Sunday, 24 April 2011

On Beauty


I have said that I would like to write about beauty; but what is it?

Picasso said .....................

"Beauty?... To me it is a word without sense because I do not know where its meaning comes from nor where it leads to."

This seems very sensible, since much of what we see as beautiful has been ingrained in us by the media and our cultural background. Fatness and thinness are beautiful or not depending on where in the world you live. Our choices of furniture and decor are a mirror on the society that we live in. The aesthetic movement was known for creating a lifestyle, affecting not just how we create art, but also what furniture, wall coverings and china were used.

Another view is that beauty is useless;

"Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance." ~John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851

After seeing the aesthetic movement displayed at the V&A, I have seen a surfeit of peacocks, particularly as part of ornate friezes hand painted above the picture rail in the homes of wealthy members of the movement.

I am not sure that I agree with Ruskin that beautiful things are in general  useless. If they give us pleasure then is that not enough?

Alain de Botton, in his book "How Proust can change your life",  talks about the gap between our own lives and the realm of beauty, or between what we imagine and what really exists. He describes the importance of images in our appreciation of our surroundings, and the risks of leaving home with the wrong ones. This idea rings true with me having visited Key West in Florida last year.

In my mind was an image of  leafy green coves and beautiful white sandy beaches on small islands. I think I had something like the Caribbean in mind. How wrong I was, and therefore how disappointed I felt when I arrived and found a very large town with narrow rocky beaches. I felt the same emotions that Proust's narrator felt when he arrived at Balbec in Normandy, and found it to be far from the rugged cliff-top, gothic coastline of his imagination. He arrived in a typical early twentieth century beach resort, busy and commercial, rather like Key West, and felt let down.

The following quote resonates ,

"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not". ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Proust's narrator was taken in hand and shown how to take pleasure from the boats on the water and the clothes of the other tourists in bright colours.

In other words, beauty is everywhere, we just have to find it, and that depends on our frame of mind. I find beauty in nature, which may be because of the frame of mind that natural places allow me.

"daydreams" by Caroline Fraser

To be deep in a wood,  high on a mountain, or alone on a beach is an uplifting experience; does that make it a beautiful place? John Muir certainly thought so....., and having hiked the John Muir trail into Yosemite I understand his sentiments...............

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."

 So as DeBotton describes, beauty is something to be found, as in the active appreciation of new situations.
It is "incapable of answering the expectations of an over romantic imagination".

This course has confirmed to me that I find my beauty in nature. Not for me a designer handbag or a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. Whilst contemplating this fact I  rememember  my favourite book on photography "Bortom Redan" or "Beyond Order". I am lucky enough to have copy of this book, which is now out of print, signed by the author. On the first page is a quote that confirms my view on beauty by James Gleick.

" The essence of the earth's beauty lies in disorder, a peculiarly patterned disorder, from the fierce tumult of rushing water to the tangled filigrees of unbridled vegetation".

Gleick collaborated with Eliot Porter on a book called "Nature's chaos", writing an essay about chaos theory in nature to accompany Porter's photographs. I have ordered a copy , as I feel that it may be relevant to my photography. He clearly had an influence on Jan Tove, who writes of the order and disorder of nature in his book. He describes the strucure of a tree and the nature of fractal geometry........

A fern is a classic example of a fractal in nature, as is a snowflake or a globe artichoke.

ferns in Allerce forest, Chile 

tree fern, Hollyford track, New Zealand

Jan Tove says

"the tree branches out from the trunk in all directions, down to the smallest shoot where the veins of the leaves repeat the broken pattern. The characteristic properties of the fractal are that it repeats itself in the same way as when two mirrors are angled towards each other. A chain of images occur. When studying a fractal we look into the borderland between chaos and order".

He appears to have been influenced by Gleick, as I have been influenced by Tove.

I prefer the disorderly order of nature to the enforced order of suburbia, and that is probably why I escape to forests and mountains whenever I get the chance.


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