Beauty for ashes – a strange title.
I see beauty but where are the ashes? The ashes are not on the wall – or in the work, but all around us. In our lives, on our TVs and in our memories. As humans we carry images at an emotional level. We interact with everything emotionally. This is true of your response emotionally to this work. Wow, it is beautiful.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But this also is a human paradigm. While many birds and animals visit me at my painting sites, none of them come , stop , wonder and in their unique heads say wow, that is beautiful. For them the thought is: where is the danger and where is the food? It is only humans that climb mountains for the view, and take time out at the river to soak in the view.
So what of death and the ugly?
In the natural world, if you will allow a division between human and natural, there is a constancy of the cycle of life. Even this painting captures decay, death in the trees. Mosses and fungi live on the decay. Zoom in and I’m sure you will also see this at the macro and micro levels. As I write this we are again thrust into the horrors of war – specifically Ukraine this time. As humans we react to our own created horrors. Then wash out hands of it – passing the blame to others.
What is Beautiful?
The idea or understanding of the beautiful is an imbedded human characteristic. It is linked intimately with the other unique human characteristic creativity. It can be more precisely understood by the term aesthetic. Recent studies have shown that the aesthetic is imbedded in our genetics and incidentally has no survival value that can be attributed to in an evolutionary sense.
Aesthetics also allows us to appreciate the ugly, the chaotic and amazing moments in life.
Beauty is culturally shaped, but cultural shaping itself is an expression of this core aesthetic.
Beauty doesn’t need or have to be realistic. Abstraction also feeds this need for the aesthetic. Simplifying and reducing the complex with reductionism.
We collect beautiful things as a counterpoint to the ugly. Its why we have design. Why we appreciate a beautifully designed car, or a simple vase.
The contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton, looked at beauty as portrayed in Western art history. He attributes the purpose and function of the beautiful in art is to bring hope.
We don’t want the ugly on our walls, nor the death. While I personally love Goya’s Third of May I would not have it on lounge room wall. It remains poignant as an art work to this day. But this paintings place is rightly in the museum as a national monument to a troubled past. A memorial and a reminder.
Beauty is the counter point to the terror as it brings hope for tomorrow. A better tomorrow. A tomorrow of peace. Again it is only humans that hope. We think ahead and plan for a better tomorrow. Without hope and a future we can only despair.
There is an ancient Text called Lamentations. It was written, approx. 600 BC, in the midst of a city that had been reduced to ashes, not unlike the city of Mariupol is right now in Ukraine. The author sitting in the ashes and ruins of his home and pours out his heart, anger and grief.
Let me quote from the beginning and end of the text.
Oh, how lonely she sits,
the city once thronged with people,
as if suddenly widowed.
Though once great among the nations,
she, the princess among provinces,
is now reduced to vassalage.
She passes her nights weeping:
the tears run down her cheeks.
Not one of all her lovers
remains to comfort her.
Her friends have all betrayed her
and become her enemies.Lamentations 1:1-2 Jerusalem Bible Translation
Joy has vanished from out hearts;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
The garland has vanished from our heads.
because Mount Zion is desolate:
jackals roam to and fro on it.
But you Yahweh, you remain for ever;
your throne endures from age to age.
You cannot mean to forget us for ever?
You cannot mean to abandon us for good?Lamentations 5:15-20 Jerusalem Bible Translation
In the poem, in 154 stanzas of devastation and despair ends on a few verses of tentative hope – a grieving plea – do I dare to hope.
Why Beauty for Ashes
Like the hungry thinking of a succulent roast – dreaming of the meal I would have once I get to safety. Hope is the essence of survival. So visually we also need images of hope. It’s why we love the sunset splashed with colours, night has come but there will be dawn.
The answer to these lamentations comes in the words of the prophet in next book of the Bible, written in exile after the total defeat of this nation. Yahweh will not forget nor abandon them. He will send his Spirit – his very self –
…to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of despair.Isaiah 61:3 The New International translation.
Hope, promise and fulfilment.
I was finishing this painting as the invasion of Ukraine started.
This painting, and for that matter every painting , photo, or memory of something beautiful, has the function of providing hope. Beauty for ashes.
I have been fortunate to sit in this beauty day in and day out. Tasked with laying it down in paint. It is not a photograph but a distillation of all that passed in those hours, days and months of bringing this place to you. In a real way the obverse situation of the poet who sat in the ashes of his city and life. It is distilled hope. It is real beauty – I can tell you it is not faked, but seen and felt. But then it is only a mere shadow of the beauty I saw unfold before me. It is still a painting.
The name for the painting came as people responded to seeing the painting on social media. The overwhelming response was – It is beautiful. So I give you beauty for ashes – hope for despair.
Before I leave in the morning and when I return at night my screens are also filled with the ashes of the cities of Ukraine. This rainforest has been my hope and sanity. Yes, I do have flesh and blood in the situation. My precious daughter and family live in a city in southern Poland doing the frontline work of receiving and providing for refugees.
There is only one painting – and it is still available for sale, but I want to give you the opportunity of being able to download the image in high quality to go on your computer screens as a desktop image.
When you do please remember the Ukraine, in prayers, donations and help as you are able. And remember to immerse yourself in beauty as it brings hope.
Please follow this link to this painting’s page in my gallery. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the download link and directions for installing.
Thanks Phoebe stay safe it’s the long COVID that makes it hard.