Art and our response to it happens on a psychological level (and spiritual, for those inclined). Taking the time to see and think about a painting can provide ideas, impressions, and even truths about ourselves that can’t be delivered through more concrete fields such as science and math.
Consider the above painting by Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch. He painted and sketched numerous versions, sometimes calling it Madonna and sometimes, Loving Woman. Perform a search for the image and you’ll see how the versions vary in color, tone, and surrounding composition. One can imagine Munch trying to pinpoint a specific meaning, and then, having lost some of the painting’s appeal, backtracking in the next sketch before moving too far and having to correct it all over again.
Art critics are equally as varied in their interpretations. Most agree on the reference to the Virgin Mary, though, and that the subject is captured in the act of intercourse. In fact, the subject is situated so that we have the view of a lover lying beneath her. This is blasphemy in a reference to the Virgin Mary, but Munch has rendered his Madonna with as much quiet beauty and grace as a Fra Angelico or Botticelli.
The paradox is only magnified by examining the details of the painting. Rather than a saintly gold, her halo is a human red (passion and blood, love and pain). Her arms bent behind her back speak to submission, yet as she’s shown in a dominant love-making position, we might also see a pose of ecstasy. And finally her abdomen has been rendered with circular brush stokes, hinting at the womb within in. Therein lies the connection between our mid-coital subject and images of the Virgin Mary: the Annunciation. Munch’s Madonna is also captured in the moment of conception, and if it is achieved through natural means there is no less of a heavenly light descending upon her.
There is a beauty in the contrast of this work and the influences from which it sprang. Try to interpret it, or render it, too specifically and it’s lost. This isn’t a piece about eroticism or blasphemy. It’s a piece about redemption and holy beauty in the human experience. We can add religious or humanist sentiments, but the pure idea can’t be codified or preached with language. Such communication is the realm and responsibility of art. It expands the mind/spirit and increases our capacity to experience more. Each work of art is a chance to encounter something bigger than ourselves. We miss that chance, as individuals and a society, when we privilege the tangible and concrete.