Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
Not long ago, the owner of a gallery in which I wanted to be represented visited my studio. She had a discerning eye, a successful gallery, and I respected her judgment. To my dismay, however, her verdict on many of my paintings was this: “Miguel, I love your Imagination and these dream-like paintings are mysterious and beautiful. The problem is, I have no idea how to sell them.”
She was right, of course, dreams are strange. They may be real and compelling to me, but why should anyone else have any interest in them?
And yet, and yet, the wind blows….
Many non-artists assume that painters, writers and composers understand what their own works mean, and non-artists are often surprised that I don’t understand any more about what my paintings mean than they do. I explain that I’m trying to paint some things, or better yet, some forces that I can’t see, but that I know are present. I use colors and shapes to suggest hints, intuitions and glimpses of something invisible. Sometimes the painting is successful, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, like baseball, it gets rained out.
But even if I don’t understand what a painting means, a story about the thoughts, insights and choices that went into the making of it can be entertaining. The Gods of Gravity, for example, was conceived in Northern Europe, specifically in Iceland and Finland. I had never visited the countries of Northern Europe, but had been awarded a sabbatical leave by Sierra College to do research in Scandinavia for classes I was teaching in Art History and World Mythology. I wanted to answer two questions that had long puzzled me: Other than Edvard Munch, who have been prominent artists in the Northern part of the world? Also: a lot is known about Zeus, Aphrodite and Hades; why don’t we know more about Odin, Frigg and Hel?
So, about the piano: A few short years ago on a warm afternoon in late summer, I limped a couple miles from the Laajalahden tram stop in Helsinki to the home/museum of Akseli Gallen-Kallela in the forest outskirts northwest of the city. (I was dragging my left foot because two weeks earlier, in Stockholm, I had been cursed by a witch. But that’s a story for a different post.)
Gallen-Kallela’s home remains largely as it had been when he died in 1931, with bedroom, kitchen, salon, dining room, and his studio with an etching press and a magnificent grand piano. The piano enchanted me immediately and I spent an hour drawing the sketch you see here. (I added the shoes and candelabra later.)
The word “enchanted” is not nearly strong enough. Cellos, bassoons and violins are celestial creations, but pianos are pure magic. I took lessons as a boy, and even though I stopped playing piano in favor of playing baseball, it’s still my favorite instrument. No mornings pass when I begin work in my studio without the presence of Mozart, or Johann Sebastian, or Domenico Scarlatti. In the afternoons it’s Keith Jarrett, Mary Lou Williams and Leszek Możdżer.
There will be more said about pianos in a minute, but first I must tell you about the World of Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The Kalevala, Finland’s national myth, was published only thirty years before the artist was born in 1865. The story unfolds in a beautiful and savagely harsh landscape of dense green forests, snow-covered lakes and fields, and it contains all the elements of epic poetry anyone would want: magical adventures, revenge, incest, betrayals, jealousy, shamans, murder, blood feuds, suicide, child abuse, shape-shifting, fratricide, magic spells, kidnapping, theft, thwarted love, heroes, incantations, death and resurrection, “nameless diseases,” shipwrecks, magical animals, the imprisonment of the sun and the moon, epic battles, virgin birth, sacred groves, a miraculous infant, and so on, all flowing toward a shadowy and inconclusive outcome, as if in a dream. Like the Icelandic Eddas, it exerted a huge influence on J.R.R. Tolkien. It also cast its spell on Gallen-Kallela. On me as well.
In this painting, one of the heroes, Lemminkäinen the shaman, has been killed by his enemies, his body thrown into the River Tounela and torn apart by the rapids. With a copper rake given to her by a god, his mother dredges every scrap of his body from the depths, stitches them together and restores him to life with the help of honey from a magic bee. (You can barely see it at the bottom of the wavy golden rays that descend diagonally from the top of the composition. In the top left corner floats the ominous Black Swan.)
Intuitively in The Gods of Gravity, I wanted to invoke three levels of existence– the Celestial World, home of gods and angelic forces; the Under World, land of the Dead, the hidden world of treasures humans attempt to extract from it, (and things we prefer to conceal in its depths); and Midgard, the human world between above and below.
The fires bursting out of the snow come from the volcanoes of Iceland. I doubt that anyone knows the exact number of volcanoes murmuring under the surface of the island, but the general consensus is that 30 or so are currently active. Even in Reykjavik I felt a pulse underfoot, as if I were walking on the skin of a drum. Perhaps that’s why I eventually added the shoes, even though I never gave the slightest thought to oxfords or brogans. The shoes needed to be feminine.
Why? I don’t know. I didn’t think about anything: no thoughts, no theories no analyses, no ponderings or musings or ruminations about this or that, no studying, no deliberations. Only the wind.
When the painting first began to gestate, there were no mountains or fires under the piano, only snow as part of the landscape of the forest. Why I added the fissures and smoke and lava, I don’t know. After the painting was finished and I could think about it, I figured that the earth is feminine, we are born into this world through the feminine. The muses, at least in my case, are incontrovertibly feminine, so the font of creativity must be feminine, and for all I know, so is the wind.
In my imagination, the ghostly candelabra lives in the upper world and often casts no shadow into this one. Why only one candle still burns, I can’t say. But it felt to me that, like the shoes, they had to be colored red, blue and yellow as part of a larger rainbow. Also, the legs of the piano had to reflect the colors of the creative forces rising from the Underworld into this world.
As we all know, pianos are made of wood, so now we come to two totems that are inextricably linked, the forest and the piano. The three-legged monster in Gallen-Kallela’s studio was a rich ivory black, but it didn’t occur to me to paint it in any colors other than as a dark rainbow. I wanted to suggest the creative energies of all Three Worlds: gifts that come to us through the hands of Mozart and Bach and Keith Jarrett.
Alas, the most important totems are invisible. What keeps everything suspended in space? We could call those forces Gravity and Anti-Gravity, I suppose, but those are only words. Except for brilliant souls like the theoretical physicist, Lisa Randall, we know as little about these invisible forces as we do about Dark Energy and Dark Matter.
Whether The Gods of Gravity succeeds, or fails, or is only a ragbag of associations–not even a rained-out baseball game–I don’t know. I used to think that I as I grew older I would understand more. But now the opposite is happening: Life is more mysterious, not less. In spite of that, what better subject to try to paint than what exists beyond what we can see? But how does an artist attempt this? Bach and Mozart knew. So did D. H. Lawrence. His poem that began this post is called Song of a Man Who Has Come Through. Here is how the poem ends:
What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.