Visual WHY

Below are various paintings that, for one reason and another, I really admire and appreciate. Now and then, I’ll add a new one, with links and commentary to help illustrate that a picture’s usually worth even more than the thousand words we commonly ascribe.

Of course, my own first tendency is to consider a painting’s visual, narrative content and historical context since I’m more accustomed to reading and writing texts that way, as compared to my Mom, say, who might first notice an artist’s particular technique or style.

Feel free to comment, from whatever basis is your first tendency, or to suggest a favoured painting of your own!

Raphael’s “The School of Athens” (c.1511)

Raphael - The School Of Athens (1511)
Raphael – The School Of Athens (1511)

“The School of Athens,” by Italian Renaissance artist, Raphael, is a marvellous visual compendium-slash-celebration of some of Philosophy’s greatest contributors. It is best appreciated as part of a series of frescoes that adorn the four walls and the ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura, which itself is one of four rooms in the Vatican in Rome.

Here’s a podcast of BBC Radio 4’s “In Our Time” series, featuring a discussion of the famous painting.

Watch this video for a good quick survey of the painting and its setting in the Vatican, or read this lecture for a more detailed account.

Finally, the painting has inspired some curiously specific, detailed studies of individual philosophers or topics that stem from Raphael’s grand work.

***Also Notable! Dr John Hesk, from the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland, offered a public lecture in Feb. 2016 at Trevelyan College (scroll down the lecture page for video and audio links). He includes Raphael’s “The School of Athens” and, shortly after, turns to Thucydides’ “Mytilenean Debate,” during which he describes as clearly as I might ever hope (~15:00 time stamp onwards) some motives and aims for raising the level of discourse.

Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” (1434)

Jan van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
“…a reconstruction rather than a mere representation”

“The Arnolfini Portrait,” by Jan van Eyck, was really the first painting that I’d ever considered or had presented to me in any substantive way, during a Social Studies class when I was thirteen. By then, I’d already grown up at home surrounded by my Mom‘s visual art – oil painting, acrylic, coloured pencil, pen and ink, pastel, oodles of sketch pads (my own as well) – so I had a personal comfort level for art, broadly speaking. But none of my awareness had ever been directed inside the pictures, to their symbolism, their metaphor, or their context. Imagine, then, how profoundly “The Arnolfini Portrait” hit me, with its layers of historical allusion and symbolic attention to detail, not to mention van Eyck’s stunningly miniscule technique. My introduction to this painting was to prove a prominent influence, showing me that raising the level of discourse was even something to consider, and I’m compelled by that to include it here in the Visual WHY.

“The Arnolfini Portrait” is kept by The National Gallery in London.

John Constable’s “The Hay Wain” (1821)

John Constable - The Hay Wain (1821)
“No arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty.”

If for no other reason, “The Hay Wain,” by John Constable, is simply a gorgeous picture that I wanted to include here. Plenty have considered Constable’s work pastoral, idealist, naturalist, some kind of realist-hybrid, or even revolutionary. Like so many others, I’m happy to consider this painting an illustration of whatever the English countryside might once have been.

To read more about “The Hay Wain,” check out this fellow WP blogger, who draws reference from several good sources, or this brief article about the local setting as it exists today.

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (c. 1555)

Pieter Bruegel - Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c.1555)
“His waxen wings did mount above his reach, / And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow” – Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (c.1588)

Uncertainty remains over whether this particular painting is Pieter Bruegel’s or a copy of his lost work by another unknown painter. My first response to this version of “The Fall of Icarus,” based upon my, er, expert credentials, was that it felt rushed, as if the painter had a deadline to meet and skipped some key details, as compared to the other version of this painting (yes, there’s yet another copy, discovered in the 20th century), which feels a little more polished. Since then, having read and seen what I’ve read and seen, I gather that this portrayal, inspired by Ovid‘s “Metamorphoses,” offers plenty for consideration.

Why include it here? Hubris, as I suggest by quoting from Doctor Faustus in the caption, is a plain criticism to lay against humanity – and where it’s justified, be warned! Here, though, I’m drawn instead not by any one of numerous interpretative details so much as by ambiguity itself, which demands from us a response, if we care enough to offer one. To clarify: ambiguity sometimes challenges us because we feel underserved or even cheated by whomever’s serving it up. But I’m not as sure that’s what is happening with this painting. Here, I feel as though the ambiguity arises not from lack of clarity or even carelessness but from too many alternatives. Its possible interpretations leave us with questions, for starters, and perhaps something more significant.

The painting’s interpretive ambiguities show us what we don’t know, which I realise is paradoxical. We are brought to a place where we can look but not understand. For instance, I see splashing legs in the water, but without knowing the story of Daedalus and Icarus, it’s all just a mystery. I’ve had that feeling in museums sometimes because I just don’t know enough about everything on display. Evidently, plenty of other people, far more informed than me, know why this or that exhibit has merit, and over time, we all come to know what we know. But, for the meantime, I’m stranded by my ignorance – that much I know. So am I motivated to take action (go learn more) or just carry on (go to the pub, which is what happened that day in the museum)? Sometimes, study is the greatest humbling experience we can have because we begin to realise just how much we’ll never know. There’s simply too much out there to be able to know everything. Some rare few master more than their fair share, but… did I mention they’re the rare few? Even they have limitations. We do what we can, or anyway, we ought to.

That we’re all personally responsible for our decisions, and ourselves, is obviously echoed in the painting’s narrative, as in life, as are the real consequences of decisions, Icarus here being the primary (albeit inconspicuous) example. That’s why I’ve included this painting – it challenges us in a show-vs-tell way to accept our own responsibility, to take our own action, and ultimately, having decided for ourselves, to sink or swim with the consequences. Sorry, Icarus.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s “Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure” (1791)

Jean-Baptiste Regnault - Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791)
“…could we ever know what art makes oneself better, if we were ignorant of what we are ourselves?”

As I take it, Socrates valued knowledge-of-self as much as any, this being an active knowledge, an ongoing personal examination of everyday values and beliefs, to determine what is constructive, beneficial, and still worth pursuing. Further, the end of self-examination beyond self-improvement is virtue, what we might consider a spiritual motive to help and contribute on behalf of others.

Toward this end-of-sorts, Socrates defended himself not as an agitator or a dissident but a prudent advocate for the democracy in which he lived and participated. He dutifully asked people questions, not probing for answers so much as provoking reflection and affirming an ethical claim not of certainty but of conviction, one that he explored rather than staked. What’s since been called his Socratic ignorance might be understood perhaps as humility but surely as necessity – an inevitable abiding respect for others to decide and to know, for themselves, themselves.

Only when we know ourselves, Socrates believed, can we begin to identify any errors of ignorance and, thereby, humility, which is to say something along the road to wisdom – even this requires a degree of honesty that we might refuse to admit. And only then do we begin to realise just how much more we can know, which is to say everything else – there’s a whole universe out there, spanning limitless time and space, past and future, eclipsing even our belief that we’ve got things well in hand. No one has cornered the market on thinking or its product, knowledge, and no one ever will, or even could, not so long as we accept responsibility to think and question for ourselves.

And note that Socratic ignorance doesn’t claim to know nothing. It’s more akin to curiosity, with maybe a dash of self-revelatory criticism that’s as constructive as we want it to be, unless instead we kill the messenger, as they finally did Socrates. On that note, if we’re feeling belittled, there’s no one but ourselves to blame. Or to thank. Never stop learning, yourself, and always help others, too.

I thought a good deal about an image to feature on the front page of this website, ultimately deciding that Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s depiction of the teachable moment nicely illustrates my broader intention. Granted, this is some dramatic teachable moment!

By featuring this painting, I’m neither sermonizing about susceptibility to lustful temptation nor prescribing a life of stoic forbearance or intellectual devotion. So, please, before anyone gets their nose out of joint, don’t make any precise one-to-one correspondence that I’m some condescending Socrates trying to save blog readers from lascivious consort. We’re all human, and if Socrates espoused principled moderation, he was also known to have a social side of his own, in a culture that wasn’t prudish. In the wider context, I take him to mean a bit of what you fancy and a bit of mutual respect for other people to make their own personal decisions. Words such as temperance, abstinence, asceticism – these connote far too much a kind of dogma where, for me, Socrates connotes a kind of doctrine.

Yes, Alcibiades apparently had a reputation for being fickle and enjoying more than his fair share of enjoyments. And yes, Socrates here does seem irked, almost like frustrated parent with incorrigible child, but I leave these details to the particulars of their relationship as compared to some metaphorical comment that might be attributed to me about you. My message though, however straightforward, is heuristic: Socratic wisdom is borne of humble, sincere reflection and removes us from our own complacency. Too much of a good thing is too little of anything else. We have so much at our fingertips for as long as we’re alive to grasp it, and we enable ourselves best by learning to live in humility. Perhaps ironically, though, all this we begin to realise only once we learn that we’re not the only ones involved.

This featured painting is kept by The Louvre in Paris although it is not currently on display. Regnault painted a similar work several years earlier, in 1786, which depicts nearly the same scene but with only one courtesan.

Edward Van Halen and Russian Constructivism (20th century)

Liubov Popova, “Space-Force Construction” (1921). Oil on plywood, 64 x 60 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery Moscow, gift of George Costakis.

Click here for a brief appreciation of Greg Renoff‘s unofficial Van Halen biography, Van Halen Rising.

The story behind Eddie Van Halen’s signature guitar art is pretty well known and well documented, as far as when and how and perhaps why he did it. So when I saw this 100 year-old painting, “Space-Force Construction,” by Russian constructivist Liubov Popova, it stopped me short. And I just wondered.

Maybe you’re a little taken aback, like I was. Seeing this painting lead me to Tate and this article, “Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Lines of Force,” by Brandon Taylor. And I wondered a little more. A few quotations will underscore my thoughts:

“In Popova’s subsequent Space-Force Constructions of 1920 and 1921, painted with thick paint on plywood, the running ‘bars’ can indeed be seen as energy channels that confine and organise the more inchoate swirling patterns that lie between them, and that they somehow harness – ‘space-force’ and ‘construction’ hence becoming inseparable and connected.”

The notion here arises from a concept called tektology, part of Aleksandr Bogdanov’s wider theory about “energy-transfer within dynamic organisms,” in which he attempted to unify the sciences on the basis of their overlapping interdependence. The description of the “running ‘bars’,” resemblant of the stripes on that iconic guitar, also reminds me of Eddie’s self-described playing style, something along the lines of falling down stairs and somehow landing on my feet. Inchoate swirling patterns, channelling harnessed energy, while we’re at it, maybe a massive wall of speaker cabinets…

Full disclosure, I am no musician, much less a guitarist – just a passionate fan whose ear and soul were reached by Eddie’s playing… so relaxed yet such mastery and control. His grin while he played, that truly says it all. Energetic, cheerful, pure, and whether rockin a flat-out shuffle or noodling calm & mellow, always unmistakably Eddie Van Halen. My daughter took to Van Halen and “Eddie” instantly, the moment she heard their music – back then, age five or six? Pure emotion. It took no prompting or encouragement from me for her to feel it, or to instantly recognise his tone now every time we hear him. Eddie doesn’t just reach us sonically but emotionally; he just used the sound of his fingers to do it.

Talk of Eddie’s fingers is a great way to introduce this next quotation, about “attention… given to making the artistic organisation of the object into the principle guiding the creation of even the most practical, everyday things.” Yes, it’s obscure, so maybe David Lee Roth can help clear things up:

“Eddie was way better at business than I have ever been… they started an industry – it’s not just a franchise, it’s a way of thinking ‘guitar’. [The stripe-pattern] is one of the most recognisable symbols of all time in the sport… it’s on everything from electric toothbrushes to shoe laces.”

[Just for clarity, that’s me adding the merchandise link over top of Roth’s comment, but only to make the point.]

For sounding so raw, Eddie’s playing talent was so very practised, daily and throughout his lifetime. And to accommodate his ceaseless passion as an active musician, to capture the ultimate tone from his fingers to satisfy his ears, he put his hands to work even more, devoting them to “‘the technical level of the instruments of production’.” Art impelling science, science obliging art, overlapping interdependence… but maybe just tip that balance toward art over science as the “guiding principle” behind the invention of “practical, everyday things,” like guitars and amplifiers. By inhabiting the “‘clarity of [his own] ensuring worldview’,” Eddie made his own elusive Brown Sound a lifelong technical pursuit, building guitars and amps from scratch, only to break them and rebuild them some more – the Frankenstrat, the Variac, and on and on from there. Through the years, the rest of us have definitely enjoyed the results.

Truly Eddie was a virtuoso, possessing complementary artistic craft and technical know-how as talent so tenaciously rare, we’d hardly expect to share the era – truly, Edward Van Halen was unique and such a special musical treasure.

So all this I’ve been contemplating in light of Taylor’s article about Popova’s painting, on top of being reminded so starkly of Eddie’s striped guitar, and I always appreciate having something new to contemplate. Yet one more thing is also worth mentioning: when I saw Popova’s painting, and read Taylor’s article, Eddie’s guitar was already on my mind because, as Van Halen fans will know, David Lee Roth recently lay claim to at least some credit for those most famous rock-and-roll stripes.

Now, as with all things Diamond Dave, you’re free to take it or leave it, but long story short, Roth says Eddie’s iconic guitar stripes were his idea. Over the years, of course, Roth has said a lot of things were his idea, and where some are clearly accepted canon – the band name, brown M&Ms, stage shows, album art, music videos, song lyrics, song… tempos(?) – this latest claim about the guitar stripes, on its face, seems impossible.

First, let’s grant the decades, the drugs, the booze, the haze and confusion of the rock-and-roll tour. But second… in fact, I wonder if he’s actually right.

Well, I wonder if he’s partially right.

I wonder because the guitar that Roth apparently has in mind – the colour of which he’s notably prompted by the interviewer to recall – is a guitar that he confirms was first painted white. This, of course, is the crux of the debate – everybody knows, maybe apart from Dave and the interviewer, that Eddie’s Frankenstrat guitar was first painted black. And, to be fair, the tone of the interviewer’s question sounds like a follow-up to something Roth has already mentioned. And, to be fair to Roth, judging from Chris Gill’s meticulous history published by Guitar World, in which Gill himself credits John Burgess’s “meticulous, scholarly research and fastidious analysis,” I just wonder whether the guitar that Roth remembers was Eddie’s 1961 Stratocaster, a guitar Gill calls “the dad of Frankenstein.”

All this obviously depends on whether Roth was even in the room that day with the spray paint – and honestly, who knows? Apocryphal or not, I might only conclude about his Frankenstrat claim that Roth was there in general while most of the rest of us were not. So yeah, by the time I saw Popova’s painting, I was already wondering. But the painting itself is not what leads me to reconsider Roth’s debate-worthy claim.

The Frankenstrat

After so many years keeping up with his antics, if I’ve learned anything about this rock star, it would be to grant him some space because, every now and then, he lets us see past his persona as Toastmaster General of the Immoral Majority. He let’s us in to see a profoundly inquisitive thinker, deeply inquisitive, and culture-wise, with an inexhaustible sense of humour and endless respect for his audience. Every now and then, through the frenzied musing, he shines a ray of urbane metaphorical clarity – which is usually dressed in sequins and spandex, but like I said, you take what he gives you. And, like I said, I’ve learned to take before leaving, or at the very least to give him a chance.

Dave is just a thoughtful, thought-filled guy, and I catch a lot of allusion in his so-called rambling, yet it’s not likely any of us could recognise everything he says – that probably goes to show just how well-read he really is: his respect for history, and tradition, and quality, the discipline to get things right (guitar memories notwithstanding). From recognising how erudite and sophisticated Diamond Dave really is, and how poignant his obscurity can be, I’m honestly brought to wonder just how spontaneous or accidental the Frankenstrat’s striped paint scheme really was. Like I said, who knows – and hey, all part of the mystique and legend of the Mighty Van Halen!

And, maybe no surprise, Roth even has an answer for that:

“That design wouldn’t have gone anywhere without Eddie sending it and giving it the shape and shine that it did. I’m just proud to have been part of it. The first part.”

And that’s Dave. He has a long history as the band’s Number One protagonist or, depending on the decade you mean or the person you ask, its antagonist. Yet he could also be considered the band’s Number One advocate, in that spirit that’s willing to die by the roadside, trying. I admire him. On top of his eccentric overdrive, his tenacity, his physique and athleticism, his wit and his intellect, his ego, his follow-through, his bucketlist-shaming lifetime of accomplishments, his cultural nous, his childhood influences, his compassionate character behind-the-scenes, his connection to family, a value so clearly shared by the Van Halens… on top of all that, David Lee Roth helped found the band. By all accounts, he named the band, then grew up with the band, conquered the world with the band, reinvented himself several times over after the band, only to finally rejoin the band. For whatever criticism he’s received, he’s persevered long enough to back himself up several times over, and then some.

He may be eccentric, but he’s bad and he’s nationwide, the self-declared Source of the Party, and it’s probably sheer understatement to describe Diamond David Lee Roth as unique. Those times he’s been down, he’s picked himself up and got back in the race, five decades and counting. Look at all he’s contributed and accomplished, and look at all the smiles he leaves behind – his own smile chief among them. Against all that, whatever we think about which guitar he is or isn’t remembering, I suspect Dave would be no less than pleased that any of us care enough to say so out loud. Dave’s about nothing if not impact, as compared to Eddie whose impact seemed to come entirely in spite of himself. Maybe that’s why they paired up so well.

As for Van Halen’s signature guitar art, maybe that story remains a mystery. As for me, I remain a little awestruck by Popova’s painting, be it remarkable coincidence or life imitating art, or maybe art preceding life. Whichever it is, it feels like something Bogdanov would appreciate. As for the rest of us, who know and love everything about those iconic painted stripes, they exist now as an indelible part of rock-and-roll, and as part of musical history.

So if the debate continues over how they arose, it probably doesn’t matter anyway because we only remember those stripes thanks to what Eddie, Dave, Alex, and Mike had set out to do in the first place. There’s definitely no debate that Eddie and Dave rank among rock’s most legendary combos, with enough complementary respect that each could share the limelight with the other, especially once they put aside their differences and closed their band’s career as dear and respected lifelong colleagues, if not necessarily friends.

“Everybody wants some!!! … How ’bout you???”


4 thoughts on “Visual WHY”

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