Thoughts on the Mystery of Art / by Jeannine Cook

I read a small opinion piece today in the Diario de Mallorca by Pedro de Silva which was thought-provoking.  Entitled the Mystery of Art, it talked of the palimpsests glimpsed under paintings, when artists such as Goya painted over a portrait of Charles III's sister-in-law to produce the portrait of Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a learned writer and liberal statesman who was made Minister of Grace and Justice in1798. (Incidently, Jovellanos was soon removed from his office by Godoy for his liberal views and became a political prisoner in Palma de Mallorca's Bellver castle for seven years).  

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) Portrait of Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, oil on canvas.  Image courtesy of the Prado Museum, Madrid

Pedro de Silva goes on to make the contrast with today's ease of painting or writing, printing, revising, cutting and pasting, and finally throwing whatever was done into the waste paper basket. Today's profligate use of materials and time are no guarantee of producing talented work; indeed, such abundance is often negative when it comes to creativity.  He wrote, "The creation of beauty is to a great extent marginal amid our so-called progress - a great consolation." Today, even when we imagine, revise and re-imagine images and scenes in our heads, it is almost by chance that we recognise the beauty in them, let alone keep a more permanent record of them.

We need to be attentive to the sparks of creativity, wherever they appear, because in today's hubbub and rush, they easily get extinguished.  Art is something that everyone seems to deem precious and important:one only has to look at the reams written in books and on the Web about art in all its forms.  Yet this mysterious alchemy - art - that can lift the spirit, bring joy, healing and coherence, understanding and inspiration, defies easy definition, let alone easy creation.

Every artist knows that it is hard to create consistently good work; practice, practice and application are needed. Sometimes, whatever the medium, the artist realises, after the work is finished, that something good has happened, something worthwhile.  But it is almost a matter of good fortune, something akin to a miracle, when everything has fallen into place and beauty has "happened".  No matter that every person's definition of beauty can be somewhat individual and experience-based; there are nonetheless still enough components of beauty that resonate with many people, not only in one age but down the centuries. In the Telegraph, for example, Matthew Collings lists ten aspects or qualities that make art beautiful - from the work being rooted in nature to simplicity, unity, transformation, animation and surprise...

Personally, the mystery of art is magical, indefinable, but always uplifting. It can be a Cycladic head from the Early Cycladic II period, Syros phase (2800 - 2300 BC), for example.

Female Head, marble. Image courtesy of N. P. Goulandris collection

Or a bouquet of flowers painted by Henri Fatin-Latour, who believed that painting was “the mysterious harmony of form and colour”.

White Peonies and Roses, Narcissus, Henri Fatin-Latour, 1879, Private Collection
Vase of Peonies, Henri Fatin-Latour, 1881.  Image courtesy of
Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, HL

And all sorts of marvels of mysterious creation in between...  But we all need art to make our lives worthwhile, and it is good to be reminded that it is thanks to effort, skill and well-neigh magical good fortune that each work of art is created.