Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Appearance of the Particulars, Part I

Fig 1: The Earth from Space
It is easy to blame the current mindset for the social, economic and environmental problems of today. It is not so easy to transcend it. To attempt this we need to understand the meta-story behind the current paradigm. One way of doing this is by comprehending the loss of wholeness in the beginning of the modern era and, connected with it, the genesis of particulars in the centuries before. This shift in perception is well documented through the history of art, and through painting in particular: for there we can see what otherwise remains merely thought.

Three hundred years before our modern era we arrive at paintings steeped in the pre-particular mode of the prevailing Byzantine style. A purely inner perspective prevails. Affairs are soul size: In the 13th century painting by Cimabue, the Virgin Mary (Fig 2) is much larger than the angels at her side and many times the height of lesser mortals. Moral dimensions rule and everything non-essential is omitted. Details are totally absent. The only thing resembling something remotely tangible is the throne of the Virgin, a strange mixture of city and seat.
Fig 2: Cimabue
Maesta, 1280
Fig 3: Giotto
Ognisanti Madonna 1310
Fig 3: Giotto
Ognisanti Madonna 1310

A generation later, Giotto treats the same subject (Fig 3) already more realistically: The throne is more solid and angels hold vases with flowers. Detail has entered the scene. Particulars are slowly emerging. The heavens are fading. The earth is coming into focus.

When Fillippo Lippi executes the same subject (Fig 4) in 1437, the background is filled with architectural detail: pillars, arches, passages and a lintel with clearly readable inscriptions in the foreground. Spatial perception and precision co-emerge. There is a very solid book on Mary's side. A window is open. And through the window we get a first glimpse of nature.

Leonardo da Vinci's famous 'Virgin of the Rocks' (Fig 5) is painted fifty years later. Nature that has only peeped through the window in Lippi's composition has become dominant. The Madonna is placed in a dramatic, overpowering landscape. The environment is gaining a life of its own. The sparse symbolic flowers held aloft by angels in Giotto's earlier painting are now growing on solid ground.

Fig 6: Leonardo
Embryo in the Womb
Fig 5:  Leonardo 
Virgin Among the 
Rocks, 1483
Fig 7: Leonardo
Mona Lisa 1503 - 1517

Leonardo's religious subjects introduce particulars. His sketches focus on them. He draws cats from all sides, horses whole and in parts, executes studies of heads and skulls, and details of instruments such as the workings of concave mirrors, the mechanics of flying apperati and war machines. Anatomical drawings are prominent among his sketches: Perhaps the most famous is his ‘Embryo in the Womb' (Fig 6). Leonardo already looks with the scalpel of the modern mind. He dissects with ink and sketches as a scientist.

The artist Leonardo still veils his Madonnas in the mysterious sfumato. The scientist Leonardo takes the skin off the womb. Medieval devotion has turned into scientific focus, the gold ground into dissecting lines. Through Leonardo’s incisive step we see the inside. Modern scrutiny has opened the body and has begun to examine its parts. Anatomical dissection was not new at Leonardo’s time. It was practised before. What was new is that it has become part of the artistic, and by extension, public interest. We look at the ‘Embryo in the Womb’ and unknowingly gaze at the Madonna of the scientific age.

Leonardo’s Mona Lisa stands in between the 'Virgin among the Rocks' and the 'Embryo in the Womb'. The Madonna has become Donna (woman) without child.

It may well be that the ‘Mona Lisa’ owes much of her popularity to being the unconscious substitute for the medieval Mary. She is the secularised version of the 'Virgin Mary’. This Madonna Incognito has turned the Louvre into the Lourdes of art.

I do not mean to imply that Leonardo was in any way intending this. But every artist is part of the brushstroke of his time, the agendas of his age. He is a teller of meta-tales, of meanings beyond his ken.

Leonardo is the forerunner of modern personality and of the scientist in particular. He prefigures the modern dichotomy of soul: The sensitive artist who delighted in freeing doves and the passionate designer of war machinery, the painter of the ‘Madonna in the Rocks’, and the scientific illustrator of the ‘Embryo inside the Womb’.

I had two reasons for choosing the Madonna image as a case study. The first is the popularity of the subject during the middle ages and the renaissance. The second touches on the deeper symbolism of the theme. For the Madonna was to medieval times what the Isis was to the Egyptians, the Sophia to the Gnostics and Gaia to the Greeks: the symbol for the mother goddess, the creative aspect of divinity. Today we would call her nature.

The medieval mind still dwelt in wholeness. The particulars were secondary. Nature could be conveniently summarised in the ‘Virgin with Child’. During the Renaissance particulars begin to appear on the canvas of painters and inside the mind frame of scientists. By the middle of the 19th Century they had taken over. What to the medieval mind was a by-product of nature (the particulars) became its cause. Wholeness was composed of its parts, and nature made of particulars.

Not surprisingly, it was at that time that the ‘Mona Lisa’ started to become the public icon it is now. Since then it is 'the' painting. Earlier on, Rafael’s ‘Sistina Madonna’ held this place for over three hundred years. The advance of 19th Century materialism and the Madonna without Child coincide.

So much for the past. But what about the future?

I believe we can begin to read the future in same way we have read the past: by means of its icons. They are already there. And one icon rules supreme. I am talking about the most reproduced image of the modern age: the photographs of the ‘Earth from Space’ (Fig 1). One of the reasons for their popularity is the symbolic status of astronauts. They are the foremost representatives of the technological age. And because of it the most separated from the earth. Even without flying to the moon we can identify with space explorers floating weightless in outer space, connected with only thin cord to their craft. We too move in capsules of cars, live inside the cocoons of technology, connect with the world through screens. The astronaut’s detachment is our own.

But so is their epiphany: the well-known story of space explorers leaving as  ‘detached’ scientists and returning as committed environmentalist. This astronaut to terranaut conversion is the Saul to Paul event of the technological age. We all partake in it. It is part of the global story, our collective meta-tale. As are the concerns of returning astronauts: the fragility of the planet, the thinning ocean of air, the vanishing species, the endangered world.

Central to the astronauts’ conversion was the vision of the ‘Earth from Space’. Today we meet this image in books, journals, posters and postcards. We see it on screen. We can look back on our home without leaving the planet. The 'Earth from Space' image reminds us of our separation and homesickness. It also reminds us of our  responsibility for the planet.

But this is not all. There are deeper dimensions to the popularity of the Earth from Space. The genre is telling. It is neither still live or landscape (representing a what), but a portrait (representing a who). And the who is Gaia, the living earth.

The first images from space and Lovelock’s idea of the living earth appeared at the same time and were immediately brought together by the public. Today it is impossible to talk of one without invoking the other. Gaia, however, is not just any name, but evokes the creator Goddess of the Greek pantheon. And as Gaia was to the Greeks what Isis was to the Egyptians, Sophia to the Gnostics and the Virgin to Christians, we have come full circle.

In other words: the Madonna has returned. Though metamorphosed, she is no less iconic than before. On the contrary: no Medieval or Renaissance composition rivals the perfection of a single, well-placed circle inside a rectangular frame. No arrangement can surpass the effect of a bright-lit centre amid expansive dark. Many of the popular images show a frontally illumined earth and thus appear flat. 
(Fig 1). We have moved back (or is it forward) to iconic surface. The level of optimal composition and balanced colour scheme rivals great artwork. It is a masterpiece, produced not by the merit of its creator, but the artistic qualities of the model itself.

Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael, 1514                  Madonna Nova, 2014
And most important for our topic: the surrounding black is void of particulars. Even the face of the earth shows little variation; we behold vast sheets of ocean, swirling clusters of clouds, and continents neatly fitted into a circular shape. Nothing else. There is no differentiation into nations, states, people, parties, religions. There is only the unified globe: a pure iconic picture of wholeness.

We have collectively chosen this image as the icon for our time. In doing so we have voted for wholeness, for the earth and the environment. By linking the picture of the earth with the Greek Goddess we have even gone further and entered the numinous, transcendental dimension of iconic art. We have professed, though unconsciously, for new stories to interpret the world.

I am interested in our ability to collectively recognise these new stories in artistic form. Our aesthetic sense is well on the way long before our intellect even lifts its foot. We see a great deal further with what we feel, than with what we know. In pictures the future often announces itself long before the present takes note. In time of severe crisis this capacity could stand us in good stead. We need to act soon and from a vision we share.

This vision is already there. And embedded in it the ideas, thoughts, attitudes, and solutions we need. I believe that the next great advance in planetary health will be the conscious integration of our artistic knowing - the ability to create a better future by understanding the aesthetic preferences that already relate to it. Doing this we begin to collaborate with a vision that is ours as well as the earth’s.

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