Reality: An Exercise

The amiable Musée Calvet in Avignon resides on Rue de Joseph Vernet, named in honor of the artist’s service to painting during the 18th century. Further Vernet was father and grandfather to two other painters of some repute. The grandson, Horace, was born in 1789, the year the Revolution exploded and his grandfather expired. It is his painting, prominently displayed in the Calvet, that suggests this exercise in creativity, criticism, candor, commitment. Take a moment to study it closely before I provide a little explication de texte and raise questions for your amusement.



All right?

The subject of the painting is dead grandpa Joseph. He is shown here lashed to the mast of a small vessel that’s braving a terrible storm. The strong ropes hold him fast but free both his arms and hands so he can 1) hold his sketchpad aloft; 2) manipulate his charcoal or pencil; 3) concentrate on the reality—The Reality—of the storm; 4) know, feel, sense—like Lear on the heath when he wants to feel what wretches feel, or like Gerard Manly Hopkins jumping chest deep into a flooded stream to immediately experience the ‘inscape’ of rushing water, or Camus’s Caligula who screams ‘I’m alive! I’m alive! as he’s being stabbed to death but who wholly feels the experience, or like Keats who knows precisely “Now more than ever seems it rich to die”—the raging power of the storm, even if it kills him; 5) risk the lives of six crew members while he hopes to advance his artistic cause.

Such is the creative and critical commitment to getting Reality precisely right.

So now the question arises: in your creative practice, would you lash yourself to the mast to immerse yourself in Reality? Or Expressionism? Or Fantasy? Or Surrealism? Or—hmmm—a Cubist storm? A Post-Modern mirage? If you don’t paint, but write, or play, or draft, or doodle, or sing, or move, what would you dare? What have you dared and for what end? As Sarah Palin would say, How’d that work out for you?

Please comment. Maybe we can have a good discussion among you devoted readers.

(And while you ponder this, I’ll catch my plane from Frankfurt to Philadelphia. I’ll check in with your in the afternoon–your time.)


6 thoughts on “Reality: An Exercise

  1. I think I miust not really be an artist because when I see this painting, I think, “What a schmuck! Everyone else is praying, battening down the hatches, and watching their vintage Brooklyn Dodger cap fly off into the tempest and THIS guy says, ‘Mon dieu! Zees I must paint!'” I think I’d crawl up the planks and toss the guy overboard.

  2. To me, the compulsion to “capture” reality in his last moments points to the fact that painting for him was a way to heighten his experience of the world, as if the painting would reveal some kind of truth to him that he couldn’t see right in front of him. It’s like photoshopping makes a picture “better,” painting at the time showed a more ideal version of events, a constructed version also. I see him looking not for reality per se, but for something greater, as if this life-threatening moment would be his chance at knowing something about existence, painting being a tool for enlightenment. It also shows that reality is relative, since each person is reacting differently to their context 🙂

  3. I largely agree with this. However serious art may be and however seriously artists consider their art, it still has elements of play about it. We go to plays; we play instruments; we have no proper noun or fine verb that embodies dying for your art.

  4. I don’t know that we “die for our art.” Rather we create so there will be something remaining of us after we’re gone. We “make art” so that we will be remembered. Kilroy-like, we scribble and paint and create to say “we were there.” Did Shakespeare die for his art? Or did his art give him life ..then and now?

  5. I went on a bear sighting tour in Alaska and the mass of amateur photographers got as close to the wild bear as they possibly could, short of climbing in its mouth, to get the best shot.
    No. I’m not a professional photographer, but I made sure there was a boundary of human bait in front of me and kept one hand on the van. Really, I should have stayed inside! I think a professional photographer would have taken more appropriate precautions.

    You don’t have to experience death to write/paint/arts-ify it.

  6. I think I remember learning somewhere that being eaten by a bear is not necessary. Ah, it’s a stage direction from (I think) A Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” That’s as close as the bear needs to get.

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