Imagine Gauguin time-traveling with a Doctor Who camera that only captures colors from Mucha’s palette. Imagine him chain-smoking and listening to Lana del Rey while trying to photograph Frida Kahlo.
Not a week after I posted an article about the artistic-exploitative spectrum of female nudity in different art forms I was startled to find a 21st century “Les Seins aux fleurs rouges”, Gauguin’s 1899 oil painting that I grew up with. A photograph from Albania gazed back at me.
The aesthetic is fresh even though some elements are familiar. The woman is as bold as the bright colors are muted. I want to know her. She is looking at me like she already knows everything about me. She is no art nouveau damsel.
Before the photograph from Albania found its way to me in Mexico, I grew up with the framed Gauguin print. It hung in our neighbors’ bathroom, a house as familiar in my childhood as my own, and the naked breasts always made me uncomfortable. Though unspoken, that silent blushing embarrassment was likely my first art critique. It would take years, and posing nude myself before I could consider composition, light, lines, texture, depth of field. The naked body isn’t automatically artistic when captured on film, on print, charcoal or paint. But it can be. And this photograph brings your attention to a gorgeous halt.
You wouldn’t think that a nude photograph would remind me of Metallica or the Spanish Civil War or English poets but let’s talk about torch-passing. Great art inspires more art. It propagates that way.
Think about Hemingway and his polydactyl cats, his depression and his self-exile. Think about the Paris ex-pats — the Left Bank greats writing and drinking and smoking and painting their way through Prohibition and the 20th-century wars. Decades later Hemingway is riding his typewriter in a hotel in Cuba, hearing the peal of John Donne’s words, bells themselves, echoing for centuries — for whom the bell tolls.
From clerical praise poetry to anti-Franco novels to heavy metal we instinctively recognize inspired sparks of art illuminating their part in that eternal flame.
“No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;” John Donne, 1624
Donne was a metaphysical poet and Anglican deacon. Hemingway was an ambulance driver, a war correspondent and avowed anti-fascist. Metallica was a genre-defining heavy metal band with a politically informed literary voice.
Great art unifies over time and across media. And it isn’t just beauty that connects us individual parts of a whole like a Chinese Dragon Dance. That universality, the interconnectedness of humanity is what influenced Donne’s poetry throughout a near-fatal illness, during which he wrote the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Three centuries later, Hemingway wrote with conviction against the Spanish Nationalists. And almost fifty years after that people mistake Cliff Burton’s opening bass riff for an electric guitar. James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich wrote the lyrics with Burton. Poets all of them, they allude to the battles fought by Hemingway’s protagonist:
Stranger now, are his eyes, to this mystery
He hears the silence so loud
Crack of dawn, all is gone except the will to be
Now they see, what will be, blinded eyes to see
For whom the bell tolls
Like the trees that speak to each other, warn each other, inform each other, art is symbiotic. Mycorrhizal networks that vie for survival. Painting and photography and writing and music and people are all plants in the art ecosystem. And that ecosystem tolls for thee.