The Transformative Aspect of Matter


Why are artists so attracted to the visualization of objects in the world? Why are we obsessive about our rendering with accuracy, about color or the significance of certain material forms? Why in our engagement with the world is matter, the material embodiment of objects, our main concern? I often think of Delacroix, who notes in his journal, that he obsessively takes walks in order to be engaged in the world and observe all that he can, absorb it and render it anew in his imagination. This transforming an observation into an imaginative journey that leads to work within the soul is the key to understanding why an artist yearns for only this type of engagement to the exclusivity of all else. It is this obsessiveness with matter as a tool for engagement in the world, that leads the artist to paint and render again an object of significance.

Matter embodies more than its material existence. Matter engages us on a deeper level. It calls forth from us a response- be it a material response or a spiritual one. But the artists engagement is a spiritual one- make no mistake. Even if that artist sees himself as agnostic, his activity in the world is spiritual. He is engaged with matter on a spiritual level. He not only looks to matter to feed his imagination, but uses matter to speak again of what he has seen and felt.

In the very activity of mixing paint on the palette with a brush, he is manipulating the matter of paint, applying it to the canvas material in a physical process with arm and hand and one’s entire body. He observes matter- the object of significance. He uses matter- paint. He is matter engaged- the body. Matter is the key to unlocking his experience, but this experience is beyond the material embodiment of object and artist. It is its spiritual significance that the artists seeks.

Baudelaire’s concept of “correspondences” is all about the materialization of spiritual significances. All that we see speaks hidden words to the artist/poet, revealing and seeking a spiritual dialogue with him. This is the dialogue that the artist is in tune with. This is the dialogue that he cannot turn himself away from. Keats states it simply in Ode to a Grecian Urn”, “Beauty is truth and truth beauty this is all we know and all we need know.”

How does this engagement manifest itself and intern become a spiritual ground capable of transforming oneself and the world? When one is engaged with matter on a deep level one’s mind and soul can travel beyond the object observed. One becomes engaged in a deep reverie that carries the artist to an imaginal realm, and it is the engagement in this realm that brings insight and personal transformation, as well as the possibility of transformation in the world. The Sufi masters, like Ibn’ Arabi, speak of the isthmus that must be crossed to the imaginal world. This isthmus manifest itself when the artist is fully engaged in his work. Engaged to such a degree that he no longer sees just the object before him but sees beyond it. It is the realm of memory and imagination speaking to him words and images that he could not have projected or foreseen. Sometimes this imaginal space has an embodiment described as a muse or sometimes it is reflected in an insight that comes as a flash of understanding. And sometimes it comes as something mysterious that one does not have a clue about and its meaning takes time to be revealed. But either way, the artist trusts himself to it. He must. If he does not, his life becomes one of despair. It becomes the “Dark Wood” of Dante. One is forever lost among the trees where one cannot see in the material its significance. In this space, self-destruction is inevitable.

The artist observes matter, is engaged physically with matter but produces something of spiritual significance- that encompasses the mind, the heart and the soul. What is this thing that comes to birth through this process? Is it not the art itself- the painting, the sculpture? Matter becomes transformed through the spiritual medium of the artist and again is materially manifested. What is this art? Does not this work become itself an object of significance? It not only becomes this type of object, but it also becomes matter that can engage the viewer spiritually just as an object in the world engages the artist and calls forth his own personal transformation and vision. This object, this art is capable of the same thing. Delacroix states in the journal that in and through the art work, “…mind speaks to mind”(and soul to soul), from the artist to the viewer and back again. Art, itself, becomes the isthmus that again leads the viewer, this time, to the realm of the imaginal. It becomes itself, the Eurydice, calling Orpheus into the underworld so he can undergo his own transformation to his new self and become the person, the artist that he is called to be.

The material world is the medium by which man can be transformed. He is matter. He manipulates matter. And he creates a material object. Yet, the product of all this activity is spiritual and the journey from birth to death is a spiritual one and the artist is at the center of this engagement and transformation not only for his own benefit, but for the benefit of the entire world. This is why he is compelled to this activity alone. It is at the very heart of existence.

Delacroix- From Experience to Theory and Back

oil sketch "After Delacroix"
oil sketch “After Delacroix”

Reading about color theory is quite a dry experience which I engage in periodically because I am always on the look out for a new approach to enhance my own understanding of painting. Most of it is so rational and system based, reflecting the 19th century academic approach, that one wonders if they have truly engaged in observation for its own sake- because it is beautiful in itself and should be the basis of one’s engagement with the world. I am not saying that there should not be a practical system, that can be taught, in order that observation as well as a scientific knowledge of color and its effect on the visual field can be translated and advanced. But “life” itself must be the goal of all engagement. As soon as this is disregarded, the work loses its efficacy and becomes dead. Hence, the predicament of academic painting in the 19th century as well as much of modern art.

But when I read the Journals of Eugene Delacroix, I am once again inspired by his vital approach to “living” and how all painting must spring from this intense engagement with life. Delacroix is the modernist that one should look to. Baudelaire hailed him as the true modernist because he was able to translate his “illimitable” experience to paint, expressing an imaginative dream- like state where his experience in the world merges with the expanse of his imagination.

Delacroix was a “keen” observer of the world around him and through that constant approach to life he finds ways to enhance and activate his work in the studio as well as his grand murals which depend on his imaginative genius.

“During a walk…I noticed some extraordinary effects. It was sunset; the chrome and lake tones were most brilliant on the side where it was light and the shadows were extraordinarily blue and cold. And in the same way, the shadows thrown by the trees, which were all yellow and directly lit by the sun’s rays, stood out against part of the grey clouds which were verging on blue. It would seem that the warmer the lighter tones, the more nature exaggerates the contrasting grey…What made this effect appear so vivid in the landscape was precisely this law of contrast. The general rule is, the greater the contrast, the more brilliant the effect.”(Journal,p.146)

This observation, where the compliment to a color emerges from a neutral tone, had not yet been thoroughly discussed by French artists. It was not until Michel-Eugene Chevreul’s essays on color that it became a part of the artist’s toolbox. Delacroix trusts his observation and transforms it into a possible effect for his own painting. His mind always set upon the emerging work.

In the Journal, Delacroix allows his imagination to flow between the sensate world and those interior movements of soul that speak on another plane. The artist is the bridge that binds those two opposing movements. “To imagine a composition is to combine elements one knows with others that spring from the inner being of the artist. Then from a well- stored memory forms are brought to an apparent reality.” (Ibid.,p.21) The artist binds together those experiences and transforms them into the vision that forms the work. “Whatever his apparent subject, it is always himself that the artist paints. Subject merely exalts his inner feeling”. (Ibid.)