I do not teach, I tell tales – Montaigne.

On the secular dharma course Stephen Bachelor talked of a shift in his writing from telling to showing – not telling but rather allowing the work to reveal the writer’s intention. Stephen talked about no longer being interested in telling people about Buddhism but now wanting to show and be transparent, to remove himself as the organiser, author and use the material to bare witness, to show dharma as a practice not a theory. There is a parallel with this idea in some paintings which can reveal the thoughts, ideas and intention of the painter. Great paintings are like great books, an artist can reveal aspects of the nature of being that might otherwise remain hidden. Sometimes though to read a painting a grasp of an individual language is required.

Comparing Vermeer and Bruegel Stephen suggests the former explores the inner nature of what it is to be a person while the latter explores the nature of the world; one looks inward to the individual and the other looks outward to the world. Vermeer leads us inward, inside the person and Pieter Bruegel takes us out to the world.

There is a parallel here with Stephen’s book The Art of Solitude which is designed to be one half of a work to be completed and complemented by The Art of Care. Each book by having the same number of chapters and words will mirror the other in a similar fashion to his collages where found materials are mirrored by flat coloured squares. Both being examples of Diptych with two complementary aspects of life are revealed. These books then are works of art that through reading reveal an internal exploration and an external practice of the dharma. In a similar way to Stephen suggesting Vermeer and Pieter Bruegel paintings respectively look inwards to the internal person and outwards to the world.

This dualism between inward and outward looking implies some form of barrier between the internal self and the outside world; where though is this border? the membrane between solitude and care? inside and outside, person and world.  The terms Diptych and dualism assume a demarcation between sides, two alternatives, two approaches. 

While there may be a linguistic distinction between the two approaches this may have more to do with the nature of language and with how thought is based on language than what is actually happening. Since paintings don’t rely on language to communicate, they can be more subtle and nuanced and less dogmatic. Many of Vermeer’s characters suggest an imminent transaction with their world and some of Bruegel’s figures suggest if not contemplation then certainly a level of introspection. Perhaps the paintings that reveal the potential for art to dissolve the artificial border between inner and outer worlds are Rembrandt’s portraits. In his later self portraits Rembrandt looks out at us and allows us into his being he shows us what it is to be him and that being is very directly engaging with us. Unlike Vermeer’s milkmaid who is clearly involved in quiet introspection, Rembrandt is engaging us in a language free conversation, a conversation where by laying himself direct, open and honest he enables us to reciprocate and to engage with him and to observe our process in that engagement. We see the man and experience something of his being in the world and we know that the experience of engagement is possible by our also being in the world.

Rembrandt’s genius though is not reserved for self portraiture. In his portraits he is able to show us both how the sitter would have themselves portaided to the world, how they would have others see them and at the same time expose the inner self. In his portrait of Lady Margaretha de Geer Rembrandt renders the worldly trappings of power and position delicately and beautifully; presented without irony, but of actual status not assumed or without substance. However, spending more time with the work begins to reveal the character of the sitter. We see a formidable personality, her strength of character, the unflinching recognition of the world and her position in it. Yet alongside this the longer we stay with her the more we become aware of her acceptance of her own mortality, her human frailty and impermanence. Rembrandt reveals the inner and outer worlds and we realise that there is no border between. Margaretha was clearly not afraid of being presented as what life had made her, she demanded no painter’s flattery. Margaretha sat twice for Rembrandt so she knew perfectly well what to expect.

The longer you spend looking at a Rembrandt portrait the more you get to know the person, their characteristics and their personality. It is similar to how a person unfolds over time when you meet them in life. The mystery is quite how this effect is achieved. what is there in the painting that is similar to life? and what is it that goes beyond an image, after all in order to find out what someone is like we need to talk to them to engage with them not simply to look at them. Somehow Rembrandt creates an accessible personality by manipulating pigment on canvas. It is I think this realisation that is key, the understanding that there is an interpreter between us and the sitter. It is through Rembrandt’s interpretive rendering of the sitter that we learn about them. Here again the process is all. The painting is no more an end than the viewing, the painter enables the painting which enables the communication. Producing painting as a commodity is not art.

There are three elements to this process of communication, the painting, the painter and the viewer.  It is interesting to see the parallels here with aspects of the eight-fold path tasks, complete view/understanding and complete speech/communication. Rembrandt is able to communicate an understanding of what it is to be alive. As far as we know, Rembrandt was not a Buddhist or even a philosopher, he was creating these images, these languageless explorations into the nature of what it is to be in the world, through his life and work as a painter. He didn’t have to paint this way, he could have painted in the fashion of the times and made money and not died in debt. It seems he had no choice, or rather his choice was to paint to explore and reveal what he could of the truth of  being alive, what is the point of anything else? There is a mirror here also of complete livelyhood, a complete understanding of his craft to enable him to work without thinking about the technicalities. Just as a master potter throws a pot, the technicalities of the process are second nature and the potter is able to focus on the form arising from the hand.

Dorothea Tanning is interesting as she explores an inner world that reflects aspects of her inner world but all are in turn reflections of the life she has lived, she shows images of dreams that have almost real places with almost real people. Some works explore relationships and how characters appear, she paints characters as our emotions portray them. Later works appear to be formed as they are being painted rather than being planned. elements appear as if from the background half imagined memories fade in and out of focus. Tanning explores dark and mysterious, romantic and playful work flows from her almost as if she can make solid what she feels.

Marc Rothko. “art of not self expression” Agnes Martyn art of solitude.

If not expressing something of the self what is abstract art expressing? something of the self of the viewer perhaps? When looking at a Rothko it is our self that is doing the expressing we react to the painting, it provokes a reaction, a mood, an emotion, Rothko manipulates us in a similar way to Bruegel and Vermeer . The painting is designed, considered and constructed. This is a different process to Rembrandt, Bacon or Tanning where the painting emerges from the process of painting. It is possible to conceive of the former painters providing others with instructions on how to produce their paintings or to enlist their help in the production. This is not possible with the latter painters as their work is not pre-planned in the same way but rather emerges from the process of production and only the artist as they are working can make this happen.

Spending time in front of great art can bring us into a contemplative space. We can find dharma revealed in great art. As useful as meditation.

not sure that Bruegel is “not entertainment” The paintings are interesting, well made, draw you in, take you round, show you interesting things and tell you a story. I think they are designed as entertainment, there is so much to see and admire. Bruegel

Rothko’s work on a more meditative plane, they are designed to provoke emotions, going so far as to overwhelm the viewer and become the primary focus of the mind.

Both the Bruegel and Rothko can though be said to be paintings that are part of the process of art rather than commodities, the Bruegel is closer to a commodity and Bruegel  was painting to make a living, he was painting for a market. Rothko was appalled by the appropriation of art works by capitalism and the commodification of painting  and saw the subsequent development of pop art as a commercial enterprise devoid of true art.

An Andy Warhol print is clearly a product to be marketed rather than a work of art to be meditated on. Pop art in this way is an exploitation of commerce and an undermining of the meditative purpose of art, art as process.  The outcome is predetermined before the process has begun. rather like the production of any commercially manufactured product the art work is designed before being mass produced, marketed and sold. There is little or no sense of a process involving artist and viewer, the artistic process is reduced to little more than a commercial transaction.

In this way of thinking conceptual art also has limitations as art of meditative contemplation. With conceptual art it is the idea rather than the object that is central to the work and ideas can only be contemplated upon by a consciousness. So while there is process beyond the production that is limited to an Intellectualization or politicalization process, it is true that following the process of interpretation the viewer may then experience an affect but this is at least one point removed from the work itself. it is not the contemplation of the work but rather the contemplation of what the work means that arouses an emotional response. There is also a sense of control by the artist that restricts the process, treating the viewer as an object to be manipulated into feeling the way intended to have a response predicated by the object. Thus the object is less part of the process more an outcome with a specific purpose.

Great art transcends this  exploitative and manipulative approach and introduces and invites the viewer to become part of the process with no specific or predetermined outcome in the mind of the artist as to what that interpretative outcome will be other than to offer the opportunity to explore and experience being. Here the idea of the sublime in art can be considered both a contemplation and an experience, that is to say both a reasoned and a felt encounter, working at both a conscious and unconscious level. A work that opens up creative expression within the viewer of being and the world.

The art of Bruegel requires primarily a conscious reading but can lead to an unconscious contemplation reading whereas Rothko appeals to the unconscious more directly by removing obviously recognisable elements that would be open to interpretation by the rational conscious.

Rembrandt’s portraits, while figurative and therefore providing a direct channel to the world, lack a complex distracting narrative and the invitation is to look directly into the character to commune to both feel directly and to understand the nature of the sitter.

In an online comment discussing a Rembrandt self portrait there was a comment from someone who had seen the painting and said it felt like a haunting. It made me think that this was indeed exactly what it is like.

Looking at a Rembrandt portrait is like seeing someone alive who you know is not only dead but not there. What you are looking at is a picture of someone who died a long time ago in a distant land, what you see is a living person there in the room with you. Said like this it sounds very much like a ghostly apparition. However, while slightly unnerving, this is no fearful encounter; it is an almost normal meeting with someone who just happens not to be there and who is long since dead.

You could say that looking at a photograph might have a similar effect but a photograph can only capture reflected light and thus gives only a facsimile, a lifeless copy. A photographer has only limited options in order to manipulate their image, the medium has its uses but it cannot animate lifeless pigment.

Buddhist values reestablished in everyday life. This is what is in Bruegel paintings, the elements of compassion,  suffering, are brought into the ordinary world of everyday life.

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