Jan Valentin Saether: The Light Divided
"Gods and men are not only lighted by a light - even if a supersensible one - so that they can never hide themselves from its darkness; they are luminous in their essence. They are alight..." Martin Heidegger, "Aletheia," in Early Greek Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, 1975, p. 120.
Jan Valentin Saether is a singular artist whose background and beliefs make him all the more unique in the context of Southern California. Saether is a native of Norway who studied at the State Academy of Art and the State Arts College, both in Oslo. During his early studies in Oslo, Odd Nerdrum, now internationally renowned for his intense figurative imagery, was Saether's colleague. In Amsterdam, at the age of nineteen, Saether had a formative encounter with Rembrandt's portrait of himself as St. Paul. He recalls remarking, "there is being in this image." In a sense this was Saether's own conversion on the road to Damascus. It marked the beginning of a long, arduous journey toward understanding his historical lineage as an artist. Through the study of Rembrandt, Botticelli, Velasquez, Caravaggio, and Giorgione, Saether refined his own ideas about painting and his quest to manifest being in limned images. Less predictably, he also cites the influence of Mondrian for his sense of composition and Cezanne for his clarity of structure. Since 1974, Saether has lived in Los Angeles, returning occasionally to Norway for art commissions.
It would be a mistake, however, to categorize Saether's current work as academic. Part of the problem may be how we understand "academic" as a pejorative adjective, rather than as the description of an artist who makes non-ironic and skilled use of the traditions of Western painting. Saether does not fit easily into historical or stylistic categories. He does not imitate any particular old master, nor does he borrow superficial stylistic traits from carious periods of art history. His affinity for the art of the Renaissance and Baroque is based on similar premises: the human situation as expressed by the recognizable and intact body, and the placement of that volumetric body in believable and coherent spaces. Indeed, Saether's use of the human figure is distinctive for its emphasis on "wholeness", and contrasts with the preoccupation with corporeal fragmentation which is so characteristic of 20th century art. Both modernist and post-modernist art often represent the whole person synechdochically, by a body part. Fragmentation and the substitution of the inanimate for the animate are indicative of a century of social alienation and media dis-integration of the whole person.
Saether identifies his own yearning for social and personal completeness with Gnosticism.* Historically, Gnosticism was a religious movement which flourished in the eastern Mediterranean region and the Near East during the first three centuries of the common era. As an organized religion Gnosticism was forced underground in Late Antiquity but lived on in the belief systems of the Manicheans and the Cathars, as well as the Mandaens who survive in present-day Iraq. It also has much in common with other esoteric or mystical systems such as the Jewish tradition of Kabbala, and has enjoyed sporadic and small movements in the West since the 18th century. In its various historical manifestations, Gnosticism consistently emphasizes the discovery of "secret revelations" that might lead to salvation or redemption for the knower. In the art of the Enlightenment era Saether asserts that "the visionary landscape of (the English poet/artist) William Blake is deeply related to the secret myth of the ancient Gnostics" (in The Anti-Method: Reflections on Creativity, Imagination and Myth. Bruchion Press, Los Angeles, 1991, pp. 6-7). Approving of Blake's critique of the emerging rationalism of the period, he quotes Jerusalem: "To cast off Bacon, Locke, and Newton from Albion's covering. To take off his filthy garment and clothe him with imagination."
For the Gnostic, as for Blake, we are essentially spiritual beings whose goal is our reunion with the divine source. These mystical beliefs tend to denigrate the materialist and rational values of mainstream Western culture. The Gnostic mythos pervades Saether's work, reinforcing his anti-authoritarian stance towards institutions (especially university and college art departments) and informing the anti-materialistic and enigmatic tendency in his painting.
In keeping with his Gnostic beliefs, Saether identifies light as the major component of his art. The Gnostic dualism and opposition of light and darkness is at the core of Saether's work. His use of light also works on an allegorical level, as for example in the 1991 painting, The Rock and the Star (front cover). Here Saether has distilled a number of landscape elements that he observed on a car trip between Amsterdam and Oslo. Within this conflated view there are three sources of light, each having a different point of origin. Togheter they create a rather uncanny impression upon the viewer. The sunlight illuminates only the tops of the trees in this imaginary landscape. At top center a star glows brightly above clouded banks; and the seasonal burning of field stubble creates a semi-circle of flame. The painting brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson's words, "it is the magical lights of the horizon and the blue sky for the background which save all our works of art." ("Nature", in Essays, New York, A.L. Burt, 1936, v. 2, p. 172). The Rock and the Star transcends the specifics of a particular view in favor of the mysterious juxtaposition of opposites: the surreal combination of bright sky, morning star, and darkened plain. The focal point moves from the star down to a rock at the center of a field. The rock evokes the art of prehistory, embryonic and animistic. This painting with its inclusion of rock, flame and star, sky and distant lakes echoes the four elements of occult science - Earth, Fire, Air, and Water.
The somewhat apocalyptic Magus (fig. 8) was painted in 1990 following Saether'scompletion of Exile, a monumental tour de force measuring 108" X 247". In regards to Exile, Ross C. Anderson noted that "in lieu of Renaissance palaces and church interiors, the artist has depicted what appears to be a construction site. Within this space Saether arranges his figures not for the purpose of telling a story or describing a specific social situation, but rather to convey a sense of isolation and introspection." Magus also utilizes a setting of raw concrete walls, mysterious light sources, and piles of empty cardboard boxes to portray a foreboding atmosphere of end-of-the-world isolation and transition. In the foreground an illuminated and charismatic young man with arms raised stands in counterpoint to the distant female figure who cautiously descends the stairs. The narrative structure of Magus is based on these two figures, and their concomitant sense of duality comes from a number of oppositions: male and female, light and darkness. The sense of abrupt division is reinforced by the male protagonist's body, which is light on top and dark below, and especially by his gesture in which he beckons with one hand and stays the viewer with the other. He appears like a maestro conducting an orchestra; or perhaps magically controlling another realm. One senses that in this dramatic allegory each object is charged with possible meanings beyond the literal. The three dogs descending the stairs might suggest mythical attackers, or the jumble of cardboard boxes could contain the mysterious freight of the unconscious.
Saether's desire to convert the mundane into the sublime was perhaps crystallized in Anathema, a 120" by 52" triptych from 1982 (fig. 9). In this trio of canvases the commonplace cardboard boxes were placed at the center and forefront of each composition. We find ourselves peering directly into the boxes, their flaps taped back so that they suggest battered crosses. Each of the three boxes contains an object charged with multiple associations. The box at left contains a pale, disjoined head which Saether associates with John the Baptist and the severed head of prophecy. More generally, it refers to fratricide, or even relates to "momento mori" - the reminder of final things. In the center box is a rose which in Christian symbolism represents martyrdom. More obliquely, the form of the flower and red color of the rose suggests the "heart of the mystery." The box at right contains a fish, frequently a symbol for Christ: the five Greek letters for fish (ichtys) are an acronym for a devotional phrase. Because it is cut in two, the fish also reminds us of life's inevitable divisions or the condition of exile, the latter a leitmotif of Saether's world view.
The artist positions the three boxes of Anathema so that we feel we are peering at them across a narrow space: they seem to be placed upon a shelf or bench. We are made accomplices in the discovery of these disturbing objects, which - concealed in darkness - emerge into the light of understanding. The painterly execution of Anathema is quite painstaking, even photorealistic, when compared to the expressive impasto of the lower portion of The Rock and the Star. We feel Saether's insistence on anchoring these three related images in the world of material things in order to speak more eloquently of stranscendent concepts such as death, redemption, and resurrection. His approach relates to the vanitas tradition in Western still life painting, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries in Flanders, the Netherlands, and Spain. In this period objects such as skulls, books, hourglasses and wilting flowers spoke of the inevitable end of all worldly things, the "Vanity of Vanities; all is vanity" described in Ecclesiastes.
The Gnostic beliefs which form the underpinning of Saether's spiritual stance could also be expressed in other styles or modalities. The Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) proposed abstraction as the most appropriate form for mystical or transcendent thought, but Saether attempts a very different synthesis. Two elements are critical: first, the verisimilitude, the material reality of the scenes depicted; and second, the reliance on the effects of chiaroscuro and illumination on figures, landscapes and interiors. Both these characteristics, which rely on Saether's technical mastery of painting, allow him to take certain conceptual liberties. Things are not what they appear to be. Light sources which look credible at first glance gradually reveal otherworldly or mystical sources and meanings. The "reality" of each mise-en-scene is undercut by subtly built-in impossibilities, or as Saether would have it, "luminous possibilities." The sense of the uncanny in Saether's paintings is all the more affecting because it is presented in the trappings of visual reality. Light divided and ambiguous becomes the carrier of messages concerning wholeness, division and transcendence.
Ruth Weisberg, professor and artist
University of Southern California School of Fine Art
Weisberg is currently Dean at USC School of Fine Art
* derived from gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge.