Review Articles -- By: Anonymous
RAR 11:1 (Winter 2002) p. 145
Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision Of Vincent Van Gogh, Kathleen Powers Erickson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998. 192 pages, cloth, $22.00
As any college art teacher will tell you, paintings are meant to be read. In painting, the basic elements of the visual arts—line, tone, color, and shape—are melded together by the artist in a harmonious relationship. Each of these elements, as well as how they relate to one another, has something to say to the person who knows their language. Now this is not to say that each will speak with the same intensity or volume. The linear element may be almost non-existent, as in the paintings of Mark Rothko, while the tonal values may predominate in the late works of Rembrandt. Again, it belongs to those who understand the language of art to register these and other like things. And this is not an esoteric understanding that belongs only to the initiated. Even those who “can’t draw a straight line” or who are color-blind may learn, like any other, the basic language of art. The possession of this “art language” enriches its possessor throughout life.
When it comes to “reading” the subject matter of art we are in another world altogether. And what we bring with us may lead to a complete misunderstanding of the work of art and its creator. This is true no matter what it is we are trying to interpret, whether a painting by Degas or the twentieth chapter of the Book of Revelation. If our preconceptions are not identical to the conception of the artist or writer, then our interpretation is bound to be wrong. This happens when
RAR 11:1 (Winter 2002) p. 146
someone looking at Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” says, “A child could do that.” It happens in perhaps more subtle ways with the twentieth chapter of Revelation. The fact is, because of what we bring with us to a work of art, we are inclined to read into the work as much or more than we read out of it.
Things get even murkier when we try to read out of a work of art the creator’s personal feelings, motives, and intentions. C. S. Lewis warned against this years ago in interpreting the classics (see Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism [Cambridge, 1961]; and see the comments of N. T. Wright in The New Testament and the People of God [Fortress, 1992], 55–56). One of my painter-friends snorted at the ideas put forth by a local art critic who suggested that her use of antique teacups in a painting was a personal harking back to a genteel childhood. They were nothing of the sort. There were no antique teacups; there was no genteel childhood. They were just teacups that happened to be on hand. The painting was “about” light and c...
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