We freely admit that truth and goodness are important, but not so much for the concept of beauty. Frankly, art bores lots of us. How do we make art more relevant and interesting to the non-artist? Many of the great artists have such interesting back stories. Russ Ramsey is a pastor not an artist, who’s uncovered the back story to many of our well known, and some lesser known artists. Join Scott and Sean as they discuss his new book, Rembrandt is in the Wind.
Russ is a pastor and author living in Nashville, Tennessee. His books include Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), and the Retelling the Story Series, featuring The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP, 2018). His personal mission is to communicate the truths of Scripture in accessible ways to people in process.
Scott Rae: Of the three things, truth, goodness, and beauty, we will readily admit that truth and goodness are important, but not so much for the concept of beauty. Frankly, I think art bores a lot of us. So the question we want to address today is, how do we make art more relevant, more interesting to the nonartists, particularly since so much art has deep spiritual roots to it that we often miss? We're going to talk about these questions today with our guest, Russ Ramsey, who's the author of a new book, "Rembrandt Is in the Wind". I'm your host, Scott Rae.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell.
Scott Rae: And this is Think Biblically from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. Russ, tell us about the title of your book. What is "Rembrandt Is in the Wind"? What's the backstory behind your title?
Russ Ramsey: Sure. It has a double meaning. The title is based on, focused on Rembrandt's painting The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which is Christ and his disciples in the boat in the storm when they wake him and he calms the storm. Rembrandt painted himself into that painting. He's the character in that painting who is in the middle of the disciples and he is looking at the viewer. In that sense, in that painting, he is in the wind. He's in the storm. But that phrase of something being in the wind is also a figure of speech that law enforcement uses for something that has been stolen and is as yet unrecovered. That painting was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and has never been seen since. It was part of an art heist where 13 pieces were stolen, which collectively were worth over $500 million, which was the largest-
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Russ Ramsey: Yeah. That was the largest single property theft in American history. That particular painting was cut out of its frame with a box cutter and rolled up and taken out in the frame. If you go to that museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, that frame still hangs on the wall where it was and now it's just empty. So it's a haunting thing. So the title comes from that, is that Rembrandt is in the storm with Jesus in that painting and that painting is in the wind and it hasn't been seen for over 30 years.
Sean McDowell: Now, you're not an artist nor a historian by formal training. How did you come up with your interest and fascination with art?
Russ Ramsey: I grew up in Central Indiana in farmland. I grew up around farmers and I grew up in a small town. My art teachers in high school and middle school to whom I dedicated this book, wanted more for us than just for us to make ashtrays out of clay for our parents. They wanted us to really develop a lifelong-
Scott Rae: I made one of those.
Russ Ramsey: Yeah. Who hasn't? They wanted us to develop a lifelong appreciation for art. So one of my teachers, my high school art teacher said, if you want to have a lifelong relationship with the arts, just find an artist that you're drawn to, for me that was van Gogh, and just pay attention to them for the rest of your life. What will happen is if you go to visit them in museums, if you look at them in books and online now, what will happen is they will introduce you to their friends and colleagues. If you go to visit van Gogh at a museum, he'll be in a room with Monet and Cezanne and Renoir and Pissarro, and you'll get to meet all these other painters that were part of his era just by going to see him. They'll also introduce you to their mentors, so you'll learn about Rembrandt and Vermeer and these others that were the gold standard for folks like van Gogh.
So that was how that happened. Now I'm in my late 40s and I've been just paying attention to art over the years. My teacher was right. I've developed a much deeper knowledge of artists and their work, a much deeper appreciation for what the work means. It's really a great joy in my life personally right now just to engage with art and it's something that just started with that simple counsel from my teachers.
Scott Rae: Well, Russ, like I mentioned in the introduction, we readily admit that goodness and truth matter a lot, but we don't often say the same thing about beauty. Why do you think that is?
Russ Ramsey: I think because in the West in particular, we've become very pragmatic when it comes to engaging with the world. When we read a book or we hear a story or watch or listen to a sermon or something like that, we're listening for application, takeaways. What are the four things I need to know? What are the best practices I can take away from this? So we have a very pragmatic approach to engaging with information. What do I do with this information? But that view represents a historical minority for humanity, that part of being a human being is engaging with beauty. In fact, part of knowing God is engaging with beauty because of all the things that we know about God, and we know a lot of truths about God that he's revealed in his word, one of the things that we know about God is that he is glorious and majestic and beautiful to behold, in fact, too beautiful for even his own chosen leaders to look at, like Moses who wanted to see God and God said you won't survive it. He wouldn't survive the glory.
If human beings are made in the image of God, which is what Genesis chapter one tells us, and if God is, by definition, creative, which he is because the first things we learn about God is that he made things and the things that he made are beautiful, he called them good, then we are also creators. We're sub-creators. Creativity is a part of what we were made for and engaging with beauty is a big part of that. In fact, we limit our own ability to know God if we don't engage with the beauty in the world around us because God is inherently perfect beauty. So it's an important part of the rhythm.
I also think it really is a great counter to this idea of just being pragmatic about everything. Human beings are the only creatures on the planet who travel halfway around the world just to stand in front of something beautiful. We go to the Grand Canyon or we go to the Louvre or we go to the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland or we go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art just to put ourselves in the path of things that will take our breath away. That's a unique part of what it means to be human, engaging with beauty. I think it's vital.
Sean McDowell: Essentially, the way you frame that, that experiencing beauty helps us know God. Because the title of our podcast is "Think Biblically," we emphasize the importance of thinking Christianly in good doctrine, but that's only one lane of knowing God.
Russ Ramsey: RIght.
Sean McDowell: Experiencing his beauty, like you said, is piece of that too. In your book again, which is titled "Rembrandt Is in the Wind", what's the big idea you want readers to take away from some of these great artists?
Russ Ramsey: Well, there's a few things. One is getting back to the farmers I grew up around. They were the audience in a lot of ways when I was writing this book. I was thinking, I want to write a book that people who maybe have no aspirations of going and getting a formal education in art history, but are also people who are in the presence of beautiful things all day would resonate with this. So the approach to the book is storytelling. I'm telling stories about art, true stories, but stories in this book about that. Because one of the things I wanted to do is I wanted to help overcome that barrier to entry that many of us feel when it comes to engaging with art, that there's some sort of insider language or knowledge of symbolism and history and all that that we have to have before we can truly enjoy art.
What I wanted was to create something that would give people the freedom to say... It's a valid form of art criticism to stand in front of a painting and say, "I like this". [Laughter] It doesn't have to be that much more complicated than that, or this moves me and I don't know why. That's great. The art is doing its work and you're doing your part in that. So that was a big part of it, is I wanted to write something that would take a lot of the intimidation people feel about engaging with art away and maybe inspire people to go to a museum or to look at a webpage about a particular artist or start to begin to develop just some favorites and some appreciation. So that was it. I really wanted to do that. The other thing I wanted to do is I really wanted to tell stories in a really unvarnished way.
This is not a book of hagiography, which is just a fancy word for biographies of saints. Hagiography is a book written to extol the virtues of a saint and prove why they're worthy of being a saint. A lot of the stories that I write about and the people that I write about are not saintly at all and their lives are complicated and messy. I think part of the importance of engaging with art is when you engage with art, even when you engage with art that's beautiful and moving, part of what you're always engaging with is the human struggle for perfection and for peace and for a sense of home and things being right. I wanted to tell some of the complicated stories behind some of these works of art that have been moving people so deeply for hundreds of years.
Scott Rae: Russ, why don't we start with some of these stories with the person who you claim is the one who captured you early on, who was Vinc ent van Gogh.
Russ Ramsey: Yeah.
Scott Rae: What's the spiritual lesson or lessons that you draw from the life and work of van Gogh?
Russ Ramsey: Yeah. Van Gogh is, to me, the striving man in the Book of Ecclesiastes. He is the one who is saying, "I'm spending my life toiling under the sun and I'm wondering what it's all for." The chapter in the book that I wrote about van Gogh specifically has to do with the only painting that he sold while he was alive. Very few artists have the output that van Gogh has given the world. He's given us hundreds and hundreds of paintings. There aren't many other painters who have just produced the volume that he has, and he only painted for nine years. So this chapter walks through the frenetic pace with which he painted before he died and the story of the sale of the only painting that was ever purchased while he was alive. It was bought by a friend and it was celebrated at an exhibition where he was invited to display it.
When people wrote about it and they wrote about his work, he was embarrassed and mortified and didn't want anybody to talk about him. He's this character who has this tragic arc. We know about his mania. We know about his transcendence with his painting. One of the reasons we have all this information is because we have all of his letters. We have a thousand letters that he wrote, correspondence with his brother, which talks about his experiences of all the different paintings that he's painting and his joys and his sorrows. It just strikes me that van Gogh is one of the most recognized, celebrated artists in the world. His body of work is so big that you can go to almost any major city and find a van Gogh, and yet while he was painting all of these works that we revere him for, he had next to no commercial success or acclaim.
Scott Rae: Wow.
Russ Ramsey: Who can't relate to that story in some way or another? The things did not blossom into what you were so sure they would be for you.
Sean McDowell: What's the backstory behind Michelangelo's David sculpture and what biblical account is it taken from?
Russ Ramsey: Yeah. Michelangelo's David is, to me, my opinion, I would say it's not my favorite piece of art ever, but my opinion is that it might be the greatest artistic achievement by an individual ever. I know that's subjective and a ridiculous thing to say, but I like to throw it out there for people to challenge it and okay, come up with the reason why I'm wrong. It's the confrontation between David and Goliath and what Michelangelo gave us was something very unique in his presentation of that story. Most of the sculptors and painters before Michelangelo, when they would paint that scene, is they would paint David with the head of Goliath. They would paint David after the victory. But what Michelangelo gave us was David right before he slung his stone and he's nude, which is not something that the biblical text tells us, but it was a way that Michelangelo conveyed to the viewer how vulnerable David really was in that confrontation.
But part of sculpting a nude human form out of stone just brings so many things into play. The first is that if you're sculpting a human who's wearing a robe, then you can cheat on the physiology and the anatomy of a human being, the musculature, things like that. But if they're not wearing anything, then you have to be right or the viewer is going to know that's not right. It's going to look weird, but it's perfect. The physiology of David is just this perfect statue. But not only that, it's out of marble and all you can do with marble as opposed to bronze or ceramic or something where you can add to it, with marble, the only thing you can do is subtract. You take away and there's no going back if you make a mistake. You can't add back to the marble. So this sculpture that is achieved solely by way of subtraction of this human form where there's no place to hide imperfection, and it stands 17 feet tall when he is on his base-
Scott Rae: Wow.
Russ Ramsey: ... is just this achievement of artistic transcendence that boggles the mind. The moment that he captured the intensity in David's eyes as he's getting ready to sling a stone to kill the giant, I really don't know how a human being achieved that. The chapter is the story about how that statue came to be, even how that block of marble got from the Tuscan Alps all the way down the river and into Florence. That itself was such an achievement, that people in those days would travel into the city just to see the block of marble before it had even been carved because nobody had ever seen a stone that big be moved that far by people. So there's a lot of just firsts with that sculpture that just boggle the mind.
Scott Rae: Now Russ, you made the observation earlier that a number of these great artists were a mixed bag when it comes to their character. I'm thinking about somebody like Caravaggio or Edward Hopper, these great artists, but I think it's fair to say they were, maybe terrible human beings is not too strong.
Russ Ramsey: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Caravaggio, apparently from what you described, was probably should have been in prison for most of his adult life had he not been such a great artist. Those are just interesting stories for one, but do you wonder how does that work that somebody is so gifted, such a great artist and such a terrible human being at the same time?
Russ Ramsey: Yeah. That's one of the things that drew me to the Caravaggio chapter is that he is this picture of corruption and grace all wrapped into one person. The truth is I don't know anybody who doesn't have some measure of that, myself included, that that's part of the paradox of being a human being, is that we have this really incredible capacity for transcendence and engaging with beauty and deep meaning and we also have this incredible capacity to wound and hurt other people and to live these insufferable lives of self-centeredness and anger and rage. Caravaggio is just that times 10. It's such a vivid picture.
Scott Rae: What were some of the things that he was guilty of?
Russ Ramsey: Well, he murdered people.
Sean McDowell: Multiple people.
Russ Ramsey: Yeah. One of his biographers said, for Caravaggio, there was only carnival and lint and nothing in between, that he was either blocked away painting these transcendently beautiful moving biblical scenes-
Scott Rae: Almost all biblical scenes, right?
Russ Ramsey: ... Yeah, yeah or he was using the commissions from those works to get drunk for months on end and go carousing in the city and get in street fights. He killed at least two people, probably three. The first couple of people that he killed, they lacked enough evidence to convict him, but he became a fugitive and he spent the last part of his life on the run. One of the things I do in that chapter is I'm telling the story of him as a fugitive, trying to flee and escape for his life and all of the terrible things that he was doing and juxtaposing that with these paintings that he was painting during those same seasons that are the altar pieces and the things that we know Caravaggio for. He was this paradox and it makes me struggle in the best way with the question, what needs to reside in a person in order for them to be worthy of the grace of Jesus?
He seemed to have some understanding of the beauty of the gospel, but he also had this streak in his life where he was just a monster. How do you reconcile those two things? Because I know on some level, that's a play in my own heart. With Edward Hopper, he was a little bit of a different story because he never pretended to be spiritual or religious in any way, but he really focused on the loneliness of the human experience. But in the process of doing that and engaging with his story, you realize it's very autobiographical, that the loneliness that he's able to depict is his own loneliness and it's his own misery. So his story was a fascinating one to get into as well because he's one of my favorite painters. I really, really connect with his work and yet he's a very, very difficult person to learn about and probably would've been an insufferable person to live with.
Sean McDowell: It's really interesting to think about Caravaggio. This doesn't fully explain the depths of it, but in some ways, is it surprising given that we're made in God's image? Like you said, we're creative, but we're profoundly fallen and it's like you see those truths just on clear display in his life, which in some way reflects all of us. I love how you break that down. Now you also talk about how technology does change art, in particular, the work of Vermeer. Explain.
Russ Ramsey: We'll so the first time I engaged with Vermeer...A lot of these chapters and a lot of the work that I do with art is really part of the exercise of me learning about art. I didn't write these chapters because I knew everything about these artists and so I was ready to just write the story. Vermeer is an example of an artist that I wrote a chapter about because I didn't know anything about him and I wanted to know more. He has about 35 works that are attributed to him that exist. That's not many, just 35. When I went to a used bookstore and pulled the complete works of Vermeer off the shelf, it was a thin book. I remember flipping through it in a bookstore and looking at painting after painting after painting, and about two-thirds of my way through the book, I just had this weird feeling that something was amiss. I didn't really understand what, but just something was off.
And then I realized almost every painting of his and every painting of his from a certain point on is of the same room from the same vantage point, with the same window and the same place, and just the furniture has been rearranged and maybe the tile on the floor looks a little bit different. So I started wondering, why did this painter who's celebrated, why are all of his paintings of the same thing, of the same room? As I got into that story, I realized he did his work using an optical device, at least that's what historians believe. He didn't write about it. We don't have any record of it, but we assume because of a number of things, one being that the executor of his estate after he died was a guy named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who was the father of microbiology and an inventor of microscopes. So he was a lens maker.
Vermeer lived down the street from this lens maker and Vermeer's work looks so detailed and so specific and so accurate that the conclusion is that he used a series of lenses and mirrors to basically paint by number in some ways what he did. That was an interesting one because it raised the question of was he cheating? And the answer is no, he wasn't cheating. What he was doing is he was leveraging a few things. He was bringing together composition. He was bringing together color, but he was also bringing together technology into that, the technology of lenses and mirrors and an optical device that had been set up in a very stationary place in a room where he would sit and do his work and just rearrange the room that he was looking at.
So it's an interesting thing because the truth is none of us create in a vacuum. All of us rely on the advances in the technology of others. Even painters who didn't use optical devices, they use brushes that were made by brush makers and people who turned the handles and made them smooth and round and people who made the bristles and wove the canvases and cut the boards for the stretcher boards and mixed the pigment. There's so many other technologies that are involved in creating these works of art. Even going back to Michelangelo's statue of David. Somebody made his hammers. Somebody made his chisels. Somebody figured out the compositions of metal in order for those things to even be possible. So the use of technology is now part of the creative process. Even as we're sitting here having a conversation with me talking into a laptop and you being on the other side of the country talking to me back in real time, we're relying on these technical advances to make creative things.
Sean McDowell: You were inspired by the story of Lilias Trotter. I'm curious. Tell us that story and how you became so inspired by it.
Russ Ramsey: Lilias Trotter is probably the best painter you've never heard of. She was a watercolorist who lived in Victorian England. When she was very young, her mother showed some of her work to John Ruskin who was an art professor and a gatekeeper of the arts. When he saw this young girl's work, he said, she has this natural talent that needs to be harnessed and refined because she could be the greatest living painter in the world. But Trotter, as she was developing, Ruskin took her in and mentored her and she trained under him. But at the same time, she developed a desire to serve poor women, first in London where she lived, but then after that, she heard about the women of Algeria and the poverty of Algeria and she wanted to go serve this Muslim nation and the poor women and the orphans who were there.
John Ruskin said, you can't do both. He didn't forbid her from becoming a missionary, but what he told her was you can't do both because the focus and the energy that you need to put into your painting in order to become the painter that you have the capacity to become will require all of your focus. So she had to make this decision to set aside her painting in order to go be this missionary. She couldn't even find missionary organizations to support her, so she went on her own with a couple of other women friends of hers without the support of an agency behind her. She spent her life there and she used her painting to paint the gospel to visually present the gospel while there was a language barrier between her and these women who didn't speak English. One of the things that I was so drawn to with her particular story is you could hear that story and think, "Oh, the point of that story is here's a woman who had this opportunity to become famous, but instead, she chose to serve God."
That's not the story that I tell in the book, because the story that I tell in the book is she still became famous. We're talking about her now. But what she did is she reached a point in her life where she had to take this thing, this craft that she loved, this talent that she had been cultivating and she had to set it aside in ways that she didn't really wouldn't have necessarily wanted to in order to be able to give herself to something else. Who hasn't had that experience? It happens when we marry. It happens when we have children. It happens when we choose one job because when you choose one job, it means that you're not taking another job. When you marry one person, it's at the exclusion of all others. When you have children, there's time that gets consumed that you can't use for other things. So you're having to choose these good things and set aside other good things in the process.
One of the things that really moved me about her story was that she counted it really worthwhile to have given her life to serving these women in Algeria, but she felt the ache and the loss of not being the painter that she had been.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Russ Ramsey: One of her friends said she felt it most when she painted. When she was painting these tracks of the gospel to give to these women was when she really felt most acutely that she was working with a rusty tool, that she was not the painter that she had been years before and she felt the sorrow of that even as she knew she was doing something good. I think we all experience that in life. We all have to set things aside and in the process of doing that, they become rusty. They become unfamiliar as we give ourselves to other things and that's part of the experience of walking faithfully through this world.
Scott Rae: Russ, thank you so much for these stories, because I find them inspiring in the same way that you do. I want to commend your book to our listeners, Russ Ramsey, "Rembrandt Is in the Wind," subtitle, "Learning to Love Art Through the Eyes of Faith". I know there are lots of us who I would say resemble the old uncircumcised Philistines when it comes to appreciating art and beauty. Your book is a really significant contribution to just helping us grow in our appreciation for those two things and I think, as Sean has mentioned, to see God through the midst of appreciating beauty. So thank you for being with us. We so appreciate this. Again, your book is terrific.
Russ Ramsey: Thank you.
Scott Rae: It was tough to put down because there's lots of great stuff in there.
Russ Ramsey: Oh, that's so good to hear.
Scott Rae: So thanks so much for being with us.
Russ Ramsey: Yeah, my pleasure. My pleasure.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. You've enjoyed today's conversation with our friend, Russ Ramsey. Give us a rating on your podcast app and be sure and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.