Nostalgia for Image

Sissy in Yellow by Robert Henri

“… for the great function of the image is to be a kind of detector of infinity… towards which our reason and our feelings go soaring, with joyful, thrilling haste.” (Andre Tarkofsky, Sculpting In Time, p.109)

Death makes one aware of beauty. Loss of a person in all their unique magnificence, shows one where beauty lies- deep in the heart and soul. We have such a longing for beauty which partially in itself is unattainable. Beauty and sorrow are intertwined. One says, “yes” to the beautiful, but knows that it is bound to time and it will not last. This unattainable longing for beauty, those images that speak personally to one’s heart, is at the center of our being. The soul yearns for beauty and imagination. It longs for that mirror that reflects its unique soul. “The need for beauty may be one of the soul’s most vital needs. Without beauty the soul would shrivel away.” (Cobb, Archetypal Imagination, p.62)

All true images are born from within, manifesting their form to one who is open to receiving it. It calls for a deep connection to one’s inner life as well as to the world. When what is within and without come together an image is born that acts as a guide both to the artist as well as the viewer. Rumi states, “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Image gives a voice and form to one’s inner experience and becomes the “equivalent” to this experience.This equivalent speaks of how one sees the world and transforms it into a soul image. This personal self discovery carries within it an experience felt by “everyman”.

The photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, created a series of photographs of clouds titled, “The Equivalents”. This title speaks of image- the clouds, with their symbolic patterning across an abyss of sky, touch a deeper part of ourselves. The images need no explanation. They are transformative because Stieglitz presents us with not just the objective form of the cloud but how he felt about it. They bring to the foreground those things that are on the very edge of consciousness.

“Nature is not something that can be seen by the eye alone- it lies also within the soul, in pictures seen by the inner eye…”

Edvard Munch

When the image is whole it calls forth an assent from the artist as well as the viewer. This assent obliges the artist to “service” this image and bring it forth into the world to the best of his ability. Even if his ability to craft the image well is flawed the image if attended to will supply the means for its expression.  Robert Henri firmly believed that once the image presented itself, the inventiveness of the artist would find the means or the technique necessary for its expression. The artist is the one who discovers and crafts the image not only with inventiveness and skill but with love and devotion.


The Artists’ Concern for Analogical Relationships

The word “analogy” is used quite often by artists and poets to describe comparable relationships between images, objects and ideas. It also includes those relationships that exist between colors, lines and tones. In the 19th century this concept of equivalency or likeness of relations was in the air. It shows up in the work of Charles Baudelaire as “correspondence,” Eugene Chevreul as “‘complementaries,” Robert Henri as “analogies,” and Alfred Stieglitz as “equivalents”. The “golden section,” “dynamic symmetry,” and “rebatement” also fall into this realm of ideas. This search for phenomena that supports the artists own experience of balance and harmony in nature mirrors something that lies within the imagination of the artist. The  imagination seeks its counterpart in one’s experience in the world. It seeks to give what appears fleeting some permanence. Ibn’Arabi calls this place of meeting the “isthmus”- the place where the imagination meets the world as an image in a mirror, one reflecting the other in an analogical way. The artist intuits these real relationships between what lies within and the world without and he seeks phenomena to verify his feelings.

Because of this inherent need of the artist to find an insight into the greater forces at work behind his fascination with visual phenomena, there is a constant dialogue that takes place between the artist and his own work as well as a dialogue among other artists and writers. Georges Seurat in his published letter to Maurice Beaubourg, August 28, 1890 states that, “Art is harmony. Harmony is the analogy of contrary elements and the analogy of similar elements of tone, color and line, considered according to their dominants and under the influence of light, in gay, calm, or sad combinations. The contraries are: For tone, one more clear (luminous) for one more dark; For color, the complementaries, that is to say a certain red opposed to its complementary (green), ect.; For line, those forming a right angle.” (Joshua Taylor, Nineteenth- Century Theories of Art, p.541) Seurat’s fascination with analogical relationships, in regard to color especially, lead to the movement of Neo- impressionism. Robert Henri refers to these ideas as valuable stating he has read Signac’s book on Neo-Impressionism in french and there is much to glean from it. (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.60)  Although Henri never fully accepts the Neo-Impressionist idea of a full division of color, he obviously is in tune to Seurat’s idea of “contraries”. Henri’s attraction to Seraut rests particularly with color. He has previously explored H.G. Marratta’s analogical relationship between color and musical chords and Denman Ross’s color and value analogies in regard to planes. It is not surprising that Seurat’s concept of “contraries” intrigues him.

Henri constantly searched for a real relationship between what he painted and the process of painting, itself. Painting should entail in a very real way some quality of the subject beyond the specific conditions of the light.  This is where color came to take up such a fascination for him. Color became a tool by which Henri could describe his subject in an analogical way- that color could describe the character and the emotional state of the subject far more clearly than the pure skill of rendering accurately. Although, Henri’s portraits are clearly rendered with feeling and accuracy.

In Henri’s late work- the Irish portraits painted in the last years of his life-one can see the great unity he achieves.  His subjects are simple and pure- like a Gallic ballad or a line from the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Henri honors “his people” and seeks to find the analogical means that will mirror this beauty and simplicity. His color analogies of “3 or 5 set against the complement” become the method he chooses that in a real way reflect the mystery of his Irish subjects. The emotional content of the image finds its practical and analogical relationship in a simple palette- the inner life finding its isthmus to the world.

An artist needs to foster this intuitive feeling for analogical relationships and seek the means or methods necessary to join them to one’s subject forming an image that goes beyond the mere descriptive. But Henri also adds a warning to this:

“It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive…it would be far wiser to develop creative power by constant search for means particular to a motive already in mind, by studying and developing just that technique which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or emotion which has moved you to expression.You will not only develop your power to see the means, but you will acquire power to organize the means to a purpose…You will become a master and organizer of means, and you will understand the value of means as no mere collector of means ever can.” (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.220)