THE GAMUT OF THE HUMAN SPECTRUM
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is truly a Great Museum.
I blundered into this video on YouTube, one in a series called GREAT MUSEUMS. I saw it was about the Metropolitan Museum in New York, so I thought I would take a fast perusal. Before I knew it I was mesmerized. As often I do for these sorts of things, I turned off the sound and just “looked at the pictures.” As I was watching, I would stop the video on images that struck me, hit me as powerful, and the whole impact of the collection could be summed up very well in just a few of these poignant “screenshots.”
Here is the whole video if you want to watch it. But the purpose of this post is to give you my highlights, my most impressionable “impressions.” And these are my visual reactions, not what the experts were telling me in the documentary. Don’t forget, I turned off the commentary and just related to the images. Most of the works are not “famous” in my mind from art history, but some of them are. So here we go.
As I have been interested in Faces as part of my subject matter, I am often interested in how other artists paint the Face. This one of a woman, probably northern European, sixteenth century, struck me as beautiful. The perfection of its details and overall harmony is stunning to me. One can feel her reality. Almost more than a photograph could ever capture, this painting enters into our faculty of observation, and we connect immediately with her. Time and space disappear. We are in communion with her perfection―right now in 2020.
What can we glean from this connection?
Holiness is not necessarily reserved to how we relate to figures from history deemed “enlightened.” I consider the above face of this Flemish or Dutch woman very Holy. In fact, her presence makes her so. She is present, and the artist’s ability to make this presence palpable is his (or her) mastery over his medium and expression. Her beauty of simplicity captured by this masterful painter is immortal.
What really is this holiness? Buddha is commonly considered a Holy Being meritorious of our reverence and worship, our following, and our study of His life. Here is a sculpture of the Buddha. Surely we identify Him as such. But what really makes this sculpture and Buddha Himself holy? He is in a kind of a trance, a deep meditation. There is a stillness and a silence emitted from this work. What must the state of mind of the sculptor have been to have captured and transmitted this deep sense of Peace? Can you see it? Can you get into that state of holiness in both of these faces equally? One is engaging us; the other is in some other world, beyond the physical objects of our senses, yet inexorably tied to them in this corporeal heaven on earth.
We hardly know what we are looking at.
There is a world we barely know from the ancient past. These Mesopotamian sculptures of Winged Bulls with Kingly Heads show us a King of supernatural connection―not only with the natural animal world, but with a mythical possibility that is made plausible, believable, and actual in the union. Looking at them now in this modern age, there is a disintegration of the divide that now separates the modern man from his earthly connection to animals, nature, myths, symbolic but very real implications, and meanings. In this ancient time the boundary of separation was blurred, perhaps even non-existent, between the “reality of physical facts,” and the creation of mythical relationships. The King as a Verile Bull and Unfettered Winged Creature is perfectly plausible. He can at the same time rule, dominate multiple kingdoms, both human and animal, and consort with the angels toward Absolute Guidance all simultaneously. Why not?
What is there I have left out?
El Greco painted this head of the Christ, looking toward the Heavens in a kind of teary-eyed remorse that the cruelty of the human race had sunk so low. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” One can almost hear His thoughts coming forth from this King of Forgiveness, wearing His “crown of thorns.” El Greco captures this moment of compassionate detachment perfectly, masterfully, as much as humanly possible.
His gaze is upward, toward an elevated firmament. Why is it we consider the Heavens when thinking of those spiritual kingdoms? More Space? More Vastness of Unlimited Possibilities? More Mystery of the Great Unknown? More identification with the non-physical? Uncharted Regions of the Sublime? El Greco puts us right there in these questions. WOW. Unforgettable, this may be one of the most moving portraits of Christ ever painted, don’t cha think? He captures our own preponderance of the Spiritual Possibilities of our Life.
This is the painter Lepage’s portrait of the young Joan of Arc when she was receiving the Divine Revelations of her upcoming mission to save France. In her garden, she receives her holy vision. Otherworldly like the face of Christ, Lepage captures her perfectly in this “gaze of fate” into the future of her greatness. A peasant girl with the dignity of a Queen, she gives us all the possibility of rising to our Divine Connection, and our destiny for a meaningful life. Can we be equally inspired?
The Gamut of the Human Spectrum
Any major art museum gives us the luxury of spreading its oeuvre of collected works across the universe of time and space and consolidates our views of the best, the greatest, and even the tragic worst of the human condition. I want to give you three pictures of greatness next and tell you why I think they are great.
George Washington, the founding father of our nation, had to have the resolve to face insurmountable odds to bring forth a vision and a reality of a different social order. He created a platform for change in the manner in which we may decide our fate. No longer would the Kingly class have dominion over us so-called “commoners.” This portrait of him presents this determination, this resolve, to overcome the centuries of feudalism, and lift up the endeavors of men to the higher, more egalitarian ground of freedom.
One could criticize the man for “owning slaves.” In this current era that fact could taint the accomplishments that he achieved. Yet, in his day, the advancements of the human conditions were forwarded. The nearly impossible was not only made possible by him through his determination to succeed, but made manifest for us to enjoy nearly 250 years later. Others would come after fighting the battles of abolishing slavery. And even now, the tendrils of “wage-slavery” stretch forth in more subtle ways of low incomes and uneducated, disenfranchised conditions of some segments of our society. The prejudices of men may still rage on under the gestures of equality in this 21st century of the internet age. This is an ART LOOK, not a social commentary of political correctness. Nevertheless, the portrait of Washington emits a strength that may very well get us though our modern-day trials if we can connect with the vibration of his resolve. This is truly great.
An aesthetic of the ultra privileged was commensurate with the refinement of painterly skill and talent wielded by John Singer Sargent. Some dubbed him preoccupied with superficial subjects, with the belle epoque of life before the great wars. His painting Madame X was controversial in its day. Considered one of the most beautiful women of that period, Sargent wanted to paint Madame Gautreau because she was so captivating. An American expatriate, like himself, in the center of Parisian high society, like himself, he painted her in the most provocative way. It created a scandal when it was shown. In fact, one of the dress straps was repainted to correct the shock of one fallen strap that left a shoulder exposed. What could have been a coup in the professional prowess of Sargent’s popularity made him scandalous in the art circles of Paris of the 1880s. He ended up moving to London and restarting his portrait commissions there.
Eventually, after owning the painting himself for over 30 years, Sargent sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916. It has been there ever since and is widely recognized as one of the best portraits in American Art history, perhaps even the world. It is truly a painting of greatness.
The Dark Side of Aesthetic Aspiration
I include this third picture from the GREAT MUSEUMS video of the Met, which may seem in contrast to the rest. It may even seem out of place. It is a clear depiction of the “gamut of the human spectrum.” This is a picture of Michael Rockefeller, youngest son of Nelson Rockefeller, and friends, at age 23 or so, during his ethnographic expedition to Papua New Guinea in 1961. He went there for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography with the intention of documenting and bringing back specimens of indigenous wood carvings from the Asmat tribes. The department of Oceanic Art in the Met is dedicated to Michael and his tireless work in this area of indigenous South Seas cultures.
When I saw this picture I was stopped in my tracks. I seemed to recall seeing this Oceanic Wing in the Met years ago and reading the dedication to Michael Rockefeller. As it turned out, while on the expedition Michael was in a dugout canoe on the open seas with one of his colleagues, and it capsized. After a day of waiting for rescue, Michael decided to swim to shore, about 10 miles away. Rumor and future investigation revealed that when he made it to shore, the local tribesmen killed him and ate him in a ritual act of cannibalism, for which they were known. Though never forensically proven, when I saw this photo I had a chill come over me that this unfortunate fate was true.
The gamut of the human spectrum creates a wide range of cultural norms and practices. At the same time we could produce the heights and depths of cultural refinement in something as lofty as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and all of its beautiful and mysterious contents, we are at the same time shocked by the practices of a culture’s willful and savage cannibalism.
Cannibalism has recently been both practised and fiercely condemned in several wars, especially in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was still practised in Papua New Guinea as of 2012, for cultural reasons.WIKIPEDIA
Although by the late 20th century headhunting and cannibalism had been practically eradicated, in the past they were practised in many parts of the country as part of rituals related to warfare and taking in enemy spirits or powers. In 1901, on Goaribari Island in the Gulf of Papua, missionary Harry Dauncey found 10,000 skulls in the island’s long houses, a demonstration of past practices. According to Marianna Torgovnick, writing in 1991, “The most fully documented instances of cannibalism as a social institution come from New Guinea, where head-hunting and ritual cannibalism survived, in certain isolated areas, into the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, and still leave traces within certain social groups.”WIKIPEDIA
One cannot but cringe at the heart of darkness depicted here in this photo of Michael Rockefeller and his friends, who probably are the very ones who ate him. Why would I call this picture “great?” It depicts the wide range of the human condition, the light, and the dark of it all that still are present in our worldly experiences. And because of this honesty, this clear depiction of contrast, it is a great picture. It is just as compassionate as the Face of Christ or the Buddha who looked upon humanity asleep and offered forgiveness.
The Divine Mother Is Our Only Hope
We pay homage to the Divine Mother, frequently, as you know. Some of you are on my Odes to the Divine Mother WhatsApp group. All of you are welcome to join it here: CLICK HERE TO JOIN . The nurturing and protection of the Divine Feminine is what we need right now, more than ever in the world. The patriarchy has permitted cruelty and ideological and actual “cannibalism” far too long. We have come to the outer ends of these insane denials of Love upon our planet. It is the Divine Mother Who can help us re-establish sanity, Love, and Grace in our daily lives.
Our walk through the Metropolitan Museum’s virtual collection is an eye-opener. Beauty is there to uplift us at every corner. I end on this sculpture of the Holy Mother Mary and the Christ Child. She is presenting Him to the world. She is offering us another view of our own innocence and peace. In the Gamut of the Human Spectrum, She reigns supreme. Can we rise to meet Her is the question, and step into our destiny as this holy Child of God, Her Child. I think we can. We must.
LOVE you guys and gals,