Konst i Västernorrland

De tidiga augustimorgnarna då ljuset sakta och andäktigt träder fram genom dimmorna är exempel på tillstånd då våra sinnen kan öppnas mot det beslöjande och hemlighetsfulla. Konstnären Anders Lidén skriver här om den form av uppenbarelse och plötsliga själsliga upplysning som ständigt återkommer inom konsten. Texten kommer från ett föredrag hållet vid konferensen "Hidden Theology, Intellectual and Spiritual Values of Culture" i Warszawa den 29 oktober 2014. Tidigare publicerat i ART INQUIRY, Recherches sur les arts, Lodz 2014.

Revelation and Art

Revelation, epiphany, enlightenment – they all take place in our consciousness. They come as a great surprise and discovery, as a sudden disclosure of the ”sacred”. They come as moments of unforeseen clarity when mental limitations and barriers seem to be lifted away. In all times there have been men and women seeking revelation and enlightenment. They have been willing to pay a high price to attain it. For some it would cost forty days of fasting and praying in the desert, or even a lifetime of saintly living on the top of a pillar. For others, years of starving and freezing in the mountains of Himalaya.

Mountains seem to have been unusually appropriate for seekers of enlightenment. Is it because one is far away from cities and villages and closer to the sky? It was on a mountain that Moses encountered the burning bush and received the Law. From mountains the prophets have come down to preach to the people.

The Italian philosopher Julius Evola, himself an enthusiastic alpinist, has written a book on the role of the mountain as a threshold of initiation, and included a case study of persons who miraculously had survived falls from high altitudes.  They might have been carried away by an avalanche. A loose stone, a moment of distraction, and they would have lost foothold and fallen perhaps hundreds of meters. But instead of meeting an inevitable death these people had miraculously survived, perhaps landing on a heap of soft snow. These survivors shared the same experience, an experience of incredible clarity and a synthetic recollection of their past. They entered into a period of euphoria and bliss, only to sink down into deepest depression as the memory of their experiences faded away. It took them time to recover, if that is the right word, and they had difficulties to return to so-called normal life, to live the rest of their lives with a sense of loss. This example is not about art, but it gives a hint on how to understand what revelation or a transcendent experience might be.

Rembrants bild av Faust, etsning 1652
Rembrandts bild av Faust, etsning 1652.

Many people in our own time, not the least people in the artistic field, have searched for a quicker way of having revelations, and turned to the use of drugs in order to expand consciousness and have great visions. Thomas de Quincey, Samuel Coleridge and Baudelaire have been their forerunners in the 19th century. In our own time some famous examples would be Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Carlos Castaneda and Henri Michaux. But the use of opium, mescaline and other drugs has often been a detriment, more harmful than beneficial. The doors of revelation are not easily opened! Revelation comes more as a gift than as a reward for suffering and meditation.

Maybe it was easier for those who grew up among the native peoples of North America, those for whom a ”vision quest” was an established tradition. Before an adolescent would be admitted as a grown-up member of the community, they had to stay alone in the wilderness, without supplies, surviving on what they could find, there to search and wait for a vision, a revelation, or a dream experience with symbolic impact. Only then would they return to their people. According to the nature and details of their spiritual journey they would get a new name, such as Standing Bear, Red Cloud, Yellowtail, Spotted Eagle, Sitting Bull. Their names would serve for the rest of their lives as a reminder of an exceptional spiritual journey they once had made. Like a thread linking them to a state of being beyond the banalities of ordinary life.

With the Kuna Indians in Panama and northern Colombia it was not the names, which functioned as reminders, but ”the molas”. Also the Kunas had the tradition of ”vision quest”, about experiencing and earning a personal symbol, which, before the coming of the European missionaries, was tattooed on the breast. When Christian culture forced them to shield their breasts the young girls began to cut and embroider their totems on layers of multicoloured cloth, so-called molas. The tradition of molas has given us examples of great geometric art. What for us appear to be works of art are strictly speaking ”not pictures”, but something else, signs and symbols pointing towards spiritual experiences.

The traditions of the native peoples of America were a source of inspiration and eagerly studied by the generation of abstract expressionists in the USA, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and others.

On the other side of the globe Russian folk art and the Icon tradition played a similar role as a source of inspiration for artists like Kandinsky, Larionov, Goncharova and Malevich.
Mentioning Kandinsky, let us remember the story when he happened to see one of his landscape paintings upside down in his studio, and suddenly had a revelation of something completely new. It has been said that it was in this moment that abstraction in contemporary art was born. What happened to Kandinsky? He had been surprised.

Surprise. In this simple word is contained the whole enigma of sudden revelation. Surprise is a gift! No amount of mental effort can so instantly peel off the layers of banality and grey habitualness that cover our lives and thoughts. Moments of surprise are especially important for artists. They are followed by a reminding, literally a re-minding. We are all of a sudden overcoming blockages and limitations in our minds. Something completely new might then be revealed to us. It is an unexpected moment of transcendence and revelation. These are the moments that contain the seeds of new creations. An upheaval in the mind can be a beginning of fresh, new projects, surprise being not only a gift but also an opportunity. If there is no readiness within the artist, there is no soil for the seed to grow in.

Certain works of art – inspired works – seem more suited to provoke or awake sensations of surprise and revelation than others. More people seem to share the experience of wonder and awe in front of works by Titian and Velasquez, or Matisse and Rothko, than in front of works by other artists from the same periods. Works of these artists were indeed inspired. Rothko even maintained that his paintings were not pictures. They were something else.

There is an interesting television interview with the British writer Iris Murdoch who testified to such an experience when she saw a late picture by Titian, ”The Flaying of Marsyas”. 2 She thought about this work as a sort of icon, a religious icon. ”I was completely stunned. I didn’t know this picture existed. I’ve seen a great many Titians in different places and I’d never heard of this one. I just went into that room and there it was.” After a description of the subject matter and the myth of Marsyas and Apollo she adds: ”The intensity of the whole picture is so great, it conveys a deep symbolic impression of human life with all its ambiguity, all its horrors and terrors and miseries – yet, at the same time, it’s joyful and beautiful. It is to do with the entry of the spiritual into the human situation and the closeness of the gods.”

Certainly the famous black square of Malevich has earned its iconic status on very different merits. It has been described as a black hole that draws all one’s light within itself leaving us with nothing but a blank mind. Or, reversed — as a source of energy which strengthens the viewer’s own light.

Impressions of pictures and sculptures are instantly registered. It is different with the performing arts, where the time factor is involved. But even here moments of revelation are apt to occur. When I hear certain themes of Gustav Mahler I am reminded about the great singer Kathleen Ferrier. During a concert she was performing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Although she had performed this music many times, she suddenly stopped singing in the middle of a particularly moving phrase with eyes full of tears. Her voice just left her. Then, the musicians stopped playing one after another, and the same mood affected the audience. It is almost terrifying even to imagine a similar situation, a concert hall with an orchestra and a public suddenly galvanised by a singer who stops singing. As if all the beauty and all the energy of Mahler’s music was concentrated in one single moment and exploding into the tears of a singer.

Such examples could be multiplied. Already Plato has given us a description of a similar collective revelation in his shortest dialogue, Ion.

Let me end with a quotation from my notebook written down years ago: Revelation is the revelation of that which is ever present. It is in reality not the revelation of something new and hitherto unknown. We may eventually discover that we can perceive more than we ever knew was existent or perceptible, but that we only perceive something that has always been there. The limitation is within us, and the Way of Revelation is through the discovery and the discarding of our own individual limitations.

1 Julius Evola, Méditations du haut des cimes, ”Sur la chute en montagne”, Paris 1986
2 Revelations. Glimpses of Reality, Ed. Ronald S Lello, London 1985

Text: Anders Lidén
Volym 2015-08-19