“Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

-Genesis 11:7

Talking is not easy…received information is sifted through a mind that may contain filters and cautions which distort or completely change the meaning…hidden landmines primed to blow the legs off the most eloquent statement.

If I were to say the name of a particular guy in the wrong context,   (who once lived in the middle-east, and started a religion that can’t take a joke), “they” would come to end my blabber-mouth days without the benefit of any erudite defense.

Homo habilis had a hair-trigger too.

There was a distinct advantage for the creative in Lascaux, however…he could draw.

My family had no art in our home. Not because of any religious disposition against graven images…we were working class, and the finest, most comforting image to a man who has worked all day in a filthy factory…is a glass of beer.

Consequently, I had to travel far and wide to find my revelations.

Those of you who fray your nerves on the stone of inspiration, have probably recognized that becoming an artist is less about learning how to make art, than it is about learning how to be.

Serge Ivanoff turned eighty-five on Christmas day in the winter of Paris, and would cross the boulevards waving his cane at the traffic like some demented matador. His art was not unknown, but the fame he deserved had eluded him in the onrush of lesser competition. As a young man he had walked out of Russia and carved a life as an artist in Europe. A visit to his atelier, began with a long climb up a spiral staircase, until just below the roof, he would open the door to another century. Of an evening, we would sit close to a kerosene stove, and wordlessly exchange our appreciation through the march of art history, as we leafed through his library.

We didn’t share a language. Living in many places in Europe, he had partial mastery of six, English being among his least used. I, on the other hand had native mastery of English and was adept at butchering French. (I was once made to repeat, like a schoolboy, the word “un”, in a crowded patisserie, six times, before they would hand over my damned croissant). Because of this linguistic impasse, our communication involved a lot of eloquent gesturing and speaking like gypsies.

On one particular day, we went to the Petit Palais.

We flitted like two bees between the flowers on the walls, he with his cane, walking deliberately to the things he knew and loved, and I charging around in my brash American way, trying not to break anything. They had several large encaustic Vuillards, which I was entranced by…but I casually breezed by one of the gothic statues that Serge had stopped to admire.

As I passed him, he grabbed my sleeve, and insisted that I stand and draw the wooden statue before him, while he watched over my shoulder. This was not a time for professional shyness…I had travelled eight thousand miles to learn from him, and if he wanted me to draw wormholes and chipped paint…well, then…

It wasn’t more than a minute or two, before he became visibly disgusted with my dis-spirited effort, and grabbed the notebook and pen from my hands. I had made an accurate, but stiff and lifeless drawing of a piece of wood, which is what I saw before me.

He began to draw lines over that, throwing words and gestures at me like small stones; scraping at the paper with the pen until there emerged a very different vision. Slowly, my hayseed mind began to recognize that the seemingly broken neck of the virgin was not bent as it was out of ineptitude, this Byzantine artist saw nobility in the ravages of suffering, not in the proud bearing of an empress. The virgin was distorted in unnatural grief…pain beyond imagining; here was a work of sublime temperament that had defeated my poor ability to discern or produce.

This humbled me, and I felt myself diminish in the presence of a devotion that had mystified me many times before. I was gambling my life on a quest to be a great artist, but here was art in which the artist had disappeared, hidden behind the enormity of compassion.

When I go to Paris now, I don’t go first to see the Mona Lisa, nor the Impressionists, nor the great cathedrals…I go to this simple obscure Madonna of the “broken” neck.

“I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.”

-Aldous Huxley


~ by theoxherd on December 30, 2012.

10 Responses to “L’oeil”

  1. “M. Ivanoff was trying to tell me that it was more important to know what to paint than how to paint.” Yet another fabulous post. The content and the way you’ve written it.

  2. “becoming an artist is less about learning how to make art, than it is about learning how to be”
    Everything is learning how to be.

    • Thank you for commenting alienheartbeat, having read your posts, I know you speak from experience. Good luck.

      • I should have added that is a truly amazing image, not just beautiful, it draws you in. I have come back to it a few times. Can you say a bit more about it? (It looks like it might be a photo, but I am traveling with a small screen and can’t be sure.)

  3. The photo was found on piccsy.com and is unfortunately not tagged with the photographer. I wish I knew who took it. But it is very reminiscent of the stairway I traversed to get to my friend’s fifth floor atelier…same light, same ascension.

  4. Thankyou. The image is perfect for the words. It has both the gravity and the lightness.

  5. A wonderful post – thank you for sharing

  6. I like that-Learn what to paint and not how to paint. Thanks, this has been interestingly pleasant or pleasantly interesting or both.:)

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