Art History

What is a Life of Significance?

How is it I want to be remembered? To feel I’ve made a difference, what is it I need to do? Will my accomplishments equal or surpass the resources I’ve consumed while I’ve waltzed through life?

These are questions that have been rumbling around in my brain recently. There is an underlying ebb and flow and riptide of time on earth versus the certainty of the end of life pulling against our human need to stake out “significance.”

What is significance?

Do we value the contributions made by one person as more important than the gift given to
another? Is the gift of generosity more “important” that the gift of talking in tongues or the gift of praying in solitude? Certainly, being financially generous can be more easily quantified and
recognized in our possession-based, transactional, market-driven society. “Oh look, that guy has his name on a building for cancer research…” We can all see the building, the name, and we assume it was a massive donation for the naming rights of the building. We can celebrate that donor for the dollars given to the important charitable cause, and we can have a shared understanding of its value to the community. We would recognize the family who donated it as significant members of the community.

Yet, does the visibility of that contribution make it more important than anonymous contributions? Or more important than contributions—in the broadest sense—that are intangible or fleeting such as emotional support or being “present”. The next question of course is more valuable to whom?

The Italian artist, Masaccio, (born as Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, 1401-1428)
led a life of significance.

The church of the Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy is one of my favorite churches. It was near to where I used to live in Florence, and I visited it often. It has one of my favorite pieces of art, “Le Trinita”, a fresco painted by Masaccio in about 1426-1427. It is considered by many scholars the singular painting that started the Italian Renaissance. The painting depicts “The Trinity”.

To Christians, the concept of the Trinity is a core belief of the identity of God, as the three-in-one aspect of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The true God is thought of as one God in three divine persons.

It is thought to be one of the first pieces of art on a large scale that depicts the Trinity. Both of these facts make it a very important painting.

There has always been a lack of clarity as to what the Christian God looks like. Is he like the God that Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Ceiling? An old gray-haired man with flowing robes? (That scene of him reaching his finger out to assumedly bring Adam to life is another conversation that caused a ruckus. There is no scene such as that in the Bible where God touches Adam to create man. But, that’s another story.)

For Masaccio to depict God as a regular, “ordinary” man—not an old man—standing behind his son, while his son is crucified, is a radical visual. And, God the Father is barefoot. Not that we expected God to have shoes, but did we ever think about God’s feet? These are all decisions the artist courageously made and had to build into his work.

Another confusing concept for Christians, at least until they decide to take the leap of faith and simply accept it, is the question of what IS the Holy Spirit? It is understood as a spirit, an intangible, perhaps invisible entity.

How would an artist depict it? The Bible talks about the Holy Spirit in several places, but it can seem to take different forms. Is it an angel? A flame? Is it “the peace of God that passes all understanding?” (Philippians 4:7) Or a dove? At the baptism of Jesus, the Gospels describe that a dove descended onto Jesus. It is interpreted that the dove was the Holy Spirit. Of all the choices available in the Bible or in his imagination, Masaccio used a dove to represent the Holy Spirit. In the painting, the dove is in flight (at least as it appears to me) hovering between The Father and The Son. It seems to float there above the head of Jesus. How astonishing.

To me, another knee-buckling aspect of this fresco is the painting of the skeleton in a sarcophagus below the primary scene with the Trinity. The starkness of the visual and the inscription serve as a “memento mori”, a cue to not ignore your own impending mortality. The inscription, loosely translated, is “I was once where you are. You will soon be where I am”. The honest summary of our short time on earth startles me, and somehow reassures me.

The architecture painted in the scene presents a barrel-vaulted ceiling behind the Trinity. It is so realistic that the contemporaneous artist and art historian, Giorgio Vasari, wrote, “It seems that the wall is pierced”. Even today, when seen from midway across the church, the fresco appears to be to be a piece of sculpture that opens into a gallery or chapel in the nave of the church. It is breathtaking for too many reasons to present here.

Masaccio deviated from the norms of religious art at that time to choose to depict The Father, Son and Holy Spirit in an extraordinary way. Once established, this becomes our stored image, our “memory” of what The Trinity should look like.

This was the last known major piece of art by Masaccio. He died in 1428 at the age of 27. Absorb that. He created a mental picture of God and the Holy Spirit for millions of people by painting this fresco in this little church in Florence. Some say he died of poisoning at the hand of another artist because he was so talented. Others think he died of the plague. Oh yes, that was going around while he was trying to concentrate on making art. Not having the plague in my neighborhood makes the hassles I put up with in my art career seem less formidable.

I see his short life as one of uncommon significance.

In addition, the Church of Santa Maria Novella, is a rather small church compared to the Duomo in Florence, the cathedral in nearby Siena, or other massive churches and cathedrals in Italy. Another distinction of this church I love, is that the name of the patron who funded it is on the building. His name is inscribed below the pediment, in the frieze at the top of the building:

IOHAN(N)ES ORICELLARIUS PAU(LI) F(ILIUS) AN(NO) SAL(UTIS) MCCCCLXX
(Giovanni Rucellai son of Paolo in the year of salvation 1470).
Photo by Georges Jasoone, 12 October 2005. From Wikipedia Commons.

This is one way to document your significance by literally chiseling it into the structure of the building you financed. Like names and brands on buildings today, this is a different route of significance than creating the art inside the church. But as all artists know, having patrons, funders, customers, and even a site to display your work, are all vital part of living a life as an artist. And thereby providing an opportunity for those artists to build a body of work of significance.

American Artist, John Singer Sargent, painted a masterful work known as “Madame X”. From the moment it was shown it public, it was a humiliating scandal for Sargent and Madame Gautreau, the woman featured in the painting. It was considered vulgar and raw. The painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is on permanent exhibit. It is one of those pieces of art, like David or the Mona Lisa, that make people gasp as they enter the gallery.

Here is the description of Madame X from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website:

“Madame Pierre Gautreau (the Louisiana-born Virginie Amélie Avegno; 1859–1915) was known in Paris for her artful appearance. Sargent hoped to enhance his reputation by painting and exhibiting her portrait. Working without a commission but with his sitter’s complicity, he emphasized her daring personal style, showing the right strap of her gown slipping from her shoulder. At the Salon of 1884, the portrait received more ridicule than praise. Sargent repainted the shoulder strap and kept the work for over thirty years. When, eventually, he sold it to sold it to the Metropolitan, he commented, ‘I suppose it is the best thing I have done,’ but asked that the Museum disguise the sitter’s name.”

It is hard for us to fathom the breadth and depth of the scorn for Sargent and Madame Gautreau at the time. The scathing criticism targeted her dress. The criticism focused on the strap that Sargent painted as having fallen down her arm. Her attackers slammed her contrapposto (twisted) pose.

They were appalled at the reddish color on her ear. The vulgarity was exposed in the stark whiteness of her flesh and the low-cut décolletage. And, on and on.

Visitors to the salon and art critics felt she had been defiled by the portrait. They also felt that Sargent had desecrated the concept of portraiture by creating such an abomination. Take that, Mr. Sargent!

So, in response, he changed the strap and moved it back up to her shoulder, and basically hid the portrait in his studio for 30 years.

Vulgarity has a different meaning now than it had in Paris in 1884.

“Madame X”, Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Singer Sargent
(American, Florence 1856–1925 London). Arthur Hoppock Hearn
Fund, 1916.

As an artist, I think I can imagine the confusion, shame, anger, and humiliation that Sargent must have felt. An artist is so vulnerable when a piece of art is on display to the critical, uninvested public. How do you pick up the brush again? How do you “screw your courage to the sticking-place” as Lady MacBeth implores in Shakespeare’s MacBeth.

Sargent had many victories and made a massive contribution to art, yet he was frequently at odds with critics. His work was not truly appreciated until years after his death.

For Georgia O’Keefe, maintaining forward motion and not being eviscerated by the media, politics, family dynamics or your own questions about your work, was as simple as barreling through the fear:
“I’m frightened all the time. But I never let it stop me. Never!”

Georgia O’Keefe also said:
“You get whatever accomplishment you are willing to declare”.

Georgia O’Keefe by Alfred Stieglitz
http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/images/standard/WebLarge/WebImg_000053/789
93_349420.jpg, Public Domain,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5758481

Taking a cue from Maya Angelou, she inspires us to courageously rise above the dangers, the assaults, and our fears:

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Maya Angelou, from “Still I Rise”

Oh, to be as courageous as Ms. Angelou or as bold and determined as Ms. O’Keefe.

Indeed, what is a logical aspiration or goal for an artist? For Picasso, part of his was to free himself from the strictures of his formal, traditional training in classic technique and to embrace a free, childlike style.

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
Pablo Picasso

Is the success of reaching this mental “state of mind” pinnacle of thinking like a child, worthy of being deemed “significant”?

I recently finished a startlingly beautiful new biography of Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson, (2017). I was surprised (although I probably shouldn’t have been), that even the magnificent da Vinci had doubts throughout his life about his contributions to the world. Sprinkled through his notebooks were comments chastising himself about his unfinished work.

Quoted from Isaacson, describing Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks from about 1480:
“On a page that includes a water clock and a sundial, he lets loose a lament that touches on the sadness of unfinished work. ‘We do not lack devices for measuring these miserable days of ours in which it should be our pleasure that they not be frittered away without leaving behind any memory of ourselves in the mind of men’. He began scribbling the same phrase over and over again every time he needed to try a new pen nib or to fritter away a moment. ‘Tell me if anything was ever done. Tell me. Tell me.’ And at one point, he jotted a cry of anguish. ‘While I thought I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die’.

I doubt if any of us would question that da Vinci lived a life of monumental significance.
Ginevra de Benci, by Leonardo da Vinci. On Exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Michelangelo, a peer of da Vinci’s, was more assertive and defiant about his unfinished projects. A whole body of work of his has been defined by art critics, scholars, and historians as “non-finito” or incomplete. The magnificent slave sculptures at the Accademia in Florence, Italy, for example, are labeled as unfinished. Although, it has been said that Michelangelo, declared that he would be the one to define when a piece of sculpture or painting was complete. To him it was finished when he was done with it.

I love Michelangelo’s retaking or re-appropriating his agency back to himself. He is the artist. He will decide when it is complete. He was feisty and driven, even a Goliath in the art world. He was sometimes combative, secretive and paranoid. I admire him for all his eccentricities, and brilliance. But “unfinished” was not a term he embraced.

Like Michelangelo, can we declare our unfinished projects to be “finished” and just let them go? How much mental energy might we free up to focus on what is truly significant in our lives?

I found the book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon, (2012) to be literally jaw dropping in arguing that we are too passive in directing our own lives. Written to challenge our thoughts of ourselves in our many hats—whether a parent, artist, professional, business owner, retiree, child, community leader, politician, student, etc., it expresses, for example that “expecting to have a clear vision of where your life will take you is just wasting time.” He writes about understanding your life purpose and becoming the person you want to become.

This book encouraged me to take a step back, look at the longer view, and (to try) to not be too critical of my daily foibles. Integrity, honor, love, faith, honesty, compassion, and humility were some of the attributes I decided to emphasize as I re-evaluated my life. I tend to be “productivity prone” and I incessantly need to put a value on the hours I spent, the result, the outcome, the transaction. Reviewing the courage and anguish of some of the greatest artists of all time, reminds me that we are not the ones who will be able to judge the value of our output in a way that is meaningful. There is value in the journey. There is value in the anonymous kind act. There is strength in forgiveness, acceptance, and kindness.

As an artist, I recognize that I have been chosen for a unique gift of creating art. It is an honor, a privilege and a bit of a double-edged sword.

People talk about “passion” as in: do what you are passionate about. This phrase emphasizes to go toward what we are attracted to. Although I get that, I think the word passionate is overused and puts the energy on only one side of the see-saw (or do you call it teeter-totter?). Perhaps we should say we are “chronically-lashed-to” something which implies more of a bilateral relationship. Because even if you are passionate about something that you are pushing toward, it may not be pulling you toward it.

I believe these things we are called to do–such as teaching or creating art or being a musician or writer or maybe a social worker-–pull us and we lurch and charge and limp toward them. Sometimes we are kicking and screaming. Sometimes we can write a list of the 100 reasons why this isn’t a good fit for us. Sometimes we turn away, only to find it staring us in the face. So, this phrase of being forever tied to something conveys this sense that even if you try to “put it down” it keeps tapping you on the shoulder to pick it up again.

Artists and writers feel this, I know. I have often said it would be better and easier to be a jewelry designer, rather than I painter. In my mind, everyone buys jewelry. It is little, lightweight, easy to ship, and high priced. Paintings are the opposite. Even though it is a rational argument, I am not pulled to make jewelry. I am inexorably dragged to make paintings. Do I love it? Yes. Do I wish it were easier and paid better? Yes. Can I change my route, my genre, my artistic path? Not really. I can broaden my road, but can I happily, joyfully put down my paintbrush and take up let’s say creating jewelry?

No. My path is as a painter.

The quest for significance is a human struggle. Some of us feel it interrupting us more than others. How can we set it aside and simply go about the business we are called to do? One of my favorite authors, although confounding, confusing, and difficult for me sometimes, is the German author Eckhart Tolle. His message is simple. Be in the now. Be present. He says:

“Don’t wait to be successful at some future point. Have a successful relationship with the present moment and be fully present in whatever you are doing. That is success”.
The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle

Let’s look at Jackson Pollack. He is known by his extravagant wild paintings combining all sort of paint from acrylic to automobile paint splashed, spattered and thrown at his canvases. He added rags, glass and other detritus to the surface of his canvas—intentionally. He was a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement. Born in 1912, he was alive for World War I and World War II. From his work it is hard to imagine that he studied under Thomas Hart Benton.

But, as with any unique, influential artist, you break away from your teachers and create your own voice.
“I continue to get further away from the usual painter’s tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added. When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about”. Jackson Pollack, My Paintings

Curiously, this seems so different than the Jackson Pollack described by his wife, Lee Krasner, an accomplished artist in her own right. For all his wildness, his consuming alcoholism, his apparently manic style of painting, she said:
“With Jackson there was quiet solitude. Just to sit and look at the landscape. An inner quietness. After dinner, to sit on the back porch and look at the light. No need for talking. For any kind of communication”.

Hmmmmm.

I guess one thing is for sure. It is not for the outside world to tell us who we are and what we have accomplished. As individuals and the artists of our own lives, we may wear different facades for various reasons. We may share our innermost selves with loved ones, or maybe not. Perhaps with biographers or in diaries, or maybe not. Ultimately, we need to be able to read our inner selves. We need to live in the now and appreciate that we are breathing.

I have often reminded myself that my body itself –as well as yours—can handle the highest level of chemistry, physiology, and biology, by managing all the complicated things that happen in a body. Like respiration, balance, thinking, repairing cells, fighting disease, communication, memory, etc. The proof that I can accomplish these tasks is that I am alive. My body has known how to do all these things that I have no idea about. Perhaps that is enough. To be alive. To love and have loved.

Many lives of significance, like those of famous authors or poets, such as Maya Angelou, can be distilled down to relatively simple aspirations:
“My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return”.
Maya Angelou

Let us not be worrying as Leonardo da Vinci did when he plaintively asked, “Tell me if anything was ever done. Tell me. Tell me”.

Let’s live in the now and celebrate where we are, wherever that is—albeit “non-finito”. Can we strive to not compare our gifts and our accomplishments with those of others, and simply continue to do the work we are called to do?

And, as we think about significance, some wise words from a favorite novelist of the American South, Eudora Welty.
“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order the continuous thread of revelation.”

Every day, there are a variety of paths to choose. Each one potentially leading to a different outcome. So many choices. How will you choose? A familiar piece of poetry is the quiet visual that comes to mind:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep”.
Robert Frost, “The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete
and Unabridged”

It’s enough to be present and attentive, to accept what we are called to do, and to and keep plugging along.

Watercolor painting by Jane M. Mason, “Giant Snow Flakes. Spring Snow.”
Available as fine art prints on www.janemmason.com
Jane M. Mason, President & Chief Creative Visionary
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