“We enter paradise every second – either that or we leave it.” – Christian Bobin
Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775 – 1851 ), Approach to Venice, 1844, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection
Venice to Turner meant ‘delight.’ A misty city, quasi-visible across the Venetian Lagoon through a golden twilight. John Ruskin, the major art critic who was one of Turner’s few champions later in his career, hailed the canvas as “the most perfectly beautiful piece of colour of all that I have seen produced by human hands.” In the Royal Academy catalogue for 1844, this entry was accompanied by a quotation that Turner himself rewrote from Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold:
“The moon is up, and yet it is not night,
The sun as yet disputes the day with her.”
This painting is a fleeting moment captured by Turner. Soon we will be there. We will be captivated by the sights, smells and the sounds the city has to offer. The Sun acts as a guiding light, welcoming us. It illuminates the City with glory, turning the lagoon a golden yellow. The moon too reminds us of the freshness and urgency of the night. The golden light will have disappeared by the time we land, and been taken over by the crisp darkness.
I’ve been blessed to see a painting of Turners’ for real. There’s something about the way he paints that draws emotions from you – it’s mostly not even voluntary. The canvas becomes an object in which you portray your emotions, hopes, thoughts and experiences onto. The gesture, colours and light-heartedness are all strong enough to withstand it. You associate your own personal experiences with the subject, making it appear different to each individual. And isn’t that the simplest purpose of Art? That it makes you feel something?
Christophe Andre uses Approach to Venice as an illustration for happiness in his book Mindfulness: 25 Ways To Live In The Moment Through Art. Approach to Venice is a metaphor in seeing Happiness gently emerging in your life.
Andre suggests that there is no happiness without awareness. Have you ever found yourself looking back at something in your past and thought about how happy you were but you didn’t realise? This is something we all fall victim to. Even just now, I thought about my experience with the Turner painting in the National Gallery and how happy I was to just look and be…and often now I find myself going to extreme lengths restlessly looking for this calm again. This retrospective happiness is human nature. As French writer Radiguet writes ‘Happiness, I knew you only by the sound you made as you left.’ Without awareness of the present we long for these past moments of happiness which we didn’t know how to embrace at the time. This happens when we are too busy…there are simply too many things on our minds to revel in happiness- work,eat,sleep,repeat. It happens too when we are sad or worried…our minds become uncertain about the future or regrets over the past. I’ve always admired Turners’ enthusiasm to ‘be’ in the moment and it is something we can learn from. His drive to capture these transient moments are influential to not only my own painting practice, but my way of living. I remember reading stories when I was a child of Turner supposedly strapping himself to the mast of ships to experience the moment in later, more stormy work. Even as a child I was inspired by this act of living.
How do we become aware then? If we regularly open our mind, not looking for happiness but just looking, we will see happiness in things. When I’m sad I force myself to go outside and just look. It’s not long before I realise beauty in things- it could be something as simple as a tree or a flower. As Andre puts it, these fleeting moments of happiness in our everyday lives will be ‘slight, brief, imperfect and incomplete, but multiple, changing, alive and constantly renewed.’
Venice mightn’t be as promised – but there are glimpses of happiness to be found in everything. By being mindful, we can train ourselves to notice everything, pains and pleasures alike. In times of adversity we should stop and accept snippets of happiness. It’s a fleeting comfort, but later, we will do it again. Thus, it becomes an endless cycle.
“We will keep on making misfortune breathe alongside everything that resembles life – in other words, happiness”.
Andre, Christophe Mindfulness: 25 Ways To Live In The Moment Through Art, L’Iconoclaste, 2011, 232-238