Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Contemplation with Odilon Redon JINA MULLIGAN

Photograph by Irene Hayes of work in the Redon session
In Session Four (Friday 24th of May) of Ways of Seeing, the Carmelite Centre’s three-day spiritual workshop, Jina Mulligan spoke on the art of Odilon Redon as an aid to contemplation. Here is Jina's paper.

Contemplation with Redon.

Moment One:
So, today, I am inviting you to share with me some remembered moments from a day excursion in Umbria.

We are in Assisi, and the year is 1997. Because the outing is enveloped, for me, in Redon images and because that particular day has remained very much in my consciousness, I am presenting the excursion in these three moments.

It is my hope that you will look deeply into each one of these images as we proceed. I am not using powerpoint because after years of having pictures flashed before me in lecture theatres, one after the other, in quick succession, I know that not much can be retained from that way of seeing.

The way to view art, I believe, is to sit with the work for an extended period of time. I am hoping that you will look at these seven pieces during our conversation. When we have finished here there are other Redon works on display in the library. You will be free to engage with each of those at your leisure. You may like to write about them in your journal or just sit with them in silence. Maybe chat to someone about them if you wish.

As you know, art is a very personal choice. As is the taking on, of a spiritual practice. What works for me will not necessarily work for each one of you.
I love the work of Redon. I have been looking at it since the 1980’s and still it holds for me the wonder of absolute beauty and joy.

So here we are in Assisi, that timeless city in Umbria, Italy. We are staying at the old hotel next to the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis. The thing we notice about Assisi at first glance is the rock. The buildings are of rock, the roads are of rock. Grey, whitish pinky rock. There is an ancient solidity about the place.

Today is a particularly grey day. It is the 8th December. Winter time. The snow has come early this year. The top of Mount Subasio is white - grey capped.

As we step out from our hotel onto the enduring rocks the air bites into our skin. We dash back into the hotel and up to our room for a thick wooly scarf and gloves. As we pass through the foyer, of the hotel, we notice on the displayed liturgical calendar that today is The Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We know that this feast day was only declared in 1854 and remains something of a controversy. In years to come we will recall this feast day as Rahner describes it, as the feast day of beginnings; but we don’t know that yet.

Today we are simply taking a day excursion to the top of the mountain and back. We have brought with us from home our guide book - Walks in Tuscany and Umbria. Today’s trek is laid out for us on page 303. The book warns us that there are a number of things Saint Francis would not have approved of. Appalling litter and spent cartridges. Over development and bad tree management.

We think that we will probably decide for ourselves, if that is the case, and so we move onward. We have our backpack with the salty cake, bread and cheeses the hotel staff have given us. Up the road a bit, we come to the piazza and there is that coffee shop with the wonderful pastries.

Will we stop? Better not - it is still far to go.

That old cattle dog runs over to us. He knows we like to walk because yesterday he came with us down to Santa Maria degli Angeli. We laughingly say he is probably St. Francis. “O.K. Francis, we say, you can come too.”

The guide book tells us to follow the street to the old city gate. (Porta Cappuccini) As we are approaching the gate we think of Leunig’s cartoon - you know the one where Mr Curly is walking down the garden path, he opens the gate and falls head first into the universe. We do wonder what will be on the other side of this gate.

The book tells us to take the cypress-lined stone track that leads to the left. A steep climb. Bear right past the ruins of the old fort, it says. The rocks are loose now and we kick them with our boots. There is something very comforting about the stone of this place. 

The day remains grey, the clouds hang mottled overhead. We listen to Redon’s voice in the background telling us that his habit was to study the pattern of the clouds. He says: “It is only after making an effort of will power to represent with minute care a grass blade, a stone, a branch, the face of an old wall, that I am overcome by an irresistible urge to create something imaginary. External nature, thus assimilated and measured, becomes, by transformation, my source, my ferment.”

We see on this grey day why Redon said that everything begins with black. Black is the most essential of colour - it springs from the depths of our being.

Charcoal, he says, this rather ordinary medium has no inherent beauty, it facilitates my attempts to render chiaroscuro (light and dark) and the invisible. Charcoal allows no lightheadedness, it has a certain gravity. Only emotions allow anything to be made of it.

Redon in his youth seemed to project his gloom and enthusiasm onto the clouds sailing in from the Atlantic in endless conveys. He says: “Later, long afterwards…I spent hours, or rather whole days, stretched out on the grass, in empty stretches of countryside, watching the clouds pass, following with infinite pleasure the fairytale brilliance of their incessant changes.”

A sickly, solitary child, he was quick to awaken his inner resources. He looked always inward. “Art is a flower which blossoms freely, to the exclusion of all rules: in my view, it leaves in sad disarray the microscopic analyses of the ‘aestheticians’ who seek to explain it.”

As we walk on past the truffle reservation, a particular ‘noir’ of Redon comes to mind. It is from his first series of lithographs called ‘In the Dream’ (Dans le rêve), the series from 1879. It is at first glance a strange image. Two minute figures, a man and a woman step diagonally onto the foreground of the picture plane. They seem to be fleeing across what looks like a giant chessboard. Behind the figures are two enormous pillars. Beyond the pillars the dark is impenetrable. Between the pillars surrounded by what looks like a halo or an aurora borealis, a colossal eyeball floats independent of the other forms. The pupil of the eyeball is turned upward.

We know there have been many interpretations of this image. We also know that Redon said many interpretations are possible and all are permissible. There is no correct interpretation. This work, like his other works, is primarily to inspire.
The giant eyeball seems to move with us. We have that feeling of looking down on
ourselves. Witnessing the very smallness of our forms. Tiny figures in a gigantic universe.

We are so consumed with the image, we barely notice, our progress. It isn’t until we are in a large car park that we stop for a minute. The large picnic area is deserted as there are no tourists here at present. There is no evidence of the litter that the guide book speaks of.

The Eremo (Santuario delle Carceri) comes into view. This is the Hermitage of St Francis.

The place where he came to find solitude and peace. The building nestles into its wooded hollow. Stones carefully placed together against the backdrop of the mountainside.

We say good-bye to Francis. No dogs allowed in the Sanctuary. A series of notices ask us for our silence.

On entering the building we are attracted to the small chapel. Mass has started and we settle into the rhythm of the language. Our Italian is sketchy at best.
After the mass we descend the stairs to the Grotto of Saint Francis. It is a tiny space. It is quite a struggle to fit into it. What amazes us is that we are totally encased in solid rock. We think of the hymn: Rock of ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.

We are also mindful of Redon’s image of Jesus. It is the face of the suffering servant. Thorns surround his face. His soul is filled with pain. Eyes wide open this time. Redon sees this image as a mirror of his identity, he sees Jesus as his brother. He says: ‘Jesus never accuses. He died for us, with forgiveness and charity on his lips.’

With no deceit in his mouth. (Is:53,9)

This is the very human face we see before us. The face Redon produced to represent his brother. Our saviour. The face is very real to us here in this confined space. We feel very aware of his pain and suffering. We feel that this Jesus is totally accessible.

After some time we ease from this tiny cave and move silently out into the courtyard. We see ourselves once more from above. Small figures. Minuscule forms in a burgeoning universe. We feel humbled by the magnitude that surrounds us.

The air here is like no other that we have ever tasted. It takes our breath away. So crisp and clean. We drink it in. Nothing moves. Leaves hang silently from the trees. We are enveloped in silence.

In years to come we will experience the great stillness in our meditation and we will remember this place. But for now we simply marvel at the peace and serenity of the space. Doves fly softly above. Right now no other form exists.

The area has such a quality that we don’t want to leave here. We don’t know it yet but it will take years to recapture this absolute peace and stillness.

Finally we drag ourselves to the rear gate of the hermitage. And there is Francis waiting in the thin layer of snow that lies underfoot. With a wag of his tail he bounds off - he seems to know the track.

A red triangle is stamped to a tree trunk. We realise that is how the trail is marked.

The quietness persists as we move through a grove of pines. Occasionally snow plops from some of the needles. Otherwise all is calm.

That all knowing eye hovers over us. Gigantic and upward looking.

Moment Two:
That face of Redon, the one encased in thorns also hangs about us. The very human face of Jesus.

We are thinking of Redon’s claim that there are three sources to his art. After Tradition, he says, comes Reality. “That is in other words Nature which is a pure means of expression of our feelings. Without Nature our will to create remains a mere dream, an abstraction, a simple vibration of life devoid of the perfect organ that will enable it to appear, forcefully, fully in all the clarity and purity of its supreme expression.”

Here in this unfamiliar place, the snow covered ground sneaks up toward the sky. We see nothing of the grass or rocks that prompted Redon’s words: the words that come to us again, “It is only after making an effort of will power to represent with minute care a grass blade, a stone, a branch, the face of an old wall that I am overcome by the irresistible urge to create something imaginary. External nature, thus assimilated and measured, becomes, by transformation, my source, my ferment.”

Messing about with these thoughts we emerge near the top of our climb, onto a ridge. Ground and sky have now merged into an endless white-grey sheet. There are no trees or vegetation of any kind visible. We are moving within this unbroken space. We seem to be part of Redon’s single resource of light and darkness that owes so much to the effects of the abstract line. His deep source that operates directly on the spirit.

Wilber tells us: Spirit alone transcends and includes Mind and Nature. Pre-rational Nature can be seen with the eye of flesh. Rational Mind can be seen with the eye of reason. But trans-rational Spirit can only be seen with the eye of contemplation. He says that artist and critic and viewer alike must be alive to that higher domain in order to participate in this art. He quotes the artist Brancusi
who says: “look at my works until you see them. Those who are closer to God have seen them”.

We sense that there is more to it. That there has to be more that is possible, but we don’t know any of that yet. 

And there before us, emerging from the silvery grey ground and reaching into the silver grey sky, is a large wooden cross.

We pause. All we can do is stand and stare.

The bare wood soars from meddlesome grey into meddlesome grey. We think of Redon’s Calvary and we stand still and silent like the figures in the picture, at the foot of the cross. The Jesus who hangs above, is now right beside us. Christ in Silence. Eyes closed. The veil is half lifted from the figure. Jesus holds his hands before his lips. If you try this attitude you will know that the act is but part of some other action. We wonder if Jesus is receiving the kiss of God. We wonder if this is the oneness that Fr Thomas Keating tells us about. The oneness that is always offered in a new way, and from the contemplative perspective,
the oneness that is being alert to this dynamism.

We do see here that Redon does suggest a kind of dynamism. There exists a stillness that seems to be evolving. The halo of light behind the figure is fashioned in such an indefinite way that it seems to be interacting with the whole picture plane.

Fr. Thomas suggests that we should use any means we can to remember God’s presence in us and in all beings. Maybe Redon is giving us this means. Through this very beautiful image of Jesus Christ in evolution.

Beside us, too, is the Virgin of the Dawn. A head only, the closed eyed attitude suggests to us, also, the act of emerging. In years to come we will remember this image in relation to Rahner’s idea; the one in which he is suggesting to us a real beginning. The virgin’s beginning and our individual beginning as well as the beginning as such. Rahner will tell us that “the whole pervades and prevails in each, and each of the mysteries of the kingdom is inexhaustible. And it has only been grasped fully when all has been understood. The whole, however, is the inexhaustibility of the infinite mystery (and presence) of God”.

But we don’t know this yet, either, do we? Right now we sit with Christ in Silence and the Virgin of the Dawn. The wooden cross looms above.

We wonder what all this can mean for us for the here and now? Why these images? And why this overwhelming feeling of momentum.

We reflect again on Redon naming his three sources: tradition, reality and personal invention. Three modes of speech - the eternal speech of beauty. They appear constantly in the great epochs, he tells us, when a civilisation expanded without hindrance and could seek unimpeded to rise towards it’s own truth. He claims Phideas and Leonardo da Vinci as sacred figures who raised art to the highest inaccessible peaks of plastic vision, towards which the greatest minds continually turn in love, homage and rapt contemplation.

We now honour Redon, somewhere in there.

We bury down into the snow - small beings gathered under the towering cross. We nibble on our salty cake and bread and cheeses.

Francis is fed up with us by now. He takes one look and bolts for home.

Moment Three:
We barely notice the walk back down the mountain. Francis is long gone but we are not concerned about finding our way. The trail seems to unravel before us.

Darkness is falling as we enter the old city. The rocks remain sturdy underfoot. Already there are Christmas baskets hanging outside many buildings. A selection of leaves with bright yellow lemons intermingled with them. A few people scurry from building to building.

Back at the hotel, now and we notice lights on in the Lower Basilica of St Francis. We dump our backpack and walk across. It is only a few steps.

On entering the space we notice the candles situated at intervals around the walls. Light is flickering across the many frescoes. It is so, so impressive. Light and shadow tap dance across the vaulted ceiling. Many people have gathered for the evening Mass. We bundle in with them. They smile and nod.

Towards the front of this section of the Basilica, four steps lead up to the altar. Across the front of the altar and dripping down the sides are cascades of white flowers. If only Redon were here to depict this flower composition. More candles flicker among them.

Behind the altar, in the choir stalls, a group of friars are chanting. We are enveloped in the glorious atmosphere of the place. The beauty takes us back through the absolute splendour of our day excursion.

No words can say it. We look around us; we feel very much at home here. We are
surrounded by so many images and yet another image arises before us. It is Redon’s Sacred Heart. Again closed eyes, the image conveys a sense of the humility of Christ. This is a Jesus who is humble and meek of heart. At the same time Redon is showing us an unfolding or flowering love. A figure radiating divine light and energy. As Fr. Thomas tells us, God is always happening.

Right here we see the thorns transcending and transforming into the flowering of a mysterious beauty. All is inclusive. The abstract haloed light reflects and joins with the radiating and unfolding heart. Gently the swirling movement draws us into the mystery of this process.

Circles within circles. Melting, emerging and unfolding. In Redon’s work we see flowers and forms harmonised. Divine love burgeoning and flowing within the images and so within us.

And already another image is emerging. It is Virgin with a Halo. Redon says of this work: “Dark brown sky, with purple and red clouds, at the left, a haloed figure in a boat, with golden sheaves at its prow, and over the water, a sort of phosphorescent blue, like a playful fire.”

Once again Redon takes us into the world of the indeterminate. And still we know that Redon’s forms convey a real sense of progression. He says: “Every time a human figure fails to give the illusion that it is going to step out of its frame, as it were and walk, act or think, there is no truly modern drawing.”

We feel that we are in the boat with this haloed figure, moving surely into enchanted waters. The golden sheaves of light fall to illuminate the way. Stella Maris - star of the sea.

Redon realised that the life that unfolds can also reveal joy. He was aware that a creative activity is manifest in life itself and in the way a personality develops. He worked always for a higher goal. He tells us: “the original intuition thus combines and summarises everything, seeking support in the past and in the present in order to give to the contemporary work a new organisation, a temperament, that is ceaselessly rejuvenated in the continuous development of human life. He shows us that there is always a progression. That nothing is static but relentlessly moving forward.

We sit here in this wonderful basilica with these two images. The perfect harmony of earth and sky that we experienced on the mountain, is reflected in these recalled pictures. We know that the artist used regular practice and dedication to attain his level of artistic proficiency and that is what he is offering to us right now. The glimpse of a real possibility.

The entering of a process that involves thorns and flowers.

The process is a measured one. Wilber suggests three strands will be the guide through the delicate world of the deep interiors; the within of the Kosmos; the data of the Divine, where they will help us to separate the dependable from the bogus.

Wilber’s terms are; Injunction, illumination and verification. We could also say; doing, seeing and checking.

Wilber adds, with the eye of contemplation Spirit can be seen. With the eye of
contemplation God can be seen. With the eye of contemplation, the great Within radiantly unfolds.

And in all cases, the eye with which you see God is the same eye with which God sees you: the eye of contemplation.

Love to infinity and find me there,
Love to eternity and I will be there,
Love to the boundless corners of the Kosmos and all will be shown to you.

The voice whispers on:
Never forget the Good
Never forget the True
Never forget the Beautiful

In years to come, if we dare to take up the challenge, we may catch a brief glimpse of the faces of our deepest Self.

And if so, Redon’s art may just have aided us, in this process. From thorns to flowering divine love.

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