Monday, August 22, 2011

The Virgin of the Rocks

There is something to be said for the one person most of us probably know who is quiet, polite, patient, and never complains.  Sadly, I'm pretty sure I'm not that one person anyone would think of but lately I have begun to examine my own behavior.  A couple years ago after a terrifying episode of anxiety and stress, I realized my life needed to be approached much more passively so I could avoid becoming too emotionally involved and concerned from various experiences.  That's worked out pretty well and lately, I've been trying to examine other areas of my personality that have been lacking.

Frankly, I don't feel I exhibit enough character.  If I'm feeling passionate about something that doesn't seem right, I express that and tend to make it sound as if I'm complaining.  If I'm in traffic and someone mindlessly cuts me off or goes too slow, I assert to myself that he or she is incapable of not being selfish.  And the list of things I do that provide evidence of this self-doubt goes on.  Yet, there are also moments where I refuse to give up my habitual need to express thanks; my need to acknowledge those who do the dirtiest of work; my need to encompass others who are in any similar situation as me when I'm expressing concern or disagreement.  Am I a model citizen for character?  No way!  Will it take much to change for the better?  I don't believe so and it is something I'm working on now.  Some inspiration I've found in exhibiting character is in the following story:

In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10-year-old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table.  A waitress put a glass of water in front of him.  "How much is an ice cream sundae?" he asked.  "Fifty cents," replied the waitress.  The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied the coins in it.  "Well, how much is a plain dish of ice cream?" he inquired.  By now more people were waiting for a table and the waitress was growing impatient.  "Thirty-five cents," she brusquely replied.  The little boy again counted his coins.  "I'll have the plain ice cream," he said.  The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table and walked away.  The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and left.  When the waitress came back, she began to cry as she wiped down the table.  There, placed neatly beside the empty dish were two nickels and five pennies.  For you see, he couldn't have the sundae because he had to have enough money left over to leave her a tip.

The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is the tale of John the Baptist being introduced to his cousin, Jesus Christ by Mary all accompanied by the Archangel, Gabriel.  The children depicted are clearly in infant stage yet both exhibit their divine nature and character by gesturing to one another.  John, on the left, holds his hands as if praying to show his devotion to his Savior while Christ has His right hand out preparing to bless John.

There are two versions of this painting.  The one displayed here (at the Louvre in Paris) is believed to be the first that da Vinci actually painted himself, while the second (on display at the National Gallery in London) is slightly different and felt to be mostly painted by students and assistants to da Vinci.  Fortunately, the articulation of the implied story isn't under too much controversy since both paintings have received the utmost in respect for what da Vinci was attempting to express.

All expression aside, da Vinci's ability to paint so majestically resounds in the great works of Michelangelo, van Cleave, Massys, Verrocchio, and many other artists of his time. But where the greatest challenge to myself can be found is in the simple, innocent character these two children inherently embody.  Christ, of course, goes on to bless countless lives with His all-knowing wisdom and purity of love.  John, as well, foretold of the coming Messiah and was also known for his teachings and profound devotion to humankind.  These two utterances cannot hold how much each man lived and how much character they had, but through this painting and their lives, I can find encouragement to hold myself to a higher standard.  Why?  Because both men lived their lives without complaining and knowing full well their dedication would mean their demise.  In other words, each had every excuse to give up and to gripe and neither gave in.

Perhaps it is a stretch to compare this masterpiece to the idea of having character.  However, isn't that what each person in this painting exemplifies?  Mary and her devotion to God.  John and his willingness to immediately yield his praise and thanks that Christ has come.  Gabriel and his leadership and guidance for Jesus.  And Christ, with only 32 years left in his life before He would offer up the ultimate sacrifice for every other human.  There is so much more displayed in da Vinci's work but for this one, I wanted to dig deeper and find a more important meaning.  Semantics and emblematic symbolism aside, and the fact that many religious themed paintings can also have a foundational theme of character in them, there was just something about this one piece that got to me.  It could be the gentle nurturing that is evident, it could be the display of two men who would die for their cause.  No matter what, though, the bar has been set and I imagine it will take me the rest of my life to pursue it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

No. 5, 1948

I have grown increasingly weary of those who are all fluff and no substance.  You know the type:  He or she is riddled with all kinds of empty accusations, likes to point fingers, and avoids admittance of fault at any cost.  All of this is mask, hiding the true, featureless void that this person is at his or her very core.  While charismatically mincing words and expressing unreachable promises, seduced viewers and fans are duped into thinking this person can and will do "great" things.

Immediately, I'm sure each one of you reading this has someone in mind, maybe even someone famous.  Regardless of seeming implication--and yes, I, too, have a few people in mind--the intent here is to express an emotion that comes with this frustration based upon an individual.  Setting aside the person or persons, the root of this emotion in principle remains almost the same when it comes to works of "art" that really aren't work or art.  And as I segway into how all of this relates to this week's piece, I make no apologies for those who may be offended.  In fact, I expect a few to feel differently than I but certainly hope what is expressed isn't discarded as rubbish or for lack of knowledge.

After all, art is created to be a visual source of entertainment and meaning for anyone who wishes to gaze upon it.  The job of the artist is to ensure his or her works evoke an emotion or message that is relative and understandable.  And when it is not, then that artist has failed no matter what anyone else may say.

No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is an 8'x4' painted fiberboard drizzled with brown and yellow paints to create a nest-like appearance.  This particular painting is considered the most expensive and valuable art piece in history and sold for $140 million US in 2006.

... What to say?  Okay, on one hand, I think about how marvelous this piece would look in a darker, modern-styled interior office or home especially if bordered by harsh grays and metal trim.  On the other hand, I'm void of any impression of what is being expressed other than to assume it must mean chaos and thus this relates to very little.  Yes, as I've stated many times, there are moments in life where things can get extremely hectic and taxing upon one's emotions but I don't sense that with this painting at all.

My efforts to try and find something in this squiggly mess is like bouncing around a rubber room in a straight-jacket.  Here is how my thought process develops:  A monkey on 4 cups of double espresso and some paint could do this! → Wait, do I see a figure or shape in there? → Man, if I ever buy a home and go modern with my interior design, this would look sweet over the fireplace! → But it's just a bunch of spilled strings of paint with seemingly no meaning in motion and if a stiff breeze or his wife bumped into Pollock, would it have looked all that different?

Yet, have I done what art is meant to do?  By studying it and expressing what I may or may not feel and sense, aren't I reacting to art as it is meant to be?

Honestly, I'd rather pay off all my bills, buy a fantastic house along the beach, get that dream car, go on a very long vacation to exotic and historical locations, buy my family some spectacular and needed gifts, and then put the rest into investments and savings than fork over $140,000,000.00 for this but to each their own.  Right?

The bottom line is Pollock has created something that is concretely timeless and awe-inspiring.  While I may find it a bit silly on some levels, I am intrigued on others and I suppose--and admitting--perhaps this is a extremely amazing painting that deep down, I wish I could have.

Or should I head to the local store for a fiberboard, some brown and yellow paint, and a monkey?

Don't give me that look!  Someone had to say it!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Pietà

The Road Not Taken
 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
 --Robert Frost, 1916

Choices are a God-given right to all mankind and inevitably, each of us will make some that are not ideal and others that will be glorious.  What is left are these moments in the present to evaluate and learn from the past.  Perhaps some of us will enjoy the opportunity to revisit that diverge of roads and choose to take the one we did not the first time.  For others, though, the road chosen has become one-way with no chance of returning.

The Pietà by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is a sculpture of Jesus Christ in the lap of his mother, Mary.  Christ is portrayed as deceased, feeble in size and from circumstance while Mary is shown as a younger woman than she was at the time of His death.  The piece is a combination of classic beauty and naturalism and is considered one of the most finished and detailed works by Michelangelo.

Much focus has been given to the two subjects and to the implied interpretation of Christ's size and Mary's age.  For one, Christ has been sculpted to be smaller than was believed and is in a crumpled heap in Mary's arms.  Secondly, Mary has been sculpted to appear to be about the age she was when she bore her Son for whom she now passionately embraces.  The detail of both, however, is incredible and there is much to be gained from spending a significant amount of time admiring the piece.

For me, I see a mother whose body expresses her love and anguish for the loss of her Son.  Her face, though, appears to be at absolute peace signifying her acceptance and understanding of the sacrifice her Son just made.  From a Christian point of view, there is some irony in this moment considering Mary was the one who bore Jesus, while Jesus was the One who bore the sins of man.  Thus, a circle of life extending beyond conventional means is on display and pointedly so. Mary, for the sake of this piece and with respect to history, was a wonderful woman hand picked by God to bare His Child.

Christ in this display also creates an irony of circumstance.  He is shown in His state upon being taken off the cross yet He is not actually Him.  What I mean is that this is merely His body, not Him as a Man.  Yet laying across Mary's lap, scars from His torture vividly displayed, He symbolizes His own existence and what could have happened to man had He not laid down His life for everyone else.

Though the subject of Christ's death and sacrifice are a controversial one, it is well documented that He had a choice and even struggled with it.  His entire life was meant to come to this point and although He knew it, He was also a man embodied with the ability to make choices through free will given by God.  Frost's poem, for me, is something I can envision Jesus saying to Himself as he ascended to Heaven.  He had an opportunity to choose which road to take:  One that would lead Him away from His purpose in life and mankind, or one that would lead Him to a moment where the sins of every man, woman, and child for all eternity would be paid for in full, by Him.  Rightfully so, He-

He chose the road far less traveled,
And it has made all the difference.