By Ilona Goin
Light Source, June 2011
When an artist friend told me that she thought my photographs were filled with beauty, I thanked her for her kind words. They came from an artist whose work I had long admired for its gentle spirit, and I valued her assessment. But the very idea of it made me think.
What exactly is beauty? We know it when we see it, but the definition seems to be highly subjective and changes with the times. Still, there are certain intangible qualities that make the art and architecture of
Ancient Greece as beautiful to us as it was to the creators themselves—and, along the way, to the Romans, the Italians of the Renaissance, and the British of the 18th Century.
Today, we still find beauty in Bellini and Rembrandt, Turner and Monet. Their styles couldn’t be more distinct, their subjects more diverse, and often their treatment far removed from our modern world. Yet, we connect with something universal in their art. We recognize something behind the images as true and still relevant, and it makes us realize that art of any time and medium can reflect something that is simply timeless.
So, what do we really see when we call it beauty? At the very least, there needs to be a sense of balance.
A piece has balance when ideas in tension somehow fit and belong within the whole. Balance is the result of a kind of peace in which colors and shapes that stand in contrast to others still produce an internal agreement. When nothing overpowers the rest, and everything is allowed its space to breathe, the piece settles into a fine equilibrium.
Next comes harmony, created when all elements unite around an idea the way all voices in a choir come together to sing one song. When the topic, viewpoint, space, colors, and light of a photograph or painting all come together to express the same message, they speak as if with one voice. It is the visual equivalent of a bell with a pure tone.
That is all it takes to have a good work of art. It is internally balanced and harmonious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is beautiful. For that, it takes a third ingredient, love. With the artist’s love—for painting, the arts, the subject, or life itself—come two key components of beauty: heart and light. Heart is feeling and vision, but even more, it is compassion for the subject or gratitude for life. It is an invisible ingredient mixed into the paint that is only revealed when the work is complete—a passion, a reaching for something not seen, a sharing something formless and only instinctually perceived.
As for light, it is more than the absence of darkness. Light goes far deeper than sunlight on a landscape or candle light on a face. Light is a force of life, indeed, the very sign of life. Without light there would be nothing. With light there is an abundance of physical and spiritual life. With rare exceptions adapted to life underground or in the deep sea, every creature on earth depends on light for photosynthesis, vitamin and neurotransmitter production, and to see.
We have an innate awareness that the presence of light in art indicates the presence of God in life. When the painter illuminates a face he doesn’t just tell us to look at a person but also at the light that animates thought and feeling, the divine essence that brings that soul to life. This simultaneous inner and outer light, then, signifies divine love sustaining Creation.
And how could divine light, the visible sign of God’s love, be anything but beautiful? The next time you visit an art museum or study a catalog of art or photography online, look again and pay particular attention to which images you find to be beautiful. Chances are that they carry a certain light, that in an almost sub-conscious way they speak of the loving presence of the source of life we call God. As you look, pay close attention to the images that lift your heart, the ones that touch a string deep within you and give you a sense of contentment, wonder, or gratitude. You have found beauty.
© 2011 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.