Washington, CT. Puckish ad infinitum, I take it as my heathenish duty during this special time of year to preach at the choir boys and girls of ye Front Porch Republic. A gift of sorts, or perhaps an affront but you must take it in the spirit it is rendered, a sermon in a traffic jam on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. It is indeed spawned of pilgrimage, this one to that “Borough of Churches” , a cornucopia of out-sized characters.
For the last several years, my own Christmas gifts to the victims of tragedy comprising this pilgrim’s immediate family have been some heartfelt scratchings in charcoal, depicting the chillun’s childhood home and the little Yankee Village which surrounds it. I likes me charcoal. There is something atavistic about it which appeals to my troglodytic sensibilities. It is a medium of contrasts, a smudge-pot vehicle completely dependent upon how the light plays upon this life of ravishing illumination. However, for some reason known only to the Oracles of Graphis, I decided it was time for a change. . . time to go technicolor and humble myself with a new medium: Pastels. A little more limp-wristed and “pretty” than my favored charcoals perhaps, but with it, I could still retain my enjoyment of texture and the act of scrubbing blunt instruments on rough paper. However, it would demand a little more skill and finesse so I needed both inspiration and the proper locale to meet the challenge.
Accordingly, I went where the color is: Brooklyn, New Yawk. This reverse-suburb of the Connecticut Family Seat which the progeny seemed to have adopted. For some reason, Fort Greene and Clinton Heights have come to fit me like a favorite shirt. I have instructed the oldest that she is to retain her Rent Stabilized apartment forever and given the fact that I backed the lease and she is on the road more than at home, perhaps we may just pull this scam off. I have yet to comprehend exactly why I like this place so much. It is not at all like my youth’s Wasatch Front, or the Paterfamilia’s Nevada sagebrush nor Burlington, Vermont where I met the wife nor indeed, my own little dacha in the woods. In fact, it is diametrically opposed to the luxury burg I reside in full time. Perhaps it is a matter of all the porches; or more rightly, “stoops” with all the people that live long stretches of their lives on them.
Quite likely it is at least partly because of a veritable treasure trove of architecture and street-scape along with Olmsted’s magnificent Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza crowning Flatbush Avenue like some Paris fer “Da Bums”. Maybe it’s because one can eat a “Bagel ana shmea” for breakfast, a streetside slice of some fantastic pizza for lunch and a little Senagalese Fish Fry or French brasserie fare for dinner. I hear tell one can even procure a little “Hoppin John” and Collard Greens in Bed Stuy or Canarsie now. “Food” as Tom Waits croaks “is the first thing mortals follow on”. More than anything else though, it is the heart of the community that strikes me like a honking horn blasting the heart strings. These folks live their lives like it was a holiday parade. They cajole and harangue and beguile and insult and this is just to start the day. If one were to subtract all the comedians born in Brooklyn from the roster of that blessedly deranged guild, we the people of this truly funny land would be about as funny as a golf outing on Tristan da Cunha in the Roaring Forties: think spectacular invective and the depths of sorrow, then square it. Fortunately, we do not have to ponder this plight, we have Brooklyn The Fecund.
Viewing procrastinating as a high art, I dithered this year until a major snowstorm had blanketed the Borough in a thick mantle of snow and so found myself combining a pursuit of visual landmarks to draw with a trip into the fantastic Brooklyn Museum in order to warm up during a little inspiration. Truth be told, it was also a birthday commemoration for the long-departed old man, a Christmas Eve Babe himself. The object of the inspiration was to make my pa’s black Irish ma and her seven Healy sisters and one little brother proud by taking in one of the many treasures that fill the august Brooklyn Museum. The particular trove was in homage to the Catholics of my mongrel mud puddle.
For the first time in over twenty years, the Brooklyn Museum has pulled James Tissot’s epic series “The Life of Christ” from the climate-controlled safety of their Solander Boxes and mounted a major exhibition which is apparently going to travel. The entire series was procured by the Museum early in its life, after the acclaimed portraitist James Singer Sargent urged his friend Augustus Healy and his fellow Trustees of “The Acropolis of Brooklyn” to acquire it. Remarkably, the citizens of Brooklyn undertook a successful $60,000 subscription to procure the series and in 1900, the paintings were delivered to the Brooklyn Museum after a worldwide tour of major acclaim. The new museum ensconced the series in its own dedicated gallery and there it remained for decades before entering storage for altogether too infrequent re-emergence. If the traveling exhibition comes anywhere near you, make sure to see it because it deeply moved even this louche and chatter-toothed pagan.
James Tissot was a fin de siecle French painter largely known for his rather libertine youth as well as a predilection for painting the rarified province of those who inhabited French High Society. His canvases are remarkable for their technical prowess and saturated luxury but there is something about them that fails to evoke the animal spirits to a degree that does the work of his fellows Degas or Monet. Degas, after many years of friendship, wrote Tissot off as a mercenary for selling a portrait Degas had painted of him. He derided Tissot as a poseur for embarking upon a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Degas apparently did not give paintings to friends, he anointed them with one.
In 1885, Tissot was in the Baroque Church of St.-Sulpice working on a final composition for his series “La Femme a Paris.” Without forewarning, he experienced what he described as a vision which in turn, caused him to feverishly drop everything else he was working upon in order to produce an astonishing image entitled “Inward Voices.” As described in the Brooklyn Museum’s Exhibition catalog, it depicts “a bloodied but luminous Christ comforting the tattered poor in the rubble of a devastated building.” The canvas was debuted at the 1894 Salon du Champ-de-Mars but was immediately secreted away in his studio where Tissot, after his epiphany at St-Sulpice, abandoned his life as “a Catholic more by courtesy than conviction” in order to embark upon a grand tour of the Holy Land in preparation for producing the 350 canvas depiction of the life of the Savior. Tissot remarked that he intended to devote himself to “pencil reporting from the life of Christ” and he did so with prodigious skill and spirit.
These watercolors are neither large nor technically remarkable. They are however a monument of painterly skill, close observation, narrative acuity, compositional drama and spiritual intensity. Tissot traveled the Holy Land and catalogued both its landscapes and architecture while inventorying the particular physical characteristics of the region’s semitic peoples. He combined the Baedeker-like quality of his encyclopedia of place with the Biblical story of Christ and the result is unlike any other depiction of the story. By parts poetic and light, by other parts dark and horrifyingly gruesome, this series documents the story from the Vision of Zacharias to Joseph and Mary’s betrothal, to the birth of Christ, his childhood, the Transfiguration, the Passion of the bloody trial and Crucifixion at the hands of his fellow and finally, the Resurrection. The epic comes alive and one lives within it for a time despite the modest size and minute detail of the 125 paintings currently on view. One comes to feel the texture of the streets of Jerusalem, the rocky barrenness of the landscape, the shadows of the alleys and the imperial strength of the ruling class. One experiences moments of intimacy with Mary and Joseph as well as with Mary Magdalene and the Apostles while enjoying a full prospect of the mortal life which Christ inhabited with us in those days.
Many of the paintings are straightfoward. We see the popular stories of Joseph beseeching innkeepers, the birth manger in a shepherd’s cave rather than a manger in town, the three wise men, Jesus healing the sick, the young Jesus prophetically holding a long board as his parents look on nervously, and Christ calling Saints Peter and Andrew from the shallow water as they haul in a fishing net. Some of the paintings are redolent of William Blake’s robustly mystical craftsman style such as the image of Mary, sitting next to a checkered wall during the Annunciation. Here, a six-winged angel hovers over her as her white robes are arrayed as drapery upon the stone floor, mirroring the wings of the angel. Another stunningly mystical image is that of Christ ministered to by Angels during his trials in the desert. Here, a host of hovering angels surround a prostrate Christ, arms outstretched in prefigurement and they touch him with extended hands as a single flame burns upon their foreheads, pushing back the dark night.
Some of the images are full of warmth, everyday reality and humor such as a young Joseph in his carpenters workshop, pensively staring with anxious concern over what is happening to his pregnant wife. Another image shows the child Jesus ticking off points on his fingers as the Rabbis and Doctors surround him in their fine robes, scratching their heads and full flowing beards in amazement and pleasure at this precocious youngster.
Of course, the fiercest part of the exhibition surrounds the Passion and the perfidy of the Rabbinical leadership in league with Herod. We witness Christ’s interview with Pilate, his arrest and ultimate sentence of crucifixion before his light-infused Ascension from the Mount of Olives. Scenes of the scourging, Centurions waving the nails at Mary as she gasps and reaches to help her son as he falls under the weight of the cross, Christ’s statement to the Daughters of Jerusalem, and the brutal crucifixion itself – these images are chilling and fittingly summarize both Christ’s sacrifice as well as the long history of man’s inhumanity to man.
There are two images that almost flung me to the floor with sorrow and wonder. First, at the end of the exhibit is an image of an elderly Mary, kneeling atop Golgotha next to the hole bored into the rock that held the Cross in place. She clasps her hands in prayer as two woman behind her do the same. She stares deeply into the hole that held the Cross and the sorrows of motherhood are recorded and the awesome task of the Holy Virgin is displayed with a cryptic and heartbreaking dignity. In the end, It is the climactic vision of the Crucifixion that most stirs and challenges the viewer. The image was controversial in its day, and I would assume still is.
Here, instead of showing Christ upon the Cross, the painter placed the viewer inside Christ, looking down upon the scene as his bittersweet period of mortality waned. In this image, entitled “What the Lord Saw From the Cross”, you look down on a feverish tableau with sinuous olive trees on a rocky hillside surrounding a dark crypt with followers standing off at a distance, Rabbis on donkeys brazenly line up just beneath the Cross. Some are exultant, some petulant, and some aghast at what they have done. Roman Centurions are there, either sitting in mild, almost cynical curiosity while one stands resolute, arms crossed, respecting the dignity of the manner in which Christ endured this horrific fate. Of course there is Mary, and John the Evangelist and then, upon closer examination, you see at the bottom of the canvas, Christ’s bloody feet and Mary Magdalene holding her clasped hands aloft as her red hair flows intertwined with her robes and she cries in anguish. This is the final moment of Christ’s pastoral sojourn within a mortal life. You see hate and sadness and fear and love and voyeuristic ennui and devotion. You see the indictment of those who use their power in paranoia and those who are brutal by order of either the mob or a superior. You see those who remain devoted in public and at personal peril. Humanity, in its full measure is laid bare in one scene.
Walking back through the gallery to revisit some of the happier scenes, I stared for a moment at another of the more remarkable paintings which season this banquet of spirit. The scene is of a stone wall and lattice surrounded by sunflowers and grape vines in allegorical array. On closer inspection, you perceive someone behind the scrim of the lattice and you see the tips of their fingers emerge into light through the lattice and then, you see that the person in the shadows behind the veil is Christ himself and he is staring intently at you with shining crystalline eyes that are startling in their intensity. One is reminded of St. Augustine’s remarks in the Confessions concerning how many of us look at what is illuminated, enjoy it, feel the radiance but never turn around to look directly at the source of the illumination, the font of radiance. This painting does not allow one to avoid “turning”.
It has been a week since I enjoyed this exhibition. Perhaps “enjoy” is a poor way to characterize what I experienced. It was both a jarring and beautiful event to see this display of Tissot’s devotion. I still cannot get the climactic scene on Golgotha out of my mind and frequently pull out the Exhibition Catalog in order to ponder the scenes again. If the exhibition comes near you, go see it. If you know of a gallery in your area which might be interested in hosting the exhibition, urge them to contact the Brooklyn Museum. If you cannot see the exhibition in person (ending January 17), purchase the Exhibition catalog which the Museum offers for sale and which includes the full 350 images, not simply the 125 which the Museum mounted for this remarkable show.
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the Christ child and the beginning of his sojourn with us on this good earth. The full opportunities of redemption and brotherhood are laid out in a story of miraculous portent. The light radiates and Tissot ably records the reality of this penultimate human place called Jerusalem. In so doing, he draws us into this place and makes it immediate. Personally , I think of the marriage of sacrifice and freedom and how we are all as yet virgins when it comes to human freedom in peace. I think of the light that St. Augustine in his “Confessions” asserts is all around, like God, filling the air in totality rather than unequally descending as shafts. I think of St. Augustine in the City of God where he states: “The first freedom is the choice to sin or not to sin. The last Freedom granted us shall be the freedom not to sin.”
It is said that Christ died for our sins. He also lived the fragile beauty of a mortal life as a great teacher of love and advocate for peace. As he was aloft in agony upon the Cross, his sweet time with us coming to a close, his companionship with Magdalene and the Apostles, his love for his parents, his courage in the face of his trials, they were the powerful traits of this fleeting mortal life within a light that pervades. The freedom not to sin is perhaps a wonderful thing, but the choice to sin or not to sin is a marvelous benediction of will. Too many upon this blood-splattered earth take it as their right to sin and do great injury to others, but the light of peace remains to one and all. The darkness comes and goes, but the light is enveloping. We can all drink deeply at its warmth and endless attraction. Light is life. It is with us from beginning to end and when we neglect to acknowledge Augustine’s observation that it is omnipresent and that we must only turn around to see its source, we consign ourselves to a reduced harvest of joy. These are the gifts of the season I ruminate upon as I humbly attempt to capture this light on paper, in honor of the light that has shown for millions since that day 2010 years ago, when a child was born to a humble man and wife without a place to rest.
Our abiding place is the human story. It rests for us here, in this time, to make the choice not to sin – to demonstrate the courage to be implacable in the face of tyranny and to forgive. All we need do is look at the light and recognize within its’ glow, the potential we have to chose that which is the best of us in order to find the treasure of this and every other place. There is but one real treasure of illumination in this world of beautiful tragedy. It is that place called love.