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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rain and Art and Death

It's been raining all week in Bean Town. And, it's chilly.

The forecast is for the rain and un-seasonally cold temperatures to continue all week. It's been in the high-40's to mid-50s.

Sorta puts a cramp in my walking style.

I don't mind the rain, and neither does my wonderful pup, Theo. It's the cold, damp rain that gets to me. And, the unpredictability of when there's going to be an actual downpour, rather than feeling like you're walking through a cold cup of tea that's been left out all night.

The dreariness of the dark clouds and the constant, cold drizzle are a much better visual image of what I imagine hell must be like. If there is fire in eternal damnation, at least it will be bright and warm and dry. 

I took a walk to the Post Office earlier this morning, normally a ten minute trek - well, if you don't count stopping off at Darwin's for a cuppa joe and The Boston Globe and picking up some fresh fruit and vegetables and maybe talking to someone in the store about a particular blend of coffee or tea, or someone on the sidewalk who is out walking their dog.

We'll not be going to Memorial Drive today - one of Theo and my favorite places to walk. There's something about the banks of the Dirty Water of the River Charles that have always been irresistible and magical for me.

On a sunny day, the whole area has the feeling of being in a modern version of a George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte".

I've always loved this painting. Always. There's something transcendent about it. It's not about portraying a particular time period, or some grand historical event or passionate moment. Seurat seems to capture the beauty of the banal - the ordinary stuff of being human.

There's a man in uniform playing a bugle. See him? To the right, there is a small child - a young girl - running. Or, is she dancing to the music being played on the bugle?

In the foreground is a black dog who is about to be met by a playful brown puppy. If you look over them, you can see the sailboats in the water. And, there's a row team. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear them, "Rappe! Rappe! Rappe!"

Oh, and look! Is that a monkey at the woman's feet? The one in the foreground holding the umbrella, standing next to the man smoking a cigar in his top hat.

A monkey! How odd! Ah, but then, it's the French! And, it is the later part of the 1800s.

Everyone seems alone in their thoughts, even those who are sitting or standing with someone. Alone, but one does not get the sense of loneliness. We see their shapes, but never their individual personalities. Seurat seems much more interested in the shape of their formal elegance.

And, that they are there. On the Island of La Grande Jatte. As they always are. The French. Out for a stroll. On a lovely, sunny Sunday afternoon.

I remember being thrilled when "Sunday in the Park with George" came to Broadway.  I mean, a musical by Sondheim and Lapine, featuring Bernadette Peters, in a play about a painting? What's not to love about this?

The musical created for me a lifelong fascination with this painting and this artist, so it's probably no accident that I think of it whenever I'm on the banks of the River Charles on a glorious, sunny day.

The other thing that fascinates me about this picture is that Seurat was a young man with a scientific theory to prove. Odd, yes? Imagine, an artist with a scientific theory about art.

His theory was optical, based on the idea that painting in dots, know as pointillism or divisonism, would produce a brighter color than painting in strokes.

If you look at the painting closely (which you can't do with this picture on this blog, unfortunately), you will see that the portrait is comprised of hundreds of thousands of dots of painting, all carefully and meticulously placed on the canvass.

You can see the detail better in this portrait to the right, from his collection "Parade de Cirque" or Circus Sideshow, which has been exaggerated to better illustrate his technique.

You can see the 'science' of the art in the ways in which he used color to highlight and contour and give depth.

I remember hearing that it took him over two years to complete the "Sunday" painting, concentrating painstakingly on the landscape of the park before focusing on the people.

Seurat was a mere 25 years old when he painted this portrait. He would be dead seven years later, at the age of 32.

Now, I should hasten to add that most of what I know about art I learned in a course I had to take in college. Oh, I can tell a Renoir from a Matisse, and I love to go to museums - especially when there's a guided tour, but that's about the extent of my knowledge of art.

I'm fortunate to be able to go into The City and visit MOMA and the Guggenheim,  although I must say that I like the Whitney because it's smaller and more intimate, and very, very American.

I've been to the MFA over on Huntington Ave while I've been here in Boston. Once. It's as lovely a place to visit as I remembered it from my student days. I'll try to get back over there at least once more before I leave.

Actually, my interest in art was piqued when I was at Lesley College (now University) as part of the Expressive Therapies I was dabbling with in the Psychology Program there.

I went to a lecture with Dr. Irvin Yallom, a noted psychiatrist who did pioneering work in Group Therapy. His book, "The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy" is a classic and still remains on my reference shelf.

I remember him talking about the work of Seurat as a metaphor for working with groups. That's when I became interested in this particular artist - especially the illusion of control he seems to convey from everything from the people in the landscape of his life to the brightness of light. And yet, he died at age 32. His two year old son died two days later.

Alas, as the French would say in their brooding, fatalistic way, the only thing he could not control in life was death.

Yallom's latest book (he's a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction) is called, "Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death".  I have not read this particular book, but I am curious to know if he mentions Seurat's work in it.

Yallom, as a Freudian, is very interested in 'death anxiety', calling it "our dark shadow from which we are never separated."  We all have ways of trying to control our anxiety about death - from taking daring risks like skydiving or car racing, to cosmetic surgery or the occasional use or sometimes abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Yallom suggests that artists like Seurat paint as a way to control anxiety about death, not only by painting something that is alive and now but painting something that will become a legacy of the artist's own life.

It's a way to get this moment, this light, this person on canvass so that the person or moment or light will not fade away but remain alive long after the person has died or the moment has past or the light dimmed.

Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, writes, "What terrifies us most about death is not the loss of the future, but the loss of the past. In fact, the act of forgetting is a form of death always present within life."

I suppose that's what is most disturbing to me about this - or any - extended period of rainy gloom.  My energy level is lower. My mind becomes what the Buddhists call "monkey mind" - wandering around thoughts and ideas, going where it will, unable to focus for too long on one thing (can you tell?).  And, forget about prayer and meditation. Not today. Not in anyway that is usually satisfying.

Worst yet, I forget. Names. The time of day. What I was going into the bedroom to get that was so all-fired important just a minute ago (Was it a minute ago? What time is it, anyway?).

It's a form of death, as Kundera says. "Une petite mort" - not to be confused with "La petite mort" which is a French euphemism for orgasm (Ah, the French!). It can also be used when some undesired thing has happened to a person and has affected them so much that "a part of them dies inside".

An extended period of rainy gloomy days can do that to a person. A part of you dies. Mostly, I think, parts of your brain.

When I was a child, my mother would send us out to play in the rain. We'd put on our galoshes and plastic rain coats and hats and carry an umbrella and jump puddles and stomp our feet in them, splashing ourselves and each other in the cold water.

We'd laugh and laugh at the ridiculousness of getting angry because someone splashed us and we got all wet because the rain was doing that, anyway.

There is a wonderful, magical quality about swimming in the ocean when it's raining. I've always experienced it as a particularly joyful thing - perhaps because it's so completely absurd. One frolics in the ocean on a beautiful sunny day - not when it's dark and rainy. It's a bit counter intuitive in our culture. One does not have fun in the rain.

There's something about the sound of laughter in the rain that is bold and outrageous. Courageous, even. Perhaps it is a small act of defying death. Laughing in its face. Unafraid of losing the past and unconcerned with the future. Not trying to control anything or anyone. Just being in the moment - living in the now - and taking the gift of the present for what it is - a gift.

Perhaps that's what Seurat was trying to communicate in the small dots with which he painted, instead of broad brush strokes. Perhaps his genius is the genius of life.

Life is not lived best in broad brush strokes, but rather, in the small, seemingly insignificant dots of the banality of life.   Even the small drops of rain lend themselves to the nourishment of the buds of tulips that are valiantly trying to open in the yard outside my door.

They will open, eventually. Perhaps on Saturday, when it is predicted that we'll get our first rays of sunshine and the temperatures are predicted to all the way up to the mid 60s. Or, Sunday, after a full day of sunshine and the return of some semblance of warmth.

The rain will have dissipated, but its legacy will be seen in the beauty of a flower that opens, its colors made more vibrant for having been watered and nourished by tiny dots of rain.

Perhaps I will take that long walk today.  I'll put on my rain boots - the green ones with the pink flamingos that always make me smile - and my raincoat and hat. I'll grab my umbrella - the big one I just bought with the EDS logo on it - and take that walk along Memorial Drive, down to the banks of the River Charles. Anyway.

Just me and Theo and whoever else is crazy enough to be out walking in this weather. 

And, I might just laugh.  Right out loud. For no particular reason. 

Except that the sound of laughter in the rain is as close as I can get to emulating Seurat's art.

Little dots of mirth to make the light seem a little brighter - and mortality a little further away - in the midst of the ordinary, banality of life.


Mary-Cauliflower said...

Beautiful essay. Hope we get to meet face-to-face before you leave town!

(I spend quite a bit of time in Sherrill Library, as it's quiet there, I look as if I belong, but no one knows me well enough to disturb me when I'm getting work done.)

Paul said...

I hope you have had a chance to see the original Seurat painting in the Chicago Art Institute. It is stunning. The reproductions do not do justice to the original.

whiteycat said...

The Red Sox had a walk off win in the bottom of the 9th inning last night ... a great reason to be joyful.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Me, too. Mary-C. I'll be at graduation. Hope to see you then.

And, thanks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I did see it once when I was in Chicago many years ago. I was so excited, my palms were sweaty. It's stunning.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Whiteycat. I heard the news this morning. Yay!!!