Memento Mori

“All that has dark sounds has duende…Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art.”

Garcia Lorca, Theory and Play of the Duende
Edward Manet, Bullfight, Getty Museum

Memento mori is a Latin term meaning, ‘remember death’. It was not meant to be morbid, but remind one of the inherent seriousness and fragility of one’s unique life. It was meant to be a vector- an arrow directed at our self-aggrandizement, our ability to create illusions about ourselves and the world, without concern for others. It was meant to strip away all the vanities that hinder us from seeing life with clarity.

I came upon this phase recently, in the work of Garcia Lorca and Joseph Conrad. Both great writers in search of deep wells and dark forests. Conrad uses the term as a moment of recognition joined to a heightened awareness. We all have experience of this state, of a sublime lucidity, where we seem to ‘know’ in a new way. This momentary intensity carves out a rawness in our experience and gives way to a transitory suspension of the senses, allowing authentic emotion to rise up from the depths of our being. This experience re-aligns our gaze, shaping our awareness to more closely reflect reality.

“We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand…”

Selecting to be consciousness of memento mori causes a shock, avoir un choc. It throws cold water on our face, confronts us, shakes us to our core, calling us back to the self we recognize. Including those darker parts of our personal selves and our complicity in the malign tragedies within our society. It humbles, disciplines, admonishes, and finally enriches our experience. It is these darker forces that we daily attempt to keep at arm’s length, that emerge in order to give our life dimension, character and authenticity. As Lorca states, “duende is the substance of art”. One cannot avoid these metaphorical brushes with death. They are what allows us to be creative and to create “…something new that no one had seen before, that could give life and knowledge to bodies devoid of expression”.

“The aid of duende is required to drive home the nail of artistic truth.”

I see the pandemic as our memento mori. It is the shock in the midst our looming uneasiness, our cultural blindness to the injustices of our times, and our detachment from reality in our own virtual worlds. Death is not just at our doorstep but sitting at our hearth refusing to leave. It forces itself upon us calling for our immediate and undivided attention. It strips us naked and places us squarely in this moment without buffering the tragic reality we are presently living in. “Duende (depth), won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death.” To carve out meaning and create in a new way, we have to let down our guard, to let go of the safe way, to modify our skill to meet the moment. We need to see our vulnerability exposed. Only in such a state can we empathize with the defenseless in our society and open up a space for depth to reside within us.

The duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work.

Presently, our personal and cultural wounds are laid bare and it is possible that they may never heal. But that is the rub because without duende, we are only partially alive. Memento mori heightens our perceptions, increases our compassion and gives us an opportunity to heal the divisions within ourselves and society.

Edward Manet, Bullfight, Art Institute of Chicago

The Artist’s Reverence

Judith Reeve, “Snow Ridge”, Oil, 20″x 30″, 2020

In my blog from Nov. 2019, “A New Way of Being in the World”, I attempted to express the artists’ craft as an activity of embodiment in the world. The subtlety of the craft itself allows the artist to find and express empathy for his subject. And conversely, because of this deep empathy, the artist experiences a profound compulsion to create.

Learning a skill is learning to see in a new way where one becomes capable of seeing meaningful distinctions that lie hidden to the ordinary eye. The artist’s very ability to paint, to embody their craft to a high proficiency, creates a space upon which something akin to the sacred may enter. Because of this heightened awareness, that is both practical and intuitive, the artist can experience a feeling that amounts to something like reverence- a reverence for a time and a place, for a person or for an object. The artist’s gaze occupies this sacred space evoking respect for their subject as well as, opening their mind and heart to unexplored possibilities residing within themselves or within the world.

When I am landscape painting and standing upon a road or field, looking out on a ridge of mountains, I find myself awed by the beauty that lies before me. I hear a raven squawking in the distance and a hawk is checking me out from a nearby pole. The cold wind is blowing and I am chilled. The clouds mutate, transforming their shape continuously before my eyes. I am immersed in this very moment. In a sense, holding my breath as I take in the immensity of the world. It is a moment that gives me pause and opens up in my being a space in which I can enter a world that is revered. It turns my activity of seeing and painting into a sacred act.

The Greeks experienced the place of Epidaurus in a similar way. As the great tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles were enacted upon that mountain, the participants found themselves awed, touched to the core of their being. They called this opening to the sacred a catharsis- a moment of profound transformation. The art of participating in the tragedy created the possibility of profound change both individual and societal. Can the artist create that space for the viewer to activity participate in their own sacred transformation?

I often think of Henri’s expression, “My People” as he referred to those he painted. This expression evokes a respect, a responsibility to, and a reverence for his subject. Henri, definitely, thought of painting in this way as a sacred act where he created an intimacy and a clear bond between himself and his subject. Henri in the very act of painting embodied those he painted, and subsequently, his sitters become Henri himself, creating a sacred space in which (either now or in the future), the viewer can experience and participate in. Henri becomes both the creator and the subject and the subject participates in the creation both evoking emotion from the artist as well as those that will experience this moment through the painting itself. The painting therefore, brings the artist, the subject and the viewer out of their isolated experiences and unites them together in a dynamic interaction of empathy, respect and joined responsibility- a sacred space where personal transformation can take place- an embodied and participatory catharsis.

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