Sunday, January 28, 2007

Big Sur and the joyous art of Henry Miller


On a clear, bright day, when the blue of the sea rivals the blue of the sky, one sees the hawk, the eagle, the buzzard soaring above the still, hushed canyons. In summer, when the fogs roll in, one can look down upon a sea of clouds floating listlessly above the ocean; they have the appearance, at times, of huge iridescent soap bubbles, over which, now and then, may be seen a double rainbow. In January and February the hills are greenest, almost as green as the Emerald Isle. From November to February are the best months, the air fresh and invigorating, the skies clear, the sun still warm enough to take a sun bath.

From our perch, which is about a thousand feet above the sea, one can look up and down the coast a distance of twenty miles in either direction. The highway zigzags like the Grande Corniche. Unlike the Riviera, however, there are but few houses to be seen. The old-timers, those with huge landholdings, are not eager to see the country opened up. They are all for preserving its virginal aspect. How long will it hold out against the invader? That is the big question.
-- Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

This is, as Henry Miller said fifty years ago, the most beautiful time of the year in Big Sur. Maybe that's why the New York Times had a big travel story about Big Sur a few weeks ago.

One of the miracles of modern American life is that, in the 50 years since Henry Miller published the above words in 1957, Big Sur has pretty much held out against the invader. There's been a bit of development, but this wild 70-mile stretch of coast running south from Carmel remains largely protected and as pristine as when Miller lived there. Even if you've never been there, you've seen it. Every time you see a TV commercial showing a new car swooping effortlessly around winding roads hugging the cliff sides and ridges above the open sea, you're probably watching footage that was shot in Big Sur. (If you'd like to refresh your memory, the Times link has a slide show.)

The rugged, unspoiled scenery is breathtaking, and it's a great place to go to recharge your batteries. It's also a chance to acquaint yourself with the "other Henry Miller," not the once notorious writer of the "Tropics," but the painter. I photographed this display of his paints and brushes a few years ago at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. Although much better known as a writer, Miller was also a talented, self-taught watercolorist, with a style all his own. His paintings -- ranging from the figurative to the abstract -- are sunny, joyous, exuberant. The display of his art materials is like a shrine to the creativity of a great American spirit.

You can see some of his work just down the road at the Coast Gallery, which mounted a centennial retrospective in 1991. The catalog, Henry Miller -- The Paintings: A Centennial Retrospective, is listed at Amazon and you can use their Look Inside feature to browse the paintings. Miller's biography at the Coast Gallery's website gives us a glimpse of how Miller viewed his painting.
"When I write, I work", Miller said, "but when I paint, I play". His paintings are filled with childlike images full of play and color. Some have called his paintings "picture stories" but, unlike his writings, there is no message.

Henry the writer wrote passionately about everything, but Henry the painter traded his pencils for brushes and used colors and shapes instead of words and sentences. With his writer's mind at rest, his artist's spirit soared and he dared do what most only dream to do--to try to be as free as a child.

"To paint is to love again and to love is to live life at its fullest", Miller wrote.
Clearly, Miller never stopped loving.

1 comment:

Cybergabi said...

Beautifully written, Peter. I've only been to Big Sur once, but would surely love to return one day. It's exactly as you describe it. Except I didn't do the Henry Miller tour, so I have to take your word for that one :-)