In the New Testament both Matthew and Luke relate the story of Jesus being confronted and questioned by the Pharisees, who were pretending to be ‘teachers’ and trying to catch this young man in his own teachings. When questioned by his disciples later, Jesus described the Pharisees like this:
“. . . they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”[i]
It was a powerful image that caught the imagination of many Northern Renaisance artists, especially Pieter Breughel the Elder. Later still, it continued to influence writers such as Charles Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams, who included this subject in his final collection, Pictures from Brueghel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1963, just two months after that author’s death.
“This horrible but superb painting
the parable of the blind
without a red
in the composition shows a group
of beggars leading
each other diagonally downward
across the canvas
from one side
to stumble finally into a bog
where the picture
and the composition ends back
of which no seeing man
is represented the unshaven
features of the des-
titute with their few
pitiful possessions a basin
to wash in a peasant
cottage is seen and a church spire
the faces are raised
as toward the light
there is no detail extraneous
to the composition one
follows the others stick in
hand triumphant to disaster” [ii]
Paintings by Pieter Breughel and poems by William Carlos Williams have continued to inspire and influence artists and writers today. “Referring to a group of figural drawings he had begun around 1963, Willem de Kooning would say in 1975, ‘I draw while painting, and I don’t know the difference between painting and drawing. The drawings that interest me most are made with eyes closed.’”[iii]
They all looked like scratches, these drawings that de Kooning called ‘blind’ drawings. We first saw them in an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center[iv] in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979. At the time, this exhibition was known as “Recent de Kooning” and featured paintings, drawings, and sculptures completed since 1969.
What we didn’t know at the time, was that de Kooning completed these drawings in a vertical format and later rotated them 90 or 180 degrees in order to further dissorient the viewer. When re-oriented to their original format certain details emerge: these details include several clear references to Breughel’s great painting, “The Parable of the Blind.”
You wouldn’t believe the number of art students who in studying this painting will draw all of the figures straight across the page from left to right, all in a line, and all horizontally. Totally ignoring the descending diagonal from the upper left to the lower right. This of course flattens both the movement and the composition.
One younger artist who noticed this right away was Casey Roberts. Examples of his brush and ink drawings above and below, clearly show that he saw this diagonal movement and took it to a contemporary conclusion. As long time faculty members in various art schools around the country we could all probably be described as the blind leading the blind. An all encompassing metaphor.
[i] “Matthew 15:13-14” The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinbugh; 1952; p. 770.
[ii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; p. 11.
[iii] Elderfield, John, et al; de Kooning a Retrospective; The Museum of Modern Art; New York, New York; 2011; p. 369.
[iv] Cowart, Jack, and Sanford Sivits Shaman; de Kooning 1969-1978; University of Northern Iowa; Cedar Falls, Iowa; 1978.