Sunday, April 08, 2012

Impressionism as “all method and technique pointing nowhere”

In a comment to the Mirror of Justice piece by DeGirolami that was the subject of our previous post, we read a description of Impressionism as “all method and technique pointing nowhere.” Adding insult to injury, reference is made to Monet’s “Wheatstacks” as “piles of dead grass clippings,” albeit painted “in a the most breathtaking array of never-before-seen shades.” What follows is my reply:

Analogous to the Psalmist who “merely beholds the hills, the heavens, and the deep and finds there the presence of the Lord,” Monet, perhaps the premier Impressionist, could be said to have made what James Kellenberger termed a “realisation-discovery.” In other words, and for example, we might justifiably argue that Monet’s haystacks enable us “to see the significance of the familiar as that which establishes what they had not thought or had not fully realized or had even denied.” Indeed, the theist might, with St. Bonaventura, look upon the sensible world as a mirror (speculum) through which she can come to see God, and Monet’s “Haystacks” series has polished that mirror, enabling is to open our eyes, to better see God’s invisible nature (with Paul) “in the things that have been made:”

“[The Psalmist] merely beholds the hills, the heavens, and the deep and finds there the presence of the Lord. He looks upon what we all look upon—what the fool in the Psalms looks upon too—and he realises what it means: that there is a God whose presence creation bespeaks. At any rate so he believes he realises. [….] While the Psalms include much besides expressions of the Psalmist’s experience of God’s presence, they are vibrant with the Psalmist’s sense of the presence of God.” (Kellenberger)

Similarly, for the Muslim (cf. the Qur’ān 41: 53), anything in the natural world is potentially a “sign” (’āyah) of or from God:

“The creatures are signs; the change between day and night is a sign, as is the loving encounter of husband and wife, and miracles are signs (cf. 30: 19-25): they all prove that there is a living God who is the originator of everything. These signs are not only in the ‘horizons,’ that is, in the created universe, but also in human souls, that is, in the human capacity to understand and admire; in love and human inquisitiveness; in whatever one may feel, think, and experience. The world is, as it were, an immense book in which those who have eyes to see and ears to hear can recognize God’s signs and thus be guided by their contemplation to the Creator Himself.” (Annemarie Schimmel)

Or, in the words of an ancient hymn, the theist might proclaim:

“O Godhead, here untouched, unseen
All things created bear thy trace!”

Monet’s haystacks facilitate a different kind of seeing and knowing (beauty, after all, has to do with cognition, as was well understood in the European Middle Ages generally and by Aquinas in particular), not unlike that William Blake experienced when he discerned “eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.” Contemplate these paintings, observe their proportions, their integrity, their clarity. In the first exhibit of the Haystacks series, Octave Mirbeau described Monet’s paintings “as representing ‘what lies beyond progress itself.’ Others described the grainstacks as ‘faces of the landscape,’ and viewers seemed to take assurance that the series would help preserve rural traditions despite industrialization and urbanization. They represented the countryside as a retreat from daily problems and home for contentment with nature.” Conversely, today we might look upon these paintings as bringing about “a melancholy sense of the beauty that passes,” as rural life did largely succumb, for better and worse, to the forces of modernity, and to lament this does not mean we need romanticize such a life. This decidedly is not style for its own sake. To see such art, therefore, as an example of “all method and technique pointing nowhere,” or as mere “piles of dead grass clippings,” is not to see at all, in effect, it is to be both blind and obtuse. As Ananda K. Coomaraswamy said, “beauty is objective, residing in the artifact and not in the spectator, who may or may not be qualified to recognize it.”

Forget for a moment, Impressionism, forget, for a moment, who painted these haystacks, and look afresh at them: they illustrate “the attractive power of perfection in kind,” evidenced in the harmony of the parts which bespeak clarity and illumination, recalling the doctrine that beauty, after all, is related to formal causes: “It is not just that the sensuous properties of things are seen; rather, there is a perception of properties and qualities which are organised according to the immanent structure of a substantial form,” hence what is “seen” is at the same time an act of knowledge, “an intellectual, conceptual act of comprehension” (Umberto Eco). In the Middle Ages “the most obvious symptom of qualitative aesthetic experience was the…love of light and colour” (Eco), a love passionately shared by the Impressionists.
“[P]hilosophers and mystics alike,” writes Eco, “were enthralled by luminosity in general, and by the sun’s light,” and yet we would decry this selfsame enthrallment among the Impressionists.


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