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Beauty Break: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I am fascinated by the process of art: how a fragment of a dream in the mind of an artist is conceived and brought to eventual fruition. So often, I think, we encounter great masterworks, whether they be paintings, musical pieces, or novels, and perhaps fail to take into account everything that had to happen for this work to come into being. It is a rare privilege to peek into the inner workings of the mind or eye of the artist, to see his hand at work in the process of creating beauty.

The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino is offering just such a rare peek into the work of creating waking dreams of beauty. The exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings From the Huntington’s Collection” is on view through September 26 and is worth a beauty break if you are in the area. Incidentally, if you are unfamiliar with the Pre-Raphaelites and their distinctive contribution to 19th century arts and letters, Stephanie Pina provides a brief but excellent overview, along with some helpful links, on her lovely website dedicated to all things Pre-Raphaelite.

One of the primary goals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), which included the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, was to renew British art and literature, in particular through the faithful observance of nature. Many people think their influence was limited to the United Kingdom; this exhbit dispels that idea, showing clearly how the theories, techniques, and philosophy of the PRB moved across the pond and found great sympathy among a group of American artists, architects, and geologists who formed their own group — The Society for the Advancement of Truth (SAT) — modeled after the PRB. 

Though tiny — only 37 drawings — the exhibit was a revelation. There were careful studies of larger, more well-known works by the British artists which revealed the detailed and painstaking processes involved in making the dreams in their minds come to life. Most of the American artists represented focused on landscape painting, everything from the domes of Yosemite in the Sierras, to the Hudson River Valley, and beyond to Florence. There were  also two small detailed landscape studies by Walter Crane. Several American Pre-Raphaelites in fact had a very close relationship with the British critic John Ruskin, an artist in his own right, who was credited with spreading the philosophy of Pre-Raphaelitism through his many writings and patronage. Two of these American Pre-Raphaelites, Henry Roderick Newman and Esther Frances (Francesca) Alexander, were represented in the exhbit. Ruskin’s own drawing of the crumbling castle walls of Kenilworth was on view as well.

Highlights included “Andromeda,” by Edward Burne-Jones as part of a study for his larger The Rock of Doom in his Perseus Cycle.  A head study of a woman by Rossetti and another series of studies by Frederick Sandys were significant. There were four gorgeous miniature studies for The Lady of Shallot, by William Holman Hunt. These in particular give a sense of how the artist tries to conceive of the image from different viewpoints. And many times, as in this case, the end result looks nothing like the original conceptualization. Finally, in juxtaposition, one of the few original existing copes of the first volume of the PRB’s journal The Germ: Thoughts Toward Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art displayed next to its American sister SAT publication The New Path: A Monthly Art Journal.

It was hard to choose any one piece as a favorite, but I suppose there were three that absolutely stood out for me. Charles Allston Collins “Beati Mundo Corde” was almost photographic in its precision of the young nun’s facial features.

“Isabella Boccaccio,” by John Riley Wilmer alludes to the 14th century Italian poet Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. The piece might also be a reference to John Keats’ poem “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” which is itself derived from The Decameron.  Incidentally, Holman Hunt painted his own Isabella. I tend to like the layered quality of the narrative paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites — every picture tells a thousand stories and there are so many details to linger over.

Finally, this “Head of a Girl,” a study in gold tip on prepared paper by John Southall is simply breathtaking. She is truly a glimpse of the ideal of Pre-Raphaelite beauty in every way.

On reflection, this small but important exhibit does what it set out to do and reflects the fulfillment of the Pre-Raphaelite vision in creative communities on both sides of the Atlantic in their effort to “see everything, small and large, with almost the same clearness.”

 

“Know once and for all, that a poet on canvas is exactly the same species as a poet in song….”  John Ruskin, Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851

Beauty Break Bonus: One gallery in the Huntington’s British Art Museum holds original furnishings, textiles, and ceramic tile pieces by William Morris and Co. Be sure to sneak a peek down the staircase at the end of the gallery for a floor to ceiling Morris stained glass, with art work by Edward Burne-Jones. I was unable to photograph this, but here is a link to a lovely photo taken by someone else. Gorgeous……..

 

Empty Canvas

Well, our raised bed garden is all set to go for this year. Those two tall sunflowers in the background shot up wild out of nowhere, likely vagrant seeds from the sunflower house we planted for Skippy a few summers back (see photos of that adventure below). The basil was an act of desperation, snatched up at Trader Joe’s because I wasn’t patient enough to wait for the seedlings I’ve ordered to arrive. But the rest, each square foot grid, is empty of plants and filled with fresh organic soil, waiting for something to grow in it. Emptiness waiting to be filled with possibility.

British landscape architect William Kent once said that “gardening is like landscape painting.” And I suppose it is similar in some ways —  you begin with a blank canvas, which might be an empty and barren patch of earth, or one overrun with weeds and stickers. You prime the space by clearing it and turning over the earth, and then carefully plan/compose the arrangements of flowers, vegetables, or shrubs and trees that you want. You select to “paint” with the best seeds or seedlings you can find, and set to work placing them on the canvas of earth in an attempt to match your vision. You do the best you can with what you know, learn new techniques to help the piece along, and try to make up for problems along the way.

But this is where any similarity to landscape painting ends. For the painter has virtually complete control over his project and, eventually, will either finish or abandon his piece. For the gardener, however, what comes next is really out of her hands — and the “piece” is never really finished, but instead demands constant care and attention well beyond the initial endeavor.  Things may grow, or they may not; they may succumb to disease or pests, or may thrive and grow with great energy. Who knows? Like any painter who commits the idea in his mind to canvas, the gardener ultimately deals with uncertainty about what the end result will be.  But unlike the painter, that uncertainty is never eased by a truly finished product.

In the end, gardening, like every other art, is an act of faith in that, ultimately, what happens there doesn’t really depend on the gardener, but on something higher than her. It isn’t for the gardener to worry about what will happen — her job is to do everything she can to create conditions in which something can be made out of nothing, to create a place where the impossible can become possible,  and then she must leave the rest to God.  

Being in the garden teaches me humility, patience, gratitude, hopefulness, trust, perseverance, and joy. It reminds me of the important things I need to pay closer attention to. It reminds me to watch for the ways God works in my life and to trust Him in doing this work, as the unseen gardener that He is. Like Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden after he has risen from the dead, mostly I don’t recognize his presence or his work in my life. My life is like a garden in which He plants lots of seeds — people, events, ideas, struggles, failures, successes, disappointments — all signs pointing to him, all of which have the potential to grow into something wonderful, into more than they at first seem to be. Every event, just like every seed, contains all that is necessary to produce a gift of grace. Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant detail can grow to become a great oak tree of grace in my life. God is continually making something out of nothing, both in my garden and in my life. And He never fails to surprise me. 

Post Script

A few summers ago, we agreed to forgo the “traditional” vegetable garden I normally plant in order to experiment with a sunflower house for Skippy. It was generally a success — the sunflowers grew nearly as tall as the house and provided a private, cool alcove for him to relax and read a book in. But they also provided a recreational living area for all sorts of creatures, some more amusing than others — we failed to realize that wasps adore the caterpillars that adore sunflowers. So the sunflower house also became a wasp house, of sorts, which Skippy eventually grew afraid to enter. Still, it was a memorable experience and one which we remember fondly.