Negative Capability from Ibn Arabi to Keats to Henri

Dune Shadows, an oil painting by Judith Reeve
Dune Shadows

Attempting to identify what exactly is the imagination and what does it look like is like trying to describe flowing water. We have a feeling for it, yet it defies description in so many ways, but we keep on trying because it will always fascinate and tempt us to give it a form.

The imagination rests in the lacuna between conscious thought and feeling. Within this space the creative imagination dwells and allows images to present themselves. Ibn Arabi called this the isthmus between the sensory world, as we experience it, and a mirror image of that world that exists independent of ourselves. Active reverie transforms what is brought to the minds eye as raw material into Poetic Voice and Image. It is a place of conscious activity- a place of interaction. It is only when one brings a purpose to such exploration that one receives direction. One can always tell when an image comes from such a place-it is irrational,yet powerful. It is comprehended on a deeper inner level. Somehow it makes sense in regard to the inner life as opposed to a rational progression of  thoughts. It touches a more universal level within each of us beyond a reflection of its creator.

Ibn Arabi believed in a “reverie in which the consciousness was still active.” This place of the Mundis imaginalis is where the creative individual finds oneself among archetypal figures who reside within the imagination as well as independently in a world between the sensory faculties and the intellect. It is among such company that the artist receives inspiration and direction in regard to his work. One cannot rationally take the path of one’s choosing. One must be open to the moment and allow things to unfold differently than one had anticipated. Keats called this Negative Capability– “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.”

Keats believed in a ‘heightened receptivity’ in which the artist allowed his imagination a freedom coupled with a consciousness of the creative process- a marriage of reverie and the working of one’s craft. Robert Henri referred to this space as “living in the moment.” When in the act of painting, one opens oneself to a greater force that carries the work beyond what one thought possible and simultaneously one feels a greater awareness of the individual sitting before oneself. These together created the “living moment” as Henri expressed it.

Lorca’s idea of duende seems to be based on a triadic relationship to bring about the “living moment”, the deep connection between the artist, the listener/viewer and the song/poem/painting. It is a triad of desire, emotion and affinity to the world in all its depth. Or as Lorca expressed it-longing, passion and gravitas. Duende begins with longing and desire. This is the necessary first step because it expresses one’s purpose or intent- one’s motivation. Passion or a heightened sensitivity to the emotions allows one openness to the moment, as the poet, Rumi called it ‘the path to the heart of hearts.’ And affinity to the world in all its dimensions, including death itself, is where one relinquishes one’s self (ego) and is able to take on the role of the other- people, objects, events. This positioning allows one to come in contact with a greater self that sees the inherent connection between things. Duende- longing, passion, gravitas- are necessary attributes of the serious artist.


Spindrift, a painting by Judith Reeve

Knowing when a painting has reached its full potential, its maximum effect, and proceeding to paint on it further will diminish its more spontaneous elements is a subtle matter of discernment. One must strike a balance between “finishing” and completing an image. It is a sense of completion and resolution that one seeks rather than “finish”. When one begins a painting, one has a deep intuition as to what form the image will take and only a partial vision of its final form. The whole process of painting is bringing together these visions to a point where their visual impact can be felt to its fullest- containing in a clear statement both the emotional climax as well as the visual. To finish a piece beyond this point leads to decadence. There must always remain an element that is “raw” and open.

Charles Baudelaire felt that a painting must not be completed to the extent that there is no opening for the imagination to enter. He based this idea of “lacuna” on the designs found in Persian carpets. The elaborate motifs of Persian carpet designs appear like a closed pattern but on further examination it is revealed that the design contains an opening like a maze on which the imagination can enter and travel within. Baudelaire felt that painting should contain this element of incompleteness allowing the viewer’s own imagination to enter. But not only does the viewer need access to the image they must also be allowed to add to its completeness. The viewer enters on his own journey- the artist as guide; Virgil conducting Dante through the underworld.

What is this “lacuna” or gap? What does it look like? One element, I think, rests with the story. When one reflects on Dante’s Inferno, so much is revealed in the story but we have a sense that there is so much more to the story than that which has been told. Virgil seems to reveal and explain only what is necessary for Dante to commence his journey of self- discovery. We only have a partial view of the underworld. Only what the guide shows us. It is like a voyage. When we travel upon the sea, we experience an intimate relationship between ourselves and the sea.  We can know much this way but we have only a partial concept of the vastness that is the sea. There is much that lies below the surface that we can only imagine.

A second element is that of “touch.”  Baudelaire states, “It is obvious that the larger the picture, the broader must be its touch; but it is better that the individual touches should not be materially fused, for they will fuse naturally at a distance determined by the law of sympathy which has brought them together. Color will thus achieve a greater energy and freshness.” (Baudelaire, The Life and Work of Eugene Delacroix, p.48)  Robert Henri was known for leaving areas of his paintings “unfinished”. Hands just sketched in. But in many ways he adhered to Baudelaire’s ideas. Henri believed that one should only carry a painting to the point where it fully expresses one’s intention. Beyond this, one can kill the life and vitality inherent in the piece and the expressive force the artist  used to achieve this end.

The Sufi poet, Rumi describes the imagination as a  delicate instrument, “We are lutes, no more, no less. If the sound box is stuffed full of anything, no music… Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry. Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.” (Rumi, “Fasting,” The Essential Rumi, Barks,p.69) Emptiness calls to be filled- whether by the imagination of the artist or viewer- it is a yearning, a seeking that taps into an emotional consciousness flickering’ below the surface in each one of us. (statement in quotes by Garrick Ohlsson, pianist, referring to the power of Chopin’s music).