Monday, April 15, 2013

A Matter of Perspective

I'm not a big fan of the paintings of Monet.

I mean, I recognize his brilliance with the brush, and appreciate his technical mastery, but I'm just not a big fan of his paintings. I like them, but he's not on my top 10 (or even 20) list of painters. It's only a question of personal taste. About the only one of the impressionists that I really love is Van Gogh. I'm also not all that fond of Picasso's paintings, but he was still a genius artistically speaking. Oh, an I love Picasso's sketch-work. Truly astonishing.

But, and here's the story, one year I had the bounty of seeing what must have been about half of Monet's life work. I was in Chicago and the Art Institute had a huge retrospective show of his art. It was amazing.

Then I went to France with my father and step-mother. While there, we went to Giverny to see Monet's house and gardens. I really loved that because of all the Japanese wood prints. And the flowers. The flowers were pretty awesome, too.

Aside - My Dad and I had an interesting time looking at the wood prints. We would walk into a room that was covered from floor to ceiling with these framed prints. Each print was probably about 9 x 12 inches, or a bit larger than a standard piece of paper. We would walk in, and I would point to a number of them that I liked. "That one, that one, and that one." Invariably, every single one that I pointed to, and only the ones I pointed to, were by Hiroshige. While Hokusai is far more famous, I so much prefer Hiroshige's style. It was in this place that I truly discovered my love of Hiroshige.

From there, we went to a museum in Paris, I can't remember which one, and they had a large number of Monets, too. It was probably the Musee d'Orsay. (Don't you love all these links? I feel so technically proficient here.)

But what really stuck out for me was a small exhibit we saw in Rouen. Not only is Rouen infamous for the burning of Jeanne d'Arc, it is also famous for its cathedral. Now, as you may (or may not) know, dear Reader, Monet had this great habit of painting the same thing over and over in different light throughout the day, or year. He would set up his easel looking over a haystack in a field and paint one painting in the early morning light, then again in the late morning light, again at noon, early afternoon, mid-afternoon, late afternoon, early evening, in spring, mid-summer, later winter, and on and on. He would paint a painting like a hobbit would eat a meal. These series of paintings that he would do like this are truly incredible.

And one of these series was of the Rouen Cathedral.

Now, the exhibit we saw was interesting because it had brought together all of the Rouen Cathedral paintings and exhibited them in the very space in which he sat while painting them. In fact, they even got his original easel and set it up where he did, with his palette and brushes, with one of the paintings on the easel, so you could see what it looked like to him.

That was when I "got it". I felt like I understood Monet and his paintings. I was standing there, a few feet behind his easel, basically seeing what he saw, with the painting there and, just behind it, the view he had captured. I looked at the painting, and then at the cathedral. Back to the painting. Back to the cathedral. Back to the painting, and the cathedral again.

Then I took off my glasses.

And I realized that the painting was now a very faithful representation of what I saw.

Of course, his genius was not that he was near-sighted, but in his innate understanding that while the object remained the same, its impression upon the human soul differed as the light hitting it changed.

Now, after all that, you may be wondering what this has to do with the Baha'i Faith. Well, two things. First, it's personal. Like me with Monet, we do not all love the same thing about it. We're not all attracted to the same things. One friend of mine absolutely loves Thief in the Night. He thinks it is one of the greatest books about the Faith ever written, and is all over the whole prophecy thing. Not me. I recognize it's a great book, and appeals to many people, but it doesn't really call out to me. I didn't grow up Christian. Those particular prophecies were not embedded in my childhood, and so I am just not the right audience for it. But I still respect the book, and recognize it for what it is. I may not be a big fan of Monet's style, but I still respect his gift and appreciate his work.

This also applies to people of different faiths. I can truly respect someone that I disagree with. I may not agree with all the other chaplains at the university here, where I work, but I respect their opinions. Dean, for the example, the Catholic Chaplain, and I have many discussions about our differing views. We often challenge each other about a particular point, but not in a mean way. We see what we perceive to be a flaw in the others view and ask questions to try and expose it. Quite often we each change our language or even our ideas because of this. It is very respectful and enlightening.

Just the other day he asked me what I meant by the "oneness of religion". He correctly pointed out that the very words which many Baha'is use, myself included, gives the impression that we think all religions agree on every little detail, an impression that does nothing but convince others of our ignorance. I was able to explain what I meant by that phrase, and he helped me find words that conveyed what I meant, but also showed that I wasn't ignorant of the differences. All religions help guide people to a higher ethical imperative. It's not as quick as "Religion is one", but it is more accurate. And there are many other little aspects of that to speak of, too, but I won't go into it here.

So, personal taste comes into the picture, and the respect for another's taste.

Second, it's all about perspective. Isn't that one of the most brilliant things about the Kitab-i-Iqan? This new perspective that Baha'u'llah offers? My friend, Samuel, and I talk about this a lot in our blog on studying the Iqan. Baha'u'llah, at the very beginning of this Book, asks the reader, the uncle of the Bab, who was a Muslim (the uncle, not the Bab) (although He was, too), to consider the past. He reminds this man of all the Messengers of God that he already recognizes: Noah, Abraham, Hud, Salih, Moses, to name a few. He then talks a little about each of Them, reframing what this man already knows. If you were to ask me about Noah, I would talk about the Flood and the Ark. Not Baha'u'llah. Those are what make Noah unique, not what make Him a Messenger of God. Baha'u'llah reframes religious history for us by showing what all these Messengers have in common.

He sheds a new light on Them.

And with this new light comes a new perspective. They impact our soul in a different way. They were beautiful before. They are beautiful now. They have not changed. All that has changed is the way in which we see Them.

Like Monet's cathedral. Or haystacks.

But, you know, I'm still not a huge fan of Monet's.

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