Some fundamental aspects of my work and of this website

 

1. Presentation: J. S. Bach as the ideal artist

 

The title “The Timeless Painting of José Ramón Trigo” may serve as an orientation to the nature of my paintings. In each one I have sought to capture values which are indeed timeless, to transcend the ephemerality of fashion. The appearance of modernity is no guarantee, either of quality or of permanence. The music of the Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons was more modern than his own; however, today the compositions of Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Phillipe Emmanuel and Johann Christian Bach interest us only moderately, while those of J. S. Bach are enormously important (in fact, among the very highest achievements in the entire history of music).

Even Stravinsky affirmed that those works whose principal virtue was their novelty would suffer most from the passage of time. To appreciate the compositions of J. S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms, it is not necessary for us to place ourselves in the time of their creation, imagining the surprise they must have provoked among their contemporaries. Aside from their initial novelty, they contain values which are permanent, which make them forever new, perennially fresh, and which resonate with the men of all eras. When writing The Art of the Fugue, J. S. Bach did not seek to astonish by an appearance that was shocking, novel or “modern” —indeed, he employed musical structures that were already well-established, counterpoint that even then was nearly archaic—, but the result is a discovery which is at the same time profound (and in such revelations lies what is genuinely “new”, more so than the merely epidermal”novelty”) and marvellous (that which truly astonishes). In effect, the work of art, more than change (as dictated by fashion), is perfection, an opening to the marvelous, a encounter with the mystery of one’s being; it is a registering of that which endures. Here the terse but illuminating words of Seneca shed their light on those who lack such an attitude, who “seek the novel, rather than the best” (mutantur non in melius, sed in aliud). In the same vein, Gustave Thibon would write: “There is infinitely less novelty in the rapid flutterings of fashion than in the slow, continuous striving for perfection which is proper to true style”.1

Bach’s widow, Ana Magdalena, left us these words: “I know that nowadays there are new musical trends, and that the young follow, as they always do, all that is new; but when they grow older, if they are true musicians, they will return to Sebastian. Drawing an abstraction from the fact that I am his wife, or rather —alas!— his widow, I understand music well enough to know that this is what will happen, even if now, only a few years after his death, his works are nearly forgotten and the compositions of his sons, Friedemann and Manuel, are preferred to his own” 2. Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms —all felt this interest for the music of J. S. Bach; they were not old men, but indeed were true musicians.

 

2. Discerning what is art

 

One spontaneous —and perfectly valid— way that many use to refer to a work of art is: “I never tire of looking at this painting; I could happily spend hours contemplating it”. The commentaries and geometric analyseswhich accompany some of the paintings reproduced here may help one to understand that the contemplation of these works is not exhausted in the initial perception of merely a few visual characteristics, just as a book is rather more than its first page and much more than its cover (the importance of first impressions notwithstanding).

An acquaintance in the academic world has labelled the attitude —all too frequent in present times— of flitting from here to there, sampling without delving deeper into the knowledge of things, as the “culture of the fly”. One becomes unable to contemplate and appreciate many of the masterworks of literature and art if the tendency to go no further than one’s first impression is not overcome.

Immediacy should not be the reigning criterion in all cases, and certainly not when it is a question of reaching some worthy goal, which might be as distant and arduous as crowning a lofty summit after a long climb, or penetrating the mysteries of truth, goodness or beauty. I remember reading on one occasion that, while the music of Brahms does not surrender itself easily at the first encounter, later —if the listener is persistent— it never disappoints. Woody Allen also had something to say about this: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia”.

The wry, elderly painter Fernando Delapuente would comment with a smile: «Novice painters approach a painting by starting at the top of the canvas; when they think that part is finished, they go a bit lower and “finish” the next part, and so on. Then, when they get to the bottom, they’re surprised to find that what they thought was so great at the beginning no longer fits with the last thing they painted». Nor is a house designed by first drawing the front door, then the first floor windows…. and ending with the chimney. A painting, like a building, must be conceived as a whole, with all of its elements in cohesion; and this whole must be built upon an internal “logic”, an “architecture”.

For a syllogism to be logical and well-constructed, it is not enough for its premise to be true and for its conclusion to be also true.

Similarly, for a work to be artistic it is not sufficient that it be merely the sum of various elements which are individually beautiful. If, for example, we were to juxtapose fragments of a symphony by Beethoven with others from an organ concerto of Handel’s, with still others from a piano concerto by Ravel and from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, would the result be a musical work that we could consider beautiful? No, it would be laughable, displeasing; it would perhaps have only a comic value, for the strange, disparate effect it would produce.

A painting is not, by analogy, the result of painting a beautiful panoramic view, a lovely human figure or a well-arranged bouquet of flowers. It is necessary, as much in a work of art as in a syllogism, that it have unity. A pile of gravel may possess a certain degree of unity (forming a geometrical cone, for example). If we take from this pile some of its individual fragments, it would be hard to perceive any change. Try, however, to erase with Photoshop a face, an eye, a mouth… Would we notice the change? I believe we would!

Having said this, let us open our eyes and not be naive… In the last edition of the Venice Bienale (2013), Spain presented, as an “artwork”, several tons of rubble; the creator of this “wonder” was a certain Lara Amarcegui. The cost of this little joke (including shipping) was more than 400,000€… and no one protested! In the middle of an economic crisis, such extravancies are being funded by the Spanish people.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is proportioned according to the golden ratio (that of a rectangle whose sides have among themselves the same proportion as that of the sum of the two sides to the length of the rectangle’s longest side; the numerical value of that proportion is 1.618). If we were to section (i.e. cut a section from) the Mona Lisa, would we notice the difference? Obviously, we would. If we deleted an act from an opera by Verdi or Wagner, it would be deformed, clearly incomplete.
Let us try the same with a photograph; if we cut away a part of it, does the photograph suffer? Very probably, it doesn’t.

It is said that Beethoven composed his Fifth Symphony by developing the notes he perceived in the postman’s knock: a half hour of extraordinary music from four notes! This same musical theme he would vary, repeat, lengthen, voice for different instruments, enrich with a diversity of chords (harmonic clusters of simultaneous notes); he would accompany it with other motifs that seem to be going in a altogether different direction… but, surprisingly, these only bring us back to and recover the initial theme… In other words, the composer “plays” with affinities, with contrasts, with alternations, with surprises… all derived from a single musical “cell”. Any addition to this, no matter how beautiful in itself, would be “rejected” by this masterpiece; any extraction would impoverish it.

The unity of a work of art is usually very great… quite similar to that of a living being! We know that one of the main problems which arises in organ transplants is rejection; the receiving organism detects that something foreign has been placed within it, something not its own: all of the cells of any living being are marked by the same genetic code (as if they all had the same ID number).

Is it only unity, then, which provides us the artistic key to a painting or musical composition?
The description above of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony tells us implicitly that this is not the case. Let us imagine one uniform sound of half an hour in duration, or a painting consisting of a single uniform colour over its entire surface – would these be art? They would have unity (there would be no discordant elements in them), but they would not be art.

In today’s world, however, we are presented with repeated performances of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Indeed, works which are basically one uniform colour spread over a canvas fetch outrageous prices at auctions of contemporary “art”, although the most we can say of them is that they might suggest a certain degree of good taste, a few “drops” of artistic essence, or that they might prove decorative in sombre, geometrical architectural settings. (We will have more to say about this subject in this and other texts at www.jrtrigo.es).

The analyses provided here show how the elements of each painting, along with representing real objects, have a significant function within the work. They are like embryonic forms which lend themselves to development; or, put another way, each can be taken as a motif (as in a piece of music) that can be imitated, inverted, or varied. A straight line, for example, may be imitated by other parallel lines, inverted, contrasted to another which is perpendicular or varied in other similar lines. In this way, the ensemble of forms in one painting results or is developed from a few such forms; the complexity of the total work arises from the interaction of these groups or families of analogous forms, which provide us with a key to the order and unity of the work itself. Unity in multiplicity: the various parts or functions of a given painting, rather than opposing each other, combine to create a single compositional effect.

In light of the prejudice, so characteristic of recent aesthetic trends, toward seeking or allowing into painting only what is striking, only what appears to be new and is immediately perceived (incapacitating it, in not a few cases, for contemplation and reflection), this proposal for a “timeless painting” (reproduced here photographically with greater or lesser fidelity) argues, as you can see and read for yourselves in the commentaries and analyses, in favour of discoveries at a perhaps deeper level, and whose perception requires from the viewer an attitude which is more reposed, more contemplative.

 

3. Let us not be deceived: the naked king

 

To the degree that the surprise felt toward what is merely shocking or provocative replaces the true astonishment and admiration generated by artistic beauty, the art world is reliving (in real terms) the fiction that Hans Christian Anderson gave us in one of his tales: A group of famous tailors come the kingdom and offer to make for the king a suit of clothes more splendid than any other: like one never seen before! “Only the most refined individuals, of the highest taste, will be able to perceive them; the fools will see nothing,” claim the shrewd tailors. The vain king accepts their offer and the tailors work long hours to create the dazzling garments. When the clothes are ready, the king shows them off by parading before the populace in them. Everyone marvels at the charms of those wonderful garments, crafted by such skilled hands… until one small boy shouts out: “But the king is naked!” Obviously, they all saw the same thing, but no one dared to say it for fear they would be taken for fools.

I will now finish the sentence I began above: To the degree that the surprise felt toward what is merely shocking or provocative replaces the true astonishment and admiration generated by artistic beauty, the art world will be deceived into taking for art that which isn’t.

 

4. Figurative art as an opening to the mystery of reality

 

Let us now turn our consideration to representational art, abandoned by many in this day and age. There are indeed some who, if they are not presented with wild deformations in the interpretation of reality, do not recognize it as art. It is as if sensitivity and understanding were deadened, and all that can be perceived is the gross and exaggerated. The most obvious lessons seem to have been forgotten; and so, if we compare Velázquez’s portraits of Innocent X (especially the last and most definitive of these, preserved today in Rome’s Galería Doria-Pamphili) with the interpretations of them done by Bacon, we find no such deformations in Velázquez’s portraits, yet there is in them a deep psychological penetration into the painter’s subject. While these paintings conform minutely to the appearance of the objects depicted in them, they retain the powerful stamp of the living presence portrayed there, in all of his dignity, and display it with a chromatic richness that delights the senses. Little or none of this do we find in Bacon’s paintings; free-spirited perhaps, but grotesque, unbalanced, one would say the work of a deranged paranoiac.

The artist’s hand or his creative stamp may at times pass almost unnoticed… The shrewd Mingote, in one of his cartoons, shows Velázquez in his studio struggling to create, saying: “There are days when you just can’t come up with anything!” While the painter bewails the situation, around him various things are happening: the Infanta Margarita has just come into the studio, accompanied by her handmaidens; a mastiff has curled up peacefully in one corner, only to be kicked playfully by a young boy; behind the painter, other figures of the Court have entered through a door half-open at the back of the room; and then the King and Queen casually arrive, their torsos reflected in a facing wall mirror… This is just what the brilliant Velázquez captured in his painting Las Meninas, in which —it is said— he was able to depict the very air of the Alcázar! (This palace, before it was destroyed by fire, stood in the same spot now occupied by the Palacio de Oriente, in Madrid.)
Must an artist always “make himself noticed”? What a beautiful sort of discretion it is when the artifice at times disappears and we are left alone before the wondrous! “Don’t touch it up any more; that’s what the rose is like!”, wrote the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez (don’t stroke it, don’t ruffle its delicacy, don’t soil it… don’t insist on showing it as “yours”).

A friend of mine told me once, after a visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid, that Picasso, in his own interpretations of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, seems to have circled around them but was ultimately unable to capture their mystery, as Velázquez was indeed able to do.

The universal communicability of the works of Velázquez (and so many other great artists) leads us to infer that Nature only reveals her secrets to those who approach her with love and respect.

 

5. Timeless nature and the dignity of the human being in figurative art

 

In any age (and the same will prove true for future generations), man co-exists with nature, of which he himself is a part. Evoking, recreating, interpreting and understanding nature will always be the challenge of the poetic spirit; thus, to ignore this in art (the manifestation of the human spirit) would be illogical.

The forms nature assumes, its species of animals and plants, its inanimate elements —seas, skies, plains and mountains— change little over time and do not become antiquated or irrelevant, regardless of the ever-fluctuating aesthetic tastes of mankind. Art will always face the challenge of opening to these near-permanent forms.

The eyes Modigliani gave to his subjects are empty, monochromatic, without pupil, iris or sclera. Picasso would paint them as two ovals, one elongated horizontally and the other vertically, or both placed on the same side of the nose. If we understand art as following an irreversible and unidirectional evolution, we might conclude that painting faces with naturalistic eyes (with the enormous complexity this entails) was no longer modern or contemporary. What a shame were that the case, how impoverished would be our lot! Indeed, it is often in the glance of those eyes that we perceive what is most expressive and most mysterious in the human being. Where else would we find that wonder, the amazement that inspires us to perpetuate through art the living image of, say, a group of children, of those we love the most?

A great paradox of our own time is the contrast between the extreme care given to the human body (many are those who subject themselves to dieting and even surgery to improve, according to them, their physical appearance) and the treatment this same body has received in recent and contemporary art. The passion for novelty, change and extravagance has led to the imposition, as “modern”, of a taste for the irrational and the absurd, for the bizarre, deformed and abnormal, for the sick and aberrant, for forms which are degraded, damaged and repulsive… If one wonders if such labels are exaggerated, a few names might be recalled here: Francis Bacon, Pablo Ruiz Picasso (Dalí would refer to the deformed figures of Picasso as “garish”), Willem de Kooning, Antonio Saura, Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud….

At the present time, then, it is necessary to try to give back to the simple, normal things of life the charm they once had in our eyes, before the “moderns” burst into nature like the proverbial “bull in a china shop”.

But there is even more work to do… The art of the classical world, of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque… with great dignity represented man as a “someone”. All of that art seems to say to us: here is a person, a spiritual-material being; the most excellent, complex and mysterious being in all of nature. It is the humanism of that vision which underlies the cultural contributions of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of ancient Greece and Rome. By contrast, in the art of recent times the figure of man is reduced to the nature of a “thing”, a “something“ to be arbitrarily manipulated and deformed, made into a simple visual object, one from which the spiritual dimension is wholly lacking: “The arts of the 20th and early 21st centuries have stopped viewing man as a being with a spiritual dimension, and have thus transformed him into a simple visual object” (José Jiménez Lozano, winner of the 2002 Cervantes Prize). The ontological fall from which we must lift ourselves up is enormous indeed.

 

6. The complexity of a work of art: differentiating this from the merely decorative

 

The thirst for apparent novelty, so characteristic of certain spheres of society in the 20th century and still prevalent today (with similarities to the decadence of classical Greece), has resulted in the acclaiming as milestones of artistic progress works which in fact have been coming closer and closer to the frontiers of what is no longer art. In other words, what for the novelty-seekers have been significant advances in art, are in reality —and in more than a few cases— works that are increasingly less complex and lower in artistic quality. Let us compare, for example, the works of Raphael, Titian, Rubens or Rembrandt with those of Mark Rothko. Pictorially, the former are marvellous, astonishingly complex works, of an execution so difficult as to seem almost superhuman; impossible to contemplate fully at a single glance, their richness overwhelms the viewer. The words of Vincent Van Gogh, awed by Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, may be illustrative here: “Believe me, and I say this from my heart; I would give ten years of my life if I could remain seated for two weeks in front of this painting, eating only dry bread” 3. I once heard a painter claim he had spent hours contemplating Rembrandt’s Night Watch; it seemed to him inexhaustible, as if it would never cease amazing him. Before Guernica he spent a quarter of an hour, after which the work seemed to have no more to say. We might ask ourselves now: For how many minutes, or perhaps seconds, would the works of Mark Rothko manage to feed our capacity for contemplation?

Let us consider the currently widespread phenomenon of creating works, generally characterized by sharply-defined geometrical patterns, to decorate the interiors of modern buildings. There is nothing unusual in this; one would say that it is completely logical. The question arises when such works, often extremely simple (any splotch of black might serve to decorate a white room; just as a rough, irregular surface might be pleasing and decorative in a setting of plain, light-coloured walls…), are compared artistically to masterpieces —whose apparent simplicity often masks a deep complexity—, some of which were commissioned to decorate public buildings or churches, as in the case of Raphael, Titian, El Greco or Velázquez. These artists, however, were in effect selling “liebre por gato” (the opposite of the Spanish saying which translates as “to sell cat meat as rabbit”); that is, they offered something genuine in place of the fake, and gave to their works far more than a merely decorative functionality.

This is not to say that such simple, abstract works do not have a decorative value; indeed, a simple —uniform— plane of colour spread over a flat surface (as basic, and as poor artistically, as that might sound) may be quite satisfactory from a decorative perspective, inside a modern building of geometric lines —equally or even more effective than, say, Velázquez’s The Spinners hung in the same spot. Does this suggest that the works of Mark Rothko are comparable artistically to Velázquez’s painting? Obviously not; between them lies an almost infinite gulf of difference. Aside from this, a real work of art possesses a value of its own that transcends any sort of specific decorative function.

One might object: “These are works of very different sizes; this kind of comparison is unfair from the beginning…” (Indeed, there are some who have a particular weakness for large dimensions, and thus tend to value paintings or sculptures on the basis of their size; these individuals bring to mind another Spanish saying: “Caballo grande, ande o no ande”, or “Give me a horse that’s big, whether it can walk or not”). In place of Velázquez’s The Spinners, we might have chosen a portrait of Renoir’s, an Impressionist landscape by Monet, a still life by Cézanne or some of Degas’ ballerina paintings… The mysterious complexity —which both astonishes and captivates— of such works is still immense… and one never tires of contemplating them! We could say the same of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, or a quartet by Mozart or Beethoven… A complete list of such examples would be endless. (To appreciate the complexity, the pictorial richness of Impressionist paintings, compare them with the works of Matisse…)

To take an example from the world of sports, football is played by getting a ball inside a goal area delineated by three posts. If such a game were played by a solitary player aiming at the goal over and over again, for the spectator this would prove dreadfully boring. But if this objective is pursued by two teams of eleven players each, each of which attempts to score by kicking the ball into its opponents’ goal, it is quite a different story. The enterprise becomes a complex one, and a maximum of both effort and technique, in accordance with the rules of the game, is required to surpass the performance of one’s rivals.

This sort of complexity is what makes a given spectacle pleasing, and what holds the viewer’s attention before a work of art.

I have said “complexity” and this word runs the risk of being misunderstood. I am referring to complexity, not complication, and even less to unnecessary or artificial complication. Complexity is diversity in unity; a multiplicity harmonized, correlated, of the elements comprising a particular work. In the material world, the superior, the most perfect, beings are in fact the most complex. A human being is more complex than a geometrical figure, but also more complex than any irrational animal, plant or inert being. Consider the human eye, as great a challenge for an artist as for an ophthalmologist… How fascinating it is to examine the way El Greco or Rembrandt painted their subjects’ eyes…. or how Leonardo Da Vinci rendered a smile. How vast a world can be contained in or suggested by a glance, a smile…!

Near the beginning of the present text (My Painting), I stated: Unity in multiplicity: the various parts or functions of a given painting, rather than opposing each other, combine to create a single compositional effect. This concurrence in a single effect is what produces the surprising impression of simplicity, of harmony.

At the end of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, while the closing credits are scrolling down, the camera comes to rest on the hands of the pianist interpreting a concerto by Chopin. It is a wondrous spectacle to watch the multiplicity of movements as his fingers roam over the keyboard: they represent an endless unfolding of notes all born from the same musical theme: easy to take in and enjoy —for this aspect of simplicity but which, at the same time, capture our attention by the sheer variety of sounds, always different and perfectly harmonized.

An apparent simplicity does not contradict a complex reality:
We might say that this table is solid, compact and stable over time but…
In 1909, Rutherford, in his famous “atomic bombardment” experiment, hurled alpha particles against sheets of gold and observed that atoms are nearly empty. 90%, in fact, of an atom is empty! Its nucleus is very small, and the electrons which revolve around this nucleus are at some distance from it.
While atoms linked together form molecules, these do not actually adhere to each other. In gases, these separations are still greater.
There are stars which, in the final phase of their existence, possess only neutrons. As these do not repel each other, they are packed tightly together and occupy very little space (with no holes in between them). Their density is therefore extremely high, on the order of millions of tons per cubic centimetre.
The movement of both atoms and molecules is in relation to temperature. Only at 0º K (–273º C) does all movement cease.
Knowing this, can we continue to claim that the table is wholly sold, compact and stable over time?

The words of Jean Guitton give voice to these same ideas: “I hold in my hands a simple flower. Something astonishingly complex: the dance of billions and billions of atoms —their number exceeding that of all the possible beings that walk the earth, all the grains of sand on all of our beaches—, atoms which vibrate and oscillate in an unstable equillibrium…” 4

From the field of experimental science, which every day is discovering more and more of the inner workings of reality, both far and near, come astonishing declarations such as: “One DNA molecule is more complex than a galaxy”; or that “a single one of our own cells is more complex than any machine”. And so, if we reduce our understanding of reality —and of works of art— to the mere appearance of things, our judgments will be superficial and erroneous. In our particular case, we live in a culture of novelty, and it is difficult for many of us to understand that art involves much more than simply presenting new forms; beneath appearances, on which the attention of so many remains fixed, there may well be a spiritual and artistic richness that provides the real value of a painting… or a piece of music. J. S. Bach was not the inventor of the musical form known as the fugue, but he was the most important composer of fugues —and of contrapuntal music in general— of all time. If he had refused to compose fugues because other composers had already done so, he would never have developed his own originality, and we would now be deprived of the sublime musical legacy he left us; fortunately, Bach had the genius to discover a more profound beauty that he reached by exploring and developing his art at a deeper level than its outward appearance, which on occasion he chose not to tamper with.

In painting, let us take as an example Lucretia, an oil by Rembrandt which hangs in the National Gallery of Washington; words would fail us if we tried to describe those eyes —regarding us for the last time—, those trembling lips… Each nuance, each detail of this canvas, if enlarged, could be considered a masterpiece in its own right; the most sublime art, the most mysterious and ineffable complexity is given to us here, multiplied by one hundred, by a thousand, a million… A museum which had only this painting as its entire collection would be a very great museum indeed.

However, the analyses and commentaries that accompany some of the paintings (reproductions of these, rather) on view at www.jrtrigo.es may help one to see that the complexity of a painting is not merely the result of excessively elaborated details. As in architecture, a work of greatness does not call for ornate ornamentation but, rather, spaces which are wisely designed and inter-related. In painting, it is vital that we see beyond the materiality of forms, colour and line to that which is not apparent on first sight: i.e. the sense of these elements, how they are inter-related and whether the painting functions as a single organism in accordance with its theme.

 

7. True art is not limited to appearances

 

There are those who avoid making these types of comparisons, preferring to view all concepts as relative: the works of Titian, they say, belong to the 16th century, as those of Mark Rothko belong to the 20th, and one is just as valid as the other. To think this way is to evade the question; indeed, to misunderstand it completely. Those who take such a view are perhaps the same who later argue that each new work surpasses all those done before it (in which they fall into contradiction) and thereby convert art into a simple circumstance or fashion at a given moment in history.

I affirm the contrary: true art transcends both period and fashion; its value is absolute. If J. S. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven had not existed until our own time, and were they to compose their works now, in the 21st century instead of then, those works would still be incomparable masterpieces. If El Greco or Goya were working among us now, instead of in the past, their paintings would be just as significant, just as marvellous, and would far surpass in quality a vast number of “modern” works.

The changes undergone by modern art have at times led to very interesting discoveries, worthy to be identified as great achievements (the still lifes of the Cubists, for example, are among the most beautiful ever painted); but such praise should not obscure the nature of these changes, which have also brought about a disintegration of the very goals of art. Some seem to reduce painting to only colour, others to the line; some to composition, others to deformation; some reject the figure, while others appear to reject form itself, to embrace chaos… Finally, some opt for mere provocation and extravagance (such as labelling and selling as art the carcass of a shark, a calf or a colt preserved in a transparent case filled with formaldehyde). In so many of these examples there occurs what has been referred to above: a progressive artistic impoverishment, a loss of complexity in execution. For some, Beethoven is the prototype of the innovative, revolutionary, “modern” artist. His music combines these and many other qualities to achieve results which are not simple (in contrast to what has so often occurred in the 20th century and our own time) but highly complex, in works of enormous depth and beauty. We might thus generalize that the modern era’s desire for novelty has brought with it, in quite a number of cases, regression and disintegration, while the innovations of Beethoven surpassed what preceded them to achieve the most absolute majesty.

A considerable number of paintings done after the Impressionist period of the late 19th and early 20th century —and this is more and more often the case in our own times— have the appearance of crippled, deformed creatures, possessing but a single limb, but are valued —this much is true— out of all proportion in an age where the craze for novelty has been imposed by so many. While such paintings are at times considered to be milestones in the evolution of modern art, they are nevertheless artistically poor, no more than sketches which perhaps suggest innovations but which lack that complexity, that triumph over difficulties which characterize a true masterpiece. It is not the same to climb a mountain of 400 metres as to scale one of 4,000; likewise, it is not the same to fit together two or three planes of solid colour as to paint the infinitude of hues that make up a human face; nor would a succession of uniform sounds ever be equivalent to a Bach violin sonata, even if it had the same duration. It is true, however, that some of these modern paintings, for their simplicity and because their main objective seems to only to call attention, might well be ideal motifs for posters and murals: images effective for their “impact”, for the immediate visual impression they produce —without depth or greater significance— (their aim, after all, is not to penetrate the mystery of man in the vast wonder of the reality that surrounds us); they may surprise by their sensationalism, their strangeness, but they do not astonish by their artistic beauty, do not in any way reveal the splendour of truth and goodness, do not embody the mystery that palpitates in everything that exists… Indeed, and to great extent, there is something that mars the communicative effectiveness of these modern works, and this is precisely the fact that they have been conceived merely to surprise, by whatever irrational means available, and have placed the novel, the extravagant and the strange above all other considerations; very much the contrary occurs in the classical art of any other period, where conceptual clarity and naturalism are counted as essential virtues.

Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, the enthusiasm for counterpoint in music (i.e. vocal or instrumental polyphony) would give way to another form of composition, which was that of melody with chordal accompaniment. The number of instrumentalists forming an orchestra thus grew, resulting in a spectacular theatricality: music became a truly absorbing experience that carried the rapt listener away as on a rolling wave. The early 20th century, however, would witness a reaction to the grandness and excessive complexity of such post-Romantic works; what was then sought was a clarity of harmony and rhythm, and the use of tonality. Neo-classicism such as this –in music, but also in painting– would co-exist alongside referential work of that other dominant passion of the 20th century: the obsession with novelty. Stravinsky and Picasso, to name two examples, would produce works of both genres. Of the latter type, there are many which seek to shock the listener or viewer with an aggressive experimentation and gimmickry, so much so that –speaking hyperbolically– one might say that the first, on occasion, created music to make even the deaf jump from their seats, while the second painted to impress the blind.

In the present text, and in others found on this website (www.jrtrigo.es), it is shown that true art cannot be limited to appearance, and that genuine artistic discovery is in effect timeless.

 

8. Let us not confuse the appearance of modernity with artistic quality

 

By way of example, I have assembled here a few anecdotes that highlight the courage and perseverance of the artist (“There is infinitely less novelty in the rapid flutterings of fashion than in the slow, continuous striving for perfection which is proper to true style” 5, wrote Gustave Thibon).

“Johann Sebastian Bach used to say that dissonances are worse the closer they are to harmonies, and that arguments between husbands and wives are unbearable”.6

Such a formulation is equivalent to that of the philosophical scholars: “The corruption of the finest things is worst of all…” Indeed, it is a more serious matter to fall when climbing Mt. Everest than it is when climbing onto a chair.
Michelangelo Buonarotti explained it like this: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our goal is set too high and we don’t reach it, but rather that it is too low and we do reach it”.

On the subject of compositional rigor, on the unity demanded by a work of art:
«On one occasion, Johann Sebastian Bach reprimanded a student by calling him “swindler of the piano”, for his having tried to produce a dazzling effect without first establishing a solid foundation for it».7

Fashions polarize the attention of their followers in a determined direction, causing blindness and deafness in all other areas. Indeed, many melomaniacs of the early 20th century were so imbued with Romantic tastes that they were unable to grasp the art of Bach’s Suites for Cello. Pablo Casals felt that he could prove to the world that those works, seen as simple didactic exercises for helping the student achieve a greater mastery of his instrument, were in themselves great masterpieces. To this effect, he spent ten years rehearsing his interpretation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Suites for Cello, after which he performed them in Paris. Before daring to play them in Vienna, which according to Casals had the most discerning public in the world of music, he devoted another ten years of rehearsal. When the day arrived to perform them in Vienna, a perhaps nervous Casals lost his grip on the bow and sent it flying into the stalls. The audience did not laugh, however, but held a breathless silence. That respectful, comprehensive response filled Casals with renewed serenity and he went on to give the most astonishing performance that Vienna had ever witnessed of these compositions, considered since then as the greatest solo works for cello of all time.

As a painter Rembrandt was not a conformist… When he had finished painting a human figure and decided that, in order for a single jewel to shine more brightly, the already finished figure would need to be dimmer, he was perfectly capable of repainting the figure entirely —with less intensity of illumination— if in his judgement the total work required it.

The psychiatrist and writer Juan Antonio Vallejo-Nágera wrote that many of the most important works in the history of humanity were done by men who were feeling quite badly (not in comfortable circumstances, in other words).8

Beethoven, who would become completely deaf (the most extreme paradox or contradiction for a musician!), composed the most magnificent symphonies of all time.

The Romantics were convinced that suffering was the forge upon which an artist must be formed in order to be truly creative.

For his last 25 years, the “Impressionist” painter Renoir suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis. Easels fitted with pulleys and brushes tied to his deformed hands were some of the resources he was to rely on to continue painting… canvases bursting with vitality!

Mozart died in Vienna on the 5th of December, 1791. «The nature of Mozart’s fatal illness is also a controversial topic […]. While the severe syptoms that would leave him bedridden appeared in September, on his last journey to Prague, for all of that year he had felt ill, with recurrent headaches and toothaches, fatigue and swelling of the hands and feet, and a general malaise that would reach frequent peaks. None of these symptoms, however, would interrupt the flow of his work; even on his deathbed he was still composing […]. More bothersome than bodily complaints are those of the spirit, and Mozart had these as well […]. Worst of all was the presence of what the mystics call “spiritual desolation”, a sort of emotional paralysis especially torturous for more sensitive spirits: “… if people could see into my heart, I would feel ashamed. For me, everything is cold, cold as ice…” In another letter (dated 7 July) he says: “…I cannot describe how I feel, there is a sort of void that pains me, a longing that is never satisfied…” Those who believe in the simplistic idea that a work of art flows from the internal volcano of the artist’s soul would do well to reflect on this. Art is always a cerebral process, not a sentimental one; and few have the incredible ability Mozart showed, to leap over the abyss of that innner, emotional void and create pages filled with sublime outpourings of feeling».9

By contrast, let us turn now to quite another sort of example. As either an experiment or a joke, one of the ARCO contemporary art fairs which are held every year in Madrid recently included a painting done haphazardly in a few minutes by various pre-school children. Visitors to the fair took this painting to be merely one of so many others on display there. Can you imagine the result if this same experiment had been carried out at the Prado? It is obvious that the joke would have fallen flat, that no one would have been taken in by it.

This example is illustrative of the artistic impoverishment to which the current thirst for novelty and extravagance has brought us, and with relative assiduity. It likewise exposes another problem of our times: that certain persons confuse the appearance of modernity with artistic quality. This is but another consequence of the pursuit of novelty and the fact that the condition stipulated in the earlier quote by Ana Magdalena Bach is lacking: “…if they are true musicians, they will return to Sebastian” 10 (i.e. to the music of J. S. Bach). In parody of those words, we might say: if they are true painters, if they truly love and understand art, they will once again appreciate artistic quality over what merely appears to be new.

 

9. Progress is adding, discovering; not rupture

 

A number of false ideas have been circulated by word-of-mouth, such as that “it was the Impressionists who broke with tradition”. It should be remembered that, while they did indeed turn their attention back to nature, they turned it also to the painting of Spain’s “Golden Age”, to British and Dutch landscape painting, to Japanese printmaking; they frequented the Louvre and ripened within themselves what had in many ways already begun with painters such as Delacroix, Courbet, Corot, Daumier and the Barbizon School. We can even detect their own personal predilections: of Manet for Velázquez and Goya; of Renoir for French painters of the 18th century, for Rubens, Veronés and Raphael;of Monet for Boudin, Jongkind and Turner; of Degas for Ingres; of Cézanne for Poussin; of Van Gogh for Rembrandt and Millet. To a great degree, these painters were assuming an inherited cultural tradition and adding their own discoveries to it. The process of their artistic labours may stamped with a “plus” (+) symbol.

Something similar would occur with the advent of cubism, when Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris extended the theories and visual experiments of Cézanne.

Goya, who was also inclined toward Romanticism, defended the freedom of the artist. We see, however, that he conceived his paintings with magnificent compositions that could be classed at timeless. We must understand the ideas of an artist within the context of his work; if not, we fall prey to misinterpretation. That principal of defending freedom (which in Goya’s case would serve to feed his own expressive audacities) assumed by an “artist” who, like so many in our time, neglects to learn his craft (so as to be wholly original and creative!) or to assimilate the achievements of artists who were true artists, and who are unwilling to subject themselves to any sort of discipline or canon that might provide structure to their “creations”, is likely to be disastrous. In nature, the application of “freedom” according to this second interpretation would destroy, in one fell swoop, all vertebrate beings, all living things (whose organic unity is highly complex); indeed, —here is the great paradox!— all beings endowed with freedom (for it is they who possess a greater complexity, a more exigent unity).

At present, many artists claim to reject all tradition, which they consider useless baggage, to be got rid of in order to achieve the appearance of novelty and originality they so anxiously crave; and so they feel they should be free of any similarity to the works of other artists. Their intention is to “start from scratch”, and from themselves alone. Their fundamental attitude toward our shared cultural heritage is one of rejecting —in other words, a “minus” (―) symbol. By this criteria, the orangutan should consider itself fortunate with respect to the human being, as it lacks all vestiges of culture.

The researcher at work in his laboratory, the engineer intent on designing a new railway or aircraft, does not begin by rejecting everything previously invented or discovered in his field of activity; rather, he seeks to build on what has gone before, adding to it if he can, introducing substantial —or at least accidental— improvements in what he creates and making every effort not to regress, not to reproduce the defects and imperfections that were corrected in earlier designs. This is the usual road of progress; forever adding, integrating what was divided or dispersed, remaining always open to the light, which is as much as saying: opening to truth, to goodness, to beauty.

The consequences of the opposite view have already been pointed out in the preceding paragraphs: wanting to dispense with the achievements, advancements and discoveries of tradition, in the name of modernity and so-called “progress”, carries with it the danger of subtracting more than adding, of marching ever closer to the frontiers of what is no longer art. The goal of breaking completely with the past may even lead to the pursuit of an art without form, and to an exaltation —as if this were a great accomplishment— at having reduced art to the formless, the chaotic… A family was once viewing an exhibition by an internationally acclaimed painter at a museum of contemporary art. Standing before one canvas that consisted of a broad surface of one uniform colour, adorned with one or two black spots, one of the children was heard to comment: “Mummy, that painter is a cheeky one, isn’t he? He doesn’t paint anything, and he doesn’t give it a title, either” (the small card accompanying the work read: “Untitled”). Another child, in the tale by Hans Christian Andersen, had exclaimed: “But the king is naked…” (as everyone could see, but no one dared to admit).

In the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, centuries of European musical culture can be heard to converge. Bach was not affected by the prejudice for rejecting the influence of other musicians in order to affirm his own autonomy and genius. Rather the contrary; as a youth he would strain his eyes copying out, by moonlight and over the course of many weeks, a collection of celebrated works by famous composers, which his brother kept in a strongbox protected by a wire grill; he would walk hundreds of kilometres –-over 600!— to steep himself for several months in the music of Buxterhude… He seems not to have cared much about being “brilliant”, but rather achieving the highest perfection in his art. “The purpose of all music is no other,” he claimed, “than the glory of God and the satisfaction of the human soul” 11. He was not bothered by culture; it was for him a glorious heritage that he would utilize and eventually surpass. Nor would the music of Mahler be encumbered by its cultural weight, or the painting of El Greco for spreading its roots deep into the cultures of Eastern and Western Europe. Indeed, art has been enhanced, has taken wing and reached to sublime heights in such cases and in many others.

The world of literature is also rich in such examples. I quote: “The great enemy of poetry, which Ezra Pound sought to unmask, was improvisation [the lack of technical training, of ‘craft’]. Any true poem has behind it a lengthy development of verbal instruments. Two centuries of poetic work in Provence and one in Tuscany were needed to create the tools that Dante employed. Generation after generation would labour anonymously, and unknowingly, to produce a Shakespeare. […] To a plethora of poetic hacks aspiring to personal glory at any cost –and doing nothing except repeat banalities–, Pound preferred an army of humble workmen, who were willing to experiment and who would discover something, whether this was a simple rhyme or a new rhythmic accent, and add their anonymous contribution to that gigantic common cause which may be termed poetic language”.12

Velázquez’s painting The Spinners, mentioned earlier in relation to the works of Mark Rothko, blends together what might be considered a genre painting of —in the foreground— a workroom where a group of women (two of whom, in their poses, resemble two of Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine Chapel frescoes) toil at their spinning wheels with —behind this— a depiction of the Arachne fable (Arachne challenges Minerva to a spinning contest and, to prove her skill, weaves a tapestry on which is reproduced Titian’s Rape of Europa). Such complexity does not detract from the prodigious execution of this masterpiece of world painting, in which the present and the past are melded into a synthesis which, along with admirable, is forever fresh. This is art, or perhaps, Art (with a capital A). In contrast to this, not a few modern works which are labelled “artistic” should instead perhaps be considered as little more than decorative objects; i.e. diluted forms of art. It often happens that the principal novelty of these modern works is a weakening, a watering down, of the liqueur of art, and even when only a scant few drops of this are produced, it is enough for such works to be proclaimed “art”! What is more, the curious practice of esteeming as the highest expressions of art works which are in reality so slight results in their being perceived as different… and therefore modern!

The generalization of subjectivism (each individual having his or her own particular truth), the result of an immanentism which places the subjective above the knowledge of objective reality, has given us the relativism and confusion of our present age.

A digression. “There are as many realities as there are people,” say those who deny that there is one universal and objective reality; “the only reality is that which I understand”, others seem to say. With pride, the rationalists of the 19th century claimed that soon all of reality would be completely understood by the human mind, with no traces of mystery left unexplained. How disappointed they would have been to learn of the innumerable scientific discoveries and technological innovations of the 20th century, of which they had no inkling at all! If one side of a polyhedron were visible to one person, and another side to someone else… would this be sufficient reason to affirm that there are as many polyhedrons as there are people? Everything that exists in the universe is very complex and bears the imprint of an Creator who is extremely wise and powerful… So much so that He created from nothing!; reality is “stubborn” and resists being interpreted simplistically, or by the reductionism of he who argues that the only thing real is that which can fit into his mind. “No philosopher (lover of wisdom) has ever been able to know completely the essence of even a housefly” 13; the one who said this is the same who affirmed: “The spirit that knows penetrates to the essence of things” 14, an idea which coincides with that of another very great thinker, Aristotle: “The soul is in a way all things” 15 (the human soul identifies with all things upon knowing them; it cannot be otherwise: were this identification lacking, they would be unknowable). Or, in the same sense, any reality in the universe can be known by the human spirit; Einstein would formulate it like this: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is so comprehensible”; the law of nature “reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection” 16. And so, all that exists is presented to man in the form of truth (the object of this understanding), in the form of goodness (as something appealing, the object of his will) and in the form of beauty (the object of admiring contemplation). The poet Antonio Machado would capture some of these thoughts in a single, luminous phrase; “Your truth? No, the truth; come and search for it with me. As for yours, keep it to yourself.” 17

The delusion began with Descartes and his “I think, therefore I exist”(taking one’s thought as a starting point, rather than reality). When man chose to deny the natural experience of recognizing as existent that which lies before him (a sheet of paper, a pencil, this desk… which can be seen, felt, used…), that which is external to his mind and precedes his own consciousness, which was there before he came to know it, he ―modern man― voluntarily locked himself into a prison of subjectivity from which it is difficult to escape, to admit any existence that transcends his own thought. From that moment he began to believe that his awareness of reality is merely an emanation of his own mind, rather than considering human awareness as an adequation of the intellect to things which already exist (all that which has existed and still exists outside himself); it is the intellect which conforms to, moulds itself –like clay– to and takes the form of external objects as they are known to it.

 Two sculptures that illustrate these two antagonistic attitudes are Michelangelo’s Il pensieroso (Lorenzo de Medici), with its sense of opening toward both realism and contemplation, and Rodin’s The Thinker, an image of man tormented and closed in upon himself.
The exacerbation of the “self” which has taken place in the modern era, and whose philosophical origin lies in Descartes, can be traced in the religious sphere to Luther, with his doctrine of “free examination” and, beginning in the Enlightenment, to freemasonry.
With the passage of time, chaos has settled in and confusion overtaken us… This is the current Babel, one of weak thinking, in which it is impossible to build a well-structured culture with a common understanding… Now, finally, anything at all is or can be called art!

10. Art as a penetration into the mystery of all that exists

 

One must go beyond a dialectical vision of history (the history of art in particular) based on confrontation and the appearance of change (where, as is usually said, one artistic movement arises in opposition to another…) and go straight to the essential: toward the continuity and progressive summation of diverse contributions (an evolution which is rooted in unity rather than confrontation and the mere change of trends), with the aim of finding ways of approaching and reaching truth, goodness and beauty, defending “the purposeful as opposed to the reactive”: all reaction tends to hide a reduction. In order to contrast, one aspect is generally exaggerated to the detriment or neglect of the rest.

My painting may help to place some, or many, before the mystery of the natural order. That which so many consider obvious and perceive in a routine, superficial way, is wrenched from mere complacency whenever a viewer stands before one of my paintings; those seemingly prosaic forms, so obscured by triviality and fashion, are suddenly overturned, becoming a source of wonder and contemplation each time someone engages with my work.

According to Beethoven, truth is the ultimate reason for beauty. Art can thus be understood as a bridge between truth and beauty. Nevertheless, in our times —in the best of cases— what has been sought is a beauty unrelated to truth… and the result is a “contemporary art” which is often without any beauty at all, or even a proud exhibition of “ugly-ism”. These achievements of our age become a series of hollow forms which perhaps decorate —and their decorative values is at times inarguable— but lack any sort of transcendence.

The symbol goes beyond materiality itself to signal another reality: there is a Chinese adage that tells how, when someone points a finger at the moon, the fool remains looking at the finger… “I believe that symbolic language is the one foreign language that each of us must learn” 18. Through this same language, —as I have said above— my painting places some or many before the mystery of the natural order. The analyses and commentaries that accompany some of my paintings at www.jrtrigo.es will shed further light on this aspect.

Let us recall here the ideas of Gabriel Marcel: the problem is something external, something before me that seems to block my path. The mystery, on the other hand, is something that pervades us, envelops us, exceeds us. Let us a recall here a thought by the most eminent physicist of the 20th century: “When we lose the sense of mystery, life is no more than a snuffed-out candle” (Albert Einstein). Earlier, Sophocles had said: “Many are the things which are mysterious, but none as mysterious as man”.

The mystery is not a truth about which we can know nothing, but rather of which we cannot know everything. The mystery is doubly revealing: revealing of what it allows us to know and revealing of our own limited capacity to understand… albeit open and desirous of continuing to advance toward the attainment of truth, goodness and beauty.

If, from now on, we were to see that art, more than surprising by means of novel appearances, is rather the discovery of a deeper novelty; that is, a penetration into the mystery of all that exists —as stated at the beginning of the present text—, then the reader’s knowledge of my pictorial proposal and the various texts included in this website will have proven beneficial… even more so if we consider the historical context in which we find ourselves: “What a sad era we live in” —said Albert Einstein, our near-contemporary— “when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice”.

 

When browsing this website, after clicking on the photos of the paintings to enlarge them, you will find it very helpful to make use of the tools for enlarging or reducing the images by percentage, or the “adjust width” feature, as needed in each case, whether viewing complete paintings or the details provided of them. This will enable you to discover for yourself many more aspects of these works which are otherwise impossible to appreciate in such very reduced reproductions.

 

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1, 5  Gustave Thibon, L’équilibre et l’harmonie.
3  Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt’s Manner: Technique in the Service of Illusion.
4  Jean Guitton (with Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff), Dieu et la science.
2, 6, 7, 10, 11  Esther Meynell, The Little Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach.
8, 9  Juan Antonio Vallejo-Nágera, Locos egregios
12  J. M. Ibáñez Langlois, Rilke, Pound, Neruda: tres claves de la poesía contemporánea
13  St. Thomas Aquinas, Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum (The Apostle’s Creed), Introduction
14  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, 31, 5
15  Aristotle, De Anima, 3, 8 (431 b)
16  Albert Einstein, The World As I See It
17  Antonio Machado, Proverbios y cantares (LXXXV)
18  Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

 

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