Most artists worth their salt, sane or demented, aspire to be a visionary artist. To nail a universal truth made manifest in a grain of sand, and to innovate an iconic image, tempts all us ambitious souls. The subversive and challenging factor in art is its desire to upset the status quo and to invent a vision never before experienced. To do this it must come from risk and the unknown. As we heard in art school in the ’50’s, subject and content can be anything. “Tain’t what you do (It’s the way that you do it)”. That leaves us with another cliché: “There’s only good art and bad art”. You could say that distinction lies in the eye of the beholder, but in time good art lives and bad art fades away, regardless of its pedigree and price. May the ($91M) rabbit find the trash bin along with corporate capitalism.
So, what drives and authenticates the visionary artist? Is it only the ones who hallucinate or hear voices in para-normal trances? Or is it the artist who intuitively channels prescient insights out of persistence, practice and availability, not out of the blue? Since complete scientific knowledge of the brain and its capacity is unknown, we can’t rule out any of the above. To accept and work within this open-ended and mysterious terrain is where the artist is challenged to operate. Given the paradoxes and pitfalls implied, what can we say for sure about the artistic canon of the past?
Probably the best known visionary example we have is William Blake whose imagination ran wild with images gleaned from bible readings and the writings of Jacob Boehme. Blake mentioned channeling his dead brother among others. Most importantly, he had a habit of long hours of solitary work. Also his melancholy and argumentative nature was often in conflict with worldly demands and received wisdom, all of which fired his rebellious imagination. Visionaries are often at odds with the political and social conventions of their time and are often unreliable narrators as to their sources.
To balance the example of Blake, we have a major feminist visionary in Hilma af Klint. Without having seen her work first hand I can’t vouch for its authentic presence. but her work clearly pioneered the advent of total geometric abstraction previously accorded to Kandinsky and Malevich. Her version of abstraction was based on close observation of nature and biological process rather than geometric reduction and platonic form. Influenced by writings of Rudolf Steiner and Madame Blavatsky, Klint developed a vision of a spiritual evolution which she literally willed into the future. Her impressive production has been described as working in the tension between science and spiritual insight. Whether hers is a cosmic vision or a hypersensitive and mystical reading into the secrets of nature is still to be explored.
And then we have the enchanted nature-invoked visionary work of Albert Pinkham Ryder in the 20th Century. Ryder’s dreamy, introspective mind fed on Shakespeare and tragic incidents of grief in his life, such as the death of a friend depicted in “Death On A Pale Horse”. His reclusive life reveals little else.
Thanks to Dubuffet, psychiatry, and Art Brut, history has incorporated savant and Intuitive masters. Pure visionaries such as Adolf Wolfli, Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez, whose prolific bodies of work come from a compulsive genius made visible only by intense, usually obsessive, industry or what in the academic art world would be called “Studio Practice” or persistence. This is probably the one universal factor for all art with staying power. What these artists lack in connectivity with the “real” world they make up for in the surreal and the unpredictable. Their sources lie outside the line of mainstream history.
Many amazing artists such as Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe have found in nature universal and indelible visions. Within the mainstream of history, the masterful “Black” paintings of Goya were the result of first-hand experience of a tragic and brutal history during the Napoleonic wars, pushing him to produce grotesque visions of human depravity just as Bosch did from extremes of religious fanaticism in the Northern Renaissance. These dark explorations show us the satanic side of human nature.
In my lifetime and in my opinion, Mark Rothko produced a coherent visionary body of work that will stand the test of time. From the early lyrical abstractions to the color-drenched, numinous middle period, to the late minimalist black paintings we see a universal, timeless quality that he aspired to. Rothko’s conviction that painting had to be about ideas lent a consistent intensity to his life’s work which I find compelling.
So, what is it that produces the mystical experience that translates into art? Is it extrasensory channeling of the spirit world given to the few, a visualized reality beyond the mundane, rational worldview? Or is it the more explainable result of intuition and a disciplined contemplative practice combined with the introspective, serious, and often otherworldly mind? A combination of intuition and curiosity lead to surprising depths in a personality open to it. We have examples of both in writing and visual art. Meditative practice is clearly a factor. The stimulus of reading and profound perceptual experience of nature are often cited. The two factors that are essential in my opinion are long hours of solitary application and a consciousness open to first-hand experience, psychic and otherwise.
Some prophetic writers and artists worth looking up are Hildegard Auf Bingen, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, St. John of The Cross, Meister Eckhart, John Woolman, James Baldwin, and of course William Blake.
Image at top of page: William Blake, “Body of Abel found by Adam and Eve”, Tate, 1826