An Object of Significance

This week, I have been working on a drawing of a nest. It is no ordinary nest although it was built by a common catbird. But this catbird, I have come to know as it returns every year to my yard to raise its young. It has built a nest in the pine, the ash tree and for the last two years in my forsythia bush. This year’s nest is quite beautiful. It is roundish with an extensive array of various twigs. Some are as fine as human hair while others are rough and prickly like a pine branch. There is a beautiful arrangement of strips of bark, paper thin, curled and wispy undulating around the circumference. There are arching sticks that could not be curved by the body of the bird and they hang separate yet integrated. They caught her eye during the gathering and embellish and compliment the nest. There is even a single maple seed, held like a coveted jewel lying where she herself sat. It is a beautiful, well-crafted vessel to ride the summer breezes-a place of refuge, a home.

It is interesting to meditate on the objects one chooses to draw or paint, to look for those significances that lie in front of us. In Bachelard’s, The Poetics of Space, he describes the “living” nest, “…it is living nests…, the nest found in natural surroundings, which becomes for a moment the center- the term is no exaggeration- of an entire universe, the evidence of a cosmic situation.” (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p.94) A nest is a bird’s house. I’ve known it since I was a child. Yet, it holds something within itself that is extraordinary. As a child, I loved to discover a hidden nest, to peer inside and to see if there were any eggs and what color they were. It felt like a separate world yet one that I was intimately connected to. How can such a little thing like a bird build something that would sustain the elements, allow the young to thrive, protected and safe? When I look at my nest now, I am so careful with it. It seems so fragile. I try not to jostle it so I will not lose any of the twigs. How did this fragile home, so precarious amid the branches of the bush, survive until the fall, until the leaves revealed its placement?

“A nest, like any other image of rest and quiet, is immediately associated with the image of a simple house. When we pass from the image of the nest to the image of a house, and vice versa, it can only be in an atmosphere of simplicity.” (Ibid.p.98) In order for one to appreciate the image of a nest, one needs to have a strong feeling for a place that has acted as a home. I often think of my grandmother’s house in Philadelphia. It was a not so fancy row home in the Polish section of the city, but upon entering it I felt transported into a past that was very real. There were remnants of her Polish immigrant roots as well as photographs from the past and not so past. Late in her life she traveled much. There was one black and white photo that stood out ( she had it stuck in the glass door of the china closet),it  was taken in Egypt in front of the pyramids and my grandmother is aloft on a camel with the vastness of the desert behind her- a real dream image. As soon as I walked into this house, I felt I was at home. After my grandmother had died, I often dreamed about returning there- meeting her there. Bachelard adds, “not only do we come back to it (the home) but we dream of coming back to it, the way a bird comes back to its nest, or a lamb to a fold.” (Ibid,p.99)

The nest is such material for the imagination. Its physical properties evoke reverie and image. This is matter that is charged with significance. One unconsciously ‘relives the instinct of the bird, senses its place in the world, a cosmic unity’. The bird is so much a part of the living. Its ability to endure the hurricane, the snowfall and the frigid cold in all its fragility gives one an enduring feeling of security and comfort. “And so when we examine a nest, we place ourselves at the origin of confidence, an urge toward cosmic confidence. Would a bird build its nest if it did not have its instinct for confidence in the world?” (Ibid, p. 103)

It is important when one looks at an object, paints that object, that one reveals the depth and intimacy that resides there. It is why Van Gogh’s paintings of nests are so beautiful. He relates the nest to the many peasant cottages he painted. He wrote to his brother, Theo, “The cottage, with its thatched roof, made me think of a wren’s nest.” (Van Gogh, Letters to Theo, p.12) “For a painter, it is probably twice as interesting if, while painting a nest, he dreams of a cottage and, while painting a cottage he dreams of a nest…For the simplest image is doubled; it is itself and something else than itself.” (Bachelard, p.98) Isn’t this the real task at hand- to carefully paint what is before you while revealing in the process its deeper underlying significance?

“Man himself is mute, and it is the image that speaks. For it is obvious that the image alone can keep pace with nature.”  Boris Pasternak


Delacroix- From Experience to Theory and Back

oil sketch "After Delacroix"
oil sketch “After Delacroix”

Reading about color theory is quite a dry experience which I engage in periodically because I am always on the look out for a new approach to enhance my own understanding of painting. Most of it is so rational and system based, reflecting the 19th century academic approach, that one wonders if they have truly engaged in observation for its own sake- because it is beautiful in itself and should be the basis of one’s engagement with the world. I am not saying that there should not be a practical system, that can be taught, in order that observation as well as a scientific knowledge of color and its effect on the visual field can be translated and advanced. But “life” itself must be the goal of all engagement. As soon as this is disregarded, the work loses its efficacy and becomes dead. Hence, the predicament of academic painting in the 19th century as well as much of modern art.

But when I read the Journals of Eugene Delacroix, I am once again inspired by his vital approach to “living” and how all painting must spring from this intense engagement with life. Delacroix is the modernist that one should look to. Baudelaire hailed him as the true modernist because he was able to translate his “illimitable” experience to paint, expressing an imaginative dream- like state where his experience in the world merges with the expanse of his imagination.

Delacroix was a “keen” observer of the world around him and through that constant approach to life he finds ways to enhance and activate his work in the studio as well as his grand murals which depend on his imaginative genius.

“During a walk…I noticed some extraordinary effects. It was sunset; the chrome and lake tones were most brilliant on the side where it was light and the shadows were extraordinarily blue and cold. And in the same way, the shadows thrown by the trees, which were all yellow and directly lit by the sun’s rays, stood out against part of the grey clouds which were verging on blue. It would seem that the warmer the lighter tones, the more nature exaggerates the contrasting grey…What made this effect appear so vivid in the landscape was precisely this law of contrast. The general rule is, the greater the contrast, the more brilliant the effect.”(Journal,p.146)

This observation, where the compliment to a color emerges from a neutral tone, had not yet been thoroughly discussed by French artists. It was not until Michel-Eugene Chevreul’s essays on color that it became a part of the artist’s toolbox. Delacroix trusts his observation and transforms it into a possible effect for his own painting. His mind always set upon the emerging work.

In the Journal, Delacroix allows his imagination to flow between the sensate world and those interior movements of soul that speak on another plane. The artist is the bridge that binds those two opposing movements. “To imagine a composition is to combine elements one knows with others that spring from the inner being of the artist. Then from a well- stored memory forms are brought to an apparent reality.” (Ibid.,p.21) The artist binds together those experiences and transforms them into the vision that forms the work. “Whatever his apparent subject, it is always himself that the artist paints. Subject merely exalts his inner feeling”. (Ibid.)


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