Ever since corona and ordering from home, delivery services shouldn’t be bothered with taking the elevator to deliver at our door. I kindly suggest putting boxes in our elevator and I will call the elevator up to our floor. This ritual has become a routine. But now the spiritual ‘beginners’ mind’ is added to the story.
There I stand waiting for the delivery man to put boxes inside the elevator and waiting for our ever so slow elevator to reach our floor. Out of boredom I try to study the white washed walls of our apartment gallery. There is no smudge to cling to. There is no pot with flowers to empathically worry about. There is no insect trapped in our gallery that I can heroically set free. There is nothing, absolutely nothing. Because I am in a creative mood I feel a need to add wall art to these utterly dead walls. Why? Why should I want that? Why is there a need to add wall art? This need is so deep, so prehistoric, that painting walls wasn’t it human’s first expression or art. Why?
As I stand waiting, I remember a mystical remark by a Sufi master. He explained that all we see and experience is Creation creating itself to see itself, to engage with itself, to see itself being reflected back at itself. When I heard this story on creation, I felt puzzled yet fascinated. I needed some time to see Creation as a force that enjoys creating a version of itself (not really outside itself and not even separate from itself but a bit away from itself) to be able to engage with itself, to see itself as a reflection of ourselves in a mirror. The more I think about it, the more I understand God creating the world in seven days; not God’s miraculous and exhausting timeline of creation but his will to create, or his need to create to interact with his creation. After all, what is God without people believing in God?
Back to me standing bored in our apartment gallery. I felt the need to create; an overwhelming need. These dead walls are painful. I imagine to be imprisoned in a white washed cell without crayons and I know that I would grow demented in record time or I would die due to having nothing to interact with.
The Sufi’s cosmogonic myth makes sense to me; creation needs to create. Without this creative force creating itself in order to interact with itself through thousands different manifestations all would deteriorate, seeps or drain away. We need art; we need music. We need to make art and music. Go and paint the umpteenth version of Monet’s lily pond; the umpteenth print of a sunflower. Creating is a good thing.
There is always something in a museum that inspires. At least, that counts for me. Whether I visit an exhibition on shamans, a scientific department with preserved animals, an insectarium, planetarium, or aquarium, fine arts, or an anthropological exhibition, something will speak to me.
The interesting thing is that you have no idea beforehand which object, story or atmosphere, or even a part of a building, will grab your attention and fill you with inspiration. All you have to do is visit a museum and open up. Inspiration might be overwhelming when you stand in front of the eminently displayed Nike of Samothrace in Paris Louvre. Equally so, it can be kindled by an object as small as the Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean, Oxford. Sometimes inspiration is not presented through the storyline or ancient objects of an exhibition. It might be the museum building itself that emerges you in an Art Deco atmosphere and consequently inspires you.
HOW TO VISIT A MUSEUM FOR INSPIRATION?
There is something essential you have to do, or perhaps, do not. You should not refrain yourself from feeling happy to visit a museum instead, you should feel grateful for being able to enjoy a carefully curated exhibition. Yes, gratitude and excitement are perfect emotions that do not interfere with inspiration. But what does interfere with inspiration are pre-existing ideas of what you are going to gain from visiting a museum, a gallery or exhibition. Leave all expectations at home. Step into the Medieval mindset that inspiration comes from God or is whispered in your ears by angels. Museums often are quiet, mindful places that make a visitor susceptible to ‘hearing’ angels’ whispers or to feel touched by an object or the perfect execution of fine art skills by one of a well experienced or highly trained artisan or artist.
Even when you have visited many floors, enjoyed a lunch in the museum café, or sauntered through the museum shop, you might not have an idea what inspired you. The whispers might be very subtle and not easily detectable amidst the excitement to be confronted with art, excellence, or originality. But just before you are about to put on your coat ask yourself; ‘What spoke to me?’ or ‘Where in the museum should I have lingered longer?’
There…there you sensed inspiration. Something interesting or beautiful ‘spoke’ to you. It whispers in your mind; ‘Will you stay with me a bit longer next time?’
Inspiration is a beautiful thing. To me it isn’t a thought or a feeling. It is a whisper that can become rather loud once it has sunken into your soul. It has a timeless quality; some whispers stay for weeks, others ignite your artistic fires for years. See here how art inspires to art (making). How art lives on weeks, decades, years after those who practise highly developed artistic skills left behind their artwork. Art seems to be born from this never-ending stream of inspiration, enhanced and carried by those willing to learn skills and deep focus.
This Asian ceramic plate in Leiden’s Museum of Ethnology grabbed my attention and with much joy and interested it inspired me to draw two large mandarin duck compositions. Perhaps you can find the elements that inspired me in my mandarin duck paintings? (Click to enlarge the pictures)
Let me introduce The Sorcerer discovered in 1960 in Ariège, France. He has been regarded a mythical figure, a shaman, leading a ritual dance. The fact that he directly looks at us as if he is interrupted, is remarkable. Why is he doing that? My method of getting to know him better is through drawing him and paying attention to what I observe during the process of drawing. This I combine with research. I will never be able to see the Sorcerer, thus I fully depend on reference photos and interpretations by the man who set out to show the world all cave painting by sketching, Henri Breuil.
By looking at these two images, a controversy becomes immediately manifest; is Henri Breuil’s drawing a reliable copy or is it his interpretation? This has been hotly debated but I won’t go into this. I trust Jean Clottes who has asserts Breuil’s drawing after having seen the original perhaps over 20 times over many years.
Breuil’s drawing is however problematic, even if it is a truthful copy of the original rock art drawing. I start to draw the Sorcerer, scaling it up in size, working on his head. It is said that the sorcerer isn’t a shaman, it isn’t a human; it is a composite figure bringing together many drawings of Ariège cave. Here we see, the antlers of a stag, the ears of a wolf, the face of a deer, the eyes of an owl, the beard of a bison, the claws of a bear, the pose and the tail of a rearing horse, and the (hind) legs and genitalia of a man.
Drawing Sorcerer’s deer face, I run into trouble with the position of his eyes and ears. The position of the neck in relation to the head and ears is flawed. Equally flawed is the neck of the body in relation to the en-profile position of the face. A face that looks at us over one shoulder would show only one ear, the other would be obscured, visually missing, which is not the case with the Sorcerer. The antlers seem to be incorrectly positioned as well; in case a (horse or human) body is rearing to the front and the head is turned, looking to the viewer full face, then the front antler would seem bigger and the antler more positioned to the back would look a tiny bit smaller, as is not the case with Breuil’s drawing. In fact, the back antler looks bigger! This leads to the conclusion that the head is distorted. Either the painter had this in mind or as cave art is palimpsest art, meaning that painting are re-used, altered and traces of early paintings are often visible in later versions, the compositional flaws could be caused by more than one artists working at this piece of rock art over a long period of time.
The second feeling of unease that I experience whilst drawing the Sorcerer is related to the difference in style and skill regarding the head and the body. The body of the Sorcerer is very well done, technically and anatomically. We see a well proportioned horse body with a waving tail and strong human legs. But what about the head? The bison beard has no movement; the antlers seems to be done by somebody lacking drawing skills. Thus I wonder how this composite head would look like (drawn by me in this case, but I invite you to do the same). Whilst drawing all the animal attributes, I observe that this composite figure has portrayed very well chosen and formidable animal qualities. Is this portrait then an obituary to a beloved and charismatic shaman? ‘He had formidable eyesight like the eyes of an owl’. It is almost as if we hear somebody remembering him during his funeral. ‘He wore antlers of a stag and could hear with the ears of a wolf’. ‘He had such a kind face, like that of a deer’. ‘He had a well groomed beard as one of a bison’. ‘He could run like a horse, but despite his superior qualities, he was just a man’ (hence the human genitalia).
The Sorcerer shape-shifts in many animals, most of them mammals. With the superior eyes of an owl, he perhaps isn’t looking at us, but trying to find his way back, through the dark, to his human body and to his community who has gathered deep inside Ariège cave. A community that thought high of him and went through huge efforts to make an intriguing portrait of him.
To deepen my understanding of female prehistoric figurines, I have set out to draw a few of them. Clockwise starting with tge middle-lower sitting woman, you find Courbet Venus, carved in a seated position, about 14.900 years old. Followed by the Venus of Polichinelle, carved in green steatite, 27.000 years old, found at Grimaldi. The strictly stylised engraved Lalinde Venus (there are more than one) found in Gönnersdorf in Germany, in Abri Murat and Gare de Couze in France, Pekárna in the Czech Republic, and Wilczyce in Poland. Stone Age. Further clockwise; Venus figures from Wilczyce, followed by another Gönnersdorf figurine. Then, Petersfels Venus that is made of jet, circa 15. 000 BP- 2.000 BP. Another Gönnersdorf engraving and last, Venus from Nebra, 15.000 years old, animal bone.
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? You can’t possible blame prehistoric peoples for a lack of body diversity. But why the concentration on bellies and buttons, and why are heads and feet missing? Most look either emaciated, nursing or pregnant. Are some suffering from chronic diseases? Did it matter how a female looked like, or was the first piece of bone or stone vaguely resembling and therefore symbolising a (perhaps departed) woman okay for whatever ritual? Some look crudely abstract, others are enchantingly elegant, as if they are the first sketched outlines of ballerinas in action. I have chosen an ochre background as this pigment was hugely important to prehistoric peoples.
The oldest (Celtic) god is Cernunnos, depicted with the antlers of a stag, seated cross-legged, associated with animals, and holding or wearing a torc (is a large rigid or stiff neck ring in metal, made either as a single piece or from strands twisted together).
Not much is known about Cernunnos but interpretations identify him as a beneficent god of nature, life, or fertility. I find it interesting that Cernunnos is half man, half stag. We clearly like to relate ourselves to such a magnificent animal. It looks well built yet elegant, noble and humble, strong but vulnerable.
I remember driving on Island of Mull and being redirected due to roadworks. As we continued our journey on small roads, all the sudden a huge stag stood in front of us. My husband stopped the car and for a moment we looked in awe to this mighty animal. It looked at us and we looked at him with instant respect, so close and intense was the encounter, that we can still recall the moment, decades later. It will linger in our memory probably forever.
Stag Drawing copyright Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Stag Drawing Antlers shapshifting into birds that fly to the moon. Copyright Paula Kuitenbrouwer
It is therefore that I have drawn stags and deer often. The challenge is always to capture the strength and elegance. Recently, I drew a full stag but I was disappointed because it didn’t stand out. It had not the mightiness that I was looking for. I then applied the ‘Celtic’ method of looking which lines and shadows were essential and which I should leave out. Say 90% of my initial lines were erased and as a result I not only ended up with a more powerful stag, the space that became available allowed me to work on applying beautiful lines and figures (see how the eyes of the stag are also birds). Thus, the stag is complied of many seemingly loose elements, connecting and giving it form.
I placed it in an ancient Upperworld, Middle world, and Underworld. The Upperworld shows the sun and the moon and the antlers of the stag shapeshift into birds that fly away, symbolizing a shamanistic journey to the Upperworld. The Middle world is shown as tree branches and tree trunks. The Underworld can be entered by visiting an ancient burial site, or being close to dolmens, as is the belief of ancient peoples. I knitted all worlds together by using patterned borders.
Artist Info: I used Derwent Graphite H7 and H3 only, on Winsor & Newton cold press paper. Using only Derwent H pencils gives a drawing very soft tones. Personally, I favour this, but others might judge that it needs more enforcement of darker areas. A few small prints of my drawing show a more enhanced or ‘harder’ version. There are many ‘Celtic’ pattern vectors freely available but I decided to design my own irregular patterns.
I’d like to show three paintings in which I have incorporated Ma, a Japanese aesthetic principle. Ma is described as ‘an interval in time and/or space’, thus referring to empty spaces, vagueness or abstraction. Empty spaces, in which nothing seems to happen, are full of possibilities. How do my three birds deal with Ma in their portraits?
For my portrait of Magpie, Korea’s national bird, I added orange colour to compensate for a magpie’s black and white plumage. To stay close to her Korean habitat, I decided to position Magpie on a colourful and fruit-bearing persimmon branch, heavily laden with pumpkin-shaped kaki. Magpie is content with her portrait, and so am I.
Setting up a composition for a portrait of Carrion Crow was a little harder. Negotiations with this proud and cheeky bird were tough. I talked him into sitting on a mountain ash branch, but initially he didn’t agree with my decision of pushing him a little to the rear.
‘You are an indigo blue-ivory black bird’, I explained by pointing out that humans don’t like black things. I explained that I could trick humans in loving his plumage by adding the rich palette of colours of an autumn Mountain Ash.
‘This branch has fresh green, bright orange and deep red, and will charm viewers in loving your monotonous black feathers. And if I use a diagonal composition, I can guide the viewer along the branch, climbing up from deep red, through the bright orange to sap green. After such a colourful journey, people don’t mind a bit of solid black. But to do that, I told Carrion Crow, I have to push you a little to one side, but that is okay. Reluctantly, Carrion Crow agreed.
My sparrow-hawk demanded to sit high and mighty on the top branch of a proud pine tree. The world of humans doesn’t interest him. He soars above it, looking down on our wars over oil, mass migration and our overheated, overpopulated world.
Sparrow-hawk knows he has this intricately textured and awesome coat of feathers, which makes fashion designers drool. Not much is needed next to such an eye-catching bird; two almost evenly-coloured pine cones complete the portrait. Sparrowhawk sat down just long enough for me to make a portrait, and, without so much as a ‘thank-you’, flew off to his own world, soaring high above ours.
Back to Ma.. In all three bird portraits you’ll notice considerable emptiness. My birds seem to look into this emptiness. What do they see? A suitable partner? Prey? Are they guarding their hidden nests? Are they exploring new horizons?
Ma is for you to fill in with your imagination, with your story-telling, your ornithological knowledge or poetry. But Ma can also be left open. We don’t need to fill in empty spaces with projections, trauma, words or sounds. Ma offers a thinking pause or escape from our train of thoughts.
Magpie, Carrion Crow and Sparrow-hawk understand Ma naturally. We are enchanted when we see a bird resting on a tree branch and we long to be like them: resting in Ma, accepting the here and now.
On an altarpiece owned by the Catharijneconvent Museum in the Netherlands, we see Mary and Gabriel; an Annunciation, of course. But the Annunciation is shown in so many paintings that it requires us to make an extra effort to see how remarkable this painting is.
Let us talk you through it. This is a Flemish altarpiece dating from the late Middle Ages. The painting is about an episode in the Bible, yet it has subtle emotions. If it had been a Renaissance piece, the emotions would be expressed in full; Mary’s body wouldn’t be so poorly executed. The late Medieval characteristic of this painting is that it is richly decorated. It has sumptuous features, such as Gabriel’s clothing, the floor tiles and wallpaper. Mary and Gabriel blend in almost too much, especially Mary with her plain clothing against the heavily decorated background.
Then there is another lovely feature you shouldn’t miss. Gabriel, Mary and the two angels look alike. The most obvious explanation would be that the painter used his or her family as models: his sister or mother as Mary, his brother as Gabriel and his cousins as angels. Another explanation is more theological and much deeper: Mary, the angels and Gabriel were deliberately made to look alike, pale and delicate countenances surrounded by ginger hair, because the painter wanted to stress that Mary, Gabriel and the angels all are very close to God: that they resemble each other, thus also resembling God.
This is a plausible explanation, because the painter has given the theology of the story much thought. Although you might think that this painting was a show of architectonic and texture-drawing skills there is something many will miss while observing this altarpiece.
The painter was philosophical about how to paint God, incarnation or the soul before birth. Have a look at the golden beam of light that descends from the position between the two angels. The fact that the beam comes from above and is positioned between the angels, shows it is a holy sign. At the end of the beam we see the white dove, representing the Holy Spirit. The dove looks like an ocean-diving pelican, aiming to catch a big fish. Here we should remember that, for medieval Europe, the pelican, renowned for its love of its young, symbolised Christ himself. Mary is in a blissful meditative stage of prayer, open to the message of Gabriel when the dove of the Holy Spirit descends on her.
Nothing new, you might think, but notice the tiny figure that follows after the white dove has entered Mary’s mind. There is a small figure, a small, naked boy: Jesus, diving into Mary as the Holy Spirit does, which shows that Mary is soon to be pregnant with a holy child. Mary’s highest point, while reading her book, is her head: Jesus entering her head instead of her chest or lap shows that Jesus comes from ‘above’. With Joseph nowhere to be seen, the painting focusses on the spiritual aspect of a soul descending into a woman.
From this 15th century religious painting, let’s now move on to The Burial of Count Orgaz by El Greco, painted in 1568.
The painting shows the miracle that is said to have happened during the burial of Count Orgaz: two saints descend from heaven to place the body of Count Orgaz in his tomb. While the painting shows Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine in full glory, tenderly putting Count Orgaz in his resting place in the lower part of the painting, halfway across the canvas an angel carries the soul of the count to Christ, who is positioned high up in the painting, gesturing by his open arms a welcoming sign. Between the earthy world in which Count Orgaz is laid to rest, and the heavenly world, hangs a whitish translucent veil. Its folds show there are angels hiding in it and, due to its uneven distribution, it creates numerous spaces or ‘heavens’. Dante wrote about many hells; this painting hints at many heavens. Between Mary and St. John the Baptist is a very narrow opening to which the angel with curly hair carefully pushes the soul of Count Orgaz.
El Greco makes this soul-carrying angel a midwife in reverse, holding the soul of Count Orgaz with its vague, baby-like features, while it makes its ascent through the opening. Mary, in heaven, has one hand ready to support Count Orgaz’s soul, while St. John de Baptist is already communicating the arrival to Jesus.
We now have seen two paintings in which the soul is shown as a child’s physique. Why have the painters done that? Aren’t there full-grown, adult souls? The arriving soul and the departing soul are shown as a young child because a child is a symbol of innocence because it is without (sinful and full-grown) flesh, without actions it has performed as a responsible adult. When we see a beautiful baby or young child, we say; ‘what an angel’ and we may say that again of a shrunken, wise and kind grandparent. Obviously, to be an earthly angel one has to be either a new arrival from heaven or an almost-departing soul. One has to have that ethereal quality, with little flesh on the bone and an excess of lovingness and delicacy.
The soul in modern paintings is often the spiritual doppelganger of a person. The soul has the same size and form as the person from whom it departs. Paintings of outside body experiences show a shadowy twin figure hovering over a sleeping person. There is nothing exciting about this way of depicting of a soul. These modern souls are cheap replicas. They hold no philosophy, no symbolism or imagination. How different is the Flemish altarpiece of the Annunciation, or El Greco with a burial and an ascent to heaven in one painting, showing not only a dense social scene with many of Toledo’s notables, but also this curious soul, demonstrating theology, philosophy and creative imagination.
To paint a soul challenges a painter to think about what a soul is. It is the psyche of the Greek philosophers: pure consciousness? How would you paint pure consciousness? Is it the thymos, a person’s vitality, spirit or energy? How to express vitality with the help of paint and a brush? It certainly isn’t a person’s eidolon, the empty shadow that goes down to Hades, bereft of all vitality and awareness. The eidolon is the soul minus what makes us human. And what we see in these two paintings – the soul about to enter into life in the Flemish altarpiece and the departing soul of El Greco – are clearly human souls. In fact, what we see is something extraordinary: at attempt to paint the unpaintable.
Guido Reni (Bologna 1575-1642) St Joseph with the Infant Jesus
Guido Reni lived from 1575 to 1642 and painted mostly in Rome. He ran a busy studio engaged on commissions from many Italian cities. Born in Bologna into a family of musicians, Reni was, as a child of nine, apprenticed under the Bolognese studio of Denis Calvaert.
I especially like St. Joseph with the Infant Jesus, painted in oil on canvas by this Bolognese painter. There is something captivating about this old father who holds baby Jesus. He is a handsome old man and he seems wise, but also vulnerable. To my opinion, Guido Reni has painted an older father who is well aware of the future of his baby. It is as if Joseph holds his treasure not only tenderly, but also in very high esteem.
Now look at baby Jesus. This isn’t a normal baby. It almost sits on Joseph’s hands and shows a remarkable awareness. As much as it is a baby, it is the spiritual master of Joseph already. Guido Reni also has given baby Jesus a lightness; not only by casting a bundle of light on the head and body of baby Jesus, but also by given this baby a beautiful glow. Reni’s baby Jesus shows in another way its ‘light’ too, by suggesting it is light-weighted. Joseph holds his baby as if baby Jesus weighs as much as a feather. This all adds to the impression Guido Reni aims for showing how remarkable baby Jesus was already as a baby.
I like to draw attention to the flower baby Jesus is holding. Most likely it is a lily. A lily symbolizes purity and integrity. In many paintings the Virgin Mary and other saints are portrayed with a lily. Baby Jesus holds the lily close to the heart of St. Joseph, or you could say, St. Joseph holds baby Jesus, who holds the lily. This important baby is safe in the hands of his father. We can trust Joseph to keep baby Jesus safe from being harmed as a child. Maybe Guido Reni gives baby Jesus to hold the lily close to Joseph as if to say thank-youfor taking care.
In the back of this painting (I think) I see Maria being visited by an angel. This could be an annunciation to the blessed virgin Mary scene.
I could go on and on showing you how beautiful Joseph’s cloak is done. Or the technical skills of creating grey hair through darkening the background around the head of Joseph with a thick green forest scene. However, I stop and return to my drawing to finish my small interpretation of this painting. Enjoy my work-in-progress.