Inspiration June 5, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Wow.
Tags: Art, atheism, DeWitte, Inspiration, Lauridsen, O Magnum Mysterium
A few months ago I had an opportunity to spend a long weekend participating in musical events with composer Morten Lauridsen.
In the choral world Lauridsen is a really big deal, but I rarely run into non-singers who have heard of him. So for reference, here’s his most famous work (go take a listen):
He’s really quite a mystic, and over the weekend he spent a lot of time talking about where he gets his inspiration. For O Magnum his inspiration came from a painting, Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.”
Each item on the table is a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and he was completely enraptured by this painting. He says “The painting projects an aura of mystery, powerful in its unadorned simplicity, its mystical quality creating an atmosphere of deep contemplation. Its effect is immediate, transcendent and overpowering. Before it one tends to speak in hushed tones, if at all.”
This painting, while it spoke powerfully to Lauridsen, really doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not mystical at all; I see a nice still life and that’s it. But I can connect with the experience of encountering a painting and being overwhelmed by it. My experience was some years ago at the National Gallery of Art in DC. I was in rehearsals for the annual Fourth-of-July show at the Capitol, and I had several hours to kill between blocking rehearsal and dress rehearsal. I decided to spend it at the Gallery, and wandered into a section of Dutch paintings. There on the wall was the painting of the church interior at the top of this post. (Interior of the Aude Kerk Amsterdam, by Emmanuel DeWitte, c. 1660)
It’s a large painting, and at first look I was pretty impressed. Then I started looking at the details, and I was blown away. The longer I looked, the more I saw. The top two-thirds of the painting is pure order, geometrical, logical, simple. But at the bottom, at eye level, the real world intrudes. There are a group of well-dressed important men entering at the back, but they are not the focus. In the foreground there is a grave in the process of excavation, a nursing mother, and an old man dozing. If you look closely at the small booth on the left, you can see a child peering over the edge, perhaps playing hide-and-seek. But my favorite part are the dogs. On the left is a dog peeing on a pillar! There are three other dogs in the painting, and are they paying attention to all the human stuff going on? No, they are paying attention to the peeing dog.
I look at this painting, and I see humanity in a microcosm. We have grandiose ideas about how important we are, about our own glory, and we build soaring monuments to our own egos. But on the ground is the messy complicated reality of who we really are. And the dogs show us how we focus on those things of immediate relevance to ourselves and tune out everything else. The way he has portrayed the contrast between who we as humans think we are and who we really are is stunning.
Has anyone else had this kind of reaction to a work of art?
Image Source for DeWitte: http://www.sandstead.com/images/national_gallery_of_art/index0002.html