In Search of Art: The Inevitability of Creation

February 18, 2016

A photographer takes an intimate portrait of Michelangelo's sculpture, "The Slave," in this photograph from a visit to the Louvre in Paris in 1993. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

The act of creation is profoundly mysterious. The ancient book of Genesis imagines the world before anything was brought into being. This state is described as “tohu va bohu,”meaning, “without form and void.” Then, upon the scene comes the creative impulse of the divine, moving like a bird over the face of the deep, bringing worlds into being.

In “Timaeus” Plato speaks of the “Demiurge,” the benevolent source of all that is, keeper of the eternal and perfect world of “forms,” the essential pattern from which existence (the material realm) is birthed or created.

An artist’s creation is not unlike this. In the beginning it’s seeming chaos; a multitude of scraps, colors and textures, unfocussed ideas, notes unsounded and rhythms as yet not coalesced, un-chiseled stone, various bits and pieces of this and that, unexpressed words, nooks and crannies all about littered by this untidy soup of “tohu va bohu.” Then, through the alchemy of the artist’s mind and hand, various elements are lifted up, shaped, fused, transformed into a work that seems, in the end, somehow inevitable.

Great art seems as inevitable as a daisy, a wren, the sound of rain or a wave. Beholding it, we cannot imagine the world without it.

There is a certain inevitability to Yo Yo Ma’s playing of a Bach cello suite. We are enthralled, brought to a still point, a place of familiar yet absolute rightness; it seems this sound is not so much created as discovered. It is not simply here, now, but was sounding at the very dawn of creation.

We have a word for this experience. It is a “revelation” when something of deep, eternal truth is disclosed in the time and space of our everyday here and now.

Seeing “Samothrace” rising above the stairs in the Louvre, we feel, “So this is what I’ve sensed all these many years ... here it is, just as I have known it was and would be, waiting in welcome and embrace.”

Process of Discovery

Michelangelo, the fabled Italian sculptor, painter, poet, architect, and engineer of the High Renaissance, was possessed by this sense that deep truth was being revealed to him throughout his life. His observations about the process of sculpting make this clear.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Asked how he created a work of incomparable beauty, he replied, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

Writing this essay, I am in the sixth week of healing from foot surgery. Tomorrow, finally, I will have two pins pulled from my toes and soon thereafter, the awkward boot will be removed as well. These have served as splints, to keep my toes from moving. They’ve also restrained me, making photography more difficult.

Convalescing, I’ve had time to contemplate the process of photography. It’s remarkable how taking a still image requires so much motion!

First, there is the movement of the body. Unless you’re working in a studio, photography begins with the physical process of gathering equipment and going out into the world. Then, there is the movement or scanning of the eye. Finally, we have throughout this questing the movement in the mind, especially as the photographer senses and takes the image.

What I have just described, this journey of discovery in search of an image, is analogous to Michelangelo’s movement through the marble to reveal the form within the block. The photographic moment isn’t created by the photographer. It is already there waiting to be discovered. The photographer’s task is to see it, to discover it, and make a record of the moment with the camera.

From a sequence of infinite possibilities, the photographer is in search of the “telling moment”— that instant, angle, and view which discloses something of importance.

Of course, this is a very high bar! Many times I’ve gone out in search of an image and come back with nothing. Sometimes, I must admit, I’ve returned with many latent exposures on my film, only to find upon developing and contact printing that nothing “makes the cut.” (A term from film editing where unnecessary footage is literally “cut” from the movie.) Like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Little Big Man,” we are forced to acknowledge, “sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

A Telling Moment

The photograph we consider here was taken in the Louvre in 1993. Touring the endless collections, I came upon a Michelangelo sculpture entitled simply, “Slave.”

Generally when in a museum, I’ll carry a camera to record what I’ve seen for reference later. These images are notations of others’ art; I don’t consider them my photographs in an artistic sense.

While everyone seems to have their phone camera or something larger out for pictures at museums in this present digital age, it was less common in the analogue era when photography was both more expensive and involved.

While I was visiting with this amazing work, a young woman armed with a camera came into the space before me and started to frame Michelangelo’s work in her lens. There are times when I’m quite put out by people charging in front of me, obscuring my view of a piece of art. Not this day, however.

I was immediately intrigued by this photographer’s movement around the marble form. She was dancing about the larger than life sculpture above her, moving in and out, up and down, taking images as she went.

The nakedness of Michelangelo’s “Slave,” standing there, eyes closed, in languorous display before the woman’s careful and very thorough imaging was mesmerizing.

I lifted my camera, seeking an image of my own.

I was very aware that this was an opportunity for a wonderful photograph; not a notation from my museum visit but the capturing on film of a telling moment of encounter between this young woman photographer and her superb model.

As in an ellipse, there are two points at the center of this image; the sculpture and the woman.

I love the interplay between them. The woman it seemed was very likely a dancer. Her movements were almost balletic, her steps choreographed, her foot positions technically precise.

The nakedness of the model contrasts with the fashionable smartness of the artist. Both have faces upturned, arms cocked at the elbow. They stand fully frontally exposed to each other in postures of openness; both seem lost in this moment, in bliss.

Finally, we are brought to the tension and truth within this scene.

In our rational mind we realize that this is an ancient sculpture, an inert piece of stone being photographed by a living, breathing human being.

At the same time, however, we find it impossible to believe the model isn’t actually posing for this photographer!

Now the art of this image begins to disclose itself. This is a photograph of an encounter that took place a quarter century ago. How is the photographer in this image any more “alive” than the sculpture?

Both, now stand motionless before us in this moment, a telling moment revealed during an encounter in a museum in Paris a lifetime ago.

Are not both equally, eternally, alive?

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