28. Looking at a Painting in the Postmodern World
by Culture and Anti Culture
(For context see Post 1)
The means of appreciating painting, sculpture and architecture are quite varied. That of the middle-class museum goer’s drift through a typical exhibit, often wearing headphones to guide them, is perhaps the most crass and Philistine. It is the norm today and is a distraction from the real task of contemplation.
What is a painting? In the simplest sense it is a planar circumscribed space, a region surfaced with colors and shapes, usually with a conventional periphery to emphasize its discreteness (framing). In the most literal sense that is all.
(“This is not a pipe”)
La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images) – Rene Magritte
This simple reality is not altered by its history, symbolic and ideological interpretations, market value, snob appeal and the like. A painting is a separate object in the visual world, like any other. Yet a true painting is also a very unusual kind of object, a sort of focal point of aesthetic power.
We have already addressed the reality of aesthetic forces and how to invite them into the soul. In part, something akin to surrendering to the effects of music is called for. Music has the capacity to affect us in an almost unmediated manner, to allow us to merge with the experience of tone, harmony and rhythm. Looking, though, is very different. There is a kind of gap between us and the outer, visual world that is, at first, much harder to bridge. To begin with, a painting is far from us.
A first step in bridging this gap is to stop the standard museum goer’s practice. Avoid audio tours above all. Pick out a painting to contemplate for a sustained period, comfortably seated if possible. Consuming large numbers of paintings, like so many confections, is destructive to aesthetic pleasure.
Looking requires time, lots of time. You take your ordinary self with you to this event, and it must be put aside somehow. This can be done by gazing with intense attention for a while, alternating with looking away or, better yet, closing your eyes. If you are around others, you must jettison the self-consciousness which is lethal to the free play, the improvisation this looking must be, in order to be fruitful. Rumination must also be suppressed or minimized.
This sought-for state of unprejudiced receptivity, of “negative capability” (as Keats called it) is a kind of self-hypnosis to free you from the banality of ordinary consciousness. This heightened, elusive state (‘something evermore about to be”- Wordsworth), even if momentary or intermittent, is essential to the deep apprehension of aesthetic power.
Such a state lends a hyper-real intensity to the image looked at – (much easier to do with a well-composed picture than a mediocre one).
Having achieved this cleansing of attention, individual details can be contemplated. Now ensues the true “analysis” of a painting – it involves focusing on a region of color or shape and bringing simple, corresponding thoughts to bear. This is best illustrated by examples.
Overall, there is a quiet, transcendent harmony. On sustained contemplation, the central feature of this image is the relationship of the outstretched hands of the two figures. The arms are aligned, yet not rigidly so, and the hands, with infinite grace, convey a shaping quality across the gap between them; full of mysterious yet palpable force, as if the hands were radiating power akin to the like poles of a magnetic field. [The impression can be enhanced by imaginatively or literally placing your limbs in a corresponding position.]
Looking at the figures, the winged angelic form is clothed in a complex array of cloud and wavelike billows, mobile and expansive, as if stirred by the wind.
The Madonna’s torso is of a more vivid red, with torsional vertical streams of color emerging from the black inwardness of another dimension, created by the lining of her cape.
The crouching figure of the angel is charged with a sense of coiled, constrained motion; the Madonna with a restraining quietude.
The gaze of each figure is into an indeterminate, spiritual infinity; their faces deeply moved, yet objective and enigmatic as well.
The bright stripes and squares of the floor give a degree of levity (lightness) to bring this scene into the full light of day.
The view through the window relates this intense, local encounter to the vast space of the earth and sky, uniting the intimate with the universal.