Painting

More on Contrast and Continuity

The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, by Raphael

 

Prompted by an article by William Least Heat-Moon, I reflect once again on two interrelated frescoes by Raphael. On his sometime-ago trip to the Yucatan, Least Heat-Moon was accompanied by his Mayan translator, Berto. There, the author encountered a destroyed Mayan temple. Regarding the temple’s relation to a later Christian cathedral occupying the same site, he quotes his translator.

“Many stones come from a Mayan temple that was long ago on this hill,” [said Berto, who] regretted this destruction. Yet to him, the broken stones imparted an additional dimension to the church because ancient Mayas usually did not destroy an earlier structure, instead building over it to layer meaning and power.

What an insight regarding contrast and continuity.

With that in mind, consider how visitors entering the Vatican Raphael room do so facing the fresco in the lower of the two images above. They behold a painting depicting an altar in a church space, surrounded by the Holy Trinity and famous saints and biblical figures. Turning around in that same space, visitors see the fresco in the upper image. It depicts great persons from the classical world, with Plato and Aristotle in the middle. Tour guides typically present these two paintings, which face each other, in terms of the contrast between them, saying things like: “Here, on this wall, we have the best minds of the pagan world. But, on the opposite wall, we see great saints of the Bible and the Church.”

We can look at these two interrelated paintings in another way. We might also see the continuity between them, even if the content of the two paintings seems rather different. For example, notice how the two frescos are composed with the same elements: similar colors and textures; the same arch over each image; and that the two spaces in which the figures walk or sit may be in the same building. And how the perspective or vanishing point in each painting mirrors that of the other.

Further, visitors who enter this room walk forward in the same direction as do Plato and Aristotle, who therefore share company with their contemporary pilgrims. Together, they and their later newcomers walk forward, approaching an altar surrounded by many saints! As a result, Raphael’s two paintings provide a splendid reflection on the theme of continuity.

Perceiving points of continuity between pre-Christian cultures and central themes in Scripture and in Western Christian theology has historically been more typical of the broader Catholic tradition, which includes not only Roman Catholics but also Anglican as well as some Reformed theologians, poets, and hymn writers. A contrasting parallel is provided by a historic tendency among many Protestant writers, preachers, and theologians, who have stressed a discontinuity not only between a Christian and a pagan view of the world, but often a perceived antithesis between them. This may caution us about making an ‘either/or‘ of what some may perceive as being a ‘both-and.’

Some who commend Celtic spirituality offer a compelling observation about Christian holy places in Ireland. Celtic crosses can often be found in or among pre-Christian places of worship. To the extent that this is so, we discern an openness to perceiving continuity. That is, a continuity between a place previously associated with a pre-Christian form of religion, and a later Christian willingness to pray and worship at the same location. Here, we should note a significant distinction.

Continuity does not imply sameness nor equivalence. There may be similar elements between what was before and what may come after. Such similarities do not obviate the potential newness and difference of what arrives later. Yes, the ‘new’ may bring change by covering over and even by replacing what came before, an approach typically characterizing contrast and discontinuity. Yet, the ‘new’ may bring change positively, by building upon what came before while also including and transforming it. No finer example of this exists than the Pantheon in Rome, also known as Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs.

All this has implications not only for the Christian transformation of places but also for how we view the baptismal transformation of people.

 

The images above are of two of Raphael’s paintings, traditionally titled The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. My prior blog post on these paintings may be found here: https://towardbeauty.org/2019/09/28/the-beauty-of-contrast-and-continuity/ . That post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.

The Delta Art of William Dunlap

Book cover of Dunlap’s 2006 retrospective art survey book

 

If Andrew Wyeth had migrated to the Delta region of Mississippi, some of his paintings may have turned out looking like those of William Dunlap. Folks not from the central deep South will usually associate that term, the ‘Delta,’ with the outflow of the great river south of New Orleans in several branched outlets. Yet, the term, the ‘Delta,’ in the mid and deep South refers to the region abutting the Mississippi River south of Memphis, bordered by Arkansas and Mississippi. Historically, and until the present, it has been characterized as one of the poorest regions of our nation and also known as the birthplace of the Blues, a fact which may not be coincidental. Lush with vegetation in a multitude of vibrant greens during the summer, the Delta has a stark beauty in the winter, especially where trees have been removed for farmland. Usually not cold enough for lasting snow, gray skies often complement the gray trunks and limbs of deciduous trees, as well as of cypresses in the swamps and by the river.

William Dunlap’s paintings, particularly the more recent ones, capture well the landscapes of this mostly rural part of ‘flyover’ America. As his artwork often depicts, the low-on-the-horizon winter sun pokes through bands of dark clouds, where in the evening a surprising warm glow can enliven an otherwise flat and bleak landscape. Dunlap lived in many places in the Old South while growing up, but the north central hill country of Mississippi, and Webster County, remained a homing point connected with his grandparents. Yet, I find his most evocative paintings are of the comparatively flat alluvial terrain on the east bank of ‘the American Nile’ south of Memphis.

Dunlap grew up feeling like he had lived in two eras of history, one being the late 19th century whose social legacy permeated the circumstances of his youth, and the other stemming from his having been born at the end of WWII, having come of age in the 1960’s. Images in many of his paintings reflect this paradoxical tension between old world cultural patterns and practices, and new world adventurous explorative freedom.

The dogs in his paintings reflect aspects of this dynamic. Dunlap’s grandfather bred and raised Walker hounds (most memorably represented in the top painting), which are often depicted as his central subjects within expansive landscapes. According to J. Richard Gruber, they are “used as a surrogate for man (and himself) in his works.” Here, in his choice of subject matter, we find another rural ‘old south’ in tension with an emerging new world. It is most markedly suggested in one of his paintings where he places a power plant cooling tower, releasing steam, behind a rural farmstead fronting an open field (not depicted).

This may help us appreciate the term Dunlap coined to describe his approach to painting, ‘hypothetical realism,’ a term which I think applies equally to the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Remarkably, Dunlap basically taught himself to paint, and focussed his early work on Rembrandt and other ‘Old Masters,’ while also displaying the evident influence of modern masters such as Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The effect of some of these more recent artists’ work can be seen in two of the paintings above, by the visual inclusion in the skyline of the regional names, Delta and Arkansas, in label-stylized fonts preferred by many Pop Art painters. Once again, we encounter a dynamic interplay between historically traditional approaches to representational painting and the 20th century reactionary revolt against them.

Dunlap is a truly gifted painter, both in terms of what he has been able to accomplish, but also in terms of his encompassing creative vision. Internet images, upon which I have relied here, only begin to suggest the expanse of his creative perspective.

 

 

For those who might want to see more of Dunlaps paintings, as well as learn more about him and them, I commend his coffee table book, Dunlap (which, through Amazon and or other sources may still be available, and which provides a much more accessible resource for appreciating the painter’s work:  (https://smile.amazon.com/Dunlap-William/dp/1578069041/ref=sr_1_5?crid=1YS7GNY6ZE2AS&keywords=dunlap+william+dunlap&qid=1654915393&s=books&sprefix=%2Cstripbooks%2C91&sr=1-5).

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 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 Picasso’s Guernica

 

It was probably in the summer of 1974 when I first stood before this remarkably stirring painting, Guernica, by Pablo Picasso (at MOMA, NYC). His fullest creative talents, as well as sensitivity to many aspects of our common human condition, came together to help him produce this recognized masterpiece. Not the least of the key features of this painting was his decision to render the composition in black, white and shades of grey.

Remember that he was ‘Pablo,’ not ‘Pierre,’ Picasso -that he was a Spaniard by birth, and in important ways, by self-identification.

In the context in which I compose these words, with Russia presently invading Ukraine, Picasso’s painting, and National Geographic’s somewhat unexpected reference to it at this moment, I am once again reminded of my recent visit to the Calder and Picasso exhibit at MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). The image below, featured early in the walk through of that exhibit, shows Calder standing in front on Picasso’s Guernica, looking at his own contribution to the Spanish Pavilion for the 1937 Paris International World’s Fair.

Noting these precedents, I want to raise a question, which cannot simply or quickly be answered. What is the role of art, and of our exploration of beauty, in relation to the reality of evil?

A powerful example of a response to this question is provided by Illya Repin’s painting, Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan (1581). A more recent example is Francisco de Goya’s 1814 painting, The Third of May. And, of course, so many portrayals of the crucifixion of Jesus.

A partial answer to the question I have posed is to say at least this: art and the exploration of beauty has the potential to remind us of our common humanity, and especially of the ideals we attach to our best and shared perceptions of what it means to be human – even in the face of evil and of death.

Picasso’s Guernica provides a compelling example of a good answer to this question.

The Beauty of Autumn Glory

 

In Western Michigan, the leaves at this time of year are usually beautiful. On the relatively few sunny days we’ve had, some of the leaves have been striking. But even against a foggy or rainy sky, the bright leaves provide a lovely metaphor. Like a choral concert featuring many voices, the leaves show their individual colors together in a stunning overall performance. I always love the deep reds of the maples. But the brilliant yellows and oranges of the birches, cottonwoods and hickories provide strong complementary support. Since these lively colors among the leaves are less common down south, we always put some in the mail to our kids in Louisiana.

As I think about this fall display, I remember something I heard years ago. We think of the bright colors as suddenly appearing in the autumn. But, apparently, those bright colors in the leaves have been there all along! It’s just that, at this time of year, the predominant green color fades away. When it does, it reveals the other brilliant colors latent in the body of the leaves. Either way, we don’t see the bright colors until autumn. And from the leaves’ first emergence as buds in the spring, we see only suggestions of what will come later. Sometimes the buds show hints of red and yellow. But soon, most of them bear variations of green, some light and pale, and others dark and rich-looking.

We can find a further extension of this metaphor in the form of a reflective contrast. On one hand, we appreciate the leaves at the end of their growing season. Yet, we often have a less-than-poetic view of ourselves as we approach the end of our own ‘growing season.’ Regarding the autumn display of color, people of faith rightly echo words from the Psalms, when we speak of fall leaves as ‘singing out praise’ to the creator. The leaves are doing what they were made to do. They are true to their own nature in each of the four seasons. And they come into their full glory in the fall.

And yet, when we think about ‘the autumn’ of our physically embodied lives, we consider it to be a time of decline and loss rather than one of gain, or as a time for giving glory. Suppose someone asks us to think about examples of people who give glory to God just by being who they are. We are likely to think of young folks in the ‘springtime’ of life, physically fit, professionally accomplished, with lots of time for achievement ahead. But why don’t we perceive the fullness of age as the time when we grow into wholeness, into the beauty of maturity, and when we embody received wisdom and grace? Why is autumn no longer a ready metaphor for when we as human beings come into our own glory?

The gloriously colored leaves falling from the trees at this time of year do not attain their beauty through anything they do. They come into their glory as a result of what happens to them. This follows from how God has made them, and from what God has put into them. This is perhaps the most significant meaning we can find in these leaves coming into their glory at the end of their lives. It gives us a different way to think about how we move into and through the ‘autumn season’ of our lives. For we now share in the beauty of the Communion of Saints not through anything we have done, nor by our strength, but through God’s graceful embrace of our weakness.

This past Sunday -All Saints Sunday- many people across the Church received a new birth through being joined with our Lord’s death and resurrection. They became new buds grafted onto the Tree of Life. In the youngest ones, we can only imagine how —some day— they will reflect Christ’s glory in their maturity. For we don’t yet see how they will become like the brightly colored leaves on autumn trees. But on All Saints, all the newly baptized emerge as flowering buds on the Tree of Life. May we join them in glorifying God through every season of our lives.

 

The image above is of an untitled Coco Treppendahl painting portraying the beauty of autumn leaves. This post is based on my homily for All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Beauty and Resurrection

Stanley Spencer_the-resurrection-reunion-of-families-1945

Stanley Spencer’s church cemetery visitors find themselves surprised by being found! They experience being found through a resurrection encounter with those who have gone before.

The resurrection of Jesus is not usually something we go looking for. The risen Jesus comes and finds us. This is the pattern we see in so many of the stories of Jesus’s first resurrection appearances to his friends and followers. The disciples and others don’t go looking for him except at first, when they go to the tomb. And even then, they are seeking Jesus’ mortal remains rather than his risen presence. He comes and finds them, just as he finds us, often in the context of fellowship. And like them, we are always surprised.

We don’t find the resurrection just as we don’t find God. Neither God nor the risen Jesus are lost, even if we may be. And so, we are found by both, and then we find ourselves as persons who have been found. This is instructive, for it corresponds with our apprehension of, and encounter with, beauty —which we also misleadingly credit ourselves with ‘finding.’ Really, beauty finds us. For our perception and recognition of beauty depends not on a ‘power’ that we possess to pursue and attain it, but rather on our ability to receive and recognize what is, and what is given. The same is true in our apprehension of, and encounter with, the grace of the resurrection.

 

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection – Reunion of Families, 1945.