Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Clod, and Unknowing

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

I went into the Montreal Museum of Modern Art (more properly le Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal) in a positive frame of mind. Sure, some of the pieces might be perplexing, and at times I might wonder whether the proverbial roomful of monkeys (armed with brushes rather than typewriters) might produce a more interesting product, but there could be some very interesting stuff in there as well. Entry that evening was free, so I figured I did not have much to lose.
The results were mixed. At the risk of revealing myself as a bourgeois clod, I found much of the material rather pointless. A hanging video monitor shows a woman’s face; the colors change every so often. That was pretty much it, but from the description on the wall (I will spare you the tortured postmodern prose) you would think she had precipitated a quantum leap in human consciousness. It is bad enough to look at a piece and think, “I could have done this.” It’s worse when your next thought is, “But why would I want to?” Tedium and self-indulgence hung over most of the exhibits.
But not all. The highlight was an extended look at the works of the Québécois artist Paul-Émile Borduas. It was encouraging to see from his early works that Borduas was fully capable of doing what many of us would consider art: representation of natural scenes, still-lifes, and so on. I suppose most of the artists on display in the museum have similar talents. But without the evidence on display in front of you, there is always the lingering suspicion that some of them really might be talentless hacks bluffing their way to fame. There was no such concern with Borduas.
This naturally gave me a more sympathetic approach to his later, more abstract works. He had clearly done these pieces for a reason. The most striking of his later works was Translucidité. You can view the picture here (http://amica.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/AMICO~1~1~96423~220818:Translucidit%C3%A9?qvq=w4s:/what/Paintings/Huile+sur+toile/;lc:AMICO~1~1&mi=30&trs=229), though the image does not capture the intense textures of the work, the violent ridges of white paint that cut into the colored portions. I loved looking at it.
As for what it means, that of course is almost entirely subjective. But I saw it as a painting trying to struggle out from behind a white cloud of unknowing – a cloud that not only obscured whatever was back there, but twisted it as well, so that only the slightest hint of the “original” painting could be glimpsed.
As such, it struck me as a moving metaphor for what life is often like: for the ideas we can’t quite express, the relationships we don’t quite understand, the ambitions we can’t quite realize. As Christians, we may believe in Absolute Truth. But that hardly means we know that Truth absolutely, nor that we can adequately express what we do know. Is this postmodernism? I don’t think so, since it was the apostle Paul himself who said that in this present age we see through a glass dimly. Borduas helps us to at least see that truth clearly, and beautifully.

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