Response to “Joan of Arc”
painted by Jules Basti en-Lepage
AN EXAMPLE OF WRITING PROCESS
THE First Draft
A single glimpse from across the room reveals perhaps too much of what some might say was too little; a 9×9 foot canvas filled with an approximation of leaves, only an impression of grass, and a darkly dull palette. Yet the brush and the hand upon the brush are evident almost everywhere. And always there is an unforced commitment to the value of illusion. Ironically, this passion for illusion is most alive in the figure who seems so real that at any moment she will break her pose and step forward, out of the fixed plane and begin a conversation with you about something that makes you want to back away from her. Or this mad figure might instead be a photograph glued upon the thin skin of pigment. Or a exquisite mask of oil applied according to the micro-precision of the photo-realists who would paint a hundred years later than. Painters for whom the eye and the “I” were seen as synonymous. What you see is exactly what you get. Those artists admired by critics who denied the value of psychosis, or the unconscious, whose only experience of a spiritual life was that which is worn entirely on your sleeve. Yet none of these will have the courage take as their primary text the aura of madness developed by the wrenching contrast between the under focused army of leaves and ghosts and the over focused madwoman who will soon exchange her sackcloth dress for plated armor and holy chain mail. Whose eyes will remain ablaze and open even as the flames of war devour her body.
One glimpse then is enough. We know that what Lapage saw her seeing with those vacant eyes was not her own death but his. So much light in the portraits of the people that he knows. They then have place and face but there is no story that can be made except from whole cloth. Entirely a fabric of your own making.
Enlightenment is possible when it is you who must bring light upon this dark scene. By what is absent he has left room for you to bring your own feelings into play.
PROBLEMS: too rooted in art criticism, as it is separate from creative process. Not enough about what is actually stirred up in me when I see this picture (i.e. not a real response). No single idea that links the beginning to the end in a logical progression, (i.e. no narrative)
Too much of too little
Sucks out the light
Leaves no room for the viewer’s imagination
Longing to see his mad figure might instead be a photograph glued upon the thin skin of pigment.
Value of psychosis, or the unconscious.
Commitment to the value of illusion.
Write in 2nd person, a concept that came up in last night’s book group.
THE SECOND DRAFT
You have become so smug, visited so many museums and galleries, seen picture after picture. You have fallen in and out of love with painters, genres, styles until art has become once again as boring as it was when your parents dragged their reluctant little girl from one dusty room to another, convinced that appreciating high art was the surest way to transform their little heathen into an intellectual.
But now, hurrying to meet your newly married grandson at the latest blockbuster retrospective, you miss your right turn and turn left into the wrong hall. Here the light from ranks of incandescent bulbs seems to flow just as fast into the gravitational field created by a dark and greedy hole in the farthest wall. The painting draws you closer, closer, closer until you can measure it with only your eyes. Eighty-one square feet of canvas surrounded by an almost irrelevant frame. It drags upon the air your breath, sucks at the hem of your dress, the neck, and the sleeves but you are not moved to escape its pull.
Too long later your worried grandson finds you still standing on that same spot. He’s been looking everywhere. You think perhaps you should soothe his fears but before you can turn to him he has turned toward the painting and fallen under its spell himself, “Oh,” he whispers.
“What do you think of it?” you query him.
“Think?” He answers so slowly that the chain of time seems to have added several links, “I hadn’t thought to try.”
“I’ve seen her eyes before,” you offer, “out on the streets. Women like her are pushing carts of old plastic bags and straggly plush dogs. Or newspapers that someone else abandoned on the curbs and under bushes in the park.”
“Did you ever try to talk to a bag women or a bowery bum?” he asks.
“No, they make me want to get away — or even run.”
“This model of St. Joan looks so real,” he notes. “As if she will soon step out of her background and try to recruit me for some holy war. Load me down with chain mail and a Pope blessed sword.”
“Sacrificial flames,” you add but then must pause before feeling forced to say what you really mean. “She is too real.”
“Too real? Is it possible to be too real?”
“Maybe if death is close,” you slowly answer him.
“That would explain the ghosts hidden in the trees,” he says but you are too frightened to reply. Then you feel his unlined hand slip over one of your clinched fists. “Grandma,” he whispers, “I don’t want to let you go, at least not yet.”