(1) The delineation of leaves and other forms does not reach to the edge of the picture but shades off into darkness so that almost all around the rectangle there is a band of undifferentiated dark pigment. In other words, the picture is framed within its own fade-out. We are allowed to feel that the matter is in some sense "out of this world"; and this in spite of the fact that the scene depicted is familiar—the starting out of a cremation procession.
(2) The picture is filled. The composition leaves no open spaces. Not only is none of the paper left unpainted, but no considerable area is left in uniform wash. The largest such areas are the very dark patches at the bottom between the legs of the men.
To Occidental eyes, this gives an effect of "fussiness." To psychiatric eyes, the effect is of "anxiety" or "compulsivity." We are all familiar with the strange look of those letters from cranks, who feel that they must fill the page.
(3) But before trying too fast to diagnose or evaluate, we have to note that the composition of the lower half of the picture, apart from this filling of background space, is turbulent. Not merely a depiction of active figures, but a swirling composition mounting upwards and closed off by the contrasting direction of the gestures of the men at the top of the pyramid.
The upper half of the picture, in contrast, is serene. Indeed, the effect of the perfectly balanced women with offerings on their heads is so serene that, at first glance, it appears that the men with musical instruments must surely be sitting. (They are supposed to be moving in procession.)
But this compositional structure is the reverse of the usual Occidental. We expect the lower part of a picture to be the more stable and expect to see action and movement in the upper part—if anywhere.
(4) At this point, it is appropriate to examine the picture as a sexual pun and, in this connection, the internal evidence for sexual reference is at least as strong as it is in the case of the Tangaroa figure discussed by Leach. All you have to do is to set your mind in the correct posture and you will see an enormous phallic object (the cremation tower) with two elephants' heads at the base. This object must pass through a narrow entrance into a serene courtyard and thence onward and upward through a still more narrow passageway. Around the base of the phallic object you see a turbulent mass of homunculi, a crowd in which
Was none who would be foremost To lead such dire attack;
But those behind cried "Forward!" And those before cried "Back!"
And if you are so minded, you will find that Macaulay's poem about how Horatius kept the bridge is no less sexual than the present picture. The game of sexual interpretation is easy if you want to play it. No doubt the snake in the tree _ to the left of the picture could also be woven into the sexual story.
It is still possible, however, that something is added to our understanding of a work of art by the hypothesis that the subject matter is double: that the picture represents both the start of a cremation procession and a phallus with vagina. With a little imagination, we could also see the picture as a symbolic representation of Balinese social organization in which the smooth relations of etiquette and gaiety metaphorically cover the turbulence of passion. And, of course, "Horatius" is very evidently an idealized myth of nineteenth-century imperial England.
It is probably an error to think of dream, myth, and art as being about any one matter other than relationship. As was mentioned earlier, dream is metaphoric and is not particularly about the relata mentioned in the dream. In the conventional interpretation of dream, another set of relata, often sexual, is substituted for the set in the dream. But perhaps by doing this we only create another dream. There indeed is no a priori reason for supposing that the sexual relata are any more primary or basic than any other set.
In general, artists are very unwilling to accept interpretations of this sort, and it is not clear that their objection is to the sexual nature of the interpretation. Rather, it seems that rigid focusing upon any single set of relata destroys for the artist the more profound significance of the work. If the picture were only about sex or only about social organization, it would be trivial. It is nontrivial or profound precisely because it is about sex and social organization and cremation, and other things. In a word, it is only about relationship and not about any identifiable relata.
(5) It is appropriate then to ask how the artist has handled the identification of his subject matter within the picture. We note first that the cremation tower which occupies almost one-third of the picture is almost invisible. It does not stand out against its background as it should if the artist wanted to assert unequivocally "this is a cremation." Notably also, the coffin, which might be expected to be a focal point, is appropriately placed just below the center but even so does not catch the eye. In fact, the artist has inserted details which label the picture as a cremation scene but these details become almost whimsical asides, like the snake and the little birds in the trees. The women are carrying the ritually correct offerings on their heads, and two men appropriately bring bamboo containers of palm toddy, but these details, too, are only whimsically added. The artist plays down the subject identification and thereby gives major stress to the contrast between the turbulent and the serene mentioned in 3, above.
(6) In sum, it is my opinion that the crux of the picture is the interwoven contrast between the serene and the turbulent. And a similar contrast or combination was also present, as we have seen, in the painting of the leaves. There, too, an exuberant freedom was overlaid by precision.
In terms of this conclusion, I can now attempt an answer to the question posed above: What sorts of correction, in the direction of systemic wisdom, could be achieved by creating or viewing this work of art? In final analysis, the picture can be seen as an affirmation that to choose either turbulence or serenity as a human purpose would be a vulgar error. The conceiving and creating of the picture must have provided an experience which exposed this error. The unity and integration of the picture assert that neither of these contrasting poles can be chosen to the exclusion of the other, because the poles are mutually dependent. This profound and general truth is simultaneously asserted for the fields of sex, social organization, and death.
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