Portraits & Passages

Chapter 28

Oven's Womb Garfield Artwork

Artist with The Oven's Womb, 1997

Painting has always been a conjuring of magic – a communion with beauty that bows before the transcendental forces that society tries to contain.  Because the realm of beauty is inseparable from the knowledge of its fragility, we try to guard it. But everything we hold vanishes. We cannot grasp it, but only let it touch us in its passing.  - RR

 The Oven’s Womb

 There are those who would object to my images. So be it. One cannot please everybody. But to those who wish to object I say be careful that your critique is  not coming from an arrogance of superior place and perspective. For we no longer talk about life but about how we talk. We are more and more removed from  dealing with life, and so like pharoanic mummies we have progressive layers keeping us busy with our protocols.

They have included in recent decades the unspoken prohibition against emotion. For we can make a sham of emotion, but cringe at the na´ve display of it. In this  case, it is a loss of face to be naked before the world – better nonchalance than show your underbelly. But naivetÚ can be so much stronger than the hand of  detached irony. It will be messy though. It remains in the nose like a bad smell.


Sketchbook, 1963

The subject of death is so mysterious and poignant We know if we’re cut we bleed. We have tasted the knowledge of mortality. When the image of death crosses our  path we become more alert and withdraw into ourselves – absorbed in being with what awaits. We turn more curious and receptive than normal, intimate in our willingness to view across the threshold into another dimension.


Lithograph, 1963

Humans are animals who speculate on death. We all survey the landscape before us with the understanding that it will come sometime. Also, like elephants who  when encountering the bones of their dead hold them in their trunks, we spend a great deal of time reflecting on the tragedy of others. It is an elaborate activity  utilizing an amazing amount of our mental and psychic abilities. And here we arrive at a dilemma for we are fascinated. So let’s not pretend otherwise! It’s part of the  makeup of the species that we are overly aware of mortality and have a vast need to reflect on what that ending means for us.

The most serious subjects then make the most powerful art and require the highest degree of beauty in communicating them for we are highly aesthetic animals whose  brains search for structure and form. We will not stay the course and persevere with an image that doesn’t intoxicate us. We will simply turn away.

On the issue of using the death of others as the subject to do art, the only mistake is not to take it seriously. For when the goal is to commemorate the loss of innocent  lives, the great expedient to keeping memory alive is to make that which people return to over and over again. The issue should not be that beautiful images are  made to represent horrific deaths, but that the use of flamboyant virtuosity is sophomoric whatever the subject. The challenge for the artist is to use means that do not draw undue attention to them.

However, when Linda Nochlin touched upon this delicate subject in describing Zoran Music’s “attempt to ennoble through nifty brushwork senseless suffering and  waste” as “obscene” in her review of ”Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art” printed in the 2002 Summer issue of “Artforum”, I responded in a letter that  cautioned against “moral judgments when from any vantage point one faces paradox and the chance to offend,” and suggested “perhaps a wiser choice would  have offered an overview of the deeper, more fundamental historical differences between iconography and iconoclasm.” 

But it might be best to backtrack to fully explain the road that led me to the subject of the Holocaust. For that event started in Paris more than a decade ago and  catapulted me into a series of nude paintings that I refer to as “The German Girl”.


Six Characters in Search Icon Sorrow 90

Previous Chapter  Table of Contents  Next Chapter