Romantics in the House

Long ago, I saw the 3’ x 4’ painting below in the jumble of cats and canvas and old wine bottles at Cheryl‘s home studio, and I fussed and flattered and cajoled until she finally said, “Aw, hell, just take it.” In lieu of cash, I give her this tribute of thoughts.

bayou lafourche1 Depending on the time of day or my vantage point as I walk by, it strikes different aesthetic keys from the abstract to the representational. Sometimes my eye catches firefly flecks of color randomly appearing in the textured darkness (a rich blue darkness not well captured here) – but with brushstrokes too large and thick for flecks — more like thumbprints pressed in. Sometimes I absorb it in its representational aspect, as a personalized vision of Bayou Lafourche. In this aspect, it’s like having a trace of the Romantic movement hanging at the bottom of my black spiral staircase, with those impressionistic flecks resting upon the older, richer colors of a Romantic base, a remote natural scene full of darkness and depth, but at the place of greatest depth, the vanishing point at center left, we’re lost not in darkness but in a patch of dim light. Still, the light does not dominate. This is not an airy or ethereal painting. The darkness, the thickness of the atmosphere, the closeness and earthbound quality dominates. The sense of losing oneself in the depth of nature strikes a romantic register, but it strikes a note more brooding than festive.

Compare to Kyle’s 4’ x 6’ triptych (“Ghosts in the Range,” referenced also in my entry on the 4 sheaths) on the side wall of the same room for a different kind of Romanticism.

kyle cropped1Kyle’s vision follows Blake, bringing into focus a Romantic recapitulation of classical themes – archetypal, cosmic, eternal symmetries rolling through, or out from, the sunspot Magna Mater at the center. Cheryl’s painting, on the other hand, triggers the moody pensiveness of a Wordsworth or Coleridge, a mysterious personal communion with some local and obscure and fleeting corner of nature. If the Romantic aesthetic is the sublime aesthetic, I’m not even sure I can call Cheryl’s landscape style sublime. Kyle better fits the Kantian model of the sublime (Critique of Judgment), where one is overwhelmed by the tremendous power (Kant’s dynamical sublime, as in creation or destruction on a massive scale) or tremendous size (Kant’s mathematical sublime, as in the infinity of stars in the clear night sky) of the representation at hand. Then again, if the defining affect of the sublime is the affect of being overwhelmed, Cheryl’s painting might give a different, internalized version of the same, where one is overwhelmed not by any vast external power but by a brooding melancholia within that swells and swamps in its own local space until it overwhelms in its own right.

Either way, each of these paintings replays in its own way the Romantic push off the more neatly contained rational pleasure of the neoclassical aesthetic, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have both in my house where they keep folding themselves ever more deeply into my unconscious. Cheryl and Kyle, you’ve wormed into my psyche “like a maggot in a nut,” as Mr. Bounderby says of himself in Dickens’s Hard Times, which I assume is an old English way of saying that you’ve pretty much gotten in and not getting out. Works for me.

(Compare to my thoughts on other New Orleans artists, Thomas Morrison and Sarah Dunn.)

Wordsworth and Kafka

Another path from classical to romantic to existential…

The classical ideal, epitomized say in Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, offers a closed system of perfect beauty, gives that calm rational pleasure that comes with the compound of beauty and completeness. The impact of a romantic piece like Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, on the other hand, comes specifically from a lack of closure. It is full of longing, and longing is by definition longing for something out of reach; the beauty is not the perfect beauty of a closed system but the melancholic beauty that comes with a conspicuous lack of closure, a sense that the system is incomplete, that what we desire is forever out of its scope.

Compare this to Wordsworth and Kafka, icons of Romanticism and existentialism, respectively. Both break from the classical ideal of a closed system of perfect beauty, but they break differently. For the Romantic poet, the world holds enormous meaning, warrants enormous feelings beyond the reach of the classical’s neat rational boundaries. But that locus of meaning, of feeling, is at a depth that we can sense but never quite reach. When Wordsworth speaks of the “meanest flower” that “can give / thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (“Intimations Ode”), the melancholic tone comes from an incomplete desire. The poem is not a closed system of perfect beauty, but a locus of longing, ever pointing to something outside of itself. But if “too deep” locates the object of desire ever at a distance, there is no doubt in Wordsworth as to its substantive presence:

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(“Tintern Abbey”)

Kafka and the existentialists create narratives that seem more romantic than classical in that they too rely on a conspicuous lack of closure. The meaning sought is forever beyond the scope of the system they are trapped within. But whereas Wordsworth reaches out from the system to grasp a meaning whose “presence” is too large or too deep for him to get his hands around, Kafka’s K (The Castle) and Joseph K (The Trial) reach out from the system for a meaning that is not present at all but absent. That locus of meaning, that presence that validates the depth of human feeling, was for Wordsworth too big (Kant’s mathematical sublime) or too powerful (Kant’s dynamical sublime) to be contained in classical symmetries but for Kafka it is infinitesimally small. It is an empty vanishing point and nothing more.

If I could draw diagrams in WordPress, or set up toolbar icons on my own computer program, I’d say picture a pearl that fits perfectly in someone’s hand as our classical icon. Click it to play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Now picture a second icon in which the pearl has become a sphere the size of a planet under the person’s feet, far too large to grasp or hold or even imagine in its entirety, however one might long to do so. That is our Romantic icon. Click to open Wordsworth. Now the sphere disappears and the person is floating in empty space. Click for Kafka.