The Golden Thread: Five Artists. Five Approaches. One Goal.
by Cathleen Elise Rossiter
“To name an object is to suppress three quarters of the enjoyment to be found in the poem … Suggestion, that is the dream.” – Stéphane Mallarme’
The discovery of the treasures buried within a particular work of art – be it painting, sculpture, music, literature, theater, or any other creative expression of a soul – is, like life, a journey. Along this journey, we find help and inspiration from those who have previously traveled the road upon which we find ourselves. Frequently, if we remain open, this help and inspiration comes from unexpected and seemingly incongruous places. Such is the thrill of discovery.
In my last post, I stated that this year I would write about the discoveries I made, the lessons I learned from the artist whose birthday fell on the date of the post. As February did not see a posting, I decided to look collectively at the artists who would have had their own, separate posting to find a commonality, a creative thread binding random strangers through the ages.
Three of the four artists about whom I was to write – George Frederick Watts, Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin, and J.J.P. Oud – were born in the same century yet lived in different eras (1817-1904, 1841-1927, and 1890-1963 respectively). Each of the four artists – Giovanni “Guercino” Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666) being the fourth – came from different countries and cultures (England, France, Holland, and Italy, again respectively) as well as global social realities. Added to the mix are my variables of era, country of origin, culture, philosophy, and global social realities. How can we have anything in common? What possible creative thread could there be woven into our tapestries that connects us through the expanse of centuries?
The best way, I find, to discover this golden strand running through our lives, connecting our creative endeavors, binding our souls is to explore each section closely then step back to see the entire picture in its full scope.
Mr. Barbieri was a naturalist as heart. His paintings were noted for their luminous qualities and lively style yet contained a delightfulness and muted gentleness not found in the works of his peers. As a Naturalist, he sought to depict the subject of his paintings in its natural setting and with as much of a realistic feel as possible. Stylized, romantic manipulation of subject and/or setting, in vogue at the time, would not do for him. Beauty comes from truth; therefore, the truth is what he sought to put on the canvas.
Two centuries later, we happen upon Mr. Watts, Msr. Guillaumin, and Mr. Oud; each trying to discover, reveal, express, or explore Truth – a particular truth that their respective life experiences brought them to and which their societies (in general, artistically, spiritually, or in other fashions) tried to hide or avoid through strict conventions.
Mr. Watts, a painter and sculptor of the Symbolist Movement, was in search of a way to reveal the inner truths and energies that compose Life, affect and are effected by evolution. Mr. Watts, inspired by Michalangelo’s Cistine Chapel, envisioned his works on one enormous canvas; a self-contained, continuous allegory of truth upon which mankind could ponder. In spite of his inability to conquer some of the constraints he faced, specifically that of finding a space large enough to encompass his vision thereby forcing him to break up his colossal dream into smaller units, Mr. Watts overcame the constraints of convention through developing new techniques with which to depict classical traditions. He overcame the constraints of public opinion by opening his own museum as a way to familiarize the public with his philosophy and methods.
Industry and Greed – George Fredric Watts, 1900
Msr. Guillaumin – an active member of the Impressionist Movement, friend of Camille Pissaro, and major influence on Vincent van Gough – sought the truth of the moment as felt through the impression left by the experience. Msr. Guillaumine’s paintings (as did those of other Impressionists) sought to strip away the extraneous details that clog the senses, depriving the viewer of the momentary sensory effect of the scene, of the moment of truth.
The Bridge of Louis Philippe oil on canvas by Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin 1875
J. P. Oud – an architect, writer, and original member of the de Stijl movement- like other creative souls of his era, sought his truth in a minimalist, pared-down approach to life resulting from the chaos of the First World War. Art was a means of personal transformation of the soul and spiritual redemption. The focus of creating the art was that of universal truth and understanding versus the pursuit of individual sensory pleasure in an attempt to bring harmony out of the chaos of the war.
JJP Oud Rear view of Weissenhof Row Houses in Stuttgart
Each of these men sought to explore and express Truth in a manner that would allow each person who viewed his work to explore Truth, to internalize it through his creative expression and become a better, more enlightened, more understanding person in the end.
Each of these men found that their visions, beliefs, and philosophies could not come to life nor thrive under the thumb of the conventions and dictates of the artistic and societal times. These conventions and dictates were, and are, the equivalent of naming a thing, of stripping it of the enjoyment of discovery and confining the soul of the piece to the box into which the name places it, from which it must never stray.
Enter the twenty-first century. Enter Cathleen Elise Rossiter, a writer with a passion for truth and art and the lessons contained therein from which to learn and grow. My pursuit of truth has taught me the fine art of paring-down and de-cluttering in order to unearth the core, the essence of a person, place, or thing. My quest has taught me that somewhere in all of us lies the need to express and expose the truth of our lives, our communities, our times. Some have an easier time suppressing this need. Others fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, finding it impossible to leave the truth hidden, unexposed. Somewhere in all of us, we rebel at the names we have been given, be it on the playground, within our families, in the boardroom, or by some random stranger who feels it necessary to judge us as we pass by.
I fully understand the need to name things. Naming a thing brings with it a sense of security since we rarely fear that which we know. When faced with an unknown yet nagging truth lurking in the shadows, beneath the surface, or around the corner, human beings find it easier to avoid the fear of the unknown. We tend to do this by giving the-thing-to-be-feared a name that makes it easy to accept and explain. Yet, as Msr. Mellarme’ shows us in the quote at the beginning of this post, when we give a name to a thing we give it a specific definition; we close the door on further exploration and discovery of the thing because the name, the definition creates a sense of finality, of completion.
In a world so full of others telling us what to think, believe, and ascribe to, I am grateful to those brave enough to suggest a line of thinking through the uncluttered depiction thereof and the freedom to enter the discussion and wander around at will to form my own impressions in my own style, at my own pace. I am grateful for the respect with which these artists treat me (and every viewer) in allowing me to use my intellect – trusting me to do so – to see the truth they are trying to expose, trusting me to do the right thing with this truth.