Category Archives: art

It’s about light and seeing.

This was a Sunday extra-full of intellectual stimulation, so much so that I feel I must write in order to debrief and process the swirling thoughts. (The church property was also graced with thousands of manzanita blossoms, with which I am decorating my post.)

As I have mentioned before, we are reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis this year in the high school class that meets, as they all do, after we have partaken of the Holy Gifts, toward the end of Divine Liturgy. Today I was amazed at the scope of philosophy and questions we touched on in half a chapter of the book: What is a person? What purpose should art serve? How can we resist the urges from without and within to imbibe and conform to the culture we are born into?

The fictional story is of ghosts who get a chance at Heaven by taking a bus trip from Hell. They have been in the process of becoming more or less human for a long time. Is it hundreds or thousands of years? Hard to say. Our narrator’s guide by the middle of the book is none other than George MacDonald himself, who explains a great deal of what is going on.

About one ghost who appears to the narrator not to be really wicked, but only “into a habit of grumbling,” MacDonald says, “The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman — even the least trace of one — still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

The blessed spirits journey for ages to meet the excursionists from Hell, and try to persuade them to cast off whatever hinders, and to stay in Heaven. Today’s reading included such an interview, between two men who had known of each other in the previous life, where they were both artists. When the ghost arrives, he looks around briefly and immediately wants to start painting.

“I shouldn’t bother about that just at present if I were you,” says the blessed spirit, and goes on to explain, “When you painted on earth — at least in your earlier days — it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came…. If you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

I wonder if George MacDonald struggled to keep his artistic focus on “telling about light,” if he ever found himself writing for the love of his own voice and to promote his reputation as a writer and storyteller. If so, he must have noticed, and repented. The glimpses of heavenly realities he was able to give have helped thousands to keep their eyes toward their life-giving Lord.

As often happens, the homily we had heard an hour earlier contributed to our lesson. This time Father John was telling us about the word peculiar in the King James translation, used in I Peter when the apostle is speaking to us who have been “called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It comes from a Greek word that tells us we belong to God; we are possessed. We mused about how this fundamental truth about our personhood can help us to come back again and again to that light, His light, and not get distracted forever from our purpose, and from His life-giving Spirit.

I was not through being challenged to think, and to try forming my thoughts into speech fast enough to contribute to a discussion, because our women’s book club from church was gathering around my table mid-afternoon. We certainly didn’t need to eat, but you know how it is, one may rarely have a gathering of any sort in our society without serving food, and it is fun! …so I did put out a few snacks, and tea things and mugs.

We were discussing The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. A couple of the younger women had read it 20 years ago, and liked it then. But they have changed, and did not enjoy it much. None of us thought it was great, and I only read half, and won’t say more about it here. Next time we are reading Wounded by Love by Elder Porphyrios, picked from a half dozen suggestions of literary sustenance for our Lenten journey coming up in a few weeks.

Okay, now I’ve made my little report, and I hope I caught a ray of light somewhere in it. At least from the darling manzanita.

Japan – journeys and excursions

I am certainly a newcomer to the genre of Japanese literature; before this month I think I had only read one other book by a Japanese author. Never in my life have I given serious attention to the literature or culture or history of Japan, probably sensing that I could never deeply understand its soul, being an outsider, very much from the West, not East.

It seems a little random that I have now embarked on only a short excursion, if you will, into things Japanese. Last year when I traveled to India and tried to learn about that country, there was a familial motive; otherwise I would have felt similarly. It’s not that I have a lazy mind, but rather that I know myself: it’s very frustrating to go only shallowly into any subject. I always want to keep going and going and ….

I’ve now finished the third novel on my original list, Convenience Store Woman. The library is holding one I’d forgotten I reserved, The Gate by Natsume Sōseki, and since my last post I discovered another book that I have already begun reading as well: Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura.

“This is an elegy in the form of a weeping cherry, Japanese symbol of ephemeral beauty and now my personal symbol of enduring hope during dark times.”

Fujimura is a Japanese American artist who spent years in the country of his ancestors learning traditional nihonga painting. You can click through his name above to his website if you would like to see more of his painting and learn about the layering technique, about which he says, “The nihonga process, which flows out of a thousand-year refinement, overlaps as a metaphor for the journey of faith that is refining me.” Here I show one of his Post 9-11 series.

In the book he explores the postwar Japanese novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, and shares his own soul’s journey of faith and the many events, people and gifts that have nurtured him:

“God took me to Japan, a country of my roots, to become a Christian. Thus, my aesthetic journey overlapped with my faith journey. This book reflects on both those pilgrimages, through the lens of my encounter with Shusaku Endo’s postwar masterpiece, Silence.

“…The three critical themes in understanding Silence are hiddenness, ambiguity and beauty.”

I have barely begun reading, but I have hope that Fujimura’s gentle and reflective way of conveying his own engagement with Japan and its legacy to humanity will enrich my own mind and heart, and lay more reference points on the grid, if you will. Right now I wouldn’t know how to write about the books I have read so far for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge, because no matter that they have been translated to my native tongue, they remain foreign. Perhaps down the road, before this read-along has ended, I will have made a little progress in understanding. It might happen that I will gradually find the map easier to read, and who knows, my excursion may turn out to be not so short after all.

Jewel tones and drapery.

Flora, by Evelyn De Morgan

After showing for three months at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the exhibition “Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters” closed just a few days ago. My friend Lorica and I managed to squeeze in a trip to “The City” in time to see it.

I didn’t read up on the subject beforehand, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a group of young enthusiasts named themselves in 1848, and what their concerns were. Lorica gave me some background on the drive down, and there was a lot of help to be had by reading the descriptions of each piece of art. One phrase that I read more than once was jewel tones. This term echoed in my mind as I walked through the exhibit and provided one idea to help me see a little better.

My knowledge being so sketchy, I can’t teach you about the movement, but there are good online sources of information, like The Art Story‘s page. What I will do here is try to share a few points and paintings that made the most impression on me.

And I have found quotes from these artists to let their own words speak as well.

From the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood site:

…the young artists studied early Italian frescoes and marveled at the difference between them and the current norms in the art world.  They believed that for the art world to be revived, it needed to return to the time before Raphael, and thus, the name Pre-Raphaelite was born.  In the midst of the Industrial Revolution and scientific discovery, these artists looked backward and created works that celebrated a distinct Medieval aesthetic.

The Brotherhood’s early doctrines were expressed in four declarations:

  • To have genuine ideas to express;
  • To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  • To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
  • And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

The Pre-Raphaelites created art that is known for its colorful brilliance. They achieved this by painting white backgrounds that they would later paint over in thin layers of oil paint. Their work was meticulous and their subject matter drew inspiration from myths, legends, Shakespeare, Keats, and lovely long haired damsels that we now equate with Victorian beauty.

All great art is the work of the whole living creature, body and soul, and chiefly of the soul.
— John Ruskin

The Ransom, by Millais
Flora, by Burne-Jones
La Pia de Tolomei, by Rossetti
Burne-Jones and Morris

William Holman Hunt founded the Brotherhood along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. John Ruskin became their champion for a time, and when William Morris founded his decorative arts firm in 1861 he made partners of Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and several other artists, to “undertake carving, stained glass, metal-work, paper-hangings, chintzes (printed fabrics), and carpets.”

I’ve found it a pleasant use of time to go to the Wikipedia sites for each individual artist who is associated with this movement, to learn more about them and their interrelationships, their wives who were often their models, and their love triangles.

Bocca Bacia, by Rossetti
Isabella, by Millais

I had in the past become interested in John Ruskin from reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, and I enjoy William Morris every day as I eat my breakfast and dinner on placemats of his enduring design. (But the picture below is of a special party.)

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
–William Morris

The Wikipedia article on Rossetti quotes John Ruskin:  Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.

Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante, by Rossetti
Detail of De Morgan’s Flora

Paint the leaves as they grow! If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world.
– John Ruskin

The Light of the World, by William Holman Hunt

From Wikipedia: The Light of the World is an allegorical painting by the English Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me”. According to Hunt: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good Subject.”

The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint.
Their wings are my protest in favor of the immortality of the soul.
— Edward Burne-Jones

Colorful brilliance… saturated color… details, textures, women as muses, nature, light.

And clothing! I do often think of this, how much painting of clothing artists have done, and the Pre-Raphaelites were certainly good at it. My appreciation for the beauty of the garments and the way the fabrics drape on the wearers’ bodies was enhanced just today when I was reading/listening to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. He speculates that some artists commonly have the ability to see into the is-ness of things such as he only experienced while experimenting with mescaline. Under the influence of the drug he saw the folds of his trousers as he had never noticed them before, and that leads him to muse on the art of drapery:

Artists, it is obvious, have always loved drapery for its own sake – or, rather, for their own. When you paint or carve drapery, you are painting or carving forms which, for all practical purposes, are non-representational-the kind of unconditioned forms on which artists even in the most naturalistic tradition like to let themselves go. In the average Madonna or Apostle the strictly human, fully representational element accounts for about ten per cent of the whole. All the rest consists of many colored variations on the inexhaustible theme of crumpled wool or linen. And these non-representational nine-tenths of a Madonna or an Apostle may be just as important qualitatively as they are in quantity. Very often they set the tone of the whole work of art, they state the key in which the theme is being rendered, they express the mood, the temperament, the attitude to life of the artist….

Not an inch of smooth surface here, not a moment of peace or confidence, only a silken wilderness of countless tiny pleats and wrinkles, with an incessant modulation – inner uncertainty rendered with the perfect assurance of a master hand – of tone into tone, of one indeterminate color into another. In life, man proposes, God disposes. In the plastic arts the proposing is done by the subject matter; that which disposes is ultimately the artist’s temperament, proximately (at least in portraiture, history and genre) the carved or painted drapery.

 

Truly, the beauty of the clothing in the paintings I have posted is art for art’s sake. De Morgan’s Flora’s dress at the top of the page is a “silken wilderness” of folds, so luxurious and lovely. Even in The Ransom, I am quite taken with the texture of the man’s leggings and the way his trousers have been pressed into creases.

We did not talk about our next activity as being any kind of logical continuance from the museum, but I think it was. As on our previous trip together to the big city, Lorica had business at Britex Fabrics, the kind of store people drive a hundred miles to shop at. You can get just about any textile you need there, in the color you want. The staff really know things and come alongside.

While Lorica was discussing her needs with the salesperson, I watched a smiling black man on one of those ladders, in the green area, trying to help a woman far below, who called up to him, “How about that jewel-toned one?” He laughed and said, “I don’t have any green jewels in my collection, so I don’t know what you mean!”

Lorica was looking for fabric for several projects, wool, silk, and cotton. She plans to make two blouses to wear with a skirt she will sew from a flowered “cotton satin” I brought from India.

She chose the green and the blue.

I saw this piece of linen unrolled from its bolt for display, and think of it as jewel-toned!

In the evening, back at home again, I was reading a magazine while eating dinner on my (blue, this time) William Morris placemats. There in the Bon Appétit restaurant issue was an eatery with William Morris wallpaper.

The past is not dead, it is living in us,
and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.
— William Morris

Poetic cooking while in fetters.

coconut curry with garbanzos

Since my husband’s death three years ago I’ve had three long-term housemates. Two of them have moved on, so that Susan and I are the only ones here, just two of us using the cupboards and large freezer space. This situation dovetails with my own less-burdened mind, which  now is able to grasp:

Yes! The obvious thing is to clean out the larder, use up the food, and start planning and cooking interesting meals with all the bits of this and that squirreled away. Facing up to what is unusable is part of the process; the soup that got lost in the back of the freezer for too long is one of the hidden costs associated with huge life changes, and is not a cause for guilt.

kasha (buckwheat)

Chesterton’s wisdom on creativity always helps me: Thrift is the really romantic thing; economy is more romantic than extravagance…  economy, properly understood, is the more poetic. Thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste. It is prosaic to throw money away, because it is prosaic to throw anything away; it is negative; it is a confession of indifference, that is, it is a confession of failure.

The most prosaic thing about the house is the dustbin, and the one great objection to the new fastidious and aesthetic homestead is simply that in such a moral menage the dustbin must be bigger than the house. If a man could undertake to make use of all things in his dustbin he would be a broader genius than Shakespeare.

Another development since I returned from India is that I can’t go back to the weird eating habits I had fallen into as soon as I no longer had anyone to cook for routinely. Eating normally and very tastily for eight weeks cured me forever, I think, of my go-to frozen chopped spinach that I had been eating as the main part of every meal. Yesterday I used the last of it with a little container of likewise defrosted meaty red sauce and a (fresh) egg, to make a perfect breakfast:

These limitations I have placed on myself made me remember other things Chesterton said about art and painting and limits, and that led me on an interesting path through fields of quotes on the topic. Talk about limits and people will argue that they only exist in your mind, and must be “dropped,” if you are “to go beyond them into the impossible.” Even Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “The vistas of possibility are only limited by the shortness of life.” But he wasn’t trying to get dinner on the table in an hour.

Modern man seems especially prone to this delusion, but there are many sage exceptions, like Robert Browning: “So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!”

In matters of food and cooking, even if you had unlimited money you have limited time, and limits on whom you might find to prepare the ingredients, the choice of which is always limited to some degree, and on and on. I know you all know these things; this is my philosophical rambling you’re reading.

“Untitled” by Richard Diebenkorn

I am not advocating for an unhealthy fear of trying something new, but actually the opposite. As George Braque said, “It is the limitation of means that determines style, gives rise to new forms and makes creativity possible.”

And though Richard Diebenkorn was talking about painting, this word from him is empowering when considered at the beginning of any creative work: “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles.”

Yesterday I found several very ripe bananas in the freezer, and I did not want to waste them, even if their monetary value at purchase was minimal. You can imagine what they looked like after being there for a while; I’m sure I couldn’t have found a neighbor who wanted them. Anyway, part of my “style” is to stay home. I avoid going shopping, and knocking on doors for any reason. If only I had got my hoped-for worm bins set up, I would have given them to the worms!

But various baking supplies were sitting in the refrigerator begging to be used, so I put everything together into an unusual banana bread. It started from a “paleo” recipe with almond flour, but when I substituted egg replacer for the eggs I created a Grain-Free Vegan Chocolate Chip Banana Bread.

It is a work of super enjoyably edible art!