Painting the Big One / 3
C G Jung, said that Nothing is what it appears to be in human perception, art least of all. A great tribute to art - or its ultimate dismissal. In alluding to the fathomless depths of the unconscious whence, ultimately, all creative impulses emanate, Jung challenges artists to try to go to the source of their own creativity.
In the late 1950s Ayn ‘The Fountainhead’ Rand formulated certain criteria for good fiction - the attempt an ambitious failure, largely ignored today, mangled in the maw of time. However, by proposing conflict as the vital core of fiction she may have come close to the heart of the matter, even as a criterion for painting. Conflict of course is missing from the bulk of contemporary painting - certainly from all academic painting. So, absence of conflict may well be a viable definition of academic painting. Thank you, Ayn, wherever you may be!
Why do painters avoid conflict in their painting? Think back to a time before painting acquired a commercial dimension that initiated the art market - some 300 years ago. Painters up to then had depended largely on patrons or small groups among society’s elite for sustenance and livelihood - they had little or no independence. Powerful support also came from the church. Many if not most religious canvases were commissioned, and painting church interiors was an important survival factor for painters.
Middlemen acting as agents for individual painters appeared, say, late in the 17th century, starting up the art market, that is to say a marketplace where paintings were sold as product, for profit. If painters had once painted to please their patrons, they now began to paint to please random buyers, please the public at large - continuing the tradition of downplaying conflict or avoiding it altogether. This practice continuous in full non-flower today - and no wonder …
… imbuing a frozen moment on a painted canvas with conflict is devilishly difficult - at least if done intentionally. Take a look at those enormous canvases of land- and naval battles so popular through the 18th and 19th centuries: huge armies, great armadas clashing in mortal combat, yet on canvas this comes across as historical routine rather than deadly conflict - perhaps because the core of conflict is internal, psychological, surfacing in archetypes and symbols. It isn’t so much what a painting depicts but where what it depicts comes from. Invariably, a painting that conveys conflict speaks through symbols from the unconscious.
Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is a fine example of internal conflict externalized through symbols, here in the shape of Liberty, that immortal female figure of flesh and blood leading ordinary mortals in battle. In Jungian symbology Liberty might stand for the unconscious, rising up against repressive ignorance, wreaking death and destruction in the battle for (self-)liberation. And even if liberty’s victories are short-lived, evanescent, liberty can never be defeated. Such action arising from the unconscious, as immortalized by Delacroix, points to the core of the human predicament - our inability to receive and interpret vital information from our unconscious, with chaos and suffering the inevitable result.
One might argue that painting harmony and beauty has an important compensatory function in a world of trauma and violence, likewise painting for distraction or decorative effect. After all, some of the greatest works of art, such as the Mona Lisa, appear to be entirely conflict-free - until you look at them a little longer, a little more closely. What is it that makes La Gioconda’s smile so mysterious? Well, for one thing, it’s painted to perfection - not one line anywhere in that face. All is shadows, shallow concavities, artfully subdued highlights and minute sfumato convexities. Leonardo is said to have worked on this painting for many years, been obsessed with it, finally balancing the lady’s faint smile on the very edge of mockery - as Nabokov might have put it: a hare’s breath from arrogance.
Mona Lisa’s smile is clearly pre-maternal. Or she may simply be ill at ease. It might be seen to project a touch of smugness, a bit of a better-than-thou attitude, a competitive element : I know something you don’t know. But nowhere in that painting is there the slightest hint of what it is she knows that we don’t know - da Vinci didn’t want us to know. He excluded us. Only he knew, leaving us guessing. Maybe Mona Lisa is mocking her creator, as we mock ours - an existential dilemma, a quintessentially human condition, hence of timeless appeal.
Historically, we’re heading into severe turbulence. Pick up a magazine from any month in 2005 and note how playful, and, yes, how innocent it reads today at the start of 2007. Within a couple of years we’ve drifted far downrange into ever nastier weather, haven’t we! With the inundational effects of global warming, ice caps melting, changing Gulf Stream patterns, huge new ozone holes opening up - the weather is turning apocalyptic. Looking back at half a million years of sentient human history we must admit that as a species we are failing, nay, that we have failed. Whatever solutions there may be in this scenario of a disastrous future for the species homo sapiens, they can only be personal. All that’s left to us is individual survival. It’s every man for himself (and may women take the hindmost) or so it would seem, wouldn’t it!
I grew up through the second World War in Nazi-Germany, which was no picnic, indeed rather a picnic from hell. From 5 to 10 years of age the war that raged around me taught me the ABCs of survival - cowering in air-raid shelters during allied bombing raids on Berlin, diving for cover under artillery fire, hitting the mud in a meadow being strafed by a low-flying fighter plane, dodging bullets from Red Army snipers … I escaped unscratched, not a hair bent on that head of mine. Swedes call it änglavakt - guardian angels on duty. Veterans say that WW3 will make the picnic-from-hell that was WW2 look like a picnic in the Bois de Boulogne painted by Manet. So I have a clear choice of what to paint, and it ain’t pretty …
On the other hand I might start looking for the good news in the bad news, the good news being that I, we, all of us, have come all this long way and are here now, alive and talking. Or writing. Or painting. I might start painting that - just to keep remembering to remember, as Henry Miller put it, remembering to remember who we’ve been. I might just paint a nice big canvas with no conflict whatsoever. No conflict ever. Or I might paint what is to come, why not.
©Peter Edler 2007