Ruth and Naomi | Art for Proper 26B

Ruth 1:16 But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.

Ruth and Naomi
Ruth and Naomi, Painting, 2001,
He Qi, China,
Oil on canvas, 119 x 146 cm
Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Click image for more information.

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Ruth and Naomi, 2001, Mixed Media on Paper, He Qi (20th cent.)

The familiar, Moonlight Sonata was not inspired by the moon and Beethoven did not know it by that title. A German critic used that term to describe it a few years after Beethoven’s death. Music is the most abstract of the arts and a title of a piece may be simply something that pops into a person’s thoughts. When Aaron Copland wrote a ballet for Martha Graham, his focus was on composing music; he was not writing a score for a film and did not have a subject in mind. Graham liked the title of Hart Crane’s poem, Appalachian Spring, and decided to make it the title of her ballet. The ballet became widely known and Copland was amused when he would be told his music captured perfectly the image of springtime in the Appalachians. Today, the title of an abstract painting often is intended to provide meaning when none may be found in the work itself.

In the Book of Ruth we read the story of Naomi who left Judah with her husband and two sons and went to Moab. Her two sons married Moabites. Naomi’s husband died while they were there and later her two sons died as well. She told her daughters-in-law of her plan to return to Judah and tried to convince them to remain in Moab and possibly remarry. Ruth, one of the daughters-in-law, clung to Naomi and begged to go to Judah with her. In this touching moment Ruth said to Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave you…for where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people and your God my God;” (Ruth 1:16).

None of the emotional content found in the story of Ruth and Naomi is seen in He Qi’s painting. Even to believe two women are being depicted depends entirely on the acceptance of its title. This subject is treated usually as two women embracing and we may assume this is what He Qi had in mind as well. If the title were not provided the painting could be interpreted easily as two figures dancing; possibly doing a tango or the west coast swing. As with music, an abstraction in art may be called anything.

To a person unfamiliar with art, He Qi’s painting may seem “modern” but it is related in form to the work done by French Cubists and German Expressionists during the early years of the twentieth century. In Ruth and Naomi there is a big dose of mid-twentieth century grade school cliché as well. A popular art assignment in the 1950s was to ask a child to fill a sheet of paper with curvilinear lines; then the shapes formed by the overlapping lines were filled in with different colors; He Qi follows this formula. His “Ruth and Naomi” may delight people enamored with bright colors but it lacks both originality and substance. Perhaps a painting can never depict fully the emotions being experienced in this heartwarming biblical story but treating it as an abstraction and giving it a title avoids the problem entirely.

Note

Modern art is a term applied to work that emerged in the late nineteenth century and continued until the 1960s – 1970s. Although styles that came out of modernism are now somewhat passé, they tend to appeal to artists who are self-consciously trying to be forward thinking and yet seem to be unaware that art of the last century no longer represents the avant-garde.

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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