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A quest: some reflections on my experience of being a painter
Exhibition catalogue Anne Madden. A Retrospective, Irish Museum of Modern Art
27 June 2007 - 30 September
First delivered as the Hermione Lecture at Alexandra College, Dublin, 2001.
First published in The Recorder, The Journal of The American Irish Historical Society, 14/1, (Summer 2001), 37–45.
I am here before you, a visual artist, a painter with my necessarily-subjective viewpoint looking out from the landscape of my life.* And this necessarily-subjective viewpoint is all that I can bring to you, born as it is of my experience of being a painter, of seeing my way and trying to make sense of being-in-the-world, with the constant self-questioning that accompanies this.
I will give you some reflections on this experience.
I imagine that most artists, whatever their medium, are trying to uncover or discover a reality beyond actuality, trying to make visible invisible aspects of the world, however they conceive or perceive them to be.
This is the Quest.
Of course many things that are real to us are invisible: imagination, feeling, and consciousness itself which defines us as human, as well as the unconscious psyche which houses our dreams as well as our symbols, intuition, and instinct.
‘Art history is a history of the human psyche and of its many forms of expression,’ said the art historian Wilhelm Warringer. Our psyche, I believe, also influences the course of our socio-political history so that these are inextricably involved with one another. Marx believed it was the other way around, that political events influenced culture, a more obvious viewpoint. However that may be, this deep stream of consciousness – the creator of myth, of dream, and of God – forms the artist’s conscious interpretation of the world and his relationship to it, wherein experience is transformed into images and art can arise. This deep stream has its own source of nourishment, like a river whose surface hides and feeds, through infiltration, the underground water table.
* * *
At breakfast one morning, when my son Pierre was six, he asked me, ‘Is life real, or a dream?’ I ask him if he thinks his father, Alexis his brother, and myself are real and he replies, ‘No.’ So I ask him if he thinks he is real and he says without hesitation, ‘Yes.’ Why? I ask. ‘Because I am having the dream,’ he says.
Pierre’s reply was philosophically sound, remarkable only insofar as he was so young. He is the interpreter of a reality of whose existence he is not sure. Even were he in some way convinced of it, he would probably still have the perception to realize that his dream of it was subjective, and may or may not have anything to do with objective reality – if that exists.
The post-modern paradox of imagination – mythic, aesthetic, or social is,
according to the philosopher Gianni Vattimo, to know that one is dreaming and yet continue dreaming.
The old Berkeleyan question presents itself again and again: Does an objective reality exist, and, if so, what is its nature? Does it lie in fact and appearance or in an invisible order of things? And does the face of things hide or reveal this invisible order? Each is probably true, I think.
It now appears, according to quantum physics, that reality only exists through our perception of it, in our minds, and that it changes with our ever-changing perception from one epoch to another. The concept of mind and matter merge, the material and the immaterial are aspects of the same phenomenon. Reality is ‘the possibility of existing’.
Perhaps painting and sculpture, both silent arts, have a unique role in being able to reveal, or at any rate explore, in visible terms, a hidden order, a possible space, both psychic and physical.
I would venture that this kind of exploration might apply to my own endeavour in painting down the years. The Megalith paintings of the seventies seek out the symbolic power and hidden secrets of the menhirs, dolmens, stone circles, and passage graves in the Burren of my youth. They themselves present us with the first monumental expression of our attitude towards death. The great stones of Newgrange, Stonehenge, Carnac mark the division of space between the ordinary and the divine, earth and sky, between life and death. The paintings tended to be dark tonally and in mood, reflections on personal grief and an instinctive search to find or extract light from darkness. They were elegies to the terrible and tragic events in the North of Ireland in the seventies. The stone monuments themselves embody an attempt by their authors to reconcile the inner with the outer world. They stand exposed to the harsh outer elements and at the same time incarnate man’s hopes and fears.
But while these paintings embodied images of stone they were primarily involved with the language of paint itself; the two-dimensional surface, the staining and thus bonding of surface and paint; paint as colour, a dynamic created by the colour field and the taped bands. There was always the question as to whether the image survived or was transformed in the paint process into a purely pictorial space? This was often the outcome, but the image was never denied by me. Formalist aspects of the New York School of the fifties insisted on an increasing dependency on the autonomy of the medium, bent on creating new forms on the basis of the medium alone. While to a large extent I identified with this at the time, I continued to lean emotionally on the image. Illusion and anecdote had already been jettisoned.
Nevertheless by the end of the seventies, in my case, theory, such as it existed, went out of the window – literally, with a series of window forms using a central cruciform, made of bands of the colours of the spectrum – references to vision; openings into a possible space free from all constraint.
I also introduced a horizontal line onto the vertical form of the Megalith paintings, making an opening as well as a way out. These paintings were thresholds between interior and exterior space, a reconciliation of opposites. By the way, this dualism which runs through my work is not a system, but an attitude. It exerts a tension by maintaining a hiatus in the painting, an imbalance rather than a balance – leaving the question open.
The poet Paul Valéry said that the painter’s whole body is involved in painting. My own involvement with my work is very physical. The canvases themselves correspond to my own height and reach. They are laid on the floor and I move around them as I paint, my whole body fundamental to the venture.
Art is artifice, conjured and magicked into fictitious being while, paradoxically, the artist struggles to brush truth into this fiction. Painting is related to alchemy in its endeavour to transform its prima materia, paint, into an ‘other’ reality.
I’ve always regarded art as spiritual in its impulse and mysterious in its force, and I’m convinced that it is an essential, if useless, part of human experience. But we cannot prove any of this, nor can we prove truth, or meaning. We can philosophize, analyze, criticize and debate their case – the same goes for art – but they are ineffable.
* * *
Art cannot prevent human barbarity, but in certain instances it has flung open the gates of heaven to us. In this sense, I believe, it is redemptive. It can show us our possible grandeur: it is what we leave behind us, our residue, and it is what is left of that humanity by which we can value ourselves or be evaluated. It is the other side of human barbarity, just as love is – the imagining of the other.
All our monuments, great buildings, gardens, our art in all its forms, our entire civilizations, are an attempt to rout the jungle law of nature, to make ourselves, or if not ourselves our traces, immortal. André Malraux said, ‘All art is a revolt against man’s fate.’ A revolt against nature, although Romantic or Dionysian expression is in some way sympathetic to organic anarchy, whereas the Classic, Apollonian order is the epitome of human intellectual perception struggling to give form to this amorphous mass of growth and decay – Nature – to which we belong and to which we are bound to succumb. It perceives some further Universal Order beyond the law of the jungle. As does quantum physics in its theory of an order which links everything to everything else – links us to the stars, for instance – the whole Universe a web of particles in which each and every one is itself and its opposite.
Such physicists as Fritjof Capra have been profoundly struck by the Eastern Mystics – their ‘I am the World and the World is me,’ as well as by their notion of the inseparability of space and time, of a dynamic continual present.
* * *
What excites me in painting are its abstract qualities, its structure of light, space and colour, its formal passion and the ‘aura’ great paintings shed. For example, in one of the great storehouses of visual sensation, the National Gallery of London, I saw for the first time when I was seventeen The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca. My hair stood on end. Not because it was a revelation of pictorial resolution, based on a geometric framework – the artist was also a mathematician, as you may know – divided in thirds horizontally, and quarters vertically, its divisions form a central square within which exists a triangle, its apex where the dove/paraclete hovers.
It was the painting’s aura and radiance that were, and remain, so affecting. The figures appear to be inhabited by a light that permeates the silvery colours peculiar to that artist. And I wonder what gives it this radiance? And is it there because it is perceived, or is there to be perceived?
Post-modernism has debunked the Romantic theory of the imagination as a quasi-divine expression of some transcendental subject, the creation of new meaning out of nothing. The idea of an original imagination has been replaced by an endless labyrinth of mirrors, mirroring the image of the image. Richard Kearney comes to the rescue, in his Epilogue The Poetics of Imagining, when he quotes Paul Ricœur: ‘Is not Art in the largest sense, poiesis, a function of both revelation and transformation? So that one may say both that poiesis reveals structures which would have remained unrecognised without Art and that it transforms life, elevating it to another level.’
We ‘see’, meaning we conceive or perceive things, quite differently from one epoch to another, even one generation to another, and these shifts are provoked by zeitgeist, a curious phenomenon involving cultural fashion edged by deeper factors such as science, philosophy, and art itself. Nowhere are these changes manifest more clearly than in the tradition of European painting since the Renaissance, bearing in mind that being involved with itself, its own language and history, painting is frequently self-referential (not just in postmodernism). Take for example the naked body in, say, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538); Manet’s Olympia (a painting which caused a scandal in the 1860s, was attacked with an umbrella, and has subsequently become an icon); and Louis le Brocquy’s A Family (which was initially refused as a gift by the then Dublin Municipal Gallery in 1952, on the grounds of indecency and incompetence). Each of these paintings is firmly rooted in its own time even while the last two refer to the first, and the last, A Family, refers specifically to both of the earlier paintings. Cézanne and Picasso also made their own parodies of Manet’s Olympia.
Painting has always been involved with itself. Its history is both a continuum and a series of ruptures. There is a recurring reference to the past whereby it works itself through its own history, looks back at itself to go forward and reinvent itself. Today the radical conception that there is no original creative author in post-modern culture means there is no new image under the sun – only images of images of images.
We were speaking of Louis’s watercolours one day some time ago, and of the passion and excitement landscape arouses in people. He said that it was our natural habitat, our Paradise (though very often hostile and difficult to live in comfor-tably), but that it also gave us an associative identity, that was filled with panic gods inducing our spirits out into it, imagining and dreaming. Louis told me that when he had been looking for a long time at a Cézanne painting in the Musée Marmottan in Paris – of trees reflected in water, a mill or some such building on the left side – that he had felt he could die into it, that it could be the place of his eternal rest. Becoming part of the universe is our whole problem, dying into it and not merely disappearing, our spirits vanishing without manifesting themselves. He pointed out that all of Samuel Beckett’s characters were concerned with this central problem. Beckett himself was. There is a hope, an open door in the mind, but the hope is never fulfilled. Godot does not turn up and one suspects deeply that he never will. We are alone, alienated, and not even sure of our own existence in this world, let alone the next.
Landscape confirms existence insofar as it is remembered. I was here with my father as a child, or whatever. Many people, Beckett among them, have been obsessed with place, and the memory of events in specific places, for that very reason probably – just as Proust was.
During adolescence I formed a deep attachment to the glaciated limestone wilderness in County Clare known as the Barony of Burren. I rode horseback, cycled, and later drove its intricate web of roads until they were mapped in my mind: I roamed the synclines and anticlines of its stone hills and great expanses of limestone ‘pavement’, gradually discovering the many stone monuments, traces left by man since Neolithic times. The Burren excited my imagination and informed my early painting, became a touchstone in my life, giving me an indissoluble feeling of being part of it, a consubstantial identity with its nature and substance.
Painting thrilled my senses and excited my imagination as a child. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, in a Phaidon Press edition in my school library, as well as Cézanne, and Monet’s Nymphéas. My pre-breakfast housework done, the cost of my constant astronomic number of bad marks, I would pore over these books and others, my blood running faster. What I found very frustrating was that I had no skills, so that all my passionate attempts at painting were utter failures, quickly destroyed by me in case anyone should attempt to rescue them. Hope came, when I was eleven or thereabouts, when I was taken to see a young Chinese calligrapher demonstrating his art. Fascinated, I watched him as he dipped his brush into the black ink, conjuring his beautiful signs apparently without effort. This pale, slender boy of fourteen gave me hope.
I was convinced I had little pieces of my brain in my fingertips and that somehow they would guide me.
I have always felt I was after something, like a hunter after his quarry, tracking it patiently. But painting is elusive and I can only hope to catch it now and again by its tail, before it eludes me once more.
* * *
States of mind, by their nature, evolve and change, and art, being a state of mind, questions itself constantly. Like most artists, I am frequently assailed by doubts as to art’s relevance and validity. Is it necessary? What am I after? The only answer that ever comes is that it is necessary for me. I am driven by some compulsion beyond reason.
I am not trying to represent anything, teach or preach anything, make social or political commentary. So what am I doing? Well, it is a difficult question and I suppose the answer lies in the paintings I have made and strewn behind me. This is not to say that I think the answer is self-evident in them. What I mean is that the survival of the paintings depends upon whether they are something, whether they articulate and declare themselves in a potent way. I don’t believe paintings can survive unless this is so.
My life as a painter constitutes a journey, my journey into the unknown, door into the dark, opening into luminous spaces which I can enter and move through to a beyond – the void. At the same time the void is my canvas and my journey has brought me from earth, through fire, the Pompeian paintings and Icarus; water in the Odyssey sequence and air in the Icarus series. What is the void except a possible space whose marvelousness is contained within it, or rather within the manifestation of itself?
No doubt there is an attempt to conjugate my life’s journey with my painting odyssey, since inevitably the latter contains fragments of autobiography. I think all art does, even obliquely, and it is very rare that an artist can abstract himself completely from his life.
After another tragic personal loss, I found myself in a dark place, unable to work. Samuel Beckett encouraged me with his usual kindness and concern. ‘Don’t be depressed,’ he wrote. ‘It is it trying to be said.’ He urged me to ‘tackle my dark’. I think he believed this was crucial and might spark off something momentous. It had in his own case.
I just tried to paint my way back to the studio – through the garden and along the sunlit paths leading to it, a box of light among the old olive trees in the foothills of the maritime Alps in France.
* * *
I understood the importance of the autonomy of paint from the Abstract Expressionist painters, themselves in turn influenced by Surrealism. An exhibition of the New York School of this movement was shown in London in the fifties and was, to me, a bolt out of the blue. The sheer scale, dynamism and innovative articulation of paint was breathtaking: Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman opened up new worlds of possibilities.
In my early Burren paintings I wanted to render the paint articulate without manipulating it with brush or palette-knife as before. I poured the paint to allow it a kind of freedom-from-my-will and hand. This was a risky business, but it seemed to me that the only way was to risk all for nothing. In pouring the paint, only my mind could exert any control. I went on pouring paint all through the Megalith series, though in more and more liquid layers upon layers. With each painting I felt I was over a mental precipice on a tightrope. I certainly made it as difficult as I possibly could for myself!
Roland Barthes says, ‘Writing writes itself.’ I wanted the painting to paint itself, to declare itself without too much intervention from me, to lead the dance, even though it was a pas de deux.
After the struggle which so often occurs in a painting, when it reaches some kind of resolution, it seems to have happened on its own, to have released itself, and that is what I mean by ‘painting itself’.
I use figuration in my work as metaphor, and image as an emotive charge, even when it becomes very abstracted. When Pompeii seized hold of my imagination, because of its apocalyptic destruction, it was both a memory and a mirror, a condensation of our possible end by a nuclear holocaust. People and dogs were seized and held in death in their everyday gestures, a whole city snuffed out as it went about its business – a door that closed, behind which lay a city buried for nineteen centuries.
In the unique Roman frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries the Dionysian rite is being enacted. The image of the Flagellata, an initiate being whipped, became for me a metaphor of enlightenment, and illumination. The figure’s sexual initiation also leads her into the knowledge of the spiritual life of her society, its gods, mysteries, and rituals.
More recently two Greek myths became the focus on my paintings, or rather seemed to me to focus themselves on what I was doing: the Odyssey and Icarus. In the Odyssey sequence, a tiny boat figures in each of the nine large square paintings. The boat is probably myself setting out once more into the unknown – always dangerous territory. Another journey, and in each painting the oceanic spaces become darker, more turbulent, and more menacing from the first, A Field of Vision, to the last, Abyss. The sea, with its layered depths, has ever been an image of the unconscious and unpredictable. I think the boat is the self on the surface of this interior and exterior space which we explore, and attempt to know, and journey upon.
The Icarus paintings obviously refer to the Greek myth. Icarus’ immolation is a dying into the immaterial. I see him as an artist figure reaching for the out-of-reach, that which always escapes him and lies beyond the parameters of reason and logic: in his desire to fly and in his downfall when his wings of wax melt as he nears the sun. We all dream of flying, freed from gravity; all our wings are made of wax and none more than the artist’s, whose endeavour is to break through the obstructing confines of his art. And the outcomes of Icarus’ endeavour I see as much the same as the artist’s – inevitable shortfall in his or her own eyes.
I have a feeling that we seem to balance on a hairline of contradictions, everything being itself and its opposite: the void and fullness, absence and appearance, existence and non-existence. Never more did I feel this than in my last paintings, Spaces of Time, in which all narrative has slipped away.
I set out to make boundless open spaces-of-the-mind within the confines of the canvas, in which the small image of a bird makes a trajectory. The paintings contend with space and time, with air instead of water, as in the Odyssey series. The same dangers pertain with Icarus, and both reach points of no return. This artist attempts to seek the sun, the light, enlightenment, all too ware of the impossibility of reaching that place – knowing, as well, that there is nowhere else for her to go.