The Devil’s Bridge, St Gotthard Pass, JMW Turner, 1803-1804,
It’s all about the mind, of course. All experience filters through it, the outward and inner, nature and the art it inspires. But some paintings arrest the mind more than others and invite you to linger. To become part on one’s own mindscape, images we return to again and again to express the inexpressible. And that call upon us to articulate what it is that moves us so.
The one above by JWM Turner is one such painting that looms large in my mind. It’s the gold that captures me first, the light that dazzles. A feast for the eyes, the mind, before you ever enter the painting. And then, what depths! What flow. The water coursing down the chasm, the travelers flowing across the bridge, the airy clouds lifting us up. The dark shadows carrying us, like the two tiny birds, far before.
The drama of it all. The mystery. Like life itself. Dreamlike. So deep and wide and far away and dissolving in a moment. Yet for all of that, it matters. This matters. This moment, this painting. Something so deeply significant is happening here and even though we do not know what it is, it matters.
Henri Manguin, The Parkway
Here, a very different landscape to enter. Again, what captures me first is the tangle of colors, the reds and blues, soft greens and sparkling golds. The deep shadow in the forefront with the mysterious woman sitting so quietly, turned away, inward, while the forest path winds past her, lost in the distance, and the trees loom over her, curving, lifting, a tangled torrent of upward movement. The glimpse of clear blue sky in the top right corner, a whiff of promise.
But the light, the light! Filtering down through the trees, dappling the path, dazzling the daisies, and gilding the ground before her. The light that surrounds her and lifts the path out of darkness, that filters up through the tangled trees to the crisp blue promise overhead.
Paul Gauguin – Mata Moe
This one, for all its similarities, has a different feel. Again, it’s the colors that grab, that tantalize before we even begin to decipher what we are seeing. Not a tangle of colors like the last one, but great emphatic splashes! The mountains in the distance fairly shout, look at me! And the eye does not know where to go next, there’s so much to see! All my exclamation points make the same emphatic point as this painting.
We’re like a traveler in an exotic location. We don’t know what to look at, where to go first, so much calls us. The large birds lazily crossing our path, the man about his mysterious work, the path curving toward the women walking, the whimsical house, the dense forest, the palm tree leaning upward. So much movement, so much color, excites us. We are there, we are there, immersed in the moment. This is not a dream.
Children at the Beach by Maurice Prendergast
This one just makes me happy. Pure bliss is written all over it. The children at the center, enveloped by the sea and sky, dazzle the eye. Their playfulness, those splotches of light-hearted color, are mirrored in the dappled sky above, the dappled sea-shadows and reflections below. It’s as if they are floating in some aquatic space, cradled, cuddled.
Oh, I want to hold them forever! I could stay here all day watching. They make me so happy.
Van Gogh, The Sower
Here, so different from the others, the mood more mellow. Yet that golden sun, setting or rising, we know not which, like Turners golden mountain, commands the eye. I’m not just drawn toward it, I want to enter in, to rest there, in that roundness. I want to sink deep into it.
The rest is just framework. The dark tree leans toward it, the orange leaves a fitting crown. The man below, the sower, sprinkling seed-gifts in its wake. The solemn fields patiently awaiting its warm rays. I feel at peace here. Even with the dark-shadowed man silhouetted so softly before it. He’s on this way home. His long golden rest awaits.
‘Pelican Island’, 2006 – Peter Doig (b.1959)
When I enter here I find silence. No words. That is the painting’s most salient feature for me. The merging of sea and sky, the fairy-like bird and trees, the trailing leaves above, the blue boat below, are all dreamlike in the distance. All mere contrast. The mirage-like details that draw the mind downward into that deep warm pool, the stillness below. The stillness of no words.