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 an 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 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. Nonetheless, my message, however straightforward, is 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 self-confidently. 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.

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