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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Painting Love

Love conquers all?
For hundreds of years, conventional wisdom has considered love as being the strongest of human emotions. Perhaps, though in perusing the mass media today it would seem that the power of hate is giving such a claim a run for its money. Add to that what I've long termed to be the much more prevalent opposite of both emotions, apathy, and you'd certainly have meat for a long-term discussion/argument. However, in terms of art, love would seem to win out as the favorite subject of artists since the beginning of art history. I'm not talking here about the love of things, places, animals, activities, ideas or ideals (such as patriotism). I'm talking about that which passes from one human individual to another. Artists have doted upon love for so many centuries simply because it is one of the deepest and broadest content areas to be found. There are literally a million kinds of love, virtually every one of which has been dealt with in some manner and to varying degrees by painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and other artists.

Greek Love, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato
The ancient Greeks had four separate words for love, each with a different meaning--agape, eros, philia, and storge. Agape, refers to the love of God for man and man for God. Eros, is the intimate love between two individuals, heavily laced with sexual overtones. Philia, denotes the love for ones fellow man (or woman). And storge is defined as family love of parents (and grandparents) for their children as well as that which is returned by the children and shown for their siblings. That's four, but far short of a million. The rest can be accounted for by the manner in which human beings display, and perceive each of these Greek loves, in which case a million kinds of love might be a conservative underestimate.

The love of God for man. Michelangelo said it best.
My version, The Burial, depicts the love of man for God.
It's hard to say, and even harder to prove, which of the four basic "loves" has most dominated the creative endeavor of artists based upon that art which survives from the past. Certainly the possibilities would boil down to two--agape and eros. Mankind seems hardwired to seek after a spiritual being, though where religious art is concerned, agape love is often intertwined with fear and in pagan times, erotic overtones. The difficulty for artists in dealing with agape is the fact that it is hard to depict, and still harder to present graphically with any degree of originality. That is to say, all the "easy" interpretations of the subject have already been done a million times over.

The art of love down through the centuries.
Eros love has somewhat the same problem. Yet, on the other hand, depictions of erotic love through art have the broadest possible range, from chaste, symbolic, hearts and flowers to the very edge of pure porn (beyond which the definition of art fails to apply). We often think of sex as the most powerful driving force in our world today, though in fact, it amounts to only one element in what the American founding fathers more broadly termed "the pursuit of happiness." And if there are a million kinds of love, it might easily be argued that their are an infinite "zillion" manifestations of happiness.

The images change, the message doesn't.
Love of one's fellow man, philia, is probably the most difficult of the four Greek loves for artists to depict. Early painters quite often used the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Bible in this regard, but from that point on, often drew a blank (literally) as they searched for other means to explore what is, undoubtedly, also the most difficult kind of love for mankind in general to demonstrate. In the past, a few painters have titled their work, "charity," which is a fitting synonym but also quite limiting. Philia is, in effect, the giving of oneself to relative strangers without regard for any possible return. That, by any definition, is a mind boggling concept to depict in any medium, but especially one a static as painting.

Love, all in the family.
Storge is probably a word you've never heard before, much less associated with love or art. Yet, it may well be the oldest and most common type of love we've ever known. It begins with birth of a child and ends with our own death. And, insofar as art is concerned, it is quite easy to depict. Thus it is quite prevalent, but also quite prone to trite, sentimentality and stereotypical depictions. We have two holidays celebrating storge--Mother's Day and Father's Day. The ancient Orientals even combined agape and storge into ancestor worship. It would seem that love is a very deep, complicated subject for artists of all kinds, theologians, and philosophers alike. As far as I'm concerned, as Shakespeare put it in Julius Caesar, "It's [all] Greek to me." Perhaps the American artist, Robert Indiana, had the best idea, distilling love to a single word, then quitting while he was ahead.

Love, 1966, Robert Indiana


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