Late one night while travelling in Tuscany I found myself in a spooky old pension. The lady looked me over carefully before showing me to a dark upstairs room. Dog tired, I crashed into a sagging, musty bed, humbled below a large-sized crucifix. I noted a painting high on the opposite wall and resolved to check it out in the morning.
In the cool light of dawn I was pleased to see a reproduction of a woman holding the severed head of a bearded man on a plate. Opulently framed, the picture leaned out at a steep angle and bore a brass plaque on which was engraved “Guido Reni.” At the time I’d never heard of the guy, nor have I ever seen another reproduction of the painting until I pulled the exact one up in Google this morning. What had alerted me once more to Guido Reni was some current research being done by Professor Semir Zeki, chair of neuroaesthetics at University College, London. Ordinary, non-artistic folks have been hooked up to brain sensors and shown a bunch of paintings by a variety of historical artists. The probes were set to access blood flow in those parts of the brain that register the kind of pleasure you get when you’re looking at the love of your life. Out of all the art flashed at these folks, the painters whose work got the hottest reactions were the English landscape painter John Constable, the French Neoclassicist J.A. Dominique Ingres, and, yep, the 17th century Italian high-Baroque painter Guido Reni.
While Reni did lots of commissioned religious pieces, and lots of naked folks for the fun of it, his severed head appeared to be a one-off. The painting depicts the Biblical character Salome, a woman of loose character, who bore grudges and eventually scored the head of John the Baptist. What she was doing in that ascetic upstairs room I’ll never know. And what is it, you might ask, that caused those pleasure synapses to light up in the brains of ordinary folks? We can’t put it down to lust for the human body — Constable’s landscapes were often unpeopled. And Ingres’ folks were often prim and proper. But I think I know. It’s good drawing and a sense of form. In Italian, modelled form in light and shade is called “chiaroscuro.” Guido Reni had lots of it.
PS: “The reaction was immediate. The blood flow was in proportion to how much the painting was liked.” (Semir Zeki)
Esoterica: “Triggers” are those elements in art that cause people to stop and look. While some triggers are subconscious, others are simple and obvious accomplishments of right-in-your-face appeal. You don’t have to be an art critic to notice them. It may even help if you aren’t. Dr Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, (UK) noted, “It’s exciting to see some scientific evidence that life is enhanced by instantaneous contact with works of art.”
The pleasure of connecting
by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada
I love it when people experience this pleasure you are referring to. Sometimes they weep. Sometimes they are pulled towards the work with a big grin on their face as if caught in a tractor beam. I once watched a woman enter the doorway as I was hanging a show. She spotted a painting leaning up in a dark corner and while striding towards it declared “I want that painting, I’ll buy it.” After agreeing to sell it to her in advance of the show, as an afterthought she asked if she could hold it in the light to properly view it and for the price.
Most often our art is passed over without much consideration, so when our work produces such pleasure we are emboldened to press on.
There are 3 comments for The pleasure of connecting by Bill Hibberd
Darkness and light
by Susan Obermeyer, Carbondale, CO, USA
A rich story, yes I can smell the room as you describe the journey. Italy’s art is inspired or rather infused with a palpable ethereal quality. I’ve been ruminating on the circumstances of lamps and candles. We live in an ultra light moment. We see a different indoor environment. The richness of the eyes accustomed to seeing in minimal light versus stopping at rich dark color. There are treasures about the path of looking hidden. It’s a physical movement. The body is ready to respond immediately if necessary. There are treasures scattered about!
(RG note) Thanks, Susan. So many of Reni’s paintings were done with a dramatic dark background and they seem to pick up an importance and energy because of that factor alone.
by Erica Hollander, Roxborough Park, CO, USA
Robert, don’t you think the dramatic gestures in Guido Reni’s paintings are also tremendously important to their capacity to evoke response? The drawing and form are surely important and impressive, too, not quibbling with that. And I think part of my love for Constable lies in the fact that the natural world is for me a source of wonder and sanctuary and majesty. Not sure what to say about Ingres at all but the entire topic and research on it intrigues me for sure, so thanks for bringing it up.
by Lia Brambilla, Italy
I always read your letter with pleasure and interest. May I correct this one? You explained why Guido Reni hit our souls and brain, I agree. But the Suicide of Cleopatra you showed is not painted by him but by another great XVII century Italian painter, Guido Cagnacci (whom, talking about undressed ladies is one of the most requested by patrons; as you pointed out for the much fun of observers). Maybe the name Guido has made the mistake, Guido Reni was called “the divine,” Cagnacci was much more bohemian and not so rich and famous but recently rediscovered by critics and historians. I like his work very much. I beg your pardon but as an Italian art historian (specialized on Bolognese painters of XVII century) I should talk… I am also an artist, not very good but I do love practice. Thank you very much for your letters, always very interesting for me and also motivating.
(RG note) Thanks, Lia. The painting we illustrated was indeed a Cagnacci and not a Reni. I apologize. We have fixed the error. We are generally more careful, but that one is listed in Google Images as a Reni, and Google, I am afraid, was fooled, I’m sure, by the Guido.
Warning for travelling rogues
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
The old lady in the pension may have been sending you a surreptitious warning. Arriving late, a man alone, a woman alone, an artist no less! Guido Reni was there to make sure you understood what would happen if you turned out to be rogue. Reni was one of those from the Baroque period who painted religious subjects as all who wanted to be considered as painters had to do to procure work. Little is known about his drawings which rank among the best with Raphael and the like. Nice to see — a clickback of a classical nature.
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Madonnaesque figure and the gruesome
by oliver, TX, USA
There are many studies about colours and how various images affect our outlook and brain activity. Marketers often use them for various purposes. The yellow, oranges and reds you find in fast food places are inviting yet induce activity — the idea is to get people in and out fast. The darkened colors and rich luxurious earth-tones reminiscent of a cave — comfort and security, a place to dwell in (good for bars and rich restaurants) goes the analysis.
Some artists know this type of thing instinctively, some by study, some by a little of both. You have to know yourself and learn the human condition — and there are many crosscurrents in the collective psyche if you believe in something like Jung’s collective subconscious and, personally, who is to say that in this day, where it seems that people in many parts of the world are fighting tyrants, etc, that a sense of peace and justice doesn’t apply when you have a madonnaesque person presenting the head of presumptively a very bad man. How many were given a sense of justice and peace at the death of Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden — and it looks like Moammar Gadhafi is going into this class and maybe even the heads of Syria (bad pun oliver). There is artistry in showing such a maddonaesque figure in her royal and regal blues at peace with the gruesome severed head “served on a plate.” The viewer is lead to believe that the lady could not be bad and that man was evil and justice was served. That said, I believe certain personal layers can overcome the collective layers and I don’t much care for the piece, though I very much respect the artistry involved.
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
One of the things I remember most clearly about Joseph Campbell was his lecture on “Aesthetic Arrest.” He said he considered most art to be pornographic — not that it was necessarily about sex, but in that it made you want the image or object.
Whereas “high art” creates “aesthetic arrest,” that sudden moment when the viewer looks at the art, is taken aback, even with a beat of the heart and the gasp of breath, seeing so deeply that everything in the world stops and nothing is there except the viewer and the viewed, and the beyond-emotion of it. You are stopped dead in your tracks and have no choice but to gaze in awe.
He calls it “aesthetic” arrest, because there is that Something within us that knows order from chaos, and our aesthetics are deeply aligned with that. So when you look at a piece of art or some creation that ‘feels’ right, that’s what resonates within you.
The “arrest” happens when all connection to the reality in which you live fall away and are completely overtaken by something else. Your world stops, and your awareness is utterly engulfed by the experience of connecting at the deepest level with the image or object. It’s that which does not pull the viewer toward it or push the viewer away from it, but instead, holds him still in the moment, experiencing the power of the underlying forces of the world.
He calls that high-art because it is completely beyond any copying of nature, expression of emotion, sensationalism, decoration, commercialism, etc. It simply IS.
I think a good example of that would be that late ’60s photo of the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam, of the terrified Vietnamese woman pressing her back into a tree, her daughter and son on either side of her, holding onto her, all of them looking directly at the camera and knowing they are about to die, right in the split second before they get shot down. Intense arrest.
What’s the secret?
by Andy Basacchi, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
As a person with two full time jobs and with a burning desire to paint — not to mention a wonderful family, I continue to be conflicted with priorities. With what I can only imagine must be a similar full time occupation you have of painting — I can imagine that doing your letters so regularly must be challenging. How does one get the courage and figure out the timing to enter the art career? Is it the basic ‘Can you make enough (whatever that means) money’ doing art or is there some other magic criteria? For one planning on transferring from one career to the art career — what do you recommend for the serious at heart?
(RG note) Thanks, Andy. Steady, self motivated application to the processes of your work come before security considerations. For the truly compulsive and driven worker, a life in art can be inevitable. A permanent obsession with growing and learning make for the superior artist. Talent, good advice and good luck may help too, but I’m not sure what they are.
Too many styles
by Cindy Mawle, Qualicum Bay, BC, Canada
As of lately I feel I am going mad. I am at the point where I would really like to produce a good body of work to present, (like they say I should) but am unable to stick to one style! At first I thought this was a good thing, as I am self-taught. The experimentation was a learning experience and the search for “my personal voice” was an adventure. I am wondering now if this is the way it will always be and, is that a bad thing?? I am torn from one painting to the next by what I think will sell, mixed up with what I paint from my heart. I begin to think I am finally narrowing it down to a semi permanent style then BAM! There I go again! Off to the races on a totally different race track. I think excitedly to myself “YES! This it!” Only to be unable to carry on the style to the next canvas. It seems to have amplified since opening my own studio to the public.
My problem seems to be that whenever I feel the “chains” I am unable to reproduce the same style and take off at a run to something new. I have tried to continue, forcing myself to keep at it, but the series gets worse and worse and the boredom is unbearable. I did manage 100 paintings in 100 days, so I know that not all is hopeless, but of course work was varied. Am I just a hopeless free spirit? Would it be a bad thing to come up with a show that has such a varied amount of work? Maybe giving aliases for each piece??? (joking)
(RG note) Thanks, Cindy. Life demands variety — your livelihood demands consistency. Well, almost always, anyway. Consider sending unique styles to unique venues. Consider lining up your various styles and picking out what you think is the worst direction and flushing it for good. Consider continuing just as you are.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Guido Reni…
Marsh at Dusk
acrylic painting, 20 x 30 inches
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