Monday, March 28, 2011

The Arnolfini Portrait

The idealistic qualities of marriage and relationships I fear elude me and have for some time.  These are things I dare say I've made any attempt to avoid; quite the contrary, these are things I've pursued to understand much more deeply for nearly twenty years.  Of some suspect would be outside influences on my perspectives and understandings and I can assuredly say, these have been commendatory and constructive.  Sadly, I am still bewildered how some couples have come together to begin with and how others have remained steadfastly bonded.

Wrought with symbolism, materialism, synthetic effort, and devious intention, I observe couples on a near-daily basis studying their body language and mannerisms and am very rarely impressed with the genuine qualities of who they are as a pair.  Far be it for me to determine what may appear to be a fabricated relationship is in fact just that, but I am hard pressed by my own ambitions and desires to understand how I've gotten to my age and have yet to find a consummate companion. Remarkably, when I most oft find the sincerest pair, they are elderly and wise in their years.  This, to me, indicates that through time, frivolity and foolish ambition are eventually and inevitably cast aside as the value of such things depreciates yielding to the true value of the span of life left remaining.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (c.1394-1441) is considered one of the most vivid, realistic, and elaborate paintings ever created and especially for that era.  Painted in 1434 (as indicated and signed by the artist on the wall in the background), the work is believed to be that of an Italian merchant named Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (or wife-to-be) Giovanna Cenami standing inside their home in an upstairs "Flemish bedchamber."  It is quite clear the couple are wealthy but more importantly, they were created not just to preserve their existence but to express the traditional roles of a husband and wife in the 15th Century.

He stands upright facing somewhat forward, back to the open window implying his dominance over the outdoors, and wears what appears to be extremely expensive fabrics and attire.  Meanwhile, his bride is also draped in affluent garb, facing the man, seemingly with child (though some scholars say she was not pregnant and this was the style of dress for that age), and with her back to the bed implying she is the caretaker of the home.  There is a richness in detail for a painting this old and which is quite uncommon for that period.  Gazing around the room, one will find all sorts of possessions that are unique and qualify these two as part of the upper echelon of society.  From the rare breed of dog to the custom made shoes; from the detailed stained glass window to the intricately carved bed's and matching seat's frameworks; from the elaborate brass chandelier to the rarely-owned and incredibly beautiful mirror, there is much to take in about this piece and rightfully so.  However, what I find most intriguing is the two persons being depicted.

Clicking on the picture above will open up an extremely large version it and when I look at their faces, I see two people living properly but do not appear to be living fully.  He seems apathetic to his interaction with the woman almost as if he has better things to do with this time.  His hand is held upright implying he is in control while his gaze seems to be wandering off as though he wishes to avoid eye contact with anyone in the room (see the reflection in the mirror).  Looking at him, I have no sympathy nor do I feel he's a very happy individual.  He appears to have stumbled into his fortune based upon his frail figure and pale skin implying he did not earn his wealth.  And his life appears to be surrounded by the finest of materials and possessions yet he's not found the happiness he seems to be pursuing.

Standing idly by is a delicate woman with a sincere face and in what seems to be meek obedience.  She holds her right hand out and upward implying her intent to give all of herself to him while holding the excess of her dress as if she's ready to move on his whim.  Yet in subtle detail is a squint in her eyes.  Yes, I do feel sympathy for her but I can't help feeling like there is a part of her that is beginning to see the superficiality of her relationship.  She is faced towards him with her lips gently pulled in at the corners but her eyes are slightly downward and riddled with thought.

Ironically enough, some studies of this painting over the years compared actual historical events of this man and woman and argue she may actually be a undocumented first wife who died and not the woman named for whom he married 13 years later.  In fact, there have been many studies of this piece and no way for me to go into them all; I strongly suggest checking Wikipedia for much more detailed analysis.

No matter, for me the eyes are the windows to the soul and thus I find more going on between these two that would not immediately be seen upon first inspection.  And no matter the circumstances, I'm reminded of how a union between a man and a woman are just as complicated now as they once were.  Perhaps things today are bit more complicated with 600 years of development behind us but the principle still remains:  Marriages and relationships are often times mired in complexity and oh so foolishly!

Therein lies some of the reasoning I have come to accept for my own perpetual bachelorhood.  Simplicity to me is most important and I struggle to accept that for many others--though they may speak to the contrary--complexity is what is most desirable and a deep seeded devious nature may be the motive.

Am I being far too analytical?  Perhaps.

Am I being far too idealistic?  I hope not.

Is there any harm in truly hoping to find a love that is deeply mutual and simple to its core?


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans

It's been said that if you've made up your mind you can do something, you're absolutely right; if you've made up your mind you cannot do something, you're absolutely right.  Decision making isn't always the easiest thing to do despite it being a daily occurrence and there are almost always moments where one decision's outcome will yield something bad or something worse.  Often referred to as "necessary evil," the chaos of one moment where one will have to choose to step forward in one direction or another will still have adverse affects on anyone or anything in the wake.  It comes down to which direction will produce the least amount of collateral damage lest one not have the wisdom to foresee such outcomes.

Faced with a career that was dwindling and a massive loss of self-confidence, in the following weeks after September 11, 2001 I had a decision to make:  I could stay where I was and not afford much of a living, or throw all caution to the wind and go to the military which to me was always a "professional" last-resort.  Of course, considering the circumstances and feeling patriotically offended, the decision did not seem as difficult to make as I now feel it should have been.  No matter, though, in mid-October of that year I shaved my own head and was put on a plane to Ft. Benning in Georgia for Infantry training.

After about four weeks of training, I injured my knee and became familiar with a side of me I'd always knew was there but had never experienced.  Despite the incredible pain the moment it happened, I pressed on determined to fight through it.  "Suck it up and drive on" was our company motto and that echoed in my head with each agonizing stride I made until I began to notice I was involuntarily crying.  A few weeks later after literally not receiving any proper medical attention, my will to continue was completely sapped and I went from being a model soldier looked up to by every man in our company to being the object of daily ridicule by each commanding officer and drill instructor.  A couple weeks after that I found myself being shipped home with nothing to show for my intentions; no job, no vehicle, and no place to live.

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is a painting depicting a man struggling with himself over what was essentially considered frivolity.  Painted in 1936 to illustrate the essence of the Spanish Civil War, it shows a dismembered figure reaching up to keep himself from moving upward while using his foot to keep himself down.  Poignant--absolutely "poignant" comes to mind because despite this painting being created as a way of expressing an anti-war sentiment, it can stand for so much more for so many of us.

When I see the grimacing face, it reminds me of the inner angst I face with every difficult decision I have to make.  Caught up in ideology and narrow-minded thinking, however, I therefore separate myself from myself and thus the battle for dominance on an esoteric and emotional level begins.  Yet the painting also displays a box on which the figure is propped up implying either the need to be seen and heard or the need to move upward.  And at the bottom lies the "boiled beans" symbolizing that what may have started out as a noble or genuine decision to make, has been selfishly stupefied to the point of becoming meaningless.  The figure represents emotion on the surface but also foolishness on a much deeper level.  And though the heavens being bright and blue seem to imply moving upward will be the best choice compared to the bland, brown and dirty environment below, the man is so caught up in his internal struggle to make a decision that all of it has become forsaken.

What an incredible amount of irony is being displayed.  That a person can become so obsessed with making a difficult decision, he or she misses the point entirely and forgets that the now dismembered body of his or her self has to get to the same destination!  What you are witness to is a man who has become his own enemy, lost to his genuine ambition, and now battling within and clearly on the verge of utter failure.  Much like my own struggle in 2001 both in joining the Army and in what to do once fate had dealt her hand, I, too, had become my own enemy allowing circumstance and ignorance take control over half of who I was.

Fortunately, my sister and brother-in-law came to my rescue and offered me a new start on life out of the generosity of their immensely kind hearts.  That is how I see the small figure perched on the lower hand in the bottom left corner.  Though the subject of this piece is battling himself, insignificantly there and ready to become significantly more is someone who may be able to assist and being back order to what has become distinctively ugly.  I am thankful to this day that I have not had to be as juxtaposed to myself as I did nearly ten years ago.  I am equally thankful someone as talented as Dalí helps to keep me reminded of how far I have come.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Vexed Man

Several years ago, my family was gathering together to celebrate a special occasion at my sister's house in the local high desert.  Each of us ventured to our common destination from our individual port of origin and as coincidences go, I happened upon my brother while inching through freeway traffic.  We honked, made faces, waved like idiots, and commenced the "race" through miserable gridlock as we headed North.  After a brief period, I noticed my brother pulling over to the side of the road and out of curiosity, I decided to see what was up.

Perched on a bridge that was roughly 150 feet high over a dry riverbed, my brother was about a hundred yards behind me so I carefully backed my truck up along the emergency lane.  As I did, I noticed his hood popped and he had gotten out to examine the engine.  Now, I don't claim to be the most brilliant man alive and I have certainly made my fair share of misguided mistakes, but the mischievous inclination I got at that moment--completely disregarding physics and the absolute nature of the circumstances--was probably one of the biggest blunders and horribly stupid things I've ever done.

I don't think I was going much faster than walking speed as I backed up and seeing my brother's backside protrude from under the hood made me feel as if a light "tap" from my rear bumper would be a humorous "hello" that included some innocent shock value (if that is even possible).  Unfortunately, gaging distance through a two-dimensional rear-view mirror coupled with the actual weight of a Ford Ranger pickup truck is not recommended and while that did not necessarily affect how far into my brother I drove, it did affect how far he and his knees were from his own bumper.  Giggling to myself as I tried to lightly bump into him, what was only meant to be a nudge turned into a nightmare as the following view I had of him was his arm flailing upwards just before his entire body disappeared out of rear-view sight into a writhing heap onto the road.

The Vexed Man by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) depicts a man in the middle of immense emotion.  Very well known for his animated busts, Messerschmidt spent the latter years of his artistic life creating immensely detailed works and is even credited by some for inspiring modern-day cinematic prosthetics and "FX."  He lived a fairly short life and I suppose one could implicate his works are living monuments to his eventual fate.

What is expressed by The Vexed Man surely illustrates how I felt for a split second when reality struck that day on the bridge.  To this very moment wrought with guilt and genuine sorrow, I do not know what the hell I was thinking.  But the moment I first saw this piece, my thoughts turned to that dark day as this bust seemingly represents how I felt and probably how all of us have felt at certain moments in our lives.

At first, a viewer might be inclined to feel a bit silly looking at the expression on our subject's face.  There does seem to be an immediate sense of humor about it and I'm not sure why.  However, spending more time to examine the details reveals the shear genius of Messerschmidt's talent.  On the whole, the man appears to be in his 60s or early 70s.  A receding hairline, aged, wrinkly, and drooping skin all seem to indicate that this fellow has seen his fair share of life.  For me, it speaks to the absurdity of the emotions expressed as well as the possible nature of what could make such a weathered man express himself with such animation.

The longer I take to examine this sculpture, the more I feel as if the individual is about to cry uncontrollably.  Yes, at first I felt as if the piece was silly in some way but even now and despite being closed, the eyes are so enraptured in that very moment being frozen in time, I almost feel a little sorry for the man.

I have to admit, I am feeling a bit inadequate to continue on.  This piece is so fantastic, I don't feel qualified to go on about it.  Such an odd turn of events, if I do say so myself.  I didn't expect to come to this moment while I fought for how to word how this piece makes me feel.  It was in that moment I realized that perhaps I'm just not capable of expressing it in such a way that would lend credence to the amazing level of respect I have for this artist and his work.

But I won't leave it at that ... my tale still awaits closure.

After turning off my car, jumping out, and running around, I saw my brother rolling on the ground in pain.  My heart sank as I tried to help him; his utterances of discomfort and complete disregard for where he lay were heart wrenching.  With each rock back and forth, he inched closer to the edge of the bridge which did not provide much protection for humans about to fall over.  Eventually and thankfully, he was able to collect himself despite the unimaginable aches and we were on our way again.  In the coming weeks and much to my relief, a doctor's appointment revealed he was okay and had not incurred any breakage or tearing.

For my brother, my sister, my family, I would do anything and the last thing on Earth I would intend to do is hurt any of them.  It's been a long time since this incident and even to this day, the thought breaks my heart all over again.  Indeed, it is quite vexing to recall.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Poet, The Thinker

I turned 21 in 1993 and had come to the conclusion that I truly desired to find the right woman, get married, and live happily ever after.  It was more of a feeling than anything else, but it all just made sense.  I can remember as I made my determination, my thoughts churned between seeing a beautiful face every day, feeling loved, and knowing she was the perfect woman for me.  Go figure, someone at a fairly young age had a fairly decent grasp on the simplicity of sharing his young life with another.

Redundancy intended.

Nearly 20 years later, I've still not found "Miss Right" and am entering an age where I don't think I ever will.  Most of those with whom I am close will tell me it'll happen but honestly, I tend to think it won't.  Of course, reading this you may think I'm just feeling sorry for myself and I would have to beg to differ.  Reality isn't something easy to accept and believe me, it has taken many years of being alone, being rejected, and being ignored to finally conclude that maybe, just maybe, by some cruel standard set for my life, I will not be fortunate enough to find the right woman, settle down, and have that family I have truly desired for most of my adult life.

The Thinker (previously titled The Poet) by François-Auguste-René Rodin (1840-1917) depicts a hero in deep contemplation.  Some of you may not know that this figure actually ended up as the head piece in a large relief sculpture by Rodin called The Gates of Hell which was based upon the Inferno chapter of the epic poem titled The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.  Originally commissioned and designed to be the portal entrance into a new museum, the incredibly detailed and pieced-together work told the story of heaven and hell clashing together while Dante (the most popular theory for the figure) sat above the scene meditating on all that befell before him.  In 1902, Rodin created the first cast for The Thinker which is now one of the most popular sculptures around the world, typically used to illustrate philosophy, and was later included in the completed sculpture two years after Rodin died.

Rodin is known for his striking work and ability to create art that evokes incredible emotion.  This piece is no exception.  What is most intriguing to me is how the emotion of the piece reminds me of me.  I'm certainly no hero which the sculpture implies, but I know that feeling of needing a genuine moment to reflect upon life in a meaningful way; of being overwhelmed by reality and what's around me.  Clearly, this figure is of age and was depicted in the nude to indicate his intelligence and as reverence for Michelangelo and poetry.  And with age comes wisdom.

Fortunately, the same bodes well with me and as each year passes, my wisdom grows and my yesteryears of losing control, flying off the handle, or jumping to conclusions have lessened significantly.  You will have to forgive me if it seems I'm rambling.  With a painting, I can intricately express how every detail influences me.  With this statue, however, I'm left with a singular object devoid of interference or interaction with anything other than the nondescript perch where he sits.  He is emboldened by one expression and a plethora of emotional implications and this is what inspires me to merely express without analyzing.  Well, no more so than I just have.

For you see, this one piece is so incredibly influential and well done, I'm left with my own thoughts of emotional struggle, contemplation, and meditation.  I don't feel the need to do anything rash, but rather I deeply respect what The Thinker represents and implies.  It has become an icon for who I am before I was even a twinkle in my daddy's eye.  And there, perched above life, stripped of everything by my own heart and soul, I sit in sober mediation looking to understand what befalls before me.  You may see a smile, hear a laugh, or watch me animate with my body, but somewhere deep inside, The Thinker is who I am ... constantly ... thinking.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Philosopher in Meditation

I can't remember why or where I was exactly, but at some point during my youth, I found myself exploring the Sierras during a camping trip. There was a moment during my teens where I crossed into a realm of understanding about basic navigation and survival, and with that confidence, I set out into the woods. What I encountered from the camp area to where I ended up, I'll never remember. But what I will always remember was what I found. Through the dense woods, up and over a couple of hills, the ground abruptly ended at a line of large boulders which protruded from the edge of a very deep cliff overlooking an incredibly awe-inspiring valley. Words do the view and experience very little justice so I will allow your own imaginations to paint the picture in your mind. Just know that the dawning sunlight highlighted every single crest line in the distance, every single tree in view, and ran a river of warm, yellow and orange glow up that valley and onto my face. Perched on the boulders and beholding the peaceful view, I sat for hours contemplating life.

The Philosopher in Meditation, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), was painted in 1632 and during a time when most feel he was in his prime for portraits. Already getting accustomed to fame, Rembrandt would take moments from his otherwise busy life of commissioned work to paint something meaningful and emotional. Here in this painting, he ventures away from his typical Biblically-inspired scenes to portray an elderly wise-man bathing in the sunlight through his basement window, his comfort being tended to by a maiden or wife, and pondering the meanings of existence, reason, and value.

What really impresses me about Rembrandt's work is his use of light and shadow. Taking that element away, the eye is immediately drawn to the spiral staircase and Dutch-style interior design. The portrayed home gives off the sense that this is a very cozy cottage aesthetically, but probably rather chilly. But why chilly? Even as I study the piece, my mind wanders a bit to the subliminal sense that the subtle temperament of the two lives illustrated are depressed, perhaps sorrowful. As a whole, the painting has a very deep, earthy glow about it and that makes me feel it's purpose is to encourage hope. But I cannot escape the down-trodden faces of the elderly man and woman even if one is supposed to be deep in thought.

I was able to locate a very large version of this painting online and took the time to examine the details. For example, just above and slightly to the right of the woman is a glass object which, when looked at in great detail, I was able to see the delicate time and attention Rembrandt gave to it. But why? Going further, my eyes followed the wood trimmed brick walls up and to the left where I can see each little crack and sign of aging the artist included in the home. As a matter of fact, it appears as if more time was spent detailing the living area rather than the intended "stars" of this painting. But to me, this is what embodies Rembrandt's incredible sense of emotion he is able to imply in every single painting he ever created.

If you look at the painting as a whole, you can see quite a large area of darkness which swallows up the leftmost portion of the piece. Reading the painting from left to right, I get the sense that despite all of what may bring us down, hurt us, or even destroy our lives, there is always a ray of light which leads to hope. I can't help but think these two lives are riddled with troubles, yet right in front of them, bringing warmth to and illuminating their home is an out of focus window due to the volume of light pouring in. And as the light fades going to the right, in the back of the room is a supporter, a woman tending to a fire which to me symbolizes each person's responsibility and plight to learn from their past; that learning doesn't always have to be done in solitude and without support.

Whew! Honestly, I am deeply moved by this painting and even feel emotionally exhausted having explored it. I would be remiss if I did not admit most of what I've shared here came to me during my process of studying this piece. I don't think everything I will ever write will be done in this fashion, but for this deeply emotional and hopeful piece, I'm glad I did. In my heart of hearts, there is a part of me that truly wishes these two found the hope and answers they were seeking.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Portrait of a Bearded Man

There are moments in life when a revelation will smack you in the face, take your breath away, and narrow your attention to a near finite focal point.  You forget about the bills, feeding the cats, taking the trash out, clearing up the pile of laundry in your room, what time to get up for work tomorrow.  Your focus, your mind, your soul all seems to direct their energy to that one moment and how it has and will immediately impact your life.

Portrait of a Bearded Man by Jacopo Bassano (c.1515-1592) is one of those paintings you just have to stop and take a moment to let sink in.  Pictured is a middle aged fellow, possibly a monk, religious or hierarchical figure, who seems to be gazing off at something--or someone--which has deeply influenced his being.  He appears well fed so one must assume he's not been painted to display the famished and with his black robes, he's clearly someone of influence.  This is one of those paintings where digital copies found on the internet do it no justice whatsoever.

Not long ago, I had the chance to spend the afternoon at the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles and this was one of the pieces that really caught my attention.  Art is like a relief for my soul and while I am certainly no expert, I know how it makes me feel and how to express the evocation of emotions I receive from its many forms.  In person, the eyes of the Bearded Man are much more sorrowful than they appear here and it moved me to the point where I could feel my own heart breaking.  He seemed to be in the midst of emotionally accepting something was changing in his life and Bassano capture the moment with utter grace.  Head tilted slightly to the left, eyes a gaze to nothing in particular or something very particular, he gives me the sense that what has occurred or has left him won't be coming back.

There is a theory that the left side of one's brain controls logical thinking, sequential integers, rationality, analysis, and objectivity.  This same theory claims the right side controls random thought, intuitiveness, holistic thinking, synthesizing, subjectivity, and looking at wholes.  In this sense, one could argue that his gaze going to the left could indicate he's rationally analyzing the facts, taking a moment to truly and subjectively reflect upon reality.  On the hand, however, one could also argue that his gaze originates from the "right" thereby indicating he's emotionally pushing forward with how to perceive and accept what has occurred.  Clearly, our lone figure is deep in contemplation and is experiencing something that is neither gleeful or horrid.  He is somber, maybe even melancholy and to see him is both enlightening and poignant.