Category Archives: art

A sense of enduring harmony did not abandon him.

Today we remember the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). Below are a couple of paragraphs from his comments on the idea that “beauty will save the world,” from the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute:

“One artist imagines himself the creator of an autonomous spiritual world; he hoists upon his shoulders the act of creating this world and of populating it, together with the total responsibility for it. But he collapses under the load, for no mortal genius can bear up under it, just as, in general, the man who declares himself the center of existence is unable to create a balanced spiritual system. And if a failure befalls such a man, the blame is promptly laid to the chronic disharmony of the world, to the complexity of modern man’s divided soul, or to the public’s lack of understanding.

“Another artist recognizes above himself a higher power and joyfully works as a humble apprentice under God’s heaven, though graver and more demanding still is his responsibility for all he writes or paints—and for the souls which apprehend it. However, it was not he who created this world, nor does he control it; there can be no doubts about its foundations. It is merely given to the artist to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and ugliness of man’s role in it—and to vividly communicate this to mankind. Even amid failure and at the lower depths of existence— in poverty, in prison, and in illness—a sense of enduring harmony cannot abandon him.”

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Nature’s art and nature’s artists.

Just before the weekend linked May to June, I drove north to see two of my children’s families and to be with Annie on the day of her graduation from high school. Her brother is graduating from college this month, too, so the afternoon barbecue was in his honor as well.

In the northern parts of the state winter was having its last fling all the way until Sunday; only a week before, Pippin had to put off her planting on account of snow, and I drove through a thunderstorm on my way up. When one downpour ended, the wind would blow the pine pollen around wildly, so that while Ivy and I lay on the grass birdwatching into the oak tree, a fine yellow blizzard suddenly whirled above and around us.

I stayed at Pippin’s. The morning of the graduation party, before I piled in the van with their family to drive up into Oregon, Ivy and I took a walk down the road and back. We saw strawberry flowers and the carcasses of wild animals, and some strange natural art.

It appeared that the same pine pollen that was plastered all over my car and lay as yellow dust on Pippin’s iris flowers had fallen on a driveway and then been washed by the rain into an intriguing design. We’ve been trying to imagine who or what prepared the asphalt “canvas” beforehand in such a way that the natural events could form these patterns.

Just a bit later, after Ivy had washed her hair for the party, she and Scout showed me their collection of artwork from the past school year. It was hard to choose which of several dozen pieces to take away on my camera, but here is a little gallery:

mermaid and squid
wolf

Bouquet of flowers including book-, pencil- and butterfly-flowers,
in a detailed and highly narrative and symbolic vase.

Self portraits by Ivy; note the pony tail at left.
Klimt style by Scout

And then, Pippin’s picture of the last storm Saturday evening, and Jamie:

 

I’ll be showing you more of nature’s art in another post, but here’s a bit more human artwork — clever and beautiful use of natural wood — which I saw just as I was leaving town to come home. I put my car in reverse and backed up a hundred feet to the side of the road so I could take this picture for Pom Pom especially, but I know there are lots of other art and mushroom lovers out there.

 

They did not turn aside when they went.

One of the readings for Holy Monday is from Ezekiel, a description of what the prophet saw in his vision of creatures and wheels:

…a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like the color of burnished bronze. The hands of a man were under their wings on their four sides; and each of the four had faces and wings. Their wings touched one another.

The creatures did not turn when they went, but each one went straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces. Their wings stretched upward; two wings of each one touched one another, and two covered their bodies.

And each one went straight forward; they went wherever the spirit wanted to go, and they did not turn when they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches going back and forth among the living creatures. The fire was bright, and out of the fire went lightning. And the living creatures ran back and forth, in appearance like a flash of lightning.

Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went.

As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them. When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

I was interested to see how artists might have rendered these images. Many of the pictures I saw were quite psychedelic, and just as mind-boggling as the descriptions Ezekiel gave. My favorite was this quiet sculpture, detail of an Amiens Cathedral facade which shows only two wheels, and a prophet who might be seen as receiving his vision, or perhaps meditating on the whole of it — which would be impossible to render in stone. The complexity and drama are only hinted at by the way the wheels are interwoven or interweaving.

The church fathers have written that the four living creatures are the cherubim, the guardians of the throne of God. The burning coals are holy men, the lamps signify the light of the gospel, and the wheels signify Holy Scripture; St. Gregory the Great tells us that “the New Testament lay hidden by allegory in the letter of the Old Testament.”

Ezekiel closes his description (beyond this day’s reading) with the words, “This was the vision of the likeness of the Lord’s glory. I saw it, and I fell down on my face….” and God spoke to him, gave him an assignment, and gave him a scroll, saying:

“Son of man, eat this scroll, and go and speak to the children of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. Then he said to me, “Son of man, your mouth shall eat and your stomach will be filled with this scroll that is given you.” So I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.

My Bible footnotes remind me that the faithful can also know that sweetness that Ezekiel tasted, as the Psalmist sings:

How sweet to my taste are Your teachings.
More than honey and the honeycomb in my mouth.

This probably works best when we love and obey those teachings… Lord, have mercy!

Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved:
for thou art my praise.

Jeremiah 17:14

Kusamakura

Kusamakura is a complex novel, a small expression of the broad literary and artistic vision of its author, Natsume Sōseki; he said he took one week to write it. Sōseki was born in 1867, on the brink of the historic moment of the opening of Japan after its 250 years of isolation. This story written about 30 years later is a hearkening back to the classical and inward culture even as it portrays a protagonist in a world that has quickly changed and will never be the same.

The unnamed artist narrator, no doubt somewhat autobiographical, is not the sort who might move the action of the story. He doesn’t really do much but philosophize about beauty and art.

His plan for his holiday is to paint, and to maintain a detached, disinterested perspective on everyone he meets, so that he can fit them into the mental painting or poem he imagines, his artist’s way of seeing the world. There the humans might be on a plane with nature, which “…instantly forges the spirit to a pristine purity and elevates it to the realm of pure poetry.”

You can hear how elevated his opinion of his own spirituality is, and his pride at knowing true art, as contrasted again and again with particular behaviors and with phenomena tangible or intangible that he calls “vulgar.” But he does truly have an eye and a feeling for beauty, demonstrated in many instances throughout the book.

He muses in detail about every aspect of the beauty of the the old woman who hosts him at a wayside inn. When he gets drenched by a rainstorm, he transforms the miserable aspects: “If I picture myself, a sodden figure moving in this vast inkwash world of cloud and rain shot through diagonally with a thousand silver arrows, not as myself but as some other person, there’s poetry in this moment.” When Sōseki wrote that scene in Kusamakura I wonder if he was thinking wryly about the attitude he might have had toward his own miserable years that he later pictured poetically: “Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.”

Of such described scenes and experiences my favorite is this: “…times when the ineffable beauty around one, some presence one can scarcely grasp, mysteriously masters the heart….” For several pages he tries to capture with words this “ecstatic motion,” that “does not originate from outside,” and is tenuous only in that it is “ungraspable.”

With abandon the Painter describes pottery, landscapes, food and people, at times in such a way that a tea-sweet becomes food porn. Humans are considered, to use his image, heartlessly: “I shall aim to observe the people I meet from a lofty and transcendent perspective, and do my best to prevent any spark of human feeling from springing up between us. Thus, however animatedly they may move hither and yon, they won’t find it easy to make the leap across to my heart….”

This coolness is maintained even toward the forward and unattached young woman of the inn where he stays. They have occasional conversations and several provocative encounters, and she seems herself to be the sole element of potential plot, while he remains impassive. He is, however, very interested in her as a sublime object to be painted, if he could just figure out what is  missing from her face.

Elsewhere he muses over a question I had never heard posed before, and in the end I thought this dilemma was significant, too: “…whatever has motion is always finally vulgar…. Should we depict motion or stillness? — this is the great problem that governs the fate of us artists.”

I think that the Painter’s familiarity with the wider world and the culture of the West have made him a bit smug. He judges the West by the refinements of Japan, yes, but he also seems to have lost the modesty and restraint that are part of the Japanese expression of beauty, and can’t help revealing his arrogance to the reader.

Having recently read the reverent Book of Tea, written by a contemporary of Sōseki, I was shocked when the narrator ranted about this Japanese art form, the tea ceremony: “No one is more assiduously pompous than a tea ceremony master, who will fancy himself the quintessence of elegant refinement. Your typical tea master is deeply conceited, not to mention affected and fastidious to a fault. He ostentatiously clings to the cramped little territory he’s marked out for himself within the wide world of sensibility, savoring his bowl of foam and bubbles with a quite ridiculous reverence.” And then I realized that it was the Painter who “fancied himself the quintessence of elegant refinement.” He breathes deeply of the vapors rising from his bowl of peeves and perceptions, and is pleased. On the other hand, doesn’t ranting at least border on the vulgar?

And yet, Sōseki himself did write about this book that he intended it to be a “haiku-style novel,” and that “all that matters…is that a certain feeling, a feeling of beauty, remain with the reader. I have no other objective.”

I felt more confident of my idea that Sōseki intentionally imbued the Painter with these ironic aspects after I read on the Literary Hub site about the author’s stay in Britain, where the government had sent him as “Japan’s first Japanese English literary scholar.” During his two unhappy years there he read constantly, and one tome he devoured and evidently thoroughly comprehended was the three-volume Tristram Shandy, which I have only read about, and doubt that I would be able to grasp the satire of it. In his first book, I Am a Cat, his cat narrator makes fun of the intellectual humans, speaking “with Sōseki’s voice, now bitingly critical, now cynically amused.” 

Kusamakura may be a book about the feeling of beauty, but the human relationships naturally get our human attention. My own philosophy and theology are that beauty originates in the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To try to know and appreciate another human by seeing them “objectively,” in a non-emotional or detached way, will never work. You will not see them truly. The Painter is perceptive enough in this case to realize what he isn’t able to do.

Indeed, that “something missing” in the face of the woman the Painter wants to paint, because she is so beautiful, he doesn’t discover until the very end of the story. Perhaps that is the plot, the character development and the problem solved, all on the last page. In a moment of emotion, a motion of the heart toward another person, if you will, he sees in her face the beauty that will make it worth painting.