Waxing Philosophically

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Exploring Pacific’s Permanent Art Collection with archivist Eva Guggemos

A half-century ago, Irish-British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch famously declared: “Art is the final cunning of the human soul, which would rather do anything than face the gods.” 

   Indeed, centuries of art work have manifest a lustful desire for humanity’s expression and, at times, quest for perfection. Envision: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” and Michelangelo’s “David”; all odes to sublimity. 

   Yet, even on the thresholds of greatness, imperfections of the artist and, more broadly, the human condition are inescapable. 

   Famously, critics contemporary to Van Gogh dismissed him and “Starry Night,” while other so-called experts believed that the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic facial expression and yellow skin tone reflect her hypothyroidism; and, did you know that Michelangelo’s David statue would likely shatter if tilted even a mere 15 degrees due to cracks in the statue’s ankles. 

   Yes, art is a paradox. It promises the soul solace, while also forcing it to reckon with its incoherency. Above all, art promises a depiction of reality, or at least a depiction of truth, upon which it ultimately can never fully deliver; but instead of looking elsewhere, humanity pushes forward, paintbrush in hand, grasping for meaning in the infinite depths of the universe.

     Yet despair not. “Starry Night” portrays the existence of light in even the darkest nights; the “Mona Lisa” represents happiness and elegance; the Statue of David pushes the limits of creation and artistic possibility. Spanning eons, humanity’s oeuvre is as magnificent as it is profound. From the cave drawings of Lascaux to Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas,” a multiplicity of world civilizations, cultures, and peoples have contributed to it. 

   This all begs the question, what is Pacific University’s pièce de résistance? 

   The permanent art collection at Pacific University boasts an assemblage of artwork comprised of over 1,000 works from various domestic and international sources. Eva Guggemos, Pacific University’s archivist, was excited to comment on some of the most significant pieces in Pacific’s collection. Ray Stanford Strong’s painting, “Choice, Peace or War,” immediately came to her mind. Hanging on the second floor of the library, the expansive painting conveys a strong antiwar message. “A lot of students have seen it,” Guggemos notes, “but not many know what it’s about.” Inspired by World War One and offered a stark warning as Fascism began to grow roots in Europe, Strong finished the painting in 1936, just at the cusp of World War II. The work was “[Strong] was reacting to the horrors of World War One trench warfare and probably foresaw that another war was brewing on the horizon via Nazi Germany… The painting contrasts the beauty of a peaceful society with the devastation of war.”

     Guggemos also highlighted “Die Mama” (The Mama in English), painted by Ceija Stojka, a Lovara Romani artist, writer, activist, and holocaust survivor. (For a more in-depth view of Stojka’s life and art, the Index ran an article profiling her work and Pacific’s Dr. Lorely French on September 7, 2023.) “Die Mama” portrays a woman holding flowers returning to her community. The slice of life offers a peek into the nomadic lifestyle characteristic of the Romani people.

     The last art assemblage that Guggemos mentioned was Pacific’s Historical Asian Art collection, which features two scrolls titled the “Nine Luohans” and “Eighteen Luohans.” The latter almost eclipses 20 feet in length. The scrolls were donated to Pacific after being acquired in China in 1949. They illustrate the life of Taoist Lohans: monks who have achieved true enlightenment and originally followed the teachings of Gautama Buddha. Images of dragons and monks populate the scrolls. The collection is not displayed anywhere on campus as its delicate structure would slowly degrade if exposed to direct light.

     As Guggemos’s interview came to a close, one thing became apparent: the singular artistic “pièce de résistance” of Pacific does not exist; rather, each artwork in Pacific’s permanent collection tells its own version of truth worthy of consideration—and is one puzzle piece of a larger, elegant story. Just like “Starry Night,” the “Mona Lisa,” and the “Statue of David,” the art in Pacific’s archives will never entirely divulge humanity’s eventual fate within the cosmos. Instead, within the cracks of art’s flaws, equally revealing partial truths about our existence surface. “Choice, Peace or War” offers a warning against war and fascism; “Die Mama” glimpses into a non-westernized idyllic way of life; the “Nine and Eighteen Luohans” scrolls depict humankind’s timeless quest for enlightenment. — Reed McFeely


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