Mirabai Bush talks about contemplative seeing, ‘the mindful study of painting and sculpture as ‘beholding” (which involves appreciation, care, the involvement of our senses). We are able in beholding to ‘hold’ something in our attention until something emerges into our awareness.
I called this painting ‘what the mountain was feeling..’ it came out of beholding this particular mountain range. What then came out was ‘the silent mountain was passionate.’ Of course, contemplative seeing is not limited to painting and sculpture, for me it began with the contemplative seeing of the mountain.
Taking time to behold means that time can open up and we can have a moment of clear seeing, an epiphany.
We can become mindful through looking at art, reading poetry, becoming a carpenter, fishing – being a poet, or artist.
One such artist who can help us journey into a state of greater awareness is Odilon Redon, the French Symbolist.
ODILON Redon the French Symbolist (1840-1916) shows us in his paintings the spiritual reality underlying our material reality. Although that spiritual reality is veiled and ambiguous, Redon enables us to see through the physical to the spiritual beyond. Redon achieved this through his use of symbol in the mysterious world of dreams and the subconscious.
I recently had the privilege of visiting the recent exhibition of Redon’s work at the Grand Palais in Paris (23 March- 20th June 2011). This is apparently the first major exhibition of his work in Paris since 1956.
Although I have been drawn to his pastels by their ecstatic use of colour, this exhibition traces the development of his work from the beginning of what is called the Noirs, charcoal drawings and lithographs, through to the luminous vibrancy of his later pastels.
What is brought together in this major collection of over 170 pieces is the shadow side of our humanity and the light that also inhabits us. A religious experience and a serious illness in the 1890s brought out this explosion of colour in his work which had until then lain dormant.
The paintings are often spiritually evocative although never labelled as ‘religious’. In this way their appeal would be to all who love art.
The centrepiece of the exhibition was a painting called The Golden Cell (1892). You gaze at a mysterious yet still and peaceful cobalt blue profile of a face, eyes closed, painted over a metallic gold background, much like an icon. What is striking about the painting is the unrealistic use of colour – a blue face. Blue here is seen to be symbolic of holiness.
Another painting of a still but attentive face is called Closed Eyes (1890), this is a recurring theme, and believed to be the transition point between the Noirs and the later vivid colour. If part of the reason for art is for us to experience something, as it was with stories in an oral culture, then these are paintings that create a yearning in us for the peace that is being portrayed before our eyes.
Another key painting that lies at the end of this journey into stillness is called The Silent Christ (1911), or perhaps even better, The Silence. This is not the silence of Christ before Pontius Pilate, or his silence on the cross, but the silence of his contemplation in communion with his Father – which is the silence. Paradoxically, although Christ’s eyes are closed, this is a watchful face, not the watchfulness of anxiety and suspicion, as characterizes so many faces in the twenty first century, but the watchfulness of love and trust. This is interesting as Jesus talks much about watchfulness in Mark’s gospel – a concept that overlaps with modern ideas of mindfulness.
Even in the earlier charcoal and lithograph pieces, with their weird and anguished themes of smiling spiders, and plants with human heads, there is still the attempt in drawings of angels and demons to show light and dark through a mastery of the technique of chiaroscuro. The French term clair-obscur brings out the tension that lies within all of his work, clarity and hiddenness are woven together.
The one theme that is missing from this collection is a greater representation of the ‘mystical boats’, a series of sailing boats with mysterious passengers and elusive destinations – but still infused with the colour of hope and faith. These paintings encourage us not to remain anchored in an imaginary safe harbour, but to sail through the shadow into the light beyond. Perhaps, most encouragingly of all, Redon’s work draws out the spiritual which lies dormant in so many people. It is there where his importance lies.