Unraveling the Mystery of René Magritte

•April 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

A gray overcast sky looms over a misty landscape.

Reveries du Premeneur Solitaire

Les Reveries du Premeneur Solitaire, 1926 (Musings of a Solitary Walker).

A solitary man in a dark coat and bowler hat walks along a river bank. A white-gray floating figure of a woman levitates lifelessly behind him. They are not aware of each other, the man’s back is to the woman whose eyes are deathly closed. This haunting image is the vision of René Magritte, his Les Reveries du Premeneur Solitaire, 1926 (Musings of a Solitary Walker).

 Unexplainable images such as this make up the oeuvre of Magritte. Solving this puzzle, however, takes some deeper probing into the inner recesses of the artists unconscious. Hidden there among his apples and bowler hats are poignant memories of a life shattering event, a childhood trauma which would inevitably affect his life and work. With the help of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, we may be able  to unravel some of Magritte’s themes and images, to observe their generation and discuss his emotional relationship to them. Throughout Magritte’s concept of art as a representation of the “mystery of the world,” we can speculate that art, for Magritte, was not only a viable creative expression but also a cathartic mechanism required for maintaining mental stability.

Sigmund Freud’s theory of repression offers some illumination into the journey of René Magritte’s unconscious. Freud believed that during childhood, particularly traumatic events find rest not in the memories of the preconscious, but in the dark regions of the unconscious. Their powerful nature allows them to slip by the vigilant guard of the frightened ego into the cold embrace of the id, allegedly never again to see the light of day. But their overwhelming strength permeates the mental processes and eventually may lead to neurotic or even psychotic disorders.[1]

However, the mind of the artist is a different beast. Its gift of creativity is its savior in these times of crises. Freud notes: “if a person who is at loggerheads with reality possesses an artistic gift . . . he can transform his phantasies into artistic creations instead of into symptoms.”[2]

And Magritte’s mind needed rescuing. For what happened to the child Magritte would level lesser men. Growing up in Brussels, Magritte’s tortured mother threw herself into the River Sambre when René was twelve. Mary Mathews Gedo relates that “throughout his childhood, [Magritte] lived in the closest intimacy with a woman he perceived as mad: his mother who finally terminated her tortured existence by drowning herself in 1912.”[3] The circumstances surrounding her death seem to be in question as the only two sources are the newspaper account and the solitary version expressed by Magritte once, to his close friend Louis Scutenaire. Undoubtedly, they speak of different visions.

Scutenaire revealed this image to David Sylvester for his book on Magritte. He related that when Madame Magritte was found, her nightdress was covering her face. “It was never known whether she had hidden her eyes with it in order not to see the death which she had chosen, or whether the swirling currents had veiled her thus.”[4] The newspaper account, however, was not as poetic, reporting that her body was recovered seventeen days after her death. Gedo notes that Magritte’s “romantic account of the body’s appearance scarcely tallies with the advanced state of decomposition in which it must have been found.”[5]

Freud explains such distorted reminiscences as screen memories. Like dreams, the unconscious makes use of memory material to disguise and distort a fearful reality. “Out of a number of childhood memories of significant experiences . . . there will be some scenes which, when they are tested . . . turn out to have been falsified.”[6] Thus, the fearful repressed material is replaced by something more comforting.[7] It is in this screen memory where we find the initial validity of Magritte’s repression.

But what of the state of Magritte’s young psyche poised to receive this horror? His behavior was eccentric even before his mother’s suicide. Gedo notes that Magritte was “a childhood mystic, obsessed with guilt, preoccupied with thoughts of ‘Jesus, his mother, his dove and the saints of the stained glass windows.’” This catholic colic also manifested itself in play “saying mass before a little altar he had fashioned.” [8] Undoubtedly, his mental capacities were hardly prepared for this trauma.

After his mother’s suicide, his obsession with death began to grow. As A. M. Hammacher notes “Magritte was fascinated by death throughout his life.” [9] This obsession eventually lead to his discovery of painting. One summer while visiting his grandmother, he discovered an old cemetery and took to exploring it with a special little girl. On one of these expeditions, after exploring an underground vault, they came upon an artist “serenely working at his easel among the broken stone columns and piles of dead leaves.”[10] This impression never left him.

In his article Some Psychological Sequelae of Parental suicide in Surviving Children, Max Warren relates that death obsession is common among children of parental suicide. “The young child’s phase – adequate interest in death, afterlife and the fate of pets tend to change after suicide into an obsessive preoccupation with fantasies of the suicide scene.” [11] So Magritte’s obsession with death was probably grounded in his mother’s suicide.

Now, with the ground work laid, it’s time to turn to the themes and images of René Magritte. In Harry Torczyner’s book, Magritte: Ideas and Images, it is apparent that most of Magritte’s work can be categorized based on recurrent themes. Many of these themes could be creatively linked to the circumstance of his mother’s suicide. [12] However, there are two particular themes that lend themselves easily to such analysis. These are death by drowning and concealed faces. Both of these will be discussed through particular examples.

In discussing the theme of death by drowning, Sylvester notes, “there can be no doubt whatever as to the closeness of the link between the legend of the mother’s death and one of the most recurrent and persistent and significant elements in Magritte’s iconography.” [13] This theme is exemplified in the painting described in the introduction, The Musings of a solitary Walker. The man in the bowler had is an image typically associated with Magritte himself as he produced such an image upon the request of a friend commissioning a self-portrait. [14] The floating image is a young woman whose skin color and shut eyes elude to death. The figures are placed in a landscape Sylvester notes as being similar to the environs surrounding the river Sambre, where Magritte’s mother died. If, in fact, we read the female image as being Magritte’s mother, her youth could be explained by a static representation typical of children of suicide. Warren relates that “feelings the child has toward the dead parent are ‘frozen’ and the image is not subject to reevaluation and change as the child’s ego develops.”[15] As previously noted, the figures are unaware of each other. This could relate to an unconscious wish of not wanting to know how his mother died or perhaps the idea that because of her death, they will never see each other again. As Sylvester observes, “Magritte had perhaps been haunted for years by such images.” [16]

Two similar paintings can also be used to

La Robe de L'aventure

La Robe de L’aventure, 1926 (The Garment of Adventure)

illustrate this concept.  La Robe de L’aventure, 1926 (The Garment of Adventure) and L’invention Collective, 1935 (Collective Invention).  Both show figures “beached” as if the surf had carried them to shore. La Robe de Laventure has a female figure, partially enshrouded in a white cloth, lying on a sandy surface with her eyes closed and her arms reaching toward the sky. A strange form reminiscent of a giant lily bud hangs over her.

L'invention Collective

L’invention Collective, 1935 (Collective Invention). 

L’invention Collective also shows a female form on a distinct beach with waves rolling in behind. Magritte has chosen to morph her upper torso into that of a fish. The positioning of both figures strongly suggests death and the beach imagery implies drowning.

Concealed face offer another theme repeated in Magritte’s work. This idea takes many form: figures with drapery over their heads, portraits with objects hiding their faces, and a sin the above example, figures with their backs to the viewer.

La Production Interdite

La Production Interdite (Portrait of Edward James), 1937 (Not to be Reproduced)

The quintessential representation of this last form is his La Production Interdite (Portrait of Edward James), 1937 (Not to be Reproduced). Here a man with his back to the viewer faces a mirror in which the reflection is also of a man with his back to the viewer. Hammacher notes, “it was a consciously arranged dual defense, or a repression of any confrontation with the face, which made him decide to ignore logic and show us not his face in the mirror but his back.”[17]

Les Amants

Les Amants (the Lovers), 1928

Most intriguing of these forms are the draped figures such as Les Amants (the Lovers), 1928 and L’Invention de la Vie (The Invention of Life), 1927-28. The lovers two heads are draped by a fluid cloth that twists and winds around their necks much the same way a nightdress would carelessly be draped if pulled over the head. L’invention de la Vie is a particularly revealing illustration of these draped figures.

L'invention de la Vie

L’Invention de la Vie (The Invention of Life), 1927-28.

Here a young woman glances tentatively out at the viewer. Next to her is a shrouded figure. The shape of the draped figure indicates that it, too, may be facing outward. It has been speculated that the young woman is a portrait of Magritte’s wife Georgette. If we take the draped figure to represent his mother, the title may reveal the replacement of his mother by his wife who “invented life” again for Magritte through her love and support. [18]

These works examined certainly don’t exhaust these themes and the two themes are merely a representation of a greater body of concepts that could arguably relate to the suicide of Magritte’s mother. But these are the two that best represent his childhood repression. His titles are also revealing. Often they came to him after the work was created, suggesting themselves to him upon reflection of the work. This suggests a process such as Freud’s free association which enables tapping into the unconscious.

These disturbing images certainly allow speculation into the workings of Magritte’s mind. But, more important than the iconography, is the means by which these images came to him. He claimed that these visual reflections appeared whole in a dream-like state of awareness,[19] and stated that “the moment upon waking was significant.” [20] Hammacher relates that Magritte would reflect on his dreams upon waking and search for “hallucinatory or realistic images” which Hammacher referred to as “repressed memories.”[21] So for his images, Magritte sought reflection “which would make it possible for him to conjure them up out of the darkness of his subconscious or unconscious and render them visible through painting.”[22]

Magritte referred to this state as “presence of mind” which “reveals reality in an absolute mystery.”[23] He describes it in a letter of May 8, 1959 where he refers to his painting La Durée Poignardée, (Time Transfixed) 1939.

La Duree Poignardee

Durée Poignardée, (Time Transfixed) 1939

It is the rendering of a small train engine emerging from the center of a fireplace mantel. Magritte states, “presence of mind exerted itself and showed me how the image of a locomotive should be shown so that this presence of mind would be apparent.” He defines “presence of mind” as a “moment of lucidity that no method can bring forth.”[24] Scutenaire quotes Magritte as saying “it was a knowledge which seemed lost in the deepest recesses of my thinking.” [25] Hammacher relates that the power of this moment of illumination was so great that he referred to it as a birth and that it “occasioned a kind of panic in him.” At this moment of insight, he “was gripped by the mystery” though this moment only lasted a short time. [26]

Magritte’s emotional state at the “birth” of these images is understandable if we accept that these images are shadows of his unconscious repression concerning his mother’s death brought to consciousness by means similar to those used in psychoanalysis, i. e. dream interpretation and free association. As difficult as it may be to believe, Magritte may never have consciously recognized the personal nature of the paintings he created, only identifying the emotional content behind them. According to Freud, this is due to the strict nature of the unconscious to not allow this material to flood into conscious awareness. In addition, the ego acts as a protective mechanism and stands guard against any danger leaking out of the id. [27]

There is, however, limited access to certain unconscious information and it is a source Magritte used for his images. This comes through dreams and free association. Freud relates that dreams occur when the ego disengages the control of movement and allows the id some freedom to fulfill its dangerous needs.[28] Here unconscious wishes, either original or repressed in nature, take the dream stage for expression and satisfaction. [29] Free association is a method used by psychoanalysis to tap into the unconscious. The patient offers an unedited stream of conscious thought which reveals repressed information and enables curing the mental disorder.

With this in mind, it is curious to note that Magritte lived a relatively comfortable and certainly successful life apparently unaffected by any serious neurosis or psychosis. [30] Warren relates a similar phenomenon with children of parental suicide. He notes a “disparity between benign apparently well-compensated every day functioning . . .  and the malignancy and bizarreness of the Rorschach or projective psychological tests.” [31]  However, this is only part of the explanation. A key to the answer lies in Magritte’s own behavior: his denial of the past; his relationship to his images; his adamant refusal of any type of analysis of them and his negative views of psychology and, in particular psychoanalysis.

Magritte certainly had reason when he stated, “I despise my own past and that of others.”[32] He rarely spoke of his family and in particular of his mother’s death. His close friend Harry Torczynor remembers, “he did not talk about his family. I never met his two brothers.” [33] His wife Georgette relates that he never spoke to her of his mother’s death and his account of it given to his friend Louis Scutenaire (discussed earlier), is the only public account ever offered by Magritte. Hammacher notes, “Magritte’s unwillingness to talk about the past and his feigned indifference to highly disturbing events in his youth are obviously due to repression.”[34]

As much as he refused to talk about his past, he also refused any analysis of his paintings claiming that they were above interpretation.[35] On an attempted analysis he wrote, “it’s terrifying to see what one is exposed to in making an innocent picture.” [36] But his vehement refusals of any interpretation point to a deep rooted fear that “psychologically informed investigations of his imagery might reveal aspects of his character and experiences that he wished to keep forever submerged – perhaps even from his own awareness.” [37] Hammacher offers that he “provided people with a means which would not lead them back to Magritte” and that he “wanted to prevent any viewer of his work from identifying himself with the artist.” [38] This protective instinct was also noted by his friend Harry Torczynor, “he intended to protect himself from everyone else.”[39] It seems clear that Magritte was afraid that analysis of his images would reveal too much, or more specifically, that his ego would not allow him to recognize the personal nature of the images he created as it was too great a reflection of the dangerous content of the id. This last point is further emphasized by examining the relationship between Magritte and his paintings.

Magritte once noted that “looking at my pictures sometimes gives me a strange feeling.”[40] In fact this strange feeling was at times so strong that, as Torczynor observed in Magritte’s studio, Magritte wouldn’t even look at the works. “These canvases might be casually set on the floor with their faces to the wall like mislaid or forgotten objects.”[41] Torczynor also relates that “Magritte had no desire to retain finished painting for study or for his personal collection.”[42] And yet Magritte took great interest in where his works were to the extent that Torczynor took to calling them his “Magrittian children.”[43] So from their inception of “birth” to the finished painting, these manifestations of Magritte’s unconscious would invoke powerful emotional responses in him without revealing their true meaning which was the dangerous repressed emotions of his mother’s suicide. Once the cathartic process was over, the painting finished, his ego would no longer let him reflect upon the image, so he would turn them around in his studio and sell them all not keeping any around to arouse curiosity in himself. His ego would not allow him to consider any interpretation of the works especially as they related to his mother’s suicide. Again, not wanting to reveal too much of the repressed content in his unconscious. Yet, each of these works has a special “mysterious” meaning and importance to him that he could not express but clearly felt.

When asked once why he paints, Magritte stated, “I am unaware of the real reason why I paint just as I am unaware of the reason for living and dying.”[44] The irony in this statement is that painting was, in a sense, why he was living and not dying. The suicide rate and attempted suicide rate for children of parental suicide is greatly increased over that of the general population.[45] The reason for this is “direct identification with the parent in his suicidal act.” [46]  Magritte’s ability to release his unconscious emotions through painting without them fully entering consciousness allowed him to function through his life without suffering from neurosis which could inflict these desperate moments.

Obviously, Magritte could offer no explanation for the meaning of the images in his works. His only reflection was that they invoked the “mystery of the world” and it was to this end that he pursued painting. “I see to it that I paint only the images that evoke the world’s mystery.”[47] It was a mystery that could not be revealed. Hammacher notes, “He regarded the mystery of life with a sacred awe and considered the essence to be impervious to all interpretations.”[48] Though this mystery could never come to light, Magritte explains that there is an emotional attachment: “we always want to see what is hidden by what we can see . . . this interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is apparent.”[49] This heightened awareness of the real is shown to be common among child survivors of parental suicide. Cain and Fast show that a distrust of reality was typical of the most studied parent-suicide children. “it might be described as a disturbance of the reality-sense – a tendency to find experiences vaguely unreal, to doubt or disbelieve much of what they’re told, and to have a troubling uneasiness about many of our everyday certainties.”[50] This reaction is eerily echoed in Magritte’s vision, “the power of thought is demonstrated by unveiling or evoking the mystery in creatures that seem familiar to us.”[51]

However, Magritte’s mystery seems to go beyond this scope. A distrust in reality certainly could have motivated his imagery, and yet much of his emphasis is on the locked nature of the mystery, “the very nature of the mystery annihilates curiosity.”[52] Perhaps it is Magritte’s own personal mystery which cannot be revealed: the reason his mother purposefully abandoned him through her suicide. Lindemann and Grier, also in Survivors of Suicide offer, “the frequent cry among survivors of a suicide of ‘why did he do it?’ often seems to have the implied dative ’to me’ and seems colored by a feeling of having been repudiated or at least abandoned.”[53] The reason this mystery can never be revealed rests on the intense guilt associated with the suicidal death of a parent.[54] The fear that some pre-suicide behavior by the child in some way caused the parents ultimate self-destruction. If this is Magritte’s mystery then its feared revelation and possible outcome would do untold psychic damage and thus the ego insures its silence. It then becomes “the mystery that which we are forbidden to give a meaning.”[55]

There is certainly much more to René Magritte’s work than simply unconscious musings on his mother’s suicide. However, this investigation has shown that there is a close link between Magritte’s images and the content of his unconscious. His paintings give a glimpse into the workings of the mind and arouse curiosity over the more ambiguous images. Thus, Magritte’s artistic gift was his savior from madness and its expression a gift to mankind.

[1] Horden, Peregrine, ed. Freud and the Humanities. (NY: St. Maritns Press, 1985), 38.

[2] Freud, Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans., ed. James Strachy, (NY: w. W. Norton and co., Inc.) 50.

[3] Gedo, Mary Mathews, Looking at Art from the Inside Out: the Psychoiconographic Approach to Modern Art. (NY: Harry N. Abrams, inc., 1992) 12.

[4] Sylvester, David, Magritte: the Silence of the World. (NY; Harry N. Abrams, Inck, 1992) 12.

[5] Gedo, Looking at Art, 280.

[6] Freud, Sigmund, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. By James Strachey, vol. III (London; Hogarth Press, 1962), 322

[7] Ibid

[8] Gedo, Looking at Art, 181.

[9] Hammacher, A. M. Rene Magritte. trans. by James Brockway (NY: Harry Abrams Inc., 1985), 108.

[10] Gedo, Looking at Art. 182

[11] Warren, Max, Some Psychological Sequelae of Parental Suicide in Surviving children, in Survivors of Suicide. (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1972), 116-117.

[12] As Sylvester observes, “Whatever its formation, Magritte’s fantasy about his mother’s death has many echoes in his paintings. There are several which evoke death by water; there are numerous instances of faces which are somehow concealed or absent.” Silence, 14

[13] Sylvester, Silence, 23.

[14] Ibid, 28

[15] Warren, Psychological Sequelae, 114.

[16] Sylvester, Silence, 19.

[17] Hammacher, 36.

[18] Gedo, Looking at Art, 183.

[19] Referring to the work Time Transfixed,  Magritte notes “The word idea is not the most precise designation for what I thought when I united a locomotive and a fireplace. I didn’t have an idea: I only thought of an image.” Letter from Magritte, May 8, 1959, reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 82.

[20] Hammacher, 17.

[21] Ibid, 15 -16

[22] Ibid, 90.

[23] Rough draft of a response to a questionnaire sent to René Magritte by a journalist of La Lanterne. June 20, 1957. Reproduced in Torczyner, Magritte, 24-25.

[24][24] Letter from Magritte, May 8, 1959, reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 81-83.

[25] Hammacher, Magritte, 90

[26] Ibid, 40.

[27] Freud, Sigmund, An Outline of Psychoanalysis. Trans. By James Strachey, (NY: W.W. Norton and co, Inc. 1949), 43.

[28] Ibid, 47

[29] Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams. (NY: buccaneer books, inc., 1985), 33-43.

[30] However, Torczynor notes that he became a hypochondriac after age sixty. Torczynor, Magritte, 22.

[31] These tests can be used to reveal unconscious impressions. Warren, Psychological Sequelae, 113

[32] René Magritte, Le Savoir Vivre, Burssels, 1946, reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 23.

[33] Troczynor, Magritte, 17

[34] Hammacher, René Magritte, 8.

[35] “To the extent that my pictures have any value, they do not lend themselves to analysis.” Draft of questionnaire reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 24.

[36] Letter from Rene Magritte to Louis Scutenaire and Iréne Hamoir, March 12, 1937. Reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 80.

[37] Gedo, Looking at Art, 180.

[38] Hammacher, Rene Magritte, 18.

[39] Torczynor, Magritte, 19.

[40] Rough draft of questionnaire, reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 25.

[41] Ibid, 10.

[42] Ibid, 19.

[43] Torczynor recalls and example regarding the piece L’art de la Conversation, “he was eager to know how I thought it was getting on in the New Orleans museum that had given it a home.” Torczynor, Magritte, 19.

[44] From an interview by Christian Bussey, August 1966. Reproduced in Torczynor, Magritte, 28.

[45] Cain, Albert c. and Irene Fast Children’s Disturbed Reactions to Parent Suicide; distortions of Guilt, Communication and Identification, in Survivors of Suicide. (Springfield, Ill.: Charles, C. Thomas, 1972), 105-106.

[46] Ibid

[47] Torczynor, Magritte, 82.

[48] Hammacher, Rene Magritte, 18.

[49] Magritte, qtd. Sylvester, Silence, 24

[50] Cain and Fast, Disturbed Reactions, in Survivors of Suicide, 103.

[51] Torczynor, Magritte, 81.

[52] Ibid, 83.

[53] Lindemann, Erich and Ina May Grier, A study of Grief: Emotional Responses to Suicide, in Survivors of Suicide. (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C.Thomas, 1972), 68.

[54] Warren, Psychological Effect in Survivors of Suicide, 63 – 69.

[55] Torczynor, Magritte, 81.

The Romance of the Roman Atrium House

•March 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Atrium of the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

My recent trip to Pompeii has set my imagination dreaming about what life was like in a typical Roman atrium house. So many examples are on display at Pompeii with just enough of their mosaic floors, carved moldings and mural-covered walls remaining to tantalize and invite my fancy into there charms. The atrium house was the standard design for a middle to upper class dwelling in a Roman town. It served many functions both public and private and was designed to impress upon its visitors the importance of the master of the house, his family and his ancestry. The architectural design of the house was perfectly adapted to the warm Mediterranean climate and offered a comfortable and elegant lifestyle.

The entrance to a typical atrium house was on a fashionable street in the town. On either side of the front door would be small shops which were owned by the master of the house who either supplied slaves and merchandise or rented the space to another merchant. These shops offered an important source of income for the family, though not the primary source. Their wealth and subsequent power would have come from their ancestry. Another source of income would come from interest gained through loans to members of lower class citizens. This will be explained further below.

As we walk through the front door, we find ourselves in a short hallway which shares walls with the shops on either side. This area, called the fauces, would be painted to look like marble. The Romans wanted luxury, but marble was seriously expensive. There were no local sources (it would be several centuries before the quarry at Carrera – which supplied Michalengelo, among others – would be discovered) so marble would have to be imported from the ancient sources at Paros and Naxos in Greece. So instead of paying the high price for marble, Romans became quite adept at painting plaster to look like marble and other luxurious stone surfaces. This painting style, known as the first Roman painting style, would entail carving rectangles into the plaster then painting the rectangle to resemble marble. These “blocks” would then look like carved panels set into the wall.

Plaster painted to look like painted marble, Pompeii

View of atrium from the fauces in atrium house, Pompeii. Note the Impluvium above and the compluvium below.


From the fauces, we would be looking into the atrium – the room that gives the house its name. This large open space contained one of the most innovative and interesting parts of the house. At first glance our eyes would be immediately drawn up to the large opening in the roof. This open rectangle (about 4’ x 5’) was placed directly over an equally-sized opening in the floor below it. These unique features were meant to capture rain water. On a rainy day, rain from the roof would accumulate in a channel around the roof opening (impluvium) and pour through sculpted figures placed around the opening into the basin (compluvium) below. Can you just imagine the effect of this feature? On a rainy day, streams of water would be pouring down from the ceiling to the floor and into the basin.  The remaining room was covered by the ceiling so the impluvium also provided an important source of light during the day. In earlier times, this system provided an important source of water for the household. Later, though, the Romans developed indoor plumbing and thus the impluvium / compluvium system became more of a decorative feature.

Now we have to look down at our feet which would be standing on an elaborate mosaic floor which started from the entrance of the house. The Romans loved mosaic. It was their primary means of dealing with the floor. Again, a stone floor would be too expensive. The bedrock of Italy, volcanic rock known locally as tufa, is soft and porous which would be very impractical for a floor. There was access, though, to small fragments of hard stone which could be much easier and cheaper to import. These fragments, then, could be cut into small pieces known as tesserae which were arranged into beautiful multi-colored patterns. The Romans were masters at mosaic and left remnants of them all over their vast empire from Europe to northern Africa, even as far as England (see the baths at Bath). So as we enter the beautifully decorated atrium, we are even standing on a work of art!

floor mosaic, the House of the Faun, Pompeii

Small rooms on either side of the atrium would contain small beds and were where the family slept. People are always surprised at how small the bedrooms are. Romans didn’t really have assigned bedrooms, like we do now. They were just rooms for sleeping and nothing more. These rooms would also display elaborate frescoes on the walls and a mosaic floor.

We are most likely visiting the house in the morning. This is when this portion of the house takes on a public function. As we look around, we would find many other Romans coming in and congregating in the atrium. These “clients” would be coming to pay homage (and possibly cash) to the master of the house who was their patron. As mentioned above, another source of income for the family was this elaborate system of patronage. However, it was not just a system of earning money, but a system that also had important political and social implications as well. Here is how this worked.

Let’s say you are an impoverished Roman who would like to start your own small business, perhaps a small taberna – a small café of which there are many examples at Pompeii. You need some capital to get you started. So you visit the home of a wealthy Roman and ask him to sponsor your business by loaning you the money to get started. The Roman patrician would then become your patron and you would not only owe money to him but political allegiance as well. As a patrician, your patron would hold a position in the Roman senate and have a political voice in local policy. Once this business relationship is established, you would now be required to visit your patron regularly, pay him a portion of your debt and accompany him to the senate as part of his entourage. You get to have your business and your patron gains another member of his ever-growing entourage which enhances his political voice and social status. Of course, you will never be able to pay him back – it’s designed that way. Your agreement will insure that the payments you make will be just enough to cover your interest but not enough to allow you to ever pay the balance. (Yes, the Romans perfected predatory lending practices!)

From our observational perch in the atrium, we can see you entering your patron’s very elaborate house – a stark contrast to your small, single room at the local insular apartment block on the other side of town. You place yourself in line with the many other “clients” who are in your same situation. Perhaps you discuss a little business or complain about the exorbitant interest that you are paying as you wait your turn to visit with your patron.

When your turn comes, you are led into a large room at the end of the atrium where the patron awaits his clients. This room, known as the tablinum, is a room designed to intimidate. Along with its elaborate wall frescoes and mosaic floor, the room displays the patron’s household gods – his lares and penates – in the lararium and his ancestral imagines (pronounced im-ahg-een-ays) which were busts and portraits of his revered ancestors. Your patron was not a self-made man. This social idea was not available in Rome. His wealth and status was passed to him by his ancestors, also of the patrician class and also remembered and revered by society. These portraits were not just ancient reminders of those who had come before, but stood as intercessants to the ancestors who were believed to be still around in spirit form influencing the lives of their descendants. This ancestral cult of ancient Rome is one of the many fascinating examples of how ancient Rome straddled both the modern, orderly, “civilized” society and its rustic, gritty pagan roots – picture the blood of sacrificed chickens dripping down the polished marble steps of the temple. It is this aspect of Rome that I find most intriguing. This dichotomy between chaos and order is best displayed in this room of business in the atrium house.

Lararium, Pompeii


After a long morning of meeting with clients and collecting payments and honors, the patron then departs with his clients to the baths or to the senate in order to parade his entourage around town. In this way, he displayed his social rank and importance to the rest of the town. As his entourage grew, his social standing grew and thus his voice in the senate grew as well.

We won’t be following him, though. We’re going to stay and view the rest of his house. As the day goes on, though, the temperature is rising. This is the tropical Mediterranean, so the heat of the day can get very intense. We are beckoned beyond the tablinum into the garden beyond. This is the heart of the private space of the house. We follow the beautiful mosaic floor into a columned-lined, covered walkway, the peristyle, which surrounds an open garden. The refreshing Mediterranean breezes are now circulating around the peristyle and we relax onto a bench and observe the sunlit garden beyond the columns. The refreshing sound of splashing water is emanating from a mosaic-covered fountain along the back wall. Colorful blooms and greenery aglow from the bright sun, dazzle the eye. We are cool and content from our shaded perch.

Peristyle from House of the Faun, Pompeii

Mosaic fountain from House of the Fonana Piccolo, Pompeii


The lady of the house glides through and invites us to lunch in the triclinium, the open dining room off the garden. Another mosaic covers the floor and more painted frescoes delight us along the walls. We recline on sofas and indulge in the parade of fresh food offered by the household servants. Cool and refreshed, we drift off for a luxurious nap.

This was the life of the Roman Pompeiians which was so abruptly cut short on August 24, A.D. 79 when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. The intense heat and ash descended so quickly that most suffocated before the pyroclastic flow hit the towns (Herculaneam and Stabiae were also buried). When Giuseppe Fiorelli began to excavate in 1848, he felt soft patches of ground beneath his feat. After the collapse of a few of these revealed the bones and impression of a human caught in the last moments of life, he came up with an ingenious idea to reveal these impressions to the world. He filled them with plaster, then excavated around them. The plaster revealed intimate portraits of the most personal moment we experience as humans, the moment of death. Each individual figure reveals the unique way each Pompeiian faced this moment. They are immediate, disturbing and incredibly moving and, along with the atrium houses, give us a unique snapshot of life and death at Pompeii.

A pompeiian citizen caught in her last, vulnerable moment.

What Would You Do To Protect Your Box?

•February 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Egyptian protesters form human chain to protect the Cairo Museum

We all have one. Maybe it’s a drawer or a shelf in a cabinet. Maybe it’s an old chest in the attic or a special box under the bed. It’s where we keep the precious things. The objects that have survived the summer garage sale purges that have come to symbolize our unique and individual life, a grandmother’s ring, a letter from a first love, a newspaper clipping of a piano recital, an old dear toy, a family photograph. They are solid and real compared to our ephemeral flesh and they will follow us to the end to stand witness to our silenced voice when we are gone. They will illustrate our personal stories and descriptions of one single life in the ocean of humanity that has lived and died here on this earth. What would we do to protect that box?

On January 29, 2010, in the heat of revolution, a group of Egyptian demonstrators formed a human chain against the threat of hired violence and military might to protect their box, The Cairo Museum which houses their precious things. The things that bear witness to the greatness, the struggle, the glory, the sorrow of their nation; the objects that symbolize the lives of their ancestors who lived and breathed and died in order for them to have life, to have their voice, to have their chance to participate in this human experiment. But who were they protecting their precious things from? An outside enemy trying to take power? A force of nature that threatened destruction? Unfortunately, the enemy was much closer and more devastating: their own government.

Imagine after your death, your family comes together to sort through your box, your children, your grandchildren, close friends and colleagues. Your oldest son, the executor of your will, knows how precious and meaningful these objects were to you and sees how important they are to his brothers and sisters, children, nieces and nephews. He knows that these things will give comfort in the desperate days ahead and yet, in his own selfish need to wield power, he purposely seeks to destroy them, without any care of his own to their meaning.

In order to de-stabilize the mostly peaceful protests in Egypt, Prime Minister Mubarek released prisoners into the street with the intention of causing mayhem to undermine the dissenters and to make the protests appear violent. After all, if the world sided with the people, he had no possible chance of staying in power. If the protests turned violent and ugly, though, he could win popular opinion on his side. But the Egyptian people weren’t interested in chaos and greed. They wanted freedom from his tyranny. They wanted justice from his inequity. They wanted to be the people their precious things, their symbols, as so proudly displayed in the museum, declares them to be. So in the face of the government-supported thugs who broke in to the museum to damage and pillage their heritage they joined arms and stood as human shields to protect the objects that express their humanness, their history, their Egyptian-ness. “We are Egyptians and this is the Egyptian Museum” they cried. What would we do to protect that box?

Everyday we lose more and more of the collective materials of our humanity. We’ve seen the destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq, the birthplace of our so-called civilization, where the museums were looted instantly at the start of the war. We’ve seen objects cross borders and land in the hands of those willing to pay the high price of ownership to hide them away from those whom the objects symbolize, crystallize, offer strength to and unite, now to be admired, out of any meaningful context, to bring prestige only to the new, disconnected owner for the exorbitant purchase-price paid. When will we cry “We are humans and these are our human museums”? What will we do to protect our box?

The objects in the Cairo Museum symbolize the power of the divine king. A human god whose right to rule was granted by the divine forces beyond human comprehension. The statues and regalia of the Pharaohs expressed the sacred bond between a leader and his people. Mubarek broke this bond by asserting his own hunger for power over the liberty of his people. What Mubarek forgot, though, is that the divine force of this power is fueled by the will of the people. It is the people who give power and it is the people who can ultimately take it away. It is the people who will protect the precious things, at any cost.

That protective human chain symbolized this power of the people, the divine power of the pride of a set of collective experiences, beliefs, ideas and perspectives; the unity which our human soul craves in order to walk hand in hand through the suffering of a chaotic universe. These are true heroes who should have the immense gratitude of all who call themselves human. So on behalf of the human race, I humbly thank them.

One of several objects damaged by government supported thugs at the Cairo Museum

In Honor of My Beloved Husband David on his 41st Birthday

•January 18, 2011 • Leave a Comment


Flaming June by Frederic Lord Leighton, 1895 Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico

Today my husband David is celebrating his 41st birthday. Regrettably, he is in Las Vegas for a conference so I won’t get to see him until this weekend. In honor of his special day, I have decided to talk about his favorite painting: Flaming June, by Frederic Lord Leighton.

When I met David, he had just moved into his new Manhattan bachelor pad on E. 39th St, between 1st and 2nd Avenue. It was a nice, one bedroom apartment on the 37th floor overlooking the UN and the East River. He was moving from a furnished apartment in Long Island, so he had nothing but several large boxes. No furniture, not even a bed for the first week or so, he slept on the floor until the bed he ordered arrived. Very bohemian, I thought. The only actually furnishing he had brought with him was a framed print of Leighton’s Flaming June. I was so struck by his love of this painting which I had also often admired,  that I bought him a book of the works of Lord Leighton for his birthday, just a month later.

So what was it about this painting that so moved my husband. He’s a tech guy, Phd in computer science, very left brained. A self-described philistine, really, when it comes to art, though I think he has more to offer than he lets on. But this painting stayed with us for many years and through three moves until I sold it at a garage sale before we made the big move west. Even then, it was a struggle for him to let it go. So let’s see if we can see what he saw in this painting.

Lord Leighton painted and exhibited Flaming June in 1895. He was one of England’s greatest painters of the 19th century and held the position of President of the Royal Academy from1878 – 1896. He had had a cosmopolitan upbringing, studying painting in Frankfurt and regularly travelling to Paris and Italy for scenic inspiration. His oeuvre grew out of the late Neo-classical movement that was to blossom into an artistic renaissance in Victorian England. This neo-classical style is finely exhibited in Flaming June. He is often associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly due to his subject matter which seems more inspired by the flowering of Greece or the height of the Middle Ages than 19th century Victorian England. He, however, didn’t identify himself with their movement, though he was friends with many of them.

Flaming June was painted late in his career and exhibited in his final exhibition before his death in 1896. In many ways it is a song to the bloom of youth which he may have been longing for in his final days. The painting focuses on a young woman in repose. After years of painting narratives, this image seems to tell no story that we can determine from its context. Merely an unknown young woman has chosen a cozy spot overlooking an azure sea to take a nap in the sun.

What strikes me first is Leighton’s handling of fabrics and textures. He is a master at painting the “hand” of a fabric. I’m an avid fan of fabric and can often identify the fabrics in Leighton’s paintings just by how he handles the drapery and the way he paints the interaction of the fabric with the light. In Flaming June, there are three different fabrics enwrapping our resting maiden. First of all, she has chosen a rather uncomfortable marble bench for her nap, so she first draped a piece of brown velvet over the cold seat. This is visible in the lower portion of the painting and its identification comes from the heavier folds and matte texture of the fabric. She has then surrounded herself with a crinkled silk wrap which winds around her entire body, covering a portion of her head. The light hitting the left side of this fabric denotes some iridescence which indicates silk to me. Its burnished color almost matches the color of her hair and from a distance, it often looks as if it is her hair that is enfolding her. Finally, it is her garment that is the most astonishing orange. Here Leighton has painted a soft, sheer cotton voile which drapes and clings to her form both hiding and revealing her body beneath. Leighton took pains to insure that the drapery clung to her where he wanted her revealed, breasts, thigh and gathered and scrunched around her periphery, mimicking the burnished silk into which it rests. The richness of his rendering allows the viewer to visually feel the textures of these fabrics and imagine their weight and texture against the skin.

What is also astonishing about this painting is Leighton’s handling of her complex pose which energizes the dynamic composition. The dramatic angle of foreshortening reveals a well-seasoned master of the craft. Leighton has noted the inspiration for the pose came from observing his model at rest in his studio. She is all twisted and curled, emphasizing the curves of her body and contrasting her softness with the hardness of the marble she lays upon. The s-curving line of her body creates a series of arcs which stand out against the strong horizontal lines of the marble bench and the sea beyond, a contrast that is mimicked in the undefined border which hangs above the scene. Leighton is clearly highlighting her youthful softness and suppleness at rest against the tension of the hard, angular stone and suggesting the ultimate fluidity lies in the sea beyond. The scene could be interpreted as a reflection on dissolution as one moves from the substantial hardness of the stone to the subtle softness of the figure and finally to the ultimate fluidity of the sea, which is also at rest. Could Leighton be reflecting on his own dissolution here?

As with all of Leighton’s work, there is a velvety smoothness to the overall palate. He achieves this by the subtle richness of the colors he chooses which have a darker undertone. He is a master of color and Flaming June is a masterpiece of color with the bright orange against the deeper burnished browns contrasting with the ivory of the marble and the sunlit blue of the sea beyond. Each color softly flows into the next calmly, smoothly, expectedly, comfortably. His tones make me want to pull the colors off the canvas and wrap myself in their luxury!

Ok, settle down, all you fellas out there, lets get to the heart of the matter. What we have here is a beautiful, voluptuous, sensual young woman laying barely dressed and vulnerable, to the gaze of the viewer. Her breasts are plumped up by her encircling arm revealing her soft nipple through the veil of the fabric. The curve of her buttocks and thigh is barely shielded by the gauzy garment which clings to her form. Her bare foot, extending from the hem of her gown invites the viewer to explore further beneath the folds. She is a cornucopia of sensual delights sent to inflame the desires of those who look upon her. Thus Leighton’s title may not refer to the color of her gown after all.

So is it the tactile splendor of her draperies which enfold her that attracted my husband to this painting or the masterful handling of her complex pose? Perhaps it was Leighton’s subtle contemplation on the dissolution of life or the velvety richness of his color palette which called to his soul. . . or was it just the nipple?  ; )

I promised my husband when I sold the print that I would replace it with a better frame. Perhaps it’s time to bring Flaming June back.  Happy Birthday, my love.

Newall, Christopher, The Art of Lord Leighton, London: Phaidon, 1990.

The Tree would be so Proud!

•January 11, 2011 • 1 Comment

19th c. Yup'ik Ceremonial Dance Mask

Sometimes the Universe has its own means of making its message known. Today our work was chosen based on an article I came across on Facebook, posted by the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It is a 19th century ceremonial dance mask made by a Yup’ik carver and eventually purchased by a trader in 1905. The mask’s provenance places it in the collection of the surrealist painter Enrico Donati and is one of several masks purchased by the surrealist collective which, along with other works of African art, inspired the fantastic and the marvelous which were foundational to surrealist ideas.

(A Mask that Inspired Masters http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576060061853435924.html)

There is much to talk about here in the life of this very powerful object. How many objects can claim having both spiritually supported its creator and its community as well as inspired an entire paradigm shift in art? Such is the valid experience of this object through the course of its life.

The biography of this object begins with a dream. A Yup’ik Eskimo angalkut (shaman) somewhere in western Alaska, had a story come to him in a dream which he wished to share with his community. He visited a wood carver and described his story and the appearance of the mask that he was requesting the carver to make for the telling of the tale. The wood carver then took the angalkut’s request and created this mask.

He carved the face out of a tree trunk, leaving some of the bark to demark the forehead and chin. He added two hand-like forms to either side of the face and a hollow trunk projecting from its chin. He suspended twigs or bones with string from two carved wooden feather-like forms and added them to either side of the chin. He added another wooden projection from its forehead and hung seven carved wooden feather-like forms from its end. He encircled the head by bending a long, bare branch and attaching it to either side of the chin then placing eight feathers from different birds around the top.  He used red ochre to stain the protruding hands and the face (much has worn off, but patches still appear on the nose and around the mouth).  The red pigment may have symbolized life or blood and may have offered protection to the wearer during the ceremony for which it would be used.

The carver/artist was guided in his design not only by the vision of the angalkut, but also by a canon of standard design features which included the large, toothy grin, the thumbless hands, “goggled” eyes and feather halos. (The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks http://www.tribalarts.com/feature/riordan/index.html). Though constrained by these elements, he was also able to bring his own unique and distinctive style to the work which would distinguish the mask as his work alone.

The mask would have been kept hidden until it was brought out for the performance.  Then (if not made specifically for trade) it would have been worn by the angalkut in a dance expressing the dream story. This may have been carried out at the mid-winter dance ceremony known as the Agayuyaraq. This event marked the final ceremony of winter in which all the local tribes would take part and many songs and dances would have been performed to appease the animal and nature spirits. This particular piece is known as the “mask that brought the south winds” but its story was told only once and is lost to us now. Often masks were destroyed after the performance. However, many were traded and are in numerous collections around the country.

The masked dance not only expressed a story, but also functioned like a prayer. The dancer was asking something of the spirits which he was embodying during the dance. Often the dancer was believed to become the spirit, thus the need for the protective red ochre on the mask’s surface. Yup’ik tribal member Andy Paukan explains, “When a shaman made a mask to be presented and composed a song about the mask, he would let the carver make a mask, telling him what to do. When the mask was done he would put the mask on and dance. . . . They were praying. They were communing.” (The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks http://www.tribalarts.com/feature/riordan/index.html).  Thus the mask in and of itself was not sacred, only that which it represented. It was also ephemeral, being made and used only once for a singular purpose. Once its dance was completed, it no longer held any meaning or function. It’s story, however, would live on in the collective traditions and culture of the tribe.

But this mask had a second life.

Having lost its meaning and value to the community, the mask was sold to a trader who then sold it to a New York collector, George Gustave Heye, whose collection would make up the bulk of what would later become the Museum of the American Indian. But when the museum fell on hard times, it was sold, along with other masks from the collection to a New York art dealer who in turn sold them to several of the surrealist artists including Andre Breton and Enrico Donati, who purchased this particular mask.

Up to this point, the mask had illustrated a Shaman’s story-dream, a message from the spirit world to benefit the Yup’ik community. Now, in the hands of the surrealists, it was imbued with a new life and purpose that would be foundational to changing the way we think about art today.

Andre Breton defined literary and artistic surrealism in his Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Greatly influenced by the new and exciting world of psychology, as pioneered by Freud, Breton and his fellow surrealists wanted to express pure thought unencumbered by logic, reason and social patterns and norms. They used all sorts of psychology-based methods to get at these ideas and the world of dreams played an important role in revealing this end.

“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. It is in quest of this surreality that I am going, certain not to find it but too unmindful of my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession.” (Andre Breton, Surrealist Manifesto, 1924)

Surrealism was part of the attempt, through self-reflection, to shake off the shackles of the appearance of the object, like attempting to wake oneself up from a dream. First the dreamer has to be aware that he or she is dreaming, then the dreamer has to understand the “laws” of the dream world in order to transition to another plane of existence. Breton and the surrealists saw the obsession with the appearance of an object, which had held prominence in art and literature since the Renaissance, like this dream state from which the artist / poet had to emerge. In order to do so, however, the artist / poet had to have some external frame of reference on which to point his sail. Dreams and works of art found in traditional societies, whose appearance was grounded in its purpose and function and not necessarily on some aesthetic ideal of visual replication, were examples the surrealists looked to for inspiration. Thus we find this Yup’ik mask in Donati’s collection.

Andre Breton in his studio with Masks in the background

The surrealists would have looked to the form of this mask as an example and inspiration of true thought and as a means to begin to explore the world of ideas outside one’s rational and logical constraints. The mask was a doorway into another world where the imagination was limitless and the marvelous was the only true aesthetic. “Only the marvelous is beautiful” (Andre Breton, Surrealist Manifesto, 1924). So this mask was placed on a wall in Donati’s studio to remind and inspire him to the principles of surrealism.

Now, the question remains as to whether Donati, Breton or any of the surrealists had any real understanding of the true context and purpose of this object. If they had, they would have been astonished to find that its own aesthetic form had come from a dream and truly did express exactly what they had wanted it to, i.e. the pure expression of the “soul” whether understood as Freud’s “unconscious” or as the Yup’ik’s spirit world.  The mask truly is a message of the universe made manifest and this has been confirmed by two completely different cultures.

Of course the legacy of surrealism and modernism changed completely the way we think about art today. Our contemporary consciousness allows an incredibly broad spectrum of aesthetic and conceptual expression. Often today, it’s easier to define what isn’t art rather than what is and we owe this object a great debt in graciously offering itself and its life to this paradigm shift. The tree must be so proud.

The story doesn’t end here, though. In 1996, an extraordinary exhibition of Yup’ik masks was presented, not by some academic curators of Native American arts, but by the Yup’ik people themselves. The exhibition was organized by several Yup’ik members along with Ann Fienup Riordan, an anthropologist who has lived and worked among the Yup’ik people since 1973. The exhibition opened first in a small village high school where 1000 Yup’ik visitors viewed the many masks which were brought together from several museum collections. Andy Paukan, one of the Yup’ik exhibition organizers expressed his sentiments about this project.

This project is important for me and, I believe, all Yup’ik people, not because it brings the past back to us but because it may help preserve our future. . . . I consider it fortunate that so many well regarded museums have fine collections of Yup’ik materials. Certainly those who collected these items may have thought they were collecting the artifacts of a vanishing culture. However, among those of us whose forefathers were the craftsmen, these items demonstrate that we may be different, but we have not vanished.

The impact of the exhibition on the Yup’ik people who viewed it was empowering. A high school student’s email noted that “I saw two masks made by my grandfather. It made me proud.” Another Yup’ik visitor, John Active wrote,

When I walked through the doors, the first thing I saw was a king salmon mask. How appropriate, I thought. From the salmon carving, I turned to my left and walked through the rest of the exhibition which dazzled my mind. “How ingenious we Yupiit are, ” I thought to myself as I saw a mask from Chevak with moveable eyes. The mask exhibit reaffirmed my Yup’icity. Suddenly I was proud to be Yup’ik.

These masks cry out to us, saying, “Look how inventive you people are! Come and see how your ancestors used to make prayers, quietly, beautifully. And you know, we are still praying for you today.”

The success of this exhibition can be measured in the pride and ancestral connection it brought back to the Yup’ik people. Though our mask was not among those displayed, it is certainly a beautiful expression of the pride of this rich cultural tradition.  

The mask is expected to make a record bid of $2.1 million dollars for a Native American work of art.

How very insignificant that fact seems to me now having lived in its “shoes”.

The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks http://www.tribalarts.com/feature/riordan/index.html
Agayuliyararput: Our way of making prayer http://www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/features/yupik/lessons.html
Manifesto of Surrealism http://www.tcf.ua.edu/Classes/Jbutler/T340/SurManifesto/ManifestoOfSurrealism.htm

Never Doubt the Intentions of the Universe

•January 6, 2011 • 1 Comment
Vasily Kandinsky

Improvisation no. 30 (Warlike Themes) by Vasily Kandinsky, 1913


It’s quite ironic that this Kandinsky should be our first piece under discussion. I was a bit apprehensive about what the universe would choose, fearing that it would be something I wouldn’t be familiar with and uncomfortable writing about. I should have had more faith. Hilariously, I stacked the deck by 1) choosing Stokstad to find the image – very heavy in ancient art, my specialty and by 2) putting my fingers more toward the first 1/3 of the book, greatly increasing my chances of a work prior to the Renaissance. Little did I know, that I had grabbed the book upside down (the cover has been long gone, leaving just the plain orange cloth cover) and what I opened to was modernism and Kandinsky, a long time love of mine. I felt the universe laughing at me. So let’s talk about this piece.

Kandinsky was an early 20th Century Russian painter who was strongly influenced by the Post-Impressionists (disintegration of the object), Symbolists and Fauves (use of color). Kandinsky had first observed the disintegration of the object in a work by Monet and pursued the total elimination of the representational in his own work which he eventually achieved.

Kandinsky was also greatly concerned with the spirituality of color. He believed that color spoke directly to the soul and that the observer did not have to understand the symbolism of his painting in order to come along on the journey. Kandinsky explains that “Color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul.” He explored his philosophy of color and form in a small book titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art published in 1911 (the above quote is taken from this work). He painted Improvisation no. 30 (Warlike themes) after its publication and it reflects many of the themes which he explores in the book.

This work was painted during his most prolific period where he was working with his artistic philosophy concerning form and color. Though there are distinct references to objects: canons, buildings, churches and people, these forms are so indistinct and dreamlike, it’s easy to get lost in the mix of line and color and forget they’re even there. I’m also very moved by color (That’s why I’m such a fan!) and I get swept away in the mix of hues here which are exactly my favorite tones (I just painted my living room that green blue near the building with the windows). I find them exhilarating and energizing, which certainly adds to the excitement of the action portrayed. It is easy to see the dematerialization and the emphasis of the mélange of swirling color which is so prevalent in Kandinsky’s philosophy about art.

The energy of the painting comes from the strong contrasts of complex warm and cool tones. A large burst of white juts into the black of the sky; a large black shadow emerges from an orange background; blues beside yellows beside reds all creating a landscape wholly independent from the sketches of the objects. Only the canons, interestingly enough, connect form with color. This juxtaposition of form and color creates a jarring vibration and discordance which emphasizes the narrative. I really love the building with the windows which seem to show a face in horror witnessing the scene.

The war theme of the work is also interestingly relevant today and without much thought-shifting, our current military engagements could be easily read in the painting with the sandy-colored hills and mosque-looking structure in the upper left. Only the canons give away an earlier age while all the energy and emotion of battle are still so relevant.

So what do you think of this work? Do Kandinsky’s colors speak directly to your soul? How do you react to the dematerialization of the objects in this painting? Does it add to the experience that Kandinsky is trying to create or does the meaning get lost for you?

Welcome to an art space!

•January 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Happy New Year, everybody! Let me just start by saying that I would never in a million years have dreamt that I wanted to write a blog. That is until yesterday morning. Yep, yesterday morning (January 1st, 2011) I woke up from an intense dream and decided then and there that I wanted to start a blog about art. Not a typical art history or art theory approach to art, though those will definitely be a part of this blog, but a blog just dedicated to the discussion about specific works of art; my own thoughts and opinions about individual pieces of art that I will pick randomly from my vast collection of art history books. Not just my thoughts and opinions, though. I want this to be a space for dialogue and discussion; for different perspectives and viewpoints. In other words, I want to hear what you have to say. Do you agree with me? Do you disagree with me? Do you see something that I don’t? I want your own, personal impression of the works of art that I will choose. That will be what really makes this a place for learning, experiencing and growing in our contemplation of art. I hope to have some guest bloggers in the future who will offer different perspectives on art: artists, art historians, art therapists, art teachers and folks who just like art. So I hope this will be an art space that will engage, enhance, educate, entertain and inspire. I guess I can’t ask for much more than that. Join me, won’t you?