The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on August 19th, 2014

I’ve always enjoyed exploring alternative ways of engaging with the Arts --- techniques that involve more than the use of the intellect alone. So many works seem to be trying to express something beyond the thoughts and concepts our intellects have the capacity to detect. These works invite us to rely on other ways of perceiving, ways that draw us intimately and immediately into a work of art --- sometimes bypassing the intellect completely. For example, here are five paintings for your consideration…

Woman in an Interior with a Mirror (1898)
by Carl Holsöe 1863-1935

Woman at a Sunny Window
by Carl Holsöe

Woman in Interior
by Carl Holsöe

The Milkmaid (circa 1658)
by Johannes Vermeer 1632-1675

Girl in the Mirror (1954)
Norman Rockwell  1894-1978
They are candid scenes of four women and a girl, all very adeptly painted. But there is apparently nothing much going on in them, no action to draw us in and command our attention or interest. If we were to encounter them in a gallery, we might be inclined to regard them briefly, remark to ourselves “Pleasant enough,” and without further ado move on to something more “interesting” and dynamic. If we were to do so, might we have missed anything important in them?
Sometimes in our eagerness to fit all of our “bucket list” items into our lives, a few good things we encounter on our path go unnoticed. Bucket lists seem mostly to be made up of experiences that promise to provide us with a sensational, lasting impact so strong, so deeply memorable that our lives will be forever changed ---- the WOW! moments of life. But hidden among such high-profile encounters there are often subtler ones which may be more understated but are equally rewarding in their own way, like tiny wildflowers growing unobtrusively in the seams and crevices of a magnificently forbidding granite crag. For example, all five of these paintings hold secrets that we won’t begin to penetrate if we give them only a cursory glance; subtle attributes that make them entirely worthy of our continued attention.
To begin with, they all have at least one thing in common besides the obvious fact that their subjects are all female….. and that is the silence that serves as a backdrop for each work. Is it a static, stagnant silence… the kind of silence that is mostly tedious and boring? My impression is that it is not. The silence in these works seems more like a stage upon which other elements come out to play their parts --- to engage in the action, so to speak. There is action in each of these paintings even within the apparent stillness, but it is action of an internal kind, rather than that of the external, physical variety. It is the gentle, nearly imperceptible action of thought, contemplation, reflection, feeling, and reaction to the sensory and psychological influences in each environment, both within the person in each painting and within us as we regard it. And although we cannot always identify the precise thoughts, feelings, and reactions being experienced by the subjects in these paintings, in each work we are able to enter into the ambience and mood of the surroundings that gave rise to them --- to vicariously experience the context that induced the feelings. In effect, each painter has set the stage for us and is now asking us, “Have you ever had an experience like this? Have you ever felt this way?”
The fact that Carl Holsöe has depicted the subjects in his works with their heads turned away from us, each individual preoccupied with her own thoughts, creates an intriguing air of mystery that gently beckons us to use our imagination to quietly step over the threshold of the frame and into the picture, to stand by invisibly, slowly absorbing the ambience of the room. If we allow ourselves to do so we will notice that in each of his works the lighting, in particular, has been marvelously reproduced to suggest a time of day. You will know about this if you have ever turned your attention to the qualities of natural light as it changes throughout the daytime, from the brilliant richness of morning, to the garish bleakness of the midafternoon, to the softer, gentler hues of late afternoon and early evening. Also, given the evidence of the women’s apparel we may hazard a rough estimate of the air temperature. And we can easily imagine what each room sounds like.  If we put those bits of sensory evidence together while taking note of each woman’s thoughtful bearing, and allow it all to simmer in our consciousness for a while, we find ourselves in a good position to begin to receive what Holsöe was trying to convey to us. This is not just a superficially decorative image intended to blend harmoniously with the other furnishings in someone’s home. He is not trying to convey an intellectual concept, nor a story, nor even a cogent thought. Instead, Holsöe’s expressive intent lives within an amorphous swirl of barely-perceptible, quite elusive feelings and impressions, and we can experience those feelings and impressions only if we will give ourselves over fully to their discovery. But we may find the necessary giving over to be difficult because it requires us to settle into a state of silence, stillness, and thoughtfulness and to try and perceive subtle states of feeling and mood that are taking place in our own interior lives.
A recent article in the New York Times by Kate Murphy, entitled “No Time to Think,” reminded me of these paintings and others like them, and also brought to mind the famous quote of Blaise Pascal in his Pensées, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” These writings remind us of the necessity for periods of introspection and quiet reflection in our lives if we are to absorb our experiences fully and understand the significance and wisdom that may be gleaned from them. The paintings go even further, however, by inviting us into the imaginary context of such active stillness, reminding us of what it feels like to be engaged in that contemplative process.

So let’s do that now. Pretend you have stepped into the first Holsöe work, Woman in an Interior with a Mirror.
What does it feel like to stand there witnessing the quality of the light, hearing nothing but the silence, feeling the air temperature, absorbing the effects of the hues and the shadows? What feelings or moods are created within you by it all? Linger in that world for a while --- however long it takes for you to fully gather in the whole experience. Luxuriate in the delicate enchantment of that atmosphere of softness and reflection. Can you enter fully into it? Have you ever experienced anything similar in your own life?
And there are other more superficial features to admire in this work while we are coming to terms with its atmosphere. I am always struck by the ways in which painters are able to suggest the surfaces, composition, and contour of objects merely through the clever application of colored paint on a flat surface. In this work the “illusions” of the mirror, the silver dish, the marble urn, the wooden chest of drawers, the sheen of the painted door, and the apparent softness and warmth of the woman’s skin are all cases in point.
The other two Holsöe paintings show a consistent style and choice of subject matter, but if you look carefully at each one and rest in its presence for a while, you will discover minute shifts in atmosphere that make each one of them unique in its expression. These shifts are almost wholly the result of the artist’s treatment of the light and color.

The calm surface of Vermeer’s, The Milkmaid, is similarly deceptive in its apparent lack of action.

 The painting as a whole does communicate a wonderful sense of serenity similar to the Holsöe works, only now the fact that the milkmaid is turned toward us allows us to witness her state of mind more clearly. Here we have her facial expression to give us more of the story. Again, even though she is poised in the act of pouring milk, it is not primarily the physical action, but the internal activity that becomes important. Her face suggests that her mind is engaged in careful concentration on the task at hand, and the inclination of her head also suggests the presence of as yet undefined possibilities. Is she ruminating about something --- perhaps the circumstances of her own life? When her current facial expression changes, which way will it go? Will it become an expression of sorrow, or is there the faintest hint of a smile already developing around her mouth? Or is she simply experiencing momentary pleasure in the hushed performance of her task?
We are drawn into this work by the strong mood of thoughtful serenity that it projects. Vermeer’s rendering of the light to this end is at least as evocative as that in Holsöe’s works (Vermeer was a primary influence on Holsöe), but Vermeer increases his demands for our active sensory involvement in this painting by presenting us with extremely lifelike depictions of objects made of various materials, like metal, wicker, ceramic, and fabric, all of which invite our attention. And then there’s the food. If we use our imagination we can almost feel the rough textures of the rustic bread and smell its freshly-baked fragrance. Finally, the single sound in the painting, created by that delicate stream of fresh milk falling into the bowl, produces an atmosphere in the room that goes beyond peacefulness --- it is almost sacramental.

Norman Rockwell’s Girl in the Mirror, for all its apparent inactivity, is actually the most dynamic of all these paintings.
Not much going on? Hardly. As in so many of his works, here Rockwell captures a moment of poignant significance that hovers uncertainly at the top of an arc between past and future. But because it has not yet come down on either side of that divide, it seems to be a work less immediately established in its full feeling and mood than the others we have seen. Instead, the scene is littered with objects that we must interpret and use for evidence in determining what may have led up to this moment and what may happen next. While the other works we have seen have made their way into our consciousness primarily through our senses and feelings, this scene slips into our realm of understanding a little more indirectly --- via our intellect. Feelings do come quickly, but the fullness of the expression becomes apparent only after some rapid detective work.
Our eyes are initially, almost involuntarily, drawn to the girl’s person because of the striking whiteness of her garment. But it is not long before we notice the wistful expression on her face and the angle at which she is holding her head as she assesses herself in the mirror. What, we ask ourselves, is she contemplating? It is only after we begin to scan the image more closely that evidence appears, supplying answers to our question. That evidence comes in the form of traditional symbols --- and lots of them. Here’s a list:

The doll: childhood
The hairbrush, comb, lipstick, etc.: adulthood
The white of her garment: purity, innocence
The red of the brush, lipstick, and stool seat: romantic love, passion, danger, sexuality
The green of the carpet: youth, inexperience, jealousy, hope
The dark obscurity of the background: uncertainty
The mirror: self-consciousness
The face on the magazine page (recognizable as Jane Russell, a 1950s film star bombshell): the ideal

As we begin to fit all these clues together, a scenario something like this emerges:
Here sits a nearly-adolescent girl assessing herself amidst the trappings of two worlds --- the world of childhood and that of adulthood. Self-consciousness has dawned upon her only recently, and it has prompted her to begin thinking about herself in ways that did not concern her as a younger child. Her childhood doll and the grooming items lie near her on the floor. When this moment ends, which will she pick up? Which will she prefer? As she examines the ideal of adult female beauty in the magazine on her lap, she simultaneously examines herself in the mirror. It is a bittersweet instant of insecurity, the touching scene of a difficult decision in the making. To go forward toward adulthood, or to retreat --- which will it be? Her mind is in action, and our minds must take action to interpret the painting. Action all around, you might say, all of it internal, and all of it occurring within the realm of silence and stillness.
By bringing all of the above to your attention my aim is to suggest the continuing applicability of that tired old maxim, “Still waters run deep.” They don’t always; sometimes they are merely stagnant. But perhaps in light of what we have just seen, we might consider giving works like these the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, if we occasionally take the liberty of spending a few extra moments with those works of art in which nothing overtly active, dramatic, or sensational seems to be occurring, we may begin to discover subtleties that speak to us quietly and gently, gradually arousing latent memories, feelings and impressions in us that resonate in our consciousness. And as that resonance becomes perceptibly reawakened within us we may find, often to our great relief, that we are not alone in our most innermost experience of life, that like souls have lived throughout history feeling about existence much, sometimes exactly, as we do. In that realization there lies both pleasure and comfort.

Posted in ART    Tagged with silence, art, visual arts, Carl Holsoe, Johannes Vermeer, Norman Rockwell, The Milkmaid


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