Vincent van Gogh and the Abyss of Art

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most incandescent minds of all time. While it is true that he did sell a single painting in his life, it is not true that he had come to be utterly unrecognised. Albert Aurier, the most profound art critic around at that time, would write an exalted article, praising Vincent van Gogh as a rare genius, able to see through the material hyle of shit while at the same time not transcending (or descending) into otherworldy or celestial depths. Rather, you would have an overabundance, a plethora of world, due to an intense perception of „a bubbling brain that would burst out his lava into all canyons of art;  a terrifying, half-mad genius, often sublime, sometimes grotesque, always slightly grazing the pathological“. It is true, in the art of Vincent van Gogh you have the otherwordliness of the world. You may say, you have a vision that refers to the peak of human perception and episteme, the Unitary Consciousness, in which all manifestations that lie within reality and that lie within the mind and in the spirit amalgamate into single, intense, elevated, transcendent perception of totality. In Vincent van Gogh´s paintings, everything has an extreme presence; nothing is hidden, reality seems to emerge out of itself, in ways that might be beautiful, frightening, dangerous or disgusting. Nature becomes of an expressive character; therein Vincent would become a forerunner of Expressionism, while his vision and, consequently, his impact on art would be more general and more profound. It is a true metaphysical reflection of the metaphysical structure of the world; while Vincent would reflect on some kind of embracive overtotality that lies inside (or beyond) nature, he was also aware that it is not necessarily protective; Artaud would say that in Vincent van Gogh´s vision you have laid bare „the hostile flesh of nature“; haha, art and the recognition of art lies in the eye of the beholder, and the depth of vision would also articulate itself in the many aspects it oversees; the more abysmal the depth, the higher and more glorious the vision until it gets consuming like the flame. The Burning World. „I love a nature that is nearly burning“, and: „Some men have great fire within their soul“. – While he had not been a child prodigy, but rather a problem child (although actually problematic (or „problematic“) he would eventually become later in his life), Vincent van Gogh had a capacity to get immersed into things, a pronounced and synthetic/synaesthetic intelligence and a passionate heart from early on. Art, as well as science and religion would have a great fascination on him from early on as well. To him, art had to rely to a considerable degree on (quasi-) scientific investigation of reality, of perception and of the means and methods of art; like religion it would refer to the divine, the otherworldly, the good and it would create a spiritual bond between men. Despite his ever-present interest, Vincent had decided to become a painter relatively late in life – since all other attempts to find accommodation in life had failed for him. It was a stunning quest, as it did not seem very promising as Vincent usually combined talents as well as considerable deficiencies in any domain he would approach, with the latters ultimately leading into tragic failure of his endeavours. Finally, when Vincent reached perfection, it was a triumphant victory of subjectivism that would define new objective standards. Vincent´s art is so idiosyncratic and, eventually, ungraspable that it cannot truly be explained or that it could have been foreseen. It is true that technically Vincent was not a master painter in many respects; he could not paint freehand, his line was nervous and imprecise and, above all, he could not achieve much similarity between the portrait and the portrayed. People and things are depicted roughly as well as bluntly, but they carry both more idiosyncracy as well as universality (not only as the person or the thing portrayed, but also more idiosyncracy and universality as you have it most other paintings) and, above all, they carry a pressing immediacy. In his greatest paintings and his most mature vision you would recognise that „everything“, and everything that can ever be said, simply and bluntly is there (a not very intellecutal sentence, but therein signifying that intellectualism comes to an end when approaching visions of the Absolute). While the most protean painter of the 20th century, Picasso, would invent a new style every once in a few years, Vincent van Gogh would (apparently) come up with a new style with any new painting he would do; respectively, Vincent would both transgress style as well as „anti-style“, as what he would do could be described as a permanent quest, a processive both searching and finding of expression as something both more primary as well as transcendent to style. Vincent´s „style“ (nevertheless) has a childish innocence, nativeness and immediateness as well as the intellectual sophistication of traditional Japanese art (which had a huge influence on Vincent) with its focus on purity and simplicity, respectively it combines both approaches; it is very virgin and very eternal, very young and very old, adequate therefore to depict a world that is both in bloom and in decay. Of course, this can be quite irritating and (like Franz Kafka) Vincent was dismissive of most of his works, considering them as „etudes“, and his true art and his true form and message as something still to come. Yet, when intelligence/creativity reaches its most upper extreme, it will likely not present itself via a „classicist“ form: instead, it will become inherently experimental and establish multiple points of view, it will become a sort of phase space of the intellect and of the soul (which may, of course, easily be confusing for the bearer of that soul and it will take some time to become familiar with it). Vincent van Gogh´s vision refer to a shifting, dynamic and also a bit elusive reality: and therefore has a firm grasp on reality as how it actually is. His style of painting makes the painting process visible, therefore reassuring that one is confronted both with reality, a vision of reality, a perception of reality and an artwork/a construction of reality; therein Vincent was a forerunner of process art and, more profoundly, of the self-referentiality of art and its metaphysical quest for its exploring own „epistemological“ possibilities and potentials. Avant-garde artists after van Gogh (and at his time) became very self-confident about the possibilities of art, also because of this self-referential quest for art within art; more recently of course art would lose such self-confidence and the self-referentiality become increasingly pointless. Obviously, it lacks the spiritual strengh of a Vincent van Gogh. Vincent´s quest within art (and within any endeavour he would approach) would be for „the true“.  According to Vincent, „the true“ is the force „that brings light into darkness“, that transforms suffering into solace, that consoles, that has the power to heal. It is „what encourages you and inspires you and is good nurture for the true life“. It refers to a kind of epiphany, and when Vincent would become aware of anything of that kind, he would say: Dat is het! „The true“ „can be found everywhere“ and in great numbers; „the world is filled with it“. In contrast to the pessimists and existentialists (and, seemingly, most people, notably intellectuals or art critics) I perfectly agree with Vincent on that; and for instance when people would ask me why, for instance, I often post harmlessly lascivious images of females with big tetas (or try to mock me whether I do it out of sexual frustration (or, as feminists would suspect, in order to exercise power over women via the „male gaze“, while it is actually them exercising power and impression over me)), I may simply respond: Because dat is het! Those are images/epiphanies that show that the world is good and life is worth living. „The true“ is the essence of things. Dat is het. „The true“ Vincent would also find in the portrayal of humble or everyday people, hitherto rather neglected by „high“ artists: peasants, craftsmen, maidens, more generally: in (the portrayal and investigation of) the idiosyncratic and the subjective (and he was especially fond of sentimental artworks, depicting children, melodramatic situations, girls in love, families living in harmony, Biedermeier-like art, like I am as well). Due to the evaporation of traditional and a stable metaphysical structure in which man would find himself embedded in modernity, the modern artist could not create a closed, consistent and total portrayal of (man within) the world any longer. Traditional iconography, allegories or metaphers had become obsolete by Vincent´s time. What is more, in the later 19th century moral foundations had become fundamentally shaken and modern man became confronted with the possibility of nihilism; most dramatically illustrated in the vision of Dostojevski, it would become the task of the individual to enliven morality and establish universal moral standards. The subjective had become prevalent. But how can you create a universal grammar out of something that is subjective, i.e. that is opaque and cannot (and should not) be generalised? Van Gogh however would note that it is precisely the subjective experiences and the individual idiosyncracies that are experienced by everyone all alike and may therefore become a basis for collective experience. An enlightened individual with a profound and empathetic vision of reality and of high personal integrity could serve as an exemplar of humanity and create universal grammars, a subjective vision that embodies/enlivens objective truths. Therein, the artist would become comparable to a saint. By the end of his life, Vincent van Gogh would consider himself to be an otherworldly, transcendent being (which is a correct perception), and art and religion he had always seen as intertwined (which, as both is based on worship, is also a correct notion). He would become godfather of modern art as a quest for subjective expression of objective truth, and a kind of guardian angel of what would become the difficult and demanding task for true artists for decades to come: finding new modes of expression anew – „We all started with van Gogh“, Picasso would say, in that respect. In the later 20th century such endeavours still were/are there but somehow have lost intellectual substance and rigor. Vincent van Gogh at his time was dismissive of the Impressionists, he found them to be „merely clever“ and resting on the foundation of a merely tricky idea, whereas true art would demand „extreme seriousness“ (nowadays, the tide has moved against the notion of Vincent once more, probably to an extend that would surprise him even more (although humor and irony usually are good, it is probably also good that Vincent to a considerable degree lacked humor and irony, i.e. basic principles of postmodernity)). Vincent van Gogh would notice Aurier´s essay of exited praise for him, but he reacted somehow indifferent and dismissive. He had a low self opinion as he had had to experience himself as a failure throughout his life, he saw that he could not reach the mastery of other, technically more profound painters, and he did not consider it possible that he was „a rare genius“. Also, while Aurier could see the polished surface of Vincent´s art, Vincent the artist himself knew about the (unelegant) difficulties and coincidences within the process of creating his art, therefore he was less ready to see it as results of a divine inspiration. While the article by Aurier and also a subsequent exhibition of some of Vincent´s works would attract attention, he still could not sell anything while at the same time Theo´s financial situation had become more problematic, terrifying the ashamed Vincent that he could not escape the situation of putting financial stress on his brother ever more. Irritated, Vincent fled to the countryside again, fully in bloom of his mastery he would create some of his greatest paintings; yet soon thereafter he would succumb to a fatal injury inflicted by a gunshot.

They say there is a thin line or a similarity between genius and madness. That is not actually true. Genius refers to an abnormal intensity of perception and of experiencing the world by getting immersed into it, as well as to great fluency in making unusual associations between (often remote) perceptions and concepts. Due to the unusualness of his ideas, the genius may become mistaken for crazy by others (and therefore become prone to identity crisis and feelings of estrangement himself), but he is, to an abnormal degree, rational in all his endeavours – whereas the madman is, profoundly, not. What makes Vincent van Gogh´s story so attractive/tragic is that he was both a genius and a madman. Rejected by his contemporaries, he is now considered pure and a saint, born to suffer in a world hostile or injudicious to purity, illustrating the tragedy of the genius; yet, apart from that, Vincent actually was a misfit on his own accounts and a challenge to most people he met, including those who were sympathetic of him. About the origins of Vincent´s irrationality there have been debates and scholars have tried to identify it as a bipolar disorder or some kind of schizophrenia. Epilepsy has also been suggested. Likely Vincent had a schizotypal personality disorder, maybe combined with other abnormalities. Schizotypy is a condition that involves unusual emotional and perceptual intensity, capacity to ruminate, associative and network-like thinking, anhedonia, introversion and impulsive nonconformity. Therein, it may be a condition that enables genuine creativity, personal autonomy or genius: Einstein, for example, appears as a perfect illustration of healthy schizotypy. A schizotypal personality disorder involves all those features but gives them a turn towards the unhealthy and the irrational. You may have odd perceptions and personal ideologies within the schizotypically disordered individual, magical thinking, irrational impulsiveness, getting overwhelmed by emotions and social isolation and withdrawal due to reduced capability of getting along with others and to intellectually empathise with them. In contrast to the schizoid individual, the schizotypal individual, who specifically knows both emotional intensity and may have a strong sense for „connectedness“ between people and things, may experience his social isolation as very painful, and that may generate considerable mental health problems and depressions that, in addition to the odd ways of thinking of the schizotypal in the first place, may degenerate into states that are near to psychosis, or into actual psychosis and schizophrenia. Theo van Gogh has experienced „two personalities“ within his brother, respectively a „Jackyll and Hyde“ personality within Vincent. Very strangely, Vincent was capable of extreme rationality and understanding as well as compassion and love for others, transgressing into self-sacrifice, as well as he easily was very subborn, argumentative, self-righteous, impossible to get along with different opinions and, therefore, with most people in general. He was both very fluent and considerably limited and inflexible. Clearly, there are problems for sensitive and intelligent or unusual individuals to get along within society, especially within childhood and youth, and that may lead to problems of adaption, but Vincent´s irrationality, in its stubbornness, cannot, however, actually get traced back to traumatic origins, but appears as something genuine, and in such a case a personality disorder or mental illness is very likely at play. Mental illness came to affect also other members of Vincent´s family; his brother Cor later commited suicide and his sister Wil went insane and spent nearly four decades of her life, until her death, in a nursing home. Theo´s tragic decline came from syphillis nevertheless; it is however possible that Vincent´s aggravated mental health problems later in life had the same origin, and one of the possible motives for his (apparent) suicide was the fear of plunging ever more into insanity. While failure to adapt to institutional logics (or get accepted by institutions in the first place) and an irregular, „trial and error“ biography may not be uncommon for uncommon people and for geniuses, Vincent van Gogh had failed in every aspect of life, be it professional or interpersonal or as a student (and the feelings of guilt and shame aggravated his depressions). In some ways, his failures actually had glorious and triumphant aspects, aspects of failure due to being „too high to function“, but, at the other end of the tail, they carried morbidity. The most heartbreaking story in his biography before he decided to become an artist was him wanting to become a preacher among mineworkers in Zundert who had to live in extremely miserable conditions, notorious not only in the whole country but even beyond its borders. The suffering of the proletarians in Zundert affected Vincent greatly and he went to measures of extreme self-sacrifice in order to help them personally: he spent his time with them, gave away practically all his money and things and, after a huge explosion had happened that left many dead and even more wounded, medically cared for the wounded to the extend of exhaustion. Unfortunately, his grotesque self-humiliation finally began to bear less resemblance to that of a strong-minded and highly rational saint, but more to religious mania and the behaviour of a fanatic and it became uncanny not only to his superiors but also to many of the mineworkers of Zundert. That, and his inability to take into consideration any advice from others finally led to his expulsion and another tragic failure in his life (the official reason for his dismissial however had been that, despite the eloquence that would become apparent in his letters, he could not actually preach and talk in front of crowds). Vincent was a man who lived in extremes, both in divine ways as well as in clearly unhealthy fashions. Self-sacrificial and saint-like to an extreme degree during his time as a preacher, he would ask his brother for more money with some sense of entitlement a while later (while, later again, feelings of guilt about stressing his brother´s financial resources ever further may have been, then, a motive for the (apparent) suicide). Despite his permanent condition of dire straits, he never learned how to live economically. During his lifetime, his appearance would range from dandy to bum, alienating the people around him. As a truly transcendent and saint-like individual, Vincent had high hopes concerning other people and he easily developed enormous passion and compassion for them, which, however, often were out of touch with reality, and he was specifically prone to idealise the misfortunate among human creatures (like the people of Zundert). Sien, a moody prostitute with whom he tried to establish a family for a while, he considered to be „an angel“, and in the eye of newborn children he would see „the infinite“ (one of the infants in whose eyes he had seen the infinite would later become associated with the fascists). With Gaugin at least he wanted to live his ideal of establishing an (everlasting) fraternic community of artists, of intellectual and emotional bonds unable to get broken, while alienating him with his argumentativeness. When Gaugin wanted to leave him to move to new territories, Vincent became so afraid that, in a dissociative state aggravated by alcohol abuse, he cut off his ear, in an apparent attempt to make a „sacrifice“ to Gaugin to make him stay (and, likely, as a mutilation due to self-loathing; like in the final hours of his life, deadly wounded, Vincent did not elaborate much about the natures of the incidents). Whether his death was the result of a sucide attempt or whether Vincent was (unintentionally) shot by rascals that used to follow and harrass the eccentric painter is something we do not know though: There are good reasons to take the former as well as the latter possibility into account. The dominant narrative of the suicide – that may, however, erode because of the reasoning about his death in the more recent monumental biography about Vincent van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith as well as in the film about van Gogh by Julian Schnabel – is at least the more meaningfully tragic one and carries more gravitas. A tragic tale of his life may „benefit“ a genius as it increases his personal sex appeal after his death and make his biography appear more meaningful. Vincent´s ascent to the heavens may be that, in its comprehensive, genuine as well as elusive and mysterious tragedy it is very well-rounded. After his death he became an archetype, an icon, a symbolic figure, seemingly a good spirit/angelic creature, watching over us.

Indeed, not long after his death, Vincent van Gogh became to be seen as archetypical modern painter and as a saint of art. He bears maximum charisma as he is actually a metaphysical figure. The multiple threads that concern art, and all human endeavour and all human quest seem to meet in his art and in his biography. He is a superknot of threads. It has been noted that van Gogh had ruminated more about art and also about the relation between art and world, also as concerns the practical aspects, than any other modern painter (and, for instance, his idea about the artist communities was not only an emotionally motivated utopia, but, first and foremost, a practical idea about how the socially brutally excluded painters of his time could create means and a practical way of living and become more independent from the cynical art market). There is a lot of confusion about what art could actually be or what it would mean to be nowadays (and, due to this confusion that goes over people´s heads, unfortunately also a profound indifference towards answers to such questions); conservative philosopher Roger Scruton fortunately says that the truth of art is spiritual truth. Spiritual truth means a deep connectedness to the world and usually has to be gained via suffering. Van Gogh is the epitome of  „suffering for art“. Vincent´s quest was one of extreme integrity and for authenticity, and humanity needs such stories in order to ensure the authenticity of itself, of the human condition and of the human experience. The genius in someone deeply introspective into the subjects of his investigative quests and therefore is able to unveil „hidden secrets“ of matter. Art is a quest for metaphysical localisation of man and finding modes of expression for that. Vincent van Gogh was extremely introspective into art, in a way that he fell through the metaphysical abyss of art. Because of this, you finally have the totality within his art, the plethora and overabundance of the things portrayed and that extreme degree of presence death to false metal (reminder: could Derrida´s notion about the impossibility of presence be countered via van Gogh? To be investigated!); as you have the ultimate explosiveness within a White Hole due to matter that is falling through a Black Hole and is channeled through a Wormhole – that´s how such a system works.  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari say that a true work of art stands (erect) for itself. Even more than that, in the art of van Gogh you have the Absolute. The art of van Gogh (as well as the tragic conciseness of his biography) cannot be transgressed. The Absolute is an instance that is indifferent to all human relativity and therefore indifferent to all human opinion and to all human thinking. You may say, it is the sphere of absolute values. Van Gogh´s Starry Night or his Church of Auvers, or Beethoven´s Ninth or the General Theory of Relativity exercise a power over me that is infinitely higher than mine. They´re the Absolute. Talent´s quest may be for, respectively reaches its fulfillment in perfection. The genius finds its full realisation in reaching the Absolute. The strangeness of the Absolute is that it is the most universal of statements and that it is very immediate and intelligible as well as it is very different from anything else and not very intelligible, and the establishment of the Absolute is very different from any other endeavour, it´s (naturally) very different realms of being; in the terminology of Wittgenstein (another monad that was working on the Absolute), the language of the Absolute is a different language game from the language games that happen in time and in space. The people of the Absolute are radically different and distinguished from anyone else; they not only belong to groups radically different from the general run of people (the groups of artists, philosophers, druids et al), but are also radically different monads within those groups. And so, apparently, the circle closes. Vincent van Gogh had a passionate desire for brothership and community. He wanted to establish not only a true community of artists but, via art, a brotherly community within mankind. Therein, one may remember Gilles Deleuze´s essay on American literature and Herman Melville, Bartleby, Or, The Formula, in which he outlines that American literature is a call for brotherly unity and America is a utopia of brotherly unity, with this ideal of brotherly unity and authentic community nevertheless being contaminated and corrupted in and by reality. With reference to Melville, Deleuze touches on the problem of the „true originals“, truly original people, who, in a heroic, in a funny and/or in a tragic way stand outside of society and, due to their autonomy and originality, cannot be influenced or consumed (and also not corrupted) by society. They are outsiders of humanity as well as they are an embodiment of humanity and of the human individual in a metaphysical sense. They embody the struggle between the individual and society in a search for meaning and mutual pacification. The reconciliation between the original and society/humanity is the problem for establishing fraternity and authentic community within men, so Deleuze/Melville. Often, the reconciliation between the original and humanity will happen only after the original´s death, when the biographical original individual and the ouevre of the original has entered the autonomous sphere of true ideals (or, above that, of the Absolute) that help to give meaning to humanity. With the reconciliation between the original and humanity, fraternity and authenticity is, then, truly achieved – in an ideal and metaphysical but therein highly tangible sense. And so, the circle and the cycle closes, the dead original can truly rest in peace, as the circle and the cycle opens up for another original again, later in history.

P.S.: Goethe (?) says, only a genius is able to truly recognise a(nother) genius. A tragedy associated with van Gogh is that Albert Aurier, who recognised van Gogh so profoundly and wrote so flamboyantly about him (therein likely mirroring his own flamboyant, explosive mind) at a young age, at the beginning of his twenties, died soon thereafter. I guess Aurier´s early demise is a tragic loss for humanity.

Leonardo da Vinci, Apex Predator

Today, 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci died. After a rather bumpy ride through the ages as concerns his fame and reputation, he is, in our age, considered as probably the highest ranking genius and uomo universale in the history of mankind, as concerns creativity, intelligence, versatility, authenticity and clairvoyance. Bumpy as is the ride of history, future generations may think otherwise (yet unlikely very much otherwise); at any rate Leonardo´s mind and personality and ouevre may serve as an illustration of what may be expected to happen at the most upper extreme, if not the definitive apex of human intelligence, creativity and spirituality, and also what may be the ultimate vantage point, and vanishing point, of art and what art could ever be. Beyond the scope of an era-defining genius (like Goethe or Voltaire), Leonardo is a superstar of humanity. Hardly matched in his artistic ingeniousity, he is probably unmatched in the scope of his interests, mastery over various domains and probably also as concerns the complexity an artistic vision and a worldview ever can reach – despite being, in their complexity, very harmoniously balanced and, to some considerable degree, at peace with itself (indicating what is commonly referred to as „transcendence“ and a Satori-like vision). Such appears not only his intellect, but also, even more miracously, the man.

Apart from his intellectual and artistic abilities and his miraculous craftsmanship, Leonardo was described as a very attractive and elegant man, jovial, cheerful and eloquent; his reputation as a „dandy“ obviously drew upon the fact that he liked to dress well and in an individual manner. An Adonis in his younger days, he „successfully“ embodied the bearded, long haired sage and druid in his later days (and that he seemed to have aged prematurely is also a good fit into the whole story). „All man and all nature“ was said to be attracted to Leonardo, not only due to his natural goodness, but also because of his distinctive entertaining qualities which ranged from telling instant jokes and spreading words of wisdom to staging extravagant theater-like performances with which he baffled his audiences not only with his intelligence and imagination but also his craftsmanship. He was also said to be an extraordinary musician and that he could sing in a beautiful voice. Neither ascetic nor an distinctive hedonist, and in contrast to Michelangelo´s rather neurotic endeavours in that respect, money and fame mattered to Leonardo just as much as it enabled him to maintain his rather modest and self-sufficient way of living. What mattered most to him, is that he was able and free to sustain his permanent investigations into nature, art and technology. His homosexuality (or homophiliac bisexuality) may have helped him to grasp feminity in the stunning way he did – the Renaissance was not an overly patriarchic age and Renaissance women were relatively free, respected and liberated; in many of his paintings, Leonardo gave women an accentuated physiognomy and portrayed them with great sensibility (though his ultimate quest was for expressing the universal; also you have some scepticism in those portrayals; like the relatively blank physiognomy of the, nevertheless distinctive and intense, Lady with an Ermine, Cecilia Gallerani, in contrast to the very carefully painted ermine). Despite him being the intellectual apex predator, Leonardo had become a vegetarian early in his life. Friendly and gentle, usually in good humor, Leonardo was decent and generous towards humans and he was a nature and animal lover; especially attracted he was to horses and to birds – it would happen that at a mart, he would purchase birds just to release them from their cages and let them fly away. Despite that, he prided himself with being able to construct war machines and war technology of great destructive capacity, and despite being a republican by heart, he became affiliated with various noblemen and „war lords“ of his time, including Cesare Borgia (who, as a somehow transcendent phenomenon, however attracted also the curiosity not only of Machiavelli and, later, Nietzsche but also of many others ever since). As a general feature, Leonardo remained aloof over politics and contemporary affairs; one might even perceive an „icy“ disinterest in politics and the political struggles of his time and age. What distinguishes him from the opportunist and nihilist (not to speak of the careerist) is that politics (i.e., at least at that time, the management of the fragmentary and temporary) truly was below him and the (fatalistic) insight that, due to the nature of man and the multitude of human temperaments, politics and political engagement remains a bit of a fruitless passion and a dismal science, at least for someone that is able to touch, instead, the eternal and the heavens. Political affiliations within shifting balances of power made not only Dante´s life miserable – and that of many others ever since – and despite his indifferent attitude towards the powerful may have hindered him to become a huge success during his lifetime, Leonardo obviously managed to sail and navigate relatively well over the turbulent political waters of his time. That he was also a child of his time can be seen that he believed in stuff like astrology, the medical theories of Galen or accepted Aristotle as highest-ranking authority like the medieval scholasts did, notions that soon thereafter became more outdated among the educated. Despite being very insightful about geometry, Leonardo did not manage to calculate properly, neither he learned (or was able to learn) Latin, the lingua franca of the educated and the humanists at that time, which probably has aggravated to hostility between Leonardo and the humanists. Leonardo was fond of silly jokes and anecdotes and of the grotesque, and some of his drawings of grotesque characters became inspirational for the initial drawings to Alice in Wonderland. That does come as a surprise as the genius usually is childish, funny, off-the-wall and drawn to paradoxes, and the grotesque are transgressive epiphanies of what lies beyond the frontiers of human imagination. Leonardo´s grotesque drawings are both funny and sad, harmless and brutal, etc. referring to cosmic indifference towards what we, in general, perceive as the wonders of creation. Leonardo was, more or less, fully realised human potential. Concerning gender, he had distinct masculine as well as feminine characteristics; concerning age, he combined the playfulness of a child with the wisdom of an old sage. He was determined and knew what he want (though apparently erratic in his endeavours), but he seemed to have a soft ego. He experienced melancholy and joy. He knew about the abyss as well as about the celestial spheres. He was more human than man. Very rarely it appears that a man achieves true harmony within himself (among the 20th century painters probably only Mondrian and Duchamp). Leonardo likely was of that kind.

The Renaissance was the dawn of a new era, and of a great transformation concerning the ways man saw himself and interacted with the world. In all preceding periods you have man embedded (and occassionally crushed) within a cosmic whole (and a relatively static social order). If it had not been explicitly conceptualised or reflected (or, apparently, conceptualised loosely and somehow ironically like in the case of ancient Greece), man had implicitely lived and behaved in such a fasion. The loss of such an (embracive, but also terrifying) totality has been mourned ever since, since man obviously is unhappy when he has to live under conditions of scepticism, relativity, multiple viewpoints and temporary truths, i.e. conditions that you have in modernity (and if you are unhappy about that as well, just think about whether you would prefer to go back to the middle ages). In the Renaissance, the foundations of man as a competent individual that is able to emerge from a background had been laid (though they would again become oppressed in the Counterreformation). The genius is the most pronounced form of man doing away with established modes of thinking, epistemologies and ideologies when he is thinking and when he does create (despite being very knowledgeable about them and therefore able to transcend them). The Renaissance, therefore, apparently, was an era of genius, and Leonardo the climax of his era. Leonardo did not make an ideology (because, likely, he was too intelligent for that), but the foundation of his whole attitude and approach towards the world was relying on primary observation and experience and rationalising it to deduce knowledge as well as to test established knowledge by the same means – and sorting out established knowledge if it fails short of such a test. His most beloved sensory organ was the eye as it was – so he thought at that time – the organ with which the world could be most primarily, innocently and correctly experienced. Likewise, painting was the highest-ranking art to him, as via painting you are able to catch, view and express the world most directly and immediately; as a philosopher-painter he would become immersed in questions about how perception actually works and how the world can be most properly portrayed. He expressed distrust not only in scholastic knowledge, but, more fundamentally, in language, which he deemed dubious, amiguous and obscure and, moreover, man-made and probably „culture dominating over nature“ and not vice versa as you supposedly have it in the sensory perception of vision. Correspondigly, literature and poetry was an art inferior to painting to him („coincidentally“, Leonardo himself was not a writer or a poet; while his writing style was clear and precise, it considerably lacked the imaginative depth that was so characteristic for him as a painter and in many other respects). Leonardo´s curiosity stemmed to a considerable degree from painting and from his interest to excel in painting, like his interest in anatomy, in nature, in proportions and in how perception works; yet of course he would have also many other interests as interests per se (eventually, everything would become an interest per se for Leonardo). His interest in flying may have gone hand in hand with his passion for birds and ornithology, his interest in medicine and how the body works from his interest in anatomy; at any rate, however, his interest in technology and many other things was a matter in itself and stemmed from a curiosity in itself and a passion for gaining intellectual insight and mastery over things in itself. Because of this, you may even have difficulties in thinking of Leonardo as a man – as he rather appears as a fog or the Blob, an entity with open contours, that feeds and grows – or withdraws when it loses interest.

At the beginning of the 21st century we like to think of our time as one of rapid acceleration. Consider however, that such was also the time of Leonardo: From 1450 to 1550, Europe underwent a rapid transformation of a backward continent that, by the end of that timespan, had laid the foundations upon which it would leave the rest of the world behind for the centuries to come. Leonardo was, somehow, moving with the same – maybe too pronounced – speed. Leonardo´s famous „inability“ to complete many things and projects he started appears as a manifestation of a mind wandering at ultra-high speed and versatility, but also seems to borderline to an attention deficit disorder. – I find it sad that he never did a final portrait of Isabella d´Este, a magnificent and highly interesting female regent of the Renaissance (though it is also somehow „funny“ that the strong-willed and, likely, autocratic Isabella did not come very far when it came to impose her will on the eccentric Leonardo), yet however Leonardo´s (obvious) drawing of her is probably more articulate and charismatic than anything else could had ever been. Sometimes sketches, drawings, experiments and etudes can be more articulate and telling and grasping more of a (turbulent) reality than something that is finalised and „classic“. Likewise, some things are more pronouced when they are finally left unsaid, and some things are better left unsaid anyway. Likely, Leonardo also knew that many of his technological constructions and scientific ruminations were preliminary and tentative and therefore he may have refrained from wasting his time by finally and systematically elaborating on them apart from the, at any rate often staunchly elaborate, sketches in his notebooks. That being said, Leonardo´s frequent failure to finalise things may not be failures at all, but due to a deeper insight into stuff and bravery and independence of mind. To the things that mattered to him and to projects he began to really find something out or to move to new territories in science or in the arts, Leonardo could be stubbornly devoted. That, not least, applies to the Mona Lisa on which he had obviously been working for years with the obvious determination to create out of it what it had finally become: a perfect human portrait (he finally had kept to himself) – that probably does not show Lisa del Giocondo, as is the dominant narrative, but – Isabella d`Este. Again in contrast, Leonardo´s most notorious failure – the feeble material construction of The Last Supper (that began to fade only decades after its creation and had to be restored multiple times ever since, with probably only 20 percent of the original artwork remaining nowadays) – may have been an indication that Leonardo actually and paradoxically lacked insight and care for the preservation of the things he had put so much obsession into to create them (though also likely the execution of The Last Supper was a – correct – compromise between means and ends; by using other means he may have not been able to execute the painting in the same way at all). Leonardo also seemed to have had reduced insight in circumstance that scientific discovery is a cumulative and collaborative process and has to rely on publication and discussion of findings and theories (which he did not really foster for himself), despite the, somehow legitimate but also distorted, perception that the „scientific community“ of his time would not be intelligent enough to understand him anyway. Among the „mysteries“ about Leonardo questions remain whether his apparent shortcomings derive from his „super sanity“ and from the plethora of his inner life, or also from actual deficits or „insanities“ and frenzies. Leonardo, likely, would have found such ruminations about him, that involve modern medicine and psychology, quite amusing – and, of course, highly interesting.

The lasting effect of the Renaissance was the discovery of individuality. Art is about examinating and illustrating the essence of things; and whereas in medieval art you had portrayals of man as a stereotypical member in a hierarchical, feudalistic collective, idealised via attribution of ephemeral aspects of beauty in the contemporary period, you have individualised portrayals of man (and of the entire creation, including the divine creator) in the Renaissance era. Leonardo pioneered and transgressed that motive and attitude into psychological and narrative portrayal of man and nature: The conquest for capturing the (indivdual) „soul“ of a person in and via the means of an artwork has a distinct predecessor in Leonardo. Leonardo, however, was not actually interested in capturing the individuality of a person and a thing, but to express universality – via the expression of idiosyncratic and expressive individuality (an understanding that brought him into some conflict with Michelangelo, who rather relied on expressing idealised beauty and muscular men as an epitome of that). The Renaissance era also paved the way for a modern and rational understanding of man and of nature, thus enabling man´s mastery over nature via technology. While Galileo Galilei is considered the founding father of modern science that relies on unideological observation, deduction and induction and on the scientific experiment, Leonardo had followed the same approach a century before – and many of his observations and conclusions as well as his constructions proved to be (at least in principle) correct only most recently. Despite that, Leonardo nevertheless lived in a pre-scientific age and was operating in a no man´s land. Not least likely due to envy and being confronted with something they likely sensed to be meaningful but which they could not properly master and understand, the educated elite and the humanists of his time were dismissive of Leonardo´s ideas and his entire attitude, respectively hostile towards them, relying instead on the academic scholarship of ancient stars like Aristotle as the ne plus ultra (therein forgetting that Aristotle did not rely on sterile scholarship himself, but accumulated his wisdom – naturally – by the same means like Leonardo). That Leonardo did not speak Latin and, due to his rather modest beginnings, was not prestiguously educated furthered the aliention between Leonardo and the humanists. As a true avant-gardist, Leonardo was, to a considerable degree, an alien within his time. From the later period in his life one would find a (stunning) portrait of a bearded old man in his sketchbooks, seemingly introspective but also apparently desillusioned and melancholic: obviously a self-portrait or self-caricature. A reccurent motive in his sketchbooks, maybe (also) of self-caricature, is a toothless old man that obviously gets harrassed by youth or by grotesque figures: Powerful and nearly divine in his abilities as he was, Leonardo was also relatively powerless. The shadow appearane of his high-ranking and clairvoyant intellect was that he could exercise relatively little influence and persuasion among his contemporaries because he was too distinguished from them. Throughout his lifetime, Leonardo would achieve fame and be considered a wizard and a sage as well as he fundamentally also always remained an outsider and a misfit, deemed an eccentric and heretic, if not some kind of divine fool (note that how much weight is put on portraying Leonardo as an insider or an outsider considerably lies in the eye of the beholder, respectively in how much the respective biographer seems to be an insider or an outsider within academia herself (Stendhal, who did not achieve much fame in his life, would remark that the true message of The Last Supper is the expression of resignation in the face of Christ, i.e. of the high-standing individual within a base and treacherous humanity and his death less of a sacrifice than a „suicide by cop“ to escape from earth as his mission is bound to failure anyway)).

The genius is obsessed with creating order as he has both a distinct and pronounced insight into both order and chaos, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the abstract and the idiosyncracy etc. Leonardo´s most famous epitome of his quest for unveiling the glorious and harmonious laws and proportions of and within nature is the Vitruvian Man. Yet, he was also able to portray grotesque creatures with great dedication. In general, Leonardo was attracted to and could get immersed into forms and patterns and especially the transformation of forms and patterns; maybe (also) because of that, he had an affinity for water. I also have an affinity for water, though rather for its peaceful and tranquil and steady appearances; one of Leonardo´s last famous works, in contrast, were the deluge drawings, of raging waters, of a raging – and seemingly mindlessly raging – nature, driven by blind forces, within which – unique and singular – patterns and wave formations emerge, but, after two or three moments, dissolve in order to, in their specifity, never to appear again but to get, at best, transformed into other (pseudo) entities that are all to temporal as well. I reiterate once again (and it goes a bit on my nerves not to come up with greater news, but that is, I guess, the price to be paid when one has reached final conclusions and gained insight into final truths), that the final vision of art is the vision into the Chaosmos, i.e. the interplay between movement and order, static and dynamic, stability and chance (and recently it has been proven by mathematics, that all dynamic systems are actually and interplay between order and chaos); and in Leonardo´s deluge drawings you have carefully executed vortexes, apparently hellish, but then also peaceful and mantra- and mandala-like: metaphysical peace you will find in an hypnotic image and perception of the mindless circle of natural creation and destruction, and that is the final word that can rationally be said about it. As a high genius and creator and a great empath towards the entirety of existence, Leonardo understood the divine, but, unlike the Americans, he did not trust in it. He is not known for having been a devout Christ (like Michelangelo). In the Adoration of the Magi (an early painting left unfinished), you seem to have an unbridgeable gap between the divine and a rather creature-like humanity that seems to be in reverence as well as in anguish and, in some similarity to the isolated figure of Mary, rather occupied with itself and its passions; a humanity that, on the whole, rather behaves as if it were under an epileptic shock rather than in religious enchantment, giving an impression that both the earthly and the heavenly may be powerless to some degree and, next to that, have a fundamental problem of establishing mutual communication and exchange. The orginal of his painting of Leda and the Swan is lost (and probably has never truly existed, only via sketches), but it refers to an antique mythology as an illustration of life and existence as a circle of violence and conflict within, also, a conquest for morality, truth, righteousness, love and (more egoistic) desire, within which not only humanity is revolving, rather helplessly, but also the gods. In Leonardo´s „metaphysics“, the cycles of „difference and repetition“ within which nature reproduces itself are the supreme instance; sometimes nature may be protective and a legitimate instance for glorious appraisal, sometimes a destructive force and just the opposite, as, in itself, it is blind and amoral. Leonardo´s most fundamental „metaphysical“ insight seemed to have been that man, life, maybe also gods, are finite, relatively powerless and engaged in a merciless struggle for individual survival. Only nature is infite and infinitely powerful.  And only via a better understanding of nature via observation and science and mastery over nature via technology based on science and rationality, man is able to improve his living conditions (also in his sketches for technological innovations and his notorious weapons and gigantic war machines man, nevertheless, seems little, irrelevant and rather carrying a resemblance to ants).

Art is about portraying the complexity of the world, the totality of the world, and the standing of the subjective individual in its relation to an objective world (therein, art is „the true metaphysical activity“). In Leonardo you have the complexity of the world, but you do not seem to have fascinating and immersive depths that make the visions of other geniuses usually so sexy and attractive. His art is complex, but somehow „flat“. Despite, or because of, his extreme devotion to the examination of nature and existence, you do not really have some „cosmic religiousness“ as you have it with Einstein (i.e. a quasi-religious devotion and feeling struck by the great mysteries of nature as a superior instance). Likely to his supreme command over any human endeavour, Leonardo´s vision and attitude rather appears as one of a dry wit, and that the world has ever since attributed endless abysmalness, depth and fascination to  Leonardo over a banality (Mona Lisa´s smile) may have brought the same smile to his face (that, from another perspective, isn´t any) ever since (the mysterious smile, as a recurrent motive, seems to refer to what Kierkegaard calls the „humoristic self-content“ of the genius). In contrast to his reputation as a mysterious druid and a mystic (which he liked to initiate himself as a means of self-promotion), he was actually a very rational person, his endeavours entirely logical and his personality transparent. Despite being (obviously) used to portray Plato in the School of Athens by Raphael, Leonardo had been a disciple of the more sober Aristotle (with Plato, nevertheless, being the more primary and comprehensive thinker and therein the attribution by Raphael more correct). The final mystery of the world, however, is also not likely to be so mysterious but, rather, logical, and not of unfathomable depth but transparent.


In the Codex Madrid, manuscripts that have been recovered and published only half a century ago, Leonardo advises anyone who takes pleasure in reading him to study him carefully, „because in this world he will reincarnate only very rarely“. He is now regarded as a man that has foreseen the 21st century (probably also due to some narcissism and self-referentiality of the 21st century). What would ever happen if Leonardo reincarnated today? That is, of course, beyond imagination. It´s a transcendent phenomenon.

(Written April 22-28, 2019; unfortunately I mistook Leonardo´s death day for May 5, 1519, while it has been May 2, 1529. Obviously, I am not that kind of perfect expert.)

Picnic at Hanging Rock

They´re having a focus on Australian cinema these weeks at the Filmmuseum and so yesterday they did show Picnic at Hanging Rock. I have seen it multiple times but not on a large screen before. What makes my miserable life worth getting examined is that I am able to develop tremendous passions for many things and beauty greatly affects me, therefore I live in a state of bliss and enchantment, and Picnic at Hanging Rock again had a huge impact on me.