With apologies to Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, and making no excuses for my appalling play on the word “art”, I present a selection of “love art” from some of my favorite artists, as a celebration of Valentine’s Day. Though not what I would call a great romantic I have, like many, spent much of my life searching for, celebrating and lamenting love. Not all of us are fortunate in love. On this day let’s not forget those who are alone and let them not forget that we are with them.
Yes this is a marginally unconventional start for an ode to love!
The artist, perhaps surprisingly, is Vincent van Gogh and it is titled, very simply, as “Man and Woman Making Love”.
Notionally about sex I personally see this drawing much more as about love.
Distinctions are often made between “having sex” and “making love”, something that becomes more understandable as we age.
van Gogh, for me, captures emotion, passion but, most of all, togetherness.
By setting the scene within nature he also presents love as a state of nature, not limited to humanity.
The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love is in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese [chose] his make [mate].
This poem was written to honor the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. A treaty providing for a marriage was signed on May 2, 1381. (When they were married eight months later, he was 13 or 14. She was 14.)
The Bible provides many moving passages about love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-8a and 13
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails….And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
In fact, Corinthians is a constant source of inspiration for love.
I Corinthians 13:4-8
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Read the following by Truman Capote:
The true beloveds of this world are in their lover’s eyes lilacs opening, ship lights, school bells, a landscape, remembered conversations, friends, a child’s Sunday, lost voices, one’s favorite suit, autumn and all seasons, memory, yes, it being the earth and water of existence, memory.
Beautiful words written by someone who was anything but a beautiful person.
Love has inspired and destroyed the greatest of greats. It levels man and woman alike. It is indiscriminate. It is sought.
Mahatma Gandhi once said:
Hatred ever kills, love never dies. Such is the vast difference between the two. What is obtained by love is retained for all time. What is obtained by hatred proves a burden in reality for it increases hatred.
Jimi Hendrix perhaps echoed those thoughts when saying:
When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.
Even Albert Einstein had something to say.
How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?
Einstein had a point. I remember too well falling in love for the first time at 18. It was a huge, emotional, unrequited love. Death seemed too simple a solution. I could imagine no future at all and it was years before I overcame the disappointment.
Now, of course, those moments seem not only distant but ridiculous. What did I know of life? What did I know of love? What did I know of anything? The answer, of course, was nothing.
Even now, years later, I wonder often what do I really know of love?
Well let’s be frank, I am not the only one who fails to understand love. The picture on the right is an installation by Damien Hirst, titled “Lost Love”.
I have tried, I have really tried, but I just don’t get it. Admittedly, Hirst has never been my favorite artist, striking me as more a Daliesque showman than a serious artist. I sense some symbol of the oceans reclaiming land, perhaps meaning the triumph of death over life and, by consequence, love.
George Sand once said that, “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.”
Perhaps he was right. As children we have the absolute security of parental love. It makes us warm. We know with certainty that it will never die.
And we love in return, an absolute and unconditional love borne of innocence.
As we age and mature our innocence retreats and we seek a different love. Sometimes we succeed. All too often we fail.
Perhaps we fail because we seek to recapture the innocence of childish love, that perfect thing which is perfect only because we are unable to comprehend it.
Yet, in truth, I prefer to think of love as Shakespeare did:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Beautiful words that inspire and give hope.
Not all of us can find the love we seek. For many more love is brief and unenduring.
Valentine’s Day can be as much about unhappiness as it is about love. A time to reflect on failed or failing relationships. A time perhaps to question our sense of worth.
Yet perhaps I can take you back to the Corinthians: Love never fails….And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Each of us needs to keep faith in ourselves. Without self-worth we have nothing. Each of us must retain hope that we will find what we are looking. Without hope there is only despair.
If we maintain faith and hope then we can truly find love.
It is also important to remember that Valentine Day is about the love of a man and woman rather than love itself.
Go back to the words of Gandhi and Hendrix to understand how important love is to humanity. I think the Dhali Lama sums it up well.
When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.
In closing I thought long and hard about including a Thai artist’s work on love. My choices are probably controversial.
The work is titled “Valentine” by a young artist called Warawut Intorn. It is a self portrait of the artist and his wife.
Some might think it grotesque. Others could think of it as simply obscene. The long fingernails and wolf-like feet perhaps convey an impression of animal lust, a mad coupling rather than erotic love.
I see it differently. I focus on the coupling which, for me, expresses togetherness and tenderness. I look at the hair and faces which are essentially mirrors of each other and, I think of union. The union of man and woman.
It is I think a celebration rather derogation of love.
And it is also, in a sense, reminiscent of the van Gogh drawing. Let’s not deny the connection between love and sex, while accepting that the two are not the same.
My final choice is also controversial, but for different reasons.
Titled “I Cry”, by Nantana Phonak, this work could hardly be called a celebration of love.
It represents the artist’s pain as she adjusts to a failed relationship. The tears of hearts could be seen to be the shedding of faith and hope, without which we cannot have love.
Yet there is a beauty to this painting. Partly it is the rich, golden red hair, which simply inspires me, but there is also a serenity of expression in the face that gives me a sense of calm.
I feel that Nantana’s shedding tears are more a farewell to a past love than the loss of faith of hope. They are also of course a reminder that love is always fragile.
Happy Valentine to you all. Remember that almost all of us have someone who loves and cares for us, whether it be parent, child, friend or lover.
For me I smile always this day as I think of the three great loves of my life, my daughters and my son. I love you all with all my heart.