Negative Capability from Ibn Arabi to Keats to Henri

Dune Shadows, an oil painting by Judith Reeve
Dune Shadows

Attempting to identify what exactly is the imagination and what does it look like is like trying to describe flowing water. We have a feeling for it, yet it defies description in so many ways, but we keep on trying because it will always fascinate and tempt us to give it a form.

The imagination rests in the lacuna between conscious thought and feeling. Within this space the creative imagination dwells and allows images to present themselves. Ibn Arabi called this the isthmus between the sensory world, as we experience it, and a mirror image of that world that exists independent of ourselves. Active reverie transforms what is brought to the minds eye as raw material into Poetic Voice and Image. It is a place of conscious activity- a place of interaction. It is only when one brings a purpose to such exploration that one receives direction. One can always tell when an image comes from such a place-it is irrational,yet powerful. It is comprehended on a deeper inner level. Somehow it makes sense in regard to the inner life as opposed to a rational progression of  thoughts. It touches a more universal level within each of us beyond a reflection of its creator.

Ibn Arabi believed in a “reverie in which the consciousness was still active.” This place of the Mundis imaginalis is where the creative individual finds oneself among archetypal figures who reside within the imagination as well as independently in a world between the sensory faculties and the intellect. It is among such company that the artist receives inspiration and direction in regard to his work. One cannot rationally take the path of one’s choosing. One must be open to the moment and allow things to unfold differently than one had anticipated. Keats called this Negative Capability– “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.”

Keats believed in a ‘heightened receptivity’ in which the artist allowed his imagination a freedom coupled with a consciousness of the creative process- a marriage of reverie and the working of one’s craft. Robert Henri referred to this space as “living in the moment.” When in the act of painting, one opens oneself to a greater force that carries the work beyond what one thought possible and simultaneously one feels a greater awareness of the individual sitting before oneself. These together created the “living moment” as Henri expressed it.

Lorca’s idea of duende seems to be based on a triadic relationship to bring about the “living moment”, the deep connection between the artist, the listener/viewer and the song/poem/painting. It is a triad of desire, emotion and affinity to the world in all its depth. Or as Lorca expressed it-longing, passion and gravitas. Duende begins with longing and desire. This is the necessary first step because it expresses one’s purpose or intent- one’s motivation. Passion or a heightened sensitivity to the emotions allows one openness to the moment, as the poet, Rumi called it ‘the path to the heart of hearts.’ And affinity to the world in all its dimensions, including death itself, is where one relinquishes one’s self (ego) and is able to take on the role of the other- people, objects, events. This positioning allows one to come in contact with a greater self that sees the inherent connection between things. Duende- longing, passion, gravitas- are necessary attributes of the serious artist.

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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