Looking for meaning in this cancer diagnosis has proven to be a futile, yet time/heart/mind-consuming exercise. I’m feeling a bit unfairly and cosmically bullied. I play by the rules and do as I’m told. I volunteer at my kids’ schools. My high school senior class named me Apple Polisher.
“I’ve tried so damn hard,” I texted college friend & roommate Susan Yaksick Kemmerer, who paints incredible images of pets for their owners – the perfect holiday gift! “You always have,” she texted back. My Type A self felt validated and approved.
“What am I failing to learn from all of these trials?” I asked my husband. “Maybe I’m missing the secret code of Christianity, getting all the pain, none of the perks.”
“How much is enough?” I asked Candy Hill, my greatest teacher and mentor, who replied, “I believe that God entrusts severe suffering to those who long for deep intimacy with Him. And suffering is the only path.” In that case, I take back all that swill about seeking spiritual depth and authenticity.
Cuddling with Eliza last night after our aborted Project Runway viewing due to the cacophony of Mark cleaning the kitchen and Hampton researching for his debate tournament (the nerve), Eliza said:
“It’s not fair. You’ve done everything right, and more!?” (Again, validated and approved.)
Out of nowhere, or perhaps a place of acceptance, I replied: “No, it’s not fair. I don’t understand it. But I’m realizing that in earlier decades I would have been one of those women who started feeling poorly and then just died by 50; so really, the chemotherapy and surgery are live-saving, not life-stealing.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Looking for meaning with the conscious mind is a fools errand, according to American abstract expressionist Adolph Gottlieb (and Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud). All three twentieth century influencers credit the unconscious as the key to understanding life, and Gottlieb’s art reflects a determined quest to unleash the id. He deemed catharsis impossible through easily-recognizable objects, so he painted pictographs, “universal symbols of his own invention that transcended time, place, and language to appeal to the level of the unconscious mind and to offer a pathway of release from a trouble-ridden period in history.” (Access the artist’s bio on The Art Story for more excellent information.)
Child of The Depression and witness to World War II atrocities, Gottlieb’s angst stemmed from global gloom and doom. Falling Star (1959), part of his Pictograph series, hangs in a section of the Detroit Institute of Art titled “Art and Anxiety.” Unfamiliar with the artist’s motivation or technique at the time I viewed Falling Star, the painting absolutely stirred something internally, emotionally. My Id was piqued.
Analytically speaking, I observed atop the flesh-toned background an ashen, biomorphic (lifelike, from nature) form. The overlaid totem of images occupying the center of the canvas is anchored by an equilateral triangle – the geometric form with the most stability and strength. Above a bold, broad horizontal brush stroke sits a pastel pink star encasing in its center a trio of scratched, stacked ovoids. The celestial symbol emanates a pulsing, rosy corona. Above the five-pointed star’s flattened peak, and perhaps causing it, sits a second horizontal band, this one with a vertical termination on the left side. Finally, a heavy impasto on the glowing white asterisk connotes the climax of a process, such as the formation, creation then explosion of a super nova. The surrounding markings form a debris field resulting from the violent emergence of something new. At least this is what I make of the symbols.
“Different times require different images,” Gottlieb said. “Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality.”
Marsden Hartley‘s 1914 Arrangement – Hieroglyphics (Painting No.2) also stirred a visceral feeling in my solar plexus chakra. In the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s American Wing, this painting takes center stage on a wall immediately opposite the gallery entrance, beating out Georgia O’Keefe’s Deer Skull with Pedernal on the left for position of prominence.
Hartley’s palette differs greatly from Falling Star due to the time period in which it was created. The thirty-five-year old Maine native painted his Amerika series while enjoying the expat life in an optimistic, pre-World War I Berlin. He was also in love.
Hieroglyphics evoked undeniable feelings of spirituality, I just couldn’t define or explain them. Clearly, I was looking at a target of concentric yellow and white circles filling a square of cornflower blue, but at what was the artist aiming? The bullseye is centrally-affixed in a horizontal grid and flanked by pictographs revealing no logical meaning. The upper half of the painting more readily accessed the divine for me. As in Falling Star, the space is grounded by an equilateral triangle, but here perhaps forming a pyramid from which a pharaoh begins his journey to the sun. The arrowhead shape seems to pierce the atmosphere, with wings of angels heralding the ascension. The grid motif extends onto the frame as if the canvas cannot contain its psychic energy. I rushed downstairs to the gift shop and bought the only mage I could find of Hieroglyphics, one adorning the front of a fold-over notecard, before hailing a taxi make my noon meeting.
Turns out I was wrong about practically all of the imagery. The pictographs are Native American in nature, not Egyptian. According to the museum’s website, “Many of the Amerika canvases show recognizable Native American motifs, including figures in headdresses, teepees, and canoes, painted in a flat, geometric modernist style. These symbols signaled to viewers Hartley’s status as an American and also appealed to a longstanding German enthusiasm for Native American and frontier life.” Indeed, Hartley admitted: “I find myself wanting to be an Indian . . . to go to the West and face the sun forever—that would seem the true expression of human dignity.”
Hartley’s pictographs soon became representational as a result of tragedy. The same year in which he painted Hieroglyphics, his romantic interest and Prussian lieutenant Karl von Freyburg died in the first months of World War I. Consequently, Hartley’s ensuing War Motif series employs a color palette characterized by blood red on saturated black backgrounds with symbols pertaining to his lost relationship and a lost generation of young soldiers. None of the frames for these paintings appear painted as is the one for Hieroglyphs; instead, white frames seem to entomb Hartley’s visual declarations of grief. I snapped this image at the Yale University Gallery of Art, the oldest university art museum in the western hemisphere. One can decode the images:
- the E stands for Hartley’s given name, Edmund. His mother died when he was eight and his father remarried four years later to Martha Marsden. (He must have really liked her, or hated the name Edmund.)
- the 4 represents von Freyburg’s regiment number; the number 8, a symbol of transcendence and/or the German eight-pointed star; and the number 9, a symbol of completeness, as well as love and spiritual enlightenment
- the checkerboard is reminiscent of the soldier’s favorite pastime
- the blue and white triangles an homage to the Bavarian coat of arms, von Freyburg’s home province, and,
- the incoming bullets in three corners guilty of killing his love, or the spurs of the German aristocracy to which von Freyburg belonged.
Hartley described his pictographs saying, “There is real reason for all these signs but it remains mystical—and explanations are not necessary.” For now, this sentiment characterizes my cancer diagnosis, as well.