Art and the waking dream

3118237886_b4b870aabe_mI often reflect on the power of Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents”. With such simple observation of clouds, he was able to achieve a feeling of transcendence. One moves easily between cloud and deep emotion, between form and ascension.  The image guides the viewer from natural phenomena to reverie or a dream state. In this state what seemed like pure observation transforms into an elan. One feels simultaneously an intimacy and an intensity. One feels “alive”. Baudelaire states in his journal, that at such moments “the sense of existence is immensely increased”. (Baudelaire, Journaux Intimes, p.28) The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard describes Baudelaire’s theory of “correspondence”, a unity of the senses, as such: “It is the principle of “correspondences” to receive the immensity of the world, which they transform into an intensity of being. They institute transactions between two kinds of grandeur.” (Bachelard,The Poetics of Space, p.19)

This intensity of being is recognizable in the portraits of Robert Henri, an American painter.  Henri often referred to his subjects as “my people”. He became intimate with them in the process of painting, seeing them for who they were – their hopes, dreams and disappointments – their desire to live and to be “alive”. His portraits are at once intimate but unexpectedly take on a feeling of immensity. They become greater than the subject , reaching beyond his mere existence, to something more universal. Through their eyes we see more clearly. Our reverie upon the image transports us to an unexpected place. In this waking dream, a dwelling place for subject, viewer and artist, we are transformed. What was once an intimate meeting between artist and subject becomes a renewing force.

Every image an artist creates remains a part of him and becomes the fabric or map of his being. It is not to be taken lightly what one chooses to create.  It makes sense that Henri referred to his subjects as “my people”, the image no longer a memory of a moment but a blaze marking a trail on a map. The map created by all those intimate moments strung together, a  personal geography of the artist, on which all of us may travel.

A Vertical Axis

2412156385_7c6e9828e8_mThe other day, I finally saw it. I had been searching for it since I moved to the mountains 4 years ago, but had yet to observe one- where supposedly it is common – an altocumulus lenticularis – a spectacular cloud formation that occurs when air is forced upwards as it passes over a mountain. It has the appearance of snow piled on a rock in a stream, the snow being shaped by water and wind, crisp on the edges but soft on top. How dramatic and majestic it rose spiraling upward upon itself , moving and expanding, transforming itself by hidden forces.  At once you are a part of it and at the same time it is greater than oneself and even the world.  I felt an expansion within myself, a greater sense of vitality. This lenticularis becomes a vehicle to rise up and stand upon the heights. “…everything that rises becomes awakened to and involved in being ” (Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams, p.74 )  writes the phenomenologist, Gaston Bachelard.  “Height is more than a symbol. Anyone who seeks it, anyone who imagines it with all of his imaginative power, which is the driving force behind our psychic dynamism, recognizes it is materially, dynamically and vitally moral.”(ibid,p.61)  This desire for verticality  is inherent in everyone. We all desire this  motionless and dynamic  voyage within.

Bachelard states again, “I believe that the true axis of the vertical imagination is directed upward. To put it another way, we imagine the upward elan and we know the downward plunge. The fact is that we have great difficulty in imagining what we know.”(ibid. p.60)  A great example of this is described in Jules Verne’s  “Journey to the Center of the Earth”.  Here is a piece of fiction that takes the reader on a journey literally into the earth. We are lead to believe it is strictly for the sake of science- yet it clearly becomes the great “nekiyia” of modern man. A journey to the deep underworld where one encounters great mythical creatures and the process of confronting the myth of oneself. Even here where vertigo seems imminent, Harry, the narrator, speaks of his moment of ascent, “…my imagination carried me away into wild hypotheses. I was in a kind of waking dream. I thought I saw on the surface of the water those enormous antediluvian turtles as big as floating islands… Higher up, near the leaden granite sky, were immense birds, more powerful than the cassowary…which spread their wings and fluttered against the huge stone vault of the inland sea…My dream was of countless ages before the existence of man…The whole panorama of the world’s life before the historic period seemed to be born over again, and mine was the only human heart that beat in this unpeopled world !” (Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth, p.170)

Although, the axis of verticality of the imagination moves both north and south, it is truly the upward ascent that brings us life and hope. “By becoming conscious of our powers to ascend we become conscious of our destiny as whole… we know that we are matter, a substance filled with hope.”(Air and Dreams, p.60)

The waking dream- immense and intimate simultaneously, gives us the wings for flight, whether experienced in the clouds or in our own voyage to the depths.