A Universal Presence

George Inness, Landscape Study, 1882, 15.75 x 21.75

The great spiritual principle of harmony- harmony in form, harmony in color, the general harmony arising from the relation of things to one another, and the relation of parts to parts- must be considered, and, as far as possible, realized by every artist in his work. No man can be in pursuit of studies such as these without finding it necessary to refer back constantly to the principles of his own constitution as a human being, of his relation to life and society.

George Inness (1879)

George Inness believed in the integrity of the artist’s vision. The role of every artist is to tap into the emotional nature of sight, the overarching harmony of vision that ties existence together and, by its very nature, makes us human. And not just a baseline of our creatureliness, but an elevated humanity- us at our very best. The artist holds a certain “unity” within himself that is emotionally charged. The moment he is engaged in his work, the artist becomes a receptacle of emotional content received from without, combined with his emotional state- conscious or unconscious. This heightened receptivity prepares him to recognize content that is calling for expression.

This unity of vision, or what Delacroix called a “largeness of effect,” allows us to see the underlying harmony and uniqueness prevalent in ordinary objects as seen in nature. If a painting holds this unity in stasis, the painting expresses a feeling of recollection, the personal presence of both the artist and the viewer. My individual experience is felt, and with every flick of my brush, the viewer sees me at work, meditating on what I have discovered. I am present, like Whitman in Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself,

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Walt Whitman

There is also a universal presence-ing, a primordial sense of “Being” that states, “it has always been so!” Although I am painting my momentary experience, I am merging it with a feeling of wholeness that encompasses more than right here, right now. This is a collective memory, a shared memory that we hold within ourselves where we can say, “yes, this is true,” without ever pointing to a direct, physical experience in time. This primordial sublime attunement, when held in play within the image, gives that image a visionary quality, a lasting taste on the tongue, an image suspended within our personal memory.

Judith Reeve, The Crossroad, January, 20″ x 30″, oil

The artist holds this universal presence and their individual presence through their sensual application of paint, the calligraphic marks of technique. When done well, there exists a point of tension and a point of release within this approach. The point of tension might be the accurate rendering of form and color, a heightened feeling in the focal area. The point of release might be a vague dissolution of spatial area, a softness of focus, or a dissolving into mystery. Both aspects are held in balance through a give and take, creating movement and engagement, drawing the viewer in, and causing him to reflect.

Art is a representation of life in the form of a new and distinct potencey. The greatness of art is not in the display of knowledge, or in material accuracy, but in the distinctness with which it conveys the impressions of a personal vital force, that acts spontaneously, without fear or hesitation.

Inness (1879)

Rockwell Kent embodied this ‘vital force,’ both physically through his arduous adventures in Alaska and Greenland and through his paintings that speak of man’s existential placement within a world of Neitzscheian potency. But what Kent struggled with was leaving the ill-defined as such, that which can’t be delineated outright.

I think the effervescent similitude required to hold together this point of tension and point of release is the most difficult to convey. To allow space for the undefinable, which Inness expressed as “that which hides itself that we may feel after it,” is contrary to our materialistic and scientific mentality. Allowing mystery to coincide with our lived experience, that which we can’t exactly put our finger on is immensely difficult. But as artists engaged in the practice of image making, it is our struggle to define, and yet not quite define, what we see, allowing space for a hidden presence. The story of this struggle becomes the painting itself, held as a gift, not a commodity, to the world.

The Life and Art of Tom Thomson

Tom Thomson, “Thunderhead”, 1912-1913, 8.5″x 10.5″.

“He said I had something that the other artists didn’t have- that I had a sense of the wilderness and knew what could be expressed through art. I laughed and said I could pick the trees out and catch fish better than any artist. But my art was from my knowledge of the country, not from being a superior artist.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, May 20, 1917: Confessions at Tea Lake Dam.

Recently, I have been reading the late journal of the Canadian landscape painter, Tom Thomson. He is best know for his association with the Group of Seven who gave rise to an epic landscape style focused on the Canadian North, particularly around Algonquin Park in the 1910’s. Tom Thomson is the most well know of the group although, he never officially joined. Thomson was a non-conformist and joining any group did not sit well with him. The journal entries comprise of Thomson’s last year of painting in Algonquin Park beginning in March 1917. Thomson will die in a canoe accident at the end of July under suspicious circumstances. Many books on Thomson are focused on this drama.

But what I really found inspiring about Thomson was his love of nature and his attempts to place man within that vastness. His practice was to paint every day outside regardless of the weather. One can see from his images, that immediacy and deep engagement in the moment of painting. He is cold and wet, hot and eaten by bugs, blown around by the wind, joyful with the coming of spring, wandering around at night to see the Northern Lights, and exhausted from a long hike painting in deep snow. He is present and meditative seeking an experience of pure isolation- not spurning human company but searching instead, for a space in which he can engage with himself and with nature.

Thomson is very much like the Thoreau of the Canadian North. He rarely seeks personal attention and seems not to care much about what the art world thinks of him. He lets the artist’s ego go and chooses instead to live the full life regardless of his poverty. I feel this quote from Thoreau’s Walden is appropriate,

“The lesson he taught himself (Thoreau), and which he tried to teach others, was summed up in one word “simplify”. That meant simplify the outward circumstances of your life, simplify your needs and your ambitions; learn to delight in the simple pleasures which the world of Nature affords. It meant also, scorn public opinion, refuse to accept the common definitions of success, refuse to be moved by the judgement of others.”

Joseph Wood Krutch introduction to “Walden and other Writings by Henry David Thoreau”.

Thomson’s experience is very much like my own experience when I plein air paint. On-site, I am immersed in my subject and in my own thoughts and reveries. And the give and take between these two poles allow the image to emerge as a natural manifestation of the experience. Nature is generative and one’s deeply sought experience in that space allows the artist himself to be reborn and renewed. Thomson speaks of his need to paint, his need to get back to himself once again that could only happen through the very act of painting. Painting is recalling oneself back to center, back to an inward stasis that promotes creativity and gives the imagination space to manifest itself. If one is not true to oneself and one’s experience, the artistic spirit cannot thrive.

Tom Thomson, “Approaching Snowstorm”, 1916.

“In the evening, after dinner, I made a sketch of the sky in the failing light. The dark clouds from the cold front were moving in, smothering the sunlight from the early evening. There is a sense of inevitability in the scene I painted. Inevitability about what, I don’t know.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, May 12, 1917: The Trainors Arrive.

Thomson painted primarily, what I would call, pochades (Thomson’s are painted on birch panels and orange crate pine boards). Small, quick, spontaneous paintings done in one go. Most are around 8″x 10″or 6″x 8″. Some will mature to large gallery paintings produced later in Thomson’s studio in Toronto (under 24 canvases). But most will remain small under 14″x 16″. The journal entries of 1917 are all of the smaller sizes. Thomson is best known for his large image “The Jack Pine”, but I find his pochades focused on the sky the most compelling. The way Thomson makes the clouds lift up and press down from above are strong and beautiful, producing an incredible feeling of immensity and grandeur. It has caused me to reconsider the largeness of my skies. I admire the intensity of the color and the deepness of the tones in the clouds. The contrast adds dramatic effect and creates a greater range of values than I typically give myself. He also balances the color temperature, alternating between cool and warm passages that enliven the surface.

Tom Thomson, “Northern Lights”, 1916.

So what am I doing? I’m sketching. I’m drawing. I’m painting. I find it distressing that we’re fighting the very ones I drew inspiration from. The German Expressionists, their insistence on bold strong colour and harsh depictions. The North lends itself to these techniques, and it was me who introduced the rest to what was here…It’s good to have a plan, but sometimes it is better to live day by day and catch the moment when it’s appropriate.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, April 19, 1917: Thinking of Leaving

Thomson’s compositions I find so true to experience. There is, as he said, an ‘inevitability’ in his compositions. They feel unreconstructed, without pretense. Just as if I, myself, had walked into the scene- the vault of the sky, the laying in of the trees, the sharpness of the light generate a truth of experience in which my sight becomes clear, becomes heightened to perceiving the reality that lies before me. This is the calling of art, to brush away the scales from our eyes allowing one to see anew and therefore, feel more intensely than we have ever felt before.

“There are four seasons in the world, but there are only two in my mind- painting and no-painting.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, March 18, 1917: Last Canvas on the Easel.