“In the Spirit of Pilgrimage” by Dante Elsner Reviewed by John Robert Colombo

Whenever I visit New York City, which is not often enough, I devote half a day to the Frick Collection on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, largely in order to stand in reverential awe in its West Gallery to gaze at its most magnificent painting. Obviously I am referring to the “Self-Portrait” painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1658, the finest of the artist’s innumerable self-portraits and, in my eyes, one of the greatest works of art of all time.

I once quipped, “Rembrandt knows me but I do not know him.” This painting is evidence that he knows everyone, all of mankind, because he knows himself, and thus you and me. It is a tall order. On these occasions I recall the couplet composed by Robert Browning which go like this:

“He gazed and gazed and gazed and gazed,
Amazed, amazed, amazed, amazed.”

The enchanting lines come from Browning’s “Rhyme for a Child Viewing a Naked Venus in a Painting of the Judgement of Paris.” They capture what I continue to feel about this grand work of high art.

It would take an art historian like Simon Shama or a curator like Sir Kenneth Clark, Lord Saltwood, to elucidate the painting’s wonders and mysteries – or someone who has read the art book that is the subject of this review. The title of this book is “In the Spirit of Pilgrimage,” and it is the work of Dante Elsner, as edited by his son Jaś Elsner and published by Traditional Studies Press.

Before proceeding further, here is a paragraph about the publisher: Traditional Studies Press. The imprint has been maintained by the Society for Traditional Studies in Toronto since 1971. Over the last four or so decades it has released ten books and compact disks, all of them related to the Work, including the pioneering “Guide and Index,” “Beelzebub’s Tales” (in its Russian text), a compact disk of the English text (recorded by William J. Welch), and most recently, “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” a partial transcript of words spoken at meetings of the Toronto group a long time ago, some of which the present writer, a university student at the time, attended.

The books are beautifully and one senses lovingly selected, edited, designed, and printed. Most of them, like the present work, have a distinct, sparse, minimalist, and quietist style of their own. The work at hand shares these characteristics and has an unusual format. It is almost square, measuring 8.25 inches wide by 9.5 inches high. Pagination is x+106 pages of high-quality stock. It is a quality paperback with flaps on its front and back covers.

The text is well-leaded and hence easy to read, and there are by my count thirty illustrations, largely reproductions of paintings, ancient statuary, and pieces of old and new pottery, about half of them in full colour. My sole criticism of book’s typography is that on a double-page spread the outside margins are so wide that the lines of text disappear into what printers picturesquely call “the gutter.”

This is where the pages are glued (and not sewn unfortunately). Despite this reservation, the book serves as a miniature Frick Collection.

It comes with enthusiastic blurbs contributed by Jacob Needleman, Ravi Ravindra, Martha Heyneman, and Roger Lipsey. The consensus is that the book (in Needleman’s words) “sounds a uniquely authentic understanding of the spirituality of all great art.” That is the text in a nutshell.

In these pages Dante Elsner writes about his training and experience as an artist – painter, sculptor, and potter. For him art is everything, to the exclusion of much else. The book consists of a record of the conversations that in his later years he enjoyed with his son, enjoyed with his son Jaś Elsner. There are no entries for father or son on Wikipedia, but on the Web the son warrants a page as a faculty member of Corpus Christi College at Oxford.

Jaś Elsner was born in London and is a well-published authority on the art of the Roman Empire. He is also the author with Simon Coleman of “Pilgrimage: Past and Present in the World Religions” (Harvard University Press, 1995). The authors have dedicated this illustrated volume with its substantial text to their parents – in Jaś’s case to Renée and Dante.

In these pages there is no reproduction of Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait,” the painting I so cherish, but Rembrandt is the only artist (aside from Dante himself) who is represented with two full-page colour reproductions, and these are greatly arresting works in their own right: “Bathsheba at Her Bath” (1654) and “Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels” (1650). The commentaries on them are most insightful. Dante and I would agree about Rembrandt’s artistic greatness.

In fact, I find little in the entire book with which to disagree, although there are some points that he does not make that I feel he should have made, and it would have been a help to the student of art had the text included a brief biography of Elsner and some assessment of his work, though I sense the editors for reasons of their own, perhaps consistency, made a decision to avoid doing precisely that. For instance, in Poland he lost his parents in the Holocaust, yet somehow he found his way to Paris (and the Louvre) and thereafter he turned up in London. Herein lies a exodus yet to be shared. In point of fact, Jaś covers these matters in his memoir at the end of the book, albeit in a sketchy fashion.

The manuscript of these conversations was brought to the attention of the editors of Traditional Studies Press by Anna Passakas, one-half of the art group called Blue Republic, which exhibits its contemporary sculpture in Toronto and Krakow She was befriended by the Elsner family in London and in their cottage in the market town of Amersham. She supplies a warm memoir which she calls “The Story of a Friendship.”

What Elsner himself offers his readers is a view of the relationship between the artist and the audience. “An original idea can only arise when a person is completely alive, and that is possible only when all functions – mind, feeling and body – collaborate, and that I am sure happens equally in music, poetry and the other arts. You have to use all three functions together. That’s what is very difficult indeed, because usually we are predominantly in one function. Quite a lot of contemporary art is just invented by the mind.”

He finds the special relationship of the centres in statuary from Ancient Egypt and Ancient China, and he finds its absence in the works of Kandinsky and Klee, not to mention Dalí and Picasso. “Try to compare, for example, the quality of Dalí with the quality of Bosch and you will see that there is no comparison.” He is a Traditionalist in his tastes. He does have a modern hero. “Cézanne is a genuine discoverer,” he notes, in keeping with modern scholarship and artistic fashion, and not a mere manipulator of impressions and not a purveyor of “a kind of cocktail of improvised ideas.”

“Great painting, great art, has exactly the same potential. It is not made by the artist, but through the artist. It is not Rembrandt who painted the portrait, but something in him – you can call it Holy Spirit or whatever you wish – that is visiting him. Because he is in this state, he listens, he receives the impression, and because he is also ready in skill, he puts it immediately on canvas.” So the artist is a visionary. “When the great vision is dictated to you, you don’t have time to go and ask yourself what this shape or that shape will be. You just do it. That is what I call form.”

“The great artist does not necessarily always produce great works of art. There are works by Rembrandt that are eogistic, and not painted with submission. However the later Rembrandts are nearly all superb works of art. Such is the quality of this man. He had lost his first wife, then later his common law wife and his son. He was left alone, abandoned by everybody (except perhaps by the Jews of the Ghetto who posed for him) and in spite of all that, he still produced great works of art. That for me is a mystery – how a man grows like that. The poorer he was, the more dejected he was, the more alone he was, the stronger he became.”

Elsner finds Rembrandt to be a role model. “There is one late portrait of his representing a laughing old man. He laughs at fate. He is completely unconcerned about what will happen to him personally. That is what I would like to learn from Rembrandt, and I feel I am learning something of his wisdom each time I see his work. I know that he died in poverty. His life had a different pattern from the usual one. From a rich man, he became a pauper. But he was not broken by adversity. In him there was tremendous strength. And this strength shows in his painting. That is what others can learn from him. He shows the way. He shows how people can develop themselves.”

My own experience with his “Self-Portrait” bears this out, except that this portrait of Rembrandt captures the subject’s experience of himself and also captures the discrepancy between what the subject senses, feels, and knows about himself and what others are able to appreciate about him. Yet there is some irony here, some cynicism perhaps, as is pointed out by Simon Schama in his exhaustive study, Rembrandt’s Eyes.

In an interesting passage, Elsner states that in a garden you can see a rose. Or can you? “You cannot say ‘rose,’ in this case, because this one is unique. You have seen it and you will never see it again. This is what happened to me. I was simply in the inner state of completeness, and so I saw a complete thing. Is there a rose that is not complete? It has beginning, just as you have. You also are complete. From this sort of experience can be born a portrait of roses or something like that.”

The training of the artist is technical, but it must also be psychological, indeed spiritual. “All we can do is to prepare ourselves. We can prepare ourselves to be. This is basic to all religious teachings. Contemporary religions have lost contact with the essential, the basis in religion.”

Elsner finds the work of Henry Moore, or at least those works that he has seen of the British sculptor, to be lacking. “Some people fall into a position of dealing with shapes, and that is characteristic of Henry Moore.” It is earthbound rather than visionary. “As I’ve said, great paintings leave room for the spectator to be creative, to fill the spaces, and by that to create the work of art.”

With Zen paintings, he finds that the spectator “fills these gaps where there are no strokes.” He likens this to the modesty of Matisse who, sensing his limitations, forgets to paint in the faces of the saints in his masterpiece of religious art, Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. “By accepting that to paint them was not in his power, he did some good. And that is a wonderful thing.” My own feeling, on spending some time in the chapel near Nice, was that Matisse’s Dominican sponsors failed to realize that they had commissioned an artist who was a pagan rather a believing Christian.

I am not sure why but I find that Elsner’s Zen-like drawings to be less exciting than his paintings and ceramics. Perhaps it is because at first glance they resemble a lot of other calligraphic-like art and design. Perhaps the spectator has to study them in great detail to find how they are different, unlike Elsner’s ceramics which strike me as quite distinctive, rich in a quality that is both earthy and earthly.

Elsner is quite critical of today’s training techniques. “The training and practice of how to be open to another dimension does not exist in art schools. For that you have to find a special school and spend many years training. For example, there are meditation schools of Buddhism, like Zen, Vipassana or Thibetan; there is Islamic Sufism, the Krishnamurti Foundation, Bahai, the Gurdjieff teaching. All these schools may not teach you art, but they help you to become less dispersed within yourself.”

“If you want to educate yourself as an artist, I recommend looking at the great works of art in museums.” He then offers pointers on how to make such visits worthwhile. “If you look, for example, at Rembrandt, you don’t learn how to copy him; you learn how he positioned himself inwardly in order to receive the vision. It is possible to extract that from Rembrandt.”

It was Yogi Berra who once said, “You can see a lot by looking.” Elsner always says, “Looking at drawings is an extremely important part of an artist’s education. I spent two years in the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum, and three years in the corresponding department of the Louvre, the Cabinet de Dessin.” I am sure Elsner was a fine teacher, if he taught at all, and relentless critic of the work of other artists.

“Yes, when a man is in a collected state, not relying only on the resources of the rational mind, but with the awareness of the body and feeling working simultaneously, he is connected to a different energy that flows through him with unusual speed. His eyes are open to a different reality. He sees more – he sees ‘form.’ Everything becomes alive then. You are somehow wider. So what is important, maybe, is precisely that, to be wider.”

En route to these insights, he discusses his reactions to individual works by Holbein, Leonardo, and, surprisingly, Corot’s “Seated Woman” painted in 1830. “That is what I call real art.” He then admits, “I think that all true art must be religious.” He distinguishes that from “going to church.” “Some Chinese or Japanese bamboo paintings are for me religious art, whereas ‘The Holy Family’ by Rubens is not.” The same is true of Vermeer’s ‘Lady Playing a Lute’”

Goya and El Greco “attempted a nearly unreachable” goal when they largely failed in their attempted depictions of Christ. “The majority of paintings representing Christ are not religious.” The reason for this? “What is missing nowadays, in both art and religious itself, is feeling. If we could have feeling, we could have peace. But we are not peaceful in ourselves and that is why our dreams of making peace are just nonsensical. If feeling were there, within a moment, peace would be there.” Also: “Every human being can be an agent of peace if he is peaceful himself – if he is related inside. Feeling of this quality is the highest thing a man can touch.”

There is a fair amount of information about Chinese, Japanese, and Korean art, and especially about Zen and the special paper and brush and brushstroke that the Zen artist uses. “To reach this quality of brushstroke, you have to practice hundreds of times.” Perhaps if I reread these pages I will begin to appreciate the depths of Elsner’s Oriental drawings.

Elsner takes his readers from his studio on a brief tour of a number of Europe’s greatest centres of art, including Chartres cathedral, Notre Dame cathedral, the Cluny Museum in Paris, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. He describes and examines stained-glass windows, carved stone heads, etc. At the Guimet Museum in Paris, he pauses over the Raku pots and La Tsu Shi porcelain. “The real pot has to be ‘born.’ The potter does not ‘do’ anything. That’s how it is in nature. To be creative does not mean that you create, but that creation takes place through you, through us; this is the purpose of our existence. We are created not in order to appropriate to ourselves the creating capacity.”

The art and architecture of Ancient Egypt shows “supreme clarity” if only because their artists and artisans did not have to struggle against the pervasive naturalism that plagued Rembrandt and other European artists. “The ‘Sphinx’ produced a profound impression when I looked at him from his left side, but he was not so convincing from the right side. However, I have to reserve my judgment because I saw him only in the morning and at midday. How would he look in the afternoon or evening? You would have to go there many times, to see him in various situations of light. Maybe he was designed in such a way that in the evening he would appear very impressive from the right side, when the sun having moved towards his back would diminish the glare of his right eye.”

Elsner finally asks the question, “Who is the ‘Sphinx’”? If it is the image of the Pharaoh Cheops, it is much more besides that. “Krishnamurti says that we have a brain, but rarely have Mind; only sometimes can the cells of our brain undergo a transformation and contact Mind.” There is a deep consideration of “Le Scribe Accroupi” (a seated male figure with a hypnotic gaze and a scroll in his lap) which dates from the Fifth Dynasty. “It calls you to be in the state of presence, not to imitate it, but to be it. The scribe is showing you as in a mirror what you could be.”

Other works of art including Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” and Vermeer’s “La Dentellière” are examined. The latter canvas he calls “a complete painting, painted with all the powers of his being.” He confesses, “It took me eight years to distinguish the point of view expressed in this painting. The understanding did not happen suddenly as it did with the Mona Lisa. The understanding here came in a gentle way.”

Of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels,” he writes, “You feel it speaks to you, not to the whole world …. He painted her like a being from another planet.” He adds, “This painting saved my life. I came upon it wanting to kill myself. I needed help.” I will allow the reader of this book to learn more about this turning-point. Help arrived with the compassion conveyed by this painting.

The last section of this work is titled “Memoir of My Father” and it gives a youngster’s view of his sculptor father who found some artistic fulfilment during his life but no ready market for his wares. The youngster is the distinguished art historian Jaś Elsner. From his father’s exhibitions, he recalls signs that appeared on all the best pieces. They read “Not for Sale.”

Elsner Senior was born in 1920 to a middle-class Jewish family in Krakow. He would have been given the first name of David except that it seemed too Jewish; instead, his parents opted for Dante, which sounded Italian and Catholic. He survived the German occupation of Poland, unlike so many other people. At the age of twenty-four, he entered the Academy of Fine Arts. “He was absolutely clear that the artist’s two-fold path lay in clarifying what his expression should be, and in acquiring the necessary skills to the highest possible level.”

In 1948, he was able to leave Communist Poland on a scholarship to study art in Paris, where he applied for refugee status, supported in this endeavour by the sculptor Zadkine, a fellow Pole whom he barely knew. He spent ten years painting in a garret on the Boulevard St. Michel. It was in the Louvre that he came upon Rembrandt’s portrait of his common-law wife. It was in Paris that he chanced upon followers of Gurdjieff and in the early 1950s he joined the Work. “My father lived his working life, his art, his vocation and his spiritual life, as one. It is to Gurdjieff’s Work that he owed the inspiration to take this as a goal and much of the means to effect it.”

In 1956, he met a distant cousin Renée, also born in Kracow, and two years later they married and settled in London. They were able to support themselves from the meagre war reparations they received from the Federal Republic of Germany. Jaœ recalls growing up with his sister and attending meetings. “In our early childhood, one day of every weekend (alternately Saturday and Sunday) was spent at the Work’s large former chicken farm at Bray outside London where my parents were involved in various craft activities to be conducted under strictly Gurdjieffian conditions of attention and ‘self-remembering.’ I think the children were meant to do this too, but we conspired to be as disruptive as possible of this particular aspect of the Work!”

At Bray he was exposed to the pottery of Peter O’Malley. “I think he believed that a great pot was a perfect embodiment of an experience of life, and in the range of his pottery he sought to evoke the infinite variety of human experience, joyful, sad, summer, spring, winter, autumn …. ” In the end, “ill health struck him cruelly.” He died of pneumonia in 1997, but lived long enough to see his daughter married and his son Jaœ married and the father of a girl named Maia and a baby boy (named Dante after him). “It was a joyful cremation” that took place at the Golders Green crematorium.

Whoever reads “In the Spirit of Pilgrimage” will acquire a new friend, an irascible one at times perhaps, yet a presence, who regarded art as a vision and a revelation so that he regarded the artist as a visionary and a revelator. Artists in particular will be impressed with the man’s need to intuitively understand the work of art, intrinsically, rather than extrinsically through personal, material, or social history. If I had met him in life, I am sure Dante Elsner could and would have spoken to me for hours about the hidden and spiritual wonders of that special self-portrait now in the Frick Collection that Rembrandt had painted in Amsterdam amid so much poverty and pain over 350 years ago.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based editor and anthologist and poet. His current collection is “Late in the Day” and his latest compilation is “The Northrop Frye Quote Book.” His website is www.colombo.ca and his email address is jrc@colombo.ca. He writes the occasional review of interesting books. To join the mailing list, drop JRC a line with your email address.

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