Tag Archives: St. Francis in the Desert

Wonder and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves, part 3 of 3

This is the continuation of an earlier piece from July 28th

*St. Francis in the Desert

June 9th of this year was an exceptionally hot day in New York. I don’t have air conditioning yet in my new home so I passed the day cooling off in three of New York’s miraculous caves filled with painted and sculpted images–the Frick Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Natural History Museum.

My triple-decker museum day began when I found myself passing by the Frick Museum: I remembered that Giovanni Bellini‘s 1480 painting St. Francis in the Desert  was going on special view so I went in to cool off and to see how the special installation, “In a New Light: Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert,” might change one’s view of a familiar work.

I had just seen Werner Herzog‘s Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the Paleolithic cave paintings at the Chauvet Cave in France and I had been thinking of the 1946 Russian children’s movie The Stone Flower which made an indelible impression on me when I saw it as a small child, so I had rock faces and caves on my mind and there in the familiar painting was a man standing alone on a stone ledge, in front of a  cliff face very similar to the location of the Chauvet Cave. The man’s modest hut,  an open lean-to, frames a dark entrance into the rock face. On a rough wooden reading desk there is a book and on a little shelf, which infrared reflectogram analysis now tells us was a last minute addition by the artist, is placed the vanitas of a human skull, not unlike the one bear skull seemingly placed by a human hand on a rock in the Chauvet cave.

This is the the third cave I want to write about, the one that you cannot enter, whose entrance you can barely see, the dark portal into the stone cliff in front of which St. Francis receives the stigmata from an unseen blast of divine light.

In the museum’s brochure and in the many appreciations of the painting by art critics Holland Cotter (a very thorough and informative article), Peter Schjeldahl, Blake Gopnik, and Jerry Saltz, no mention is made of this cave entrance, everyone refers only to the hut or simple shelter in front of it.

Yet in a painting where every detail is present in order to advance a religious narrative, the cave portal must have significance.

But before I propose what I think might have been Bellini’s meaning for this iconographic element, let me turn to First Impressions, Judith Thurman’s 2008 New Yorker essay about the paleolithic cave paintings in the Chauvet and other Southern European caves, an essay which Herzog credits with inspiring him to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Thurman is careful to warn against any contemporary explanation of the meaning of these paintings for the men that did them (though even her own assertions demonstrate how hard it is to escape supposition and speculation), but all her information is suggestive and inspiring. She lays out the time frame of the paintings, noting that based on the geological time frame of mineral deposits on the cave walls, in some cases 5000 years may separate one layer of paintings from another without any significant alteration in style of drawing. This is due to what Thurman refers to a “stable” culture:

A new age in the science of prehistory had begun in 1949, when radiocarbon dating was invented by Willard Libby, a chemist from Chicago. One of Libby’s first experiments was on a piece of charcoal from Lascaux. Breuil had, incorrectly, it turns out, classified the cave as Perigordian. (It is Magdalenian.) He had also made the Darwinian assumption that the most ancient art was the most primitive, and Leroi-Gourhan worked on the same premise. In that respect, Chauvet was a bombshell. It is Aurignacian, and its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, [Gregory] Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a “classical civilization.” For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been “deeply satisfying”—and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.

In today’s willfully amnesiac ahistorical media environment, such millennial cultural continuity is indeed unimaginable, which is part of the deep appeal of these works. Notions of continuity and tradition are constantly overridden by the impulse for progress or at least speed, change, and novelty. Forget about 5000 years, even 60 are too much.

In this regard, I began my summer reading with the e-flux journal’s small book, What is Contemporary Art?–an interesting collection of texts whose answer to the title’s question is that actually that the question is Where is  Contemporary Art? placing its location beyond the boundaries and histories of Western art more than addressing, for example, what it might look like or consist of, though it is implicit that it does not likely consist of any media associated with modernism, especially painting. My reading however proceeded down the streets of the old art center of New York, as I  read a number of books about the New York School, including Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, David Kaufmann’s Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works , and Morton Feldman’s wonderful essays collected in Give My Regards to Eighth Street. Not surprisingly, given my upbringing in the New York artworld of that period and tradition, I found much commonality with ideas from that period about painting and about the creative experience itself. In a millennial frame, thinking of the cave painters’ 5000 years or more “stable” culture, it should stand to reason that ideas that go back only 60 years (albeit with a century-long back story) would still have something left in them for a contemporary artist to work out or work from,  but I know that there are many contemporary artists and theorists who feel that these ideas are dead or, if they aren’t, should be.

Nevertheless, here I am in front of a painting made 500 years ago, and our culture since its creation has been stable enough that the story of St. Francis of Assisi and the story of Christ remain in our collective history enough that one can  put forward a reasonable supposition about Bellini’s incorporation of this topographic detail. Can it be anything else than the cave from which no living man can return, except, that is, for Jesus? The darkened entrance to a tomb set into the natural sepulcher of a cave in a stone cliff, such as the sepulcher of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, foretelling his own resurrection from the confines of a similar cave wall tomb chamber. In Roman Judea, this was the Jewish burial ritual:

The Jews of Early Roman Palestine had a long tradition of prompt burial of the dead. Most funerals took place as soon as possible after death, and almost always on the same day.  As soon as death occurred, preparations began: the eyes of the deceased were closed, the corpse was washed with perfumes and ointments, its bodily orifices were stopped, and strips of cloth were wrapped tightly around the body–binding the jaw closed, holding the hand to the sides, and tying the feet together. Thus prepared, the corpse was placed on a bier or in a coffin and carried out of town in a procession to the family tomb, usually a small rock-cut cave entered through a narrow opening that could be covered with a stone. [source]

There are other ways in which this work reflects cultural stability.

Even though the Renaissance was a period of intense intellectual and technological growth, and even though this painting was produced with the then new technique of oil paint, it was so well crafted that it has endured in excellent physical condition for 500 years: technical manuals from the period, such as Cennino Cennini‘s 15th century The Craftsman’s Handbook, give an idea of the labor and craft involved in every aspect of panel painting, from weathering wood panels for a couple of years to eliminate any chance of warping (St. Francis is painted on three joined poplar wood panels) to purifying gesso “a whole month by being soaked in a bucket.”

One can imagine that the painting may survive 500 more years if given half a chance, and even if found buried under the ruins of the Frick Museum at some future moment of archeological exploration and excavation, it might still be intelligible, so long as there are still men, trees, rocks, and bunny rabbits left on earth [something that cannot be said for the kind of flickering images one sees in contemporary museums, video installations and digital projections that may well be impossible to view in the passage of a single generation, if that–I have plenty of diskettes from the early 2000s, but no reader with which to look at them, how about you?]

The painting reflects a stable culture in another way. Not only was the painting so well made in terms of material support and surface that it has survived in good condition for over 500 years, but it is composed like a tank! This is an astonishingly stable and balanced composition, with an strongly established foreground balanced by a sharply delineated background.  The painting is disconcertingly close to, though not exactly, a square, a close ratio that has the effect of locking the viewer into a perspective that recedes into space yet guarantee a frontal focus. It is an unusual ratio, avoiding the Gothic narrow vertical and the wider Renaissance rectangle. The nearly square format divides into roughly four near squares in such a way that each area is imbricated, though at the same time the top left quadrant which represents the distant background of field and hill towns is so sharply etched as a bold overall square shape with a different overall coloration from the rest of the painting, that you could carve it out of the composition like  a block of stone.

In one of my Google image searches for jpegs of St. Francis I came upon a bizarre but strangely apt comparison, of Piet Mondrian‘s Broadway Boogie Woogie and Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert.

Google Image search result for Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert, July 31, 2011, screen capture

When I tried to refind this unexplained combination to see what the original point of it was, I couldn’t find it but the momentary conjunction made a kind of strange sense to me: the geometry of Bellini’s composition and the odd way in which it undermines the programmatic illusion of spatial depth place it in a line that can be drawn forward to Mondrian’s painting, which, in turn, could stand as a diagrammatic analysis of the earlier work.

Even St. Francis himself is an exceptionally stable figure: not only does his monk’s robe retain the effect of sculptural mass of early figures in the paintings of Giotto, but in doing a number of sketches of him this summer trying to imagine the outline of his body under the robes, I came to the conclusion that he is planted firmly on his feet even if his soul is reeling.

So this is a painting of a man in some state of transcendence, ecstasy, or surrender, it is a landscape painting with an illusionistic representation of deep perspectival space, it is a painting which evinces a profound confidence in a natural order, yet it is also a painting in which a medieval or Northern Renaissance overlay of a carpet of exquisite and endearing vignettes of flowers, rabbits, birds, blades of grass creates a overall field almost like the field of one of the Unicorn tapestries.

Here, in a manner similar to Herzog’s use of 3D to heighten the movie viewer’s experience of the Chauvet cave painting, the intervention of new technological advances in imaging reveals more of the painting than meets the naked eye. As part of its recent hi-tech inspection, the ink underpainting has been studied and documented via infrared analysis and the 500 year old oil on three wood panels painting has been found to be in excellent condition. And, in addition to scanning the physical depth of the painting to reveal the very complete underpainting, its surface has also been scanned. The Frick’s St. Francis in the Desert was recently chosen to be one of the first world masterpieces to be scanned for the Google Art Project and the museum has set up computer viewing screens in a small room off the main conservatory where you can inspect the painting in astounding detail: you can get close enough to see details that you cannot see even if you are right in front of the painting, close enough to see traces of fingerprints of whoever smoothed on the gesso ground by hand, or the single tiny flick of white glaze in St. Francis eye.

The painting combines the newly developed representation of deep space with a more medieval or northern, Flemish, attention to detail, narrative and decorative. The dominant bold elements of the overall composition combined with the carpet effect of flowers, birds, leaves of grass, every thing represented with fine detail and delicate brushstrokes all across the surface of the panel somehow have the effect of making the painting seem astonishingly flat, for all that it has an ambitious spatial program with the theatrical staging of the desert set against a civilization of fields and walled, turreted villages going back miles and miles in to the vanishing blue perspectival space.

But not even the magnifying powers of the Google Art Project can take you inside that flat darkness of the the interior of the cave.

You could just look at all of this online of course, without ever going to the Museum, but the wonderment is in running back and forth between the macro imaging and the painting itself, to find the details you had not seen before, a kind of wonderment of closeness and of distantiation at the same time. If anything, this technological intervention, when, down the hall from the computer screen, the painting is present in front of you with all of its strangeness of proportion and religious faith combined with Renaissance fidelity to perception, its deep perspective but strong sense of compositional and surface unity, gives you an inkling of how hard it is to really see a painting, how complex painting is, especially a painting that in a sense is perfect.

The dark entrance to the cave is a cut into that perfection, not a flaw exactly, but a crucial imperfection in the picture plane, a hole in the surprisingly modernist flatness of the very stable composition, despite the mastery of illusion of deep space. The black door into a flat nothing that we can see or enter both refers back in time to a knowledge from our close millennial past–the two stone Sepulchers of the story of Jesus– and calls up modernist ideas about the essential flatness of painting, because the flatness of the black space of the cave entrance only calls attention to the flatness of the representational painting that frames it.

This black door into the flatness of the painting field appears in other earlier Italian paintings, when representation’s movement towards full spatial verisimilitude pushes up against the vestigial flat gold ground of Byzantine and medieval art, while weirdly prefiguring modernist painting’s declaration of its essence as flatness. In Duccio’s 1308 The Road to Emmaus  the figures gesture towards a shorthand for architecture, the door nevertheless still a hole in the flat gold leaf ground, a Hofmannesque floating rectangle, a door to the city, and a door into the unknown.

Duccio, The Road to Emmaus, tempera on wood panel, back of the Maesta, 1308-1311, from the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena


Despite Thurman’s cautions against any interpretation of the cave paintings because of the temptation to overlay contemporary concerns and histories on a culture we have no knowledge of except for these visual manifestations and a few artifacts, the temptation is great to project one’s ideas and dreams onto the cave painters and the time they lived in.

Philip Guston spoke often of the cave painter. The cave painter first arose as a theme in a 1965 conversation with art critic Harold Rosenberg.

Philip Guston: It’s a strange thing to be immersed in the culture of painting and to wish to be like the first painter.

Harold Rosenberg: Many an artist today wants to be the last painter.

PG: I imagine wanting to paint like a caveman would, when nothing has existed before. But at the same time one knows a great deal about the culture of painting and one is conscious of that culture.

HR: You know Mallarmé’s formula for the poet? He calls him “un civilisé édénique,” a civilized first man.”

PG: That’s marvelous. Exactly what I mean. I should like to paint like a man who has never seen a painting, but this man, myself, lives in the world museum.”

Guston recalled this conversation many times in later years, the allusion to Mallarmé’s term reappears in talks and interviews up to the last published in the collection, from 1980. In a 1969 talk, he responds to an audience question about what motivated the cave painters:

There are a lot of conflicting theories about that. You’re aware of that? The anthropologists have written many things about it. You make these marks and you do these bulls and bisons, because it had to do with hunting and so on. And that may be true. I don’t know about that so much. But I also think that for man from the beginning, who made the line of this bull, it was a catharsis, a joy, an ecstasy, to make this line. And it had nothing necessarily had to do with hunting, you know? I mean, why, to the scientists, would it be impossible that a man would enjoy making a curved line that became a bull? But he’s an anthropologist, so he has to have a motivation for the guy making the bull. Like you read social art historians who talk about modern art, psychological motivations and endless reasons for it. A psychiatrist, for example, who gets involved with why these men do this funny stuff. But the part they miss is that there’s material, there’s you and there’s this feeling, an inchoate feeling, a raw feeling. And what they miss is that you may want to take up these charred bones or colored mud and make some….I’m not a scholar. You all paint, you know there’s this feeling. So just because I want to be civilisé édénique, why does that exclude my connection to this man in the cave twenty-five thousand years ago? We’re no different. We’re different in other ways; we don’t have to go into that. But on this basis, that impulse is the same.

In a 1980 interview, Guston returned again to his identification with the first painter:

I feel directly in line with a tribal colony, so-called primitives. They are not primitives. Who are the men in that prehistoric cave? The men in the Lascaux caves who didn’t go on the hunt and used charred bones to draw on the cave walls? What kind of a neurotic was he to make these beautiful bulls? I don’t think art has changed very much. it’s a very archaic form.

Recently in “Life Studies,” Adam Gopnik’s June 27, 2011 New Yorker article about drawing from nature, Gopnik turns to the example of the Chauvet and Lascaux cave paintings to buttress the point of view that life drawing is an atavistic human activity,

less an acquired instrument of slow-crawling craft, and more just something back there that we delve deep to find again. This may in turn explain the enduring mystery of why the oldest of all human representations, the cave paintings of Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet, are expertly rendered as shaded, three-dimensional life-drawings, full of persuasive highlight and shadow. The caveman in us still draws what he sees, until the Egyptian in us interferes.” To back this up, Gopnik goes even further, referencing “psychologist Nicholas Humphrey…[who] has argued that the existence of the perfectly modulated cave paintings suggests that the people who made them didn’t yet know how to talk.

Humphrey had compared the cave paintings to the drawings of an autistic girl who could not speak but who drew animals in a lively manner reminiscent of the cave painting, in order to suggest that if a contemporary human without language could draw animals so well therefore it was possible or even likely that the humans who had painted the cave paintings also had no language. I can’t comment on the veracity of Humphrey’s example or the logic of his assertion, but it is hard to believe that the level of craft that went into the creation of the cave paintings– including discovering how to process natural materials to making the pigments, bringing in man-made sources of light, building scaffolds, in some cases scrapping the cave wall to get a lighter ground for their images, incising drawn forms, and then rubbing pigments prepared for this purpose to create the final drawing–could be the result of the activities of pre-verbal ape-like creatures, rather of the strapping men that Thurman describes, who were “as tall as the average Southern European of today, and well nourished on the teeming game and fish they hunted with flint weapons. … genetically, our direct ancestors.”

Such preparation would have required the kind of cooperation and transmission of knowledge among human beings and the kind of conceptualization and memory that are all reliant on language. If they had the concept of a horse, they had a word for it too. Guston’s projection of his own angsty image of the neurotic artist onto a kind of Joe Ur-Painter may be fanciful but it is certain that the cave paintings were no more painted by painter UGH and painter UGGH jumping around and grunting than was St. Francis in the Desert.

At the same time, like Guston, I feel that without having any theory or interpretation of what the cave painters thought or rather knew they were doing, without any ability to enter their conceptual universe, I can have some understanding in the body of how the painter felt, or thought/felt, applying charcoal to a ridged line on a prepared ground. I’ve done that, I can feel that, I can trust that something at the level of making is shared underneath the changing languages of meaning and intent.


A friend of mine told me last week that he wanted to see how I would pull together the diverse threads of the first two parts of “Wonder and Estrangement: Reflection on Three Caves.” I’m not sure if I’ve now tied up every loose end in a satisfying or logical manner. I do know that the kind of non-polemic, discursive, and associative thinking in these texts takes me time to develop and may not fit into artworld schedules–in this instance I’m the last art writer to weigh in on St. Francis, since the special exhibition closes at the end of next week. I discussed this aspect of writing in my other series of posts this summer, on conditions of contemporary art writing).  I’m more likely to have time for this kind of thinking in the summer. But now the summer is ending. The dream is over.

Mira Schor, Drawing fragment: Dreaming Sleeper, ink and gesso on tracing paper, 2011


St. Francis in the Desert is usually on view in the collection of the Frick Museum and I assume that within a reasonable amount of time it will be returned to its usual residence, in the back room to the left of the grand hall at the museum, but it is wonderful and interesting to see it as it is currently on display, alone in a centrally located skylit room, set into a huge specially constructed easel which brings it into the present space of a viewer in a new way. If you’re in New York and you haven’t yet done so, go see it. The current special installation closes August 28.




Wonder and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves, parts 1 and 2 of 3

I’ve spent the summer with my thoughts trapped inside three caves–the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave featured in Werner Herzog‘s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the cave inside a malachite mine deep in the Ural Mountains featured in a 1946 Russian children’s movie The Stone Flower, and the cave whose entrance lurks in the shadow of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, currently on special display at the Frick Museum in New York.

Is it any wonder that, in a summer when the prospect of a long and deeper recession and of a second American Civil War in which the Tea Party descendants of Jefferson Davis win looms closer and closer (well, so close it’s here), one might want to take refuge in a cave, especially one with art in it? Yet I’m deeply claustrophobic so I must find a way out. This blog post/essay is my process of digging myself out.

* Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Dinosaur on Central Park West

The son of a friend was about four or five years old and obsessed with dinosaurs, he knew all their names, the usual. I said, you know, creatures like that used to walk the same earth as we do. He looked at me with total incredulity and got right to the point, “Here, in New York City?”

Mammoth, Natural History Museum, NYC

"Un Mammouth," illustration from my second or third grade history book, Petite Histoire de la France, Lycee Francais, mid-1950s

I was never interested in dinosaurs, too snake-like for me. But as a child I was fascinated by the idea that other creatures now extinct had once roamed the earth.  The pictures and simple stories in my history book from second or third grade conveyed the wondrous idea that once upon a great but intelligible amount of time past, there had once been Mammoths here. Yet the “here” of my schoolbook was already marked by estrangement: its “here” was France, but I was not French, had never lived in France, had in fact not yet visited France when I read the book. It didn’t occur to me to imagine a single ancestor who might have ever struggled with a Mammoth, though I suppose genealogically speaking it’s possible that my grandfather, a Hasidic folk artist, a sign painter and stone carver in a shtetl in Galicia, may have had deep in his ancestry some fellow in the back of the cave carving a little bison out of a piece of bone, sometime back in 32,000 BC–we all do descend from someone back then, fifteen hundred generations ago, but basically I didn’t think there were any Jewish cavemen!

My little friend’s disbelief and the Mammoth in my history book returned to my mind seeing the fantastical narrative device used by Herzog near the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, when he pulls the camera away from the rock face protecting the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region of France and shows us a nearby nuclear power plant (I looked it up, there is one) whose hot steam emissions are said to fuel a hi-tech glass-enclosed hothouse in which radioactive albino crocodiles in a pool seem to be prepared to restart the process of evolution in case there’s a nuclear accident and we have to start all over again. Like the image that had crossed the mind of my little friend, of dinosaurs walking down the street in front of his mother’s apartment on Fifth Avenue, Herzog’s fiction (or science fiction–as he explained to Stephen Colbert: “I want the audience with me with wild fantasies”) points to the jarring and slightly ridiculous effect of considering the deep past’s uncanny co-existence with our present.

My response to the Herzog movie has centered on what may seem like the “wrong” thing: what really struck me and has stayed in my mind are not the cave paintings themselves, amazing though they are, according to any criteria, be it expressive verisimilitude, mystery of original purpose, nearly unfathomable age, and difficulty of location and surface, but Herzog’s use of 3D which serves to enhance what is from my point of view the central thematic of the movie, which is that estrangement is intrinsic to wonderment.

The principal claim for Herzog’s use of 3D is that it would give the viewer a better approximation of the effect of the cave paintings’ adaptation to the curved walls. Herzog says he wanted to “intensify” the experience for the movie viewer. But my most powerful impression was of the way that the 3D amplified the separation between figure and ground, creating a flattening effect that does not feel like the way that we see. I mean, yes, if I look at you, I don’t really see the room around you in focus, but you are not a flat cutout doll completely separate from a distant ground, there is a much greater impression of visual integration. But in the Herzog movie human beings were sharply separate from the space they occupied, whether in the scenes filmed in the cave itself as well as when they were filmed in the landscape.

At the end of the movie, the camera draws further and further away from people exploring the landscape around the cave. The human figures, flattened, outlined, and distinct from the stone ground they stand on, become smaller and smaller paper cutout dolls, human beings as not even ants but toys for an all-seeing deity or creative force (which here is Herzog or whoever he is a stand-in for). The cave paintings are almost just an intermediary focus for the true subject of the film which the stupendous difference between the scale of human effort, however valiant, and the incomprehensibly greater scale of archeological time.

Herzog’s storyteller’s voice and foreign accent in English also cast the spell of the folktale over the documentary format. And when one of his guides in the cave calls for silence so that perhaps the visitors will hear the sound of their own heart beat in the deep stillness of the deepest recess of the cave, for a second you think, yes, let me just look and listen to my own heartbeat, maybe I will really feel I am there, but instead of that silence and the dream of private experience, cue the Wagnerian chorus! Again, the “documentary” filmmaker seems to insist on the absolute absurdity of actually thinking that you could experience the cave and its art in a pure fashion. As Stephen Colbert says, “Let me ask you a question here: You making any of this stuff up?” Herzog has gone out of his way to make sure that is a fair question.

In fact ever since Paleolithic cave paintings began to be rediscovered in the late 19th and the 20th century there have been people who thought they were fake. People continue to think this or pretend to for their own purposes . I’m not taking the position held by some that these are 19th Century fakes but Herzog’s propensity for artistry/fakery puts the whole enterprise in question. And anyway contemporary perception is so influenced by simulacral thinking that the gleaming nearly flesh colored crystalline deposits that encase bear skulls and covers large areas of the cave floor in a shiny flat layer of hard shiny pink glop looks a little too much like the cheesy sets of the first Star Trek series. In fact caves are visited with regularity in all variants of Star Trek, for one thing because the possibility of beaming people through barriers of stone holds a particular fascination.

In one episode, The Devil in the Dark (1967), miners of an important mineral element found in tunnels within solid rock under a planet’s surface are being killed by an unknown force (with moving multicultural tolerance plot twist of course). The cave chambers have been mapped, much as they are in another fascinating detail of Herzog’s film, the laser imaging of the interior shape of the Chauvet Cave with its network of irregular shaped chambers.

Map of the Chauvet cave chambers found @http://www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html

Detail of computer visualization of the interior conformation of the Chauvet cave chambers

One could find the Star Trek narratives to be memorable and powerful at the same time as it was pretty obvious that the rocks were made of spray-painted Styrofoam and bubble-wrap seemed to be the principal building block of the universe.

Bear Skull in the Chauvet Cave

"The Injured Horta," The Devil in the Dark, Star Trek, 1967

Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave

That does not diminish the potential for magic because at the same time even just the idea of the cave is very powerful in a somatic sense: I could barely breathe during much of the Herzog film, a sensation that was only lifted when, towards the end, as the camera makes a repeat sweep through the deepest cavern, it is revealed that when the cave paintings were made and for thousands of years thereafter the cave chambers were more open to the outer landscape, giving freer access to men and to the bears who left their claw marks on the painted walls. It was only after I could visualize an opening to the outside world that I could breathe better and experience the thrill of a group of lunging beasts.

Horses, Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave painting


You may once have had experiences of wonderment and delight, perhaps most uniquely in childhood, in your imagination, reading a book, hearing a story, or seeing something of incomparable beauty. You’d think being an artist would give you continued access to such experiences but for the most part life as a professional artist is at best a negotiation among the constantly changing realities of contemporary art, the limitations of one’s own abilities, and some internal core ability to still experience such wonderment when it presents itself, despite competitiveness, jealousy, and the infrequency of such experiences. Basically we once experienced wonderment and now we do the best we can. So when we do on rare occasions experience wonderment or delight, it is notable, and for a moment we may return to the prelapsarian intensity, awe, and joy first experienced in childhood and which is part of the secret fuel for a lifetime of art practice.

*The Stone Flower

Sometime in the 1950s when I was a child my mother took me to see an old Russian movie playing in a second run movie house someplace near Carnegie Hall. This experience remained in my mind as an intense visual experience, colorful, rich in detail, and one somehow tinged with the obscure and exotic. Distinct images from the movie remained in my mind as well as the sense of how it was to actually be in the theater watching it. I can nearly feel it to this day, a haptic and visual sense of being there and of seeing myself seeing it, but the movie itself disappeared from my cultural scope. I wasn’t sure of its title and I forgot the story. I never asked my mother about it and I never came across a revival or even a reference to it.

My mother took me to see old movies often, usually Laurel & Hardy or Charlie Chaplin, at MoMA, so being taken to see an old movie was not a unique experience, and the foreign language, Russian, was one which I did not exactly understand but whose soft sweet intonations I was familiar with from hearing it spoken by family friends, yet something about the circumstance of seeing this movie seems to have stood out for me as out of the ordinary, but perhaps it is just that I saw something beautiful on a day when I was just primed to receive it.

It should be said that where I remember seeing it was a kind of New York version of a dark cave or grotto, this old movie theater someplace near Carnegie Hall but which was not the Carnegie Hall Cinema. That was part of the exotic, this was not someplace we ever had been to see a movie before or went to after. [I did find a reference in the New York Times to the movie being shown at the New York Historical Society in March 1955, that is, three blocks from our apartment, but I am pretty sure that wasn’t the time or place, and since  you can only search the Times archive for articles and editorial content, not for movie ads, unless another madeleine dipped in espresso fills in the details of my memory, I will eventually have to track through two or three years worth of microfiche at the New York Public Library in the hopes of recuperating the date and location.*See postscript below]

This winter a strong, palpable remembrance of the movie resurfaced during a studio visit, triggered by a student’s use of mass-produced glass flower vases assembled in some measure to try to summon up a sense of the wondrous in the intangibility of air contained within glass, I think. The movie’s title, which had always been at the tip of my mind, came to me, or at least enough to have the confidence to Google what I thought it might be– The Stone Flower. I first found a variety of references, including to the Serge Prokofieff opera The Tale of the Stone Flower, based on a P. Bazhov’s fairy tale “The Malachite Box,” a 19th century folk tale, and then reference to the film itself. I asked a young Russian painter, Tatiana Istomina if she remembered such a film from her childhood and she then found the whole film for me on YouTube. There in 8 parts with English subtitles was the film I remembered, and my memory had been exact as to both the exoticism and the magical beauty.

The director, Aleksandr Putshko, is sometimes referred to as the “Soviet Walt Disney,” and there are some similarities to Disney in the delightful representations of nature and even in the bad guys: it turns out that Soviet films and Disney films share the same type of villains–the local rich person and his brutal overseer. But The Stone Flower is more like its near contemporary, the great British ballet movie The Red Shoes (1948); it shares with that film not just rich vibrant color and a sense of set design that seems influenced by the stage design style of the Bolshoi Ballet and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Also and more importantly it shares with The Red Shoes the theme of the artist as torn between an all-consuming search for perfection in art practice and what The Red Shoes’ pivotal character of the ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov, contemptuously refers to as “the doubtful comforts of human love.” Because you see, and here is what I think is so fascinating about this particular aesthetic memory, I had remembered everything about The Stone Flower except perhaps the most salient reason the movie had such an impact on me: it is about being an artist, not just about being naturally gifted and skilled but more importantly about the sacrifices that the artist makes in the obsessive search for perfection.

The film is framed by a narrative device: peasant children gather around the campfire of an old man and clamor for him to tell them a story, which then unfolds in a once upon a time era, not as deep in the past as the Chauvet cave painters, but in the equally lost past of  19th century peasant life in Czarist Russia. In the story he tells, which he carefully distinguishes for his young audience as not a fairy tale, which is for little children. but, rather, “folklore and narrative,” the young hero Danila neglects his duties guarding cattle while he is enraptured by the beauty of a wildflower in the forest. He is observed in this early sign of artistry by a sorceress disguised as a salamander wearing a little tiara: this is the Mistress of Copper Mountain. [This scene comes in at about 7 minutes into the film).

In that first scene in the forest the basic fakery of cinema comes through in a very intense way, similar to the richly detailed illustrations of children’s books in the 19th and early 20th century: there is a very strong naturalism, in the use of real trees, vegetation, and real animals from squirrels to a small herd of cows, yet the atmosphere is intensified by deep color and chiaroscuro and the suggestion of compressed space, the space of the cinema set, a kind of cave in itself. I think that the combination of naturalism, even realism, with artifice is part of what made the film such an intense and memorable experience. If anything, in fact I think definitively, the analogue nature of the sets and the special effects add to the wonder.

But please remember, a film viewed on YouTube cannot replicate the experience of seeing a film lauded for its color–it received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Color at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1946–filling the screen of a darkened movie theater.

When Danila’s absorption in the patterns of the flower causes him to neglect the cattle, he is to be beaten but an old stone carver defends him to the cruel overseer and so is beaten for his troubles. But then the boy is given over to the stone carver as a ward and student. Danila grows into a handsome and supremely gifted stone carver but he is dissatisfied with his most ambitious achievement, a flower-shaped malachite vase. He wants “to gather all the beauty of a living flower and show it in the stone that it would never wither.”

The second part of the following clip takes place in a barely lit peasant’s wood cottage (a type of cave) where Danila and a number of old stone carvers consider the nature of artmaking. Danila hears the tale of the Stone Flower: “The Stone Flower? What’s it like?” “It’s to for us to see it. One who sees it will forget all about earthly life.” I’ve included this clip because now this interests me, this narrative discussion about art. I would wager that even though perhaps as a child I found the scene a bit talky compared to the forest and cave scenes, I took its meaning to heart, a warning about the danger of forgetting about earthly life if you devote yourself to art.

Danila feels he must see this stone flower and to do so he must go to the cave which formed the center of my childhood memory–in the last section of the film, where a happy ending does nothing to convince any artist of the relative value of  “the doubtful comforts of human love” to one who is absorbed in the search for perfection at the heart of The Stone Flower.. Ah, now readers, here the rub: since I first saw the entire film on YouTube in a series of 8 clips, the 2 clips that take place within the cave have been removed for copyright infringement by the production company Mosfilm which has the entire film up on its own YouTube channel where you can watch the whole thing, and with subtitles if you click on “cc”.

What’s perceivable as fake can also be deeply convincing emotionally and powerful aesthetically, the “fake” is a manner of estrangement that can lead to wonder, and the idea of the cave being a magical creative site.


The third cave is one that you cannot enter, in fact you can barely see it, it’s a dark crevice of an entrance into a stone mountain in Giovanni Bellini’s 1480 painting St. Francis in the Desert  currently on special view at the Frick Museum...to be continued in my next post, that will complete this essay, which as much as anything I’ve written is true to the meanings of essay as an attempt, a trial, an endeavor, a feeling one’s way out of a cave of thoughts.

 * Postscript:  my friend Mimi Gross filled in the memory in an email from August 3, 2011:

I have the exact I mean EXACTLY the same experience about the “Stone Flower” remaining in my memory seen at the Guild Theater (the one you couldn’t remember) where I also saw Citizen Kane for the first time, those early teen age memories / and you were even younger. The same fantasy that never went away, of the sets of the cave of the glowing flower..and will watch the youtubes at a perfect moment since the memory is so delicate. More than Twenty years ago, walking in the snow in Central Park at night, with a Russian film historian, [he] told me all the details of the film, and that it was very well known (no one knew what I was talking about until then) and then, about ten years ago, I noticed it was playing one night only, maybe Walter Reader, and sent two students who happened to be at my house as I was unable to go and they had…the same reactions so many years later.

The Guild Theater was located at 33 West Fiftieth Street.