A Vision of Painting

DONNA SUPRENANT

To create a work of art is about discipline and struggle, tussling with limitations and inner visions that defy execution. As in the spiritual life, to embark on such a journey is to enter a battle.

Jacques Maritain
(1882-1973)


As Jacques Maritain has said “Do not say Christian art is impossible. Say rather that it is difficult, doubly difficult — difficulty squared — because it is difficult to be an artist and very difficult to be a Christian... That difficulty becomes excruciating when the whole life of the age is far removed from Christ, for the artist is greatly dependent upon the spirit of the time... If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart. Do not adopt a Christian pose. ... A Christian work would have the artist, as artist, free, but as man, a saint.”

I was tempted to title this talk “A Christian Vision of Painting”, but “Christian” is a large word. This is really only a personal perspective, a personal vision of painting and the act of painting, by one who happens also to try to be a Christian. The vision I would like to present could be applied to any occupation or way of life.

Painting is not an extraordinary vocation. There is within it the phenomenon of genius, but I am speaking here about ordinary discipline and response, the vocation of the artisan who requires order and ritual to produce a small glimmer of felt delight through the beauty of creation.

I will try to explain a little about painting, about the process and the tools, the subject and the viewer, the reason I paint, and what it means to me to be a Christian painter.

Throughout my life as a painter, different concerns and questions have caused me to seriously evaluate this task at which I toil. For instance: in a world that is stricken with injustice and poverty, why do I paint? As a member of an apostolate that is continuously faced with great needs and much work, how do I justify standing out in a field somewhere, mixing colors?

Is not painting a luxury, for the rich and bourgeois? Could I not serve God better by some other task, or at least by painting icons or “religious” artwork? Why am I living in a community, painting still-lifes and oversized figure compositions? Yet, in spite of these questions which have gnawed at me, I paint nevertheless.

I have no choice but to paint, for I am compelled by the joy of sight. The beauty of light and color calls me, and the challenge to perfect my craft never lets me rest.

I have entered a struggle, a tussle to discover the language of paint. For years, I have explored and experimented, adopted and discarded, studied and assimilated the richness of tradition throughout the history of art and the Church. But I have continuously returned to what for me is the source of my work: the experience of perception and the revelation of an inner force which I find permeates all creation, a mystery which quivers recognition in the realm of the fine arts.

I could say that the above statement is my personal vision of painting. I looked up the word “vision” in a dictionary. It means: “the act or faculty of seeing, sight; perception of things by means of the light coming from them which enters the eye.” This is a good explanation of what I am trying to say, but I'd add one thing more: that the light which enters our eyes enters also our minds and souls, our whole being. This is the thrust and focus of painting. It is “making the invisible visible” through our experience of the visual world.

This is a key word: “experience.” It implies something more than mere recording. Whether we paint abstract or figurative, the art work is about our inner experience; the finished piece is our response. Painting is a journey of pondering and poetry, of discovery and rediscovery, penetrating the visual window. It leads us on a search to know the fragile beauty of existence, resonating on canvas.

Painters, especially figurative painters, should not try to copy nature (is it possible to copy creation?); we are not cameras recording a motif's outer veneer. Nor can we hope to duplicate the interior movement of a subject; rather, we continue it, as we continue nature. We are to create a new experience, to discover the response within the paint itself.

Thus, the first movement in this process is the relationship which evolves between ourselves, the motif, and our tools. The second to communicate, to attempt description of what cannot be expressed in any other way or medium. Archbishop Raya often quotes Martha Graham, the dancer, who was asked what was the meaning of her dance. She replied, “If I could say it in words, I wouldn't have danced it.” This is also true for painting.

Art is a synthesis of the mind and soul, of technique and perception. We search for a manifestation that is both personal and absolute, reaching beyond ourselves, beyond the forms presented, to communicate with each other, eye to eye, soul to soul, without words.

This is all, therefore, certainly not about “expressing oneself,” a common notion, nor is it about living continually in the atmosphere of a poetic muse, working only when inspiration visits. No, it is about discipline and struggle, tussling with limitations and inner visions that defy execution. As in the spiritual life, to embark on such a journey is to enter a battle. Yet it is also about joy, and the thrill of realizing beauty. It is about the excitement of being able to paint, and loving it.

I have stressed the importance of the paint and the tools, because this focus on the materials is really a 20th century gift to painting. I believe that most people look at a canvas without really seeing it. A painting is, first of all, a piece of stretched fabric on which paint has been applied. People tend to see only the subject depicted. But this is only a part of what constitutes the painting. How the paint is brushed on, the choice of colors, the lines and movement, the design and composition: these are important elements in the art work. This is what makes painting different from music or theater or photography.

For example, painted icons have a presence that is lacking in icon prints. There is beautiful theology that permeates the process of making an icon so that all of creation is included in the painted image: the breath and hand of the artist as well as the materials used. These are just as important as the spiritual presence of the image. Each element gives the icon life.

I find this is also true in the painting of what is considered secular imagery. The image and the tools each have their own life. I must pay attention to what they are telling me so that we evolve together into the image that is coming to birth.

Speaking of imagery, I find that the question of subject matter in a work of art is a tricky one. The balance between content and form has been the focus of critical discussion for a century, since the Impressionist movement. Perceptual painters walk a tightrope, but perhaps this is part of the challenge of post-modern representational painting. I myself have been lost in its maze a number of times, and can hardly say I've managed my way to any clarity.

I can only re-emphasize the source of my own motifs, which is beauty. Beauty of light and color; beauty seen in life and in art. My aim is to render an atmosphere of place, a place which is visual, but which also evokes the emotional and spiritual qualities inherent in a particular arrangement of colors and shapes, of figures and objects. The way I choose to compose these on canvas opens the work to a variety of interpretation, particularly with the figure: the gesture and expression, their interaction and placement, etc.

It is, however, through the process of selecting and isolating, gathering together and arranging, that an image emerges which can illuminate the ordinary with meaning and with poetry. There is something magical about this. What dwells in the work is pregnant with layers: layers which reflect myself, the social and cultural circumstances of the times, the inner resonance of reality, and layers which reflect the viewers and their own milieu.

This is where the role of the viewer comes in. The artist's role ceases when the painting is finished and hung for display. Though a painting is complete when it begins to vibrate with its own life, the process of experience and response remains alive. It continues with the one who gazes upon the work. The artist's initial intent with the piece is less important from this point on, because the evolving discovery of its mystery continues with the viewer. What resonates now is between the canvas and that which lies hidden in the heart and soul of the one who contemplates.

This is why it is very important that the artist not impose on the beholder any statement or message that would hinder integrity or freedom. Painting should not force, but rather invite the viewer to share in a dance of receptivity, a rendezvous which calls forth response or reaction. The viewer is not passive in this encounter; he is an active participant.

The artist therefore engages in a task at once delicate and courageous when facing the canvas. The results must reflect the integrity of the artist's inner vision, but without taint of ego, without self-consciousness. There is thus a necessary purity in the process of making art, a focus on the concerns of the painting, demanded by the work itself. The presence of spiritual or moral content comes in so far as the artist lives in the depths of himself. It cannot be contrived. The artist must respect his own integrity as well as the freedom of the viewer.

To quote Jacques Maritain, “The artist, if he is not to shatter his art or his soul, must simply be, as artist, what art would have him be: a good workman.” As a good workman, his task is to be concerned with the harmony and perfection of the piece, without imposing anything from outside which leaves the work unbalanced.

But what is harmony and perfection? What is beauty? The theologian von Balthasar sums up the answer: beauty is the face of the crucified Christ.

Art is a balance of tensions: the tension of visual beauty and that of spiritual beauty. In this do we find harmony and perfection, the essence of true beauty, an inner brilliance which shines out through the paint, coming from the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and struggles, of the artist and the world in which he lives.

It is here that I would like to say why I live in community. Like all ambitious would-be painters, in the late 1970s, I directed my artistic pilgrimage to the sacred mecca of New York, studying under well-known figurative painters.

The experience was a key turning point for me. I quickly became disillusioned by these artists who were obviously struggling themselves with their own work and the current art scene. They urged us to produce meaningful paintings, this being perhaps a reaction to decades of abstract expressionism and pop art. I began to ask myself: how could one paint meaningful paintings unless life itself held meaning?

In response to that question, I have placed myself under a different kind of apprenticeship by living in community, one which I hope is the force and foundation not only of my spirit, but of the painting itself. Though I hope for this, of course, I feel strongly that it is not for me to know if there is any positive effect on the work or not. It's like the Gospel direction about giving alms: the left hand must not know what the right is doing.

For me to say what it means to be an artist and a Christian, I must again quote Maritain: “Do not say Christian art is impossible. Say rather that it is difficult, doubly difficult — difficulty squared, because it is difficult to be an artist and very difficult to be a Christian. It is a question of reconciling two absolutes. Say that the difficulty becomes excruciating when the whole life of the age is far removed from Christ, for the artist is greatly dependent upon the spirit of the time.

“If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart. Do not adopt a Christian pose. ... A Christian work would have the artist, as artist, free, but as man, a saint. The consequence is that the work will be Christian in proportion that Christ is present in the soul of the artist by love.”

I would add, however, in so far as Christ is not present, this too will show. An artist is very vulnerable and exposed in the work.

Maritain again: “By Christian art I do not mean ecclesiastical art. ... I mean art bearing on the face of it the character of Christianity. The definition of Christian art is to be found in its subject and its spirit. Everything, sacred and profane, belongs to it. God does not ask for “religious” art or “Catholic” art. The art he wants for himself is Art, with all its teeth.”

These quotes reflect to me Catherine Doherty's own vision for the artist in Madonna House, and her desire to restore all things to Christ — even art. May it be so.

Endnote:

All quotes of Jacques Maritain are from Art and Scholasticism, translated by J.F. Scanlan; Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, copyright 1946.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Suprenant, Donna. “A Vision of Painting.” This article was originally part of a lecture series entitled “A Christian Vision of Culture” — offered at Madonna House, Combermere, Ontario, in the winter of 1999.

It was subsequently published in RESTORATION in the spring and summer of 1999. RESTORATION is a newspaper offered ten times a year by Madonna House, Combermere Ontario, Canada KOJ 1L0. ISSN 0708-2177, Legal Deposit D-171441. Copyrighted material, all rights reserved.

Reprinted by permission of the author and publisher.

THE AUTHOR

Donna Surprenant is an artist and a member of the Madonna House community in Combermere, Ontario.

Copyright © 1999 Donna Suprenant


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