The Rondanini Pietà sculpture by Michelangelo (1475-1564), in a continuous process from 1550-1564, shows a male form emerging from a block of marble and at first glance appears to be an unfinished work. It is possible that the artist was finished and wanted to communicate something about the human condition. As Kenneth Clark speculates it could portray the “struggle of the soul to free itself from matter.”[i]
In the context of the Roman Catholic worldview in which Michelangelo expressed himself, he might have had in mind the belief that “we are in the world but not of it,” which might have inspired his depiction of the struggle to transcend the physical body, the temptations of the flesh, so to speak.
In the context of Simple Reality we also understand that identification with the body is problematic. Our True identity is not that of “matter” as science has believed all along and which has led to the futile pursuit, in the process of reductionism, for the smallest particle of matter which would help us understand the nature of reality.
The need to shift our identity away from the body, mind and emotions would lend a more modern interpretation of this magnificent work. It could depict the universal struggle of humankind to transcend P-B and be free of the illusion of both physical and mental form.
Part of the revolution in modern art is that the subject matter now becomes more universal and personal. Without being aware of it, Francois Auguste Rene Rodin (1840-1917) expressed the First Noble Truth of P-B that “life is suffering.” In his sculpture The Gates of Hell (1880-1917), now in the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, these vast doors depict over 200 naked figures. “[They are] an epic image of the spirit in distress, past, present and future. The three naked figures atop the Gates were deprived of hands to suggest the futility of resistance to death. The Thinker (1904) is Rodin’s symbol of the artist as both judge and prisoner of his own time, as one gifted with intelligence but cursed with passion. Bereft of ideals, the aimless mobs and the individuals know unity only through despair and loneliness.”[ii]
A very revolutionary group of sculptors such as Andrew Goldsworthy (b. 1956), Robert Smithson, and Christo and Jean Claude combine form and nature in a stunningly beautiful way. “They seek to intervene in nature temporarily and no further than the enactment of their own ideas of art. Such art has been variously called earth work, ecological art, and abstract geology. It has found advocates in those who feel that art should belong to everyone, rather than just to the rich, and who wish to become part of their natural environment by conceiving and executing projects that work within the systems of nature. Implicit in these projects is their ultimate disintegration or reintegration with the earth.”[iii]
The works of these modern artists are a vivid expression of both beauty and impermanence. See Spiral Jetty (1970) by Robert Smithson (1928-1983) a 1500-foot coil, one half mile wide in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. And Running Fence (1976), a 25-mile-long curtain of orange nylon material 18 feet high by Jean Claude 1935-2009) and Christo (1935-2020).
The Bulgarian Christo revealed the following facts in the dedication at the opening of Running Fence. “It was the culmination of 42 months of planning, arranging land-use agreements with 59 ranchers, attending 17 public hearings, being involved in 3 court hearings, preparing a 450-page environmental impact report and raising $3 million dollars from the sale of his own work to pay for the project.”[iv]
And why would he work so hard for so little remuneration? “‘What I learn here—the American system, the way the whole big machine works—I find perfect for my use for my projects. To grab American social structure and make it work, this is what I learn in America. I think all the power and force of art comes from real life, that the work must be so much a part of everyday life that it cannot be separated.’ Christo’s fence was never intended to divide but rather to bring people together, and this he did for hundreds of students and hard hats who built it and thousands who drove or hiked its length from sunup to moonrise. This silvery ribbon took on the color and shadows of natural light. It was as if nature had taken on a spine.”[v]
In Christo’s work both the art and the process are expressions of Oneness.
[i] Clark, Kenneth. Civilisation. London: BBC TV-Season One-Episode One, February 23, 1969, no page.
[ii] Elsen, Albert E. Purposes of Art. New York: Holt, 1981, page 266.
[iii] Ibid., page 294.
[iv] Ibid., page 295.
- Rondanini Pietà by Michelangelo (1475-1564).
- The Gates of Hell by Rodin (1880-1917).
- The Thinker by Rodin (1904).
- Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson (1970).
- Running Fence by Jean Claude and Christo (1976).
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.