Aesthetics matter more to some than to others; to me it might be the most important thing. I’m also very judgmental. I decide whether I like or dislike someone based on it. It’s not about whether someone is fat or ugly or retarded or whatever. It’s something else and I’ve been stunned lately to discover that it is not all that superficial. Maybe it even has surprising, intuitive depths.
I’m a sucker for aesthetic beauty. I moved here because you cannot run out of that in the San Luis Valley; even that which is not “beautiful” is picturesque, even when it’s heart-rending. Often because it’s heart-rending. In any case, it’s never mere surface, never facile, never insincere.
There are some paintings — some artists — in whose work beauty is just a starting point. Leonardo is one of these. I have seen reproductions of all his work and one of his works in real life. Until I saw that work, I thought, “Well, this stuff is not beautiful; it needs too much thought to be beautiful, or maybe it’s just been over-analyzed by now, by the time it has reached me.”
The Last Supper is a painting we’ve all seen a million times one way or another and when I had the chance to see it, I didn’t even want to. But, I had nothing else to do, and I had a broken heart, and I was in Milan so I made an appointment and went to see it. It’s not beautiful and it is not intellectual. It is a force of some kind. I loved it — I still love it. I love that in all that amazing perfection, Leonardo messed up with his materials because he was experimenting.
He experimented with scale. What you don’t see in any reproduction is how large these guys are. What you see if you go there is that they are immense — you’ll think, “He’s idealized them, made them larger than life,” but it you step back into the room as if you’re one of the monks who ate in this refectory, they’ll look like they are life-sized. I think that’s astonishing. So the monks would file into the room, possibly notice the larger than life Jesus and compatriots, then sit down at the table “with” Jesus and his disciples.
Another artist whose work — to me — transcends the aesthetic is Piero della Francesca. As with Leonardo’s work, there is an aura of mystery, of experimentation. Aldous Huxley called della Francesca’s The Resurrection the “best painting.” Personally, I like The Flagellation of Christ.
In della Francesca’s work there is often a juxtaposition between some horror or wonder (Christ being beaten, Christ being resurrected) and the total indifference to the horror or wonder of the other people in the painting. It’s kind of funny, but when I look at The Last Supper I see the same thing in the door the monks cut into the painting where Christ’s feet would be. Real life moves on its own tracks. Della Francesca represents that in his painting; Leonardo’s work — without his help — embodies it.
I almost believe that John Keats was right; beauty is truth. The aesthetic I cannot endure is the fraud. Nothing that comes across to me as derivative or disingenuous is ever beautiful.
Now, if you think you KNOW why the Human Barbie and her pal and role model, the REAL Barbie, are featured images here, comment. 😉