Friday, March 11, 2011

You don't know what "red" means

I talk about novels, films, and music on this blog, but I haven't said much about art as in painting.  Just for that reason, and because I was recently at the National Gallery of Art, I thought I might say something about the kind of paintings I like.  I like all kinds of things, of course, but above all I like late medieval and Northern Renaissance art.  

I don't have much to say about these paintings, though, except that I like the colours, the energy in them, and the strong sense of genuine religious faith. They don't seem to be exercises in showing off what the artist can do or how wealthy the artist's patron is.  They aren't dour.  They are bright, full of colour, full of action and people, with an interest in human differences, character and faces.  But that's all probably a bit too naive.  Mostly you need to look at the pictures and see how you react.

One thing that might help, though, is this passage from Iris Murdoch's "The Idea of Perfection," the first chapter in her The Sovereignty of Good:
My view might be put by saying: moral terms must be teated as concrete universals. And if someone at this point were to say, well, why stop at moral concepts, why not claim that all universals are concrete, I would reply, why not indeed?  Why not consider red as an ideal end-point, as a concept infinitely to be learned, as an individual object of love?  A painter might say, 'You don't know what "red" means.'
No doubt there is a lot to be explored and discovered in the colour red, but I think that some of it is celebrated and discovered in the following pictures:

Master of the Death of Saint Nicholas of Münster
Calvary, c. 1470/1480

Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen and Workshop
Netherlandish, c. 1470/75–by 1533
The Adoration of the Christ Child, c. 1515

Cranach the Elder, Lucas
Judith Victorious
c. 1530

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