SECRETS OF SEEING
One of my favorite descriptions of a painting is Antonin Artaud’s account of his experience with Lucas van Leyden’s Lot and His Daughters (c. 1521). The reference to the painting in the passage from For The Theater and Its Double, subtitled “Mise en Scène and Metaphysics”, is as hyper-charged as anyone could hope for from Artaud who never fails to deliver in that department. “Shooting stars”, “sky rockets” and “roman candles”, among other incendiary devices, are all evoked as metaphors in his comparison of the painting of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra to a shock-and-awe level “nocturnal bombardment”. Although Lot is a representational depiction of a familiar biblical scene, Artaud was clearly less concerned with what was legible and recognizable as the scripture storyline, than he was in conveying how the artist had evoked an apocalyptic mood in the work through other, as he put it, more “mystical” means.
It is easy to imagine Artaud standing before the painting in the Louvre, his entire body trembling with convulsions, as the full dramatic impact of the picture assaults his senses. The reaction must have come near to the close-up of Peter O’Toole in The Night of the Generals (1967). In that movie, O’Toole, who plays a fanatical SS commander, stands before a painting by van Gogh in the film’s “Degenerate Art” scene (the reference to the now infamous round-up of modern expressionist art put on display by the Nazis as proof-positive of the corruption of Western culture), and we witness his features thrown into such apoplectic discord his face almost appears to melt.
Horror or moral outrage were, however, probably the least of the impulses most prevalent in the admixture of emotions Artaud must have felt in front of van Leyden’s Lot. If we are to judge by the excitement in his almost frantic description, it must have been more akin to a wide-eyed joy of wonder and discovery that so completely overcame him he was practically beside himself with excitement. “Mise en Scène and Metaphysics” is concerned with how totally language-driven theater was already then, and specifically how, to Artaud, it seemed like the meaning of a play was conveyed mostly through dialogue and speech which he felt limited its impact to the shortcomings of description and ultimately wasted the full impact-potential of live performance. He had in mind a far more generative notion of theater, one that proposed a full engagement with all of the other possibilities for experience and expression available to the black box, and on offer from stage actors, costumes, props, lights, and so on.
In the dark rhythms and frequencies of the painting, Artaud recognized a full range of mute approaches to expression common to visual art that could by analogy improve the then prevalent concept of theater he found so stultifying. He emphasized the “spiritual profundity” conveyed by the weight of darkness, only briefly interrupted by the angry eruption of flaming projectiles that crash down from the top right corner, a darkness that almost fully fills the upper half of the canvas. An alchemy of scattered, broken and crooked masses, including the ruined ships and towers of Sodom and Gomorra, that are laid waste by the wrath of divine power in the lower half completed the background for him with an eerie bent, cowering counterpoint of stillness to the death-from-above, end-times brand assault that penetrates the sky. For him the most enlightened religious, metaphysical, or esoteric concepts were evoked through the tension between the old world wrath from on high, for example, and the delicacy of the untouched rickety wooden bridge that runs along the middle ground on which he describes the indifferent, somnambulist-like figures as “parading single file, like the ideas in Plato’s Cave”. The depiction of Lot who lasciviously pulls one of his daughters who sits upon his lap in the foreground uncomfortably close completes the picture with an extra bit of psychological and sexually charged turmoil to even further complicate the already layered web of criss-crossing, opposing forces (after his wife’s unfortunate demise — turned, as she was, into a pillar of salt — Lot has already clearly moved on with life). Here Artaud used the word “Becoming” to describe the scene in the way Existentialists would later adopt it. As opposed to the more commonly held trite cliché of Renaissance art solely as a mechanical mimicry of nature, the painting’s effect was likened to the “spirit” of “nature” in “external form”. And, the painting was for him simultaneously “harmonic” and “anarchic”, filled with tugging trajectories of invisible internal influences and crisis points as if the landscape depicted was haunted by mythological wizard wars rather than the boom and crackle of brimstone rage that dilates the smokey, oil black congestion of clouds overhead.
Such a whirlwind account no doubt warrants a little unpacking. The mixture of references and range of influences in Artaud’s description of van Leyden’s Lot is heady by any standards, but ultimately, after the dust has settled and the world returned to calm, it is the possibility of a rather direct relationship with the painting that gives him inspiration. Not everything in a work of art has to get spelled out. If we chose not to repress them, innumerable ways of conveying concepts other than semantic identification would avail themselves to us. And, in fact, the most profound ideas may very well be altogether beyond the scope of words. In place of the “poetry of language”, he is after what he calls a “poetry of senses”, and it is in the ability of the painting to transmit such strong and powerful thoughts and emotions that Artaud finds his way. He writes: “The painter seems to have possessed certain secrets of linear harmony and the means of making this harmony act directly on the brain like a physical agent.” The spark of crossed wires in an overheated imagination is almost audible in such a statement. Artaud’s argument is fraught. It is at once obvious that he has alighted on a significant insight about artistic production, while at the same time he seems to sense that there is more to it, because the argument that he is making is, in short, that the “spiritual profundity” of the ideas conveyed by the landscape are “inseparable from the formal and visual harmony of the painting.”
To a contemporary ear, it might sound like Artaud was promoting an argument in favor of formalism, but it would be an unfortunate and simplistic conclusion. Artaud knew formalism was primarily an art historical method of comparison, and that van Leyden, like any other worthwhile painter, would have been less interested in the arrangement of elements in the picture than he was in the evocation of a subject as ineffable as divine rage. For a Renaissance painter, such as van Leyden, God would have been akin to something like the power-source of the universe, and Lot seems, if anything, to aspire to a visual representation of what can happen when all that infinite energy is weaponized and pointed at our heads. It is not that the painter was disinterested in the placement of the various vignettes that make up the total scene, or the color choices, or any other aspect of the art of visual story telling. Hardly; quite the opposite is, in fact, closer to the truth. But, it is the primacy of these major religious themes he is principally after — the eternal spirit, in this case, metaphysical and esoteric such as it is — that more importantly provides the motivational factor and reason by which those choices are made. It is noteworthy that the radical playwright, in his formulation, uses “spiritual” to preface “formal”. For it signals that the latter is only useful in so far as Artaud, as well as everyone else who cares to, is able to judge the efficacy of the painting based on the intensity of the experience, both intellectually and, perhaps even more significantly, emotionally and physically.
A common gloss of Renaissance art is that it was entirely consumed by the imitation of nature. From its development and maturity we are supposed to glean that the entire campaign was geared towards representations that looked increasingly more realistic, the effort aimed entirely at renderings that faithfully emulated the material surface of what was depicted. In fact, while it is undeniable that, say, van Leyden’s figures are a bit truer to form than, for instance, Giotto di Bondone’s from two centuries earlier, it is probably more accurate to say that what was afoot during the overall period had much more to do with how we ultimately reinterpreted antiquity to advance an artificial concept of a natural likeness that eclipsed all the others and, in our culture, came into total dominance as the prevailing doctrine. Giotto, as an exemplary early ground breaker, safe to say, saw the world with the same eyes we do. It is less probable to assume that he was bad at drawing, than that his notion of what is life-like was not the same as someone’s who came along much later. Not because he was wrong, or because his caliper or some such measuring device was, for instance, primitive, but more likely because his definition of something as seemingly basic as life was simply different. In other words, Giotto might have been more concerned with something invisible, closer to a notion of a spirit that animates the world than, for example, the perfect scientific representation of a bird offered by someone whose skills go unquestioned such as John Audubon, whose work came to exemplify the scientific naturalist style in our time. Roundness of form, detail of description, and accurate measurements to someone whose worldview was not entirely aligned with our current position, such as Giotto, could have in many ways seemed trivial and besides the point to the actual task, as he would have seen it, of paying homage to the life force which animates nature and courses through us all.
Although it is especially prevalent in depictions of Christ and the various saints, there is a peculiar light that emanates from all the painted bodies during the period. The eerie white glow that pours out of the skin is already there in Cimabue, but by the late Renaissance, even in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci where one might expect to find rational science and mathematics holding sway over religious mysticism, it has, to the contrary, become a full blown fluorescence that gives further mystery to his eyebrow- and eyelash-less faces. Whether they appear indoors or outside, da Vinci’s bodies are seemingly lit from within. His Virgin Mary in the large Annunciation practically looks like she has an electric bulb for a head. So does the Mona Lisa, by the way, with the notable exception that the brightest part of her countenance is actually the skin of her bosom exposed by the low neckline of her dress, presumably, I imagine, because it is closest to her heart. In the Virgin of The Rocks, all four figures are bathed in an incredibly unnatural titanium iridescence that is solely peculiar to their visages and is not reflected in any other part of the picture.
Like all the paintings from the era, the source and angle of illumination in these pictures has been thoroughly analyzed to death, but sometimes the more obvious answers are the hardest for the rational conscious mind to accept. The desire to address invisible concepts in a painting, significantly, is still at the time of da Vinci, arguably, a major driver, and it is impossible to talk about these paintings without considering that the reason for the inner glow that emanates from these bodies is that those artists were attempting to depict something as profound as life itself; that they wished to find a visual corollary in their painted figures for the energy that fills and animates us all; and it was ultimately an image of the soul they wished to capture with their brush. Without a sense of inner strength, so they believed, their figures and landscapes would seem empty and dead. In other words, a major subject of the time was no less than the depiction of the divine spirit, the holy ghost that gave succor and existence to everything in the universe.
It is amusing to recall Artaud’s criticism of the work that comes into prominence afterwards as “that kind of painting which only knows how to apply paint.” He is not alone in his complaint. There are those of us who still choose to make our subject the visualization and embodiment of the primary themes and timeless, mythological, abstract concepts that, beyond all the rest, continue to captivate and ignite our collective imaginations.
© Daniel Mendel-Black, originally printed in Truth Syrup which was published to coincide with the group exhibition by the same title curated by Marcus Herse at the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University in Orange, CA, October-November, 2016