Art captures beauty and truth in a way that evades empirical observations. This mystery was mediated before me as I sauntered through the Art Institute of Chicago the other day. I was so struck by this idea, I found I couldn’t leave the photography section on the lower level. I became immersed in the Photo-Secession era prints and the way each artist uniquely contributed to establishing photography as a fine art. As I stepped from print to print I was drawn in by the photographers’ philosophies on how exactly to capture beauty through art.
Walker Evans (1903-1975), for example, was convinced that beauty must be captured as candidly as possible. He would board the New York City subways and poke his 35mm Contax camera through an opening in his coat, even though taking pictures on the subway was apparently illegal during that time. The museum placard next to his art work quotes him describing his photos of unsuspecting commuters: “‘My idea of what a portrait ought to be,’ Evans wrote, was ‘anonymous and documentary and straightforward picture of mankind.'” The placard further describes Evan’s work: “Devoid of journalistic purpose or romantic sentimentality, Evans’ subway portraits present a candid view of humanity within the modern urban environment.”
Arnold Newman (1918-2006), in his print, Ithaca-Policeman in Front of Fruit Stand is another example of capturing beauty and life profoundly yet simply. The plaque next to his print notes, “….In contrast to his iconic, highly constructed portraits, this picture exemplifies a more spontaneous approach in vivid color. Forgoing props, poses, and artificial lighting, Newman instead allowed the world to meet him halfway.”
Asahel Curtis’ View From Mt. Ranier from 1920 is accompanied by these words on its neighboring plaque: “A passionate outdoorsman, Asahel produced one of the most comprehensive early image collections of the upper Pacific Northwest and actively contributed to the development of Mount Rainier National Park, seen here. This object’s distinctive appearance comes from Curtis’s use of the oration process, in which a gelatin silver photograph is printed on glass and gold paint is applied to the reverse. Edward Curtis [his brother] had famously complained that the ordinary photographic print lacked depth, but he explained that in the oration, ‘all the transparency is retained and they are as full of life and sparkle as an opal.”
Further down the gallery, Playwright George Bernard Shaw illuminates the aim of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s photography which: “…drives at the poetic, and invariably seizes something that plunges you into a mood, whether it is a mass of cloud brooding over a river, or a great lump of a warehouse in a dirty street.”
I was particularly mesmerized by Aflred Stieglitz’s (1864-1946) prints portraying his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), whom he married in 1924. The descriptions next to these prints tell that Stieglitz made over 300 prints of O’Keeffe “with a kind of heat and excitement” (in her own words). Further, “O’Keeffe wrote that Stieglitz’s ‘idea of a portrait was not just one picture; instead, it was a composite of pictures addressing an idea and personality too large to fit in a single photograph.'”
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) finally became a photographer at the age of 48. Even as I write this, her quoted words still echo in my mind: “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at long length the longing has been satisfied.”
It is through this lens that I suggest interpreting the Transfiguration of Jesus: that the aim of the author who penned this magnificent image was to arrest the beauty that had come before its witnesses. Perhaps the story of the Transfiguration is intended to mediate beauty and truth in a way that is otherwise limited by empirical observation. From a mountain top Jesus’ face transforms and his clothes become dazzling (perhaps even “sparkling as an opal”). The reader is “plunged into a mood.” The artist/writer seems to be expressing stunning luminosity extending out from Jesus’ essence as he experiences this intense moment of intimacy with God (1). God’s presence is cloud-like and vast and affirming words about Jesus vibrate from within the cloud (2). Joy exudes from this narration in the words of Peter who wants to make three tents in response, as if preparing for celebration (3). All five senses are stirred as though one is reading Mary Oliver’s Blossom (4).
Karen Armstrong (2009) sheds light on the relationship between art and theology in The Case for God and explains why art, and specifically music, is so central to mediating truth in religion. She emphasizes the significance of art in our intimation of the divine.
Music marks the limits of reason…. But it is highly cerebral…yet this intensely rational activity segues into transcendence. Music goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything. A late Beethoven quartet does not represent sorrow but elicits it in hearer and player alike, and yet it is emphatically not a sad experience. Like tragedy, it brings intense pleasure and insight. We seem to experience sadness directly in a way that transcends ego, because this is not my sadness but sorrow itself. In music, therefore, subjective and objective become one. Language has borders that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of inexpressible otherness. ‘It is decisively the fact that language does have frontiers,’ explains the British critic George Steiner, ‘that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvelously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours.’ Every day, music confronts us with a mode of knowledge that defies logical analysis and empirical proof. It is ‘brimful of meanings which will not translate into logical structures or verbal expression.’ Hence all art constantly aspires to the condition of music; so too, at its best, does theology.
When we read the Transfiguration of Jesus, we come up against transcendence that cannot be fact-checked. We are brought to a place beyond reason, into a reality outside our imagination. This is what art does, as I experienced, while under the spell of photographed prints on the ground floor of the Art Institute. In reading the Transfiguration, surely we are attending to an artful prose that describes an “idea too large to fit in a single photograph” or set of sentences. We are gazing upon a piece of art.
Now stand there before it. Meet this piece of art halfway. Peer into it. What do you see?
(1) See Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus in Mark: Conversations with Scripture (2011)
(2) See Justo Gonzalez, Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (2010)
(3) Donald Senior and Pheme Perkins, The Catholic Study Bible (2006), p. 1372: “Making the tents: “Peter may be likening his joy on the occasion of the transfiguration to the joyful celebration of this harvest festival.”
by Mary Oliver
like black blossoms,
swims in every one;
everywhere: frogs shouting
their satisfaction. What
we know: that time
chops at us all like an iron
hoe, that death
is a state of paralysis. What
we long for: joy
before death, nights
in the swale-everything else
can wait but not
from the root
of the body. What
we know: we are more
than blood-we are more
than our hunger and yet
to the moon and when the ponds
open, when the burning
begins the most
thoughtful among us dreams
of hurrying down
into the black petals,
into the fire,
into the night where time lies shattered,
into the body of another.
into the body of another.
Walker Evans: http://shelleysdavies.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/walker-evans-3.png
Asahel Curtis: https://p2.liveauctioneers.com/196/19330/6559316_1_l.jpg
Alfred Stieglitz: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/O’Keeffe-(hands).jpg