The last few years have seen a deep questioning of the central tenets of the theory of secularisation. Far from growing less religious, as the prophets of the post-war period supposed to be our destiny, the world has become more infused with religious attitudes than ever. It is now intellectually respectable, if not yet fully intelligible, to talk and write about a ‘post-secular’ age. At the same time it is possible to re-examine the high points of the supposedly nonreligious era we have now passed beyond, and see it anew as the site and source of an intense and distinctive spirituality. It is strange for an art collection like the Methodist Church’s Collection of Modern Christian Art to have almost no abstract works in the collection, as though properly religious art could only ever be representational. Yet until recently abstract art was regarded by many religious people as at the vanguard of a world without form, without meaning, and – ultimately – without God. If non-representational art was somehow non-traditional then it was also, so it was feared, non-religious. It is possible now, however to reappraise this view.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Patrick Heron produced a large number of canvases and silkscreen prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes. As though to forestall the possibility of overlooking the artist’s obsession with colour, they had titles such as ‘Blue and deep violet with orange brown and green’.
The following reflections were inspired by a screenprint of Patrick Heron’s at the Tate, which is typical of his work at that time. Perhaps to emphasise its abstract qualities it is titled January 1973:14.
what makes this image seem alive? Something to do with the way our eyes insist on bringing some colours to the foreground and some to the background. It just happens, we can’t help it. Is it about what the colours are, or about what we are, in a phenomenological sense? Patrick Heron was fascinated by the rejection of illusory depth exhibited by American abstract expressonists. He explored it obsessively and in many respects went beyond it. For Heron this was a formal question in art theory, but it can also be said to have religious implications – the relationship between what is ‘out there’ and how we perceive it.
‘Creative emptiness’ was one of the things that attracted Patrick Heron to artists such as Rothko and de Koonig. With them, Heron challenges the viewer with ‘the troublesome subject’. If it is not about figuration, what is the painting about? What is the point? Don’t these non-representational shapes want us to make something of them? Don’t some have their backs to one another? Don’t some encompass others, or offer enclosure, and others interlock? (Critics call these his ‘jigsaw paintings’). Rothko denied that his work was abstract, and Patrick Heron repeatedly noted that no work can be entirely abstract. When we try to pin down representation it recedes, but doesn’t entirely disappear:
“abstract form is at its most potent when it has in some way incorporated into itself an unmistakable reference to an external object,” (1955, quoted in Gooding 1998).
What is the relationship between the colours/shapes themselves, and why does relationship seem to be an appropriate term to use? The relationship seems really important. In the 1940s Patrick Heron wrote about the ‘alloverness’ of paintings by Bonnard and Matisse and said ‘the forms of objects in a picture…hardly exist in isolation from the total configuration’. Heron’s rigorous formalism is perhaps offputting to many, but alternatively it can be seen as a kind of framework for a deep sense of humanity.
Why do different parts of the painting seem to evoke different feelings or moods? There’s meaning, but there isn’t… but there is. Patrick Heron, who was a notable art critic, said when he visited Australia in 1973, ‘What one was looking for… was a full emptiness , or an empty fullness’, and I think this comes to the point. In my view a case can be made that Heron is recording in art something quite close to the philosophy of the Buddhist Heart Sutra, with its well-known formulation, ‘form is emptiness, emptiness form’. This emptiness, sunyata, has been taken by much western philosophy to be a version of nihilism (as Roger-Pol Droit critiques in The Cult of Nothingness). But for Heron, the emptiness amounts to an entirely interconnected plenitude – it is a full emptiness. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘and what is form empty of? It is empty of separate identity’ (The Heart of Understanding, 1988. See 3, above).
Looking at Patrick Heron’s abstractions, one may feel quite sure the natural world is there, neither in nor out of view, as it were. At any rate it hasn’t gone away. Heron disliked American critic Clement Greenberg‘s claim that British abstract art was no more than ‘landscape imagery in disguise’, not least because Heron wanted to show in his art and criticism that Americans didn’t invent abstract expressionism as Greenberg also claimed, but that it was already a strong European tradition, and Britons such as himself could teach the Americans a thing or too. In fact he thought he had, with his seminal painting ‘Vertical Light’, for instance.
However, I think Greenberg’s point remains valid. When Heron moved to Zennor in Cornwall the environment was a great spur to his painting. Zennor was also an inspiration to D.H. Lawrence, who finished Women in Love there and wrote to John Middleon Murray and Katherine Mansfield: ‘At Zennor one sees infinite Atlantic, all peacock-mingled colours, and the gorse is sunshine itself already… when I looked down at Zennor I knew it was the promised land, and that a new heaven and a new earth would take place.’ (The Selected Letters of D.H.Lawrence, ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000: 123)
Heron must have caught something of this spirit for he said ‘This is a landscape that has altered my life, the house in its setting is the source of all my painting’. He wrote to Herbert Read, another art critic: ‘I wish you could see the place in its Mediterranean brilliance of light and colour! Yesterday though, we were wreathed in mist all day: hot, steamy stuff which made the rocks and bushes into grey Chinese silhouettes…’ . It is significant that for Heron the mist turns landscape into art.
There is something in Heron’s work that is strongly reminiscent of Zen non-representation, the sublimation of nature into art and back again, as in a Zen garden (and one could examine further Heron’s approach to scale in this context), as in the eighth ox-herding picture by Tensho Shubun at Kyoto, where all that is left of representation is an empty circle, but that is not the end of the cycle of paintings.
This link is clear in the work of another Cornish artist, Trevor Bell, whom Heron the critic championed in 1958 as ‘the greatest painter under 30’. http://www.modbritart.com/media/wdmodernmedia/TB_001-048web2.pdf
According to Chris Stephens of the Tate, they were both part of a 1950s revival of the sublime in British art. What he says of Bell, could also apply to Heron: ‘ images of infinity that inevitably conjure up intimations of mortality. They are not mournful, however, for that recognition of finality and infinity is a moment of great enlightenment.’
So what is the point of paying attention to paintings like these? Two quotations may illuminate this question:
“The Landscape becomes reflective, human and thinks itself through me. I make it an object, let it project itself and endure within my painting…. I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape, and my painting becomes its objective consciousness.”
Paul Cézanne, quoted in Joyce Medina, 1955 Cézanne and Modernism: The Poetics of Painting, State University of New York Press.
“I have always claimed that painting’s prime function is to dictate what the world looks like … What we imagine to be the ‘objective’ look of everything and anything is largely a complex, a weave of textures, forms and colours which we have learned, more or less unconsciously, from painting, and have superimposed upon external reality. The actual ‘objective’ appearance of things (of anything and everything) is something that does not exist…”
Patrick Heron, 1996 “Solid Space in Cézanne”, Modern Painters Vol 9 (1).
It is worth reflecting not only on the work of Patrick Heron itself, but also on what happened to it. In 2004 the so-called Momart Brit Art fire destroyed 50 of Heron’s most significant works. Should we be devastated, as his daughters reportedly were? Or should we agree with Tracy Emin, some of whose key work was also turned to ash: ‘It’s only art’? Transience. See point 6.
What has all this to do with Christianity? I’ve long been interested in what Buddhism has to bring to the Christian tradition. Similar to the quote above from the Heart Sutra is a statement by the ancient Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna: ‘The limits of nirvana are the limits of samsara. Between the two also there is not the slightest difference whatsoever.’ The radical theologian Don Cupitt identifies this identity of supposed opposites as part of the Christian tradition too:
‘Identity of loving God and loving one’s neighbour. Identity of faith and works. Identity of this life and eternal life. Identity of the holy and the common. Identity of perfect self-affirmation and perfect self-surrender’. (in John Lane and Maya Kumar Mitchell, eds, 2000 Only Connect, Dartington, Devon: Green Books, p. 125)
In the ’empty fullness’ of Patrick Heron’s art one sees the visual expression of this Buddhist-Christian identity. The identity of surface and depth, abstraction and representation, landscape (nature) and art (culture), the impossible and the possible God. If the term ‘post-secular’ is to emerge with a meaning, it will need to do so in relation to art such as Patrick Heron’s.
[written 20.9.2008; edited 12.7.2012]