*From Maurice Tuchman’s ‘The Spiritual in Art – Abstract Painting 1890-1985’ describing Frantisek Kupka’s translation of his visionary experiences into visual form.
Frantisek Kupka 1871-1957
Gary Lachman spoke recently at The Black Light Exhibition, an event sponsored by The Center for Contemporary Culture Barcelona.
Lachman, whose presentation begins at about the 5:30 mark in the above video, briefly covers a history of the relationship between art and the occult. He speaks for roughly 35 minutes tracing the roots of this phenomenon from paleolithic cave paintings to the varied works of William Blake to the secret Gnostic paintings of Hilma af Klint and to the expressions of contemporary artists such as the filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is then followed by a Q and A session.
This exhibition stood on the shoulders of another exhibition curated by Maurice Tuchman in the 1980’s in Los Angeles, ‘The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985’.
Tuchman in the introduction to the wonderful book published in conjunction with this event states,
“Abstract art remains misunderstood by the majority of the viewing public. Most people, in fact, consider it meaningless. Yet around 1910, when groups of artists moved away from representational art toward abstraction, preferring symbolic color to natural color, signs to perceived reality, ideas to direct observation, there was never an outright dismissal of meaning. Instead artists made an effort to draw upon deeper and more varied levels of meaning, the most pervasive of which was the spiritual.”
The cover of the accompanying publication for The Black Light Exhibition
From the CCCB site,
“Esoteric traditions can be traced back to the very origins of civilization, having served at different times to structure philosophical, linguistic, scientific or spiritual ideas. Despite their importance for the development of twentieth-century art, they tend to be ignored or disparaged these days due to the dominance of rationalistic thinking and the difficulty of talking about these subjects in clear, direct language.
In recent years, however, many artists have taken a renewed interest in subjects such as alchemy, secret societies, theosophy and anthroposophy, the esoteric strands in major religions, oriental philosophies, magic, psychedelia and drug-use, universal symbols and myths, the Fourth Way formulated by the Armenian mystic Georges Gurdjieff, etc., generating an interest in these fields that had not existed since the counterculture of the sixties and seventies.
According to the writer Enrique Juncosa, curator of this exhibition, this interest may be due to the fact that we are, once again, living in a restless and unsatisfied world, worried about new colonial wars, fundamentalist terrorism, serious ecological crisis and nationalist populism, just as in the sixties and seventies people feared an imminent and devastating nuclear catastrophe. Furthermore, much of today’s mainstream art is actually rather boring due to its complete lack of mystery and negation of any kind of poetization or interpretation of our experience of it.””
Photo by Asa Lunden
Photo from a 2013 Exhibition of works by the Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint who as Lachman describes in his presentation is probably the first Abstract artist, predating Wassily Kandinsky
The Worlds of
Art by Matt Melanson
There is a new podcast in town, Weird Studies, hosted by Phil Ford and J.F. Martel –
As they describe it,
“Weird Studies” is a scholarly field that doesn’t and can’t exist.
The Weird is that which resists any settled explanation or frame of reference. It is the bulging file labelled “other/misc.” in our mental filing cabinet, full of supernatural entities, magical synchronicities, and occult rites. But it also appears when a work of art breaks in on our habits of perception and ordinary things become uncanny. The Weird is easiest to define as whatever lies on the further side of a line between what we can easily accept from our world and what we cannot. And it defines an attitude towards whatever lies on that side of the line: a willingness to remain suspended between explanations and abide in strangeness.”
In this episode the two connect the dots and discuss those connections and surrounding pathways into the origin of contemporary existential fear and how it manifests in recent works such as David Lynch and Mark Frosts’ ‘Twin Peaks – The Return’.
Along the way their map include signposts from Philip K. Dick, Norman Mailer, Stanley Kubrick, Carl Jung, William Burroughs, Guy Debord, H.P. Lovecraft and many others.
A fascinating and thought provoking look into the abyss, to synchronous expressions of art, and the implications for modern life as we live under the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
“I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams”
“In the medieval tradition, Beksinski seems to believe art to be a forewarning about the fragility of the flesh– whatever pleasures we know are doomed to perish– thus, his paintings manage to evoke at once the process of decay and the ongoing struggle for life. They hold within them a secret poetry, stained with blood and rust.”
― Guillermo del Toro
A Short film about the life of Leonora Carrington
(A few examples of her work below)
The problem with ‘mainstream’ culture’s conformism and lack of innovation is not the fact that it makes life uninteresting. It is the fact that it endangers life itself.”
I love this book, Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice by J.F. Martel. His goal is to start a conversation about the true nature of the transformative power that is characteristic of great art. I know it has sparked my own internal musings about the subject. The following post contains examples of what I believe are incredible works of art that were chosen out of thousands of possible examples. I’m sure everyone can think of many more that are important to them. There are so many!
Most of the following excerpts are from the preface to Martel’s book. I encourage anyone who is an artist or who loves and is inspired by art to purchase his book here or at your local independent bookstore. I believe it is an important and timely call to explore the possibilities of depth in an age when we are so easily hypnotized, manipulated and ultimately destroyed by the shimmering, shallow, unimaginative mirage of modern life.
“Every great artistic work is a quiet apocalypse. It tears off the veil of ego, replacing old impressions with new ones that are at once inexorably alien and profoundly meaningful.”
(Vincent van Gogh)
“Great works of art have a unique capacity to arrest the discursive mind, raising it to a level of reality that is more expansive than the egoic dimension we ordinarily inhabit. In this sense, art is the transfiguration of the world.”
“What could be more superfluous than art in the face of the authoritarian turn in contemporary politics, the systematic devastation of the biosphere, the ever-widening economic gap, or the rising tide of anxiety and mental illness? The objection is valid so long as we continue to see art as simply a source of entertainment or a platform for ‘self-expression.'”
“Art, however is more than that. It deals in consciousness itself, the stuff dreams are made of.”
“Art is the only truly effective means we have of engaging, in a communal context, the psyche on its own terms.”
“My argument is that by rethinking art in that light we can reorient ourselves individually and collectively toward alternative modalities of being, setting the stage for what Daniel Pinchbeck calls a new mythological consciousness able to resolve issues ‘through symbol and image, without need of rational explanation.'”
“Art breaks down the barriers that normally stand between the physical and the psychic, between your soul and the soul of others.”
“Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon.” – Marcel Proust
[For Proust] “Art is a meeting place in which human beings commune at a level that ordinary language and sign systems do not allow. Without art, connection at this deeper level is impossible.”
“This is a troubling idea to consider in a time when aesthetic forces ranging from sensationalistic news spectacles to manipulative viral marketing seem bent on achieving a very different end.”
“The all consuming razzle-dazzle of sound and light with which we are bombarded does not draw us into the secret universe of another consciousness.”
“On the contrary, it fools us into taking as self-evident a picture of life that in reality belongs to nobody, effectively producing an artificial space wherein the market and the state can thrive as though they were inextricable parts of the cosmos rather than the mutable accidents of history that they are.”
“We are in danger today of losing the capacity to distinguish between artistic creation as Proust defined it and the aesthetic creativity that goes into a commercial jingle, a new car design, or a hollow summer blockbuster.”
“If our confusion suits the reigning political and economic regime just fine, it is because it stands as proof that the operation to supplant the dream-space of soul and psyche with a fully controllable interface is going according to plan.”
“There is a sense in which art is a cultural contrivance and a sense in which art is a natural phenomenon. Art is a contrivance so far as we limit our conception of it to the things and activities the culture labels as artistic.” (This and the remaining quotes are excerpts from Martel’s Notes Towards An Interpretive Method)
“Art is a natural phenomenon in that it is the expression of non-human forces in the human world.”
“Concretely, it inheres in the creation of symbols, that is, crystallizations of psychic energy emerging from the imaginal depths of Nature.”
“Symbols are signs, but signs pointing us to the unknown, perhaps unknowable aspects of reality. They call us to the dark expanses that extend infinitely on every side of the small castellated island that is the human world.”
“If no interpretation of a symbol is ever complete, it is because a symbol’s potential meanings are never exhausted. In fact symbols don’t “mean” anything at all. Rather, they provoke the spontaneous creation of meaning in us.”
“Only art can express the symbolic, and symbols don’t occur outside of art. One possible definition of art is: any activity by which symbols are brought into the world.”
“The moment a symbol is extracted from its originating aesthetic substance in order to be “explained,” it becomes an ordinary sign.”
“The work of art that is interpreted without regard for the ineffable power of the symbols it contains turns into an allegory—that is, a cultural artifact rather than a natural force. It thereby loses its connection with the depths.”
“The symbol is a concrete cosmic force,” Gilles Deleuze wrote. “It is a dynamic process that enlarges, deepens, and expands sensible consciousness; it is an ever increasing becoming-conscious, as opposed to the closing of the moral consciousness upon a fixed allegorical idea.”
“Met on its own ground, the work of art as vector of symbols is an inexhaustible producer of meaning. Invariably, the work reveals more than its creator ever intended and more than any interpreter can fathom.”
“The artist doesn’t inject meaning into the work of art any more than the interpreter extracts meaning from it. Rather, the work of art by its nature asks us to create its meaning(s), and there are worse definitions of culture than “the act of creating meaning.””
(Philip Rubinov Jacobson)
(All photos by Paul Caponigro)
“I think the first step is the realization that each of us has [a calling]. And then we must look back over our lives and look at some of the accidents and curiosities and oddities and troubles and sicknesses and begin to see more in those things than we saw before. It raises questions, so that when peculiar little accidents happen, you ask whether there is something else at work in your life. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve an out-of-body experience during surgery, or the sort of high-level magic that the new age hopes to press on us. It’s more a sensitivity, such as a person living in a tribal culture would have: the concept that there are other forces at work. A more reverential way of living.” – James Hillman
Hillman in The Soul’s Code fleshes out the idea of the acorn theory or acorn myth. This is the idea that each of us has within us the kernel of a calling, a gift, a way of being that grows into maturity much like an acorn grows into an oak. It is an effort to explain what drives each of us to live the lives we feel compelled to live beyond the deterministic boundaries of genetics or social conditioning. In his book he gives examples of how this can be seen in the lives of several well known public figures like Judy Garland or Martin Scorcese.
Paul Caponigro, who would become an accomplished musician and photographer, as a child began to exhibit clues as to what this ‘calling’ would look like for him. Caponigro – “My father’s brother was a pianist. And so when we went to visit the relatives, I could not wait until Dad brought us to Uncle Jimmy’s. And he’d open the door and greet us, and I would run right through his legs – I was quite small – and sit at the piano, knowing he would play eventually. And so I’d wait until he played. I couldn’t wait to hear it, you know, because the piano meant something. This is age 3, 4, 5, thereabouts. I knew there was something in the piano for me.”
Sometimes a mentor appears, as in the story of the Hero’s Journey, to help guide or to give one tools so that you will succeed on your mission. Sometimes this mentor is a parent. Many times it is a teacher, as Hillman recounts in the lives of James Baldwin or Truman Capote. Caponigro remembers one man who noticed his latent talent. Regarding his parents,”They were very hard-working peasant types. And it was more [of] keeping a family together and making a living. There wasn’t enough time and space for them to look a little bit deeper, you know. It just was a major outer structure they were trying to keep together. And they did a fabulous job. They took care of us. They gave us love. They gave us a house to live in. You know, I mean, they really did well. But the subtler things of seeing a little deeper, that was seen by Arthur Gavin, who lived across the street with the principal of the high school. They eventually married. He was the art director for that city, the city of Revere. And he caught on that there was something going on with me. And he would feed me paper and colored crayons and pencils and inks and, you know, tell me to have a good time. And he’d do it in front of my mother, who didn’t understand what was going on, wouldn’t have seen that I had an artistic nature, and that it was supposed to have an outlet. So he caught on that there was something going on, and he tried to help my artistic nature.”
This inner calling can sometimes be so strong that it can filter out other responsibilities. What society deems successful can, to this calling, be seen as a failure (or vice versa), or at the least a major conflict. Caponigro – “I was poking around the photo supply stores, and I’d look in the shop windows. I’d go in and just look at things…in those early years, I was not interested in school. I did not want to do the work…I…could not wait for the bell to ring to dismiss us, and I would head out, not go home but go straight to the ocean, which was very close by, or the woods, and hang out there and listen to the birds and watch the waves come in and pick up shells. At an early age, I realized nature was my teacher. I didn’t want all the reading and arithmetic. I couldn’t give it my interest. So nature was really my teacher all through school, up to must have been the eighth grade. At which point I remember coming back from one of my forays to the sea – – – I remember coming back from being in nature, picking up some shells, get some stones. And I was passing right through the school yard where I was going to school, on the football field. And I was stopped dead with a realization: I had to get a camera and photograph this stuff that I see out there in nature…”
Caponigro discovered that his emotional reaction to certain kinds of music or to what he saw in nature was going to be his guide. “[It is] as if the cosmos itself arranged that I would not be a good student in school…in order that the emotional realm that I worked with would flourish and develop…I saw it as a gift that I did not do well in school… in that the excessive intellectual activity subdued my emotional activity. I saw that my emotional activity could get fed and would function quite easily, and was very perceptive that my emotions would do the perceiving. When that happened and I got information, I always felt confident about what that information was…”
At one point he became aware of who he was and what he wanted to do. “In the same way that I got this burst that said, get a camera and photograph what you’re seeing and what you’re working with…In the same way – it was at the age of 11 or thereabouts – I was walking the streets alone. Came from the center of town to go home. And I remember exactly the corner that I turned to get up the street. And again, this burst of something came in and said, oh, my God. I’m an artist. I recognized that I was an artist. And I had a double kind of whammy which said, what a wonderful thing and what a responsibility, the two of them simultaneously. I go, wow. What am I going to do with this? I’m an artist.”
So the choice becomes a question of what is this life going to look like. How does one honor the gift one has been given. How do you stay true to the calling. Caponigro – “So it didn’t take too long for me to realize, no. You know, I don’t want to go through what these concert pianists go through. Sure, I’d love to play at Carnegie Hall, and I’d love to thrill a big audience, and that would all be great. And to this day, I could still think of doing that. But I realized that that turning of the corner when I was 11 years old and saying, my God, I’m an artist, and the other half that said, it’s a responsibility, not merely a joy, and that part really was connected to the idea that art was a sacred act. It wasn’t until I had studied more and more of the Egyptian art and early ancient works in the museums, and certain of the modern pieces that you could tell were permeated with a man’s soul and real being – it wasn’t until then that I thought, my God, yes. This is – this could be a man’s religion. It did not have to be the organized religion of those structures and burning candles and incense and the rituals and the ceremonies. This could be a path to sacred experience.”
“In my years of photography I have learned that many things can be sensed, seen, shaped or resolved in a realm of quiet, well in advance of, or between, the actual clicking of shutters and the sloshing of films and papers in chemical solutions. I work to attain “a state of heart”, a gentle space offering inspirational substance that could purify one’s vision. Photography, like music, must be born in the unmanifest world of spirit.”
Jerry Uelsmann studied under Minor White, a photographer whose interests leaned toward mysticism. White mastered and then taught the Zone system, a process to manipulate photos starting from the exposure of the negative through the chemical development of the film and then through the printing process to achieve precise predictable tones along a grey scale in the finished black and white print. Along with a focus on a more traditional subject matter in landscape photography like Ansel Adams, Minor White also concentrated on a more interior vision.
As Peter Marshall writes, “White was strongly influenced in his early landscape photography by the photography of Edward Weston, but in the 1950s he developed a much more individual approach. White’s work moves away from the reality of the landscape into a dream world of unreal tonal values, whether by filtration or the use of infrared film.”
“It is a world (as in dreams) where unusual connections are made, where the shadow of a telegraph pole leads across a glowing field towards a small light shed standing next to a larger dark shed with a white rectangle, all beneath a dark sky with unusual streaks and clouds (‘Two Barns and a Shadow in the Vicinity of Naples and Dansville NY, 1955‘). Or where a brilliant white lines of poplars in bright grass line a black road leading into the distance, or a dark barn points up like a the end of a signpost into a black sky with light clouds. The whole body of work from this area has a powerfully surreal quality.”
White incorporated a concept from Alfred Stieglitz called Equivalence. (from Wikipedia) “The “equivalents” of White were often photographs of barns, doorways, water, the sky, or simple paint peeling on a wall: things usually considered mundane, but often made special by the quality of the light in which they were photographed. One of his more popular photographs is titled Frost on Window, a close-up of frost crystals on glass. However, in regard to an equivalent, the specific objects themselves are of secondary importance either to the photographer or the viewer. Instead, such a photograph captures a sentiment or emotionally symbolic idea using formal and structural elements that carry a feeling or sense of “recognition”: a mirroring of something inside the viewer. In an essay titled “Equivalence: The Perennial Trend”, White described a photographer who took such pictures as one who “…recognized an object or series of forms that, when photographed, would yield an image with specific suggestive powers that can direct the viewer into a specific and known feeling, state, or place within himself.” (Gantz)”
White’s mysticism is reflected in his ‘The Three Canons’
Be still with yourself
Until the object of your attention
Affirms your presence
Let the Subject generate its own Composition
When the image mirrors the self
And the self mirrors the subject
Something might take over
Jerry Uelsmann is an idol of mine. I had the chance to hear him speak and present some of his work about 10 years ago. I found him to be personally engaging and delightful while mesmerizing the audience with images of his work. Some have called his work surrealist. There is definitely a connection to the world of the unconscious and the dreamworld.
He is a master craftsman and his image construction is amazing considering that he did all of this pre-Photoshop. This work is the result of hours in the darkroom using a series of enlargers to create the composite imagery.
I had the pleasure of being at another presentation of his work a couple of years ago, this time accompanied by his wife, Maggie Taylor, an artist of comparable talent and depth. Combined they create startling images that, although different, touch on similar themes that could be found in any Jungian library dealing with the dream world.
While Uelsmann uses the darkroom to create his work, Taylor relies on the computer, using a flat bed scanner and Photoshop to create her colorful portraits.
Below is a link to a website that has a 90 minute documentary on this artistic couple along with over an hour of bonus material showing them discussing their techniques and the processes they use to create such striking images. It is a subscription site so there is a fee involved if you want to watch. If not, then please enjoy the 2 minute trailer linked to below to get a taste of what is offered.
It could be argued that most of Remedios Varo’s paintings take place at night illuminated by the moon, or at least by the appearance of some mysterious source of light. She is one of my favorite painters and as the moon appears full tonight I am reminded of her. These are just a few examples of her work (click on images for larger samples) where the lunar presence points to a deeper mystery.
“I think it’s a very unfortunate mistake to think that what the avant garde filmmakers are doing is something very far out and not for the everyday. People seem to think that our lives, or the strangeness of our lives may be of some interest, but not our work. But I think the work is universal, because poetry is universal. There is no difference between reading a volume of Sylvia Plath and seeing a film by Stan Brakhage. I wonder where ideas that Poetic Cinema is more difficult to appreciate come from. In schools Faulkner and Olson are taught in the same classes. In literature the kind of separation that is made in cinema does not exist.” – Jonas Mekas in conversation with Stan Brakhage
A clip from Mekas’ ‘Walden’
Brakhage’s ‘Dante’s Quartet’ – click on ‘watch on youtube’ link and watch full screen
A year before Picasso died, he painted this self-portrait called The Young Painter. It could be said that it was a memorial to his earliest beginnings as a painter. The psychologist James Hillman had a different idea. He described this painting as the portrait of Picasso’s daimon, the ever-present force that guided him his entire life. His notion of this daimon is that it haunted and inhabited Picasso’s life and then revealed itself finally to him before he died; that this was the impetus behind his prolific artistic output. Hillman’s idea of the myth of the daimon is that it is like an acorn that one is born with and as your life unfolds, the acorn spreads its branches as it matures with you into a mighty oak. He actually referred to this painting as the acorn painted by the oak. Whether one believes this literally or as just a metaphor, it is a way of looking at your life with an acknowledgement that perhaps certain talents cannot be accounted for just by the nature/nurture argument that you are a product of either your genetic history and/or your environment growing up as a child. It is the subject of his, ‘The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling‘ and the idea of the daimon as a driving force in your life is something we will explore more in future posts.
Spend an hour with Simon Schama from his BBC series, The Power of Art. He describes the Tate gallery in London and being in the presence of the works of Mark Rothko,
“This isn’t about now. This is about forever. This is a place where you come to sit in the low light and feel the aeons rolling by, to be taken toward the gates that open onto the thresholds of eternity, to feel the poignancy of our comings and our goings, our entrances and our exits, our births and deaths. Womb tomb and everything between. Can art ever be more complete, more powerful? I don’t think so”