June 18, 2013

Form and Spirit

Fra Angelico, The Virgin Annunciate, ca. late 1420s; tempera and gold on panel; 12 3/8 x 10 in.

When we are standing in front of a painting we see shape, line, color with its hues and values, but what do we feel? How much of that feeling, so much of which is inexpressible, comes from the formal qualities of the work? How much is pure mystery? With a painter such as Fra Angelico who was a Dominican friar, we expect a Christian spirituality to infuse his work.

Hans Memling, Portrait of an Old Man, ca. 1475; oil on wood, 10 3/8 x 7 5/8 in.
See a high resolution image of this painting at the Met's website.

But what of a secular portrait of an unnamed old man? I know that when I am looking at this small painting at the Met, I feel pierced by sadness, compassion, love. But how does one speak of the ineffable?

Tawaraya Sotatsu, Waterbird in Flight, 1630s; hanging scroll, ink on paper.

The human form does not have to be part of the image for me to feel deeply about a painting. Here, the fluid lines of calligraphy, the empty space, the duck lifting into that space, the sensitive attentiveness to each element gives rise to a boundless feeling in my chest. I don't think it possible to experience these beyond-the-formal emotions while looking at a reproduction. The actual physical presence of the object is essential.

Golu, The lover prepares to depart; Nurpur, Himachal Pradesh, ca. 1710-20; opaque watercolor on paper; 6 7/8 x 10 5/8 in.

So much of the pleasure I get from this painting is in its color and the perfect balance of color-shapes. But again, it is looking at this actual work (it was in an exhibition at the Met, "Wonder of the Age", which I wrote about here), seeing it intimately––each touch of the brush, each perfect detail––that leads to an experience of joy.

Samuel Palmer, Garden in Shoreham, 1820s or early 1830s; opaque watercolor and gouache, 
11 x 8 1/2 in.

Landscape can also provide a connection with the visual world leading to a sense of the spiritual. The early paintings of Samuel Palmer, an associate of William Blake, have a quality of beauty that is more than itself; his way of seeing and simplifying the land around him is at times heart rending. 

Carl Dahl, View of Larsen Square, near Copenhagen Harbor, ca. 1840, oil on canvas, 
21 5/8 x 27 3/4 in.

Even a straightforward landscape, precise and clear, can evoke deep feelings. I love the Danish 19th century "Golden Age" painters. The quality of limpid light illuminating forms which recede rationally into space reminds me of when I painted in the landscape: I had a sense of openness coming from the chest, the heart, and flowing outwards.

John Peto, Help Yourself, 1881, 8 x 10 in.

What is it about a small still life painting of a common bag of peppermints that can elicit such poignancy? Is it the composition, the color, the forms emerging from darkness, the modest touch of the artist, the fact of the ordinariness of the subject?

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting: Black Rectangle, Blue Triangle, 1915, oil on canvas, 
22 1/2 x 26 1/8 in.

Some of the new non-objective painting at the beginning of the 20th century had as its aim an expression of universal and essential truths. Malevich wrote of his Suprematist works:
Let us proceed out of the labyrinth of the earth into boundless space with numbers and color and let us husk the grain of consciousness.
In reproduction, Malevich's work looks cool and rational, but in actuality they are dense and passionate paintings.

Anonymous, Untitled, 1997, Jaipur, India; gouache, watercolor, tempera on paper, 13 x 10 in.

It is interesting to think of the Malevich work in relation to this Tantric painting, a devotional image made by an anonymous artist based on a centuries old design; it is meant as an aid to meditation. So much abstract painting carries strong emotional resonance for me, moving beyond its formal elements.

Philip Guston, Light Bulb, oil on panel, 12 x 14 in. From a series of small paintings made from

Of course, having a spirit that is more than the accumulation of its formal parts––color, shape, paint––is what makes a good painting; it's basic, isn't it? And it's essentially mysterious as to how it occurs, and why we can disagree so much about our most loved works. The earlier abstract paintings of Philip Guston fit within a spiritual context with their dense accumulations of paint floating in "boundless space". But for me even his modest small representational paintings, here a single round light bulb, touch me deeply. Where does my sense of longing come from, or of vulnerability, of loss, when I look at this painting? I think of my own work, the various media I work in, and wonder if any carry within them a feeling beyond their formal parts; I hope they do, realizing that some may do so more than others. I also realize that infusing a work with spirit, with feeling, is not something I––or, I think, anyone––can do intentionally; it's something we long for, but it comes, mysteriously, through the working process.


  1. Thank you for this post, Altoon. There's also a kind of intelligence that underlies real feeling in art, and that unites the head, hand and heart. Your examples show so well that spirit in painting is not about specific form or style or period, but about individual artists, at moments of the most personal observation and creation, tapping into the universal.

  2. http://www.vitruvianstudio.com/martha-mayer-erlebacher-1937-2013/#comment-4386
    This is a link to a wonderful tribute to the late Martha Mayer. She is quoted on her idea of "form sense," in which she talks about a "set of perceptual tendencies" one is born with which guide one's formal sensibilities.

    I concur whole heartedly with your sensibility which links Guston's later work with Fra Angelico's.

    1. Thanks for the comment, HAWG. Although I disagree with much of Erlebacher's ideas about painting (I've known her work for many years), I found what she had to say about "form sense" very interesting, and I agree with her completely. Matter of fact, I wrote a blog post on the subject a couple of years ago titled "Do We Have an Innate Style?", which you can read here: http://altoonsultan.blogspot.com/2011/07/do-we-have-innate-style.html
      But, it's not really what I was speaking about in this blog post; a person can have a personal and unique "form sense" and still have no life or spirit in their work.

    2. Thank you for clarifying, Altoon. Your blog post on style is interesting. MME was a teacher of a friend, who sent a mini-eulogy with a link to this quote. I have a limited exposure to her work and ideas. This one hit me at the right time.

      Over the last couple of years, I have been asking myself what resonates for me and why. Philip Guston, Piero della Francesca, Agnes Martin, and Soetsu Yanagi all twang that string for me. (I've wondered if it is a "Classic" sensibility, so I've been trying to define "Classic" for myself. Is it related to a particular form sense?)

      I find your post on spirit and feeling very beautiful. And I share your responses to the artwork you show, for the most part. I really appreciate your thoughts, such as "where does that sense of longing come from?" And most importantly, that its not something we artists can have in our work intentionally, "but it comes, mysteriously, through the working process." That is something I needed to be reminded of. Thank you.

      Holly White-Gehrt

    3. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Holly. Where our sensibility comes from, why it is the way it is, is a very interesting thing to think about, and always useful. So your thinking about your "classic" sensibility will lead to greater insight.
      I'm pleased you liked this post.

  3. This is so lovely, Altoon! Were you ever a teacher? I can see this as a lesson in the best sense of the word, to answer people who ask "what does it mean?" and "what's the value of art?". Sums it all up for me, and certainly was apropos of that confusing thread yesterday. Thank you for your common sense and caring approach!

  4. This is so lovely, Altoon, and so to the point of all the confusing talk on my facebook thread yesterday. Were you ever a teacher? I can see this as a lesson, in the best sense of the word, and an answer to people who ask
    "what does it mean?" and "what's the value of art?". Sums is all up for me! Thank you for your caring and common sense approach!

    1. Thanks so much, Karen. Yes, I taught art for many years; teaching helps to clarify thoughts, but writing has helped even more. The few years of writing this blog have taught me a lot.