Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Creativity: an artist's journey

I see the world in a visual way. Through art and my pursuit of aesthetic contemplation I look at the world around me in a very different way to other people. As an artist, you find your own specific way of interpreting beauty. As a child I was fascinated by the world of fashion photography and poured over my collection of Vogue magazines from an early age. I spent many happy hours creating fashion images and putting them in scrapbooks – my early passion for collation and organisation. And probably one of the greatest influences was my uncle, Frederick Salter, a renowned Welsh artist, who inspired, nurtured and most importantly, spent patient hours painting with me as a child. Now I find myself inspired by the place in which I live (we have moved many times around the world), vistas of landscape and the history of artists who came before.

After a very uneventful A’level in art, which offered no interesting surprises or particular talents I opted for a career in fashion styling (motivated by my childhood passion), which led me behind the camera of many great photographers and there I was able to unleash my creativity. The procedure I adopted was after having an idea for a fashion shoot, I then went ahead and produced the pages of the magazine, working closely with the creative team. But I was always the most excited at the other end of the photographic process – editing, cropping and selection of the final prints.

When I moved to the USA with our first child, Jack, I was no longer able to work and felt I needed to fill the creative gap left by my leaving the magazine world. At a more mature age I was ready to go back to art and painting. In Wilmington, Delaware, I took up drawing classes at the art museum, followed by painting classes…….and the rest is history. I haven’t stopped painting in 15 years (I will always remember when it happened because the reminder is whatever the age Jack is!) and my work has evolved over the years.

I started the painting process with still-life. Arranging coloured bottles one in front of another I juxtaposed these bright glass vessels and began to work on personal compositional preferences. Colour moved into my work almost straight away – almost too vivid to begin with. Even the landscapes that followed echoed the bright palettes I had admired in those amazing American art museums of works by Matisse, Bonnard and Van Gogh. At the time – they were the limit of my knowledge of art history.

Another move, this time to Suffolk, in England, tamed my palette and got me interested in these wide landscapes consisting of stratas of sky and land along a flat coast. It was here that I learnt the technique of dragging the brush across the canvas and leaving dry-brush marks that revealed the colours painted underneath. Peter Burman, a local landscape artist, was my teacher and in his classes we always produced an alla prima painting within a few hours – spontaneous and fresh without too much time to dwell on perfection. I think this type of process enabled me to approach a painting without too much fear or trepidation.

After a further two children we found ourselves living in Northumberland and it is here that I enrolled on a fine art degree affiliated with Sunderland University. Having continued to paint the wonderful northern hilly landscape of Hadrian’s wall country with its wide vistas and big skies, I began to experiment with the traditional landscape composition using my newly acquired skills on the computer and butting up one landscape against another. The landscapes evolved into stratas – layers of land and sky. My canvases got bigger and the techniques I was using were achieved by using larger scrapers, trowels and spatulas. By experimenting on paper first I could see what effects could be achieved, often using acrylic first and then covering with a wash of oil paint bathed in turpentine to even out the colour tones.

By this time I was looking at Gerhard Richter, Richard Diebenkorn, Peter Lanyon, Ivon Hitchens with my tutor and mentor at Newcastle College, Tom Moore.

And it was Tom Moore who encouraged a series of paintings of city landscapes of Newcastle where I concentrated on urban redevelopment turning scaffolded buildings into art. Using masking tape and acrylic paint I carefully achieved the symmetry of the buildings on wooden panels and explored the use of dry brush techniques which has inspired me for future city scape paintings including my Ponte Vecchio and San Gimignano works in Florence.

A project entitled ‘Chance and Order’ was set for the degree course and it was then that the Plasma Series emerged. By this time my knowledge of art history had greatly increased and I was spending any free time going to contemporary local exhibitions and any time we had a holiday abroad. My points of reference enhanced my painting vocabulary. Francis Bacon was one of my inspirations for the Chance and Order series. I loved the way he sent busy, amorphic figures against smooth, evenly painted backdrops – and his use of colour, in my mind, was both original and surprising.

Working with a friend in his studio in Northumberland, I chanced upon the garage next door where they were spraying the underside of cars with a pebbly black paint. I stencilled this spray paint on a canvas and then starting experimenting with enamel paint, pouring the paint on the surface and then letting it drip from one side to the other in an almost gridlike pattern. This was the start of my process-led work and has been a genre of working for me now for many years. Eventually I managed to develop a technique to isolate the enamel paints in the centre of the canvas (after Bacon) and marbled the colours together until an amorphic shape appeared that pleased me. This physical action of manipulating the canvas to create a form that pleased me was both random and controlled.

Another move, this time to Florence in Italy, led me to fully express all the influences that have been gathering over the years and has really been the icing on the cake. How could you not be inspired by the crumbling palazzo walls, the Renaissance paintings with their rich oil colours and use of gold leaf and the countryside and climate of the Tuscan region. The strata landscapes are still there but they have evolved. More use of gold leaf in the plasmas and landscapes and a series of collaged Madonnas using Florentine wrapping paper. My most recent work, inspired by a brief visit to the Natural History Museum in New York, involves recycling and cutting up old work into pebble shapes and presenting on evenly painted boards and cemented with resin. This work also has a reference to the wonderful marbling and pietra dure of Italy. My Florence. My view. My history.

I am now able to see a pattern in my creative life where I jump from realism to abstract landscapes to photography to collage and then the whole circle starts again. It keeps me creative and I so enjoy the inter-relation between the different media. They inspire and feed of each other as if there is a parasitic feeding going on where one image emerges and evolves from another.

Susi Bellamy

See a selection of Susi's pictures in chronological order.

Monday, August 17, 2009

An essence of Indian art

It is well known that sharing impressions of a work of art with friends will reveal that each of them had perceived an entirely different "story" from the experience. Inevitably, this will lead to a discussion of what the artist really had in mind when she responded to the creative impulse. It will also raise questions as to whether or not a codification system could be discerned. Codification is very obvious in Indian temple arts as instruments of worship, where devotional sculptures for example offer a powerful religious experience through their aesthetic and symbolic authority. The codification of art-making is reflected in medieval artists' manuals (sastras), which dictated both the form as well as the emotional authority and aesthetic experience (rasa) of a work of art. These manuals are responsible for maintaining over the centuries the principal iconographic forms in the three traditional religions of the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. The response to the created forms is explained through rasa, the "organ of intuitive feeling/ perception". Rasa is an aesthetic pleasure and a "gustative process", both the substance, vibration or quality of what is apprehended/felt and the body/mind system that apprehends.

Historically, the adherents of rasa theory believed rasa, to be the meaning of a creative statement, even though they may have had different ideas about the definition of art. Rasa is roughly translated: "as emotive aesthetics". It is one of the most important concepts in classical Indian aesthetics, having pervasive influence in theories of painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, and drama. Rasa theory argues that the presentation of emotions is the proper object and domain of artistic discourse no matter what the medium of expression. Bharata, an Indian sage from the first millennium set out a theory of art and its philosophy based on rasa. In 'Natyashastra', his pioneering work on Indian dramatics, Bharata mentions eight rasas. He says Rasa is produced when 'Vibhaava', 'Anubhava' and 'Vyabhichari bhava' come together.

Vibhava is the medium through which an emotion arises in an actor e.g. a child riding a stick and enjoying it as if he were actually riding a horse.

Anubhava comprises all the physical changes arising due to the vibhavas e.g. changes in facial expression and body language.

Vyahicari bhava encompasses the transient emotions eg.weeping with joy.

We respond to all the arts with feeling. The language of feelings is not a private language; it is more a social system of symbols, a language game that is understood by those who have learned its conventions and usages. For example, emotions treated in a poem are neither the projections of the reader's own mental states nor the private feelings of the poet; rather, they are the objective situations abiding in the poem as its cognitive content ready to be extracted by the educated reader. Rasa is understood as residing in all the situational factors presented in an appropriate language.

A poet chooses to express a theme because he sees a certain promise for developing its emotional possibilities and exploits it by dramatizing its details.

In general, viewers ignoring the codification system of a work of art have the impression that because they cannot grasp the explicit meaning of the piece they are certainly missing its aesthetic content. In fact, both contemporary and traditional arts become coldly "exotic" when they rely too much on explicit meanings.

According to Indian theorists of performing arts, expression may be literal, metaphoric or metonymic and suggestive, the latter being the domain of "pure poetry". A theory of suggestive expression was elaborated in the context of Kashmiri shaivism, a complex philosophical system at the confluence of several religious trends, among which are tantrism and sufism. The theory was initiated by art philosopher Anandavardhana during the 9th century and fully developed by Abhinavagupta in the early 11th century.

Anandavardhana's premise states that artistic production is primarily a recombination of existing elements. However, novelty is not so much a matter of finding new primitive objects or combinations. Even the same performance watched several times may be perceived as "new" if certain conditions are met. A necessary condition for experiencing rasa is a sufficient degree of imprecision, an incompleteness of the codification triggering the imagination (kalpana) of each auditor, thereby yielding a "second creation" (bhavana) within the field of the "unspoken". Anandavardhana makes it clear that this process is not the outcome of a semantic operation.

This ancient Indian theorising on aesthetics is centred on the psyche of individual artists as a counterbalance to the categories of caste from which they come. The latter deny the existence of anything like humanity. But art is produced by individuals who share certain traits in common although belonging to different castes. They are individuals defined arbitrarily by emotions such as Shringara (erotic), Hasya (comic), Karuna (pathetic), Raudra (furious), Vira (heroic), Bhayanak (terrible), Bhibhatsa (odious) and Adbhuta (marvellous). These are spelt out by Bharata in his Natyashastra as they refer to performance art.

Clearly, such a scheme required elucidation. And that came with later theorists, such as Anandavardhana in the 9th century, who stressed the vibrations of a work (dhwani) as the basis of its aesthetic appreciation. The word 'dhwani" literally means "suggestion in an aesthetic sense' and was developed into an elaborate theory by Anandavardhana. Dhwani thus became the celebrated classical focus of Indian literary criticism, dealing with the aesthetic significance of words and their subtle undertones. Later, the 11th-century writer Abhinavagupta related dhwani to the activation of remainders of past experience called karma. Karma itself is the accumulation of "life roots" (vasana), a profound dissatisfaction linked to every action in itself. This quality of vibration in art brings us closer to penetrating the objective nature of the aesthetic qualities of an artwork, on the one hand, and of the changing impact of its rhythms over time on the other. It is precisely these vibrations, our assessment of them and the manner in which they are produced that basically reflect not only our individual aesthetic appreciation and taste, but also its evolution over time and space. Anandavardhana's theory ought to have replaced Bharata completely but the reverential nature of thought in a stagnant Hindu society has simply superimposed the one on the other.

A good model for analysing the impact of an Indian dhwani experience in a contemporary Western setting are the pictures in a recent British Museum exhibition (Garden & Cosmos, 2009) from the court of the Maharajah of Jodhpur. A highlight of dhwani at the end of the exhibition was a set of seven one metre long painted folios representing 'cosmic oceans' composed in a narrow landscape format. The paintings are attributed to the Muslim court painter Bulaki and dated to 1823. They display a novel arrangement of ancient iconography, part of a project in which, from the 1750s, the Maharajha's painters set out to convey the cosmology written in manuscripts by Nath scholars that had never been previously illustrated.

The basis of Nath religion is various systems of tantric yoga, which are aimed at the transubstantiation of the human body into a divine immortal form. The word Nath is derived from the name of god Shiva and its literal meaning is 'lord'. The folios depict vast swirling waters upon which are floating three Nath adepts (mahasiddhas) who have reached the highest level of meditative attainment with one hand raised in the gesture of explication. Their repetitive god-like iconography consists of jewelled kundal earrings, triangular black hat, golden halo, and orange patterned robe. They are arranged in a 'hidden' inverted triangle that signifies the female principle in yantra diagrams. They gaze into this triangle

The adept to the left always sits on the shoulders of a strange green, scaly-skinned figure riding a black antelope. Animals, symbolizing or complementing the energy or character of deity, came to be integral to Indian iconography and were always depicted with the deity. In this context, Vayo, the wind god, sits astride an antelope. In Vedic times Vayo formed the Hindu triad of nature gods together with Agni (fire) and Surya (sun). In later Hindu times he was degraded to become an atmospheric god restricted to the north-west quarter of the compass. He is the King of the Gandharvas, spirits who inhabit Indra's heaven and sing and dance there to entertain the Gods. One of Vayu's many exploits include breaking off the head of Mount Meru, a mythical mountain, and creating the Island of Lanka, now Sri Lanka.

On five of the picture folios, beneath the lower central mahasiddha, are the symbols "om," fish, snake, swan, and tortoise. "om" is the ultimate sacred syllable; the mahasiddha Matsyendranath was born as a fish; the snake stands for the latent female energy (Kundalini Shakti) which the mahasiddha must awaken to achieve omniscience; the swan (hamsa) represents release from samsara (the cycle of rebirth) and is the vehicle of the goddess Saraswati; and the tortoise is the support of the earth. The triad of figures may represent the spiritual development of a mahasiddha from priest to god.

The Baluki folios, in which the figures occupy only about a quarter of the picture area, have a striking modern look and without a storyline they also have an air or mystery, which the large expanse of a turbulent calligraphic cosmic ocean and the slight variations between the figures and their symbolic labels tend to reinforce. However, despite this diverse iconography, in the absence of the reference text the overall compositional code cannot be revealed. It has been suggested that artists may have listened to Nath stories to produce the folios that were subsequently sequenced as manuscripts. In which case it is unlikely that the literary context will ever be known. Without a script we are left with Picasso's claim that a painting is never done, and we find here, too, the deep roots of our own peculiarly modern and pervasive sense of the mystery of art, the sense that it ever eludes us, and that our own obsessive detective investigations of it will remain incomplete, they will never be finished.

As a postscript it must be added that dhwani is too important as a social idea to be confined to the art world. For example, we cannot perceive the full significance of the Anglo Indian art historian and critic Ananda Coomaraswamy's philosophy of Indian nationalism without perceiving the aesthetic impact of the theory of "dhwani" on the cohesive role of Indian art. Coomaraswamy reflected on the significance of art motifs and their symbolic meanings which emanated from India's cultural craft base. In this respect it has been said that Coomaraswamy's approach to nationalism combined the patriotic spirit of Mazzini, the intellectual freedom of Emerson, and the aesthetic insight of Anandavardhana.






Monday, August 10, 2009

Inventing a symbolic language

The cultural model of Indian temple sculpture made a remarkable entry into an innovative line of English art through the London meeting between Eric Gill and Ananda Commaraswamy in 1908. Gill, an engraver and self-taught sculptor, quickly assimilated the two cultural characteristics of Indian sculpture, namely its convexity and linearity. Using for the most part female members of his family circle as nude models, this Indian influence resulted, on the one hand, in the proliferation of black and white line engravings, and on the other sculptured forms expressed as convexities.

Gill marked out his stone reliefs before carving with outlines that indicated the depth to which each part should be cut, by half an inch, an inch, and so on. Then he cut backwards from the front skin of the stone, removing material layer by layer, by following the outlines drawn on the stone. It was a methodical and logical procedure which produced direct yet rather heraldic images. David Kindersley, an apprentice letter-cutter who joined Gill's workshop in the mid1930s, recalled how Gill worked with sureness and clarity:

"His attention was remarkable in degree and duration . . . No tool was ever forced beyond its capacity. All stages were in process at once over various parts of the carving, the projections always being a stage ahead so that, for all the world, it appeared a simple question of removing a series of skins of differently textured stone. Strength and firmness of form were assured not only by the clarity of his vision but in no small degree through his technique. All form for Mr Gill was of a convex order. Concavities were the result of the meeting of two convexities."

Through his eager assimilation of the essence of Indian temple art, Gill was able to unite his innate aptitudes for the crafts of engraving and sculpture, in one seamless process of creativity. His engravings are flattened sculpture and his sculptures are puffed up line-engravings.

Eric Gill occupies a unique place in British sculptural life of the twentieth century. He was born on 22 February 1882 in Brighton, the eldest son of twelve children of Arthur Tidman and Rose Gill. Eric Gill described his father as 'an Anglican parson, formerly a Dissenter', and his grandfather and great-uncle were Congregationalist missionaries in the South Sea Islands. The strong sense of vocation displayed by these three close male relatives was inherited by Gill, who appeared to feel from early manhood that he had a divinely appointed task to do. This task was to communicate his vision of art as a vehicle for the splendours of spiritual life. And in order to do this, Gill began to produce figurative sculpture that was uncompromising in its sacred message.

Gill came to believe passionately that things had gone wrong with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and the introduction of inhuman machine production of buildings, clothing, furniture, food and utensils. In the centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was no special thing called art. Art was making in general and anyone who made anything would, if the word had existed, have been called an artist. Art was simply the ways of men with things; it was human work . In this sense, Gill was already pre-adapted to take up the cultural inheritance of Indian art, which for the most part is the product of anonymous sculptors and painters.

An entry in Gill's diary for 10 January 1908 records that he attended a lecture at the Art Workers' Guild, London, given by Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy on Indian Art. Gill added the accompanying phrase 'a most splendid paper'. This appears to be the first time that Gill became aware of Coomaraswamy, and it seems he was immediately impressed by the man and his knowledge. At the end of his life, Gill wrote in his Autobiography:

"There was one person . . . to whose influence I am deeply grateful; I mean the philosopher and theologian, Ananda Coomaraswamy. Others have written the truth about life and religion and man's work . . . Others have understood the true significance of erotic drawings and sculptures. Others have seen the relationships of the true and the good and the beautiful. Others have had apparently unlimited learning. Others have loved; others have been kind and generous. But I know of no one else in whom all these gifts and all these powers have been combined. I dare not confess myself his disciple; that would only embarrass him. I can only say that I believe that no other living writer has written the truth in matters of art and life and religion and piety with such wisdom and understanding."

Coomaraswamy was born in 1877 in Sri Lanka of a Tamil father and an English mother. He studied botany and geology at London University. The Home Office in London appointed Coomaraswamy Director of the first mineralogical survey of Ceylon from 1903 to 1906, and after completing this work, he travelled for the first time to India at the end of 1906. His time in Srilanka and India stimulated an abiding interest in the arts and crafts of those countries and their spiritual basis. In 1907 Coomaraswamy moved into a medieval building, the Norman Chapel at Broad Campden, restored for him by C. R. Ashbee who lived and worked a couple of miles away, at Chipping Campden. Ashbee had formed his Guild of Handicraft, a group of workers occupied in the arts and crafts, in the East End of London in 1888. In 1902 he took his ideas and his workers to Chipping Campden, an attractive and neglected Gloucestershire village, in order to test his theory that a rural life was better for the production of art and craft work than an urban one. Ashbee looked at the position of the worker and his occupation in the arts and crafts world, such as silversmithing or printing, in terms of the social well-being of the individual and of society as a whole. Coomaraswamy allied himself to Ashbee's ideas and ideals, but substituted the spiritual for the social. Coomaraswamy purchased William Morris's press and used it to publish in 1908 the first book on the arts of his native Srilanka, 'Medieval Sinhalese Art'. This was followed by The Indian Craftsman in 1909, Indian Drawings in 1910, and several articles in the Burlington Magazine between 1910and 1916 on Indian art, later published in book form as 'Rajput Painting and The Dance of Shiva', the latter reviewed by Gill. In 1917

Coomaraswamy left Britain to take up a post as Keeper of the Indian Collections at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a position he held until his death in 1947.

Coomaraswamy was important for Gill for two reasons: firstly because he examined the relationship between man's work and his leisure, and secondly because he examined the relationship between the sacred and the profane. Also he provided Gill with a phrase that virtually became Gill's motto, and is thought by many to have stemmed from Gill himself, so perfectly does it chime with his aesthetic -

'The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist'.

Gill was able to test his own Christian-based ideas against those of a Hindu, and thus gain a broader spiritual base, although many ideas were held in common. Coomaraswamy was looking for a new metaphysical system for man's work and life at just the same time that Gill was, but Coomaraswamy's aesthetic parameters were much wider. He offered a deep and first-hand knowledge of Indian and Srilankan arts and crafts to a British audience anxious to learn more. And Gill was in the forefront of those thirsty for this knowledge. An appreciation in Britain of Indian arts and crafts had first emerged in the late 1870s, spearheaded by the artists William Morris, Edward Burne Jones, John Everett Millais and Walter Crane. These men were only too aware of how the arts and crafts in Britain were being attacked by increasing industrialisation and they wished to focus attention on the same position occurring in India. From 1908 Coomaraswamy took up this cause with passion. Then in the Spring of 1910 the India Society was founded, with its headquarters in London. Among the founding members were Coomaraswamy, Walter Crane, W. R. Lethaby, Roger Fry and William Rothenstein, all of whom were colleagues of Gill and significant supporters of his emergent sculptural practice.

In 1908 Coomaraswamy published The Aims of Indian Art and in this book cited William Blake as a most significant example of a Western artist who worked in an imaginative rather than a naturalistic manner. This way of thinking and working allied Blake to the aesthetics of Oriental artists. Blake was for Coomaraswamy a great and original spiritual thinker and artist and assumed for him the role of a bridge between Eastern and Western art. It is not inconceivable to imagine that Gill wanted to inherit Blake's role. In 1910 Gill designed a tombstone based on one of Blake's illustrations to Robert Blair's poem 'The Grave', the dramatic composition of 'The Reunion of the Soul and the Body'. And in 1917 Gill based his wood engraving of The Last Judgement on Blake's colour print of God Judging Adam. Gill, like Blake, believed in social and spiritual reform, and sexual freedom. They both abhorred the negative power of industrial mechanisation. It has been said that Coomaraswamys complex erotic life was a feature of his personal philosophy.

Gill's belief that the ascetic and the sensual could be amalgamated stemmed from his burgeoning knowledge of Indian art and Hindu theology. In 1913 Coomaraswamy published his 'The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon' and a section of his chapter on Indian sculpture provides a most useful gloss on these two beliefs. Coomaraswamy had been describing how sculptures of spiritual figures were made more impressive if they were created in a voluptuous style:

". . . in the best of Gothic art there are traces of a conflict, a duality of soul and body. If in many works of ancient Greece there is no such conflict, this is because the body alone is presented: but in the best of the Indian sculpture flesh and spirit are inseparable . . .

In nearly all Indian art there runs a vein of deep sex-mysticism. Not merely are female forms felt to be equally appropriate with male to adumbrate the majesty of the Over-soul, but the interplay of all psychic and physical sexual forces is felt in itself to be religious. Already we find in one of the earliest Upanishads -

'For just as one who dallies with a beloved wife has no consciousness of outer and inner, so the spirit also, dallying with the Self-whose-essence-is-knowledge, has no consciousness of outer and inner'. Here is no thought that passion is degrading . . . but a frank recognition of the close analogy between amorous and religious ecstasy . . . It is thus that the imager, speaking always for the race, rather than of personal idiosyncrasies, set side by side on his cathedral walls the yogi and the apsara, the saint and the ideal courtesan'.


What can we learn from hinduism

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The spaces between: geology and art

In the blog ‘accretionarywedge’. a geologist has written that his subject is a science riddled with aesthetic values. It “is a science driven in many cases solely by imagination and creativity, which then leads to an artistic representation or recreation of a time we’ll never visit, a place we’ll never see with our own eyes, or an organism that was only partially preserved". Not only does he believe that geology is riddled with aesthetic values, but many geologists also yearn to see geology within ‘traditional’ art, literature, music, etc. These are the yearnings for understanding that reside in conceptual spaces between a material object and its mental representation.

These spaces which link art and the Earth sciences—geology in particular—have not been widely recognized, yet both areas of human creativity have impinged on each other in the following ways.

-earth sciences phenomena as a source of artistic inspiration;
-geological illustrations as art;
-the use of geological materials in earth art;
-and geological investigations of the material basis for art objects.

All of these areas give us a glimpse of the great complexity inherent in the natural world, helping us appreciate the beauty and order of things. This, in turn, makes us aware of our place in the long-term material flux of a dynamic planet. Its then a short step to begin thinking about our own daily lives in a wider spiritual context. Beyond that, the study of geoscience in everyday life can give us an enormous amount of information of practical value while revealing much about the world in which we dwell. The earth sciences are, quite literally, all around us, and by learning about the structures and processes of our planet, we may be surprised to discover just how prominent a place geoscience occupies in the aesthetics of our daily lives and even our thought patterns.

Greg Wessell, co-curator of an exhibit called The Fusion of Geology and Art at the Two-Wall Gallery in Vashon Island, Wash., says the physical world is never that simple, it's never “just” anything, for behind the geological discoveries and findings and insights is a simple concept of beauty in the complexity of the system that creates folds, striations and cracks.

"Geologists by nature have to think in ways that engineers and others don't,” Wessell said. “They have to be able to picture complex processes in time and space using parameters (such as the concept of geologic time) that are largely outside human experience. So, it helps to be imaginative and creative ... putting all these disparate pieces of information together to construct a working model and then being able to tell others about it."

Wessell's picture of cross section with dropstones in soft sediment and accompanying soft-sediment disturbance was accompanied with the statement "Her life was like the sediment in a pond; criticism from her parents made a big splash on the surface and a permanent crater in the mud below."

His picture A lesson from stratigraphy was accompanied by the phrase: "Everything you say and do makes an impact, but the impact may not be measurable to you."
Carol Nelson was stimulated to produce a series of abstract paintings inspired by the colours and textures of the Grand Canyon. "The view is straight down from the south rim. The colours of the water constrast with the warm canyon walls"
Geologists have the ability to represent the geology they see in the field on drawing paper or canvas--an inherit ability and one that was used extensively in the classical (pre-computer) period in geology. Artists, on the other hand, tend to see a scene from the composition, light, and perspective, which includes the geology. This contrast prompted three geologists of the Kansas Geological Survey to explore how well Kansas geology is represented by artistic works of several indigenous Kansas artists. For example in Gove County, there are chalk remnants forming spectacular outliers. The Monument Rocks are perhaps the best known.
Monument Rocks in Gove County, by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

What does not seem to have been explored artistically is a tract of landscape from the point of view that it expresses a unified biogeological system embedded in the local culture, with notional spaces linking biology, geology and culture. In this connection, art is fundamentally produced by acting upon two main principles-a principle of form, derived fom the organic world, which is the universal objective aspect of all works of art; and a principle of origination peculiar to the human mind. The latter impels us to create and appreciate the creation of symbols, phantasies, myths which take on a universally valid objective existence only in virtue of the principle of form. Form is a function of perception; origination is a function of imagination. These two mental activities exhaust, in their dialectical counterplay, all the psychic aspects of aesthetic experience.

But art has other aspects-biological and social. Indeed life itself, in its most secret and essential sources, is aesthetic in that it only is in virtue of the embodiment of energy in a form which is not merely material, but aesthetic. Such is the formative principle discernible in the evolution of the universe itself. It would seem that the more the scientist is able to reveal of the nature of the physical structure of the world, the more he relies on numerical harmonies which are aesthetically satisfying. Fundamentally, the geologist, no less than the artist, should be ready to accept a view of planet Earth that finds that the cleavage between the aesthetic and the extra-aesthetic domain of experience, no less than that between the scientific and the extra-scientific explanations, is the cleavage between the metrical and the non-metrical, rather than that between the concrete and the transcendental.

European sedimentary basins (PaintShop Pro image)

In philosophy of mind the general claim is made that the mental supervenes on the physical. The term 'supervenience' is used to describe a kind of dependency relationship, typically held to obtain between sets of properties. The value of a physical object is sometimes held to be supervenient upon the physical properties of the object. Kendall Walton's analysis of various aesthetic properties takes this idea further and suggests that the 'supervenience bases' of artworks extend well beyond their physical boundaries to include the artists' intentions, the actual or apparent processes that led to the formation of the works, the character of other contemporary or historical works, and the various categories recognized by the artistic community as a whole.

In aesthetics, such "wide" supervenience of artworks is generally accepted to support people classified as contextualists who believe that the study a work of art's non-perceptual hidden properties, such as its historical and cultural background, is necessary in order to appreciate it. For example, the beauty of Sueurat's La Grande Jatte might supervene on the physical composition of the painting (the specific molecules that make up the appearance), the artistic technique of the painting (in this case, dots), the figures and forms of the painted image (the behaviour of Parisians at leisure), or the painted canvas as a whole (the concept of a work of art in France at that time). On the other hand, formalists believe that the aesthetic appreciation of an artwork generally is a private affair and involves an attentive awareness of its sensory or perceptual qualities only, and does not require knowledge about its nonperceptual properties.

What does this hidden knowledge add to our appreciation of the picture? To Marcus Aurelius it was important to 'know' the hidden things of life.

"Observe and contemplate on the hidden things of life: how a man's seed is but the beginning, it takes others to bring it to fruition. Think how food undergoes such changes to produce health and strength. See the power of these hidden things which, like the wind cannot been seen, but its effects can be".

We know by a process of immersion. We enter a state of intellectual absorption in an action or condition. Popper says immersion is characterised by "diminishing critical distance from what is shown and increasing emotional investment in what is happening". The idea that the meaning of a work derives more from an audience's interpretation of it rather than simply the author's intent is central to much twentieth-century criticism.

One important way in which the experience of art becomes more than a private affair is in the form of art criticism. Art criticism is an interpretive portal between artist and viewers. In theory, art criticism assesses the aesthetic excellence of works of art, just as in the popular imagination the critic is first and foremost someone who judges. But a survey of visual art critics at American newspapers in 2002 ranked judgement well behind education as the perceived task of the critic. This change from making an aesthetic judgement to telling the story behind a work of art has come with modernism and a shift away from beauty as being the main goal of artists.

Supervenience also applies to scientific presentations. In biology, the building blocks of the cell do not alone account for the cell's development and functioning, which are subservient on environmental factors and chemical changes at the level of the cell as a whole. They work as a process to promote the expression of genetic potentials in a sort of "top-down" causation. However, the question may be asked to what extent this supervenience is necessary to appreciate the following photo-micrograph of a six-cell human test tube embryo as a subject of contemplation. Does it matter if the observer is ignorant of the subject matter altogether?

Similarly, the subject of the following watercolour is a key geological element in our knowledge of primeval processes that occurred 220 million years ago. These physical processes were responsible for the present physical appearance of a swathe of Britain, from Scotland to the West Country. Would knowledge of these processes aid contemplation of the picture?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Space in time

For the purposes of this discussion, space is defined geographically and culturally and is coupled to the idea of people having 'a sense of place'. The term sense of place means different things to different people. To some, it is a distinctive visual characteristic that some geographic spaces have and some do not, while to others it is an emotional feeling or perception held about a space by individuals and groups. Both uses involve adopting a set of characteristics that make a space special or unique and promote authentic human attachment and belonging.

Spaces said to have a strong "sense of place" have an outstanding identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. But it is primarily a social phenomenon dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, when the focus is on landscape, but is more often derived from a mix of natural and cultural features, and generally includes the people who occupy the space. In these connotations, strong pastoralist and anti urbanist philosophies have produced modes of codification aimed at protecting, preserving and enhancing spaces with an obvious sense of place. This is evident in spaces with anti-industrialist and anti modernist values, such as the British "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" and the American "National Historic Landmark".

Two important visual concepts to communicate a sense of place are imaginary 'time in space' and imaginary 'space in time'. These two overlapping emotional perspectives became the driving force of 19th century British art. Imaginary 'time in space' is exemplified by the Pre-Raphaelites, who were particularly fascinated by medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity that had been lost in later eras (Fig 1). 'Space in time' was employed by the 19th century painter Walter Langley, and others like him, to dramatise fields and quays with peasants and fisherfolk so as to glorify the imagined joys and tragedies of simple village life (Fig 2). This was the period after 1880, when the rediscovery of national identity and native traditions prevailed throughout the western world. Pictures of space in time were painted for urbanites as nostalgic reassurances of the continuity of less comfortable traditional ways of living. For the most part this picture-making was an incessant production system where standards were consistently maintained year on year, but there were no high flyers. In all cases, a lexicon of historical continuities was amplified and the visual disjunctions were filled in with painterly imagination. The pictures also served to add additional character to out of the way spaces that were beginning to serve an embryo tourist industry.

Cultural features may create a sense of place in a space that has no outstanding visual quality. Then the feeling of attachment may be strongly enhanced by the space being written about by poets, novelists and historians, or portrayed in art or music. It may also be created by knowledge of the roots of one’s ancestry. Here it is the power of human imagination projected onto a space that makes it special. These notional values serve to add scenic power to even the most prosaic landscape elements that elsewhere would go unnoticed.

Such ordinary places make up the plateau landscape of glacial clays occupying most of the English county of Suffolk, which is devoted to mile after mile of featureless intensive cereal production. There is no landscape protection here! These remote unprotected uplands have never had a tradition of landscape painting. The dust cover introduction to Norman Scarfe's book 'The Suffolk Landscape' published as a contribution to W.G. Hoskins' series 'The Making of the English Landscape' in 1972, encapsulated the relative pictorial dullness of the county.

"Sandwiched between the emptier, more open Nofolk and the more metropolitan Essex, Suffolk is famous for its calm landscape of estuaries and gently undulating cornfields, its associations with Crabbe and Britten, Gainsborough and Constable'.

These famous 'calming features' projected nationally by local poets, musicians and painters are actually confined to its borders with Essex and the county’s coastal ports and heathlands. However, the next sentences reveal a basis for considering spaces in the rest of the county as having a special 'personality'.

'The ingredients of this landscape are plainly part of an ancient story of settlement. How and when it all came about is examined here and broadly established for the first time. The distinctive, rather hidden personality of these lands..... derives almost everything from its makers, the South folk or 'Suffolk', the English of southern East Anglia'.

The first East Anglians were not motivated by areas of outstanding natural beauty but by fertile spaces empty of people with natural resources for survival and raising families. Their distinctive settlement pattern on Suffolk’s northern border with Norfolk is responsible for the ‘hidden personality' of a small space consisting of nine closely knit communities. They have a sufficient sense of place today for local people to refer to them as 'The Saints'. The clues to discover why these villages form a distinctive cultural unit are a single man-made feature, unique in the whole of Britain, and a remarkable pattern of dividing up the land, which is now only evident in old maps. Beginning with these two obscure features it is possible to create a distinctive personality for The Saints, which is coupled with the beginnings of East Anglian Christianity. The Saints then becomes a schematic plan or mindmap embedding a sense of place, and picturing it adds important notional values to commonplace streams, ditches and hedgerows of a tiny part of the British Isles which, for a few centuries, played an important role in the making of Englishness. This idea is being taken further as a wiki.

This post is a development of http://www.blything.wikispaces.com/

Fig 1 William Holman Hunt: 'A converted British family sheltering a Christian missionary from persecution by the Druids' (1950)

Fig 2 Walter Langley 'Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break'

Fig 3 The southern thousand year old boundary of ‘The Saints’

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What is real?

Michael Karwowski in an article for ‘Contemporary Review (2005)’ defined art as dealing with the nature of reality as it affects man, and science as being concerned with the nature of reality as it affects matter. The article highlights the fact that the long-standing debate on differences and similarities between creativity of scientists and artists continues relentlessly.

This difference in the two ways of understanding how we function as human beings was stated clearly in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel La Nausee (Nausea), published in 1938. The narrator discovered a new reality whilst sitting in the park:

“The root of the chestnut tree plunged into the ground just underneath my bench. I no longer remembered that it was a root . . . Words had disappeared, and with them the meaning of things, the methods of using them, the feeble landmarks which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, slightly bent, my head bowed, alone in front of that black, knotty mass, which was utterly crude and frightened me. And then I had this revelation.

Faced with that big, rugged paw, neither ignorance nor knowledge had any importance; the world of explanations and reasons is not that of existence. A circle is not absurd, it is clearly explicable by the rotation of a segment of a straight line around one of its extremities. But a circle doesn't exist either. That root, on the other hand, existed in so far that I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, repeatedly brought me back to my own existence . . . I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a suction-pump, to that, to that hard, compact sea-lion skin, to that oily, horny, stubborn look."

Here is a dramatisation of the gap between scientific and artistic endeavour, which is particularly acute when considering both behaviours as the outcome of evolution to boost human social relationships. Perhaps an awareness of the dichotomy may be traced to Picasso’s inventions of methodologies for expressing nature non-representationally. It is significant that the non-representational scientist, Einstein, and the abstracting artist Picasso came of age at the exact moment in history when it was first becoming apparent that classical, intuitive ways of understanding space and time were not adequate. Each in his own way - Einstein with relativity and Picasso with cubism - was striving for a deeper, more satisfying way to represent space and time. In the most important cultural sense, they were both working on the same problem. Picasso enthusiastically embraced the media of photography and film to evolve as a cubist. In order to derive and present multiple presentations of a subject on a two-dimensional plan, he took thousands of photographs and literally sliced and pasted them together. This was part of his efforts to refine forms by abstraction and distortion from their context in order to convert them into luminous and mysterious entities. There seems little doubt that these artistic inventions were taken from the conventions of the realities perceived by African native artists, where faces are symbols, eyes, mouths, noses and genitals are placed for impact, not naturalistic representation, and human figures are flat planes and geometric shapes.

The origins of abstraction as a vital force in Western art may be dated to the spring of 1907 when Picasso was visiting Gertrude Stein at her Paris apartment. The story goes that Henri Matisse stopped by with an African sculpture he had just purchased. According to Matisse, the two artists were enthralled by its depiction of a human figure. Soon afterwards, Picasso went to the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology (now the Musée de l'Homme) with another artist friend, André Derain. That visit, Picasso later claimed, was pivotal to his art.

"A smell of mould and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately," Picasso said of the museum. "But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them colour and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path."

Abstraction as a biological behaviour, and thereby open to scientific explanations, was visited by Kandinsky two decades later in his early intellectual struggles with spiritualism, ethnology and children’s art as a consistent aspect of human development. He regarded it as a route to produce new understandings of nature and was trying to reconcile art making with human biology. Whilst retaining his fundamental antimaterialistic convictions, he drew on the theories of science and engineering in order to support his contention that there was a fundamental similarity between art and evolution. In the 1920s he had reached the following position:

“ Abstract art, despite its emancipation, is subject….to ‘natural laws’, and is obliged to proceed in the same way that nature did previously, when it started in a modest way with protoplasms and cells, progressing very gradually to increasingly complex organisms. Today, abstract art also creates primary or less primary art-organisms, whose further development the artist can predict on in uncertain outline, and which entice, excite him, but also calm him when he stares into the prospect of the future that faces him. Let me observe here that those who doubt the future of abstract art, are, to choose an example, as if reckoning with the state of development reached by amphibians, which are far removed from fully developed vertebrates and represent not the final result of creation, but rather the ‘beginning’.

This is a roundabout way of stating that making works of art is an evolved aspect of behaviour we describe as tool making. Paintings are refinements of ideas through the placing of lines, shapes and colours on a flat surface until they ‘look right’. The finished painting then becomes a tool to reinforce social communication within groups where the members share the same values and perceptions of environment. Over tens of thousands of years, the principle of using coded messages has remained. But the codes have developed from those close to real objects, to more idiosyncratic collections of pictographs, invented by talented individuals to turn their mental ideas into framed shapes and colours for sharing with others. The social aims behind the tooling of art also remain those of reinforcing group identity. Indeed, the most powerful evidence for art having this role is the fact that works, such as those of Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group, which were reviled by contemporary critics, now grace the walls of museums and are objects of group consumption through the commercial industry of museology. It is common to decry the astronomical prices paid today for abstract art. However, this is missing the point that this is evidence of the cultural position of art as the outcome of a fundamental evolved behaviour and one of the mainsprings of capitalist society.

The social role of art is only limited by the ability of the artist to match the levels of the public’s capacity to read their codes, where the common response is ‘I only like what I know’. Innovation, whether in science or art, has to overcome this threshold of innate social conservatism about how an acceptable reality can be depicted. It is not always a problem of education. Conservatism, in all things, has a survival value in holding back society from destroying its past before it has a firm platform of values for the future. As deep-thinking primates we cannot escape the need to seek new social arrangements as past values and structures disintegrate, through forces connected for the most part with advances in tool making. In this sense art movements are just one facet of social evolution, arising at an individual level, but with the potential to move society into a new cultural paradigm. Where yesterday’s mysteries become commonplace realities.

In the final chapter of his book, ‘The Art of Modernism’ published in the last year of the 20th century, Sandro Bocola makes the point that, at all times, artistic creativity runs with other cultural changes, which are mainly political and technological variations on past themes. In particular, he takes a stance that we are moving rapidly towards a global culture of capitalism, and cultural evolution is going to be increasingly bound up with electronic data processing and satellite communication of ideas. For Bocola, new methods, outputs and aesthetic norms associated with artistic creativity will emerge from computer networking;

“…. whose potential for art has hardly been explored and is far from being exhausted. These media, too, open up a variety of new creative possibilities, which- like photography and film- will probably influence future artistic developments and may even lead to the formation of new and hitherto unknown types of art”

We can be certain that this type of future will emerge, and will probably come sooner than we think. In particular, we can also be sure that the technology of digital imaging, which offers an unlimited capacity for everyone to command the entire process of image-making, from capture to display, will play a powerful role in broadening the social base of artistic creativity. A computer screen is the most potent interface with virtual reality ever created. This is particularly true for self-education of the ‘what happens if I do this’ type. We can only speculate how computer graphics would have accelerated Kandinsky’s intellectual development, and spread his ideas as an educator who questioned what is ‘real’ reality around the world at the speed of light.

Fig 1 'The Conductor': three superimposed sequential digital images

Fig 2 Models and artists: montage from a digital image

Monday, June 1, 2009

Beauty and the system of making art

Art is the outcome of a system of emotional thought filtered from the environment, which illuminates the mind’s capacity for cognition and vision. It stimulates a person to think about correcting and perfecting an idea in order to express it intuitively in words or pictures. As a thought system it provides motivation to put technical skill at the disposal of experience to create an object or an idea for contemplation rather than action. The object or idea is an end in itself embodying supramundane values and meanings. Art is thus isolated within a symbolic frame. Inside the frame is the contemplatable world, where life must be lived for the sake of values, meanings and enjoyment put into the work of art by its maker and received from the work by its viewer. Although this relationship may involve the viewer paying for the art work, this is the inner spiritual world of the maker and viewer. Feedback from the maker contemplating his creation stimulates artistic development. Outside the frame is the liveable world, where life can only be lived for the sake of living materialistically, where our work is to be for possessions, and our being is for self-interest.

Beauty becomes attached to a work of art as it is viewed within its symbolic frame. It is not the object of making but an accident of making that happens to be strongly pleasurable to a particular viewer. In this sense beauty is a quality of the production system in the mind of the beholder. Also, like the art it is attached to, beauty as an aesthetic value, is an end in itself. Therefore, beauty becomes an idiosyncratic characteristic of objects or ideas and part of the system of thought which made them. Beauty thereby personalises the thought system to reinforce a perceptual experience of pleasure. This 'beauty/thought system' is a strong stimulus for contemplating an object or an idea. It is an amalgam of every possible type of human experience accumulated through learning, which can reinforce a mental response to objects and ideas. From this point of view there is no generally acceptable definition of beauty.

The beauty/thought contemplative system

In a world of mass production, it requires great effort to bring the two worlds of contemplation and work into one frame. Believing that this unity was the day-to-day life of medieval artists, many have tried to revive an historical religious attitude towards art and integrate craftsmanship with industry, art, religion and beauty. Eric Gill (1882-1940) was one such aspirant. A wood engraver, sculptor, typographer and draughtsman, he is regarded as one of the great English artist-craftsmen of the 20th century. His thought system as a maker of art involved a belief in social reform and the union of art and religion with flesh and spirit. He was the key personality in three Catholic art and craft communities and also a devoted family man. In this unified world he could truly say his work was to be, and to be was to work. At the same time he was a long-standing believer in sexual freedom and it is now clear that incest with his sisters and daughters was part of the thought pattern of Gill the artist and Gill the man. The following wood engraving of the Carpenter Father with the infant Son of God is a representative outcome of Gill’s thought system, which embraces the two worlds of work and contemplation. Gill’s tender, poignant engraving is based on a drawing made by his daughter Betty, and is a conceptual self portrait expressing Gill’s love for his daughter. All of this is the Gill contemplative thought system which produced the wood engraving, St Joseph.

At Joseph; wood engraving (1921)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pictures before words?

I shall take you on a journey. It is a journey of comprehension, taking us to the edge of space, time and understanding. On it I shall argue that there is nothing that cannot be understood, that there is nothing that cannot be explained, and that everything is extraordinarily simple… A great deal of the universe does not need any explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants and things resembling elephants will in due course be found roaming through the countryside. Peter Atkins ‘The Creation’

Art and survival
There is no doubt that life is carried forward because molecules of DNA, which constitute the genes, embody a coded history of life’s genealogical past. In this respect, we are part of nature in everything we do, from stepping on a bus to painting a house. Like all other living things our behaviour is governed by a chemical coding of our genes, which is a record of successful long-term interactions with the environments of our ancestors, near and in the distant past. It is a biochemical memory that remembers the body’s responses of growth reproduction and behaviour that have been responsible for survival. In this respect, the body of a plant, animal or microbe represents a kind of prediction that its future environmental experiences will, to a general extent, resemble those of its ancestors. Animals, especially those with brains, are particularly good survivors because the nervous system also has a remarkable picturing ability for remembering what is the most useful way of responding to short-term variations in the environment. As a computer model, the brain (hardware) and its networks of memory cells (the software) have evolved to continuously scan the environment, and use memories of good and bad responses to keep short-term survival strategies up to date. The genes model the basic aspects of the environment that change very slowly over generations. The brain produces models of survival as day-to-day interactions between perception via the senses and a mental representation of environment that triggers the correct response. This interplay between changes in the environment and their representation as virtual images in the central nervous system allows us to move through a mental world of our brain’s making, and produce neuromuscular responses that aid survival. Since brains are also products of natural selection, ancestors, near and in the distant past, also carried virtual worlds of their contemporary environments in their heads. Brains are a particular expression of DNA, tasked with the role of recording lifespan-events as pictures to help predict the immediate future.

We describe these virtual worlds as ‘patterns of thought’ and the process of perception that generates them as ‘reading the environment’. This faculty of ‘graphicity’ is a vital process of comprehension. We become interested in shapes and colours that do not fit into the known. In this we prefer intriguing suggestions to actual representation. For example, a trail of footprints occurring together with disturbed vegetation and dung deposits, is read intently by a hunter as the pattern of his prey. It is comprehended as a detailed mental map of events over a wide area, that points to the course of action necessary if the hunt is to be successful. According to Steven Dawkins it seems plausible that the ability to perceive the signs and generate such pictures might have arisen in our ancestors before the origin of speech in words. If the thought-picture could be represented as an arrangement of shapes and signs, constructing an environmental model in the head is a helpful way to communicate, and coordinate what has to be done in a social group. Such mental imagery could be an educational resource to help group cohesion and promote social evolution. This seems the likely origin of art, which depends on noticing that something can be made to stand for something else in order to assist comprehension and communication. Dawkins suggests that it could have been the drawing of mind-maps in the sand that drove the expansion of human evolution beyond the critical threshold of communication that other apes just failed to cross. It may be pertinent that ceremonial sand-pictures of native Australians function as maps. They are patterns created by an individual ‘dreamer’ through the two-dimensional spacing of symbols, standing for people and local topographical detail.

The fact that these patterns are closely associated with ‘dreaming’ is significant. Dreams are set up by our simulation software using the same modelling techniques used by the brain when it presents its updated editions of reality. These aboriginal maps of the dreamtime were community properties. Their role was to codify the neighbourhood and its use by the community in the form of a locally accepted non-representational pattern of relationships. The collection of pictographs reinforced the existence of a tribal territory and its natural resources by incorporating stories about its occupation by the group’s ancestors. The pictures, now being made permanent works of art on cloth and hardboard, once had a social function to maintain a subculture of understanding by reinforcing comprehension of group identity and space. Rock art of North America, which consists of pictographs constructed from circles, spirals and lines, also seems to have its origins in dreams, and a significance in carrying messages about origins and group identity across generations. Reaching from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego there is tremendous variety in all aspects of indigenous art from prehistory to the arrival of Europeans, differing region by region, era by era, and often tribe by tribe. There are representations of flora and fauna, men and gods, earth and sky; symbols of clan and tribe, religion and magic; formal designs from the primal to the highly intricate. They appear in examples of basketry, weaving, pottery, sculpture, painting, lapidary work, masks, drum-heads, weapons, apparel, beadwork, goldwork, blankets, ponchos, and may other forms.

In the cave art of the European Palaeaolithic we may contemplate on the existence of the bovine quality in art which is 35,000 years old, and may conclude that since then there has really been no fundamental development in our imaginative and technical abilities to represent natural forms that are close to us practically, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes the whole body of an animal is contained in the shape of the rock. It was the rock that revealed its animal 'spirit'. Their common mental ground is specific material features, such as cracks and smooth, rounded surfaces, which are used to enhance animal features in the mind of the artist. Most of the paintings consist of collections of symbols arranged haphazardly on the surface, indicating that they were contributed at different times by several individuals. Occasionally they occur as if welded by one person into an overall composition. For example, the Chumash, who once inhabited the coast of southern California from Malibu to Morrow Bay, created painted compositions in which dozens of interrelated shapes were confined within a limited space. At Arrow Head Springs two rounded boulders with painted panels mark a Chumash sacred site on a steep slope overlooking Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands.

(001) 1,000-2000 BC Motif from a shelter cave in the Devil’s River drainage of Texas

(002) Arrow Head Springs Santa Barbara California Chumash Native American

Although the animal forms of Palaeolithic art have a high aesthetic profile, they are usually found together with abstract shapes, such as circles, spirals, and grids. These shapes emerge in the trances of modern spiritualists, and people with certain sight defects, where they are generated from particular regions of the brain. These findings have led to the belief that the rock faces played a spiritual role in the social life of prehistoric peoples. Beyond the rock face was their spirit world; the rock wall is a spiritual place where shamans sought power in a personal interaction at an important boundary between the living and material worlds. Trances have a practical purpose- healing people who are sick. In other words, in making art against stone, a spiritual healer was trying to understand what the brain makes us feel. We are essentially human when we use graphic ways of portraying other realities, and the Palaeolithic artist deep in a cave, or balancing on a rocky mountain-side, was expressing a mind identical to our own in order to serve his community.

An equally powerful biological imperative is to promote ‘self’. In the sense of the ‘selfish gene’ scenario, any behavioural characteristic that gives one’s own genetic endowment an advantage in passing to the next generation is subject to natural selection. From this aspect, art is also one of many behavioural expressions that allows an individual to be distinguished from the crowd. Piet Mondrian put it this way:

“Although art is fundamentally everywhere and always the same, nevertheless two main human inclinations, diametrically opposed to each other, appear in its many and varied expressions. One aims at the direct creation of universal beauty, the other at the aesthetic expression of oneself, in other words, of that which one thinks and experiences. The first aims at representing reality objectively, the second subjectively”.

The advantages of contributing to group identity by reinforcing the contemporary norms of representation (subscribing to locally agreed icons of beauty and meaning), and the cultivation of an individual output are not opposing principles of artistic creativity. They represent primeval skills of being able to help highlight group identity through mapping one’s social unit, and having the ability to produce new ideas about the environment which improve one’s own survival.

Words with pictures
Illustration is an art of visual communication. The combination of great artwork and wisely chosen ideas is the formula for an illustrator's success in communicating with pictures.Pictures play a very important part in our everyday life. Sight is our most widely used sense and as a consequence of this, pictures play a significant role in communication. A picture is neither subtle nor universal enough to take the place of words in the strictest sense of the meaning, but that does not mean that pictures do not have a biological role in communication, because many pictures do a superior job to words under certain conditions. The underlying problem is that to fulfil this condition, the pictures rely on the diversity of language and words to secure their meaning.

Gombrich, in his book Art and Illusion highlighted the biggest problem of communicating with pictures, and that is their inaccuracy. His claim is that the artist is psychologically susceptible to her own interpretation of the object she depicts. She sees where the lines are to be drawn and she makes the object conform to her own imagined stereotype. An artist learns a group schemata and a set of socially determined patterns when she learns to draw, and these will always, in the first instance, direct her to draw to those particular patterns and classifications. As Gombrich says, the `will-to- form' is rather a `will-to-conform', and ensure that the assimilation of any new shape conforms to the schemata and patterns an artist has learned to handle. The truth is twisted to fit the stereotype and the outcome is not always the accurate representation of the object.

With this being the case, it is hard to argue that pictures can accurately replace words. Words are specifically designed to convey accurate descriptions and meanings, whereas pictures are subjective and their accuracy is at the mercy of the interpreter. Pictures are only useful as a reminder of a frozen moment in time. A photograph of someone, is very quickly out of date, whereas language changes to suit time. A name can quite easily flash a better and more accurate image of the subject in the recipients mind, whereas a picture does no such thing. The importance of language is that it is communicable. Naming someone provokes a better image than an old photograph does and is just as instantaneous. The key to language lies in its wonderful subtlety and diversity. Picture communication can never say as much. Language is designed specifically with the purpose of communicating, whereas pictures are not. It is only because of spoken and written words, that humankind has progressed. Speech can be wonderfully diverse, but at the same time, its effectiveness lies in its economical use. Through language we can form relationships and communicate in other forms. According to this argument, pictures came after language because they needed vocabulary to find a purpose in communication.

Thoughts without a language are not truly thoughts, because they need language to define themselves. Helen Keller in her autobiography, remarked upon this, when she first realised the significance of language. When one day the word `water' was spelt out in her hand, while at the same time a cool stream was gushing over her other hand, the world of language was opened up to her. "...Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten -a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me...That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!...Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought."

It is easy to forget the significance of language. Real thinking, is only possible when we have the language there to convey it. `Water' for Helen Keller was no longer just an object of sense perception, it had a name that could be mentioned, conceived, remembered. Pictures only offer confusion unless they are qualified by language. To be able to communicate effectively the meaning of the picture, you have to place it in context. Whether this be a phrase on the picture saying; `danger', `vote Labour', or `support Manchester United' or just putting the picture in the place or the time, or next to the article that makes it relevant. We have passport photos and not composed paragraphs because it is a better form of communication under the circumstances of immigration control. Pictures add sparkle and colour to our life, but their use is entirely dependent on language.

The joy and necessity of language was wonderfully captured by Helen Keller, and just as the world would be a more insipid place without pictures it would be even more so without language. The creativity of words in poetry, novels and public speaking is sometimes harder, and less exciting, to reflect in pictures. Pictures have their place, they can convey messages quicker and make life easier and more exciting, but they are ultimately dependent on the social conditions created through language.

Cave paintings and representational carvings define the beginnings of "external long- term storage" of information. External storage has several qualities of interest.

It can be used by the individual as an extension of "working memory" for immediate use in thinking.
It provides long term storage, for retrieval at a later date.
It can be used to communicate to other individuals.

Before children learn to read and write, they do not know the difference between a line drawing and a letter. When an adult writes an 'A,' to a child it is simply another drawing. It is a picture, different than a face or a house, but it is still just another image drawn with a coloured pencil on white paper. Soon children learn that combinations of these letter-pictures mean more complicated things. When the drawings 'A-P-P-L- E' are combined, they form another picture, which we learn stands for the name of the fruit. Now the letter-pictures become word-pictures that can spark other images in our minds of the thing they stand for. We further learn that these word-pictures can be combined with other word-pictures to form sentence-pictures. To a child, there is no difference between words and pictures -- they are one and the same.

It is not clear how much thinking skills are helped by early drawing, or how much knowledge is conveyed. Communicating via pictures is potentially powerful, but would have been laborious with early materials, and not very portable. However, it seems likely that early drawing, combined with the communications abilities refined through use of speech, must have played a role in the development of early pictorial written languages.

When you carefully analyze a visual message, you consciously study each visual symbol within that picture's frame. The act of concentration is a verbal exercise. Without verbal translations of the signs within an image, there is little chance of it being recalled in the future. The picture is lost from your memory because you have learned nothing from it. Images become real property of the mind and remembered only when language expresses them. Linguistic experts do not need to argue that images have no alphabet or syntax because such assertions are true. The alphabet and the syntax of images reside in the mind, not in the picture itself. They are often placed there by the professional art critic. Consider, for example the exhibition of one of Damien Hirst's works 'A Thousand Years'. It is a glass and steel box in which live maggots feasted on a rotting cow's head, while flies, fed on sugar water, meet a violent end through their random encounters with the 'insect-o-cuter'. It is accompanied by the words "an examination of the processes of life and death; the ironies, falsehoods and desires that we mobilise to negitiate our own alienation and mortality"

On a more mundane level. there are strong indications that the status of images in mass communication is increasing. We live in a mediated blitz of images. They fill our newspapers, magazines, books, clothing, billboards, computer monitors and television screens as never before in the history of mass communications. We are becoming a visually mediated society. For many, understanding of the world is being accomplished, not through reading words, but by reading images. Philosopher Hanno Hardt warns that the television culture is replacing words as the important factor in social communication. Maybe shortly, words will be reserved for only bureaucratic transactions through business forms and in books that will only be read by a few individuals. On the human law of 'minimum effort', reading is losing ground to watching because viewing requires little mental processing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Painting and planting flowers

Flowers must have been our most intense source of the experience of colour for most of human history. Through the Middle Ages, cloth and buildings were drab. Stained-glass windows were intense visions. And then there were flowers. The richness of Dutch flower painting burst out from a delight in the depiction of impossibly sumptuous explosions of colour - vases piled high with paradisal flower presences, all seasons impossibly together, many of the flowers worth more in the market than the masterpieces that depicted them. Dutch and Flemish artists recorded in their still life paintings more than just a pleasing arrangement of objects for viewing. These works combined the tradition of the symbolic use of plants and animals, together with an interest in the sciences and the acquisition and display of rare and luxurious goods.

Albrecht Dürer's paintings of growing plants - specimens of grasses, cowslips, heartsease - give an intense visionary pleasure, simply because of the accuracy with which he recorded the crowding shape of the leaves, the exact yellowing stain of incipient decay. He saw the accidents of a particular plant and managed to make them into the essence of beauty as a process.

Shakespeare, contemplating the onrush of mortality and destruction, asked:

"How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea/ Whose action is no stronger than a flower?"

Flowers are tough, as well as fragile, and humans care about the relations between humans and flowers. Plants remind us of who we are, and what we have to lose. Like many people, I first met the idea of this kind of inner eye in Wordsworth's Daffodils, where he summoned up the golden brightness upon "that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude". Blake said: "I can look at a knot in a piece of wood until I am frightened at it". A reminder of DH Lawrence's "big and dark" Bavarian gentians, "burning dark blue,/ giving off darkness, blue darkness", blue torches leading into the dark.

Observation and creativity are cornerstones of advancement in science but these often pass unnoticed when students hurry past, obsessed with the two other cornerstones-control and measurement. We have only to look at Japanese prints of flowers, to see something of the attentive creative care with which the Japanese artists isolated the essential forms of a peony, or an iris. What we contemplate is the brilliance of the relation of the work of the hand to what the eye sees. Manet's white peonies are swirls of gleaming white, and grey shadows and gold stains, and are delightful almost as abstract paintings. This is a thought about what light does to paint, with the surfaces of the flowers represented primarily as the impulse to paint.

A study of flower paintings must always bring one up against Georgia O'Keeffe, with her infolded sexual flower-flesh, her enveloping petals, and her quivering stamens. Art is always a reflection of the hidden design of universe. It by nature is a reflection of light, order, beauty, mystery, meaning, cohesiveness, oneness, and organic, joyful wonder. To the extent that we have the inner Eye of wisdom to see, art becomes a lens through which we know ever more clearly, aspects of spirituality, within and without.

The origins of 17th century still life can be found in European miniature painting of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, in which artists made intricate illustrations for prayer books and took great care to make the images appropriate in quality to these religious books. Increasingly, the artists paid attention to decorative details of flowers and animals used as symbols of spiritual ideas. Emblem books are another tradition of illustration where animals and plants were used symbolically. These contained poems dealing with moral and philosophical issues, often rooted in medieval spiritualism. The imagery found in the paintings on display can be interpreted using traditional medieval symbolic meanings. The caterpillar and butterfly represented life and rebirth; the bee, a social animal, indicated diligence and hard work.

Based upon ancient Greek ideas of the four elements, the salamander, popular in medieval bestiaries, represented the element Fire; the frog represented Water; flying insects such as dragonflies and butterflies represented Air; the fruit and flowers represented Earth. Usually, the artists used a mix of flowers from the different seasons, and other objects to evoke the five senses, in order to convey the idea of the passage of time, and eventual decay. The four distinct stages in the life cycle of insects-egg, larva, pupa and adult-symbolized inevitable change and the passage of time.

Flowers point to the briefness of beauty and are the essence of spirituality, which is a distinctly human trait whereby we yearn to belong to something greater than the self. We desire to inquire the source/nature of life and death, address humanity's most profound needs and concerns, acknowledge intangible forces in universe. Botany is in an excellent position to reflect on all this. How can we structure such a joint on-going reflection of the two-way interaction between the making of gardens and the painting of them?

Charles H. Smith's note entitled: 'An aggressive book review of Grant Allen's The Colour Sense: Its Origin and Development, printed in the Nature issue of 3 April 1879 provided the following condensed formula for this interaction.

"Insects produce flowers. Flowers produce the colour-sense in insects. The colour-sense produces a taste for colour. The taste for colour produces butterflies and brilliant beetles. Birds and mammals produce fruits. Fruits produce a taste for colour in birds and mammals. The taste for colour produces the external hues of humming-birds, parrots, and monkeys. Man's frugivorous ancestry produces in him a similar taste; and that taste produces the final result of human chromatic arts."

Interpreting ourselves through colour and carrying that into the garden takes some management and a few simple strategies. Judith Evans' first piece of advice is: forget the colour wheel and traditional theories of hue compatibility. Most colours and all their shades fall into three groups-warm, cool and neutral. So let's start with the neutral tones, which, despite their calm demeanour, are key players in all colour expression.

The idea of a painterly approach to gardening was the colour-controlled border, which was first developed in the 1890s by Gertrude Jekyll. Her idea was to use cool colours on the ends of the border and rise to a crescendo of hotter ones at the centre. Although she planted many single-hue gardens, Gertrude Jekyll understood this.

"It is a curious thing," she said, "that people will sometimes spoil some garden project for the sake of a word.... A blue garden may be hungering for a group of white lilies, but is not allowed to have it because there must be no flowers in it but blue flowers. I can see no sense in this; it seems to me like fetters foolishly self-imposed."

At the Central School of Design in Kensington, where she enrolled in 1861, as one of the first female students, to study painting, Gertrude Jekyll attended lectures by John Ruskin (Slade Professor of Art at Oxford), Ruskin's pupil William Morris (who also founded his firm of Morris Marshall and Faulkner in Bloomsbury in 1861), and Richard Dresser (a Fellow of the Linnaean Society and an authority on decorative arts). Jekyll also had lectures from the Principal of the School, Richard Redgrave, on the scientific principles underlying harmony in the composition of colours developed by Michel-Eugene Chevreuil (head of the dyeing department at the Royal Gobelins tapestry works in Paris).

Ruskin was a great advocate of the paintings of JMW Turner, whom he considered to be the greatest English painter, so Gertrude Jekyll was encouraged to study Turner's paintings. The drama of his subject material and, in particular, his use of colour to highlight that drama, had a profound influence on Miss Jekyll's art in general and on her garden design in particular, focusing her attention especially on the use of flower colour in planting design.

Through a mutual friend Gertrude Jekyll met Claude Monet in the early days of his garden at Giverny. Their passions for gardening and painting and their concerns about light and colour were similar. Monet's were recorded for posterity in his paintings and are visible in the restored garden at Giverny. There beginning in 1890, the painter created a garden in which colour was as carefully controlled as it was in those of Gertrude Jekyll. Monet, who like Jekyll was nearly blind in his old age, was an avid gardener. His flower borders consisted of loose rhythmic bands of colour that became the subjects of his remarkable late paintings directly recorded the gardens as he saw them, painting in the open air. The painter declared that he was "striving to render his impressions in the face of the most fugitive effects." Thus, he painted what he observed: objects which transformed light into colour as it resulted from the play of light.

Jekyll also developed the concept of garden rooms and the one-colour garden, but it was Beatrix Farrand in the United States (Dumbarton Oaks) and Vita Sackville-West in England (Sissinghurst)who made them famous.

Ferrand was the niece of renowned American novelist and garden historian Edith Wharton. Through the creation of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, Beatrix Farrand exhibited a distinctive American adaptation of a Mediterranean garden form. Farrand was closely aligned with the English Gardening Movement and Gertrude Jekyll's planting designs. Furthermore, one of the key points of Farrand's originality was in her use of plants. In part by their providing colour, texture, and depth, she specified the actual plants to be strong design elements in and of themselves, taking the view that in setting a garden she was painting a picture?

Sissinghurst's garden was created by Harold Nicholson and his wife Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s. Although the Sissinghurst property was derelict, they purchased the ruins and the farm around it and began constructing the garden we know today. The layout by Nicholson and planting by his wife were both strongly influenced by the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll. Vita Sackville-West's passion for plants was shaped by her love of old Dutch flower paintings and by the choice of species she saw on her travels in Europe and the Middle East. The romantic associations of flowers with the past, painters and faraway countries were to influence her choice of planting as Sissinghurst developed. The influence of the floral arrangements of the Dutch masters is evident in the abundance and romance of an unstructured tumble of flowers, relying little on form and foliage. Structure was given to the garden by the arrangement of a series of 'garden rooms' created as spaces for the painterly arrays of bedded flowers contained by walls and hedges. There are actually 10 gardens, separated by hedges, arches, and moss-covered walls draped with climbing roses. Each one is unique and secluded.

Sissinghurst has been a major influence on late 20th and early 21st century garden design. It is a model of the use of plants to create living canvases of colour, which are abstract arrangements not far removed from the creation of the abstract expressionists such as the American Hans Hoffman. Abstract painting and the colour controlled bed of flowering plants both deal with the problem of the synchronised development of both form and colour. In its final state the colour development over the whole canvas or bed leads to the creation of colour, or light, complexes. The aim of their makers is to create a total pictorial totality with no fragmentation of colour or texture.

Sissinghurst planting plan of the White Garden

Photograph of Sissinghurst White Garden

Water colour of Sissinghurst Cottage Garden