Multum in Parvo

Cloud Study, John Constable
Cloud Study, John Constable

Multum in Parvo is a Latin phrase which literally means, ‘much in little’. But what it really implies is a richness that speaks beyond and outside of an objects’ present confines. ‘There is more than meets the eye’. Phrases like these spark the imagination because the phrase itself is a  condensed expression that speaks of endless possibilities, inviting the listener to satisfy his curiosity by seeking more. I see multum in parvo as an invitation to a voyage, taking Baudelaire’s title from his poem. Like his poem, we are enticed into a personal dream of foreign voyages, of riches found and of creative engagement that spans two worlds, one that is conscious and one that remains on the shadowy edge of consciousness, wrapping us in deep emotions.

All poetry falls within multum in parvo and so does painting. In painting one can never express fully all that there is to say or feel. A painting just invites us to seek more, to look again. The medium of painting acts as the portico, the threshold one passes through, into a world one recognizes as their own yet is unable  to fully possess. A painting secretly whispers those things one cannot put into words, things too elusive and fleeting to be shaped into thought. Yet they are spaces of profound emotion and subtle insight.

I like to think of the pochade as a multum in parvo, par excellence. A pochade, a small, quick painting,  acts as window into a world where one can only see but a part, yet one knows intuitively that there is more. I love Constable’s small studies of clouds. He did hundreds of these. There is an illusion of an expansive space expressed in the movement of the wind and cloud formations. There is a vastness here that catches one by surprise. The frame cannot hold all this immensity in.

Multum in parvo also expresses a kind of ‘enchantment’ found in small objects almost like a miniature. In Medieval manuscripts, artists would paint small, beautiful images hidden between the pages. I can imagine how one felt that while they were reading a text, they would suddenly turn a page and come upon a beautiful window, a portal between their own world and the one they wished to have magnified within them. There would be a shock, a sudden awareness of grandeur and  immensity. I like to think of a pochade as these jewel like spaces that seek one’s attention away from the everyday particulars and embark on a journey to seek more.

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On Risk and the Attentive Mind, Part 2


As an artist, one must push oneself into the unknown, beyond what is comfortable, and always be on the edge of what one thinks one is capable of. On that narrow edge beauty and truth reside. It is a vital and dynamic place. It is the place of “wildness” within oneself. When I say wild, I mean it in the way the 19th century spoke about “dark Africa” or Terra Incognita- vast tracts of land that had yet to be explored and made known and in many ways, made subject to man. It was beyond contemporary consciousness.  Thoreau refers to wildness as that desire within that needs the unfathomable, the mysterious, that which is far greater than oneself and will always remain unknown and impenetrable. ”

” Our life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness…we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomable by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast titanic features…We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander… (Thoreau)

Man cannot live an expansive existence without this ever present immensity. Man desires depth. One needs to hold onto that wildness to make sure one remains open and unencumbered, where profound experiences within the soul find their place in the world.

Federico Garcia Lorca had his Duende, what he called the black depth which he gleaned from Cante Jundo, Spanish song with ancient roots. This Black Depth, this soul moving expression of will and desire that calls the listener or more clearly, recalls the listener to his true identity- an existence of depth and profundity. Lorca felt that this recalling had become the responsibility of the poet and artist. It was the artist task to dig down to this underground source that connects us to the” soul of the world”, as Carl Jung referred to it, and adopts us again as its child and reinstates us into an existence of profound engagement. It allows for the sacred.

But what is the sacred? It is a word that many are reluctant to use. Sacred is something that is given profound respect. One considers it holy, something that defies immediate definition. It is something that remains a mystery because one cannot use rational means to unlock its meaning. It will always remain impenetrable. Man has identified aspects of the natural world as sacred- holy mountains, natural land marks that align with the seasons or stars, the deepest realms of the ocean etc. These natural  phenomena are analogous to man’s innate desire and longing for depth and connectedness to what otherwise will always remain mysterious. Just because I know that that mountain is granite and that it arrived during a previous ice age, does not explain the awe I immediately feel when I gaze at it at twilight. Its very existence calls one back home to an existence of profound meaning. Modern man’s greatest suffering is a lack of meaning. This is why Lorca felt it the true responsibility of the artist to recall it once again and make it conscious. Because unconsciously, whether we want to admit to it or  not, life has no meaning unless one can feel the Black Depth (Black, meaning unfathomable vastness). When it is recalled, one inherently feels it without explanation. Art makes it recognizable.

One instinctively realizes that a wild animal contains a power that its domestic cousins no longer possess. Look into the eyes of a leopard and one immediately feels fear, wonder and awesomeness residing there.  It is an incomprehensible darkness that is ever present in those eyes and a link to a raw energy that is vast. When man co-existed in the same forest with such creatures, he feared and worshiped them. But this raw energy enveloping the pre-dawn world, also created a need for a heightened attentiveness allowing man a deep connectedness to the world. D.H. Lawrence called this type of man the “living” man. A soul that was confident, attached and made whole through the world and in the world. Art expresses, “it is so” and is the pathos of  a living , breathing, activated man. Living with risk allows for this heightened awareness to develop to a high level. When one knows that one’s life is held in the balance, one becomes acutely aware of everything. Risk sharpens us. Living in a “heightened” state, one becomes more sensitive to things and occurrences. More details are revealed, emotions are sensitized, intuitions are believed, images are made known to the receptive, color has power and one begins to trust one’s own feelings.

Art cannot be produced without this heightened awareness, without a feeling of risk. One needs an attentive mind to see how all these things fit together and create a new whole in the form of image. Charles Baudelaire believed in correspondences  where nature, people and relationships pointed to a language of veracity that the poet and artist could speak. That secret language of all things spoke in  “fits and whispers” and revealed to the initiated(artist) a new vision of wholeness that could unlock a world of mystery and beauty. The painter, Eugene Delacroix believed that,

 “The figures and objects in a picture, which to one part of your intelligence seem to be the actual things themselves, are like a solid bridge to support your imagination as it probes the deep, mysterious emotions, of which these forms are, so to speak, the hieroglyph, but a hieroglyph far more eloquent than any cold representation, the mere equivalent of a printed symbol…it is a thousand times more expressive when you consider, independent of idea, the visible sign, the eloquent hieroglyph itself which has no value for the mind in the work of the author, becomes in the painter’s hands a source of the most intense pleasure- that pleasure which we gain from seeing beauty, proportion, contrast harmony of color in the things around us, in everything which our eyes love to contemplate in the outside world, and which is the satisfaction of one of the profoundest needs of our nature.” (214)

Risk allows a lacuna where imagination can impact our world. As Edna St. Vincent Millay reflects,

“My candle burns ay both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-

It gives a lovely light!”