Monday 5 May 2014

Zurbaran and death: art and order

Luminous order
I was slightly irritated on Friday by the LRB review of the Zurbaran exhibition in Brussels.

Creative artists, whose calling is to negate nothing by making something, can prove strangely drawn to inexistence – their own, if not the world’s in general...

A couple of versions of the lamb by Josefa de Obidos, strongly marked by Zurbarán’s influence, have the lamb in a similar pose on a slab that bears the tag: ‘occisus ab origine mundi’. [Killed from the beginning of the world.] It’s hard not to conclude that for de Obidos as for Zurbarán, dead is best, and, as the motto suggests, that things went bad from the get-go. 

For me, Zurbaran is one of those painters who precisely gets right the intensity of life and meaning, and describing this as a hankering for death -except insofar as it is an acknowledgment that this intensity points to a supernatural end rather than simply a natural one- gets him just completely wrong. But in getting him wrong, it reminded me of why the visual arts are essential to understanding the world, including the world of morality and politics.

For us -and 'us' here means those conservatives who believe in a perennial philosophy (as Webster's puts it) which is 'the philosophical tradition of the world's great thinkers from Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas to their modern successors dealing with problems of ultimate reality', there is a fundamental order to the world. Precisely how that order is conceptualized will differ according as you are a Thomist, a Platonist, a Confucian, a Stoic etc etc. But all these schools will share a sense that the human task is to discern and imitate that order. 

Discernment of order is under the aspects of truth, goodness and beauty, and, of these, it is perhaps beauty which is, in the modern world, most neglected. Art, when done properly, makes manifest that order: the rationality of the world becomes visible (or audible) rather than merely understood or desired.

Zurbaran's manifesting of order can be seen both in the form of the individual objects and in the relationship between them: to see his paintings aright is to be sent back into the world to discern a rational order which is not yet perfectly there: an order that exists in potentia, but not in actu. Moreover, that order, the astringency the review talks of, is also an order in our psychology: to see the world aright, we too have to be cleansed.

Art is central to politics because it teaches us to see properly. When presented with 'the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate', the traditionalist (or perhaps more exactly the Daily Mail) simply sees the correct order of things and the progressive simply sees a wrong to be righted. We see -well what do we see? We see through a glass darkly, and to see clearly requires a katharsis of self as well as intensity of focus. Wrestling with art is wrestling with that order which is obscured: it is learning to discern. In Zurbaran, not only does his chiaroscuro serve to illuminate the luminous form against a dark background (the still life above) but it serves to obscure the form (below): a reminder that, on earth, order exists only as a dimly glimpsed future promise and never as a fully achieved reality.

                                                       Through a glass darkly.

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