) with permission from the gallery. Arthur Kern, Horses, at the Callan Contemporary Gallery in New Orleans until April 23. I encourage you to seek images of and reflections upon his work on the internet. Here is a link to the exhibit: https://www.callancontemporary.com/artists/arthur-kern

The Beauty of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel

 

When I was in high school, while aspiring to be an architect as well as an artist, I and my closest friend admired the architectural work of Le Corbusier. Among the attributes of his work that we held high were these: attention to human proportion and scale; a sensitivity to architectural ideals while mindful of the needs for human community, both domestic and commercial; and an equal sensitivity to providing ‘beauty’ for those in financially marginalized and especially in urban contexts.

With my long-term love for the architecture of the American ‘Prairie School,’ and especially that of Frank Lloyd Wright, appreciating Le Corbusier’s very European modernist style, rather linear and grid-like, was something of a stretch. Perhaps a parallel might be how an admirer of Monet’s water lily paintings or of Whistler’s nocturnes might be surprised by a new delight in seeing some geometric abstract paintings by Piet Mondrian.

But then, after admiring Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoy, and his Marseilles Block (a combined apartment and business building), I discovered his Ronchamp Chapel (completed 1954). Though I have yet to see and walk through it, I have long sensed that this is a masterpiece, precisely because it is so counter-intuitive to the main body of Le Corbusier’s work. Whereas much of his architecture is analytic, geometric, and mathematically precise in his approach to it, Ronchamp provides an example of a lyrical and semi-mystical appreciation for form and space, as well as for light and color. And whereas much of Le Corbusier’s work can be seen as the fruit of a meditation upon classical antecedents, both Greek and Roman, Ronchamp Chapel seems to bear the spiritual imprint of the culture that we associate with the medieval centuries.

For me, the best examples of that latter point are the immensely thick side walls in certain parts of the chapel, where the light intrudes through very dense materials. This, of course, is a beautiful metaphor for my life and yours.

‘Glimpses of a deeper soul’ ~ this is a phrase that has come to me, time and again, when reflecting upon the lives of persons we become acquainted with in Scripture and Christian history, in secular fiction, as well as in daily church and public life. Especially in North America, we tend to chart our lives forward, in planned linear paths of progression, each step building upon the prior one toward a calculated and hoped-for end. And yet, despite all our planning, we may be open to, or unexpectedly experience, dreams and visions of something other, more amorphous. In such moments, we perceive to our surprise unanticipated images of what may be an attainable beauty, a beauty that none of us would have imagined in the ordinary run of things. For human creativity reflects divine creativity.

To Le Corbusier, perhaps his vision and design for the Ronchamp Chapel came as just such an unexpected surprise. For me, the wonder is that he allowed himself to let his imagination bear fruit in this remarkable plan and building. Despite his avowed atheistic concept of reality, his chapel centers on the transcendent and mystical, while also touching upon and embracing the local and material aspects of our lives.