Artist Writing

ecstasy and secularism in art

In "Oak: one tree, three years, fifty paintings" 
(Princeton Architechtural Press 2011) there's a caption 
to a picture called Green Fire mentioning an unusual
experience. This article gives some background.


When I was seventeen something unusual happened to me.

I was watching a film about the civil war in a local cinema. There was a cavalry charge, and as a horse leapt a wall of pikes something snapped inside me. I walked out of the cinema and towards the countryside. In half an hour I was pacing down a lane, walking towards the afternoon sun, not knowing what was happening. I felt I didn't know where I was but I had a purpose I couldn't express. I was tense, crying, and although I couldn't stop walking I felt my body begin to lock up.

As this became more unbearable I saw nature change. Instead of hedges and trees I saw green fire, solid things shone and everything about me was filled with a common life, a moving fire that I saw as revelation.

From horizon to horizon the sky became a single convex light, and a wave of emotion passed from the centre of my body out along my limbs through my hands and feet. The sky seemed to come down to touch me. I felt unspeakable relief. I seemed to be leaving my body. I fell on my knees facing the sun, prayed, and fell asleep.

When I awoke I was under an oak tree, looking up. Through the branches I saw a pigeon flying. I felt I had left my body: the bird was me. After a while the world quietly reurned to normal. I got up and went home.

Had I seen God ? Was this Hopkins' 'Heracletean fire of The Resurrection' ? I didn't know. But I was grateful for The Bible for giving me a language to think about such things. I began to find it difficult to deal with everyday life, so to get my barings I went to stay with some monks at an Anglican Franciscan friary. I was given a mentor. The crucial theological point became "Did my experience make me behave more kindly to my fellow man?"  If it did, then it may have been a sign of Christian Grace. I looked into myself and, over some time, I found that it did not.

If anything, the experience cut me off from others. I read Marganita Lasky's Ecstasy, a study in secular religious experience and found that historically my experience was quite common, and I realised it could be interpreted in different ways. (William James also deals with this in Varieties of Religious Experience). A girl friend said, wryly, that it was all to do with sex.

Now, much later, I see this event as something that can just happen to people and that, when it does, needs support and a context for it to be made bearable and even useful. It's the sort of thing I recognise in the poetry of Traheren and hear in the music of composers like Finzi and Vaughn Williams.  I also see it bubbling through the letters of John Constable. The most important thing these artists have in common is that they take intense private experience of nature - nature in the senses -  and turn it into something that can be shared by others, a man made nature that shares a sense of wonder at being in the natural world.


A few days afterwards I made this drawing in the back of a dictionary :


I remember not liking the expressiveness of the paintings I produced in the next few months. Too much fantasy. This was a view of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal:


I had been looking at Emile Nolde. Nevertheless, John Constable still seemed to me to be a more fundamental kind of artist: passionate, yes, but also much more closely involved with the world around him, and taking an interest in many branches of knowledge.

Ever since that time, I've felt that the real challenge in visual art is to get closer to the realities of the visual world. You can see this reaction in the approach I took at art school, and it drives my sometimes unusually 'scientific' methods now.

But there are many limits to objectivity, and I hope my new work with water will be intimate with imagination - that's the best I can say about it. Imagination and reality are not incompatible. 


art theory 

On reflection, the visual quality of the experience - which would be utterly unnerving if experienced in isolation - has helped me to think about painting.

Sight is a miraculous interface between the internal and external worlds. An observational painting is a negotiation between the outer and the inner. Polarising this as objective external v affective internal is literally non-sense. Think of the glance of a loved one's eye.

This also tells us something internal about visual tradition, because ways of painting are ways of seeing that exist without us as individuals. When we learn to make art in a certain way we may be thinking of the tradition, but the tradition is also thinking us. Past and present work together. 

A great tradition like European observed landscape is there to learn. Unfortunately some artists and even teachers of art have difficulty in seeing how much tradition gives them. But in good art ego only goes so far... 


Without understanding the technical detail of his thought, a philosopher who seems to me to be close to my feelings about realism in art is Don Cupitt, who's much broader view is somewhat confusingly called "non-realsm".

Cupitt refers to Richard Rorty's idea that beliefs are 'tools', not copies. I like that, and I feel it squares with the idea that, in spite of endless flux, there is real information about the world in perception - it's not fantasy - and the perciever, astoundingly, creates a representation of the world in his or her own brain, or on a canvas - which becomes a tool, if you like, to see, think and feel with.

I might sum up by saying that, as a visual artist, I feel the primary discoveries are somehow "out there" and "in here" at the same time.

Here is a link.

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