Sunday, October 4, 2015

Without God or Jesus, A Single Figure

The gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 23B/Ordinary 28B/Pentecost 20 leave us with a single figure. One because he is unable to follow. One who cannot seem to find. The two readings (Mark 10:17-31 and Job 23:1-17 respectively) detail encounters between a human and the divine. In one passage the human is young; in the other he is old (or at least middle age!). In one passage the human has great material possessions; in the other he once had such possessions, but they have been taken away from him.
(Both) George Frederic Watts. For He Had Great Possessions. 1894.
 (Left) Guildford, Surrey: Watts Gallery.
(Right) London: Tate Gallery.
Above are two versions of the same composition titled "For He Had Great Possessions" by George Frederic Watts. Watts was a 19th-century Symbolist painter. He is credited with saying, "I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man." Watts' intention to paint ideas shows clearly in the paintings. Where other artists show Jesus and a group of people, here the focus is entirely on the young man and his state of mind.

The two versions vary slightly. The shallow picture space emphasizes the limited future of the man, even as his rich clothes remind us of all the material possessions he has. The placement of a vertical line and the fullness of his fur collar are among the variations between the two pictures.
Leon Bonnat. Job. 1880. Musee Bonnat Helleu. 
For Musee Bonnat Helleu, see:
Bonnat's painting of Job also shows a figure alone (though Job might not be entirely sad about being alone, given the company he usually keeps - his friends, his wife. Job faces us, where Watts' young man had turned away. The background here is also shallow, though the darkness leaves some room for mystery. Job is dramatically lighted as he sits alone on the dungheap looking up blindly to a God he cannot seem to find. 

You might think that having a single figure as the focus of a composition would give the figure a monumental strength. In these examples, however, the compositions seem to emphasize their barrenness and isolation. How different Job's life will be when God finally shows up. How different the young man's life would have been if he had made a different choice.

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