Thaumaturgy: Walking into Walls or Stepping through Them | Artists on Art Magazine
At its best, painting is a window; at its worst, a concrete wall. When a ghost in a portrait sings, it is a universal charm. If this were not so, then there would not be pilgrimages to see Leonardo da Vinci; to stand in front of this kind of window and look out at the apparition made by a magician; to see a reflection in the windowpane. For this, the tradition of painting is worth continuing. Its roots pierced humanity deep underground. The lanterns that lit the cave wall held a sacred flame that continues to burn. The great achievements of the golden age magicians are still worth reaching for. The pursuit of novelty is a diversion, an illusion made of rain. So get your hats, get your coats—we’re taking the King’s Roads.
There is an old mirror hanging just opposite an acolyte’s easel. It is a doorway to the roads made by a magician king. The King’s Roads are a warren, a wilderness of time. Stepping through, we wander in search of an ancestor’s studio. A ruffian dressed in hides and fur gesticulates a greeting, then leads us through the morning haze with a lantern. In an underground chamber, we find Paleolithic paintings invoking totems. Here is the dawn of the magician. The first shamans ventured deep into Earth to speak with Stone. Begrudgingly, Stone agreed to tutor the shaman in art. The shaman’s wall paintings are enigmatic, and so, ambiguously cataloged as having ritualistic significance! The representational depictions may have been part of a rite entreating the spirit world; the abstract depictions, likely natural patterns arising from an altered state of consciousness. As the morning haze clears, we return to the King’s Roads.
Walking past stone-and-plaster homes of humbling ingenuity, we come upon a fane of breathtaking harmony. Blackbirds perch on intervals of an applied ratio, signifying the acuity of antiquity. This is where Western civilization sprouts; where science, philosophy, and art flourish; where the Quadrivium originates. Further afield, we hear a familiar song on the wind, dampening a very solitary howl. The familiar song is the abridged narrative of art movements composed by art historians and museum curators—bless their efforts. Yet what was reborn with the Renaissance never actually died. The great secret of resurrection is continuity—to not die in earnest. There are lineages of painters who have passed the torch from master to apprentice.
The practice of marking a surface—to make thing look like thing—lives on. Those dusty old masters did not preoccupy themselves with reinventing the wheel. Instead, painters such as Memling, Giorgione, Dürer, Titian, and Rembrandt focused on a timeless craft. They became practical magicians by distilling nature’s beauty through a concentration of will. The accomplishment of their dedication is an enchantment; rightly, immortal. We find a familiar road, as a shade of Hecate walks on into the howl.
Nature’s beauty is enriching; perpetually drawing more and more artists until our art historians can no longer ignore the Luddite society. So the cyclic resurrection of classical antiquity continues until its scheduled martyrdom. The forthcoming resurrection is something to get excited about amidst the dour, soul-crushing landscape of modernity. Roger Scruton makes an agreeable case for the popular revival of care, craft, and dedication. Ateliers and academies train on beauty, sewing their hearts onto their sleeves for a march to Pan’s music. The peril, of course, is a mortal one—drawing and painting is quickly drained of its vitality in recitation of precision. This classical march becomes a funeral procession.
Tragically, the life of painting had been traded for a hollow song. This is one of the many instances where painting basically died. Be that as it may, a droll theoretical magician parades the canvases as living painting. But these are not paintings. These painting-like objects are often associated with words like Rococo; however, that is not an exclusive designation. They have the affectations of a window, but are, in actuality, a bill posted on the opposite side of the glass! Their opulent frames retch decoration around an otherwise empty stretch of fabric; the ostentatious scene that loiters within is as flat and tedious as the bill of sale. Centuries later, an acolyte might strive to find value in it, as a dog might strive against waves crashing on a beach (it is an adorable effort). Unfortunately for all, these painting-like objects are a display of corpses! Turgid corpses! Strung up in the gallery! Someone, please, ring the bell for the undertaker.
It is little wonder that the dominating pursuit in art had become a search for something new.
Focusing on the impression of the thing became all the rage. Here, we come to a narrow pass where it all goes to pot. Here is the precarious road that convinced many fine young artists to jump. Some offered pranks that would not be got, and others ran in circles around new science. In effect, ready-mades drone on for a century, and Cubism initiates a reactionary loop that art would chase in perpetuity. At the bottom of the cliff, one could spend days digging through used ideas, broken dreams, and the miscellany of what was once shocking and/or new.
The cutting observations of Robert Hughes leave a trail of tears and severed fingers, as well as a heightened appreciation for the vigor of good company. A critic bored with the fashions of art, Hughes imagines William Turner painting the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb; how Francisco de Goya might have portrayed the liberation of Belsen; what Jacques-Louis David might have composed after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Hughes declares the end of the modern age at the fall of the Twin Towers. Adjourning the King’s Roads, let us return to the library for a basin to scry in.
While Contemporary artists develop sensational new products and flail for attention in the marketplace, what are the painters painting? One Mentor says, little good, in surveying the state of painting. Admittedly, blue chip, fine art painting is indistinguishable from interior design; illustrative-figurative painting trends are short lived; street art clamors for the pedestrian to acknowledge its clever attitude; pop-surrealism disgorges its most recent meal, et cetera. It is a contest of novelty that over saturates the screens of an attention-deficit consumerist culture. Contemporary painting tends to be so hyper, so bright, and so fast that it is taxing, overstimulating. Any painting that attempt to slow it all down stand out for a sense of consideration in its making. If the composition of a slow painting has been tempered, it may stand against time.
An exceptionally perceptive classification of painting is the Superstructure of Kitsch, presented by Jan-Ove Tuv. There are three realms: egocentric, geocentric, and heliocentric. Egocentrism concerns itself with itself. For example: the depiction of, or allusion to, sexual escapades and conquests stripped of humanity in its vicarious commodification. (John Berger gets slapped in the face with a glove.) Geocentrism strives to document a world at its most immediate. It is a world without a past or a future; the genre painting of a concrete landscape and disaffected youths feels like being in a coma. Lastly, Heliocentrism reaches for that very bright thing just past the horizon—images painted without care for originality, but for quality; pictures of other humans in other places that may just reach across time and death to resonate with the pilgrims queuing in the museum.
Hearing that the buffaloes are not coming back from Another Mentor prompts a quest-line for the black art of necromancy. Time means nothing, and having relevance is of little concern to the antiquated painter. Perversely, the epoch in which the antiquated painter is marooned tends to imbue a supplemental context. The Luddite’s practice is absurdly more contemporary than the Contemporary—to not seek novelty amidst a din of contrived novelties is the most novel thing of all. What is more, the declaration of the antiquated painter’s obsolescence calls attention to the fixations of a disposable culture. This age of civilization could rightly be named Nearsighted.
The intention here is not to disabuse you of your partialities, but only to share my own, dear reader. It may be that what is personal here, may be universal out there. An acolyte ventures out, exploring the King’s Roads like some wild idiot. So to defer, let us pick up a book that speaks to the difficulty to contain it all. An excerpt about the golden age magician Johannes Vermeer:
“[Vermeer’s pictures] are all fragments of one and the same world, that whatever the genius that goes into this recreation, it is always the same table, the same carpet, the same woman, the same new and unique beauty, a total enigma at a time when nothing else resembles or explains it, unless one seeks not to establish some relationship between the subjects, but to isolate the particular impression the color produces.” Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Painting is a window; glass and dust; a slice of time that melds a reflection of the present. The antiquated acolyte strives to make a picture do something more than be a flat, solid object on the wall. Walking through the centuries in a museum, the acolyte is either invigorated or repelled by the framed scenes. There are corpse-makers who seek to destroy painting, and magicians who light the way. The magician’s painting practice is a dedication to clairvoyance and enchanting; to the craft of execution and conjuration; to necromancy. And so to read the marks left by a magician is to reach through death. ∞