A Master in the World

Robert Henri, Cori, 1907?

I have been reading a phenomenological study of trans-personal experience by David M. Levin of Northwestern University. Levin describes a trans-personal experience as the sensation of an intimate connection to all living things. One has a physical experience of how one’s being is part and parcel of the whole world. Time seems to flow between past and future in an ever-present wholeness. One experiences an awareness of being that heightens an attentiveness within ourselves, awakening us out of a slumber, and tactility binding us to ‘life’. I can only describe it as a ‘oneness’ that is vitally alive. I have had this experience only a couple of times in my life and each time it has felt profound. It always reinforces my desire to paint and is at the core of what my work is about- holding a mirror up to this magnificent and beautiful world in all its immensity and profundity, always conscious that we ourselves are made of the same element, the same magnificence.

There is a quote in Levin’s text that got me musing. An R. Blythe interviewed several people in a very rural English village, Akenfield, in 1969. Granted this was from a time, prior to our modern age of excessive connectedness, but it is still rather interesting because I have seen this same feeling expressed in the writing of Whitman, Emerson and in Henri’s Art Spirit. The interviewed is an old blacksmith, Gregory Gladwell,

I have a lot of my grandfather’s features although I’m not as tall as he was. I have his hands. Hands last a long time, you know. A village sees the same hands century after century (Blythe, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, New York: Dell Publishing, 1969, p.131)…My wife went around, keeping her eyes open for bolts, latches, handles, grates, drawing them and finding out their dates; and I made more of them as exactly as you’re not likely to tell the difference. Mind you it took time. It took hours. But it was a fine thing for me to have something lying on the bench before me made by one of the old men, and my hands doing again what his hands had done (Ibid., p.136).

What is so incredible about this account is that Gladwell feels entirely connected to craftsmen of the past, that he is in fact, their presence within the world. Gladwell does as his ancestors had done and do, now, in this present moment. He is the embodiment of all that they had mastered. And from his own hands the very same objects are created once again in all their perfection. Gladwell feels within himself that he is a vital and integral link between the past, the present and the future. He intuitively knows that some future blacksmith will enter the world and will carry on the same work with the ‘same hands’. He also understands that shaping beautiful objects takes time and requires the skill worthy of a true master. And that this masterly skill is not solely of his own making. It is a shared inheritance.

Henri expresses almost the same idea in the Art Spirit, that interconnection of all artists bound by their skill and motive, through time from all ages,

The Brotherhood is powerful. It has many members. They are of all places and all times. The members do not die. One is member to the degree that he can be a member, no more, no less. And that part of him that is of the Brotherhood does not die.

The work of the Brotherhood does not deal with surface events…No matter what may happen on the surface the Brotherhood goes steadily on…Let the surface destroy itself, the Brotherhood will start it again. For in all cases, no matter how strong the surface institutions become, no matter what laws may be laid down, what patches may be made, all change that is real is due to the Brotherhood (Art Spirit, p.19)

Henri describes here a trans-personal experience and I think he saw himself as a living link to the masters of the past. It comes with an admiration for all the skill it takes to create a work of art but also, with all the responsibility one has to take care of that skill and the moral obligation that that skill entails.

The finer the motive, the more the artist sees significance in what he looks at, the more he must be precise in the choice of his terms (Art Spirit, p. 135)

This idea of our shared connection both of masterly skill and our ability to create real change, should evoke an appreciation and a feeling of gratefulness on the part of every artist. The skill we have was not only acquired with great effort by our own individual part but also the combined effort of those artists whose skill we have inherited. This keen awareness highlights the dignity of our vocation and the awesome responsibility we have to create work that is vitally alive and meaningful.

Please join the Attentive Equations Newsletter to receive regular updates…

The Singular and the Particular


William Blake writes in the marginalia to his copy of Reynold’s Discourses that, “singular and particular detail is the foundation to the sublime.” (Blake, Marginalia to Reynold’s Discourses, Discourse III, 1808) When I reflect on ancient Greek sculpture, I find two things- the Ideal form combined with a particularness of detail- the detail being not of a specific individual but the anatomical detail carefully observed and understood, a combination of what one sees in the living model combined with an aesthetics of beauty. When I reflect on the wonderful portraits of Frans Hals, I see in them the love of humanity and the individual. His paintings are very specific and their beauty depends on his truthfulness to what is before him. Are these two poles, the ideal and the individual, struggling against one another or are they two sides to the same coin? In the nineteenth century this was hotly debated. Today, we seem to favor the specific over generalization as a philosophy of beauty.

Truth is specific. I believe Henri and Hals would agree. Their deep love of humanity connecting them to the individual. Their work honors man in all his particular qualities yet somehow it still taps into a broader and greater “self”. Henri referred to those he painted as “my people”, “The people I like to paint are “my people”, whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest…whose love, poetry, simplicity and humor have enriched my existence, just as completely as though each of these people were of my own country…” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.143). Does not the specific lead us to a broader connection – the individual particulars guiding us to a greater underlying truth?

Blake states again in the Discourses, “Knowledge of Ideal Beauty is not to be Acquired. It is Born with us. Innate Ideas are in Every Man Born with him. they are truly Himself.” ( Blake, Ibid.)(the capitals are Blake’s) The Ideal seems to be innate whereas the specific must be sought for. I have a Japanese woodblock print of three crows in a tree. I purchased it when I lived in the city of New Haven because I had a pair of crows nest in the highest part of a maple behind a third floor apartment I rented. I could see them directly from my window and they provided a connection to the natural world that was lacking in the city. Later, I moved to the Catskill mountains. Behind my property was a dead tree and peculiarly there are four pairs of crows who rest there every night. My print hangs next to my back window and from this vantage I am amazed how many times my crows directly reflect the print itself. Or possibly I should say the print directly reflects the crows. The artist, by capturing the specific characteristics of the crows, somehow tapped into the very essence of what a crow inherently is and its larger connection to the natural world. The exterior manifestation leading to an interior understanding. The specific guiding us to something we know innately to be true.

I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson hits it on the mark. The first page of my journal contains this quote from Emerson’s essay on Nature, 1856– “The eros of the eye that is visual art: striking the viewer so deeply, with such authority, the merely personal is obliterated and something like an archetypal self is evoked.” The artist by rendering the particulars of what is before him, and rendering them with force and skill, he allows the psyche to enter into a deeper understanding of self and one’s relationship to the world. In a sense, the modern tendency to admire the specific  has its roots here. Henri, being an advocate of this philosophy, did not allow himself to ignore his over arching belief in the oneness of all things. In the end, both Henri and the Greeks sought the “real” from two different perspectives but with the same goal- a self knowledge that renders a greater understanding and appreciation of the world. Henri compares the old masters with the moderns, “All his science and all his powers of invention must be brought into practice to capture the vision of an illusive moment. It is as though he were in pursuit of something more real which he knows but has not as yet fully realized…” (Henri, Ibid.,p.63)