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Miles Mathis

on the

Triptych Altarpiece of
Harriet Westbrook Shelley



Ars Redivivus



The Triptych combines painting, sculpture, poetry, calligraphy, woodworking and design.  It is intended as proof that "there is something new under the sun."  This combination of media has perhaps never been attempted on this scale.  Poetry and painting have rarely been combined in history.  Poetry and painting, both by the same hand, are even rarer.  William Blake is one of the only well-known case of successful combination of the two.  His nine-inch watercolors in Songs of Innocence and Experience inspired me to attempt a life-size illumination of Harriet's self-elegy~an elegy I had written in 1996.


The time of the magnum opus is not ended.  The artist may still envision, and bring to life, wondrous things, no matter how many times he is assured by the uncreative that "all that is over."


In part, I created this work as a blow to the face of Modernism and the avant garde.  Primarily I created it for my own personal artistic reasons, which are inherent in the work and cannot be analyzed without damaging the mystery necessary to the piece.  But its form was chosen as a statement to the critics and other academics who now want to control art.  I strongly disagree with all their assumptions and conclusions as to what art is or must be:  its impetus, its definition, its use to the artist and to society.


In this Triptych, I take a great historical subject, one that has never before been treated by an artist, and develop it as richly and fully as I can.  The subject, that of the drowning of the poet Shelley and his first wife Harriet, is timeless in the emotions it evokes and the sexual and personal difficulties it addresses.  Whether it is politically au courant, whether it addresses the peculiar needs of the critics or the therapists or the computer literate, is of no concern to me.


Novelty in art concerns the need for new subject matter and new treatments.  It should not be understood as the destruction of all conventions, or the undermining of the very forms of expression.  Such calls for "the new" are calls for non-art.


Robert Hughes says in The Shock of the New, "A cloud of uneasy knowingness has settled on American painting and sculpture.  Its mark is a helpless skepticism about the very idea of deep engagement between art and life: a fear that to seek authentic feeling is to display naivete, to abandon one's jealously hoarded 'criticality' as an artist."  Having no interest in such criticality, I have risked this "naivete," doing just what I deemed necessary to achieve my ends, without regard to current trends.  Among the "cognoscenti," beauty is passe; the non-pathological nude is sexist and retrograde; transcendence, a myth; rhyming, reactionary.  For them, all pathos is bathos.  I have therefore embraced all these "conventions," making them stand in judgment against their judges.  History will decide, as it always does.