A Terrible Beauty is Born
The superlative work I have elected to discuss, the etching Wisdom of God, demands attention to all three components of the art enterprise: the artwork itself, a most formidable etching; the viewer responding to the amazing image; and * finally - the singular artist himself, Robert Rivers.
Wisdom of God
Emeritus Professor | University of Edinburgh Chairman
Board of Governors | Edinburgh Printmakers
This etching has terribilitas. Here the exposed, exquisite muscle of a human victim is being rent by the macerating claws of a fearsome lion. Onslaught and insult are plainly depicted, the assailant unstoppable and the prey inexorably succumbing. In keeping with the frightful event depicted, the metal plate bearing the image has been incised ferociously, and then corroded deeply by the acid. The medium is as incisively scored as the image. Akin to a sculptural relief, the plate is eaten away for pigment of stygian black to lodge in crevices and gullies, later to be impressed on the fat, yielding paper in streaks, whorls, and gouts (a word that refers to the medieval theory of flowing down of humors). Wisdom of God achieves perfect balance and great plasticity: this plate is profound and definite, its rhythm strong and its areas and volumes firm. As for any artwork that attains magnificence, the quality of the marks on the surface is the crucial component. Wisdom of God offers sheer aesthetic enjoyment in abundance. The victim's flayed body also appears elsewhere in Rivers oeuvre, a key element in his symbolic universe. This etching moves us with its implication that assailant and victim are counterbalanced in a dyadic configuration, common also in everyday life, when fulfillment, on the one hand, is counterbalanced by extinction on the other. The beast's intellectual and spiritual passion empowers its full self, being thrown into the kill, the giant intelligence set actively to work. Out of the intense effort issues that unity of being, that harmony of the creature's whole nature that is the spring of all creative endeavor. The very same concentration motivating the beast, Rivers asserts, is the absolute ingredient, totally and inescapably essential, for the creation of high art. The lion is the artist, perhaps and the man his artwork. Rivers in all ways opposes the fantastic, the shapeless and the vague. All art, the etching proclaims, originates in the human mind, the mind of man humanized through living and dying in the world. The ancient Greek cult of nakedness uses nude figures in art to express an idea. This etching is under the aegis of the dread god Dionysus - even excess, on the right occasion, is to be considered divine. We view Rivers' plate, intrusive and challenging, rather as we would a ravishing, barbarous and outrageous work by Ingres. We perceive, and endorse the extraordinary, almost perverse, cast the artist has given his creation.
But that is not the whole story. The spectator (the one who looks) is responsible for completing the artwork. The further meaning of the image has to be grasped as well, to be comprehended if the viewer has relevant comprehension. Evasion is not an option. Rivers also features a third, separate, scrutinizing intelligence: the knowing and skeptical monkey, not implicated in the carnage. In terms of iconography the monkey acts as an epiphanic sign to the viewer: "Behold!" Turning aside to look at us, the monkey perceives with clarity what goes on, sensing the human fate: in their innermost being people are wracked and they must die. That glance of the monkey signifies the viewer is as much a real protagonist, thrown in with lion and human victim.
Ruskin's dictum applies: "no high enjoyment... in picture-seeing .. . is consistent with ... lethargy of the powers of understanding." Rivers requires us to unravel and assimilate the deeper meaning of the plate. The monkey's detachment, dissociation in the parlance of psychology, is a signature element of the artist's creative mind. Rivers magisterially repudiates the zeitgeist, the crassly populist taste, the funhouse, the ubiquitous flip, the postmodern, mocking irony of institutionalized culture. Wisdom of God condemns the dismissively cynical mindset of the early Western 21 st century, the contemporary ironic voice and vision.
Gaining agency from active scrutiny of the plate, the viewer responding to Wisdom of God has crucially to come close to the desires, thoughts, beliefs, emotions and commitments that motivate Rivers to etch as he does. The artist takes the spectator into his confidence. The aesthetic bliss viewers experience comes out of attunement with Rivers, the plate he has worked providing the means for relation. It was the Scottish philosopher of the Enlightenment, David Hume who said the great work of art discloses itself over the years, through cooperation between the artist and the viewers who respond and esteem the artwork.
The perceiver of art, the one who looks, is responsible for completing the artwork. Momentous and flagrant art can of course transform the spectator. As Tolstoy put it: "If men lacked this ... capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still and above all more separated from, and more hostile to, one another".
The importance to us of biography, the life of the artist, is inarguable. We don't perhaps go as far as Dr Johnson, and say: "Biography is the most interesting of all". But, of course, if the artist is any good, all his works in a sense are one work, inescapably the essence of the experience of life through which his creativity has evolved. Wisdom of God is object in time, a process, a unique and enduring image, in all respects is the inalienable expression of the mind of Rivers. Thomas Mann's dictum, that "art is truth, the truth about the artist" insists that we weigh the biography, consider how the artist got to know about his symbolic universe. Wisdom of God has reference to the antecedent artists to whom Rivers has affiliations: Rembrandt etched a Lion Hunt (Morandi's personal copy is in the Museum devoted to him at Bologna)~ Stubbs has a Horse Attacked by a Lion; Delacroix famously etched a Lion Slaying a Horse. Friendly and attractive socially Robert Rivers certainly is in real life. But this etching - as the monkey plainly signifies * is about simultaneous participation and withdrawal, and not only from the catastrophe depicted. Although not part of his social demeanor, the achievement of Rivers' art signifies that his work is about the inner as well as the outer self: the heroic, the lonely and tragic, about awe-inspiring grandeur, the isolate self. Morbid touchiness over offences, excessive pride, hubristic pain figure in the works, His etchings show men and women exuberant with some inner exultation, or transported by concealed dread.
He has a particular affinity with animals: in youth he worked in a circus caring for elephants, a beast he accords totemic status. Rivers is a horse rider and trainer, a runner, a swimmer. One would have to go back to Durer's Rhinoceros to see more awed, perceptive, respectful, identification with an animal so alien as to be finally unknowable~ and the lion in Wisdom of God is at the same time both terrifying and overwhelmingly impressive.
Rivers is a world citizen, as well known in Scotland as in the United States: he has made plates in almost all the major print workshops of Scotland: Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, and has been a visiting professor repeatedly. Two Rivers etchings editioned at Edinburgh Printmarkers are completely sold out, Southern Wind and Elephant - Green Garden. He has superb artist's books, handbound by Larry Cooper, in both the National Gallery of Washington and also in the Scottish National Gallery of Modem Art. A true artwork is the equivalent of a principle, a standard. Art can regenerate us again, rescue us from "disenchantment with the world". The phrase is Schiller's, from whom the sociologist Max Weber borrowed it, to denote loss of the numinous, abolition of the sacred, in the modem world. Art can restore us to personal Being, a casting away of ordinariness, a remembrance of that on which we depend: openness to meaning. Pictures are for entering into. They open up "clearings" for us. A picture, a sculpture you endorse, is akin to a principle. A work of art is a standard. Rivers sets it regularly.