You are in search of happiness, but all you get is more experience. Sometimes you think, yeah, there it is, happiness, finally! And then you realize, no, that was experience. Again.
The idea that we are in a constant search for happiness is the favourite concept of psychotherapists and writers, but it is a very rare subject for paintings or photographs.
Well, happiness is relatively easy to paint or photograph. But how do you “portray” the search for it?
One way is to show someone who’s just realised “that was experience again”. Like in this self-portrait of Gwen John, a brilliant British painter, whose life can hardly be envied, take my word for it.
If you try not to be overtly depressive, and want to add “but don’t lose hope” at the end of the first paragraph, you end up Gustav Klimt (nice, beautiful, even Kant would love it with reservations, but is a loving embrace a symbol of happiness for everyone?) :
This is when surrealistic art loves to come in.
Georgia O’Keeffe, a very good US artist, was offering the image of a ladder to the moon.
I can’t say I like it. The colours are great to highlight the main message, but… the ladder is hanging up there, I am not sure I can reach it, it is finite, basically taking you to the moon as promised. A symbol nicely highlighted but not much else.
Alternatively, let’s take the Spanish genius Joan Miro. (If you don’t like him or understand him, let me know in the comments, because I have a series of exercises that help anyone get the hang of Miro in a couple of hours).
Miro also used the ladder. But in a very, very different way.
You see the dog barking at the moon. Our endless search for happiness resembles the instinctive barking-at-the-moon dogs can’t resist, even though this type of behaviour can’t make the moon descent or send dog floating up closer to it. At best it can alienate neighbours and make your shrink happy.
Then, we have the ladder. It stands on the ground (unlike the one in O’Keeffe painting), and it is inviting us to step on it. Then it goes up in a rather galloping way, with the steps not comfortably spaced for easy climbing. No happy whistling along the way is promised. And then… then it does not necessarily take you to the moon.
Again, we have a nice symbol to ponder. Deeper or cleverer than what we’ve seen so far, but not really working towards you becoming a happy person. It is more about why you are not there, the difficulty and unpredictability of the road, etc.
Search for happiness is a very personal experience. Weak people settle for drugs. Many people settle for religion. Some people agree to have money with which to buy a huge sculpture of Popeye and put it next to a Picasso or Warhol.
How do you paint this search in a way that would not only illustrate it, but would motivate people to not only reflect on their past, but make them explore new ways, with their hope burning bright and hot?
That’s when you go abstract, and I will use Miro again:
Yes. You stand in front of this painting. Don’t move. Don’t try to understand it. Walk through it. Different people interpret it differently. For some it is a series of stones you step on while walking to the right, from the red stripe marking your birth to… eternity. For some it is about the events that blot their otherwise happy-blue life. Some, finally, believe it is about the red-hot hope that makes you go on. It is not just a versatile symbol, it is a tool for growth. Working for those who do not hurry. Working for those who are or want to be in this search.
And now, let me suggest an exercise. Next time you are out and about with your camera, find a symbol OTHER than a ladder to illustrate the search for happiness.
One of my versions:
Two friends of mine with very different views on “life, universe, and everything”, fortunately engaged in very different pastimes while resting on their way to the top of Mont Blanc, sort of “going” in very personal directions in their search while still doing it together. Is the climb difficult? Yes. Do they enjoy it? Well, it is hard labour buttered by nice views, but still.. Are they perfectly happy and satisfied? In a way, yes, but they still do the climb, finding harmony along the way. Are they happy to go on this climb and quest? Yes, there can be no doubt about that.
I have a few more ideas on how that can be done, but let’s share our findings in this subject matter, one of the most difficult of all. I will publish all ideas and maybe we’ll come up with something really motivating!