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Random International

The Rain Room (as installed at Barbican Centre, London) , 2013, Installation, 100 sqm, Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo

Jackson Pollock

Summertime: Number 9A, 1948, Oil paint, enamel paint, and commercial paint on canvas, 84.8 x 555 cm, Tate, T03977, © 2020 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Camille Pissarro

Rue de l'Épicerie, Rouen (Effect of Sunlight), 1898, Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 60.5, www.metmuseum.org

New Thoughts and Ways

Comparative Commentary by

Isaiah 55 begins with a call to repentance; a call from God to his people Israel to come to him, to listen to him, to return to him. The purpose of this return is so that God can pardon his people, assure them of his faithful promises, and bring them out of exile and back to their homeland, to a place of freedom and joy.

The whole of the passage hinges upon the line, ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways’ (v.9). God will do something new, something beyond human imagining. The prophet implies that the world’s patterns of thinking and acting could not possibly conceive of God’s methods, which are not constricted by worldly convention, but open up new visions and new possibilities beyond it.

By taking the familiar call of the market seller, who sells his bread for a price, and turning it into God’s call to priceless riches, the prophet Isaiah highlights this incongruity of human and godly thinking.

Pissarro’s painting of the market at Rouen helps us to see the contrast. The cathedral, if read as representing the ways of God, dominates the scene and the vertical draw of its spires and towers lifts our eyes to the sky and to heaven, to things above. The people at the market are tiny in comparison, busy with their buying and selling, enmeshed in their own economic system, unable to break away because they have money to make and mouths to fill. The height of the buildings and the narrowness of the street to the cathedral create the effect of a deep gully which suggests the extent to which humanity is embedded in its own social and economic structures. And yet the presence of the cathedral speaks a different message: that God oversees the market, and continues to call out, offering his own wine, milk, and bread to satisfy the human soul, with no price tag attached.

Isaiah 55 begins a theological reflection in verse 10, showing us that God’s way and his will are to be found in his word. God’s covenant promises are encountered in this word, which goes out from his mouth to achieve its purpose of drawing God’s people back to their creator. The word is like rain—falling and watering the earth and returning to heaven. This is the same water that the prophet calls us to at the beginning of the passage: ‘everyone who thirsts, come to the waters’ (v.1).

Rain Room invites us to come to its waters, but instead of being refreshed we remain dry. The installation plays with our expectations. It gives us a surprise sense of control. We can have authority over the water. Perhaps we enjoy this temporary power that the room grants us. Yet we might wonder how our lives outside the Rain Room are also constrained by our tendency to control. How much of that tendency works in contrary motion to the mission of God’s word? (Humanity’s desire for control was, after all, the problem that emerged in the Garden of Eden, when paradise was lost and humanity’s desire for potency cut it off from God.)

God’s call in Isaiah is to paradise regained (Barton & Muddiman 2012: 479), whether that is of a literal Eden or an Eden-like restoration of Israel’s homeland, city, Temple, and relationship with God. It is a call to a place of beauty and freedom and joy, unmarred by human sin and short-sightedness. Here the mountains will sing and the trees will clap their hands: who could have imagined? The thorn will be replaced by the cypress and the brier with the myrtle—signs of new life in the wilderness, the beginnings of the restoration of the Garden of Eden.

Pollock’s Summertime Number 9A can be seen as a picture of this new life: the paint dances around and about the canvas, in places going off its edge. It was, at its time of execution, a completely ‘new’ sort of image. Pollock’s technique of ‘drip painting’ enacts a freedom comparable to that imagined in Isaiah. Pollock’s subversion of the received order of painting gave rise to a new form of expression and artistic freedom, where the process of painting was as important as the finished product (see Rose 1979).

Pollock famously said of his painting technique, ‘on the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, … I can … literally be in the painting’(Pollock 1947–48: 79). As he broke with tradition and experienced this new sense of freedom and wholeness in his artistic process so Isaiah’s picture of redemption breaks through human convention, human weakness, and human structures, and envisions a world more lively and true. A world where the unexpected happens, and creation sings God’s word.

 

References

Barton, John and John Muddiman. 2012. The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Rose, Barbara. 1979. ‘Hans Namuth’s Photographs and the Jackson Pollock Myth. Part one: Media Impact and the Failure of Criticism’, Arts Magazine 53.7: 112–16

Pollock, Jackson. 1947–48. ‘My Painting’, Possibilities 1: 78–83; reprinted in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, ed. by Pepe Karmel (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988), pp. 17–18

Varnedoe, Kirk. 1999. Jackson Pollock (London: Tate)

 

Next exhibition: Isaiah 63:1–14