Sunday, February 28, 2010

Journey on the Fish

Journey on the Fish - By Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann really did "just want to paint beautiful paintings", but in that setting forth he could not bypass a whole lot of other sub-mysteries along the way; or what he - with that economical Teutonic thrust of his which he never lost - delightfully called, "certain last things."

Those "certain last things" cannot be spoken about with words (at least not in the way that painting demands; poetry is another matter). They cannot be explained. They refute and refuse explanation. And it's there where painting begins.

And later, the viewer comes along and sees the "afterward" of where the painting began. The viewer meets it with whatever means he has within himself.

This continually built communication (and no, it is not some "collective unconscious" or "collective consciousness") is part of what's so vital about culture. It moves and builds from generation to generation as silently as trees grow, or planets move. Or it is supposed to.

It is an objective freedom. Its removal from our lives is utter death for us.

The modern, or post-modern or whatever critic, looks at the above painting and thinks that Beckmann is presenting some puzzle or allegory. He thinks Beckmann is being too figurative, too obvious, and too coded. His critics criticize him for actually seeming to say something (oh no!) and then in the same breath criticize him for not saying enough.

Beckmann (who hated talking about his paintings) once responded to a reporter asking why he put fish into so many of his paintings:

"Because I like fish, both to eat and to look at. Also they are symbols." What do they symbolize? "Geist — spirit," Beckmann replied. "But the man who looks at my pictures must figure them out for himself."

It is interesting to note that the first thing Beckmann said as to why he brought many fish into his work is that he simply likes them - to eat and to look at.

That is a good response. We do, after all, eat fish. Why do we eat? To live; to have strength; to have potency. But these are "certain last things". As Chesterton implies through a character in The Napolean of Notting Hill:

"A man strikes the lyre, and says, 'Life is real, life is earnest,' and then goes into a room and stuffs alien substances into a hole in his head."

There is an endless diffusion of details to be had in this world of certain last things. And not one thing is without an individual name that shows forth in some manner the infinite expansion of God's creation.

The man and the woman are made one flesh in marriage: on open space (to be gleaned by the sea and boat) two fishes fill the plane, and on the fish two people, careening to earth - or are they circumnavigating the roundess of the sphere, and thus going up? The man cannot look and maybe fears his own potency while the woman looks ahead steadily. They compliment each other. And in their hands, like a last meagre little flourish, we see a mask. But they are each other's masks.

They are holding each other's mask.

Certain last things.


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