Celestial Voids, Celestial Infinitudes: JMW Turner and Qui Shihua

He who regards himself in this light will take fear of himself, and observing himself sustained in the mass given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and the Void, will tremble at the sight of these marvels, and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence rather than to examine them with presumption.

For ultimately what is man in nature? A Void in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Void, a center between nothing and everything, infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes; the end of things and their principles are for him invincibly hidden in an impenetrable secret.

– Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 72-199

Qui se considérera de la sorte s’effraiera de soi-même et se considérant soutenu dans la masse que la nature lui a donnée entre ces deux abîmes de l’infini et du néant, il tremblera dans la vue de ces merveilles et je crois que sa curiosité se changeant en admiration il sera plus disposé à les contempler en silence qu’à les rechercher avec présomption.

Car enfin qu’est-ce que l’homme dans la nature? Un néant à l’égard de l’infini, un tout à l’égard du néant, un milieu entre rien et tout, infiniment éloigné de comprendre les extrêmes; la fin des choses et leurs principes sont pour lui invinciblement cachés dans un secret impénétrable.

Top: Qui Shihua, Untitled 2005 185x357 Bottom: JMW Turner, Dido Building Carthage, 1815

Top: Qui Shihua, Untitled 2005 185×357
Bottom: JMW Turner, Dido Building Carthage, 1815

Painting proposes us an alternate space to the material world, one both separate from it and attached to it. To access the space of painting from material space requires an action. Seeing will not suffice, and the intimacy of contemplation is required. Yet, as a painting invites us to enter its inner space through this contemplation, its surface concurrently denies us this entry. If our sight is to transform into contemplation, somehow we must first enter into a state of intimacy to be able to wander in this artificial space. And to create this connection in a specific painting, the eye seeks an anchor point for its gaze, a meditative focus, much like Buddhist monks will use a candleflame, a single musical tone, or the mesmerizing sound of a repetitive mantra to enter their trance.

A sun blazes out from the center of these paintings by Qui Shihua and William Turner, offering a fixation point for our gaze to draw us into their space. The sun, as source of light and color, as mythical god of creation and destruction, is the perfect symbol to provide us this access. Beyond their symbolic values, the suns of Turner and Qui Shihua contain something more, something which emanates from their chromatic qualities. In their many paintings which contain sun figures, the solar orb doesn’t seem to be an object painted on the canvas as much as a subject emanating light onto the painting itself, as if it was not the painter’s brushes which laid down the layers of pigments, but the painted suns which radiated illumination from within the painting. Rather than the sun being an object inside the painting, the sun is the painting itself (or perhaps its source).

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ... exhibited 1817 Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire … exhibited 1817 Joseph Mallord William Turner

The sun and the skies that contain it are central figures in many of both William Tuner’s and Qui Shihua’s paintings. Turner’s Dido Building Carthage and Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, portraying the Rise and Fall of Carthage are repaintings of Claude Lorrain’s Aneas and Dido in Carthage. To assimilate these images into his own paintang, and to animate his homage, Turner added his fetish to lay claim to them – the sun – which occupies the center of the painting’s composition as well as its narrative. The sun not only allegorizes Carthage’s rise and fall but also seizes the eye to provide it a nexus from which to spread across the painting’s space.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Regulus, 1928

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Regulus, 1928

His painting of Regulus, roman general and counsel, contains one of his most extreme of these suns, and fascinates for how it uses the sun to bridge the material space of the body and painterly space of the canvas. Regulus, unwilling to betray Rome to the Carthaginians, was condemned to blindness – the Carthaginians cut off his eyelids and forced him to stare into the core of the burning sun until the evanescence of his sight. In his representation of this narrative, Turner places the viewer in Regulus’ perspective – the unbearably bright rays flame towards the center of our vision from the painting’s core, and it is us who are blinded, though not by the sun, but by paint. This subjective perspective collapses the distance between the point at which the viewer stands and the point from which the painting emanates, fusing the material spaces from which the gaze emerges and the painted space to which it extends, into one.

The importance of weather, skies, and heavenly bodies in Turner’s subjects hint that the figurative myths he chooses to represent are only of secondary importance to his real object which this myth’s representation allows – experimentation with skies as paint, to the extent that his subject choices seem to have been only excuses to paint a celestial image. This desire for the All becomes evident in some of his more ‘extreme’ skies such as The Morning After the Deluge orThe Angel Standing in the Sun. By posing hue upon hue to construct his skies, Turner’s paintings reach towards a chromatic, celestial and painterly infinitude, and his additive approach leads to an almost unbearable overstimulation of color and light, a yearning for a celestial Infinite in which the firmament will contain all the possibilities not only of nature but also of painting.

Top: Qui Shihua, Untitled 2002 81x174 Bottom: Qui Shihua, Untitled 2006 150x292

Top: Qui Shihua, Untitled 2002 81×174
Bottom: Qui Shihua, Untitled 2006 150×292

In Qui Shihua’s two untitled paintings, the same enflamed sun inhabits the paintings’ centers. These suns too are links, but muted ones with their colors diminished, as if the canvases stood too long in the sun, and have been bleached of their brilliance. Qui Shihua’s suns rising over the landscape do not reach towards (color, meaning, feeling) like Turner’s suns, but rather shy away from (color, meaning, feeling). Whereas Turner’s approach is positive, Qui Shihua’s approach is negatory, tracing a path towards painting’s other limit – the Void.

Turner’s accretionary style presents a superficial impurity (one sees the various colors, one can abstract them from the figures), and Qui Shihua’s painting a purified subject. Although at first Qui Shihua’s skies seem abstracted, upon contemplation they reveal the limotrophic desire of their landscapes. The figuration is there, requiring only that we look.

Qui Shihua’s painterly problem is that of the Void’s portrayal, and he approaches this problem by reducing the Thing almost to the very limits of its Thing-ness at the moment before it becomes No-Thing. His palette’s narrow but fecund range causes the images (their remnants) to constantly emerge and fade due to their proximity of one hue with another, ultimately bringing the act of “seeing” close to its physiological limits.

In a way, Qui Shihua’s paintings show landscapes seen at the moment of sight’s birth or of its death. His chromatic manipulation pulls the image towards abstraction, denying the line’s rationalizing imperative, while the abstract simultaneously draws its force from the figurative. Perhaps birth or death of sight is inexact, because his paintings in fact reveal sight’s nearing to death or birth – the first gaze of feotal incomprehension through a foggy film of amniotic fluid upon exiting the womb; the last retinal imprint left upon the fading sight of a man condemned to blindness by staring into the sun.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845

Joseph Mallord William Turner,
Norham Castle, Sunrise

Two final paintings emphasize the dynamic apposition/opposition between Turner’s Infinite and Quishihua’s Void. In Norham Castle Turner lays bare his desire for chromatic plenitude, reducing the painting’s subject so that it leaves behind little more than an image seeking apotheosis through color’s manifestation. In Qui Shihua’s 2007 Untitled painting, we witness the same desire, the same approach, seeking its own elevation, but here rather through color’s absence.

Qui Shihua, Untitled 2007, 200x402

Qui Shihua, Untitled 2007, 200×402

Although it may sometimes seem so, their paintings do not stand at visual antipodes: they are not so much diametric as dialogic. Like the Yin-Yang, there is no absoluteness of either Infinity in Turner or the Void in Qui Shihua, and each path proffered contains its counterpart – opposite which is also its source.

Standing at a distance from a Turner painting, we see the impurities of color; standing close, the purity of the strokes. Standing afar from a Quishihua painting we see the unifying whole; standing close, the chromatic fragmentation. Qui Shihua’s non-figurative turns out to be figurative, and Turner’s representations end up being colors. Both present invitations and challenges to seeing: one through chromatic and luminescent restriction, and the other through their liberation.

Qui Shihua’s celestial Void and Turner’s celestial Infinite distend our vision between the limits of the All and the Nothing. In the center between these two bounds, stretched between the Infinite of one celestial vision and the Void of another stands the ‘nature-given mass’ of its humble viewer – the solitary circular figure, the eye of the painting, and its fiat lux.


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