Saturday, October 11, 2014

The surprise of beauty

Her beauty, with her face a little flushed and her hair ruffled, took him freshly by surprise. This shock of surprise was in all real beauty, he thought. If one was not surprised it was only a counterfeit.
Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean's Watch, p. 310.

The painting below, by artist Timothy Jones, hangs on my wall. It was finished by commission this summer.

It has been on the wall now for almost exactly a month. As the days move into the full glory of a Michigan autumn with much sunshine, welcome in the house to take off the chill, the glowing picture of oranges and strawberries seems somehow to grow more important.

No doubt it is partly the fact that I'm still not used to having it there at all, but many is the time in the last two weeks that I have looked up in the midst of thinking of something else entirely--often something boring or vexing--and have been caught by it, like the Dean in Goudge's book, taken freshly by surprise.

If you have lived any length of time in this world you know what it is like first to be a child, to take in beauty with your full attention and without self-consciousness, then to lose that ability to be captivated, then to regain it, but only in fits and starts. We are creatures, in the words of T.S. Eliot, "distracted by distraction from distraction." It is a great grace to have one's whole attention captured by something lovely and to sense its quiddity, its "whatness." It seems to me that this is where Jones's genius lies as a painter--in drawing attention to the "whatness" of good things. See Oak Leaf 1, for example, or Oranges and Raspberries, Psalm 104, and others. These pictures can give the viewer, for a moment, the opportunity to forget the self, simply to see what is there, and to feel in some way, difficult to explain, that that moment of seeing is all that matters. Jones's use of light accentuates the significant object; the light "tells" the viewer that he is right to see this thing as important, for the light rests upon it. It is only sunlight, natural light. But can sunlight ever be "mere" or "only"? The light shines in darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

If we are lucky, we have these moments of clear vision sometimes in relation to nature--a shaft of sunlight cast across a church nave, blue tree shadows on the snow on a winter's evening, a translucent leaf green against a blue sky. It doesn't happen nearly often enough. One cannot command such seeings, nor sustain them by one's own power. They come when they will, the wind that bloweth where it listeth.

Nor can the visual artist capture vision in the sense of "canning" it and making it available at will. What the work of art provides is an opportunity.

My thanks to Timothy Jones for his work on the painting I own and on all the others out there. May there be many more of his works in this dark world in the years to come.

(See here for a Christendom Review feature on Jones in 2008.)


Beth Impson said...

Thanks for this lovely post, and for sharing your picture with us again. I was driving to work the other morning, anticipating another rainy day, and then I looked up and saw the full moon shining behind shredded storm clouds and seeming to chase them away from its beauty. Such a gift.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you, Beth. That sounds like an early morning drive! I'm not much of a morning lark, but sometimes beauty is the one compensation for having to be up early.

Timothy Jones said...

Thank you, Lydia, for this lovely meditation. Often, we artists aren't sure why we do what we do. It's enlightening to have someone see our work with fresh eyes, and put into words things we cannot!

Lydia McGrew said...

I'm so glad that you got to see the post! I can well imagine that an artist would paint because he has no choice. That is often how I feel about some of my writing.

Anonymous said...

Lydia - material on aesthetics and things like your "fits and starts" comment (beautifully expressed) are extremely important to me.

Would you be so kind as to recommend writers/poets that specialise in this kind of insight (besides lewis and scruton, I've thankfully discovered them already!)?

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Anon. I have only rather scattered recommendations. Beth Impson's blog Inscapes

contains meditations of this kind at times.

I also recommend some particular novelists. _Gilead_, by Marilynne Robinson, is a truly great novel. (Don't go to Robinson for theology, though. She is an incredible novelist but a muddled theologian.)

You might find value in the best novels of Elizabeth Goudge, which I review here: