Material Imagination – A Call to Depth

This subject is of keen interest to me. I have always been curious as to why artists have an absorbed fascination with the material world. For an artist, objects take on a significance that goes beyond scientific inquiry (although this is present as well) and resides in a belief in the metaphysical magnitude of objects in the world and one’s relationship to those objects. This metaphysical significance imbues objects with “value”. Objects go beyond their material interest and take on a symbolic importance. There is an inherent bond between myself and what resides in the world. We all have this bond -but artists cannot ignore this deep link that is ever present. Somehow they are called to take note both consciously or unconsciously of what lies before them.

There is an inherent power in objects. And one’s pursuit to unlock that interiority reflects one’s own desire to find depth in oneself and in the world. Bachelard states, “Those who dream of degrees of depth within things will end by determining different degrees of depth within themselves.” (Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Repose, p.6) The more we desire to unlock a secret depth within an object the more we find reflected there our hidden selves. It is why, when one looks at art work, one finds not only the intense rendering of the object itself but the stamp of the artist’s own being. “A reality that has first been dreamed will be imitated with more soul.” (Ibid,p.22)

I once had a painting instructor say to me, “painting is a moral activity”. This gave me much to ponder. It goes against the theory of “art for arts sake”. In the very activity of painting one gives and creates “value”. Painting is choices that give and create a hierarchy of value, an inherent importance to matter, and how one undertakes that job creates the moral code and framework that one will follow and present to the world. Painting is not just about putting lines or color on paper to make it pleasing to the eye. One’s obligation is to render an object in the most beautiful way, because this is the language of art, and present its significance, its moral value, to the world. It is a task of grave seriousness. It is the very reason Plato feared artists because beauty is a great and wonderful tool, when used wisely, to raise ideas and emotions to their highest level. Beauty reaches into the heart and mind of man- to his very center. Man feels the depth of his own being through beauty, creating a singular moment in his soul that will remain. Maybe Plato was right to throw artists out of his ideal republic. It is a task wrought with danger for the artist as well as society.

Every artist has their own way of seeking the depth in an object. Matter is something that can forever be peeled away like the skin on an onion. The more you look, the more that presents itself. Bachelard reveals, “If we see leaf, flower, and fruit within the bud, this means that we are seeing with the eyes of our imagination. It seems that here the imagination is a wild hope of unbounded seeing.” (Ibid.,p.12) Alchemists spent their entire lives seeking the depth within objects. They were the precursor to modern scientists. Through various methods they would seek to find the essence of the material before them whether it be mercury, lead, salt or gold. Through this process, not only did they discover basic elements, but they also discovered a portal into themselves. They sought to find the very essence of their own being. The process of seeking depth within the material brought out their own depth- their present interior state. In a sense, as they broke down the elements they raised up an awareness of themselves. They became conscious of their own depth mirrored in the very activity of inquiry. This allowed for a transformation of oneself through the distillation of the elements. One mirrored the other. Viktor Frankl speaks to the soul of the alchemist, “What is to give light must endure the burning.”

Many of the alchemists expectations took on imaginative qualities. They sought things beyond the material elements or looked for significances that science could not give. If the element turned out to be a beautiful red color, they felt they were closer to a “purer” state of the element. Color added depth. It was a signifying marker of the magnitude of an experiments success. Science now balks at this kind of notion, ‘what does color have to do with it’. Sartre turns this notion on its head stating, “we have to invent the heart of things if we wish to discover it someday.” (Gallimard, Situations I. Critical Essays, 1947, p.306)

But as an artist, this has everything to do with the creative language- the language that directs us to our own depth. Color is a pathway to the very heart of the material world. It is one of the strings on the lyre that harmonizes and resonates with soul. There are others too- line, movement, composition, contrast. The mother of them all is Image. The image, itself, calls all things into harmony and acts as the symbol- the spiritual correspondence-to soul. Swedenborg states, “The human imagination is a symbol -discerning organ, which can really make sense of the forms of this world only by intuiting their spiritual correspondence.” The imagination perceives within the depths of material forms their significance for soul. This imagination precedes any observation one can make of the world. It, in fact, allows one to be aware or conscious of what lies before one’s senses. “It is reveries that give us all the treasures of the interiority of things.” (Bachelard,p.9) Without imagination, one cannot really see. Our sensitivity to forms in the world can only occur because one’s imagination opened up one’s perceptual instinct. Otherwise, how can it be that primitive peoples of the south pacific had no word in their language for the color blue, when they lived under an equatorial sky of intense blueness?  Joanne Stroud writes in her introductory essay to Bachelard’s book, Earth and Reveries of Repose, “The imagination is always engaged in any satisfactory endeavor, because the imagination, for Bachelard, is primary and precedes any action or observation. Even the simplest action of walking from here to there, we can only do what we imagine doing. Imagination takes experience and enlarges upon it, searing it in our souls.” (Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Repose, p. xii) The primacy of the imagination allows, through reverie, a means to understanding even things we consider scientifically self-evident- like ‘the sky is blue’. And beyond that, the imagination invokes meaning. All of the material world now takes on true significance for soul. Matter becomes the material of transformation within one’s soul as well as a conduit for change in the world. “”Images that are primary psychological forces are stronger than ideas, stronger too than real experiences.” (Ibid,p.15)

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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