Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Alexander and Jane Eliot

"Intolerance is the father of illusion and evil deeds.Tolerance is not its opposite; tolerance is neutral. The opposite of intolerance is creative imagination, sympathetically exercised in the service of ever illusive truth. The people I trust and admire take that path. Scholars, scientists, priests, and philosophers have helped guide me ... A fiery legion of artists and writers flung wide the gates and beckoned my near- sighted soul to go deeper"
-Alexander Eliot, "The Timeless Myths"

esprit d'escalier
esprit d'escalier
30"x20" monotype 2005
inspired by the vision of alex and jane eliot

In Japan, individuals of extraordinary talent and vision are recognized as living national treasures as they live out their later years. The American intellectual couple Alexander and Jane Eliot should be given honorary Japanese citizenship and awarded that honor. Recently when I met with Alex and Jane in their warm Venice bungalow I was struck by their graciousness and humility. The front room is crowded with treasures gathered from their years together. And their minds are full of some of the twentieth century's most important memories.

Alex was the lead art critic for Time magazine from 1945 until 1960. His articles on the growth of American post-war art and the rise of New York as the center of the art world were unsigned per Time's policy of that era. But he was able to gather some of the most pertinent information into his volume,"Three Hundred Years of American Painting" - published in 1957. The book was a huge success and along with a Guggenheim grant enabled Alex and Jane to move to Greece to further their studies of art and myth and to raise their children in an international atmosphere away from what President Eisenhower labeled as the growing "military-industrial complex."

It pains them both to watch as the current administration stokes the fires of international conflict and evokes the painful memories of fascism. Jane is unstinting in her criticism of the Bush presidency, "I was a child in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. And I know what fascism looks like." Then her memories flood in and she points to a blackened metal circle suspended on her sculpted grotto that fills a wall in the front room. The grotto is a sort of historical-mythic manger with elements gathered from their years of travel and Jane's countless friendships with writers and artists. Jane recounts a moment from her childhood as she watched a fire set by Franco's soldiers destroy a Spanish church. She stood transfixed in its red glow. Jane watched the sculpted saints burn and then the halo above Mary fell free as her wooden body was engulfed in the flames. The glowing orange circle hit the ground and rolled across the plaza eventually landing at Jane's feet. She hurriedly grabbed the halo and hid it in her bag. As a child it seemed a sign of hope for peace. And again we need that hope.

Alex Eliot
alex eliot
from the black mountain project

The conversation turns to Alex . "Yes, I met Matisse in the south of France in his later years" Alex says. "He wasn't well and Matisse was making those vibrant paper collages while confined to his bed. Well, I was given an audience with Matisse and as I was leaving something got into my head. There was a question I needed to ask. I had made it to the top of the mountain as it were and I was not going to leave without finding out the answer. I had gone to Black Mountain to learn to be an artist and then on to the Boston School of Fine Arts but I needed to know from the master. So I turned back to Matisse and asked,"What should I do next?"
In response Matisse propped himself up on his bed and like a mantra repeated one word -"Draw, draw, draw ..."
In a recent review Alex set forth what can be considered his views on the visionary nature of art:
"Art is not just a matter of keen observation and craftsmanlike representation. At best, it's a visionary process. The great American philosopher William James posited that the consciousness of humanity as a whole is transmitted as "beams": "Glows of feeling," James said, "glimpses of insight, and streams of knowledge and perception float into our finite world." A true masterpiece of any art transmits transcendental "rays" in the Jamesian sense."

In his book "Sight and Insight" Alexander Eliot describes a Chinese painter who, upon completing his masterwork, paints a door in the foreground, opens that door - walks through and is never seen again. I expect Alex and Jane to find that door and to walk through together leaving their art and writings as clues for us to find our own path.

No comments: