Celebrated American watercolour painter Charles Burchfield was a natural reference for me. He has had more influence on my work than any other painter that I esteem. His visionary landscape paintings contain wonderfully evocative and poetic depictions of the natural environment in its many moods and manifestations – from insects to wildflowers, to shimmering trees, to the heavily laden approach of a high summer thunderstorm. I find his work to be richly redolent with sense impressions and aesthetic inventions.
Burchfield’s highly tuned sensitivity and creative imagination fostered a deep alignment with the ever changing dynamics of nature. From about 1943 to 1967 he began to make use of some of the pictorial inventions that he discovered in his early twenties. These devices consisted of notations for sound, vibrations, presence, and atmosphere that could be incorporated into his work. It was due to a continually evolving process within the depths of his creativity that some of his most rhapsodic experiences were rendered visible in his paintings during this period.
“God’s greatest gift to me is the ability to be astonished anew each year by the almost incredible beauty of a dandelion plant in full bloom.” (Burchfield).
A familiar William Blake quote seems appropriate here:
“To see the world in a grain of sand And heaven in a wildflower Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour.”
It is within this context that the artist/poet approaches the mystical domain where corporality merges in an ecstasy of pure being.
Burchfield’s most significant work has its residence in the transpersonal. As such, at its deepest level of expression, it is in accord with the essence of being, the source of creativity itself. He speaks/sings from the level of essence when he says that the world, himself, and the source of creativity merge in a moment of recognition that proclaims the essential unity of all things. He was, in the transpersonal aspect of his work, congruent on his own terms with the twentieth century needs of the image making community to rediscover the epicentre of the creative process. It is from this source, the true destination of Tarnas’s “…inward turning descent …”, and Klee’s “… primal ground of creation…” that the energies of renewal will eventually give rise to a new synthesis that is taking shape, if we know where to look, beyond the postmodern deconstruction of former cultural conventions.
To become acquainted with some of Burchfield’s work, visit the Burchfield Penny Art Centre website.
I like to think of my work as Postcards from the Psyche (Soul) as it has become increasingly apparent to me after many years of enquiry, that the impulse for its production arises from a spontaneous, subtle, interior, visionary source.
This is the place where creative currents run deep and provide a fertile setting from which golden imaginal fishes (of invention, of innovation, of clarity, of origination) rise from hidden domains in response to our proper approach, and offer a boon to our meditations. The same place where: “… the secretly perceived is made visible.” (Klee).
The stimuli that sets the creative process in motion for me has many aspects including: Meditations, ideas, feelings, memories, sensations, reflections, intuitions, dreams, sojourns in Ontario’s natural environment, photos, sketches – the accumulation of life experiences. They ultimately form a workable synthesis. This fusion presents itself to my ‘inner eye’ as an engaging image that offers a challenge to its capture in a painting.
My usual procedure is to begin with a thumbnail sketch that becomes developed in a full sized plan in which the composition and design relationships become established in outline on tracing paper in accordance with my subjective decisions. The completed plan is then transferred to the watercolour paper and the painting adventure begins.
In that I am not attempting to render a likeness of some aspect of the external objective world in front of me, my approach to the painting is usually a tentative one. Working from an internal image, the translation of that vision into a tangible form is not always clearly defined. I am required to follow the development of the work as it leads me. It becomes a series of decisions, discoveries, and adjustments that continue until the matter looks to be finished.
I do not work from a formula and because of that each engagement in image making strikes me as unique. The development of the work is usually a matter of trying to find the proper solutions to painterly problems as they arise.
After graduating from Art College in 1952, I slowly began to find my way within the demands that the radical departures from traditional modern canonical norms in the culture at large and the 20th century visual art world in particular presented to me. It would have been easy to lose my way amid the deconstruction and relativism of the postmodern world if I was looking for some degree of philosophical certainty.
With the potential of promise on the one hand and hazard on the other, I embarked on a quest for meaning in a time of fundamental change. I adopted a mythic, narrative mode of expression in the early 1960s that allowed my drawn, painted and sculptural forms to function as metaphors symbolizing this quest. I could not have arrived at this point in my understanding without the clues afforded me by the work of three luminaries in particular: Mythologist Joseph Campbell, analytical psychologist Carl Jung, and psychologist Erich Neumann. While there were several other profoundly important deep thinkers to come to my awareness in an ever expanding spiral of significance over the years, Campbell, Jung, and Neumann introduced me to the invisible forces that reside in the substratum of our personal and collective lives. By extension, these forces form the social, cultural, technological, and religious climate out of which our art forms arise, ever dynamic and ever in flux in the long term.
I did not look to the art world for answers in this regard as it was in a free-fall of deconstruction away from traditional modern aesthetic values. This was clearly evidenced by the steady stream of “isms” that followed one after the other over the course of the 20th century. I found any traces of nihilism and sardonic irony such as can be found in the followers of Marcel Duchamp to be particularly unappealing to me. I was naturally inclined to search for essence, for the root causes that set in motion the events of the day. While I came to some intellectual understanding of the context that gave impetus to Dadaism in the earlier years of the 20th century, the use of irony as a substitute for a deeper expression of significance, did not suffice to gain my trust.
As I came to see it, what was called for was a workable connection which can be symbolically expressed between the the transitory and the enduring, consciousness and the unconscious, both personal and collective, in response to the cultural needs of the current age which in its turning, calls for reconciliation amounting to a renewed worldview of integration and cohesion. In this regard it is essential to to understand the manner by which we may discern the advent of an emerging vision that will inform a new constellation of transpersonal values in a new enhanced worldview.
If I recall correctly, I was 13 when I first became acquainted with the paintings of the Group of Seven – that was some 70 years ago. I learned a great deal about painting the Ontario landscape by copying reproductions of their work in oils on pieces of wallboard that my dad had given a coat of white primer house paint. The fresh, bold images that these artists brought back from their painting excursions in the natural environment spoke to me then as they do now, on some deep level of my awareness.
As with most innovators in the fields of creative endeavour, their departures from earlier aesthetic conventions were not readily recognized for the significance they ultimately represented. However, today they are legend in the land of their aspirations. It always takes a discerning few to bring to the many, new ways of interpreting the dynamic world we live in.
Unlike so much of European painting since the Renaissance, heavily peopled as it was in the renderings of mythic, religious, genre, and portraits, the Group of Seven seldom included the human figure in their work. It was all about trees, the precambrian shield, water, and big skies, painted in a fusion of impressionist and fauve-like ways of working. Looking back on the results of their exhilarating forays into some of Canada’s wild places, they represent in essence a refreshing return to humanity’s long sojourn in the natural surround, a swim in primordial waters as it were. Viewed from within the context of the shift in cultural values away from the modern era to the advent of postmodernism, their work suggests a remembering of origins “In the womb of nature …” Klee. A necessary step in the process of renewal.
While his companions kept to a more naturalistic form of painterly expression, Lawren Harris was inclined to take this process of getting in touch with origins to another level in his search for spiritual authenticity. He was also a good organizer, independently wealthy, and the prime mover in the formation of the Group. Art for him was: “A realm of life between our mundane world and the world of the spirit.”
In his alertness to clues that would put him in touch with ever deeper levels of transpersonal significance, Harris found compelling leads in the writing and art of Vasily Kandinsky. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian were attracted to the philosophy and metaphysical ideas contained in Theosophy. This is the name of a movement founded in the 19th century by Madame Blavatsky and others. It is based on the Vedas, the Shastras, and the Puranas, the ancient sacred scriptures of India. Here we find another example of the wisdom teachings of the East spreading to the West.
The influences that Harris found to be so compelling in this movement can be discerned in the soaring, monumental, snow-covered mountains rising out of primordial arctic landscapes and giving expression in celestial skies – suggestive of metaphorical ascensions to lofty mystical domains. Such was his inspiration in translating objective reality, that he felt free to alter what he saw in accordance with his subjective interior vision.
In his last period, Harris abandoned all vestiges of the world of objective reality in favour of a non-objective form of expression. Gone the cityscapes, gone the landscapes, enter abstraction. Following Kandinsky’s lead, he turned to painting primary pictorial relationships in flat shape and line, simple colour and tone in geometric formal constructions. While Kandinsky’s work has an organic cast in the play of its various parts, Harris’s work more closely resembles that of Mondrian’s direction in painting in that there is an inorganic, crystalline, ‘hard-edge’ character to their visual art. And finally, Harris’s search for a detached, mystical form of expression, lead him in a minimalist direction where he felt that it was unimportant to sign his work.
This deconstruction of the world of visual and tactile encounters in favour of reductive primary relationships in image making, is yet another example of the 20th century “… inward-turning descent and deconstruction of the self …” Tarnas. What is called for here is is not an ‘either or’ but a ‘both and’. The outer and inner directed approaches to creative expression require an equilibrium in the recognition of the values that each can provide.
The immense forces affecting the very foundations of traditional Western world views were on the move in the 20th century and set the course for rapid geopolitical, cultural, scientific, and technological change in the 21st century. Once the capsule that held the old cultural canon was breached, the creative energies that had sustained previous aesthetic practices exploded to the four directions sparking a deconstruction and recapitulation of everything that had supported the traditional image making process. Evidence of the results of this radical departure from pre-existing canonical norms can be found in the veritable flood of “isms” in the visual arts that followed one after the other over the course of the 20th century.
“Probably never before in the history of literature or painting have there been so many isolated individuals. The concepts of school, tradition, and unity of style seem to have vanished. At a distance, of course, we can discover certain kinships; yet each individual seems to have felt the necessity of starting from the very beginning.” Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious, page 111.
Jackson Pollock’s work in the years following the end of the second world war, offers testimony for the arrival, once again, of the agents of change originating in Europe, finding plenty of room for expansion in the New World.
Pollock’s best work seems to suggest a recapitulation of primordial energies that had prevailed in one form or another for untold eons in the development of humankind before the advent of consciousness. “In My Painting, he revealed that he painted in a kind of a trance: “When I am in my painting I am not aware of what I am doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image , etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I loose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting turns out well.” C.G. Jung, Man and His Symbols, page 264.
“Pollock’s pictures represent the nothing that is everything – that is, the unconscious itself. They seem to live in a time before the emergence of consciousness and being, or to be fantastic landscapes of a time after the extinction of consciousness and being.” ibid.
His work reminds me of images of dust and gas clouds before the emergence of stars and galaxies in our 13.8 billion year old universe. Images in the internet of the Cosmic Microwave Background reveals: “… a snapshot of the oldest light in the Universe, imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 380,000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structures: the stars and galaxies of today.” Wikipedia.
The above supports Henry Moore’s quote in blog #7 where he says: “A basic feature of Modern Art is its striving to get back to the archaic again, to the original source beyond our differentiated consciousness.” If Cezanne described himself as a primitive of a new vision, and Klee saw himself as a primitive of a new sensibility, Pollock could be thought of as having produced images that suggest a time before the beginning of time. Considering Pollock’s work from the perspective of symbolizing a pervasive collective unconscious psychic condition that depicts the end product of a postmodern deconstruction of former modern values, it can also represent a metaphorical seed bed for renewal.
The foregoing makes no attempt to pass judgement on Pollock’s work in terms of whether is good or bad by comparison with the Western art achievements of the past. However, it can be looked at as an event in our recent history that produced a tangible end result of the 20th century’s assault on modern world views with their accompanying values in concert with other painters, poets, writers, philosophers, and deep thinkers of the day. And further, through a radical process of involution, Pollock unconsciously arrived at a representation of an original condition – a recapitulation in visual terms of the universe before the beginning of time.
Beyond the trash heaps of found objects, in a fee-fall away from traditional aesthetic conventions in the early years of the twentieth century, artists entered the precincts of the personal and collective unconscious that encompassed the primordial content of the ages.
“In the final count, every individual life is at the same time also the life of the eons of the species.” Psychological Reflections, page 41, C. G. Jung.
The “… inward turning descent and deconstruction of the self …” (Tarnas, blog #3) lead to the domain of the archetypes of the collective unconscious in those artists who were able to make the deepest and most significant descent. According to Depth Psychologist Erich Neumann in his Art and the Creative Unconscious, page 82, archetypes are: ” … intrinsically formless psychic structures which become visible in art.” Most of us live in unawareness of, are unconscious of, these interior, dynamic, aspects of our human nature that reside beneath the surface of our common preoccupations.
Freud’s theories of the subconscious, and Jung’s ideas about the personal and collective unconscious, provided artists with the clues to explore the shrouded domain on the other side of our daily somnambulism.
The advent of Surrealism in 1924 invited artists of the day to join Alice in a free-fall down the rabbit hole in a departure from the usual pursuits above ground that include the social protocols, conventions, and expectations associated with that state of living in the world. The Surrealist’s descent, like Alice’s, provided access to the dream world of paradox, irony, discontinuity, and the irrational, in non-linear encounters that are common to most dreamers.
In a deeper and more significant descent, British sculptor Henry More was able to give expression to his psychic alignment with the archetypal contents of the collective unconscious. Moore said: “All art has its roots in the primitive.” And: “A basic feature of modern art is its striving to get back to the archaic again, to the original source beyond our differentiated modern consciousness.”
Moore’s work provides us with the antidote to the nihilism, sardonic irony, and sense of futility that followed the deconstruction of modern aesthetic values that Dada represented. His innate disposition allowed him to respond to the creative call from the: “… primordial ground of creation where the secret key to all things lies hidden.” Klee, blog #4. In the basic theme that runs through Moore’s work, we are introduced to a transpersonal expression of the organic feminine principle as it is transformed into the earth archetype through the power of his art. It is upon this primordial ground of creation that our new aesthetic house will be built to contain the memories, dreams, and reflections of the past as viable perspectives from which to evolve cogent forms of renewal.