Monday, April 25, 2005


When I was in Italy, I saw so many paintings of the crucifixion that it was almost beyond belief. Painting after Painting, wall after wall, gallery after gallery. It seemed so strange to me that the greatest artists of generation after generation had painted exactly the same thing, almost exactly the same way, over and over. I do understand the religious and historical significance, but still, the lack of novelty, of anything at all unique and different was staggering. Then again, are there really any novel, inventive ways to paint something that has been painted several thousand times? Oh yes.

Witness Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross.” The first time I saw this painting it literally took all the breath out of my body. The painting was inspired by a drawing, preserved in the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila, Spain, which was done by Saint John of the Cross himself after he had seen this vision of Christ during ecstasy. At the bottom of his studies for the Christ, Dali wrote: "In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in color and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom’. This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe’, the Christ ! In the second place, when thanks to the instructions of Father Bruno, a Carmelite, I saw the Christ drawn by Saint John of the Cross, I worked out geometrically a triangle and a circle, which ‘aesthetically’ summarized all my previous experiments, and I inscribed my Christ in this triangle."

So I asked myself: ‘what is it that makes Dali’s painting, St. John of the Cross’s ecstatic vision, so much more fascinating than all the other thousands of crucifixions?’ And I answered myself: ‘perspective.’

I decided that perspective was something that I didn’t know enough about and began to google about, reading up on it. I realized quickly why I didn’t know enough about it. It’s mathematical, and therefore unlikely to fit in my brain very well, or to stay there. Of course, even Dali’s own description says that he worked his painting out geometrically - inscribing his Christ in a triangle.

I read about artists of the Renaissance using mathematics and close observation to invent "linear perspective" -a technique that helped them begin (at long last) to make things look three dimensional. That, incidently, is half the problem with all those crucifixions; most of them are utterly flat. Donatello was one of the first to add depth to his paintings - a man ahead of his time in many ways. As I googled about, I saw some incredibly complex drawings showing angles of perspective through a flat glass, through a window. I read about other things that give a painting perspective and dimension: overlap, size, position, detail and color. I read about linear perspective, one and two point perspective, vanishing points and orthogonals.

I went back and looked at Dali’s painting. I understand about the triangle. I understand the metaphorical concept of the nucleus of the atom and the metaphysical aspect of putting the Christ in the triangle. In the end, however, I don’t think perspective in and of itself explains why Dali’s painting is so breath taking. It is indeed the perspective, but it is that the perspective is different. And here, I find, lies my opinion on much of art. It is the vision that makes this painting what it is; the freshness, the originality, the creativity and inventiveness. In a world where so much turns out being so very “same”, it is Dali’s difference that is his genius.


At 6:58 PM, Blogger Heather Blakey said...

Dear Winnie
I am overjoyed with this post. I have been meaning to write a comment for days but my time keeps getting taken up and all my good intentions evaporate. My world is far too hectic at the moment and I doubt that the pace will lessen any time soon.

But I digress! What I wanted to say is that I loved reading your perspective of Dali's interpretation of "Christ of St John"

Rather than using the term pespective I often allude to "Ways of Seeing" and I love to explore different ways of seeing with my students. Sometimes I get them to make Dame Edna style glasses to wear and invariably they do see their world through different eyes.

I would really love to see other Art Room members posting pieces like this so that we will collect a diverse range of perspectives.


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