(Moving Toward the Light II, watercolor on paper, 87 1/2″ x 49″ 2015)
The description of Moving Toward the Light on Joseph Raffael’s website reads in part: “A major new book on the artist covering the past 17 years of his life and work in the South of France. Reproducing 88 works in rich color, the book has three illuminating essays: by Lanie Goodman on the artist’s life, by Betsy Dillard Stroud, a dialogue on the artist’s work artist-to-artist and by David Pagel, Art Critic for the L.A. Times, on the philosophy of beauty.”
When you open your copy of Moving Toward the Light, you will be opening the door into a world of beauty–the incomparable beauty of the paintings that Joseph Raffael has created over the last two decades, and the clear, clean beauty of the words of three fine writers on the life and the art and the thoughts of the man who painted them.
And that is how I began this review, two years ago. I have changed nothing in the text except to add this sentence and four more images of Joseph’s wife, Lannis.”
(Moving Toward the Light I watercolor on paper, 94 1/2″ x 45″ 2015)
This finely crafted and intelligent collection of some of Raffael’s best and loveliest paintings will delight you, will enchant you, will not only please you but will fill you with gratitude that something this exquisite exists in our troubled world. It is a splendid volume, about which I am going to offer an odd piece of advice: When you open your copy of Moving Toward the Light, be a little cautious. Stay awake. There are signs along the road; watch for them.
I have often felt that the galleries and museums that exhibit Joseph’s paintings, the galleries and museums where people stand, or sit–sometimes for hours–gazing at those paintings, should post warning signs, although I’ve never been quite sure what I would have them say. All those rooms, filled with all those paintings, many very large, hold you close with images that invite and intrigue–flowers; prayer flags waving over ponds filled with ancient fish; lush gardens; a wall of the artist’s studio; the Mediterranean seen through a window; seashells in a rock garden; a beloved wife. This is the stuff of pure happiness.
But once in a while, and then only if you are paying a particular kind of attention or are in a certain frame of mind–once in a great while–consoled by beauty; your perception shifted in some puzzling way by the intensity of this particular beauty; in any case, disarmed, unprepared–on a day like any other day, you are ambushed. Perhaps, if you are attending just at that moment, you will catch a glimpse of the shadow beneath the swimming fish or the evening darkness at the edge of the magnolia, and you might feel a chill. You might, just perhaps, feel an undefined sadness and reach up to touch tears on your face. You might break down and weep. I have seen it happen.
These paintings, that Joseph Raffael assures us, in Moving Toward the Light, know exactly what they’re up to, pull back the veil–or move it slightly aside–and, in that split second of our mindfulness, reveal something less comfortable, something more ambiguous, something a little disturbing. Something like life.
Next to the painting, Bali Pond VI, a large watercolor on paper dated 1998, the book quotes Thich Nhat Hanh,
“N o m u d, n o l o t u s.”
The beauty that Joseph creates is not a perfect beauty. It is, instead, a beauty that is whole and complete, a beauty that leaves out nothing. It is an important distinction. He has been asked many times if he considers his work “realistic.” I have even read it described as “photographic” in its realism. Joseph’s answer is always “No.” He tells us, in this wonderful new book–and has been telling us for decades–that his paintings are about painting, and that painting is about color. He lifts a brush and puts down one drop of color; he follows it with a second, and a third, guided by that which the painting will become.
“I don’t paint flowers. I paint energy.”
Joseph Raffael paints life.
(Dawn Rose, watercolor on paper
171/2″ x 191/2″ 2017)
And so I come, by this circuitous route, to the backstory of these reflections.
(Prayer, watercolor on paper, 85.50″ x 55.50″ 2007)
On 15 February 2017, Joseph and I had this exchange at the end of a thread of emails:
Joseph: “if you don’t already have my book ‘Moving Toward the Light’
i’d like very much that you receive a copy”
Dean: “I do not and I would love one.”
Joseph: “you’ll be receiving it in about ten days”
Dean:“How would you feel about my writing a review?”
Joseph: “you can write it whenever & whatever you want i’d be delighted”
From the start of our correspondence, Joseph signed his emails
I haunted the mailbox, I watched through my old casement windows for a UPS or FedEx truck, and I waited. While I waited, I explored Joseph’s website and cast my net wide for all the images I remembered, and there they were, not only on the website but all over the Internet:
Joseph Raffael, Fish;
Joseph Raffael, Water Lilies;
Joseph Raffael, Lannis.
Joseph Raffael, Lannis
The last time I saw him was in 1989 at a showing of his work at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Soho. The exhibit was called “Lannis in Sieste,” and around every corner, on every wall, were the paintings. I was stunned by the enormous watercolors of Lannis. There was a feeling of inevitability about them. Their tenderness broke my heart.
(Lannis in Sieste X”,watercolor on paper,
68.1/2″ x 44.1/2″ 1988)
Lannis in Sieste X, is five feet long and nearly four feet wide.
Try to imagine it.
It took the air out of the room that day in 1989. From the doorway of the gallery, I saw the colors and the woman. And it had me; I couldn’t leave it for long. I saw the pillows pushed back, the arms raised, the clear line of the fabric as it folds into slightly parted thighs.
Rich with color, almost consumed by its own hues, it is, like most of Joseph’s work, an incandescent mosaic of colors, one color laid down beside another, and another after that. Stand close and each tiny piece, each square inch of the whole, is a painting complete in itself. Walk away, turn, and the bits of color have resolved themselves into Lannis, lying on an unmade bed in a flowered dress whose pattern bleeds into the sheets underneath her. She looks entirely satisfied and comfortably seductive, as a woman can only be in the company of a man who loves her well enough to have earned her trust, who loves her well enough, perhaps, to have painted this portrait. A man for whom the surrender to paint and water is an act of love.
I think these are the most wonderfully sexual paintings I have ever seen; they are full of pleasure and laughter just beneath the surface. My cousin, Jane, sees in the paintings the likeness of a saint. I cannot disagree. I have never quite understood why they make me sad.
(Le Printemps I, 1988,
watercolor on paper, 61″ × 44 3/4″)
(Lannis in the Garden, 1986.
watercolor on paper. 30″ x 22-1/2 “)
watercolor on paper, 66″ x 44″)
acrylic border on paper,
52 ½” x 44″ 1985)
The beauty that Joseph creates is not a perfect beauty. It is, instead, a beauty that is whole and complete, a beauty that leaves out nothing. Joseph Raffael paints life. The paintings are enigmatic–yes, even the seashells, even the roses. They are mysteries–not to be solved, but to be embraced. They invite you to participate in their complexity. Only turn the pages of Moving Toward the Light. You will find yourself reaching for that embrace; you will find yourself hungry for complexity.
While I am waiting for my copy of Moving Toward the Light, I discover a video on YouTube in which Joseph, only his hands visible, opens the book. The video is called, simply,
The hands that move with a kind of courtliness across this testament to his art are the same hands that linger expectantly over the outline of a leaf, brush held just off the paper, waiting for the painting to tell them where that whisper of blue belongs. If I didn’t know that Joseph Raffael is eighty-four years old, I would say these were the hands of a young man.
The sound of his voice, as he talks about his book, startles me. It is completely familiar, but I had forgotten the slight Brooklyn accent. Even after twenty-five years in France, it is there. Recollection snags on that voice, rough with the edge of New York, fine in the way I imagine must be the result of a life lived in conversation with paint and paper and the gods.
As he turns the pages, he often seems to be talking to himself. When he comes to Lannis, in photographs or in paintings, he sighs. He explains, with something like wonder in his voice,
“I painted this when Lannis was sick.”
It is a repeated point of reference, as is,
“Soon after we got here.”
“Color is what keeps the painting . . . moving.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for the unforgiving loveliness of Joseph Raffael’s paintings is that they are never at rest. They are always moving, and always moving toward something–something just ahead, glimpsed but not quite visible, something around the next bend, past that big cloud bank.
(Turning Point , watercolor on paper, 550″ x 441″ 2010)
Every painting I have ever seen is in motion. The prayer flags lift their ragged edges; petals drift from flowers; and, of course there are the fish, koi of every size and hue, which were my favorites right from the beginning.
Life Streams, watercolor on paper, 56″ x 391/4″ 2004)
(Crescendo, watercolor on paper, 631/2 x 751/2″ 2013)
Even those paintings that evoke calm and stillness–I am thinking of the the water lilies that were among the first of Joseph’s paintings I ever saw–have some indescribable tremor at the center that reflects that balance between “the still point and the dance” that marks Joseph’s life as I imagine it to be.
(New Light, watercolor on paper,
66 1/2 x 443/4″ 2010)
Like St. Benedict, Joseph Raffael has chosen stability of place in which constant change and movement of spirit are possible, has elected a firm ground in which everything is “alchemical,” as he says of the watercolors in which he works–engaged in a perpetual process of becoming something else, something other, something more, something gold.
Joseph is neither a monk nor an alchemist. And yet, in the Spring of 1986, he and Lannis moved from their home in California to the South of France. They moved there to make a life that was pared down, focused, simpler–a life about painting, a life about beauty. A life of intention. They have been there ever since, in a house by the sea, surrounded now by their gardens and prayer flags and ponds full of koi, sharing their days with their animals, lifting up to the gods–like the sweet incense of sacrifice–the full truth of beauty. Lifting up the radiance that is born every day through the relationship between this remarkable man, a few pots of paint, and a stoppered carafe of water.
The first time I watched the video,“Moving Toward the Light,” that carafe caught my eye, and I thought, “Even the container for the water is beautiful.”
Joseph believes that “watercolor has a mind of its own, it dries in ways I can never imagine and insists upon being itself.”
“Transmutation” is the language of alchemy, and it suggests change at depth; change at the cellular level; chemical change. Turning lead into gold. Movement. Magic.
Will we who love his paintings know it when it happens? Can we mark the small corner of one of those huge water lilies, or clock the exact moment in time as the paint dries on the fish and the flags? Can we say “There! There is where the magic happens!” Whenever and however it occurs, at some point in time the laying down of paint with a touch so delicate it almost seems not to happen becomes the magnolia tree seen and photographed in the early evening in a garden in France. A garden in the south of France, on the Mediterranean, on Cap d’Antibes. Joseph and Lannis Raffael’s garden, which they chose in 1986 as they walked away from years in California, from exhibitions of Joseph’s paintings in New York, as they walked toward the light.
Joseph and Lannis Raffael have been home for over two decades. The gardens that Lannis planted are extravagantly overgrown. The paintings, with their unbearable colors, their light, their loveliness, their undertow of the sorrowful beauty of the whole world, continue to emerge under Joseph’s hand.
(Life Streaming, watercolor on paper, 55 x 931/2″ 201
When the book arrived, although I had lived nothing but Joseph and his paintings for close to a month, nothing could have prepared me. I held it as if it were the gold of the Philosopher’s Stone. It is eleven inches square, one hundred and ninety-two pages long. For such a substantial volume, it is a remarkably comfortable fit in the hand. The pages are heavy stock, silky to the touch. They cast back the light from the antique lamps that belonged to my aunt. It is impossible not to slide your hand over every image. The art involved in putting it together is evident.
Before I even open it, I can see that Moving Toward the Light is a book lover’s book. There is water. There is Lannis. There are shells of every shape and size and hue. There are the prayer flags, of course, and the fish. There are flowers. There is that magnolia tree. There are two brilliant essays and an interview, to be read, discussed and savored over time. There is a full catalogue of the paintings. It is the definitive reference work for this important period in Joseph Raffael’s life as an artist. But for now, there are only the paintings. Even from the pages of a book, they issue an invitation it is impossible to refuse.
(Life Streaming, watercolor on paper, 55″ x 931/2″ 2014)
Joseph says of the lifetime of beauty he has created, “The painting is most successful when the ‘me’ is mostly absent.” There are, in Moving Toward the Light, three small black and white photographs of Joseph as a young man, one of him as a boy, two photographs in color of him and Lannis. The photograph of Joseph Raffael, on the book’s last page, is barely more than a silhouette, as he leans on the railing outside his studio looking at the endless Mediterranean that is his daily companion. “The painting is most successful when the ‘me’ is mostly absent.”
Joseph Raffael, born in February 1933, is eighty-four years old. Here is a shimmering record of what he has done with almost twenty of those years. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be Joseph Raffael and to hold this volume in your hand. When you open your copy of Moving Toward the Light, you will be opening a door into the world. There are signs along the road; watch for them.