When I was going round the studios on Friday I was asked this question, “Can a contemporary painting deal with spiritual ideas?” I suggested that it could but found it hard to explain in the short time I had available. Some time ago I was asked to give a talk on drawing, and it coincided with what was then the first Gulf War. Part of the lecture was focused on a series of drawings by Michelangelo and I used these drawings to try and explain how an artist could make images that held us in that moment between the physical nature of our what at the time seemed very ‘raw’ and ‘harsh’ material focused world and that ‘big other’ that spiritual something that we aspire to but so rarely glimpse, because we are usually so mired in the mud of reality. These were the drawings I was looking at:
Each of these images attempts to deal with the same subject, Christ on the Cross, but within this so often used format Michelangelo attempts to redefine the core moment of the Christian faith. Christ is at the same time a man of flesh and blood and a God. How could an artist make an image that still used the traditional conventions of his time and yet make the image anew in such as way that the fundamental truth of the moment was revealed? Perhaps Michelangelo’s approach was unique because he was a sculptor as well as a painter, perhaps it was simply that by the time he was making these images he was an old man and was turning his mind towards that acceptance of death that helps us prepare for our inevitable end, whatever drove him to make these drawings, allowed him to achieve something of great profundity. The capturing and holding of that moment when mass and weight are about to become energy and space; when base reality becomes spiritual.
Only in drawing or painting could his ideas be materialised, in particular because of the nature of three-dimensional illusions in two-dimensional space. Michelangelo builds these images out of small soft marks, the body is chiseled into existence, he can feel his way towards a form as if he is finding it in a block of stone. Yet at the same time he is composing this as a flat image, the dynamics of the surface operating as they always do, triangles and rectangles of connection and direction, forcing the eyes to shift and move across the surface, whilst at the same time decoding the artist’s marks of illusion.
By looking at these four drawings as a sequence we can see Michelangelo thinking. We can follow his materialisation of an idea, an idea that reveals itself in the making of a visual image. In the first earlier drawing Michelangelo is still relying on a well understood series of conventions of the time. In this case, Christ is positioned with arms nailed in an outstretched position, the agony of the moment being expressed through the sinuous writhing of his body, the moment of his impending transformation expressed through the upturned gaze. However the image isn’t totally convincing. It appears too easily constructed, there is no corresponding agony in either its execution or in the final appearance of the figure of Christ, who could just as easily be writhing in sexual enjoyment. The next drawing is later, a similar image, but this time the head looks down and the arms are taking the weight so that the shoulders lie beneath the level of the hands. Christ is no longer ecstatic and the curved form of the body starts to feel slightly ‘wrong’ as it doesn’t quite take the weight needed. The third drawing shows us that moment when Michelangelo discovers a new visual language. His marks are more searching, they scrape the image out of the paper surface and at the same time the essential dynamic of the composition changes. The arms now form a much sharper triangle of downwards thrusting force, the body and legs no longer writhe they fall heavily as a central drop. And yet, because of the faint marks indicating the repositioning of the arms there is also a suggestion of flight. This figure is capable of metaphorically flapping its wings as it escapes the dead weight of existence. By positioning the arms in a midway point between the horizontal and the vertical they are capable of lifting the body. A type of lifting only achievable by two eyes tracing their way across a two dimensional image, a type of lifting that can only work when the eyes pass over a series of marks that suggest the physicality of a body, but yet under closer inspection dissolve into a series of energetic marks. It is here in this complexity of mark becoming image and image expressing meaning that a compacted new series of meanings opens out. The forth drawing knows what the third drawing found. This is a very old idea, one that has been with us for thousands of years.
In the Mind in the Cave Lewis-Williams points to an awareness of the cave wall as a type of membrane that sits between the world of now, today, life or what we might call reality and the world of the past, death or the spirit. A living individual could stand on one side of this wall/membrane and touch its flat surface, and in this way could perhaps also touch that world on the other-side, that world of ancestors, the place where the spirit that leaves the live body on death goes to. The idea of religion would have to start somewhere, and it was most likely to have been a concept that was developed to cope with our confrontation with death. At one moment a dear friend or loved one would be alive and vital and then suddenly, perhaps after a fall or other accident, that friend was unmoving, inert and lifeless. So what happened, where did that life-force go to? This it could be argued is the origin of our idea of the spirit or soul. Cave painters created images that mediated between the two worlds of reality and the spirit, the very nature of the images lay in a between state, not physically real, but still recognizable as animals. If of course they were to be seen by flickering candlelight all the more chance that they would appear ‘real’, that they would seem to be suffused with life. Michelangelo works in that same thin gap between this world and the next, reinventing the Paleolithic rules for the 16th century.
Why is this so fascinating? I believe it is because it’s physical but not physical at the same time. Paper is material and invisible membrane at the same time. Just as for the cave painter the wall operates as a space between reality and the other, a sheet of paper, or a canvas can operate the same way. I don’t mean that it is a window into another world, (sometimes of course it is seen like this, see Paraskos) it is instead an arena where the materiality of inks, chalks, paints or whatever marks are made from can be read as two things at once. They operate both in their material reality of mud like earthiness and as metaphors for how we believe life could be. The soot made blacks of cave paintings are also running horses, that will run and run forever, their animal spirit captured in that most basic soot pigment. The black chalk used by Michelangelo is also a man forever dying and being reborn on that cross.
By taking concepts developed by two writers, Michael Paraskos and James Elkins, perhaps I can elucidate all this in a more academic manner.
Paraskos suggests that artists have a material engagement with reality. This engagement then becomes an artwork and when it does a transformation takes place. The artwork is no longer read as material object, because a new world has been created. Paraskos argues that pictures are like windows onto other realities fabricated by artists, the reality of paintings being as real as our reality, but operating within a different set of parameters. Paraskos traces his belief to ideas developed by the Greek Orthodox Church in relation to the reading of icon paintings. Within the Orthodox tradition an image of Christ is not seen as a picture but as a window directly into heaven. Paraskos argues that all art works in this way, and uses an Orthodox religious term to describe the transformation of the physical into the metaphysical, calling it Metastoicheiosis. Perhaps because I am more aware of the traditions of Catholicism the term transubstantiation is easier for me to grasp in this context. At the moment when the wafer and wine are taken during Mass, these are ‘transformed’ into the body and blood of Christ. The physical become spiritual. Paraskos argues that it is only when this type of transformation takes place that a true work of art comes into being. Personally I think Paraskos takes this too far but I do sympathize with him and believe his writings come from a sincere desire to give artists that agency that allows them to believe they can do something spiritual and magical beyond the everyday. However my argument would be that they do do this and have always done it. By believing in the significance of confronting mundane materials and reshaping them in the name of art, artists are always transending the material and making it into ideas and thought forms, these being perhaps what were once called spirits.
Elkins in his book ‘What Painting is’ states that “paint is a cast made of the painter's movements, a portrait of the painter’s body and thoughts”. He goes on to say that “Paint is water and stone, and it is also liquid thought.” If we go back to Michelangelo’s drawings for a moment, you can see his hand thinking, the black chalk gets darker if you wet it, this thinking coming out of his mouth as much as his hand, spit dripping on his chalk tip as it blackens, dry side grain dusted off as he lightens his touch and twists his hand and arm to make fainter marks. The hand and mind meld together as one and here I believe Elkins is closer to the truth than Paraskos. My belief is that as artists we discover through the making what it is that we are saying, images arrive through our sensitivity to the materials, the images of course reflecting our experience of reality.
So yes I do believe we can make images that deal with spirituality, but I also believe that these images are discovered in their making and cant be determined beforehand if not they will become poor illustrations of ideas and not new realities.
Texts referred to:
Lewis-Williams, D (2004) The Mind in the Cave London: Thames and Hudson
Paraskos, M (2011) Clive Head London: Lund Humphries
Elkins, J (1998) What Painting Is New York: Routledge
As I was writing this post an image by Pontormo that I saw in Florence a few years ago kept rattling around my head. He painted the Visitation in 1528, slightly later than Michelangelo. The story he was trying to get across was that Mary had had an ‘immaculate conception’, i.e. had in someway been impregnated by God. It was another of those moments where the divine and the physical conjoin, the act of human physical reproduction, changed into a moment charged with divine energy. The figures appear to be both solid and floating at the same time, Pontormo designing their bodily movements to express an idea of spiritual energy that runs throughout the composition. However the most exciting thing about the painting when you actually see it is the colour. It has recently been restored and the large expanses of green that make up the dresses enclose a sharp triangle of pink that glows with the optical effect of simultaneous contrast. This when looked at actually flickers, the pink glow of its edge drifting slightly back and forward as your eyes move over the image. When I saw this I realised that what Pontormo had been able to do was to invent a new pictorial concept and use it to refresh what was by then becoming a quite tired visual illustration. Artists had been using a simple device to show the fact that Mary was divinely pregnant, usually consisting of a series of golden lines dropping from the top of the picture frame and ending up in her stomach as if she had been speared. Pontormo doesn’t need to do this, he creates the glow of conception as an actual optical phenomena, something that was perhaps not fully realised until the experience of colour field painting in the twentieth century. Yes painters can paint the spiritual.