Wednesday, August 04, 2004

August 3-4, Naples, conclusions

None of us had ever been to Naples, and unfortunately what seemed like the main art museum, the Palazzo Reale, was closed on the day we went there, but we had a chance to see the Museo Archeologico, which was probably the most impressive collection of Roman art and artifacts I have ever seen, mostly from Pompeii and Herculaneum. The mosaics I saw made a strong impression on me--two, that had been removed from the villa in Pompeii that had the massive Alexander mosaic, showed birds drinking and preening around water bowls. In both cases the works had great delicacy and beautiful design. In general I loved the animal-themed mosaics. The animals seemed full of life. They remind me, in retrospect, of some of Paul Klee's paintings, such as the Magic Garden.

Concluding Thoughts...

I think there is an illusion that happens when I experience a great work. I seem to sense the existence of a liberated world in the expression of the artist. Inside this work, the conflicts and contradictions of life seem to have been brought together for a moment. There is a statement, a rare, convincing statement, which somehow affirms everything at once. Such a work seems to have a kind of glow to me, a halo of sanctity. The illusion lies in taking this halo lilterally, in thinking, for instance, that there existed a place and a time that was enveloped in this glow of transcendence; as if I could go there, where the art was made, and be with it, in some way—like the experience of a painting were itself a part of a world that I could inhabit. It's like I want the transcendence of the art for myself. Like I want to turn the experience of inspiration into a dream that I can live on. I see some painters doing this with the past. The problem is that to dwell on illusions like that separates you from reality, reality which only exists in front of you, in the present. It's as though the more you dwell on fantasies, the less alive you become to your actual life. Dreaming is a normal part of being real, but there is a difference between an illusion that we lean on like a crutch, or that we cover over our faces like a blanket when we are scared or confused, and a dream which inspires us to search, to discover ourselves and our world, to create.

Still, I feel that something in the past draws us to it. It touches us in such a convincing way that we look there to find some part of ourselves that seems like it might be lost, or drifting away from us. I don't want to become sentimental or nostalgic about it, I just want to know what that thing is that I feel.

I’ve been conscious for a long time of a certain quality that pervades some of the work of the past. I remember being a small child and being captivated by this quality when looking at pictures of Italian gothic frescoes. The faces of saints in Giotto and Cimabue filled me with a sense of sacredness that I had no word for. Today when I go to museums and stand in front of Rembrandts or great Titians, I feel a hush come over me, almost as if I had entered a church. In Italy, this atmosphere seems to have settled in many places like a welcome guest of the earth's, or like an unheard song of the land itself. Strangely, I've come to feel that this song, this atmosphere, this hush, is the expression of a kind of solitude. It is the solitude of confidence with oneself, confidence in the inner life. When I look at the best works of old masters, it's as though there is a space in which I find a deep sense of trust and even intimacy. It is not intimacy with someone or something in particular, it's just intimacy on its own. Maybe you could say intimacy with the self, or with reality. To me, their great originality is the expression of this inner truthfulness, or self-confidence. The gravitational pull of this solitude is the greatest impression I have of my trip to Italy. It may be the greatest impression I have of art altogether.

* * *
I want to talk a little bit about my specific experiences. Giotto and Michelangelo remain as major inspirations to me. I can only describe what I felt in the Scrovegni Chapel as a Yes repeating itself inside me again and again as I looked at Giotto’s decisions, at his simplicity, at the clarity of his intentions—at his emotion and humanity. His originality is unbelievable. I’m going to be thinking about him for the rest of my life! By comparison, I don’t seem think that much about Michelangelo. I just stand there in awe of him. He was someone connected to something so powerful that I feel intimidated as much as I feel moved and touched by his work. At the same time, I relate so much to his emotions! What can you say about him that isn’t obvious? He is the ultimate in form. He is the only sculptor I know whose work in marble is spontaneous and yet has total structural integrity. Bernini is almost as good in some kind of technical way, but he’s more literal than visionary, and doesn’t have the depth of emotion. Rodin is visionary and wonderful, but his marbles are vague by comparison, like the filter used to indicate enchantment or dreaminess in the movies. I don’t want to criticize Rodin, I’m just trying to talk about Michelangelo’s qualities by way of comparison. There is a vividness of inner vision and a structural clarity that are beyond belief.

Giotto and Michelangelo are not the only two artists I had strong reactions to, of course. There were a lot of works that captivated me, more than I can remember now. Giovanni Bellini was a major discovery for me. I knew some of his work before I came here, but I had never seen anything like his massive Martyrdom of Saint Mark in the Galleria della Accademia in Venice. That painting thrilled me. I still plan to go to Vicenza to see his Baptism of Christ. I don’t normally hear people talk about him, but to me he’s really on the highest par of Renaissance painters. He has an incredible ability in him for both the ideal and the human. Usually people do one or the other really well, but not both.

I learned something about Raphael—I think he had a weakness in the painting of eyes, at least in some of his paintings. It’s really evident when you see him next to Titian in the Pitti Palace (Titian who painted people with eyes that are still looking, 400 years later). Of course, every time you make a criticism like that about a great master, you find yourself backtracking pretty soon, and in this case, there is Raphael’s Double Portrait in the Galleria Pamphilj in Rome, which was one of the strongest paintings I think I’ve ever seen, eyes and all.

Titian was another major revelation for me. I knew some of his famous works before I came here, but this was the first time I really got a sense of the essence of this artist. I was overcome by an almost mystical sense of his painting of Venus blindfolding Cupid in the Borghese Gallery. I think he was painting on a kind of mystical level at times. His work can seem literally—not figuratively—alive.

Nor had I seen much Rubens before, or not on a scale like this. His large paintings in the Uffizi, the Pitti, and the Brera Gallery in Milan, are visually exciting for the energy and visibility of the brushwork, something I can really relate to as a painter.

Another thing I gained from this trip was getting to know Massaccio. I had no idea, really, who he was before this. I had heard of him, and seen some images of his work, but I had never seen them in context, historically and with each other, to realize what an unbelievable achievement they were. His is another example of originality evoking that sense of the solitary master to me. Apparently he would “forget about the outside world,” would forget to eat and things like that. He wasn’t literally solitary, I know, but I’m talking about the inner solitude of the poet. He was exactly like that, an inspired poet. I will always be able to see the water in his baptism scene, the figures of Adam and Eve that I know Michelangelo looked at and drew, from exactly the same spot as I did, and lots of other pictures of his.

Then there was the chance to see Rembrandt and Velazquez!

Velazquez’ portrait of Pope Innocent X was unbelievable. Sometimes Velazquez seems to disappear behind his paintings, leaving just the subject looking at you. I always feel a little bit of Titian looking at me with the penetrating eyes of his sitters, but Velazquez himself seems to disappear. I think that may be unique to him.

I went back to the Uffizi again recently, and I stood for a long time in front of Rembrandt’s self portrait as an old man. I could never put into words the emotion I experienced in front of this painting, but this is what I wrote down at that time, what Rembrandt seemed to be saying:

All you can do is be where you are, and life is so much, you can never express it. Silence is the greatest expression.

* * *

When I visited the cave retreat at the hermitage in Assissi, I found these words printed on a card together with a picture of Avatar Meher Baba:

To penetrate into the essence of all being and significance, and to release the fragrance of that inner attainment for the guidance and benefit of others, by expressing in the world of forms, truth, love, purity and beauty - this is the sole game which has any intrinsic and absolute worth. All other happenings, incidents and attainments can, in themselves, have no lasting importance. -- Meher Baba

I know Meher Baba somewhat, and I first read these words about four or five years ago, in another context. They seemed to describe my whole sense of the role or purpose of art. I still feel more or less that way, and it was remarkable to find these words in that cave.

Out of all this I’ve come up with a few projects. To begin with, I’m eager to begin working in a real studio where I can concentrate and apply myself to oil painting. I want to push myself much farther in that regard, having seen what I’ve seen here. I also want to start researching and developing an idea I have to create a kind of chapel. Some of the religious spaces I entered on this trip gave me a great sense of peace and inner freedom. In some of them I had realizations that I know will always be part of my life. I remember writing a note to myself one morning—“my question for today is, what should a chapel be like?” I didn’t realize it then, but that was the day when we had a guided tour of the Medici Chapel, which was a revelation to me. A chapel is itself a kind of solitude or seclusion—a literal space where distractions should not enter, where there is an opportunity to experience something more fundamental. My chapel would express the concept of the oneness of God and Self by alternating expressions of a) various complementary dualities of life, and b) the transcendence or dissolution of dualities. I have several ideas about what these could be, and some thoughts about what this space could look like, but they are more or less in the form of a brainstorm at this point. It should be something that speaks the language of our time, so people of today can hear it clearly, so that they feel, entering it, that this is not from the past, but speaks to their experience. That would have to do with choosing what kinds of opposing forms to represent. Most of all, though, I want to travel and paint in places beyond the boundaries of modernity. I want to meet native and traditional people in India and Australia, and work in those places for long periods of time. This goal relates to the solitude I’ve been thinking about, and to the desire to want to experience humanity in a different spiritual condition.

I would summarize by saying that on one hand for me the Renaissance is about experiencing the essence of our own consciousness--this is what fills the emptiness of solitude. On the other hand, it is about human potential--Renaissance artists have set a standard of achievement for all of us. Creativity links these two hands in a cyclical pattern which could be called evolution. It is a cycle of moving inward and outward—into silence, and then, from silence, into expression, with each condition, inner and outer, shaped by the imprint of the other.


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