Ayn Rand/Objectivism Sightings
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Living with "Into the Blue"
For once, the sluggishness of the American art market had worked in my favor. At an earlier point in my life, it had been an occasion for sadness. I was briefly married to the Danish illustrator, painter, and later novelist Alicja Fenigsen. She was known enough in Europe that she did not need to worry about selling her work, which was always strongly representational, the graphic equivalent of Polish romantic journalism. European painting had undergone a revolution of sorts in the second half of the 19th century. Until about 1850, canvases were so large that they fit only on the walls of palaces and churches, since only those wealthy enough to live in a palace - or decorate a church - had spare funds for art. After 1850, paintings became small enough to fit on the walls of the city apartments and suburban houses of the middle class. Entrepreneurs, professionals and intellectuals could afford to buy paintings by real artists, and did. Recognizing a work that reflected one's soul, and living in its presence, became a landmark in the path of living a meaningful life.
As Alicja discovered on moving to New York, this particular European rite of self-affirmation had never crossed the ocean. The American art patrons were only, as in Europe before 1850, the very rich. They bought art not as a matter of personal fulfillment, but as a combination of investment and social duty. Most of the American upper class were ostentatiously uncultured, and so disdained any expression of their individual tastes - indeed, so disdained even having individual taste - that instead of choosing their own art, they bought as advised by professional art critics. The latter reciprocated the disdain of the upper classes that employed them, by treating art as an elaborate confidence game, exalting works that could never touch an individual's soul, and were not intended to.
My time with Alicja Fenigsen - from the moment we met, until her last sketch of me before she left to go back to Copenhagen - was an education in the place of art in the complete human life. I discovered that the process by which the artist produces forms on paper or canvas comes from her entire soul, and cannot be known, in the historical sense, without greater knowledge than any of us can have of another. The influence of one work on another can be unconscious or indirect or both. Identical themes and metaphors can be discovered independently, or copied from traces so integrated into the artist's being that, whatever their ultimate origin, they come into art from within. But we humans are cognitive animals, and that is why we interpret. The purpose of interpretation is not to determine what actually went on in the artist's brain, but to engage one's cognitive faculty in the aesthetic experience.
Alicja Fenigsen was among the student dissidents exiled from Poland in the great crackdown of March 1968. Twenty-one years later the communist regime that sent her into exile collapsed, and other communist regimes began to fall. In China, the dissident students of Tian An Men square were inspired by their own artist. Some years earlier, Shao Fei had painted "Last Stanza of the Historian." Sima Qian, the Imperial Historian in the painting, was asked shortly before his execution why he wrote the inconvenient truth instead of customary lies. He answered
Shao Fei expressed her theme - heroic integrity - through the metaphor of a human figure thrust like a mountain against the sky. Against the ideology of the Communist regime, which glorified physical labor, she presented heroism as an act of the intellect. To do this, she used the universal symbol of the mind: the straight line. Around the hero against the sky are vertical lines of Chinese text, rising with him. In his hand, at the golden-ratio point of focus, is a book - a scroll bound with the traditional Chinese scroll-cover of bamboo panels. The grid of straight lines of the bamboo cover presents the freedom of the mind as a small and precious treasure, held up against the mighty force of tyranny with the grip of the hero's implacable passion.
Ayn Rand wrote that "the straight line is the badge of Man," "the straight line that cuts through the curving aimlessness of nature by a purposeful motion from a start to an end." The opposite of the universe of tyranny, in which the straight line was a precious treasure defended by the integrity of heroes, is the universe of humanity, shining and laughing with lines and rectilinear shapes from end to end. The art of this universe of the straight line and rectilinear light was born in America, in the work in glass of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The shining power of the best of Abstract Expressionism, such as the glass of Wright, and the closely related paintings of Piet Mondrian, has been a problem for Randian aesthetics. Ayn Rand conceived of art as the communication of a sense of life by presenting a metaphysical value judgement. The abstractions of Wright and Mondrian do present a metaphysical value judgement that communicates a brilliant sense of life; they do so with the metaphor of the straight line, which Rand herself exalted. But Rand also held that visual art, which connects with the self through a faculty evolved to perceive the real world, must be a selective representation of reality. This requires art to be representational, and the work of explicitly Randian artists, including most of the work of Bryan Larsen, adheres very strictly to a doctrinal representationalism. Ironically Romanticism, which figures so strongly in Rand's idea of what visual art ought to be, was a marked departure from the strict representationalism of neo-classical eighteenth-century painting. In Romantic canvases, the less relevant elements of representation are ruthlessly eliminated. Forms are radically transformed to suit the purpose of the artist. The components of the human figure often form unrepresentational, anatomically impossible but dramatically expressive shapes. In contrast, the work of explicitly Randian painters has been so strictly representational, that it often resembles less a truly Romantic work than a neo-classical (or even photo-realist) illustration of some Romantic narrative.
There is an interesting analogy to representationalism in music. Human hearing evolved to deal with natural sounds, such as the human voice, yet it would be difficult to ignore the expressive power of instrumental music. Instrumental music, like abstract art, relies on the communicative power of pure, abstracted sounds, analogous to the abstracted shapes and forms of abstract expressionism. Yet the power of the human voice can endow music with an expressive connection that is not possible with purely abstract tonality. The best orchestral composers recognize this, bringing the human voice back to express the highest passion, as in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or in opera. Similarly, my favorite Mondrian is his "Broadway Boogie-Woogie," the title inviting the viewer to see it both as an invocation of musical rythm, and as a representation of the Manhattan street grid in bright sun, with only colored lights and the yellow haze of sunlight breaking through the glare of day.
Superficially, Bryan Larsen's "Into the Blue" could be seen as a Randian re-statement of Shao Fei's "Last Stanza of the Historian." Skyscrapers bring to mind Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead," a novel on the same theme of heroic integrity. The theme is expressed by the same metaphor of human presence standing tall into the sky. Yet "Into the Blue" is also a radical liberation of the artist from the "Objectivist Realism" - that is, from photo-realist representation of romantic narratives - of his usual work. Bryan Larsen has fused the abstract expressionism of Wright and Mondrian into this painting, to become, finally, an artist of genuine Romantic individuality.
The human presence that projects into total height is distilled to the minimal abstraction of straight lines and rectilinear forms. The forms are transformed from representations into ideals, buildings into surfaces of reflection. Non-essentials, such as the grid of windows on a building's surface, are eliminated. The explosion of human strength into the sky is seen through a skylight etched with straight lines of Frank Lloyd Wright's glass. The painting's connection with representation and recognition of reality is preserved only through the minimal presence of white clouds in the sky, and of their faint reflection in the geometrical surfaces of the buildings.
"Into the Blue" is more than just a dialectical synthesis of Shao Fei's romantic symbolism with the abstract expressionism of Wright and Mondrian. The painting explodes with the joy of the human spirit breaking out of the two-dimensional surface of the world into three-dimensional life; of the artist shaking the bonds of photo-realist illustration and finding, with incredible lightness, that they never bound him at all. When I walk into the presence of Bryan Larsen's "Into the Blue," I think of my answer to Shao Fei's representation of human integrity as fortitude in the face of struggle and pain. Its joyful straight lines tell me that heroism is not about a worthy death, but about uncompromised, passionate life. I think, "We never had to take any of it seriously." "Into the Blue" answers, with the laughter of the lines, "No, we never had to."
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