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Posts Tagged ‘Aphrodite’

Van Gogh decided to concentrate on portraits . . . . In this field, he resolved to surpass photography, which, he felt, remained lifeless at all times, while ‘painted portraits have a life of their own, which springs straight from the painter’s soul and which no machine can approach.’

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh pages 311-12)

At the end of the previous post, I flagged up Julia Brigg’s book on Virginia Woolf, a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within it there are a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

I indicated that before plunging deep into Woolf’s approach to consciousness I was going to take a look at some paintings. They’re easier to use as an initial illustration of what I will be exploring.

Capturing Consciousness in Paint

I’ve blogged already about how the portraits painted by Alice Neel captivated me some time back, and how at roughly the same time I was reacquainting myself with David Jones, the poet, and discovering that he was also a painter.

Between them they illustrate clearly what I want to explore in more detail in a moment, mainly in terms of Virginia Woolf as novelist.

When we look at one of Alice Neel’s collection of souls (she termed herself a ‘collector of souls’) what am I seeing? Does she paint the appearance of the person or is she trying to capture her awareness, her impression of the person? There is a difference. I am aware that no painting could exclude some degree of subjectivity. What I am trying to tease out is whether some artists are more concerned to convey the contents of their consciousness, rather than to simply capture a faithful and exact likeness of the subject, and that this tendency can vary along a spectrum.

Rhoda Myers 1930 by Alice Neel (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

Rhoda Myers 1929 (scanned from Belcher and Belcher)

Rhoda Myers

If we look at a portrait she painted of a close friend at the time, alongside a photograph taken of the same friend within twelve months, it might give us some clues. I have cropped the portrait at just below shoulder level, as the almost skeletal body of the figure would load the dice too far when we come to compare a cosy coat in the photograph with the exposed nude in the painting.

Even so the painting is darker. To be honest, if I didn’t know, I wouldn’t realise they are pictures of the same person.The accompanying text in the book of paintings suggests that Rhoda Myers is somehow resisting the painter and this is what is being picked up (Lewison: page 76). My sense is that, because Neel knew that Myers was drifting inexorably towards marriage and hated the idea of someone choosing domesticity over art as well as leaving her coterie in the process, this is what we see projected into the image as well. The question that the Belchers raise in their biographies of Rhoda and Alice seems more to the point (page 128): ‘Did her own turbulent emotions distort Rhoda’s face?’ If so, do we feel that this was to a significant extent, so that what we are doing when we look at the picture is entering Neel’s mind rather than the objective world. I suspect the painting has crossed this line.

I’m not discussing here whether what Neel conveys of her inscape adds to the value of the portrait: I’m simply saying that some mapping of her mind is taking place. The question of quality will come up later.

Lady Prudence Pelham 1930 by David Jones (scanned from The Art of David Jones: vision and memory by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills)

Prudence Pelham 1935 (scanned from David Jones: engraver, soldier, painter, poet by Thomas Dilworth)

Prudence Pelham

Similarly is David Jones not trying to paint reality but to paint his consciousness of reality which includes pulling items into his picture from his activated associative map?

When, early in his career, his portraits are relatively close in appearance to the subject, this may not be a major issue as we see when we compare his painting of Lady Prudence Pelham above with a reasonably contemporary photograph. Even so, the person in the photo lacks the aura the painting lends her, and not because she’s five years older: the aura is a projection of what is in Jones’ mind. As Bankes and Hills explain (page 86-88), ‘He fell in love with her spirit, wit and originality. . . He was . . . in awe of her courage, for she suffered from incurable and encroaching sclerosis, which gave her constant pain and prevented her sculpting; . . . [her] portrait . . . conveys fragility and radiance in equal measure. . . We are in no doubt about the strength of spirit that underlies Prudence’s frail physical beauty, and which touched Jones so profoundly.’ They point out she dominates her surroundings ‘that are rendered with a sketchiness that make all subservient to her.’

I have to add one more comment of my own into the mix. I do not know if Jones had read Yeats’ A Prayer for my Daughter. I suspect not. Even though Yeats met him on one occasion, Jones did not seem well-disposed to his work. Even so, the presence of a bellows in the bottom right hand corner of the picture rang bells for me.

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

I am assuming that, if he had read the poem, Prudence would be on display as an example of the exact opposite of the type Yeats disdainfully describes in the poem. Either way, my picking up on what might have been an incidental detail and using it to read Jones’ mind is an approach his later pictures require if they are to be properly understood, in my view.

Female Warden during the Blitz (scanned from Bankes and Hills again)

Female Warden during the Blitz

To illustrate this possibility I have chosen a fairly straightforward picture of the Female Warden during the Blitz (Bankes and Hills – page 130), straightforward in the sense that it is very obvious where the Warden is standing and that she is in uniform, but there are all sorts of anomalies as well that bring other associations with them. Bankes and Hills link it thematically to a picture too complex to bring in here, Aphrodite in Aulis. They comment (page 130):

Whereas Aphrodite relates Greek myth to the present, the small drawing Female Warden during the Blitz . . . is a more private fantasy triggered by London in wartime. . . . The carpentering of the image is strong: ‘W’ stands out in bold on her helmet; three chevrons on her sleeve and an arrow on the wall behind point downwards to the low doorway to her right. Cigarette and torch in hand, like a sexy usherette she wards the entry both to pleasure and to the underworld.

They equate the cat to the soldiers near to the chained Aphrodite in his other picture.

For me they leave too many important question unanswered.

Why is she falling asleep? Is this simply an accurate depiction of a sleep-deprived warden he saw on the street, or does it have some other connotation meaningful to him, to do perhaps with our sleep-walking into war at the expense of women?

Why is the uniformed leg so grossly enlarged? Does it evoke a sense of male soldiers in uniform with all that this implies about war as being prosecuted mainly by the men it also kills? He was traumatised by his experiences of the First World War and I feel such thoughts could not have been too far from his mind.

Does it go further than that? The ‘W’ could simply stand for ‘Warden,’ but might it not also signify ‘Woman’? The significance of the cat notwithstanding, Bankes and Hills seem to ignore the obvious point that the female air-raid warden embodies both soldier in combat and captured Aphrodite. She therefore, for me, embodies the all-too-frequent grotesque and unequal conflict between feminine sexuality and male aggression, female nurturing and male destruction.

And we are invited to speculate more than they do, I feel, about where the door leads. The underworld, yes. Maybe even hell, in more Christian terms that would make sense to the Catholic in Jones. May be even simply being underground, in the sense of dead and buried, something many must have been uncomfortably aware of as they fled the bombs down tube station steps? Certainly not just some nightclub, as we all seem to agree.

And if Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and procreation, not just of pleasure, are not all these positives scarred and disfigured if not destroyed by war, and might this be in part what the image is representing in terms of what is in Jones’ mind?

It may be worth explicitly acknowledging at this point that, while Jones’ conscious intention may have been the driving force behind the allusive nature of his painting, even he would have agreed that he may have ended up communicating more than he consciously intended. From experience I have learned that my poems are often saying more than I realise at the moment of composition. Unconscious responses leak whatever our avowed intentions. That doesn’t, though, in my view, detract from the main thrust of my argument here: it simply extends it.

Where next?

I needn’t labour it any more, I think. This is a picture of his mind, not of the world outside, and it is impossible to take it as a literal representation of the world out there. His many other more complex paintings for me testify to how his experience as a cartographer in the First World War equipped him in a way to paint maps of his mind, and the associative networks within it, as it reacted to experience, myth and art.

So, are Neel and Jones therefore closer than they seem even though we appear to see a person first and foremost in her paintings and in his we see something more like a map? They may be both trying to do the same thing in different ways, to capture consciousness at the moment it is triggered by the world. They may only be differing in the lengths to which they are prepared to go in pursuit of the elusive goal of rendering consciousness visible in line and colour. Neel was notoriously hostile to abstraction in art: Jones’ position was more nuanced.

Mapping consciousness to this degree is perhaps a logical extension of an aspect of Impressionism in art and free indirect speech in the novel, so therefore not entirely unique to the Twentieth Century, though its manifestations were more extreme in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m not contending that this is the sole criterion for judging a work of art but it is a key one for my purposes as a student of consciousness.

Which brings us to Woolf’s amazing ability to make consciousness accessible in words on a page. More, much more of that next time including some key quotes from her diaries.

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