Great art, far more commonly than is recognized, uses visual metaphor to depict the process of its own creation in the artist’s mind. There are many stages in the conception of an artwork in any media, each with its own specific character. Some, like the initial meditation on a theme, can be relatively passive; others far more active. The process of transforming a mental image into a specific composition can be particularly frustrating and has often been described as a great struggle. We have all experienced at one time or another the agony of a writer as we try to express ourselves in words; artists and composers must do the same with images and sounds. Works of art are not pretty pictures without meaning. They are full of profound thought. The internal effort involved in placing that thought into an image – articulately, concisely and elegantly – can result in a full-scale battle within the psyche. We, the audience, may find that difficult to imagine when the end-result appears so effortless.
Titian was said to look at his pictures “with a concentration as severe as if they had been his mortal enemies, in order to find faults in them; and if he found something that was not in accord with his intentions, he went to work like a surgeon who ruthlessly removes a tumor…’1 And Manet, whose brushwork looks so spontaneous, often went through thirty canvasses to produce a single portrait. Artists continued to express the same idea in the twentieth century because the internal effort to create never changes. Matisse once said: “I don’t want any more struggles in my life. I’ve got quite enough in my work.”2 It is the same in music. According to the man who interrupted Beethoven while composing, he “looked as if he had just emerged victorious from a life and death struggle with the entire host of contrapuntists, his constant antagonists.’3
Art historians are specialists today so they tend to focus on what differentiates one period from another or one work of art from another. They often fail to recognize those elements in art that never change. The vacuum is so great that ordinary lovers can easily recognize what professionals have never seen. For instance, awareness of how extraordinarily difficult this struggle to create can be, and of the psychic energy expended, will help you recognize the metaphorical meaning behind the many images in art in which this struggle is the central theme.
1. Tietze, Titian: The Paintings and Drawings, 2nd ed. rev. (London: Phaidon) 1950, p. 53
2. Hilary Spurling, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, vol. 2, 1909-1945 (Penguin Books) 2005, p. 292
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