Monday, 28 January 2013

Tarkovsky: glimpse with sightless eyes

Tarkovsky76 s

Today I have received a wonderful Christmas present from my bestie PM: the book “Instant Light Tarkovsky Polaroids” that contains a series of Polariods taken by the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. If you haven’t seen any of his work, I highly recommend it - his movies are beautifully shot, profound, thought-provoking and reveal a desire to use cinema as a means of exploring fundamental aspects of human nature: “Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, that is the meaning of cinema.” Fortunately, his movies can now be seen for free on-line, with openculture.com having an up-to-date listing here.

What struck me about the book is first of all the personal character of its photos. They are how I’d imagine Tarkovsky’s Instagram feed to be, rather than a polished fine art collection. While exhibiting the atmospheric, observant nature of his movies, they instead show his dog, son and wife or scenes from places he visited during travels in Russia and Italy. In addition to the photos, there are also a couple of poems, prayers and reflections by Tarkovsky here and I believe these to be the true gems of the book. Let me share a couple of my favorites with you.

First, Tarkovsky gives thought to the nature of artistic expression (italics show original emphasis):
“The image is not a certain meaning
expressed by the director,
but the entire world
reflected as in a drop of water.”
This view very much rings true for me. Whenever I am asked to “explain” my own paintings I feel like I am just one of the multitude of possible viewers, all of whom can confront the work as a world in itself and extract feelings, insights, questions, etc. from it. To my mind, as to Tarkovsky’s, a piece of art is not a message, but an alternate representation of the world. This concept of the image as world, is taken further along a religious line in the following:
“An image
is an impression
of the Truth,
which God
has allowed us
to glimpse
with our
sightless eyes.”
Again there is the world/Truth impressed in an image here, but it is now confronted with our inherent inability to even glimpse it with our “sightless eyes.” I believe this expresses beautifully that basic inability to absolutely interpret artistic work, which is an impression (i.e., not the thing in and of itself) or a reflection (again, only a twisted representation) of a reality that lies beyond it. Tarkovsky here attributes any success in attaining meaning or Truth to God’s benevolence and takes his religious viewpoint further still in the following passage:
“Whatever it expresses -
even destruction and ruin -
the artistic image
is by definition an embodiment of hope,
it is inspired by faith.
Artistic creation
is by definition a denial of death.
Therefore it is optimistic,
even if in an ultimate sense the artist is tragic.
And so there can never be
optimistic artists and pessimistic artists.
There can only be talent and mediocrity.”
To my mind this very much resonates with both what the painter Michel Pochet said about the redemptive power of ugliness and what Benedict XVI said about the liberating, uplifting effect of art even when it is shocking. The role of faith that Tarkovsky sees here, comes out even more clearly in the next quote, where he emphasizes love as the key to faith and their subsequent resolution of the limitations set out above:
“We are crucified on one plane,
while the world is many-dimensional.
We are aware of that
and are tormented by our inability
to know the truth.
But there is no need to know it!
We need to love.
And to believe.
Faith is knowledge with the help of love.”
Finally, Tarkovsky also reflects on man being created in the “image of God” according to the Genesis account - a point that is also central to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (covered first here and then here):
“In my opinion, when we talk about God
making man in His own image and likeness,
we should understand that the likeness
has to do with His essence, and this is creation.
From this comes the possibility
of evaluating a work and what it represents.
In short, the meaning of art
is the search of God in man.”
This, I believe, is a beautiful synthesis of the above quotes. Man is created in God’s image and is by himself incapable of going beyond the surface of even his own creations. It is only through love and faith that he can seek to be granted access to meaning, Truth and God in himself, in art and in the world.