One way of defining gesture: to say something without necessarily speaking, a theatrical flourish or dynamic. According to Brechtian technique, gesture (or Gestus) is the embodiment of gist. The elements of certain paintings are silent gesticulations happening in a theater of spiritual pigments.
The French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 – 1875) was lauded in the 19th century. He was considered a proto-Impressionist, and Monet was an admirer of his works. Since then, the Ministry of Taste has issued Corot an old hat and told him to sit on a bench in the alcove of suspicion and neglect.
Corot was religious. For him, the art of painting was a form of quiet praise, an imagistic prayer. Then, Darwin and Nietzsche came along to put such quaintness under stress. Besides in museums, you might today find a Corot painting hung in the musty, ill-lit, and nostalgic parlor of a wealthy tottering Luxembourgian. What you won’t find is bewitched appreciation among today’s avant-garde cognoscenti. Who needs old landscapes rendered in subtle oils when you can have whatever it is that today passes itself off as high art?
A demotion or forgetting of Corot is unwarranted. Corot’s painted trees gesture toward a disconcerting possibility: the human imagination requires a theological aspect in order to produce the profoundest artistic works. I’m not suggesting there’s an objective correlative — some actual god — to which deepest art gestures. I’m simply asserting that aesthetic imagination or aesthetic superstition depends on the artist (painter, composer, poet) being sensitive to a metaphysical gist abiding in the world of appearances. Whether the artist’s orientation is sacred or profane, he will believe in theological moods of presence manifesting. An artist need not be a robed Medieval anchorite in order to grasp an intuition of the world’s mystic ennui, ecstatic pathology, and daemonic beauty.
There are atheists in Israel whose intellectual, scholarly, and artistic depth accrues owing to the cultural richness of Judaic history and tradition. Literature and criticism there still resonate with a memory of scroll and rabbinic commentary. They are People of the Book, even when God has become ostensible, a symbolic penumbra, merely a provenance for thinking and imagining. Where there’s smoke — a profound wafting of literary-aesthetic acumen — there’s probably a burning bush somewhere nearby.
In Europe, the great critic Walter Benjamin kept his theological sense of things veiled, but it formed the background energy imbuing his work with extraordinary élan. I seriously doubt if the substance of his thought could have emerged from other than a subtle religious context.
Beethoven — the melodies and harmonies, the structures and motions seem to spiral around the dense gist of a lost home. The composer’s sometimes stern, sometimes beatific longing for other than time and space compels his late string quartets, that unequaled music.
And what is a poem if not a gesture — a text of images rhythmically pointing to an ur-text beneath the sayable?
Corot was a sort of hermit priest, communing with his deity through nature and a brush. His trees gesture significantly, obviously. The beauty of Corot’s trees — those yearning or lamenting branches, those feathery metaphysical leaves — is astounding. That beauty disconcerts us, lures us into extant precincts of ancient gist and aesthetic imagination. Art without a mystical subtext is as dull as would be the world without a mystical origin. One can almost discern the guardian sighs of great angels in the shapes of Corot’s brooding trees.
Posted by Tim Buck