An Autumnal Light on Painting-
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
A Solar Meditation- Still Life Arranged for Autumnal Light- an essay by Brian Keeler
The definition of wisdom according to Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet, (1265-1321) is- "the proper relation of the whole to the parts." He refers to this concept in many ways throughout his opus, The Divine Comedy. For example, in reference to the 23 ½ degree tilt of the earth, he lets us know how this delicate angle is so crucial to our balance of seasons, warmth and so much more in our fragile world. If the globe were to wobble out just a tad, it would throw the whole works kittywampus.
I like this concept of Dante’s and it seems particularly relevant to the act of painting and art in general. In fact, I would say that this idea encapsulates my goals and approach to painting. My aspiration has been to find this "concordia" in nature and then to create a well-ordered pictorial cohesion based on this inspiration. Proportional harmonies, intervals or relationships and rhythm of interactions between the various elements are terms that come close to addressing and getting at my concerns. There are, of course, many aspects to picture making and they are all embraced or at least aspired to in various degrees. However a hierarchy of goals comes into play first, to create a structure.
Dante is especially apropos here as there is an inclusion of the crystal in this still life. Dante showed himself to be fascinated by the passage of light through transparent substances like glass. But there is more. According to the color theorist John Gage, Dante relates color in painting to smiling. We are inclined to interpret this as an act of benefaction or a blessing. Here is a passage from Gage’s book:
“But Dante had a profounder interest in the coupling of smiling and light. Saint Bernard had already in his sermons on the Song of Songs described the motions of the mind as lights shining from the body- but had been rather surprised that laughter should be among them. For Dante the link was the inevitable; he used ridere (The Italian verb, to laugh) in the sense of “Light up” elsewhere in the Purgatory but he also gave the idea a psychological twist in Paradise in the Feast he asked, What is a smile if not a flashing-out of the soul’s delight, that is light manifesting from within?"
Speaking of smiling and laughter, in regards to medieval philosophy- I just finished Umberto Eco's book, "The Name of the Rose." One of the central debates amongst the protagonists is whether Christ smiled or laughed. Aparently, this was a hot-issue topic in monastic circles of the era.
So you can see that there are plenty of connections between Dante and light to many other aspects of painting.
The main purpose of this essay is to illuminate or articulate some of my concerns with this still life that I just finished. This painting includes a small bust of Dante amongst the featured objects on a round table with autumnal light streaming through a window in late afternoon. The poet becomes the main actor here, but vying for the stage with a vase of sunflowers, a pumpkin and a metronome. The light of course, as I often say, could easily eclipse the objects as the prime motif, if not the actual leitmotif.
Part of the appeal of painting this work, and still life painting in general, is the opportunity for arranging the pictorial space with a sense of orchestration. “To orchestrate” implies arranging the whole with a sense of order and control of the expression. This is sometimes referred to as the rationality and logic of space, especially in regards to renaissance conceptions of pictorial representation. There are musical corollaries of course, as we naturally think of an orchestra as a musical entity for a performance. But the term can be adapted to many activities including writing. Here is what the author James Scott Bell has to say about the concept of orchestration:
“When you go to concert, after shelling out for tickets and dressing up in your evening best, you don’t want to listen to an orchestra of oboes.
Nor do you want to have an instrument play exactly the same note.
What you hope for is the pleasing sound of different instruments coming together in just the right ways. Creating the notes and resonance that add up to a great musical experience.”
We can certainly relate to Bell’s observation here and see the relevance. The performance of John Cage of 1952 comes to mind however, as a sort of anti-orchestration. This work, now famous in the annals of musical performance is titled, “4 minutes and 33 seconds” of silence. In that (non) performance there was no music at all and the audience was left to stew in their preconceptions and expectations. The work is sometimes mentioned in the Zen community as an exemplum of sitting with ourselves. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun recalls this as a lesson of sorts and she mentions the outrage of the audience. Still, with that said, for us mere mortals, addressing fundamentals of pictorial space in visual art or musical performance would be good advice- and to concern ourselves with the structural underpinnings of our work would also be beneficial.
The process of orchestrating is also related to editing and making selections about what to emphasize and what to downplay. This renders painting as more of a creative act as well, and not just a dull or matter-of-fact reportage. Here is a quote from the book “Color and Context” by John Gage (not to be confused with John Cage mention above" that addresses this idea:
“The imperatives of observation... The discipline of still life offered especially rich opportunities for the manipulation of colour. It became an essential feature of the French eighteenth-century emphasis on observation, and was also the means for “editing” what was observed. Chardin depicted his subjects from a distance in order to loose detail and thus reveal their ‘essential’ character or form and colour, rendering them in broad painterly style.”
So, here I am presenting this new work (shown at the top) but with several other paintings from recent, and not so recent years- all with the common motif of the sunflower or girasole, as they’re called in Italy. The Italian word, girasole, means to turn toward the sun, and that is what we are doing here. Although I am certainly interested in the corresponding associations of sunflowers and the other objects in a narrative- but as mentioned above, the formal aspects of picture making come into play. Finding the balance, and composing so the intervals and relationships to support the narrative are of equal concern too. I think I am attracted to this goal because this is where the artistry seems to come in.
There is a playful contemplation that is part of the process of creating still life paintings. Sometimes the better part of an afternoon is spent playing and expermenting with the arrangement and seeing it in differnt lighting conditions. The theatrical analogies are relevant here too, as the setting and table can be thought of as stage. We artists are the directors, playwrights, lighting directors and stage designers all at once. Hence, orchestration and design. I suppose we could take the opposite approach too, of just heaving a bunch of apples and flowers on a table and hope for the best and force ourselves to reveal a purpose and unity.
In this still life, Dante’s interest in prismatics and color comes into the mix here, as there is a crystal hanging from above. My initial idea was to have the refracted light of the sun playing in small dappled points to underscore this connection to the poet. However, the diamond-shaped crystal also brings in a drawing technique that I employ a lot and try to get students to consider as well. It is the concept of using plumb lines to align the various parts of the drawing. Here the crystal hanging by a thin cord suggests a plumb bob used by a carpenter to assure the alignments and straightness. The geometry of the faceted diamond also underscores the rhythms and even relates the fractals of the sunflower seeds in their spiraling golden ratio. The metronome has been in several of my still life paintings this year. It underscores the traditional purpose of still lifes of the Dutch Golden Age, which was to evoke a sense of the impermanence of life. The measuring of time also relates to music and orchestration but also to the intervals of time and by extension to the visual intervals in the composition.
I have titled this essay and this painting as a meditation on the Sun and that is relevant here in several ways. The sunflowers, of course, and the sunlight illuminating the scene but also to the plein air painting of mine on the wall (behind the still life) all have sunlight as part of their imagery. This plein air work was done on an evening while overlooking Seneca Lake at sunset. The pumpkin and sunflowers grown in my garden are the result of the sun shining on them all summer and fall.
There is a spiritual aspect to this meditation of the Sun that is mentioned in the writing of Paul Brunton. In Brunton’s book “The Wisdom of the Overself” he presents a group of contemplations at the end of the book as methods to connect to the cosmos and our higher self. Here is what Brunton says about the Solar contemplation:
“Theoretically, it is a recognition of man’s fundamental oneness with Nature, his inescapable kinship with the cosmos, his sharing of a common life. Practically, it is a communion with Nature at her most significant, symbolic and glorious point, the sun.”
I can’t say this contemplation of Brunton's is one that I use while in the process of painting en plein air or otherwise. It certainly is supportive and enriching however to consider Brunton’s philosophy later.
Brunton has another exercise in this same chapter that relates here as to the intervals of space. Eckhart Tolle also addresses this approach too- which is to take into consideration the whole, and this includes the empty spaces. This idea of the empty space is also a fundamental aspect of drawing, and it is expressed by us teachers as an effort to get students to consider the negative spaces. Meaning of course, to become cognizant not just of the object or figure, but the space between and around. Pema has a talk about this subject too, which she and Brunton both call “The Gap.” They are referring to the space between thoughts or sometimes when something startling happens that arrests our discursive mind. Here is what Brunton observes;
“ This gap is nothing else than the great stillness of Mind-in-itself. Were there always an appreciable interval of time between two thoughts, we would find that interval filled with awareness of their root- Mind. Everyone would then be conscious of their divine nature.”
So it is rewarding and intriguing to apply one’s readings in philosophy and spiritual literature to one’s painting. It brings our efforts into a more fulfilling fruition if there is a correspondence if not a beneficial result.
I will mention one more philosopher whose work I am reading and reading about by his modern interpreters- this is Plotinus, (the Roman philosopher of 205 to 270 AD). There is considerable discussion in the book by Pierre Hadot "Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision" that I am reading now about “forms.” And as forms are the subject of still life work in a unique way, rendering this pertinent here. When painting these objects, pumpkins, crystals, metronomes etc., I can appreciate their forms for their simplified beauty. So contemplating forms as essential aspects of our visual world has significance for the painter. But Plotinus is of course interested in the inherent spiritual nature and the souls encased in our temporary bodies or forms. Here is what Hadot says in regards to Plotinus;
“The spirit’s vision, prolonging and developing the vision of the eye, allows us to glimpse, behind the material world, a world of Forms. The material world is nothing other than the “visibility” of these forms, and is therefore to be explained by them. The Forms for their part, have no need to be explained; it is useless to seek their cause or their goal. They are the causes of themselves, and are not the way they are because they had to be that way, but because they are what they are and that they must be that way.”
Certainly a lot to consider here, and this observation seems to undercut our desire to have a significance and narrative behind our still life work. Think of all those Dutch still life paintings that were conceived for this very purpose, to offer a contemplative spring of sorts. Maybe it takes the wind out of their sails and ours too.
I will close with a recollection of my first encounter with still life in a class at the York Academy of Arts with Ted Fitzkee teaching back in 1973. Fitzkee got us to consider the actual space that we were portraying. He noted that still lifes were basically dealing with shallow space. This is to say, that in most sill life paintings the depicted depth is only no more than twelve inches or so. This is in contrast with landscape, which often depicts much grander depths. Our appreciation of spatial relations is one of the qualities of realistic art that is addressed in painting and there’s a special intimacy with the still life genre. In this painting, the subject of this essay, I have included the landscape painting and the window, to offer the outer world along with the up close observed world of the still life.
To view a video presentation on Brian Keeler's still life work, from a recent show at the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca- go to this link- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOs2hvVHGQU&t=388s
To view Keeler's still life paintings go to- www.briankeeler.com or www.northstarartgallery.com