June 2009



By Bill Henson
'The Stone Bridge', by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, c. 1638. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum
'The Stone Bridge', by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, c. 1638. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Art tends to occur against our better judgment. At the most obvious level this happens when art creates scandal: think of the trials of such works of literature as Madame Bovary and James Joyce's Ulysses and Nabokov's Lolita. That's the obvious shadow of history (as well as its lesson) and it's possible that as photography has become more and more the descriptive language of the world, it has also become the biggest target of the cultural vigilante. Not least because the precondition of photography seems to be that it is recording certain facts in the world.

Well, the working principle of my life is that my pictures aspire to be as much works of the imagination as a piece of music or a painting does.

I agree with Harold Pinter in his Nobel Lecture that in art something can be true and not true at the same time - in photography, for instance, the ‘truth' of one of my images (if they have truth) may not be the truth of the mundane circumstances that brought it into being (model, photographer, lighting). I also agree with Pinter that there is the desire for truth we have as citizens: there is the dimension of politics and society. And what I want is a world that is safe for art which comes through the medium of love and as a form of compassion. And which constitutes at a level of moral significance (where moral seems too small a word), in a way that is beyond restatement and paraphrase, our fundamental knowledge of the world.

It is always rooted in unlikelihood, in particularity, in the chance invention and illumination that seems like the fatality and destiny of the world.

In art we are all amateurs in the eighteenth-century sense of the word because unless we have love we have nothing. Everyone knows the reality of the epiphany we have in relation to a work of art, whether or not you want to express it in Christian language or not: the experience of the work of art - which is our apprehension of what the artist apprehended - changes, ever so slightly, our sense of the world forever.

When Mozart speaks with his enchanting tinkle, he speaks to me in particular. When Ingmar Bergman whispers the unspeakable memories of childhood in Fanny and Alexander, it is into my ear, as I sit spellbound - into my ear and yours, of course, for the mystery of art is that it makes us one.

History indeed turns out to be the cave wall on which a thousand personal intimacies are projected. And what creates this abiding epiphany, as it creates its apprehension, can only be love.

Think of the overwhelming tenderness of Rembrandt's staggering little painting of Hendrickje as the bathing Susanna in the National Gallery in London. It has a vast tenderness that confounds the distance of history. The intimacy is manifest, it's there before our eyes, and it is so intimate that it's shocking. We are not used to the nakedness of this gaze, this depth of exposure of the self and the beloved. Its greatness is inseparable from the fact that we will never get used to it.

Think of Watteau's Gathering in a Park, painted in 1716. You can find it in a little room, off the Grande Galérie in the Louvre. A pond is backlit by the last rays of the sun seen through trees on the far side of the water and, at the centre, a little apart from the others, is a small girl, seen from the back, head tilted in a way that suggests she is aware of us - indeed, it's as if you and I were a camera she is conscious of.

Another of my favourite Rembrandts is the small painting Landscape with Stone Bridge from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. When I look at it now, 30 years after I first looked at it, I am amazed that the sunlight still hits the trees as it did then, when I first saw it, and you know that it's the actual sunlight from 1638 that is still hitting the bridge now.

The best art heightens our sense of mortality. We know that hands long dead created this image in a world long lost and yet we are a part of that world: we are at one with the dead. And through this communion we are most deeply alive and most deeply in touch with the continuity of history.

Because our imagination becomes one with what the artist has imagined, it is as though we find ourselves inside nature. We are the sunlight we see, we are the child who knows she's being noticed, and all of this constitutes our deepest knowledge of the world.

Is there a greater truth about young love than Romeo and Juliet? Is anything more real than Aschenbach fumbling for beauty at the end of his life as Thomas Mann described it in Death in Venice and as Visconti reconfigured it with equal grace and poignancy on film?

Or, to take it further, in one way, into the heart of things where all words fail: when we listen to Michelangeli or Jorg Demus play the Kinderszenen, we become intimate with a presence - do we want to call it Schumann? - that is as close as the sound that fills our ears and as unbridgeable as the great gulf that is fixed between us and the remote past, a romantic nineteenth century where a man of irregular temperament jotted down notes of music. This is the realm of the spirit and this is where magic reigns.

So what creates this thing and what leads us towards it? I don't think we have a better word for it than love. St Paul said that love was a greater thing than faith or hope. Shakespeare said if he was wrong to think love was central, then he had never written a word. "If this be error, and upon me proved, I never writ." Dante spoke of the love that moves the sun and other stars. They meant something bigger than what we normally mean by art: perhaps they meant the spirit that moves the world and makes it still.

It's that sense of art moving through the medium of love, and through the capacity to wonder, that I find in the work of one of my favourite photographers, O Winston Link, who effected transfigurations as sublime as anything in Rothko through the industrial landscapes he reimagined. He photographed trains - at night. Heavy industrial landscapes - the last steam railroad in America - at midnight.

This is love, this is wonder, this is the chance encounter and the found object turned into art of immemorial grandeur. Always there is the miracle, the unlikelihood that this thing, this face, a mood, has, through tenderness and despite every fear of failure and risk of uncertainty, been turned into a beauty that outstares history.

How could anything but love have brought it into being? To use the words of the Swedish poet Pär Lagerkvist, "this and only this can carry us over the abyss on a bridge of stars". Of course the stars and the abyss go together. There is no greater apprehension of your own death, no more potent memento mori than this groping for art. It is, in the end, the quest for a ‘real presence', glimpsed in the arc of a dancer, the sequence of a film maker, that might so easily have not come into being, that gives us our intimation of what is.

Is there a spiritual dimension to this? Could there not be?

Is this to make the highest moral claims for art? I think it would have to be, wouldn't it?

Think of the great theme of Heian aesthetics, the spirit that animates the great Japanese epic of sensibility The Tale of Genji, what they call mono no aware, ‘the sensitivity towards beings'. It is fundamental to this Buddhist vision that the rocks and flowers of the world, though they are beyond the tide of emotion, nonetheless have being. It is that sense of the physical universe as a spiritual universe that haunts Winston Link, that haunts all great art, and has a definitive abstract expression in the paintings of Mark Rothko.

And if you want to ponder this side of any artist, look at what is abstract in their art. Not Lolita, the character, but the gravity and beauty of Nabokov's sentences, not Susanna in her nakedness but the fall of light on that little stone bridge, the depth of feeling that renders the signatures of things through the minute and everyday particulars of the world.

Giacometti said of the process of making his sculpture, "You start by looking at the person who is posing for you" but in the end "what remains is a quantity so unknown that I no longer know what I'm looking at or what I see." Every true artist knows this process. Fassbinder understood this when he filmed the closing shots of Effi Briest. In the distance, in extreme telephoto, in order to create an effect of maximum powerlessness, the characters play out their unfathomable destinies, as if seen from the perspective of a child.

WG Sebald caught the other side of this exploratory process when he said that Kaspar Hauser regains the naïveté of his pre-existence as he remembers uttering his first sentence, "Then once I took a look into the open, where there was a very green glow and I said to the green ‘I want to be somebody like someone else once was.'"

Every true artist takes the path of the holy fool, the child looking into the dark mirror, the mad simpleton encountering as a mystery the stuff of the world. Giacometti himself sounds like Kaspar Hauser shut up for so long in such isolation that the world can only be a wonderland to him when he says, "Reality is the unknown, and vice versa."

A great work of art is something which has had a profound effect on a large number of people over a long period of time. It is also - definitionally - something that causes us to wonder. I get that sense of wonder whenever I look at the work of the American abstract painter Cy Twombly, just as surely as I get it from that astonishing late Titian Shepherd and Nymph in the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna. The range of light that constitutes the skin tones of Titian's reclining nymph is a miracle that takes the breath away.

It could so easily not have happened. It can be electrifying to think how easily the greatest art might not exist, just as it's instructive to ponder the fact that the greatness of art can never be located in any particular detail. Kenneth Clark once had a movie camera pan slowly across the surface of a Constable landscape, trying to locate the exact point of comprehension, the point of clarity from which the genius of the painting could be understood. It couldn't be done. The harder the camera searched for it, the more it kept slipping away.

Cy Twombly plays on all this and the maze of contradictions it involves. There's that lightness, that carelessness we get in Mozart. It's mesmerising - and it comes close to the essence of art: a kind of tenderness that is also a form of nonchalance. It's playful, it would be childish if it were not childlike, but it's an art where luxury and indulgence and their opposite, a kind of ascetic detachment, circle each other. There's so much sympathy (it wouldn't be possible without that) and at the same time it thumbs its nose at the world. How can there be so much compassion and so much detachment in great art? I don't know. But I think I do know that whatever meaning the world has hovers round this centre that can never be pinned down.

This is the world of the lost domain and just occasionally the roll of a kettle drum in late Mozart or the dying glow of candlelight in a Rembrandt can help us find our way back to a sense of that happiness glimpsed in childhood which at the same time is a vision of truth.

I think of the terrible and spellbinding beauty I find in the Melbourne painter Peter Booth's work, which seems to reveal an unfamiliar and yet fundamental aspect of our own beings. I think of the girl in the Watteau painting who has been waiting for 200 years knowing all the time that we would be watching her. I think of the sunlight from 1638 that strikes Rembrandt's stone bridge as a revelation which is also an actuality. And if you want yet another example of Rembrandt, think of the young boy with the slightly parted lips, Titus Reading, Rembrandt's last portrait of his son painted with such tenderness that you feel as if, when you are up close to the picture, you might almost hear his breathing.

The depth of humanity in the Rothko chapel paintings, the ferocity of Peter Booth. All we can do is point to the power of this art. The composer - was it Schumann? - when asked if he could explain a new piece he had just played on the piano to the assembled company, replied in the affirmative, sat down and played it again. Peter Schjeldahl, poet and art critic at the New Yorker, says somewhere that beauty presents a stone wall to the thinking mind. Beauty makes a case for the sacredness of something and wins that case suddenly and irrationally. It is always too late to argue with beauty.

All art is a journey which we wouldn't take if we knew where we were going. Thomas Mann could suggest the immensity of the world and all its riches in the merest gesture as the words came to express it. But really - no one knows how you photograph (or capture in any other way) longing or loneliness or the face of love or fear. There are no recipes for art, but of course we know it when we see it, and it makes us who we are.

It is the deepest bond of understanding between human beings that we have, and it can only come through love. Although it is the product of compassion, it's also impossible without the spirit of play.

The fact that you and I hear, see and read the same thing, that we can only do this as a quintessentially personal experience, and yet we experience the same work of art and agree to honour it together: this is what defines us as a civilisation.

It is not unusual for people to be caught off guard by art - to be disturbed by it, if you like - and at the same time to be arrested by its beauty. Art characteristically works in such a way that something pedestrian and reasonable becomes something else. It plays, too, on our socialised resistance to imaginative depiction and creates a Mexican standoff between attraction and resistance. This isn't simply true of the provocations of art: it's built into the nature of the whole business.

Nothing in the world is so meaningful, and yet we can never say exactly what it is. It is always a matter of good fortune. It is always unlikely. And the homage which a sometimes brutalised and appetite-sated world pays it is, every so often, to be scared stiff of it.

Bill Henson

Bill Henson is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists. He lives in Melbourne.

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