The Art and Opinions of Heidi Celeghin, Aesthete

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Leonardo, Kundera, and the Barcelona World Race

I have recently started reading Leonardo’s On Painting and have already found some incredible passages that I would like to mention and perhaps discuss.

In the beginning of the anthology, Leonardo speaks of “the desire for wisdom”, which I thought particularly relevant to the artistic life.  I believe that one should always remain curious about the world around them and try to experience as much of it as possible.  This insatiable curiosity will inevitably lead one into an interminable pool of inspiration.  People speak of writer’s block or not having ideas for artwork but that lack of creative power becomes a non-issue when one is submerging themselves into the world.  I hesitate to return to Pater but I fear that I must because his own argument in the conclusion to The Renaissance is so relevant to this issue.  Pater writes that:

With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

Leonardo upholds a desire of wisdom that carries into Pater’s philosophical argument.  So, as I always tell my students, refuse to remain within a single field – explore all disciplines, read everything you can get your hands on, experience all that life has to offer, and then you will be a true artist.  It is ultimately not about how many years you will live, but how much you have lived.  Refuse monotony and embrace the haphazard and unexpected.


Star of Bethlehem

Study of the Star of Bethlehem, c. 1506

Within the same section, Leonardo argues that, “People who are little reliant upon nature are dressed in borrowed clothes, without which I would rank them with the herds of beasts.”  The second part of the sentence I included because I particularly appreciated its flair for the dramatic (but then again, don’t all artists love embellishment and general dramatic turns?).  I believe that Leonardo’s focus on studying nature, or learning from nature, is central to the artistic lifestyle.  As a representational artist, I have dedicated much of my life to observing my surroundings.  For example, artists have to do figure drawing in order to learn the human form – and they have to draw the human figure for not just months, but years.  I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and he says how it has been shown that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master something.  Most people within the arts have hit the 10,000 hour mark by the time they are 20, after that they are practicing their art so often that the hours keep on accumulating at an accelerated rate.  For example, I probably hit the 10,000 hour mark some time after my freshman year at Cornell (19) but now that I am professionally an artist, I will reach 20,000 hours in about 4 years (significantly less time than it took me to get the first 10,000 hours).

Next, I would like to go back to Milan Kundera’s book of essays Encounter, which I purchased in Manhattan in November.  In this post, I would like to comment on Kundera’s first essay “The Painter’s Brutal Gesture: On Francis Bacon.”  Kundera writes that “Bacon’s portraits are an interrogation on the limits of the self.  Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? … Where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?”  The notion of the limits of self is fascinating as well as particularly relevant to Bacon’s artwork.  It is something every artist should think about to some extent.  How far can the self be pushed?  I feel like in today’s electronic culture, the boundaries of the self are in perpetual fluctuation.  On the Internet, the self can be re-created, continuously propagated, and always present.  Through electronic media, the self can become global.  The self can also become something beyond a body.

Head VI

Head VI, 1949

A point that I disagree with in Kundera’s essay is his absolutism about the state of painting.  (He actually exhibits this absolutism in other parts Encounter and I feel that each time, it can be disputed otherwise.  But that is an issue for another time.)  Kundera states that Bacon “is one of the last painters whose language is still oil and brush … In the history of modern art Bacon and Beckett are not the ones who open the way; they close it down.”  How can painting, or theatre, or any art for that matter, come to an end?  Perhaps it can be transformed or re-assessed, but it cannot be annihilated.  Kundera says that Bacon felt like an orphan – the last of a kind – but that is just the feeling of one artist and the persistence of painting continues despite that.  So we come full circle to where the discussion began: artistic inspiration is always available and therefore, a new approach to an old art is continuously present.

And now, philosophical discussion over, I have some exciting news about a new artistic endeavor I have begun.  While in Barcelona (actually, while in transit to Barcelona), I met the skipper Boris Herrmann who is involved in the Barcelona World Race.  The race is a roughly 90-day journey around the world.  The idea of two people in a boat braving the ocean immediately fascinated me – it simultaneously reminded me of Moby Dick, “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and the epic tradition.  Moreover, as someone caught between cultures who has never been able to settle in a single location, I found the idea of sailing professionally intriguing – the impetus to be afloat made perfect sense.  Why chain oneself to a single location forever?  Finally, I discovered a sphere where that was the norm and I caught onto it.  My mind latched onto this idea and I suddenly had a creative impulse that had to take form.  Thus, my current major project was born.

I am following Team Neutrogena‘s progress and transforming their journey into a neo-mythic prose poem.  It is neo-mythic in that I was drawn to the mythic status of the race and envision it as a 21st-century re-imaging of the Odyssey or the Iliad.  The idea to create it as a prose poem stems from that epic poetry tradition.  Mere narrative would fall short of the aesthetic I aimed at, so the prose poem was a natural choice.  The prose poem can become the 2st-century version of the epic poem, especially seeing as the prose style has practically supplanted the poetic style.  The prose poem will ultimately be circumscribed within imagetext where I will combine drawings with text.  The second aspect of the project involves paintings that re-imagine the poem and highlight our own reliance on images to experience life.


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Self, Unbound by Time

Self, Unbound by Time

Self, Unbound by Time

This self-portrait challenges the notion of time.  I try to break free from the idea that the self portrayed is necessarily contained within a specific time.  My gaze is wearied, as if with age, and my hair is possibly graying.  Yet, my skin is flawless – suggesting a super-human youth.  I emerge as if from shadows but am illuminated by a strange, ethereal light.  The faint suggestion of a background heightens the temporal uncertainty of the image.  I was informed by Walter Pater’s description of La Gioconda in his book The Renaissance.

Below is an extract from Pater’s The Renaissance that discusses La Gioconda:

The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary ; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

Pater’s passage on the Mona Lisa redefined the painting’s significance and introduced a new way of approaching artwork.  Pater, as the critic, can superimpose his own ideas and experiences onto an art piece.  In The Renaissance Pater argues, among other things, that the critic is allowed (in fact, supposed to) re-imagine all artwork placed in front of him.  Oscar Wilde took this notion and expounded upon it in his dialogue The Critic as Artist.

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What’s in a name?

As every good academic, I enjoy placing meaning in every level of my work.  This blog is no exception to that unbelievably impractical, yet momentously gratifying, method.   I see this blog not as a mode of documentation but as an art piece that is constantly in flux.  Neo-Decadent uses a global medium of communication and invites people to participate in the creation of a Paterian denial of theory, organization, and constancy.  The blog embodies the desire for constant change and the ability to endlessly expand horizons through a rhizomatic structure (for more on rhizomes read Mille Plateaux by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari).

I first used the term Neo-Decadent when working on my thesis at Cornell.  My obsession with Oscar Wilde and Aestheticism made the adoption of such a term natural to me.  The late 19th-century exerts a certain inexplicable magnetism over me and I have immersed myself in its literature and culture.  Consequently, the Decadent sensibility has found itself re-imagined in my artwork – thus, I create Neo-Decadent art.

The subtitle, “The Art and Opinions of Heidi Celeghin, Aesthete,” derives from the 18th-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.  Sterne’s novel is a fascinating and absurd exploration of narrative and physical narrative space.  Since I play with these ideas in my artwork, it seemed appropriate to make a reference to one of my sources of inspiration.  Furthermore, the subtitle, in referencing a work of fiction, reveals the extent to which an artist’s identity is fabrication.  The artist becomes a work of art because his/her life is constantly being self-fashioned.