“Black is never the same because light changes it,” he said, in French, through an interpreter. “There are nuances between the blacks. I paint with black but I’m working with light. I’m really working with the light more than with the paint.” (Pierre Soulage, quoted in “Black is Still the Only Colour for Pierre Soulage, by Nina Siegal, The New York Times, November 29, 2019)
Featured recently in a CBS segment of 60 minutes, hosted by Elizabeth Palmer, Soulage is currently highlighted in a solo show in the Louvre. Anyone who witnessed even a single piece of his work cannot help but be struck by the strength of the ‘draw’ of the viewer into the canvas, which seems ‘alive’ as the light shimmers and emits multiple shades of colour. We look at a painting completed by the 100-year-old artist, exclusively in black, that literally and metaphorically glistens with the energy, the bounce, and the reciprocal bounce back from the ‘eyes-mind-imagination’ of the witness. Dramatically different from the ‘scenes’ depicted by various realist, naturalist, impressionist, cubist and other artists, Soulage’s canvases captivate the viewer paradoxically by penetrating the psyche to become integrated into the spirit of the viewer, rather than remaining ‘detached’ inside a frame on a wall in a gallery.
The creativity to envisage the ‘play’ of light reflecting from the various edges of black paint, ‘sculpted’ by Soulage, using often self-designed ‘devices’ of cardboard, or metal, or wood, to this lay viewer’s eye can only be minimally described as ‘black magic’ while seriously avoiding a slide into a trite cliché.
The mid-wife of these mysterious, mystical, moving, modulating and, superficially simplistic canvases, however, may have begun his career by ‘’throwing’ paint at a canvas, has morphed into nothing short of a visionary.
Even a brief glimpse of a single Soulage canvas evokes, provokes, stimulates and births visions of how our individual and collective lives, as symbols of light, constantly ‘play’ off on a foundational background of darkness. Penetrating a mystery considered so risky by millions, even after nearly a century of Jung’s depiction of the Shadow, Soulage may offer to those still resistant to the promise, an entry point into a new insight. And perhaps this new insight might just offer individuals, as well as communities, and naively even perhaps the planet, a reservoir of radiant light and hope whose energy will elevate the human mind, heart, spirit and confidence to envision a new, if not utopia, at least a century of ameliorated anxiety and fear for our grandchildren.
Those of us naïve men who, often tragically and even more often comically, find ourselves gazing at the clouds, or looking for the wind, or vicariously wandering the hedgerows around Lake Windermere, (without ever seizing the opportunity to visit the Lake District), are unconsciously painting our own pictures from the darkest walkways of the darkest coal mines, imitating the proverbial canary, in the faint and often quixotic hope that someone might hear our song, feel our heartbeat, and even pause long enough to consider some of the dangers and risks pictured.
Of course, each of us “naives” is never burdened with the pain of diving into the weeds of whether or not anyone has even read our song, let alone attempted to listen to its rhythm, melody and theme. So, naturally, painting pictures ‘in black’ is deeply congruent with our world view.
For the last several decades, while the world has endured serious pandemics, economic depressions, world wars, the holocaust, the development of nuclear, biological, chemical and more recently cyber war machines, as well as coups, revolutions, assassinations, as well as rushing and then ebbing political ‘crushes’ on evil men, we have, it seems, consistently held a detached, somewhat objective and for millions, a non-involved posture, with respect to our personal relationship, connection and thereby responsibility for any of these darknesses.
Of course, there have been and continue to be multiple signs of light, new vaccinations, new procedures, new therapies, new laws and regulations that have brought to bear new and often more compassionate and more sustaining decisions by the body politic for the people within the body.
It is, however, another persistent feature of ‘western’ culture that we are constantly preparing for another ‘attack’ from another dangerous enemy, and then beating the drum of our “accomplishments” as proof that we are making progress against the interminable, predictable and newly generated enemies that will compete with us and individuals and as communities, and nations.
Posing as “defenders and protector against evil” requires a metaphysic that is based on many religious answers to the source, location, responsibility and impact of those ‘external’ forces that are set to destroy us. Us against the world, (whomever we consider our enemy to be, or to become, or to threaten to become) is a posture that permeates our homes, our schools, our hospitals, our courts, and our governments. Churches, generally, as well as specifically, have taken on (been given, assumed, sought) much of the responsibility for outlining the relationship between humans and darkness. Those churches have defined what is evil, they have prosecuted what they considered evil, they have consecrated those liturgies, prayers, rituals and dogma they consider sacred, as insurance and as ethical and moral guidance, in the events of malfeasances against those expectations.
Churches have spent centuries debating the nuances of the variations of, for example, a ONE God versus multiple Gods, or transubstantiation versus a symbolic embodiment in the Eucharist, as well as the incorporation of a God into the justifications of war, of changes in how humans treat each other, of the hierarchy of genders, the hierarchy of social and political status, the doctrine of the divine right of kings (to marry the spiritual/ethical/legal/political) and thereby enhance the ‘power’ of those embodying such a theory. People have revolted against what they considered abusive power, (as is currently the situation in Hong Kong, Eritrea, Belarus, and incipiently in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the U.S, and formerly in Northern Ireland, on the James Pettus Bridge in Alabama, and on the Akwesasne reservation in Canada).
What if, for example, all of our historic examples of conflict, on the political scale, as well as on the individual human front, have been signs of light against what was a shimmering background of blackness, without any of us actually envisioning the light that was playing out against that background? As Morley Callaghan reminded us in his novel, A Time for Judas, (1983), Judas Iscariot was Jesus’ most trusted friend, chosen by Jesus to betray him to the authorities, according to tablets attributed to Philo on the last days of Jesus’ life. In the light of this version of the story, Judas took his own life, not for betraying Jesus, but for failing to keep the secret as he had promised.
What if, for example, revisiting our historic archives, our biographies, even those of our most sinister individuals, we were to discover that even the most heinous acts were committed by men and women whose lives, persons, psyches, spirits and minds had previously been so tortured that their actions, like that of Judas in the Callaghan novel, were very different from the judgements we (collectively and compliantly) have taken them to be?
What if, for example, our collective vision of “blackness” while it embraces the horror of witches, goblins and extra-terrestrial spirits, nevertheless also shackles us in a metaphysic in which our “evil” nature does not uphold or even object to our necessary mountain-climb out of darkness into light? (with the concurrence, and the blessing of the self-serving ecclesial institutions)
What if, for example, Soulage’s canvases embody a ‘revolutionary’ perspective on the relationship between our shadow and our conscious lives? And in this light, (pardon the pun!) our lives are constantly, repeatedly, predictably, and inevitably ‘casting us in a very different light’ than the one the religious institutions would have us bear?
Rather than weep and wail at the interminable horrific and heinous situations men and women have created, (and put us in, as interminable victims) is it possible, or might it be feasible, for us to embrace a new relationship? A relationship that warrants our imperfections, as not merely tolerable and hopefully modified through critical self-examination and even more critical atonements…Could this new relationship see the new light shining in ripples and in ever-changing colours, different each and every time our life (biography, evaluation, engagement, relationship, birth, death) is witnesses, assessed, appreciated and absorbed, playing out on the backdrop of the collective and the individual shadow.
In this perspective, every individual man, woman and child is an agent of light, as the sine qua non of his/her identity. The darkness is a shared planet on which the lights beg not only to shine but to be noticed, and evaluated and celebrated as light. And, in this new perspective, no single light can ever be judged to be ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ to any other light, given that no one is able to discern which light represents which individual. Although all "lights" (persons) share equally in their impact on the 'canvas' there are those among us who choose not to 'turn their light on' in the sense that they are unwilling, or perhaps unable, to include the needs of the body politic, the human race, and the preservation of life and liberty around the globe. (Failure to put 'the public' needs and the 'public good' ahead of personal narcissism is a current example of this abdication.)
How would this view apply to some of the most heinous of tyrants, assassins, torturers, villains? First, the perspective would entail a social responsibility, not merely for the obvious ‘human rights’ that struggle for tolerance and application (among the Uighers, the Black and Brown in America, the indigenous in many countries including Canada, the Belarusians and others) but for the development of those processes on which the survival and enhancement of human life depend. Scholarship, rather than heavily funded to find curative or therapeutic applications, would and could shift to preventive measures, given that prevention (medical, legal, criminal, educational, and even economic) is far more effective than the crisis-management addictions we currently witness.
Earlier this morning, for example, on Brian Seltzer’s “Reliable Sources” we heard former ABC newsman, Sam Donaldson, in a conversation about how to turn the American media around from conspiracy theories to hard, factual, credible news, express serious doubt that anyone would be approaching Rupert Murdoch to ask him and his media empire to shift how they cover the news, for the benefit of the United States, in this time of political and social crisis. It might interest My Donaldson, and his CNN partners, to note that, according to the Financial Times, on November 9, 2020, (written by Jamie Smyth) “a petition with 500,000 signatures calling for a public inquiry into Rupert Murdoch’s media empire was presented to Australia’s parliament (on Monday), amid concerns the nation was slipping into deeper political polarization and division.” The fact that Murdoch owns the whole media landscape in Australia, while significant, would indicate that any such move in the U.S. where Murdoch does not control the whole media landscape would require even less political pressure than it would in Australia.
There are a myriad of human individual and collective “lights” that have been deliberately turned off, by their namesakes, for a variety of motivations, among U.S. Republican “leaders”…and their ‘power-outage’ enhances the darkness we are all experiencing, as we continue to fret over the next traumatic and self-serving melodrama the outgoing president might explode. The power outage that currently obviates those many lights, obviously and unequivocally, renders the current canvas of the American political landscape void of the many nuanced shades and dynamism on which it depends.
And, unless and until we begin to consider the “absence of light” something more critical and thereby warranting collective attention, as opposed to an observable and willful and malignant overt act, we will continue to wander on a metaphoric canvas devoid of the required light to bring it to “life”…Legal definitions of culpability can no longer be restricted to the causative, the empirical and the measureable…There are already too many teachers going through the motions, and lawyers and accountants and politicians whose lights have suffered a self-imposed power-outage, fearful of a political storm before it even arrives, and thereby narcissistically protecting their tenure, rather than participating in the lighting of our collective work of art, that black canvas the legacy of Pierre Soulage.