EJN Remembrance #6: Li raggi de le quattro luci sante

Edward G. Nilges, “Edward Joseph Nilges, Anima Cortese Mantoano”: pencil, ink, wash and Conte fuser on paper 7.5 x 12 cm, 8 Sep 2010

Edward G. Nilges, “Edward Joseph Nilges, 1915-1945”: pencil, ink, wash and Conte fuser on paper, with tone and chiaroscuro added using Gimp, 7.5 x 12 cm, 8 Sep 2010

Li raggi de le quattro luci sante
fregiavan sì la sua faccia di lume,
ch’i’ ‘l vedea come ‘l sol fosse davante.

The rays of those four holy stars
adorned his face with so much light
he seemed to shine with brightness of the sun.

Dante: Purgatorio I

The drawing is coming to life. This is a person. The likeness comes slowly, but: the life is more important. I could never paint portraits on the street. I’d either screw up the likeness or reveal a lost purity or greatness. A Lamma friend asked me special not to do her portrait, she’d have to live up to the image, she said. Perhaps I need to start on self-portraits, like Rembrandt.

The left angle of the face needs to be adjusted because his head, like that of my children as seen from above when they were farting around so long ago, expands to hold extra brains. Intermarriage with Irish girls has made our faces a shade narrower but one still noticed this when my kids emerged from their Mom: large cerebrums.

The fit of the garrison cap is still a shade too small. Leonardo’s “mirror test” shows that the line of the right side of the face goes a bit too high.

Both these changes can, I think, be made when the drawing is projected on the canvas.

The green toned study simulates Daniel V. Thompson’s (The Practice of Tempera Painting) recommended practice of making a chiaroscuro study using black and white wash on a green or blue ground.

I cannot emphasize too much that unlike stock photos of military men, this is not to celebrate WWII, which after Vienna fell to the Soviets, had turned into a brutal struggle for mastery amongst men as is Afghanistan today. One of the ugliest aspects: the USA’s attempt to destroy the British Empire, the good parts as well as the bad.

Stauffenberg (another stand up guy) and the Valkyrie conspirators demonstrated that the German military leaders would indeed give Hitler the boot had a serious offer been made in January 1945.

No, this portrait is all about “moral seriousness”. The moral seriousness of making a decision in a world gone mad, where, as in Kant, there is absolutely no metaphysical ground, no pre-existing axiom system which assures you of 70 virgins in heaven.

In fact I shall define “moral seriousness” as that ethics which refuses to link itself to punishment or reward in this world or the next.

I know that Edward Joseph was a pious Catholic. But he was also a grown man, and Christ had said on the cross, my God why hast thou forsaken me. He saw what had become of southern France and northern Italy: stone angels on broken churches exclaiming in horror as on the cathedral of Dresden.

Besides, the “real” Catholic does not do the right thing for fear of punishment or hope of eternal reward. He does it, the holy sisters taught us, for the love of God simpliciter.

Through prayer, he returns to the silly (“saelig” in Old English) Garden: what Marx called species being, no longer caring for things of this world.

But this means he is morally serious after all.

Besides I have been told by smart men who’ve suffered that Hell exists on earth and they have experienced it. I have too. It is, even according to the contemporary Church, absolute alienation from God. “No light, but darkness visible” as in Milton, or in the paintings of Anselm Kiefer.

Edward J’s gaze isn’t resigned but it’s one that realizes that History has him by the essentials and there’s absolutely no point in acting in other than a serene and dignified way in History’s mangle. It mocks itself, for he has the military gaze in the eyes but the mouth is about to crack a joke.

Next: project the painting on the canvas. I found an oval canvas appropriate to a family member’s portrait in the Victorian parlor of my grandparents. Let’s see how it looks with the label and inscription.

Hmm…this reveals something about the smile. It needs to be watched, for it is at this time somewhat the standard issue lopsided Eisenhower grin or Army Air Corps devil-may-care grin, used to pick up girls.

That wouldn’t, I think, be Edward J. Not that he was innocent, and had not known the world. But he didn’t, I infer from reading his letters, let it make him want to be part of the world.

Outside the continuous rumble of thunder after a very hot, hazy day in which I hiked to the boundary of Shum Wan, the sea turtle preserve.

Note: in doing preliminary Gimp colour studies which aren’t ready for prime time I realize that the colour could ruin the painting.

There can be no tricolor no red white and blue.

Instead, the background should probably be black, and no phoney light should descend from the name label. Like the Unknown Helper, he bears light within him, but, this light must be explainable as a naked bulb in a bunker.

Not Henry James, who used “attributive” adjectives in front of nouns as in “the beautiful sea”: instead Hemingway who preferred predicate nouns: “the sea was beautiful”. Not “his shining face”, instead “his face happened to be lit from above by a bulb that was naked, and attached to our gasoline generator. Sgt. Tanaka was reassured by this accident and listened attentively to the plan for a morning that was going to be the last for many men of the 442nd.”

Anselm Kiefer’s ruins are the things “in themselves”, withdrawn from the world by Allied bombings, even as New Yorkers report that after Sep 11 the former “especially for you” shops and adverts were suddenly drained of their false use of the singular-plural “special You” and had become mere objects, like the propellor (?) in Kiefer’s painting Die Ordnung der Engel.

As in Kant or Wittgenstein, everything and nothing is explained by the facts. The bulb in the bunker lights the face even as people’s faces looked mystical and intense, years ago, in Roosevelt University’s slow elevator under fluorescent light. The meaning is poetry and metaphor: we put it there. But that doesn’t mean it’s bullshit if it is the whole ball game.


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