The artist finds inspiration in art, regardless of form, for to perceive it is to find justification in resuming along that path of creation. The work harbors an aspect of its creator and for so long as it remains, the artist responsible resounds, thus he reaps the fruits he toiled for in giving himself entirely to ensure the manifestation of his idea. It is this aspect of the artist that affected me continually as I attended the National Gallery to behold works that have survived six centuries; artists that have remained vibrant for so long!
The objectivity of the human soul becomes indubitable in the presence of ancient art for despite the centuries distancing the creator from the audience, the soul is affected as if the barrier of time, the line between life and death, did not exist; as if the artist stood directly before his admirers to entice them with his ability to appeal beyond what depends on material understanding alone.
To look upon Castagno’s David with Head of Goliath is to understand the accentuation of David’s victory being no less than the contrary. The murder of a man, being fundamentally nefarious, ought to be accompanied by a silence of solemnity that allows the soul to be heard so the abhorrent character of the act inundates the consciousness of those in its presence, that it may serve to present an odious effect that deters man from the act altogether. His hand is outstretched as if to halt all that surrounds him: his comrades, for their cheers offend the solemn nature of the act, and his adversaries since it is evident that he does not wish to fight them–even Goliath, he would not have fought if necessity did not force him to–and would sooner have them succumb to the heinous spiritual effects of the act, as he would his own men, than regard them as enemies and treat them accordingly. Despite his natural awareness toward what it means to murder a man, he sacrificed his own innocence to spare the men on both sides from doing the same. The anguish he immediately suffers for his sacrifice darkens not only his countenance, but the very sky above his head, yet he is willing to endure it for those around him.
It is a tale that has flowed through posterity to resound still, but who does not offend David in attributing to his sacrifice no more than the potential for the small to overtake the large; brains to overwhelm brawn? Castagno’s piece instills an awareness of another, arguably more significant lesson to be gleaned from the infamous murder, that is the detestable, irremediable effect of depriving a man of his life, so great that even the innocent face of a pure boy can be made dark , impervious to the light that once radiated from it, as a result. To look upon his work is as to hear him orate this lesson with the quality of voice capable of penetrating to the very ear of a man’s soul–thus the artist presents himself to man centuries after he has ceased to breathe; does the mere potential to influence a man, despite time and its proclivity towards distancing the living from the dead, not justify the complete devotion to art and its incessant demand that an idea be brought to life with sincerity?
Another effect of profound significance delivered itself from the long perished hands of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, whose mastery of accentuating emotion in his work was sufficient to secure him among the immortalized greats. This effect captured me wholly at once when I saw–I dare say succumbed–to his depiction of Saint Jerome. I, instinctually certain of the splendor reserved for those men absolutely devoted to that which is greater than them–and indeed, what is greater than God?–yet made to question that certainty due to the skepticism inspired at seeing innumerable men fail to recognize the virtue of such devotion, came to see the depiction of the earthly reward for self-sacrifice–does one not sacrifice himself in assuming the difficulties that accompany complete devotion to the greatest? Surely it is easier for the individual to be lukewarm, neither giving himself fully to what is greater than him nor to himself (the latter cannot extend beyond a very minimalistic and almost savage egotism without the former).
The genius of the artist is rendered indubitable at a mere glance at this wonderful work: alas my ignorance apropos of the techniques known to painters prevents me from saying more than that it was the fading strokes used in conjunction with the deprivation of vivication accomplished by incorporating and embedding both the elements of blandness and darkness to the hue of the object, that exhibited a worn, dilapidated, and withered character to the aged saint. This figure, portrayed just outside of a cave that can be assumed to be his abode, has evidently devoted himself so completely and for so long a duration that his body came to gradually assume such a state in spite of his soul, which years of ascetic devotion refined to the grandiose height reserved for the most pious of men. Contrasting his wizened, aged body, sustained by the light of his soul more than by any material repast, is his countenance, brightened by the fruits of his piety, delivered at long last through an opening in the very sky that emits a light not unlike that which is within him. He looks up to it from his book not in surprise–his certainty regarding the virtue of devotion came to a solidarity that doubt could not penetrate–but with a mien of infinite contentment. His expression betrays satisfaction impossible to derive elsewhere and it all at once justifies all the hardship and pain he had suffered until then to maintain his passionate resolve.
Who but a genius could capture this bliss known to so few; who but one whose hand is guided by providence? The simple possibility of having one’s face thus contorted by pious assurance, love, and genuine self-contentment suffices to dissolve the appeal of vice and all else that threatens to deprive the self fromm coming to such a blessed state–indeed it is tempting to develop the conviction that man’s purpose in existing is to come to that divine state!
Motivation to prostrate before God and the productive path leading to Him known to us who seek to simplify even the least comprehensible matters by perfunctorily calling them ‘art’, was struck into my bosom as a bolt of lightning. This state of awe I was in at seeing greatness presented not only in the one responsible for the piece and transitively, the piece itself, but in the depiction of it in the countenance of Saint Jerome–for there it was manifest–did not falter in the slightest for no sooner did I turn than I was held in that childlike state by another of El Greco’s works, Saint Martin and the Beggar. The name of the piece may be enough to dismiss my interpretation as wrong, but I noticed the name after its effect and naturally did not deign to revoke my idea of it.
What I saw here was the capacity for wealth to render man inferior even to beast. A man whose attire is suggestive of financial stability, if not an impressive possession of means, looks down from his horse with an aloof coldness, detached and not without contempt at a haggard man beside him, almost nude for lack of even the means to clothe himself, and a bandaged shin, with an expression revealing supplication. It appears that the downtrodden man is seeking some sort of help but the other’s unyielding mien suggests that he is asking in vain. What is remarkable in this painting is the horse: with its head slightly sunken it looks beyond the scene and to the audience with eyes laden with pity and sorrow. The wealth of its burden is so pernicious to his ego that his faculties for compassion and sympathy–faculties present even in the horse!–are dormant, if not completely dissolved.
Could his genius be so grand that the man, wretched in appearance but perhaps rich in spirit, is Saint Martin and the other atop his mount the beggar–can it not be that a man whose soul yearns and cries to no avail that it may only be acknowledged is no less a beggar than one who yearns and cries for the means to clothe and feed himself? What each figure represents is incidental for the significance remains in the reminder of how low a man may fall due to the imperceptible, pernicious effects of wealth.
As I went from one painting to another in that magnificent building, so rich in culture and significance–a few hours were not enough to see half of the collection–I saw a sort of dualistic purpose in painting for it seemed that a work may either exist to deliver a lesson, convey an idea, and capture a thought otherwise doomed to stagnate in the mind, or to capture reality and present it with as little divergence from truth as the creator’s skill allows for–any divergence that is intentional results from the artist’s idea and the work then falls into the former category. It is the difference in depicting what is subjective to that which is objective. Such a work that tries to depict neither more nor less than reality does not affect the soul as do those that harbor the artist’s idea, made original by his individuality; its influence stupefies the mind for it is the technical skill and precision that astounds the observer.
A Lady by Verrocchio was among those that captivated me for its realism and more so than others for I am certain that to sculpt a realistic bust demands more of the artist than to paint an entire portrait of a distinguished noble. She is raised to an intentional height that puts her at eye level; her marble coldness and meticulous yet delicate proportions confronted me directly with the self-assurance unique to those cast in stone. It was her beauty that touched me–so realistic was she that what distinguishes a beautiful woman from the undifferentiated lot could not be suppressed and as with all women whose beauty moves me to admiration, my heart was struck with the arrows of Eros–so that if it were not for the inexcusably apathetic security guard’s observation, I would have certainly stretched my arm to touch that cheek, that I may warm and enliven it with my love. The marble lips beckoned to mine but I resisted them for propriety did not spare me its dull counsel.
A man cannot resist falling in love with that piece and I assume not all would be able to resist its call–the idea is the sort that inspires a story and perhaps I will make something of it for my exploration into the Tarot is languid in pace and although I was intent on learning of each card before I write again, I may just indulge in another idea, if only that I do not remain still as I go through the deck. How the idea titillates my heart in delight as did the statue, as if the marble perceptible to us was no more than a fine film concealing a woman whose beauty was so profound that neither man nor woman would bury her lest it be lost to posterity and so she was preserved in marble, thus the ability for the work to inspire a love no different than what the most gorgeous of girls provoke simply by catching a man’s eye.
Perhaps the security in that room is unlike the rest in the building, protecting the works from visitors; they stand to keep men from touching the Lady not for fear of damage incurred to her but so to protect men from losing themselves entirely to the love she effortlessly inspires. They are situated to prevent a man from becoming the most wretched among his cohorts for who would be more miserable than one whose love for her blossoms to completion; to love her would surely be to never love another!
The exposure to beauty conceived in the minds of six centuries ago and brought to life by hands that have long disintegrated into dust rejuvenated my own ambitions for to see the permanence of art is to eradicate all desire save for that to satisfy its demands. Should one comply with what is required for its satisfaction, then not only is purpose in being granted but also a sort of protection from the innumerable trivialities that bind one to mediocrity and the vague sense of there being something certain yet elusive and incomprehensible absent.
Art is benign, it provides for more than it demands for it is a veritable manifestation of God–devotion to art is devotion to God for it is a devotion to the self, the mind and what is to the creation conveys itself to the creator. Praise to a painting falls to the painter; from the novel to its writer as is evident in the natural tendency of the artist to thank those who do no more than compliment his work–they do not admire him but his creations yet he thanks them because his soul, if he is truly an artist, is in that which he created so to compliment it, is to compliment him. That man was created in the image of God is made evident at considering this for is not an aspect, if not (despite the incomprehensibility of the notion) the entirety of God present in all that lives? Is to acknowledge and marvel before the miraculous beauty of a tree not to acknowledge and marvel before the Creator; is to love man not to love God? Thus devotion to art is rendered unparalleled in virtue for it is no less than a complete devotion to God, the Artist.