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Imagination in the Plastic Arts

May 27, 2010

Imagination in the Plastic Arts

by Tim Hazell

 “Somehow, we feel, the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness, but we draw a total blank on the nature of this conversion. Neural transmissions just seem like the wrong kind of materials with which to bring consciousness into the world.” – Colin McGinn

“My souls are like birds

And the wings and bodies are dreams.

With these I am now ready.”

– Jivaro chant from the Amazon Basin

The significance of a good poem and secret of its power may lie in its capacity to refer to concepts and feelings that are not definitive. We can value it for its own sake, reacting effectively on two levels, mentally and sensuously, for the flow and visceral aspects of the words themselves, and, on another, coming face to face with essential mysteries about our own nature and humanness. This is because a poem leaves so much to the imagination. In the pursuit of chimera we encounter sunlight and shadow, sensitized to other possibilities. In the process of forgetting and remembering things unseen, Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was free to listen to voices from other constellations. “Adam Cast Forth” reveals the Garden of the Tree shimmering like the illusion of an oasis retreating before a traveler on the red desert’s rim. Here is an excerpt:

Adam Cast Forth

Was there a Garden or was the Garden a dream?

Amid the fleeting light, I have slowed myself and queried,

Almost for consolation, if the bygone period

Over which this Adam, wretched now, once reigned supreme,

Might not have been just a magical illusion

Of that God I dreamed. Already it’s imprecise

In my memory, the clear Paradise,

But I know it exists, in flower and profusion…

States of daydreaming and clairvoyance have potent implications when interpreted as the basis for great art. In his cubist portrait of Marie Thérèse Walter, “Girl Before a Mirror,” Picasso’s corn goddess dreamily expresses an underlying eroticism. In other paintings of the 1930s his mistress frequently appears sleeping, head melding into the crook of one arm, adrift in fields of reverie, hair cascading in spirals of Mediterranean light. Rationalism succumbs to inspiration and the inherent spirituality of curvilinear lines. The repose of innocence was an embodiment of denial in the midst of the impending violence in Spain and birth pangs of its Republic. Twentieth-century art, like science, would become multifaceted, a hall of mirrors, illusion and implications. Interpretations of beauty transcended simple solutions.

References to the stuff of inspiration and flights of fancy are often complex and difficult to interpret, particularly in native societies where they are inseparable from symbolic behavior and ritual. These beliefs are still fundamental to understanding animism and totemism among Indian nations of widely disparate traditions today. In other societies as different as alien worlds, parallel allusions to visions and things unseen are laced with native concepts of dreams and transference. This entreaty by surrealist poet Guillaume Appollinaire touches primal sentiments through descriptions of shimmering landscapes, seen from the vantage point of his urbane, sometimes irreverent Paris perspective, art movement and philosophy. His pleas for peace , greater tolerance and the easing of imagination’s constraints offer the promise of deep adventure. Here is a translation.

Be indulgent when you compare us

To those who were ordered perfection

We who seek adventure in all places

We are not your enemies

We wish to give you vast and strange domains

Where the mystery of flowers offers itself to all those who wish to pluck it

In those places are new fires, in colors not yet seen

Flames and colors we must make real

French Fauve and decorative painter Henri Matisse spoke about his internalized process of seeing, conversations that became part of an ongoing body of literature connected with the psyche and perception’s role in art and society. Many artists, particularly in movements such as abstraction and expressionism, work away from nature, projecting form onto their retinas. Pure non-objective painting involves composing pattern with no references to images as they appear in space. Affinities exist between ways of seeing that are expressive and imaging as a process, and their relationship to the plastic arts. Just as all nuances and grains of spirit are eloquent to some degree, vision and the rendering of line and form with pencil and paint can run the gamut from flurries of action to strong intellectual processes of analysis. Objects normally experienced in one context are juxtaposed, creating new and tantalizing contextual situations.

Flights of imagination, represented by intensity of feeling, can’t simply be dismissed as accident and urgency without direction. When we think of spontaneous abstractions in limitless space, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) can be cited as an artist whose commitment was to liberate seeing from rigid conventions. Pollock’s nerves were exposed like an electric net in swelling and diminishing flourishes of random paint, applied with the ritual of a ballet. Freedom from the necessity to graphically recreate an object of perception meant liberation from the exigency to compromise. Concessions to realities of nature gave way to innovation and new perceptual experiences—new challenges for vision and imaging. Changing attitudes and mores in Pollock’s time are framed in the following statement. Uncertainty, anxiety and restlessness pervaded movements and schisms within interdisciplinary modern art.

“There was a feeling that the forms of the European tradition were played out, their possibilities exhausted—that verse must get away from rhyme and reason, that music must break the confines of the diatonic scale, that painting must reject the concern with imitating natural appearances that had been the mainspring of Europe since the Renaissance.” – Art Today

A concern for surfaces of things, consequent revelations of their visible characteristics and the role of the poet as an observer was altered irrevocably with the advent of modern verse. It was inevitable that an interest in sensation, perception and relationships to time and movement should occupy poets, spurred on by the innovations of their colleagues in fields of sculpture and visual arts. Words had freed themselves from representational illusion. Poems revealed external and internal aspects of form, situations and emotions simultaneously. A new unity was created in poetry of the 20th century, a plastic unity along with a new perceptual reality. Modern poetry demands more of us than just an act of recognition. It persuasively affects our consciousness at deeper psychological levels inspiring new thoughts and feelings by virtue of its particular characteristics. Hard as diamond, “On Recalling The Plumed Serpent” by Mariano Sanchez is faceted, crystalline.

Dear man

elbowing cadaver

unminted spectre

your eyes

like the first vibrant serpent’s eyes

drew the fine filament of substance


therein spiraling echos: nebulae rings,

breast riding waves

formed by the stone, the atom of truth

dropped in the fathomless entrails of life;

comets also,

and infinite kites,

flirt in your eyes,


the dread whore in man.

And yet at times your eyes ripe

as a pair of honest nuns

References to perception and flights of imagination in cultures of the past and in our own with its technological and industrial base often have religious connotations. The word “sacred” is still invoked when speaking of human relationships, origins of the creative muse, and therapy. In native societies, rhythms of planting and harvest, the reparation and manufacture of ritual objects, tools and musical instruments belong to a world of transient things. Native oral and written traditions exhibit concurrent developments of major themes, personal expressions and perspectives throughout the Americas. Fundamental human emotions were revealed in religious poetry, philosophy and humanism, popular songs, bawdy entertainment and theater. Cultures have left us rich chronicles documenting the fragility of life and beauty’s transience. Indigenous tribes and great civilizations shared the view that struggles for existence must be juxtaposed against nature’s awesome power and omnipotence. Overwhelming odds that challenged and segregated communities produced works reflecting wonder, terror, humility and dogged perseverance as the following example shows.

We only come to sleep,

we only come to dream,

each spring of the grass, that is how our making is,

it is not true, it is not true that we came to live on the earth,

it comes and sprouts, it comes and our heart opens corollas,

our body gives out some flowers, it wilts!

– 15th century Aztec