Tintoretto’s Genius Shut Me Up !
I have been absent from ART LOOK, though not absent from looking—or writing. I apologize, my dear readers, for this hiatus. My writing priorities were applied to getting two books together for Sondra and me: Lately I’ve Been Thinking, two years of her Facebook Posts consolidated in a compendium of tidbits of wisdom, and Liberation, a short manual about the “personal lie” (our most negative subconscious judgment we have about ourself) and how to liberate ourselves from it. Those books can be obtained at bit.ly/LatelyRay and bit.ly/LibRay respectively.
But here is the real reason you have not heard from me—on two occasions I sauntered over to the National Gallery to see the Tintoretto Exhibition. I was so blown away by it I was left speechless. Tintoretto’s genius shut me up. That’s the real reason. I was speechless in the Presence of Tintoretto’s genius. What could I add or detract, with pen or brush, to the huge pile of human endeavors to create the sublime? Tintoretto “shut me the fuck up” and I am hardly recovered from the silencing.
Well, passions are possible to move us again. I am moved to write an Art Look, after a long period of digestion. Three tours of duty later, I find myself in Curitiba, Brazil, looking back on my many months of pondering the power of the things I saw. Truly I was moved. And so can you be Looking at this glimpse of what has taken me five months to fathom.
The One That Moved Me The Most
This painting is about 15 feet tall, larger than life. It towered over me. I could hardly believe human hands painted such a thing. I could hardly imagine that this one moment in time, the holiest of holiest, could be captured in paint. What would this creation have taken, in the man who painted it? What true Connection to his Source would this action have required of his reservoir of painterly and spiritual wisdom to coalesce at once in his Genius? And, from the Source of this Holy Instant, how did he benefit himself from giving the ages a true view into this miraculous event? I am not in a position to say. But it is obvious that Tintoretto had this Connection. Without it this painting would not have come into being through his hands—literally being used by the Hands of God.
One can acknowledge symbolism, and this is OK. All painters must contend with this necessity of symbolism. The descending dove and the light rays of the Holy Spirit are strongly placed. They are prominent elements of the picture. Well, OK. We make the leap of faith to accept that the Symbol and the meaning of the Symbol are close to one and the same. How would you paint the Holy Spirit? It is formless, shapeless, timeless, edgeless, and spaceless. But you have to give it some form. So OK. The dove has been it—the object of flight downward of a Cosmic Energy sent to affirm the better angels of our nature—this is how artists have depicted the Holy Spirit. Let’s “dig it,” not poo-poo it as pictorial fantasy.
The Master of Diagonals
Tintoretto mastered the diagonal as an ordering of his dynamics. No other painter in history so employed the diagonal to compose pictures and capture the movement of our hearts and minds. He leads us through his vision as though we are on a journey to Nirvana—and it is his responsibility to insure we reach it.
These two men are intertwined in a drama of deep spiritual dalliance that sets our mind in a kind of trance. The diagonals lead us through the drama, and make sure we grasp the whole thing in our six seconds of attention. The Light is focused strongly around the head of the Christ in HIs total surrender, with head bowed down in anticipation of his “journey into the dark.” And this is what the Great Renaissance was all about—a “rebirth” of the Spirit into the otherwise darkness of the Middle Ages. It was a triumph of humanism and classical trust in the ascendency of man’s greater good in an otherwise feudal and oppressive social system.
The Diagonal, rather than a detour of vectors off track from the church norm of perpendicular rigidity, becomes a Holy Salvation in Tintoretto’s compositions. They weave us through the space and open up a dimension in us, far greater than the perimeters of the picture plane. They take us into Divine Space, which is boundless in its potential to awaken us to a higher reality.
A son of a fabric dyer, Tintoretto elevated himself from the lowly craft trades of his father’s class into the rarified moment of Holy Encounter—and attained the means of expression and observation unsurpassed in the Venetian Schools of painting. Not even Titian, his elder and more famous counterpart, had the raw talent of his brief student. Tintoretto’s father enrolled his son in Titian’s studio as an apprentice. Legend has it that the boy’s drawings were so dynamic and enthralling that Titian, jealous of the young man’s natural genius, sent him home in an act of excommunication from fear of being out-shined. Titian gave Tintoretto the cold shoulder his entire life. That tells you something right there as to the genius of Tintoretto, the “dyer’s son.”
The Last Supper
Most of us who have looked at art know the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. It is a very balanced image, with perfect one point perspective, converging in the middle with Christ’s head taking on major importance in the centralized, symmetrical view of the Idealized Savior. Tintoretto’s version is more rough and tumble, and the dynamism of the figures create a dramatic whirlwind of activity swirling around the off center version of the Christ.
“Reach for the flask of wine, Brother James, and Yo, buddy, knock over a few chairs in the revelry of your inebriation!” Don’t cha wanna be there! It’s a kind of fun fest flaunted in the face of proper church protocol, taken down from the Altars of respectability and put in the back rooms of our ebullient blasts of bromance. If the theme were not so serious, we would perhaps mistake it for a pre-nuptial stag party.
Again, the diagonals, vectoring left and right, plummet our eyes all over the place, to take in the fullness of the scene.
The Nine Muses
The Nine Muses have inspired artists for centuries. Tintoretto made them his subject in this painting. Mythology has it that they are the daughters of Zeus, King of the Gods, and Mnemosyne, the Titan Goddess of memory. They all have very definite functions to inspire science, arts, drama, poetry, and all the highest cultural creations. Here is the list of them: Calliope (Muse of Epic Poetry); Clio (Muse of History); Erato (Muse of Love Poetry); Euterpe (Muse of Music and Song); Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy); Polyhymnia (Muse of Hymns); Terpsichore (Muse of Dance); Thalia (Muse of Comedy); Urania (Muse of Astronomy).
Not that you have to know these names particularly to get the power of this painting. It is a “tight space,” in my opinion, in which Tintoretto packs the ultimate drama of the female form. Placed in a kind of harem of high culture that suggests the greater functions of Women, even the Divine Mother, these Muses lead the creative person through the paces that ultimately result in very particular expressions. The Muse is a spark, an inspiration, a “thought in the mind of God,” which comes down and into the artist as a kind of Super Food. The Food of inspiration is then transformed in the creative crucible of Tintoretto’s skill to paint his way into the annals of Art History, in the broader sense, but into the guts of ourselves, in the visceral view of what is actually before us.
Mind you, this is all before photography. The touch of the artist’s hand is upon all of those limbs, and he must put them together in the wholeness of a Truth so poignant that we are transfixed. One can hardly take his eyes off this work in its actual presence. And again, his diagonals spread our vision across the multitude of all his painterly strokes, giving us a view of space that is timeless and boundless. One is not the same after seeing this painting in person.
The Precursor of El Greco
Art builds on what came before it. Tintoretto built on Titian who was 28 years his senior. Though Titian may loom larger in the annals of Art History than Tintoretto, in my book the younger was his “better.” There is a holy presence in Tintoretto that Titian may lack. This could just be my opinion, without academic grounding to make this claim. But at the same time, I cannot take my eyes off of Tintoretto’s works. When I say I was rendered speechless, I really mean that. I could hardly think about writing “about” his work after it entered my very heart and soul. It truly silenced my thought.
This Holy Mother and Christ Child is stunning. Granted, it is in the context of Tintoretto’s patrons who financed the work, but the crux of the peace and joy transmitted, along with the “musical boys” chirping into the general elation of the scene, melts my heart and lifts my soul into realms hitherto unfelt. Only blessings ensue and pour out of their hand gestures of sacred touching.
The larger view does not add nor detract from the central core of this work. The patrons have their prime time space wearing their rich raiment of ermine and velvet. The priests get their cameo appearance in their stiff collared worship of the Holy Mother and Child. Tintoretto creates a pyramid of perfection with his adoration of the diagonal. We are brought to the pinnacle of perfection in the holding out of holiness. This is not a mere holiness of Church dogma or belief, but a profound meeting with Beauty and Balance. With all of the vectors flying here and there in the compositions of these master works, the artist never forgets we are most likely moved by the harmony of his elements all rolled into a kind of visual music. He even elevates the Boys of Music to the status of angels—by giving them wings. Bet you didn’t notice that.
Art builds on what came before it. The chiaroscuro of Titian underlies the genius of Tintoretto’s tonal virtuosity. He is a master of light and dark, shadow and brilliance, foreshortening and contrapposto. He is a colorist and a structuralist altogether. He is a mystic and a visionary above even a master craftsman. Why would younger artists not flee to him for guidance and solace? Tintoretto is a safe haven for our souls. He lifts us in moments we need lifting. He soothes us in the midst of a movement that is almost overwhelming. And it is this upon which the later artist, El Greco, strongly built. That is the subject for another Art Look, but at least for now we can see the influence Tintoretto had on great artists yet to come—El Greco being one of them.
The dynamic lessons of Tintoretto’s diagonals were indelibly drawn to stay. El Greco took these lessons to heart. 23 Years younger than Tintoretto, El Greco took up the baton in the relay team to pictorial Truth, or the sacred brush in this case, to carry on the dynamism of Tintoretto’s legacy. Figure this one out yourself. You don’t need a red-lined diagram from me to see the similar use of the diagonal to criss-cross our attention toward the beautiful elements that matter. The Mother sits adoring the epitome of Adoration—The Christ. Youth and Angels aside, we are moved into a heavenly realm. Who cares if they are “floating on clouds” ascending, and we cannot make that modern leap into iconic and symbolic reality? There is something beyond the realms of what can be verified by science and the senses. We can be enlightened into spiritual dimensions that even transcend what the body’s eyes perceive. We are still moved by the genius of the vision, nonetheless.
On a Late Summer Day, Looking Into the Future
It is a late summer day, here in Curtiba, Brazil, and I am looking into the future. I really meant it when I said Tintoretto “shut me up.” I had to assess my place, 500 years later, in the scope of those who pick up a brush or a charcoal stick seriously. We are products of our times, of our social and familial conditioning. This is just a fact. We are also the competitors in a challenge to overcome our self limiting nature. The great artists give us hope, and also show us the work yet to be done. The genius of Tintoretto put me in touch with a higher aspiration, hitherto unreached. But every viewing of great Mastery provides a window into our own possibilities for Self Mastery. And this is what the 5 months of silence did to me. Tintoretto “upped the stakes” in the seriousness of my craft. He infused me with more courage to face myself, but in the process I had to admit my shortcomings—albeit self-imposed. The wise can change their mind, and harness certainty, thank God.
It is a late summer day here in Curitiba. I am on the edge of a new life. Only I can limit it. But in Tintoretto, the reclining figure of pure relaxation is the Muse that guides me. I look into the future of pure facility. One can do anything they set their Holy Mind to do. And so it is! I am walking a new talk, and painting a new dream with Tintoretto behind me, the “cloth dyer’s son,” who was originally rejected by the Venetian artistic powers that be.
Who can reject our aspirations but ourselves, in the end? Tintoretto was not thwarted one bit. The rejection gave him fuel to press on. And that we all must do—press on to our highest aspirations. Aspira Astra—”reach for the stars.” What is it you want to do? Where do you want to go? And how do you want to do it? These are questions of the heart Tintoretto brought to himself, and answered them with his genius. We all have a genius in us that provides the answers. We just need to be clear about the questions. Then in this clarity, may the diagonal meanders of our soul come together in the vectors that point our way. I cannot wait to “paint the next one.” I invoke the Spirit of Tintoretto’s Genius to accompany me. And may you do the same. GOD BLESS you guys.