A Symbolic Language

Plattekill Falls

In one’s attempt to identify a concept or a phenomena, one always begins with one’s own experience. One, in a way, starts at the periphery and slowly begins to move toward the center, attempting to eventually hit the mark or at least come as close as possible to reaching an understanding. In the past month, I have dwelt on Bachelard’s concept of the open imagination. This week I direct my attention on the object of the artist’s contemplation. John Newton, in his essay“A Speculation about Landscape,” brings up another dimension to an artist’s observation of the landscape,

“…He (the artist) attends with passionate interest to particular features (in the landscape) that are really there. But as he does so, is he at the same time unconsciously seeking some more general perception and understanding of life and, in that, finding more of himself? […] When he is thoroughly drawn out of himself, to attend to what is really there, the artist can hardly be fully conscious of why this is happening, and nor can we recognize at all promptly why we are attracted by the work he then creates…The more secret appeal is made when a landscape is speaking to something deeper and more permanent than an emotion, giving us knowledge not of a state of feeling but of a state of being.”

When I reflect on my own experience of reverie before a landscape, one that appeals to me on a deep level, I find that I am, in a way, appealing to the landscape before me- reaching out to meet it. In a sense, my interior state seems to be presented before me because I acknowledge a deep connection to what I see. Unconsciously, I seem to recognize the mystery and broader reality before me. When I paint, this is the aspect that holds my attention. It is not just the hills or fields that carry the imagination, but the immensity of the spectacle. I say it is unconscious because one can only judge a landscape by its ability to inspire.

Although, I am in an active state (of seeing and painting), I am also passive to a certain degree. This passivity is marked by an openness to what is before me and allowing it to leave its residue, its impression upon me. This complete openness allows this “state of being” to manifest itself. And consequently,there is a feeling of relatedness, connectedness to the world. Reverie allows for a conversation to take place between the world and the deepest part of our being. Paul Davies in his book,“Romanticism and Esoteric Tradition”, describes this conversation as,”… a meeting with oneself, on a higher level than that normally suggested by the word self-consciousness. And it is as if the world of nature, of landscape,… is functioning as a mirror…”

Samuel Coleridge, in Anima Poetae, touches upon a similar feeling,

“In looking at objects of nature while I am thinking,… I seem rather to be seeking,as it were asking for, a symbolic language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing anything new.”

This threshold that the artist crosses by reaching out with openness to what lies before him, allows something to return to him that is both familiar and profound. Nature, in a sense, re-represents through a symbolic language the inner workings of the soul and reflects them back upon the viewer. This act of “crossing”, in a sense of self-knowledge, allows the artist to come in contact with the world of images that speak to a greater sense of being, an altered awareness. Charles Baudelaire explored this level of engagement of the artist in his poems, “An Invitation to a Voyage” and “Correspondences”.The first stanza of “Correspondences” begins,

Nature is a temple whose living colonnades
Breath forth a mystic speech in fitful sighs;
Man wanders among symbols in those glades
Where all things watch him with familiar eyes.

This new place of discovery, where the artist provides the invitation to a voyage, lies right before one’s eyes and it is through reverie that one can enter into this “other” world. There one can come to understand this new language that brings power and efficacy to the artistic vision.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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