Volume 16

Freedom And Circumference

By Maria Pope

Entry 10 image

Image Credit: Victor Higgins (American, 1884-1949), Circumferences, c. 1914, oil on canvas. Snite

The circumference of a circle is the line which encompasses everything that makes up the circle, the line which defines what is within and without it, but the line itself is neither one nor the other. It is a threshold, a place without definition, and that lack of definition brings freedom. Circumference is that line, a challenge to seek freedom but also the painful and ever-present warning that freedom is fleeting, slippery, and remains tangibly intangible even when one views it as clearly as this painting portrays it.

In the most practical sense, one could say Circumference is the view from an airplane cruising at its highest altitude. It is a snapshot of the point in which the passenger can say she has left the world behind but has not yet entered into what is beyond it, when the blue of the sky fades to lavender and the moon announces the presence of an eternal twilight. And yet, the painting is much too broad to be the view from an airplane passenger's window. Either the viewer is present of her own ability to fly, or the viewer is seated in the cockpit of the plane, but both give the impression of full autonomy and freedom of choice, the theme of the painting.

The view itself is bound by two dark areas at the top and bottom of the canvas, the earth below and outer space above. These are the places of definition. One can be in space, and one can be on the Earth, but the painting itself is a slice of the place where one is neither of those places, and rather, where one walks the edge between them. It is a threshold, a point where one thing ends and the other begins, and yet, since the viewer cannot say whether she is closer to earth or to space, at that very point she is undefined. In that prospect, she finds freedom, and the challenge to explore this new space for what it is, instead of what a definition would tell her it is. The view is crisscrossed by the jet streams of the planes that have passed by recently, each creating its own path, each living this freedom. They also invite the eye to be free, to wander and to move throughout this liminal space, but to do so quickly, before it is gone.

The ability to move and to explore may be part of what frees the painting, but it is also what threatens its freedom, and makes the viewer painfully aware of how fleeting true liberty is. Just as it is impossibly difficult to walk along the edge of a circle, and just as quickly the split second between jumping and falling, the second of weightlessness, passes, the painting is only a snapshot of an instant, gone the second after it was made. The paths of those who have flown here before have already started to disperse, and, in the next second, will be gone. The clouds covering the earth are closing inward, and if one looks away, she will not be able to see the oceans and continents again. And as soon as the airplane in which the viewer is seated passes through the space, it will remain forever altered, bearing the mark of her presence, her own trail, even if only for a second. It is a poignant reminder that freedom itself is transitory, and the moments in which one finds herself totally free will not last forever, if they last at all. The movement of the painting urges the viewer to move as well, to do something with this small window of freedom she has been given, and to make a choice. If she tries to dwell on that moment, there is nearly a guarantee that she will not be able to, and she will lose her chance to make her own path, to leave her mark in the sky as those airplanes before her did.

The painting as a whole is more than simply a view from an airplane window. It is a challenge to be free, to seek those moments in which one is undefined, and use them to create new definitions and to leave a path, a record of that moment in which one was wholly free. Perhaps it is a treasure map to find these places, but perhaps it is also Victor Higgins' own record, a lasting remnant of an ephemeral place or moment in which he was his own airplane, blazing a path, undefined and completely free.