Imagination is the only purpose upon which existence rests. The castles we built first materialise in our heads before turning into stones and cement. Ursula K Le Guin, a thinker of our times and beyond, said reading is imperative to imagination and reading only happens in the space of intimacy, faith and silence. Learning, says Le Guin, is a form of reading and vice versa. She further adds that imagination assumes much more importance in this post-capitalist world where every innovative human thought has been reduced to commodification for it to participate in the operational profit making process. Imagination, hence, needs to happen in communities and companionship; blossoming not on confrontation of ideas but on compassion of thoughts.
We see valuation of imagination in the works of one of the greatest existential philosophers – Schopenhauer. He says that the genius is the one who differs not only in degrees of excellence but also in vision. Therefore, a creative genius is often subjected to condemnation or ridicule by contemporaries.
Another fascinating mouthpiece of soaring imagination would undoubtedly be William Blake and his illustrations in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Subjected to a life of abject poverty, Blake believed in an abstract idea of spirituality which knew no reverence other then the reverence of soul’s self transcendence. Blake’s borderline agnosticism was not merely a political stance but a major imaginative flight. The idea of creating self cosmogony and one’s own definition of faith and spirituality is a thought that is still under a process of evolution in the 21st century, and a thought that we need today more than ever.
Famously termed as the father of Modernist Art, Cezanne through his seminal work named Large Bathers, captured the historical shift of aesthetics in European art. A painting that took seven years to complete and was in process of being completed till Cezanne’s death, has become a celebratory piece that represents the genesis of modernism and the revival of impressionism in European aesthetics.
1. Art Appreciation
The painting has been made by keeping the geometrical construction in mind which was quite prevalent in the perspective art of renaissance; especially the use of triangles. We can see the division of painting into three triangles. The first two triangles show the groupings of six women on each side of the painting and the third triangle is the larger figure that contains both these triangles as well as the background of the painting and meets at the point where the two trees meet in the sky. Such geometrical construction is used to create balance in the artwork.
We can see the reflection of Classicism here which is very similar to the famous work named Diana and Actaeon by the late renaissance Venetian artist Titian. In both these works there has been attempt to visualise human nudity in public space by making human body a primary language of expression (a heavy characteristic of the entire Classical Art). Even if we focus on the two standing women in the picture, the one in the left (woman striding from the tree) looks similar to the 18th century sculpture of goddess Diana and the one in the right, with the positioning of her knees, shows uncanny resemblance to the ancient sculpture of Venus de Milo.
However, this is also a major shift from Classicism for its lack of detailing in the depiction of human body. Now this is where this painting becomes fascinating.
Diana and Actaeon by Titian (1556-1559)
Inspired by the Impressionist school of art that focuses on elements of art such as light and colours rather than objects, Cezanne here brings back our focus on the fact that it is the element and not the object that is the subject matter of this painting. One can say that this is the purest form of commentary on Classicism where the Classical fascination and technique is used to make something which is a complete deviation from the Classical school. This is evident from the bodies of the women in the painting. Instead of showing sensuality, there is heavy abstraction. So much so that the white marks on the bodies are nothing but the display of the canvas itself for the painter did not choose to paint these spaces. By doing so, he takes out attention from the beauty of a woman’s body to the shapes and forms that represent it (elements of art).
Cezanne’s focus on abstraction is evident from the figures on the two extreme ends of the painting where these figures are not even completed and are represented in a sketched form. Also, two figures in the background, a man and a horse, are also represented in the most abstract form possible, thereby restricting our appreciation to the elements such as colours (beautiful shades of blue and orange) and shapes. The use of flat strokes to depict the sky and the leaves, also weighs towards impressionism and abstraction.
2. Art Philosophy and History
The most striking theory of this painting is its heavy commentary on movement. The mixture of Classical subject matter and Impressionist technique shows the historical shift in the European art practice of the period – which is a shift from perspective realism of renaissance to the abstraction and use of elements of art. If we look into the painting, we can see that it is divided into three parts:
First part is the representation of Classical art by the depiction of nude women bathing in public.
Second part is the river that separates the the first part and the background.
Third part is the background where we see a man moving away from the painting to another direction.
It is said in one of the interpretations that the man in the background is Cezanne himself and his movement depicts an act of moving away from the traditions of Classical art to a practice that is more elemental in nature. Another example of movement, is the swimmer, who also being distanced from the first part, is shown in moving abstraction.
The other theory that is vocal in this painting is that of alienation. At least six women in the painting are looking away from the audience; and the ones that are staring within the space of painting, have blurred faces. In addition to this we can see spaces in the figures which are left white and shows the bare canvass, which to much of conspiracy theories, can be associated with an external force interrupting the artwork or the purest expression of nudity – which is, no colour at all! Well, all this representation of alienation is there because Cezanne was heavily influenced by the Impressionists. However, it also creates an element of chaos and spontaneity in the painting. Something which takes me to this idea of Dissolving and Becoming.
The burring figures in the painting as well as the use of flat strokes give this impression that either the scene is captured during its dissolution or during its becoming. This Dissolving-Becoming dichotomy is synonymous with the process through which we perceive reality. The velocity in which the mind captures the everyday display of reality and processes it is so fast and chaotic that we lose out on understanding or knowing that exact moment when perception takes place. That exact moment when external signals are processed into knowledge. And this is precisely what can be read in the disturbances of this painting. If we refer to my previous piece on Alan de Button’s Art as Therapy, we can bring his idea of the role of art in creating emotional equilibrium to this painting. Cezanne’s construction of chaos makes the viewer use to neurological process of perception to understand the process of perception itself – which is an affair so fast that it reduces the reality to indiscernible representations. It is this understanding of the role of art that not only designated Cezanne as a father of modernism but also made his works an inspiration for future schools such as cubism.
This artwork is one of the earliest example of an ideogram; which refers to the representation of an idea through a symbol. The present context has created watertight demarcation between language and art. However, what such distinction fails to understand is the foundation of both of these modes of communication – the need of a living being to externalise an idea or thought by the phenomena of information.
In this clay tablet we see the King Narmer preparing to punish a deviant with a stone dagger. The relevance of this artwork in this context is not defined by the story it depicts but by the top-most panel which has a small inscription that tells us a lot about Egyptian language. The inscription is a pictorial/symbolic representation of a fish and a chisel. Fish translates as Nar and chisel translates as Mer in ancient Egyptian language, thus, giving us the name of this King Narmer. This practice blurs the distinction between art as representation and art as language. Even the artistic analysis of the tablet shows the King adorning symbols of both North and South Egypt showing a possible unification of the region. The fact that a single artwork can use representation as both art and language is extremely fascinating for those who like to question the structuralism and linearity of language and formalism of art.
However, the question that can be asked here is whether such hieroglyphic inscription is an example of something called ‘art’? There are responses in both favour and against of this hypothesis. Those in favour might argue that the entire inscription cannot be reduced to an example of language only for the symbols depicted in it do not merely work as language tools to make a certain word but also have meanings in themselves. For instance, the Scorpion Mace-head at the upper end of the tablet is not used as a phonetic alphabet to depict something else but is used as a symbol that represents Egyptian kings. On the other hand, those who argue against it bring up the very purpose or nature of an artwork that is to create some sense of emotional response to a piece which is not expected towards the normal activities of life. For instance, the depictions of fish and chisel are just the use of phonetics that make these depictions merely tools of a language and not representational art symbols in themselves.
Joaquin Torres Garcia in his ideogrammatic theory says that in ideograms, art becomes the metaphysics of the purity of classical symbols. It is metaphysical because it is made to testify the truth of timeless, unlocalisable and spaceless essence of universal pictorial depiction of humanity. He called this process Constructive Universalism for every depiction is an effort by a man to do abstraction of phenomena around him. Hence, he becomes an Abstract Man. To the contrary, J Marshall Unger in his Myth of Disembodied Meanings, where he responds to the Chinese pictogram language, he argues that no symbol or sign can express meaning independent of language because which cannot be communicated in a language is not a meaning – for it won’t create any communicative map between the sender and receiver of symbols.
Whatever side we take, it is impossible to deny the purpose that either language or art serve through this tablet – information communication. Every mental object or thought is broken down into conceptual chunks. These chunks are then externalised, that is put out in space beyond our own body, in forms of signals. These signals are in the forms of sounds, actions and sometimes even both. Therefore, both art and language become parts of this representational system of information. It is thus quite fascinating to see how a human urge to express itself is so profound that it not only breaks barriers of representational systems such as language but also keep on discovering new ones, such as art. This is precisely the reason why both language and art have witnessed this commonality that refers to their non-static and ever evolving nature.
This picture is one of the most celebrated examples of how art takes the position of a moral canon to teach us about emotional equilibrium in life. Surfacing in Alan de Botton and John Armstrong’s “Art as Therapy”, this picture shows a couple unconsciously becoming a language of grief in public while being perched on a court bench. While man’s face is lost in obscurity, something that may flow from his complete loss of understanding of this relationship, the woman finds herself under the light and hence becomes the focal point of the artwork. The scarf adorning woman is silently staring at a space within the picture showing signs of being lost in contemplation. The ‘would have been(s)’ of life are coming back to haunt her as she prepares to embrace a so called ‘immoral’ act of taking divorce. This idea of contemplating the choices is the central argument of the artwork; for the representation of oblivion through the figures in the background show the smallness of one’s tragedy in others’ eyes.
Alan de Botton argues that art can be an attempt to encourage our better selves through coded messages of exhortation and admonition, i.e., art can help us in balancing our emotional life by exposing us to emotions that stops us from fulfillment or equilibrium. For instance, a fighting couple may not be able to evaluate the level of grief they might face at the day of divorce and this artwork might make them aware of that. Therefore, art for de Button is important in creating equilibrium in ourselves.
Moreover, the very fact that the picture lacks normative attitude and shows the scene as it is shows that art doesn’t claim the space of moral canon as understood by the society. Rather, it shows the consequent side of not abiding to a particular moral standard and leaves the choice to the spectator.