How, we might ask, can a mute still-life from more than three and a half centuries ago spark a contemporary chorale that has been performed and recorded over and over since it's creation? Unlike today when most paintings contain only a sop of skill and a slapdash chunk of execution, paintings once spoke more clearly. And those today who still know the ancient language of painting and the old belief can still hear the music in the pigment. Lauridsen describes, or rather interprets, the painting thus:
Francisco de Zurbarán's "Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose" normally hangs on a back wall of one of the smaller rooms in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena. Like a large black magnet, it draws its viewers from the entry into its space and deep into its mystical world. Completed in 1633, it is the only canvas the early Baroque Spanish master ever signed and dated.
We are shown a table set against a dark background on which are set three collections of objects: in the center, a basket containing oranges and orange blossoms; to the left, a silver saucer with four lemons; and, to the right, another silver saucer holding both a single rose in bloom and a fine china cup filled with water. Each collection is illuminated and placed with great care on the polished surface of the table.
But it is much more than a still life. For Zurbarán (1598-1664) -- known primarily for his crisply executed and sharply, even starkly lit paintings of ascetics, angels, saints and the life of Christ -- the objects in this work are symbolic offerings to the Virgin Mary. Her love, purity and chastity are signified by the rose and the cup of water. The lemons are an Easter fruit that, along with the oranges with blossoms, indicate renewed life. The table is a symbolic altar. The objects on it are set off in sharp contrast to the dark, blurred backdrop and radiate with clarity and luminosity against the shadows.
The painting projects an aura of mystery, powerful in its unadorned simplicity, its mystical quality creating an atmosphere of deep contemplation. Its effect is immediate, transcendent and overpowering. Before it one tends to speak in hushed tones, if at all.I've seen the painting by Zurbarán and I can attest to the fact of its strange power to arrest the pace and still the attention into contemplation. The underlying symbolism of the work was unknown to me until Lauridsen made it explicit, but I don't find it surprising. After many years of ignorant acceptance of one gruesome and ugly step downward in art after another that I witnessed when I wandered around in New York's overheated and overhyped art scene, I came to the reluctant conclusion that most contemporary art was garbage, that it had no soul, and that deep down... it was shallow.
When I thought about why that was a host of reasons presented themselves to me. Perhaps it was that the ability to draw was no longer taught and expected to be a basic skill of those who would call themselves our "artists." Perhaps it was that the proliferation of art schools and "art majors" gave the baby boomers and their offspring a way through college that required as much intellect as a point guard, but not nearly as much talent and dedication. Perhaps it was that the rise of the ridiculous rich with their 15,000 foot McMansions meant a lot of wall space that had to be covered with something fashionable but not demanding. This just at the time Warhol and Mapplethorpe popped off and could no longer supply those whose bad taste was in their mouth and down their throat. Hence a legion of pretenders and jackanapes arose to fill the arrivistes' demand for garbage to decorate their squalid lives. This is not a hunger that should be fed for, as all Park Rangers know, "Once a bear is hooked on garbage, there's no cure."
In the end, it was, of course all of these and none. It was as simple as Gertrude Stein's "There's no there there." For at the core of all the objects that form the mountain of crap that is palmed off as "art," there is simply and plainly, nothing at all. Nothing felt, nothing sensed, nothing learned, and nothing believed in. As such it is without soul. And nothing that lacks soul can survive death, especially the death of a culture and our present state which is best described, a la D. H. Lawrence, as "post mortum effects."
Which is why it is so reviving to come across Lauridsen's citing of the magic and mystery of a painting that inspires music from his soul across more than three and a half centuries. It reminds us that art that is true, that art that comes from belief and the soul, will survive and will continue to expand the soul of man despite all the forces that may array themselves against "the good, the beautiful and whether or not something is true."