Wednesday 27 June 2018

Some pictures I find inspiring in times of trouble

In times of trouble, grappling with words is often beyond me - but pictures, and particularly the memory of pictures, is sometimes of help; sometimes sufficient to stop the descent and even reframe things in a positive way. I presume that this has always been the case for Christians (except those misguided iconoclasts who have always plagued the religion).

What 'works' seems to be a very personal matter - and certainly is is not correlative with artistic excellence as defined by secular aesthetic criteria (effective religious art often seem kitsch or sentimental or naive or over-obvious by such evaluations)... the point is what gets through to you in times of trouble. Perhaps this is why such art often is very direct.

Furthermore, evaluation of art is always influenced by non-visual, contextual factors - for example a portrait or landscape is affected by the beaty, or ugliness, of its subject matter; and religoous and spiritual art by that context - and how we feel about the particular painter and his intent, the time and place of its production, or the artistic tradition from which it arises.

(The inevitability of non-visual factors is, paradoxically, emphasised by the fact that 20th century attempts at abstraction led to the most literary and theorised art of all time! The result has been an art of near-zero self-explanatory power; where gallery visitors read the labels more than they look at the pictures or sculpures/ 'installations'; where modern art critics are more concerned about politics than aesthetics - and their catalogues are filled with words more than with illustrations.) 

For the past several years I have, again and again - most recently yesterday - found some of William Arkle's pictures valuable for this purpose or function. I offer a few of my proven-favourites, with explanations - on the understanding that this is a personal choice: the point being to inspire you to find some (presumably-different) pictures which might serve you as well as these ones have served me. 

This picture represents Jesus as Lord of this world, The Cosmic Christ; offering his gift to us in the form of a flower.

This next one is a simple but haunting picture of an archetypal businessman, about his business, but with an angelic being sustaining him - and again offering a gift of a larger, greater, truer perspective - to which he can turn and which he can accept at any moment he chooses.

This picture is one of many that Arkle did with a large face of divinity hovering above the mundane world - always present, but nearly-always ignored. The small human figure in the bottom-right is absorbed in reading a newspaper, oblivious of the fullness of what is possible.
Another figure hovering above the mundane world - this time a smoky industrial city; and this time the another favourite Arkle symbol/ reality of cupped hands and enfolding arms: this is a very real experience of many Christians with respect to God.

A similar theme, but this time God above an idyllic 'holiday' scene - almost paradisal.In such a situation we are more likely to be aware of the divine presence - but this may be unconscious, and rationally-denied; whereas it ought to be known, and accepted with joy and gratitude.

Here we see a pilgrim, alone, on the threshold and confronting a glorious landscape - which he needed to approach through a dark and sinister foreground.

The following picture of tea things (and several others like it) really stuck in my mind, as showing the divine immanence - God within the everyday objects of our lives - and that nothing real is dead, but is indeed alive, meaningful and part of purpose (even the supposedly inanimate).

And the same applies with landscape - although perhaps we are more inclined to recognise this. This shows a Tolkienian theme of the special quality of distant mountains, and how in heaven we can visit the distant mountains without them losing this 'distant' quality - so that our poignant yearning for their mystery (Sehnsucht) becomes a part of actual, current, conscious experience.

And then Heaven itself - with the heavenly city is the distance; and in this case travelling there really-will be as good as arriving.

For more of Arkle's pictures; visit the recently made webpage, or the (larger) Facebook compendium.

Note: In 1977 William Arkle published The Great Gift - a book of pictures and explanations (and some other writings) which serves exactly this purpose I am talking about; and can still be obtained cheaply secondhand. However, the colour and sharpness of the pictorial reproductions in The Great Gift is far inferior to that of the recently scanned web versions.


William Wildblood said...

"in heaven we can visit the distant mountains without them losing this 'distant' quality - so that our poignant yearning for their mystery (Sehnsucht) becomes a part of actual, current, conscious experience." Bruce, I just have to say, that is beautifully put.

ted said...

I really love these gems Bruce!

Chiu ChunLing said...

When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: "It's pretty, but is it Art?"

Hrothgar said...

I find what I have seen of Arkle's works very intriguing. He appears to have set himself the extremely difficult task of trying to portray his spiritual insights directly, as they came to him - so far as the limits of a palette of colours, two physical dimensions, and a painter's paraphernalia would allow. Most other painters who were trying to achieve something of the kind would have taken refuge in either abstract works supplemented with some sort of verbal explanation (the modernist approach) or some form of realism containing visual symbolism (the traditional approach).

With Arkle, we get, for the most part, rather commonplace painterly scenes transformed into something quite different from what they started as through the use of superimposed images, kaleidoscopic, dreamlike distortions of the ordinary, and strange luminous colours - all evidently aimed at conveying his sense of a spĂ­ritual world which thoroughly permeates (and apparently threatens to transform) our everyday material reality. This is actually a very characteristic insight, or belief, among Albion's best literary artists, but to see someone make such a concerted and consistent effort to express it visually is unusual, to say the least.

I don't really feel qualified to assess the purely artistic merits of his paintings (though this does not mean I would trust a contemporary art critic to do so either).

It does strike me, however, that they are at the very least competent in their execution - a rare enough quality in itself, considering the state of the contemporary artistic scene. This, allied to the evident consistency and significance of his underlying vision, would surely have earned him some sort of attention from the Establishment by now, if it was anything like what it claimed to be. But we live in an age when those who pretend to judge the arts, though claiming to prefer deeper meanings over surface details, actually value portentous obscurantism, cynicism, and nihilism over beauty, goodness, and truth, so it would not be too surprising if they have simply ignored him entirely.

Bruce – just as a matter of curiosity, do you know whether anyone significant in the "Art" world has ever deigned to acknowledge Arkle's existence?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hrothgar - Personally, I (like Colin Wilson) initially found Arkle's work struck me as rather naive and simple; as I wrote here:

But the impact on me has grown and grown over the last several years - and I have now seen many of the originals (when visiting his son Nick).

A helpful context is to realise that Arkle had a passion for the English pastoral classical composers, especially Delius and Vaughan Williams. He used to play this genre of music while painting (so Nick told me).

Arkle never had any general acceptance as an artist - but was recognised within the spiritual community for a while - his arts was the focus of the first Mind, Body, Spirit Festival in London in 1977 - which was really the peak of his 'fame'. There are currently plans for a retrospective exhibition in Bristol, at his old art college (West of England Academy) - if it happens I will post details on this blog.

Nick Arkle and his wife (nee Newley - she is the daughter of Joan Collins and Anthony Newley) are currently active in recording, cataloguing and promoting William Arkle's art work - so the possibilities now are better than they have been for several decades. The Facebook and web pages are the first fruits.

However, ultimately, I think appreciation of Arkle as an artist does require at least sympathy with the spiritual values he was advocating - in that respect he will likely be a minority taste. But that minority might find the work of great personal value.

Hrothgar said...

Thanks, Bruce - interesting information there. Interesting also that such a consistently religious and mystical body of work could be inspired by the music of two such un-religious men. The key factor was probably that they shared with him through their very "Englishness" and pastoralism an unconscious connection to the evidently potent mystical properties of Albion's landscape and history, with which he was trying to work more directly and consciously.

It occurred to me when I was first looking at this set of paintings that "Naive" would be one of the first responses of an art critic (or anyone suffused with the modern critical mentality of the West) on seeing such work as this. I think that in such cases it is often helpful to bear in mind that the original meaning of "Sophistication" was derogatory, implying the debasement of the higher faculties with misleading or valuless worldly knowledge. (I have also seen it used in older writings as synonym for what we would now describe as adulteration, or contamination.) Really, this underlying meaning has NOT changed.

What has changed is that we now value the possession of purely worldly knowledge, especially the most complex, occult, and specialized types, most difficult to attain - far more than we do the truth, beauty, goodness, or holiness (which may be attained by the simplest and most unlearned people with sufficient good-will and introspection) that we used to prize. It is therefore far from obvious to most why sophistication might be a BAD thing - especially as sophisticated people experience a feeling of power and superiority over the unsophisticated in most social interactions, which, in our unhealthily socially-conscious society, creates a powerful self-validating feedback loop.

But to get back to Arkle: I think you are right about it being necessary to be in sympathy with his spiritual values to appreciate him, but this may not in itself be enough (so we are probably talking about a minority of an already rather small minority here).

My wife, who certainly IS in sympathy with his underlying values to a significant extent while being largely immune to the "Sophisticated" mentality of the modern critic, does not feel a very positive instinctive response to it at all. Her main objection is that she finds his use of colour extremely offputting. I went to some effort to explain to her what I thought he was trying to do with his work (a more detailed version of what I briefly summarized in the second paragraph above).

She thought that this was in principle a worthy thing to be attempting and added that if she was trying to depict something from a higher reality seeping through into our world - a light that could be percieved in some way, but not actually seen with our normal visual faculties - she would probably be tempted to use similar "cotton-candy" colours to represent it too, for the want of something better. But still, she is very far from liking what she she actually sees!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Horothgar - Nick Arkle pointed out to me that over the years his father used less and less red as a distinct colour, until it was almost eliminated. He didn't know why - but it was deliberate, clearly. I think this is a factor in the strangeness - almost like watching colour TV without the red gun (except that Arkle does use pinks and purples a lot).

Hrothgar said...

This tendency does actually make sense to me; at least in terms of the body of New-Age thought that associates the various colours with discrete spiritual properties which relate in some degree to their physical properties (or rather, that of the light producing them). Those with an interest in auras seem to be particularly drawn to this notion, though I'm pretty sure it can be found elsewhere too.

In brief, and as I understand the general principles: Red, having the longest wavelength and lowest frequency, is the most "dense" colour, and therefore most naturally attuned to carnal and material energies (basic animal emotions, physical vitality, sex drive) and is most firmly grounded in the material realm; while at the other end of the visible spectrum purple/violet are most attuned to spiritual/transcendent forces, and least to the material. Given the sort of work Arkle was pursuing, and what I know of his background and interests, I'm not too surprised that he seems to have ended up taking this line of thinking to its logical conclusion in his paintings.

Whether it was wholly a good idea to subject all his later work to this premise is another matter. Albion's most advanced spiritual thinkers (Traherne springs to mind as a good example) have tended to emphasise the ultimate harmony and interdependence of the material and physical worlds far more than their counterparts elsewhere (who mostly seem to promote detachment from the material as the ultimate spiritual objective, especially within a Christian context). This may in fact be the peculiar and crowning achievement of the distinctively "British" spiritual imagination, if its latent promise is ever to be truly fulfilled (I don't think it has yet been).

But given that Arkle was working within a contemporary context, where the default metaphysical assumption is of the equally flat, mechanical, soley material, universal deadness of everything (even the de-souled human flesh robots who populate the mechanically actuated landscape as all goes through the motions of a dreary, meaningless existence), I can see why he might have wanted to give particular stress to the ever-presence of potentially transcendence-enabling forces. I'm fairly sure he would have considered this particular use as colour as an important tool in this endeavour.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hrothgar - That strikes me as potentially a very plausible explanation! Good comment.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I feel like the careful limitation of the use of red in imagery that is not intended to convey "realism" is perfectly valid. I would not myself eliminate it entirely, but I also do not decline to speak openly and forcefully about what it implies to the human eye...bloodshed.

Arkle had a particular message in mind, and the copious bloodiness of 'real life' (at both ends, as well as throughout) wasn't something he felt needed emphasis. I feel that his message is more that there is a life beyond mortality. And I believe that life is indeed much less sanguine than our current one. Much as I encourage confrontation with the facts of this life, I do so mainly because dealing with this life is our present duty, not because every terrible thing in it must be sought in eternity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Another good point that I hadn't considered.

William Wildblood said...

Red is indeed the lowest colour in the spiritual spectrum and violet the highest but violet is made up of red and blue so here we seem to have an illustration of the fact that manifested life is one but made up of many levels with each lower level repeating the hierarchical structure of the higher.

I think if we were fully conscious we might spend all day marveling at the extraordinary fact of colour.

But of course political correctness should say that all colours are one and there is no difference between them!