Immensity and the Largeness of Effect

The juxtaposition of immensity and movement make the ocean an ever dynamic subject for the artist.

Image of Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent from Wilderness: A Journal of a Quiet Adventure in Alaska, 1920.

“Why is the sight of the sea so infinitely and eternally attractive?

Because the sea simultaneously provides the idea of immensity and movement.”

Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire goes on to express that all great works of genius contain an element of ‘immensity’. Immensity has very little to do with the actual size of a work but with  that interior feeling of vastness combined with a sense of fragility. The image astonishes us and “…entails a nervous shock…” producing something like fear, that this sublime moment shall pass and I will fail to seize hold of its nature. It is a moment of recognition that this very immensity I experience in the image resides simultaneously within myself. There dwells a correspondence and a ‘sympathy’ which allows my being in its wholeness to complete the image. The image itself has been waiting for me.

Last week, I reread “Wilderness” by Rockwell Kent which combines images he produced in Alaska with his daily journal entries on Fox Island during the seven months he spent there with his 10-year-old son. In one entry he describes a woodblock he is carving. It contains vast mountains and a rough sea. He spent several nights carving it and deliberating over its form. He ends the entry by saying that it is only two inches square! Multum in parvo– Immensity held in a small space.

“There are moments of existence when time and expanse are more profound, and the sense of existence is hugely enhanced.”  Are not the images that we find truly moving descriptive of these moments? These images may not contain great or historic events or unbelievable places or profound personalities, but are most often an ordinary commonplace. “In certain almost supernatural states of soul, the profundity of life is entirely revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself before one. The scene becomes its Symbol.

When I reflect on the child portraits of Robert Henri, especially the late Irish portraits, I find immensity there. Though ordinary children, he expresses an ‘immensity of soul’ combined with the fragility of childhood, so time bound and fleeting. Henri expresses this immensity with all the potentiality of the child which time destroys as the child matures. This is something that we too have been a part of- our own childhood and the memories of that time and our own latent potential in youth. The immensity expressed in these children reaches out to us and we find our place there.

Are there some painting techniques or practices that can assist my images as I search for a feeling of immensity in my work? I look to Delacroix as my guide. A strong composition and the evocative use of color can lead you. The suppression of detail combined with a preservation of the masses as well as a quality of incompleteness adds to this feeling. It must also not be too objective, but needs to contain an element of the ‘self’ or personality of the artist as well as unconscious or ill-defined material. There is also an element of movement. When Baudelaire describes our fascination with the sea, it is movement that also captivates us. Delacroix achieved movement through brush stroke as well as the use of complements and colored edges. Henri achieved movement through the compositional use of color where there is a constant and subtle adjustment in color and tone to move the eye around the image. There are others as well. These are just some of the tools in the artists’ toolbox. But first and foremost one needs the eyes to see.

I love the obscure French book, Mt. Analogue, by Rene Daumal, in which the characters of the story find that there is a hidden world in our very midst and that it only takes their willingness to engage that world in order to enter upon the journey. The journey itself takes place under the guise of a commonplace, a sea voyage. But it is this initiation that will inevitably lead them to Mt Analogue. I believe having an open mind and heart will create the ability for one to see with a greater awareness the imaginative potential and vastness latent in the commonplace. Immensity of soul, of lived experience, will inevitably lead to a feeling of expansion within the image.

All Quotes from, Charles Baudelaire’s, Intimate Journals, trans. Norman Cameron, 1995.

Baudelaire’s Rockets

Some expert advice from Baudelaire for the artist.

Charles Baudelaire

Rockets: Never despise any person’s sensibility. His sensibility is his genius.

Charles Baudelaire

This statement should give every artist and poet hope. This is a statement of real support and encouragement to be true to one’s particular gift, one’s unique tendency and voice called up from deep interior meditation. In regards to visual rendering, it allows for one’s particular envisioning of phenomena and the intuitive insight that comes to those that meditate on the material and immaterial nature of our being. This role that the artist plays in society is crucial to the maturation of all its members.

The judgement of artistic works lies then in whether what is rendered is conveyed with truth and sensitivity and whether it inherently evokes an emotional response that reflects that singular image. There then is no place for a verdict of whether it is right or wrong according to the norms of society but more importantly, whether it fulfills its own destiny.

Although, all visual works contain an ineffable quality, there should always be an attempt by the artist to qualify the language of paint verbally. Not that this will ever be a summation of the image and its visual language, but it will provide a bridge to understanding the work. I say this because many times an image is created prior to society being able to grasp the full meaning of a works significance. Words, however inadequate, can provide that necessary path to understanding and also, an openness to the meaning conveyed in the image. This paves the way for the unique sensitivity of the artist to be transferred and felt by society.

In my periodic fatalistic frame of mind, I am often forced to believe that society has become totally disinterested in painting and drawing. You noticed, I did not say the ‘visual arts’ because that is constantly touted around by society but it has very little to do with the person who is the artist struggling to render a unique and prophetic vision. The power of an image to magnify our thoughts both those that are conscious as well as unconscious, has been weakened. Through advertising as well as the prevalent use of photography, we have become over-stimulated and therefore desensitized to image and meaning.

But Baudelaire’s statement from his personal journal speaks of another kind of world where one trusts one’s unique sensibilities as a necessary dynamic for a thriving society. These sensibilities will one day bear the fruit of understanding which is genius itself.