A curious thing occurred to me while wandering in a museum. On my second visit to the same exhibit I noticed for the first time how the mountains in the icons are made of flat ledges that rise like wild stairs. That led to other observations that amounted to my wondering what mystery of depiction and suggestion haunts the artist. Those mountains and some other things were not aiming so much at depiction as they were aiming at suggestion. Which is a thought.
But then another thought occurred to me. I’ve mentioned before the exhibits at the Museum of Russian Art. When you go there the natural ending place is at the entrance to the gift shop, but also the elevator shaft, and I decided with my wife to ride it, and to ride all the way down since the coats are stowed in the basement. And so I came again to the exhibit concerned with light (which is still there, doing a double spell), and took my wife to consider the puzzle I had over an engaging piece of painting that I would not call art. It is a painting of the building of a bridge by night, and alive with lighted scaffolding, showering sparks, and twinkling lights, searching lights and distant lights. It draws the eye and it is large. And I wondered if the problem was not that it was depiction without any possible suggestion. All was there on the surface, but nothing beyond suggested.
I had been looking at photography and wondering why it was not as compelling as the thing itself, or even as a painting, and so the notion that suggestion must not be overrun by the depiction in a work of art appealed to me. And then we went over to the Institute of Arts in which you can take a complete tour of the development of Western painting up to the year of our Lord 2008. One cannot help noticing the rapid development of more precise depiction, and the gradual change of subject from religion, to antiquity, to the present (then), to the landscape, to MAN, to the glories and rusticities of romanticism, to the rich and exotic, to the impressionists, to the disintegration and beyond. Always, however, the suggestion, although the suggestion changes from the absolute, to the transcendent, to the imminent, to the present, to the ordered, to the imagined, to the experienced, to the within, to something pretty vague but sometimes shocking.
The point is that they used their powers of depiction for suggestion, and the better they are, the better not necessarily the depiction—because the point is not to depict, but to suggest—but the suggestion which depends on the depiction.
We have a fake Cezane we got for four dollars and thirty-five cents once at a thrift store. I showed it to a friend who is practically blind, once, in bad light, and she thought it was a fine specimen, and so it is. It is a depiction of some rooftops in Paris in spring and if it does not suggest to you the temperature and atmosphere of that spring day, then Cezane is probably not for you (it is about 59 degrees in the painting, with the barometer steady and winds out of the NE at about 8MPH). It may be the fact that it is a knock-off (with some kind of pattern of bumps worked into it that suggest brush strokes, for it really isn’t even a painted knock-off) that keeps the thing from suggesting more than a cool day. Perhaps it has some cheerfulness; but when you go to the Institute of Arts and see the Cezane there, the van Gogh, the Pissarro and the other chap who died in Tahiti with his peculiar shade of green, you get more than the weather: the brooding of a city in the rain, you get, the feeling of a fatalistic fecklessness in the one by the chap who died in Tahiti, the fact that van Gogh was on a highway to the nut-house and other things, of course, besides the correspondences of unrelated things that colored painting can draw out. The depiction of a depiction in my knock-off doesn’t work as well, you see. It seems it loses some of its suggestion. The suggestion is somehow bound up in the detail and physical presence of the painting: which in the end is actually the depiction itself. You must admit: that is a thought.
And so I think this whole business of depiction and suggestion is very true. Art, I might say, is the attempt to discipline depiction into suggestion. Suggestion is the part that gestures at mystery which has to be handled in its own way: it must be suggested, must be handled with a sort of reverence. It is the most general and most particular. And I was thinking about this as I was reading some Robert Frost and some on Robert Frost.
Neither Out Far Nor In Deep
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.
As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.
The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be—
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?