Repost-A Few Thoughts On Thomas Cole’s ‘The Voyage Of Life’

A good decade ago, while visiting D.C., I saw Thomas Cole’s ‘The Voyage Of Life:

It’s a four-part series: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age.

One person’s life, and all of our lives, can be broken-down into four allegorical stages, pregnant with visual and universal symbols.

From Cole’s bio:

‘Although Cole had ample commissions in the late 1820s to paint pictures of American scenery, his ambition was to create a “higher style of landscape” that could express moral or religious meanings.’

From this more interactive page:

‘In the late 1830s, Cole was intent on advancing the genre of landscape painting in a way that conveyed universal truths about human existence, religious faith, and the natural world. First conceived in 1836, the four pictures comprising The Voyage of Life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age fulfilled that aspiration.’

These scenes in the Romantic style can have an emotional pull for me, as generally does the work of the Hudson River School. Such allegory certainly tends to function as a vehicle into memory (Cole’s work has really stuck with me…in a sort of haunting way, mixed with some thought of how I’m supposed to live and what might be coming next).

Also, the wild, untamed nature we Americans have often faced is perhaps requiring of a spirited and grand attempt at putting our experiences within Nature into some context: To soar as high as our hopes often do.

Or at least, to find in paintings: Familiarity. I like to see the roll of a hill like I’ve seen, or an opening of clouds, sky and light like I’ve seen.

Perhaps Wild Nature can be ordered in a Romantic, neo-classical or more modern way. Perhaps Nature can be made, with the tools at our disposal, to conform to some of our deeper ideas about Nature, mirroring our hopes in some recognizable fashion; giving some basic comfort and meaning.

Maybe, after all, we can find a home here.

On the other hand, allegory with overt moral/religious meaning can also come across as heavy-handed, sentimental, and moralistic. Too lush and pretentious; perhaps a bit anachronistic.

Do I really have to hunt for all the symbols and put the puzzle together?

‘So, you’re going to reveal universal truths, eh?’

This can seem distant from the experiences of the modern viewer, often finding himself a little further down the modern/postmodern ‘river’, where such attempts at universality might seem a wash.

Much more common these days are the very personal shards and glimpses of the inner life of an artist, attached to high ambition and great talent surely in some cases; as well to form and tradition, but generally making less bold claims to knowledge than ‘The Voyage Of Life‘.

In painting, I’m reminded of the abstract expressionist movement seeking meaning in reducing experience to the abstract in order to reveal something essential within Nature, or essential about our relationship to Nature: A transcendent place where shape, form and color can be isolated from anything immediately recognizable in the world.

Or maybe, I’m being too generous?

‘The movement’s name is derived from the combination of the emotional intensity and self-denial of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstract schools such as Futurism, the Bauhaus, and Synthetic Cubism. Additionally, it has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, nihilistic.[5] In practice, the term is applied to any number of artists working (mostly) in New York who had quite different styles, and even to work that is neither especially abstract nor expressionist.’

The exploration of the Self is often pursued, as well as that of Nature, but the general hope that it might all make sense (life, death, Nature, purpose etc) in many more modern movements is often left abandoned.

Or so often, as we’ve seen in the past few generations: The pursuit of The Self can easily become subsumed to the pursuit of fame, celebrity, and money.

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Towards a theme: Perhaps you’ve also heard of the Rothko chapel, in Houston, Texas.

Mark Rothko undertook the idea that within the modern context, one could create temples of universal meaning through aesthetics, art, and beauty:

‘The Rothko Chapel, founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief. A tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Chapel welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year, people of every faith and from all parts of the world.’

There’s even a suite of music by Morton Feldman, entitled ‘Rothko Chapel’

See Also On This Site: Trying to stick something against his poems: Wednesday Poem: Wallace Stevens-Anecdote of The JarWednesday Poem: Wallace Stevens, The Snow ManFriday Poem: Wallace Stevens And A Quote By David Hume

Some Updated Links On Postmodernism

Repost: From The NY Times Via A & L Daily: Helen Vendler On Wallace Stevens ‘The Plain Sense Of Things’

Some Sunday Songs-Metal, Myth, American Romanticism And The Civil War

Within A Bank Of Modern Fog-Another Link To Robert Hughes On Jeff Koons

If It Ends In ‘Studies…’Wars Of Ideas Within The West-No One Will Find You Here

From Quillette- ‘Postmodern Creationism In Academia: Why Evergreen Matters

‘One of the most urgent challenges, today, is that of correcting the double standard in education that discriminates against Native American students, in effect, maintaining a lower standard for Native American students. While it would be truly exceptional and aberrant to find the science curriculum of a typical high school or university contaminated by creationist versions of human origin, the same cannot be said today for schools on Indian reservations and programs in American Indian Studies, Indigenous Studies, and Multicultural Education.’

The Noble Savage,’ by definition, is a figure shrouded in sentiment. The idealized native bi-pedals through a diorama of Romanticized Nature, living off the land, performing his rituals while in possession of a profound and ancient wisdom.  Perhaps, at least, we should study him, copying his mysterious ways, living alongside him in a journey of discovery.

I’d say there’s definitely a well of modern primitivism within Western thought:  The search for shared spiritual and/or ideological goals, a primitive freedom of one’s own along with moral absolution (lessening the guilt and shame).  For many in the West, ‘going native’ has all the appeal of an escape hatch.

Actual natives, too, can remain something less than individuals for many ideologues and true-believers.  Being asked to join a separate and not yet (E)qual identity group, fighting in fierce competition over scarce political resources in the bosom of empathy, might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

That Columbus, what a bad guy!  Am I right?

Perhaps neither is simply becoming another of God’s children carted-off to an Indian School.

For some Westerners, understanding involves using the tools of (S)cience and the expansion of knowledge within Western taxonomy.  Mathematics, observation, developed problem-solving techniques, the historical record, evolutionary theory and the Western fields of archaeology and anthropology all play a part.

For others in the American West, especially, I’m guessing it’s also about practicality:  Genuinely living in closer quarters with tribes and having to the negotiate different languages, conceptions of ownership, scarce resources and whatever challenges and shared traditions have arisen over the years.

Maybe it’s as simple as going to the casino Friday Night to play bingo and blowing $100 on drinks and tickets for the Blue Oyster Cult, if that’s your thing.

Laws and free-markets matter, too.

Various and assorted links:

Painting lush Romantic visual tapestries and synthesizing Irish music can create something of global appeal…and that’s something, right?:

Hmmm…..

Maybe we should just stop with the museums, at least for a few years.  Maybe I’m wrong.

Not really science-Running After Antelope from This American Life.  The latest theory/fad meets some guy with probably too much time on his hands.

Please just stop, NPR-At Bug-Eating Festival, Kids Crunch Down On The Food Of The Future! Those kids probably belong to everyone, and so do the bugs.  So does the Future!

Related On This Site:  Repost-Roger Sandall At The American Interest: ‘Tribal Realism’

Romantic primitivism in Australia: ….Roger Sandall At The New Criterion Via The A & L Daily: ‘Aboriginal Sin’

Did Jared Diamond get attacked for not being romantic enough…or just for potential hubris?:  Was he acting as a journalist in Papua New-Guinea?:  From The Chronicle Of Higher Education: Jared Diamond’s Lawsuit

At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas HobbesFrom Reason.TV Via YouTube: ‘Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & “The Better Angels of Our Nature”‘

Repost-Continuing On A Theme Found Elsewhere: Painting The American West

Below is Albert Bierstadt’s ‘Puget Sound, on the Pacific Coast, 1870″ which is on display the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Bierstadt painted the picture without having seen Puget Sound! More on the Hudson River School here, with its strong roots in romanticism.

photo
From KentOfKent’s photostream on Flickr, part of his Olga Comes To Seattle series.
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The Smart Set had a recent article (with a reproduction of one of the paintings) of Xie Zhiliu, a Chinese painter taken with Yosemite:
Then you get to the last room of the exhibit, where something special happens. In 1994, Xie traveled to Yosemite National Park with his painter wife Chen Peiqiu. There, he produced a series of paintings that are a testimonial to cognitive dissonance. He paints the mountains and trees of Yosemite, but they look vaguely Chinese.”
How do we come to know nature? What do we do with all this wilderness?

Also at SAM: A Reaction To Jeff Koons ‘St John The Baptist’

How might Nietzsche figure in the discussion (was he most after freeing art from a few thousand years of Christianity, monarchy and aristocracy…something deeper?), at least with regard to Camille Paglia. See the comments: Repost-Camille Paglia At Arion: Why Break, Blow, Burn Was Successful