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At the Feet of The Mother

Paris (1897-1904)

The Mother grew up in Paris, the metropolis of the great painters of Impressionism; it was the time when artists like Matisse, Manet or Cézanne rose to world-fame. In this very milieu she lived and moved among the cultural avantgarde of the time. She had finished her studies at the Académie Julian and some of her paintings had been exhibited in the Salon. At the age of nineteen, on 13 October 1897, she married Henri Morisset, a disciple of the painter Gustave Moreau. Her son Andre was born on 23 August 1898.

The Mother’s talks with young students in the Ashram in Pondicherry reflect her intimate knowledge of the milieu of Parisian artists. Once she related the story of a talented painter who belonged to the circle of Gustave Moreau. We render it in the following because it is rather interesting from the viewpoint of the history of Arts and throws new light on a disputed subject.

“I knew a painter, a disciple of Gustave Moreau; he was truly a very fine artist, he knew his work quite well, and then… he was starving, he did not know how to make both ends meet and he used to lament.”[1] Then one day, the Mother continues, a well-wishing friend sent a picture-dealer to his studio. The latter inspected all his works, without discovering anything of interest: the works of the painter were simply not fashionable and therefore without commercial value. But at last the dealer found a canvas with some palette-scrapings in a dusty corner and was suddenly full of enthusiasm: “Here you are! my friend, you are a genius, this is a miracle, it is this you should show! Look at this richness of tones, this variety of forms, and what an imagination!”[2] Now the poor man who was starving, objected shyly, “But, sir, these are my palette-scrapings!” The art-dealer caught hold of him: “Silly fool, this is not to be told!” Then he continued: “Give me this, I undertake to sell it. Give me as many of these as you like; ten, twenty, thirty a month, I shall sell them all for you and I shall make you famous.” The artist was not exactly fond of this idea, but since he was in dire need of financial support, he agreed to the proposal and started producing pictures not with palette-scrapings, but with mixed and brilliant colours which did not have very precise forms and gave free play to the imagination of the people. The Mother’s conclusion of this episode may shock many an art expert: “He never made a name for himself with his real painting, which was truly fine (it was really very fine, he was a very good painter), but he won a world reputation with these horrors!”[3]

Another interesting report is about Cézanne who was also residing in Paris at this time. The Mother mentions his peculiarity to do still-lives in which plates were never round and were therefore objected to by many critics. But when friends asked him why he was painting like that, he answered, according to the Mother: “My dear fellow, you are altogether mental, you are not an artist, it is because you think that you make your plates round: if you only see, you will do it like this (gesture).” The Mother explained the point: “It is in accordance with the impression that the plate ought to be painted; it gives you an impact, you translate the impact, and it is this which is truly artistic. It is like this that modern art began. And note that he was right. His plates were not round, but he was right in principle.”[4]

Thus the Mother spent ten years of her life in this creative environment of highly gifted artists and became deeply acquainted with their ways. A student in the Ashram once posed the interesting question why artists had so often rather loose morals, and the Mother answered: “They do not feel bound by the customary rules of conduct and have not yet found an inner law that would replace them.”[5] But she pointed out that not all artists whom she had known had been of this kind. Some were absolutely ‘bourgeois’, married, good fathers and husbands who followed a strict moral code.

Whilst Sri Aurobindo’s main interests in the early stages of his development were literature, poetry, languages and history, for the Mother they were, no doubt, art and music. But these were to her forms of expression which led to something deeper or revealed something hidden within: the search for God and spiritual realization were her sole objective in all things, and she was almost entirely left to herself in this pursuit. Only rarely did it happen that she received some effective help in the form of a book or a person: “Between the age of eighteen and twenty I had attained a conscious and constant union with the divine Presence and… I had done it all alone, with absolutely nobody to help me, not even books, you understand! When I found one – I had in my hands a little later Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga – it seemed to me so wonderful a thing, you see, that someone could explain something to me! This made me gain in a few months what would have perhaps taken me years to do.”[6]

When the Mother was about 21, she met an Indian who gave her a copy of the Bhagavadgita. It was only a very inadequate French translation, but she could perceive, by intuition, the true content of this Indian scripture. The Indian advised her to envisage Krishna as the immanent Godhead, as the Divine within ourselves, and to read the Gita with this knowledge. The Mother followed his advice and “… in one month the whole work was done”[7]: she had got the experience of Krishna as immanent God. The Mother later explained to her students that the Gita was an important scripture which elucidated an important Truth, and yet one thing was missing in it: the idea of the transformation of the outer nature of man, which is one main object of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga.

[1] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 1:37
[2] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 1:38
[3] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 1:38
[4] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 1:39
[5] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 1:41
[6] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 1:54
[7] Nilima – Glimpses of the Mother’s Life 1:55

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