Monthly Archives: November 2011

Raphael: Creative Optimism


"St. Michael Vanquishing Satan." Raphael, 1518.

Raphael was “gentle” and “humane,” says Giorgio Vasari in Lives of the Artists. (Which was published in 1550 – Vasari had seen vast changes in art within his own lifetime, and thought somebody ought to write this down.)  Full of “natural modesty and goodness and good-fellowship,” he avoided “savagery” in life and in his work. His figures, like St. Michael in the painting at left, possess “grandeur and majesty.”

Prof. Richard Brettell describes this St. Michael as serene and calm, even though he’s in the act of fighting Satan. Here, we see Raphael’s idealism and optimism about humanity. Raphael conveys a kind of hopefulness, that we can understand the universe and ourselves.

One of my favorite quotes is from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Raphael prefers to make a heaven. His St. Michael, in vanquishing Satan, pushes aside the dark, devilish corners of the human mind, the shadows, the evil. Raphael’s ideal: the good, achieving, creating mind can conquer the bad parts of human experience.

As a 21st-century writer, I tend to think like Raphael. Yes, I know of war, genocide, famine, disease, cruelty, stupidity, ignorance, environmental destruction. And yet I create visions of the world in which humans are almost gods: creating marvelous technology, accessing all the knowledge of the past, using modern science to understand the universe like never before. It’s not that I ignore the presence of evil. Rather, I choose, like Raphael, to imagine how we might overcome it.

Raphael lacks the dark, lurking danger of Leonardo (more on this here). I’m not saying that Raphael is better, or worse, than Leonardo – simply that they represent different styles of creation. Maybe we, as creators, could have both options in our “tool kits.” Sometimes, we might need a dark, pessimistic picture of humanity and the 21st century. At other times, we might need a positive statement of human potential. Or a mix of both.

What do you think? Do you tend to share Raphael’s optimism, or do you prefer a different view of the world? If you’re an artist/writer/musician, are your creations idealistic, pessimistic, or something in between?


Tintoretto: The Huge Scale of Creation


"The Coronation of the Virgin." Tintoretto, c. 1580.

No way was this painting going to fit to the left of my text, as usual, so I just stuck it at the top. It’s still too small to see properly. But I put it here because it gave me an important idea – creation can be vast. Sure, “creation” in the traditional sense of God’s creation, the world, is big. But I’m talking about the creation of the human mind – art, music, literature, ideas. How can we make vast creations for the 21st century?

Detail from Tintoretto, "Coronation of the Virgin." Some of the spectators.

I discovered this painting in my “Masters of the Louvre” lectures. The artist, a Venetian known as Tintoretto, won a contest to replace a burned-out fresco with this scene. It’s huge in scale, bold, fantastic. At the top center, the Virgin is re-united with Christ and crowned in heaven. Many Renaissance painters worked with this scene, but Tintoretto’s creation is superior in its overwhelming sense of scale.

Look at all the people he’s packed into the clouds! Hundreds of them watch from the distant, ever-rising layers. A nice achievement, to create a huge world filled with triumph, or any other emotion. But for the 21st century, this painting needs to be even bigger…

An infinite universe, more than 13 billion years old… The history of Earth, life emerging from the oceans, continents crashing together and ripping apart, humans evolving to understand the age of the rocks and the scope of the stars…

I’m writing about some of these ideas in my current novel. But I’m still learning how to create a sense of vastness, so I only have paltry descriptions: when describing a starry sky, for example, I might say something about the age of it. Or I might have a character or the narrator mention the lightning brilliance of the human mind. Maybe someday I’ll write a vast epic that traces back to the beginning of the universe and ends with 21st-century man. For now, though, I work with smaller things.

In the Tintoretto painting – Who gets a seat to see the spectacle? Only a few are important enough to be in the foreground, which is rather discouraging. What about individual achievement? It’s rarely noticed in our age of billions, where the scale is at 7 billion people, and rising. Yet that is the world in which we create: colossal, overwhelming, unimaginable, just like this painting. Tintoretto shows us the scope needed – or rather, the scope possible – in a creative work.

How about you? Do you ever think about the vastness of the world? If you’re an artist/writer/musician/philosopher, does it ever figure in your creations?

“Mona Lisa”: Opening New Worlds


"The Mona Lisa." Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-06.

I was sick of the “Mona Lisa.” It was old and tired, I thought; so iconic that it ceased to have meaning. But that was so wrong! What’s new in the “Mona Lisa”? A wealth of ideas, ripe for transformation.

I’m still listening to my “Masterpieces of the Louvre” lectures, so I’ll share an insight from Prof. Richard Brettell. The “Mona Lisa,” he says, fascinates us for two reasons. One, that mysterious, knowing smile. (Which seemed too  popular, too fixed in the one painting to mine for re-creation.) Two, “the wild beauty of the Alpine landscape” behind her. Aha! Here’s the key.

For this, in fact, is no real place. It doesn’t exist. An ocean cove cuts to the middle of spiky mountains, which don’t look like anything in Europe. Rather, Brettell notes, they look like something you might see in Japanese art, except Leonardo didn’t know of it. The curving road, red and raw, seems to have been only recently carved from the rock. It’s a strange, fantastic landscape.

How are we supposed to process this? Brettell asks. It’s a clash of two realms: the human, knowable and familiar, against the incomprehensible. Granted, the lady is at the very edge of the knowable – centuries of interpreters have puzzled over the meaning of her smile – but she is still human. The landscape, on the other hand, is completely fantastic. Typical of a Leonardo painting, it has “intensity and lurking danger,” suggesting darkness, turmoil, even evil.

I think the weird landscape belongs to the imagination (after all, it’s not a real place). What strange new worlds we create in the journeys of the mind! And look at the lady – she is confident, knowing, set in front of this landscape as if she controls it. She is not afraid of strange new worlds.

In the Italian Renaissance, people questioned the traditional pillars of meaning as science opened up new vistas. The same is true in our 21st-century Renaissance (more on this here). In Leonardo’s time, it was the world of the Church against the emerging power of the human mind, of logic, of the scientific method. Now, the overwhelming explosion of new technologies and ideas often makes the world seem fragmented, unknowable. People are often pessimistic, confused, or anxious about the future.

Why don’t we take a cue from the “Mona Lisa”? She exists confidently in front of the unknown. Whatever strange new vistas that science opens up, she stands in the foreground, refusing to give in to anxiety. Reaching to the utmost of the human realm, she returns with a knowing smile, telling us that everything will be fine in the end. We have power over strange new worlds.

Cassatt, Cézanne: Constant New Creation


"Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery." Edgar Degas, 1879-80.

One afternoon several years ago, an attendant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art became angry with me because I was using a pen in the galleries. Too much danger that the ink would harm the art; no matter that I was sitting fifteen feet away from the nearest painting. Alright, point taken. I would have gladly switched to a pencil if I’d had one. But what really upset me was that the attendant didn’t realize the importance of what I was doing.

I’m no artist; instead, I was scrawling words in a spiral notebook. Doubtless I looked like some student visiting the museum as an assignment. In reality, I was making notes for future books that I would write, trying to create a new kind of humanism for the 21st century. I aspired to be one of the great movers of Western civilization; I came to study in the museum because these master painters were my kin.

Prof. Richard Brettell laments the fact that we don’t see many sketch artists in museums nowadays. In the Louvre’s early years, dozens of artists would line the great galleries, set up with their easels and sketch boards to make copies of the great art before them. But they weren’t just making copies: they made subtle changes of their own, emphasizing those aspects of the art that drove them to create. Cézanne, for example, studied the lines and movement of the great statues he found in the Louvre, as you can see in the sketch below left (now held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ironically).

"Dying Slave." Paul Cézanne, 1885-1900. After sculpture by Michelangelo.

The sketch at the beginning of this post, of American Impressionist Mary Cassatt studying an Etruscan tomb, reminds us that museum-going is hard work (thanks to Prof. Brettell for this observation). It’s hours and hours on your feet; you have to think about your tired legs, have to rest on benches and chairs throughout your progress. It’s mental work, too. You’re trying to create something out of the painting, whether that’s knowledge of an artist/movement or a new idea about the world.

When I go to a museum, I feel impelled to stop often and write, so that I can create something out of the experience. The benches, for me, are for writing in a frenzy. The ideas come and fill pages and pages, and so interrupt my progress through the museum. I go in fits and starts; it’s exhausting, the creation.

Prof. Brettell says that the most important visitors to the Louvre have been artists, since they have been the most productive, creating new art out of what they have seen. But what if the visiting creators weren’t just artists? What if they were writers, musicians, philosophers, general citizens – anyone who wanted ideas of how to shape this world. (More on this in my next post.) That’s what the study of past art is for: constant new creation. Cassatt knew that, Cézanne knew that, I know it too.

How about you? What experiences have you had in museums? What are some thoughts/ideas you’ve had while looking at art?

Nike of Samothrace: Civilization’s Beacon

Nike of Samothrace

Nike of Samothrace, c.220-190 BC.

The Nike (Winged Victory) of Samothrace forms the ideal entrance to an art museum, and thus the ideal first post for this blog.

I love how Prof. Richard Brettell explains the Nike of Samothrace in his lectures “Museum Masterpieces: The Louvre,” from The Teaching Company (if you’ve never heard of The Teaching Company, STOP READING NOW and go to their website – it will enrich your life!). As Brettell notes, she stands atop the steps as you enter the Louvre, so you have to pass her in order to reach the galleries. She strides forward, upright and strong and supple, showing the promise of art and civilization. This is a place, she announces, of faith in the human spirit.

Such amazing power for a single work of art! Samothrace is just a tiny island in the Aegean Sea, and yet its Nike stands as symbol for the striving of all mankind. Originally, she would’ve been on the prow of a great ship, looking forward as she cut through the waves. The ocean – another great human theme. When I lived in Scotland, I spent a lot of time staring out at the North Sea, a vast, unknown deep that seems foreign, omnipotent, sometimes even scary. The sea is infinite and impersonal, yet humans dare to traverse its reach. Likewise, artists in all ages have confronted unknown depths – those of the mind.

Prof. Brettell has a neat idea about the Nike of Samothrace: her being at the museum’s entrance reminds us that the art of the past is important, that our own civilization needs this treasury of past creation. Why? Because creation is constant recreation. When we look at art, we don’t let it rest and belong only to the past. We ourselves are creators, in the midst of making a new, great civilization. (More on this in a future post.) The ideas of the past help us produce new ideas, new art, new views of the world. (More on this in my next post.)

This blog is all about how we can look at past art and, from it, create our new world. This creation is not a task for artists alone, but involves writers, composers, scholars, philosophers, and every person who creates ideas about the world in his/her mind. The Nike of Samothrace hails what we can create in the present age, going forward through the oceans.