On a Photograph by Eugene Atget:
"Gate to the Chateau, Vaux de Cernay."
By Louis Dienes

     I care for this photograph by Eugene Atget of the gate of a chateau near Paris and its meaning is enhanced, I think, when seen in the light of the Aesthetic Realism principle: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."

     In his 15 Questions: "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" (1955) Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, asked about "Heaviness and Lightness":

Is there in all art, and quite clearly in sculpture,  the presence of what makes for lightness, release, gaiety? --and is there the presence, too, of what makes for stability, solidity, seriousness?--is the state of mind making for art both heavier and lighter than that which
is customary?

       It is the oneness of heaviness and lightness, I think, that makes this photograph so powerful. We see a road, in shadow and light, leading to a gate with delicate vertical bars and weighty, ornamental crown, silhouetted against a bright sky and flanked by a row of tall and slender trees bare of leaves.  A great iron lantern on the right side, nearer to the camera, is suspended from an ornate stanchion and mingles with sky, trees, and a portion of the chateau.  As Atget presents the scene in black and white, the sky is intensely empty space, lightness. The gate, trees, lantern, and building are matter, heaviness.  But as you look at it, space and matter, lightness and heaviness, seem to interchange.  The road is not only solid but jauntily rising. The sky seems not only light but serious as it provides a mighty luminous back­drop that unifies all the different things in the picture.  And then there is that wonderful gate.



    The gate is seen with a kind of factuality--even ordinariness--and at the same time with wide suggestion.  A gate stands for something definite, a point of entering and leaving.  It is usually heavy but, in opening, it represents space or freedom too.  Atget carefully chose the angle from which he photographed this gate.  It is both closed and open and, because of the impediment, you feel the freedom more.  There is something exhilarating--we feel we can get beyond heaviness and obstruction to lightness, freedom.  The road curves--we don't know where the path ahead will lead--but it is bright.     

     Meeting Aesthetic Realism in 1943 and learning that the world, like myself, has an aesthetic structure--the oneness of opposites--was like passing through a gate where my mind was set free.  I had been suffering from a terrible depression, missing my classes at MIT, weighed down with worry and fear.  At the same time I felt an awful emptiness, feeling I didn't belong anywhere, and was impelled to be in motion, aimlessly riding the trolley cars for hours.  In an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel asked me, "Is there a rift between what you do and what you are?"

    I was surprised by this question, but immediately felt it described something I felt very deeply.  "Yes," I said.  And Mr. Siegel explained: "People, in order to preserve what they are, get rid of what they do in the outside world every day.  We can feel there's an immaculate self apart from the humdrum."     

     That described what I felt.  And I also recognized the feeling described in these sentences from Self and World, by Eli Siegel, which express the triumph of ego or vanity--the triumph of looking down contemptuously at the rest of existence and feeling removed from everything.  "Matter, objects no longer seem obstructions.  I have done away with pavements, walls, furniture, stone.  I am in nothing, and free."  [p. 358]       

     This is the state of mind people cultivate when they see the outside world as an obstruction, and try to forget things and people and to be oblivious to the feelings of others.  To have it criticized released me from the leaden emptiness I felt.   Aesthetic Realism taught me that we can learn from art about the feeling we want to have in life--the true lightness that is at one with solidity, which comes from respecting the world, wanting to see meaning in things. 

     In Atget's photograph the gate is enhanced by the foreground.  It rises from flat earth having light and dark in a different way--we have a light toned mass dappled with shadow on the left and a heavier, dark toned rectangle of grass on the right, different from each other, yet one, because both together form one plane.  This plane, like the gate, is divided in half.  The same dark and light of the vertical gate and sky are in the rising plane of the horizontal road and patch of grass, here rendered in black.  And not by chance: Atget chose to relate vegetation and ironwork through a dark tone, the gravelly road and sky through a light tone.  There is a playfulness that is very surprising in the ornamental scrollwork of the cast iron lantern, which imitates the growing tendrils of a vine, while the branches of the trees behind irradiate like rays of light.     

    Today, the relation of lightness and heaviness in my life is much better and I am very glad that my education continues in Aesthetic Realism seminars, presentations, and classes taught by Class Chairman Ellen Reiss, where people are learning to see the world with accuracy and wonder, as Eugene Atget does in this photograph.

© 2015 by Louis Dienes

This talk is one in the series: The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel Shows How Art Answers the Questions of Your Life, presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene Street, off West Houston in SoHo.

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