The birth of imagination
In 1651, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes had fastidiously described the
‘ill condition’ of humans living in a pre-civilised ‘state of nature’. It was a situation, he declared, of ’continual fear, danger
and violent death; the life of a man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ At the time when
the cave paintings at Altamira were found (in 1879) most people would have imagined the typical‘caveman’ as some shaggy,
low browed creature, his ground-scraping knuckles clamped to a knotty club. This savage might chase a bison to fill his belly, but to represent the animal in delicate profile; with careful, sensitive hues-such fine aesthetic capacity was surely beyond belief?
Pablo Picasso, Arguably the most illustrious artist of the 20th century, seems to have paid a visit to the newly discovered Lascaux cave in 1941. ‘We have learnt nothing!’ is reported as his awed almost indignant comment. (at the paintings within.)
[Theory’s for cave paintings existence include, display of skill, depiction /report of hunting, & give thanks, good hunt etc., and sexual symbolism; give thanks, good hunt etc. All not unrelated to each other!]
Out of Africa…
…a shaman can go into an altered state of consciousness. Physically, this manifests itself in various ways; mentally it can lead to hallucinations, the intense visionary experience of traveling out of body into strange yet convincing places. No one could draw or paint in the midst of this sort of emotional seizure. But revealing or recalling what had come into vision during an altered state of consciousness… that would be truly marvellous, and proof, as it were, of the shaman’s special status.
David Lewis- Williams has argued the case that the thousands of bushman images left in Drakensberg are best explained
as shamanic directly derived from the hallucinatory experiences of shamans while in altered states of consciousness. There are, to begin with, clear signs that physiological effects of the trance dance are depicted: figures doubled over
with abdominal spasms, nose bleeds, and the marked elongation of figures may reflect the sensation of being stretched.
Rock surfaces became interfaces between reality and the spirit world, on which imagery of the trance was recorded and displayed, To call these interfaces ‘membranes’ is not inappropriate. Figures of animals might emerge from cracks in the
stone, and placing a hand upon the stone, too might give some sense of its potent access to the domain of spirits and ancestors.
Lewis- Williams’ argument is not to suggest that Bushmen, Aborigines, etc., are culturally comparable to people of the Stone Age, but to point out that all anatomically modern humans including Palaeolithic share a brain that is hard wired in a certain
way. What occurs within this brain when we enter an altered state of consciousness is therefore predictable- a common
human experience, as likely to have the same visual effects today as it would have done 35,000 years ago.
There are many ways of inducing the altered state of consciousness: drugs, dancing darkness, exhaustion, hunger, meditation, migraine and schizophrenia are among them. In western tradition it is by no means confined to hippies and LSD.
Opium takers of the romantic period, notably English writers Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were generous in providing verbal descriptions of their visions. In our Time scientists have discovered simple procedures of
sensory deprivation that enable research into the brains function when it comes to ‘seeing things’. Research continues but it
is clear that the human nervous system exhibits certain features of response that can be generalised- providing, for archaeologists, a neuropsychological model of explaining the very beginnings of symbolic representation.
Migraine sufferers, even in a completely darkened room, and with eyes shut, can be persecuted by flashing lights. It is a common symptom of an altered state of consciousness: the sensation of brightness, often framed in kaleidoscopic patterns- dots, lozenges, blocks, appearing in multiple units as networks, tessellations and suchlike. These patterns may be construed as certain objects in the world, a spider’s web, and honeycomb. In addition, the subject may feel that they are airborne, or in the water, or plunging through some vortex or tunnel. Patterns are fluently transformed, one into another.
What characterises these sensations is that they are vivid. Such images have been termed entopic, ‘within the eye’.
Lewis- Williams’ hypothesis is not just that Palaeolithic cave painting was shamanic or shamanistic in origin. It is more
momentous, suggesting that the human knack of representational imagery was itself triggered by this neuropsychological process. In other words, the Palaeolithic painters were not making observations of the world around them; they were transferring on to cave walls the images they already had behind their eyes. They were displaying what had come to them in an altered state of consciousness; recollecting powerful visions; trying to recapture what they had
seen in their hallucinations- even when these had flashed by in a series of abstract patterns.
The acceptance of this model does not reduce all other cave painting theories to nonsense.
The nature of nature:
Study nature; that command to the artist seems simple enough. There is the world and all its weathered texture; there on display are the facts of creation. Take the tools of recording, and look. See what nature reveals. But what is nature?
To play with the word is immediately to expose its looseness. We may let it mean anything prone to be flattened by concrete and bricks. A nature trail will take its followers upon a programmed discovery of birds, bugs and botanical gems.
Yet what is natural should happen of its own accord. Mother Nature is her own agency, free from the culture and contrivance of humans. When we hail a tract of scenery as unspoilt, we mean that maternal Nature has had her way; we speak of ‘virgin’ territory, as if the possession and cultivation of land by human beings were an act of coupling or rape. To be‘at one with nature’ is to imagine easiness between our cultured selves and the natural world. But when hurricanes happen, or we watch a natural history film that shows a pack of jackals disembowelling a doe with their jaws, we allow nature a temperament too
(‘nature is red in tooth and claw’).
Naturists are humans who like to take off their clothes and have nothing between themselves and the world; what is natural in this sense implies whatever is spontaneous, unchecked or removed from human tampering. Yet beyond geology and oceans there is precious little upon the Earth’s surface that can be described as natural in this way. Certainly not the tropical rainforests: the Amazon, for instance, is densely clustered with species of fruit, nut and edible palm trees planted there by humans several thousands of years ago. To enter a modern nature reserve is usually to trespass upon some kind of former human occupation, however ancient.
To study what nature reveals is not, therefore, a very clear command. Nonetheless, we have learned what to expect from an artist whose subjects derive from the natural world: tree stumps not sky scrapers.
Paul Cezanne “painting after nature is not copying the objective; it is realizing one’s sensations”
(There was a similar idealism for landscape which was also an attribute, or perhaps the whole point, of portraying the human figure in Greek sculpture etc.[Peak shift] But is Cezanne’s comment really about idealism? Not explicitly, rather it surely relates to impressionism which was not so much about the constructe composition of a landscape such as within Constable, but rather about the uncluttered sensation of light as realised by the un-fussy fact of pigment on a white canvass. J.M.)
… The spiral jetty was as nature is: grained into the energies of flux, growth, weathering and instability. It
did not resist a water rise level but it may yet reappear, one day or centuries from now.
(Land- art in many ways seems like a natural extension of American Abstract Painting, its scale and
preoccupations of man within the landscape and his relation to nature and his manipulation of it, the impossibility of capturing the ever shifting, after all oil paint is fundamentally coloured mud, as evidenced in the “cave paintings”
that still exist to this day, which surely must be a form of land art or at least precursor. J.M.)
Wiki-Quote: I am nature. As quoted by Lee Krasner in an interview with Dorothy Strickler (2 November 1964) for the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art. In Krasner's words, "When I brought Hofmann up to meet Pollock and see his work which was before we moved here, Hofmann’s reaction was — one of the questions he asked Jackson was, do you work from nature? There were no still life’s around or models around and Jackson’s answer was, 'I am nature.' And Hofmann’s reply was, 'Ah, but if you work by heart, you will repeat yourself.' To which Jackson did not reply at all."
I (James Mason) would say that in working from life (the nude model, the fruit and bottle on a table, the landscape.) you tend to repeat others i.e. art history
The logic of Durer’s credence is severe, taking us far beyond herbalist manuals. The conclusion is that all landscape- from dandelions to glaciers- is a show of divine revelation. (Albrecht Durer- the great turf 1503.)
One figure is of especial importance in any general and historical consideration of how art engages, or tries to engage with the human intimations of divinity, the Russian born painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). According to the annals of conventional classification he produced the first conscious or theorized ‘abstract art’.
In 1910, as he began to produce these works he also began to compose a written statement explaining his purpose as an artist. It was eventually published from Munich in 1912: a brief dense book its title rendered in English as Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Not all of its message is easy to relate to Kandinsky’s painting at the time, or to his subsequent output.
If a gist can be extracted, it might be presented as follows.
Musicians are to be envied. They have at their disposal a means of expressing spiritual states: a means of expression that is
independent of nature, that is its own construct. Some musicians may take inspiration from a songthrush piping in the woods, or a drumming of thunder. But music does not need those models. Its sounds can have a life of their own. Art
by contrast-well art seems to be reliant upon not only nature, but a whole universe of objects. Art seems to be forever reminding it’s viewers of something to be seen in the real world. An apple, a waterfall, a naked woman, a deity
incarnate- whatever it might be, something objective. Could art never, then, operate like music: take the human soul
soaring into the bliss of transcendence, above and away from the things of the world?
For Kandinsky, the content of painting should be nothing other than painting. Once as he records, he had a vision of pure art- art that was as attuned and direct and arresting as music. This was, he realised, one of his own
pictures turned upside down so that its subject was unclear; its effect came in harmonies of colour, without associations of object; and form working as form, unattached to the delineation of things, stories, or scenes.
Whether Kandinsky could ever hope to reach and keep hold of his ambition to consider art and nature as absolutely separate domains’ remains arguable.
Still the aim of Kandinsky’s striving was clear. He believed that his art was preparation for an ‘epoch of great spirituality’, and that the figurative, naturalistic traditions of imagery were impediments to that epochal achievement. His was essentially a religious motivation. He was deeply sympathetic to a movement launched in late nineteenth century, known as
Theosophy, which sought to unite all the religions of the world around a common ‘wisdom about God’ (as theosophia translates). A Russian clairvoyant, Helena Blavatsky, was prominent among the founders of theosophy; it was also upon
messages of the Austrian educational guru Rudolf Steiner. ‘Guru’ is appropriate here, for many esoteric features of Theosophist teaching came from India; and in Kandinsky’s yearning for an art unimpeded by objects we may sense the disdain of an Indian holy man for material things. Moreover, Kandinsky had academic training in the study of ethnography, and was well informed about shamanic practices of tribal communities in northern Russia. Altogether this was a potent
cocktail of comparative beliefs.
Not all practitioners of abstract art are required to accept that their work is brought about by a quest for the transcendent. But that is the genesis of the abstract as a mode of artistic expression. It is lodged in the history of the struggle to envisage the invisible.
“Everything is the way it is because it got that way.”