Artistic Greatness and Beauty:

Jan Vermeer, El Greco, Paul Cezanne (1995)



 Dutch artist Jan Vermeer's "Maidservant Pouring Milk," c. 1660, despite being nearly postage stamp size at 18" x 16", nonetheless has a monumentality of composition and massive form.


 The simple act of pouring milk becomes charged with its elemental life-giving significance, as if it were some sacred ritual fluid like blood or holy water, because of the solidity of the forms and intensity of feeling within them. The woman's body, head, torso and arms, the jug itself and loaves of bread seem carved from enduring, eternal substance, as much soul and stone, perhaps, as flesh, fabric and food.


 While extremely realistic, such a masterpiece reveals the density of essential fine art form uncluttered by the unnecessary accumulation of picky, illustrational, surface detail that may seduce the ignorant, but obscures and denies foundational substance.


 As important as this sense of timeless form, is the pervasive light that turns the simple objects of an everyday event into a transcendent emotional and spiritual moment as elevated as any overtly religious act or scene.


 The light seems not only to flood in from the window, but emanate from the substance of reality itself. It glows from the woman's face, her headwear, body, arms. The wall on the right dissolves in luminous revelation of the poetry of the commonplace.


 The thin strand of milk pours from the circular black depths of the jug as if from the mysterious source of all existence, a firm but tenuous, living link of life and light. Light sparkles in distinct nodules of paint like crusty gems embedded in the rim of the jug and the glorious, life-giving bread.


 El Greco's "Burial of Count Orgaz," (1586) at 16' x 12', huge in comparison with Vermeer, more obviously speaks with great imaginative and emotional fervor of the spiritual journey of mankind. The picture is divided into two zones, the earthly and the heavenly.


 A legend grew over two centuries that Count Orgaz was of such sincere and noble spirit that when he died, Saints Stephen and Augustine -- supporting the body of the Count -- miraculously appeared to participate in the burial.


 El Greco paints the Saints in splendid, richly golden robes with religious figures embroidered on them that enhance their visual richness and spiritual stature. The stoning death of St. Stephen is depicted on his robe just to the right of El Greco's son, used as a model, who points to a cross on the Saint's arm, underscoring the holiness of the event.


 Aside from the great beauty and emotionality of the painting, the incredible richness of color and space-filling complexity of design, the character and solidity of the figures -- what else need there be? -- of interest is the ascent of the soul of Count Orgaz depicted as a vaguely formed, child-like shape funneled through the central channel between two clouds that separate the earthly from the divine.


 The process very much suggests birth in reverse, with an angel mid-wife assisting the soul through what amounts to a "rebirth" canal until it pops through into heaven where the Virgin and John the Baptist are waiting, with St. Peter holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and Christ swathed in light and white robes at the apex. An amazing painting.


 Who would ever think that some three hundred years later, Paul Cezanne, of all people, would express this passage of the soul? His "Large Bathers," (82" x 98", 1898-1905) seems clearly to represent a similar theme in a completely different, Post-Impressionist, proto-Cubist style.


 Like El Greco's painting, Cezanne's is organized on a central axis that creates the channel or passage that is the key to both works. Like Saints Stephen and Augustine, helpful foreground figures -- nude females -- seem to carefully and reverently work with a white, cloth-like form seemingly removed from a "hole" in the ground.


 Here are symbolic figures, rather than human women, that represent the poetry and helping forces and spirits of nature much like Greek nymphs and goddesses, or the two female nudes accompanying two male musicians in Giorgione's 1506 "Concert Champetre".


 Behind the figures is a river and a far shore. In the river, an object is "protected" by the gesturing hand of one foreground figure, which draws our attention to it. Two figures on the far shore seem to wait for the arrival of the object in the river. Above them is the sky.


 It might be said that the object in the river is a "soul" originating from the "hole" in the near shore, going to "heaven" on the far shore and sky.


 Rivers, like nearly every physical object in life, are symbolic of deeper levels of human feeling, knowledge and intuition. Rivers are boundaries, borders between one location, one world, one perception and another. We need only think of the "River Jordan" which is "crossed over" to get to the promised land.


 Such ideas proposed here cannot be idly applied to all works, but are appropriate within the context of serious art when there is other evidence to support it. Cezanne's obsession with Mt. Ste. Victoire, which looms near his town of Aix, is such evidence, and is quite revealing. He painted it many times.


 The massiveness of mountains has always connoted permanence and timelessness. Their elevation and penetration of the sky and "heaven" make them, in our minds, the dwelling places of the gods, places for the fulfillment of aspiration...the man-made mountains (pyramids) of the Egyptians, Olympus of the Greeks, San Francisco Peaks of the Hopis and Navajos.


 We climb mountains not only because they are "there," but because consciously or unconsciously, God -- meaning -- is there as we seek to go beyond the "valley" of routine existence, seek fulfillment of our life quest.


 Cezanne was an intense individual, psychologically, creatively and in reaction to the nearly life-long ridicule heaped upon his genius. The artist who vented his passion as a younger man in disruptive paintings of rape and murder might be expected to seek a compensatory stability in mountains and his own evolving, monumentally solid, structural still-life style. It is this underlying furnace of emotion at the core of his generally classical painting style that gives it such life, vitality and significance.


 Cezanne's personal suffering and attempts to define and rescue, through his art, his own humanity are equivalent to late 19th and early 20th Century man trying to redefine and make his way through the terrible crisis of dehumanization in modern life and technological society that so threatens us all. Beyond his aesthetics, it is this soul-gouging quest, which impassions his paintings, that makes Cezanne important to us.


 In such a disoriented time, and with such profound artistic and personal needs, why wouldn't an artist of Cezanne's genius create a painting -- he created many -- that expresses not only the journey of the individual soul but that of mankind in search of reconnection with foundational verities (that's what Gauguin was doing in Tahiti, Monet in Giverny and Van Gogh in Arles)?


 Interestingly, as we look at the painting, a large, central face gradually emerges, the "hair" constructed by angled trees, "eyes" by two clumps of foliage, "nose" by the two small figures and distant tower and tree, "mouth" by the foreground hand and object in the river, "chin" by the curving arms at the bottom of the picture.


 Unlike Salvador Dali's deliberate construction of faces hidden in vases, landscapes, etc, Cezanne's seems more an unconscious one, a female face that looks somewhat like his wife, and may express another aspect of the redemptive feminine spirit of nature. In any event, the "face" and the painting as a whole represent significant forces deep within Cezanne that he expressed throughout his life, now seeking one final resolution in this late-in-life painting completed one year before his death in 1906.


 With such profound examples from humanity's great art past, how long, we might wonder, can we in our time be satisfied with the aesthetic starvation rations, the concentration camp gruel of contemporary art, culture and society, when we might be feasting on greatness of feeling, idea and inspiration of immense value?


 It is incredibly perverse that artists, critics, galleries, museums, collectors and the various funding agencies supposedly dedicated to the support of the arts habitually stoop to fashion, fad, artifice and emptiness when they might support greatness and beauty. Are we now so debauched, so dead in spirit, so in love with mediocrity in art and life that we no longer have the stomach to appreciate or work for greatness and beauty?


 Where are the art heroes inspired and strong enough to make the breakthrough in our time?


Copyright by Don Gray



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