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Transforming sorrow into beauty, truth and art

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mai 2023

Van Gogh, Old Man in Sorrow

(drawing, 1881)

Extracts from :

Artistic creativity : transforming sorrow into beauty, truth and art

by Gerda van de Windt



Artistic creativity is the vehicle for the transformation of the sorrows of the world into beauty, truth and art, by making the invisible, visible. By 'beauty' I mean the quality of experience that gives us pleasure and a deep sense of satisfaction, both to the artist and the viewer. As we engage in the experience of beauty, truth is revealed. By 'truth' I mean the honest and sincere recognition of being in harmony with the experience of our human existence in the world. Truth exposes inner emotions and archetypal images that may hold value for the artist, as well as the viewer. These images seem to have a mythic origin that connects to universal truth transcending our cultural differences. It is the wisdom that resides in the intuitive and sensuous body that guides the artistic process, if only we stop and listen to our inner voice.

These archetypal images sometimes emerge during the painting process and they often seem to tell a mythological story. These images appear intuitively and spontaneously from innerness and are not readily accessible to the intellectual mind. In my own work, these images are intuitively understood as inner body-knowing, yet it may take time to understand them intellectually, as the layers of meaning unfold.

John Gilmour notes that Anselm Kiefer, a Post-modern German painter, is also influenced by mythology. He uses the mythological metaphor of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods to give to humanity to describe the expressive artistic process. Fire is symbolic of the light of spirit that is partially revealed in a work of art. Heidegger concurs as he describes artistic creativity as "the truth of unveiled presence" (p. 40).


The ancient Greeks were aware of the transformative power of the arts, and Kiefer is also aware that tragedy may be transcended into beauty, truth and art. Kiefer is drawn to ancient alchemical practices and has used fire and lead in his work as a simulation of the alchemical process. The ancient alchemists were concerned with the transformation of lead into gold, which can be understood as a metaphor for the inner search for the truth of Being.

The ability to confront the sorrow that exists in this world is a courageous act that informs both the individual artist, and the larger culture and true wisdom can only be learned from the acceptance that 'this is how it is'. Heidegger came to the conclusion that sorrow and joy are but two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other and both are part of living in the world. The tragedy, despair, and pathos that surround us in our everyday existence can be seen as lessons for us to learn from, instead of inconveniences. It is a fact that all life ends with death and this simple fact of life must be appreciated to fully enjoy living as a human being.

Robert Wallace notes that Rembrandt experienced many personal disasters in his life, yet his paintings shine with the light of empathy for the human condition. As time went by, his work only grows stronger and more tender with a deep understanding of Being and being human. His faith in the dignity of humanity has become visible in his art and still speaks silently to us today.

Rembrandt van Rijn - Old Man in Red



The tragedy in van Gogh's life is also well known, and his art transforms this sorrow into beauty that transcends the history of painting. He urgently communicates his love for nature and the suffering of human kind. Meyer Shapiro compares him to Rembrandt, whose art is also an education for our eyes that speaks to our feelings. He aims to make visible the full range of human values, transforming the sorrow of his life into incredible colour, beauty and art.

Robert Wallace (1969) points out that pain was the filter in the purification of deep inner emotions that he expressed in his paintings. Intentionally wanting to express serious sorrow van Gogh paints what is in his heart and his deepest and most tender emotions are apparent in his paintings for all to see. Artists understand intuitively that living as a human being involves confronting the shadow in our lives. It is through the engagement with the innerness of our being that the artist discovers the spark of divinity within us that connects us to all of existence, that the ancient Greeks called 'genius', and we intuitively recognize in a work of art. This requires a willingness to risk stepping over into another type of existence of unconscious and sometimes painful memories. By making this hidden aspect of our nature visible, the artist must have faith and be willing to plunge into the abyss.


Hoftstadlter (1971) writes in his introduction to Heidegger's Poetry, Language and Thought that openness to Being requires the authenticity of human existence in the world. We live and love on the earth as mortal beings that must work hard to cultivate the landand build and maintain our dwellings. The reality of human existence for the artist is often a remembering and responding to a call from Being and being in the world. It requires openness to often painful emotions that are transformed into a work of art. Heidegger (1971) notes that establishing truth in the work of art involves a "bringing forth" a unique being that never was nor ever will be again.


Van Gogh, like Rembrandt created many self-portraits that are a testament to a man who has tried very hard to succeed, but has also come to terms with the failures in his life. His self-portraits are visual statements that synthesize the human being's need for recognition by others and the lonely and arrogant search for authenticity. His penetrating eye sees the inner spark of genius and van Gogh paints his face with radiating energy that seems to glow from between his brows.

Van Gogh - Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (1887)

The artist can be the visionary that brings back images of our collective memory that may enrich and reveal understanding of what it means to be a human being in this world. Pre-modern mythologies and religious ritual as well as the arts, teach the people of a culture the obligations they have to each other and the earth in order that they will survive. Today, it is the arts that can provide the archetypical forms of ancient mythology that teach the

lessons we need to learn in order to live in harmony with each other and the earth. John Gilmour writes that engagement with the arts "reinvests the natural world with mystery and an atmosphere of uncertainty" thus putting enchantment back into our lives.

The arts may also reconcile our human mortality and knowledge thatwe will one day die. The arts make the inner archetypes visible, and images such as /carus may then be explored for the lessons that are implied. (...) Knowledge of the cyclical nature of our being may be the message the artist can give to society. Everything comes and goes, it grows, dies, and is born again. By mirroring the world of regeneration and growth, as well as decay and death, the artist illuminates the truth of being in the world. The truth that is revealed in a work of art attempts to share this vital knowledge of connectedness to each other and the earth. Nathalie Heinich (1996) states that the artist who continually searches for inner wisdom in the images that appear in the medium needs "unconditional love of truth and a deep, irrational faith" in order to successfully confront and bring into form, these shadow figures.

The search for the truth of the self can involve risking emotional exposure, when ideas or images come into being. Yet the expressive artist who is true to the medium will respect these images and make them visible in the work of art. By giving artistic expression to personal truth the artist makes visible a larger wisdom that underlies and informs society as a

whole. They express what it means to exist as a human being in this world."


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Source :

Artistic creativity : transforming sorro
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