Saturday, May 19, 2012

From religion to spirit

It is a book I have lived with for years, and have given to several people, but thought I ought to read it rather than only dwell on its images, though what images!

Theodore Wolff's 'Morris Graves: Flower Paintings' is a fabulously beautiful book and seeks to account for a journey in painting from here...


to here:


From the Wounded Gull of 1943 to the Winter Bouquet (flowering quince, rosehaws, narcissus, winter rose and camelia) of 1977.

It is a journey from disturbance to serenity, from a painting of symbolism to one of particular presence and from a painting infused with religion to one of opened spirit.

Wolff dwells on the painterly characteristics of this transformation and does so sympathetically but it is apparent that a dimension is missing, namely the metaphysics of the unfolding art. That Graves was not consciously programmatically engaged with this is true, that he was personally engaged with it is equally true. Graves was educated in the metaphysic of both Vedanta and Zen, was practiced in meditation and his art is a practiced contemplation.

Wolff quotes Graves telling his biographer, Ray Kass, "I painted 'religious pictures' until I tired of the 'blat' of it!" ... (and in his flower paintings) ... "I have stopped trying to say anything - there is no statement or message other than the presence of the flower and the light - that is enough."

This compressed paragraph immediately put me in mind of the Flower sermon of the Buddha that gave rise to zen. Ascending the teaching dais one day, the Buddha is given a flower, rather than preach, the Buddha simply held it out, proffering it to his disciples, and one, Mahakasyapa, smiled!

Tiring of the preaching of the way of liberation, and the 'blat' of it, the Buddha offered the direct transmission of seeing a flower as itself, a liberated presence, and one of his disciples, saw.

The Wounded Gull is a powerful painting, full of the symbolism of a world broken, maimed, resonant of its time (1943) and with the internal fracture of the painter but it preaches. It is not a wounded gull, in the simplicity of the accident and pain of its breaking: the gull stands aside for something else to be seen (however compassionate the actual portrayal).

Winter Bouquet is a gentle painting that stands for itself. Each flower is named in its particular vivid and transient presence. The flowers are compassionately seen, and loved, as flowers. They stand for nothing, simply are.

Both are a making of high accomplishment from an artist whose life was a journey into seeing in which a splintered world is made whole and in which the surfaces are revealed as co-determinous with the depths: where the bridging of symbol, the binding of religion, gives way to images in the translucence of spirit. 

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