Up until the age of 7, I lived in Spalding, a small Lincolnshire town where a visit to a hill, or even a gentle slope, held the same exotic thrill as a trip to the fun fair. The horizon extended into the far distance. Dykes and muddy footpaths parcelled the flat fields of tulips, daffodils and sugar beet and dark green machines controlled the water levels of our rivers, canals and ditches;they looked like giant robots, guarding us against invaders.
We were told that Spalding used to be under the sea, how the Dutch came to drain the land and the story of Hans, the little boy who saved his town from flooding by putting his finger in a crack in the sea wall.
For the past thirty years I’ve lived in North Devon where the rolling, plunging hills look more like an ocean than the ocean itself. The starting point in painting that landscape is finding the breach that allows a sea of trees, soil and rock to tumble into my body.
After a day of cutting wood (when I used to do such things for a living), I would lie down with the feeling of the cut wood in my flesh. After a day of digging through clay and stone I could almost feel the soil running out of my fingertips as I sat in my armchair. Such sensations guided me after I picked up my paint brush.
When I began to paint the waterfalls that are such a common feature of North Devon’s landscape, I was thinking of the waterfall’s association with Romanticism (and there was one waterfall in particular where my mother’s ashes were scattered that had a particular meaning).
As I continued to paint waterfalls, the cataracts changed into white cracks, a symbol of the breach that maintained continuity between the landscape and myself.
For the Romantics, the waterfall was a symbol of the continual productivity of Nature.
“Thou at once full-born
Madd’nest in thy joyance,
Whirlest, shatter’st, splitt’st,
On A Cataract: Samuel Taylor Coleridge
However, the continuity of the waterfall also referred to the philosophical issue that lies at the heart of Romanticism; the difficulty of separating subject and object.
The German philosophers who influenced the Romantic movement began their investigations on the basis that the structure of reality follows on from the fact of self consciousness.
F.W.J. Schelling (1775 – 1854) proposed that we should think of ourselves as a kind of eddy in the stream of nature, a temporary resistance, whose material is constantly being replaced and which will eventually disappear into the stream altogether. (Coleridge refers to the waterfall’s “continual change of the matter, the perpetual sameness of the form” as a “Shadow of God and the World”*)
The examination of the whole of reality via the tacit removal of the spectator who is himself a part of that reality was regarded as impossible. The consequences of the fact that we are part of what we observe were explored.
This standpoint evolved during the 20th century via phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty, in developing Husserl’s idea of Lebenswelt (The world “as lived” prior to reflective representation or analysis), describes his concept of the world’s “flesh” (chair) as “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break…” **
This concept allows discussion of the reciprocal relationship between world/body/consciousness (rather than acting as a kind of whizzing liquidiser that produces a homogenous grey sludge. Hegel ridiculed Schelling’s description of Nature’s unity as “the night in which all cows are black”)
The waterfall can be identified as a discreet object while being acknowledged as inseparable from the stream that forms it and into which it disappears.
I have also painted many pictures of rocks surrounded by the sea which at high tide are apprehended as discreet objects but which at low tide are experienced as part of the shore line.
Art was given a privileged position by both Schelling and Merleau-Ponty. For Schelling it was an “Indifferenzpunkt” (indifference-point), where qualities that seem to be opposed to each other can reach a resolution. For Merleau-Ponty it represented a scrambling of categories. He had a particular interest in Cezanne’s attempt to negotiate a relationship with his pre-reflective consciousness and analysed Cezanne claim that the landscape is speaking in and through him.
In working through the connections between ourselves and Nature Merleau-Ponty appeared to endorse animism.
In the West we have problems with this concept. Where science is concerned, the removal of the subjective experience is the basis of its methodology. However the return of that subjective experience, into the great, dizzying cathedral that science has built is a transformative experience.
When Schelling says that “Nature is the first or old testament….Man is the beginning of the new covenant through which as mediator, since he is himself tied to God, God….also accepts nature and makes it into himself”*** he is describing an aspect of this transformative experience.
David Abram in “The Spell of the Sensuous” says that the spirits that inhabit the landscape of oral indigenous peoples are the most “precise and parsimonious” way of describing their relationship with the land.
Painters tend to talk about such things with less precision or taste but more humour
“For me an object is something living. This cigarette or this box of matches contains a secret life much more intense than that of certain human beings. When I see a tree, I receive an impact as if it were somebody breathing, somebody speaking. A tree, too, is something human”
This “animism” has nothing to do with a rejection of science or the fallacy of Rousseau’s followers who ascribe a moral value to Nature.
Nor, despite the fact that this show consists mostly of waterfalls should the term “Nature” be confused with leafy glades and running streams. The sites of my own closest encounters with “Nature” have included kebab shops, shopping centres and back gardens. Such moments, for me, are accompanied by a sense of continuity with the world and of barriers breaking down.
As a child, I never liked the story of Hans, with his finger jammed in a crack, blocking the little jet of sea water. When standing still for five minutes seemed like an impossible task, the thought of remaining stationary for hours and hours had the quality of a nightmare. I much preferred the story about the lifting of the Spanish siege of Leyden, where the Dutch relieved the city by breaching the sea wall. The Dutch ships rolled in across the fields while the Spanish fled.
In order to dissuade the starving citizens from surrendering to the Spanish, the Mayor of Leyden offered his right arm as a meal. I look at my own forearm and fingers as I paint my waterfalls and imagine the Mayor waving to the Dutch ships as they career towards the besieged city.
*Keswick, Aug 25th 1802
**The Concept of Nature, I, Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France 1952-1960.
*** Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom