An immersive, colour-led process

Reflections on the anthroposophical approach to art

‘ … because it is light filled as well, the nature of watercolour gives a luminosity to the picture which I think gives it an innately spiritual quality’

Sue Cramer, curator of Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings exhibition, Art Gallery of NSW.

I was recently interviewed by the ABC’s Radio National program Soul Search on the topic of Anthroposophy and the anthroposophical approach to art. The key theme of the interview was the art of Hilma af Klint and her spiritual seeking, and as she was deeply influenced by the Spiritualist, Theosophical, and Anthroposophical movements of the early 20th century, the producers thought the anthroposophical perspective on life and art would nicely complement their key speaker, the curator of the af Klint exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery. And so were led to me. You can find the full interview about Klint’s work followed by my contribution here.

Af Klint was something of a free spirit and did not confine herself to one movement, but looked for answers and inspiration from whatever stream she found herself drawn to and read widely of Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Rosicrucian, Hermetic, Anthroposophical and Theosophical texts.

You can see these influences in her work. When I first saw her paintings, I immediately thought of the early symbolic language of the Rosicrucians and Goethe’s Theory of Colour. Her works after 1922 quite definitely show the influence of the then-new anthroposophical approach to painting, working in the fluid, colour-led wet-on-wet style that has become a signature of the anthroposophic movement. But Hilma af Klint is best known for the art she created that emerged passively in a mediumistic way from communion with spiritual beings.

I am not going to further discuss her artworks here – many others have done this already and have far more knowledge of her life and works. David Adams, art historian and anthroposophist, has made insightful observations on her works here in the Spring/Summer Art Section Newsletter. Post-interview, I would rather reflect on the anthroposophical approach to art into which I have particular insights, and which may hold also clues as to why Rudolf Steiner, who she brought to see her paintings in 1908, did not provide the response to her work that she was hoping for. Perhaps my reflections will complement David Adam’s observations. As an art historian, he studies art from the outside, whereas I live it from the inside.

Here are three principles of the anthroposophical approach to painting I use in my work.

Active, not passive, receptivity

The anthroposophical path, whether in painting or meditation or any other practice, is one where one’s individual consciousness always remains awake and fully present. There are no induced trances or losing your sense of self to the Other, whether it be the material or non-material world. This does not mean you can’t be receptive to things outside of yourself, but it is an active receptivity, not a passive one. Because the danger in passive receptivity is losing oneself – losing oneself to conscious awareness of what you are doing. The ‘ego-less consciousness’ of af Klint’s early mediumistic works could be described in this way.

In my many years of teaching watercolour wet-on-wet painting I have many often observed how people can easily ‘fall asleep’ while painting wet-on-wet. And then afterwards, when the painting session was over, they would come back into themselves and not remember how the painting worked out as it did. They had not been fully, actively present in the painting, as they were painting.

And whereas this is nothing as radical as opening yourself as a passive vessel to unknown forces, as the Spiritualists attempted, nevertheless you can get something of a glimmer of what this experience may be like if you dream your way through a wet-on-wet painting. There is also not, I should point out, any comparison here to the flow experience, the name given by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to the state a person enters when so deeply immersed in an experience that everything else superfluous to the experience becomes irrelevant. In flow, you still remain present to yourself, though your sense of time slips away. Much of my phenomenological research on the creative process compared the flow experience to what my research participants were experiencing.

Active receptivity, however, must be cultivated and trained, though it’s easier in some mediums than others. For example, in wet-on-dry painting techniques, such as traditional watercolour, you have to be focused and present continually because of its technical demands and because you must keep stepping back from the work so that the layers can dry. In meditative practices, active receptivity is sometimes practised by continually moving your awareness between focused concentration and open receptivity. Arthur Zajonc, physicist and Goethean scholar, developed this approach in his cognitive breathing practice, where the space left by intense concentration allows an echo or afterimage of attentiveness, so to ‘let come’ such moments of direct experience or insight that are given to us.

Such a technique, cultivated by contemplatives, is comparable with the state of being a painter can enter when they immerse themselves in their medium, by stepping into the painterly experience and allowing the medium to lead the process. And then step back to allow the afterimage of the experience to work upon you. This is a crucial point. It is not about conceptualising the experience, trying to relate it to known concepts or abstract symbols, but about allowing the experience to live within you, giving it space and time to mature and transform the soul, before immersing yourself again into the medium, eyes wide open and receptive to what the medium or Other has to say. You are building on an ever-deepening experience that inwardly transforms you.

But this requires repeated immersions, repeated experiences, for the medium to reveal its being, its essential nature, its essence. This is a phenomenological approach that required a change of attitude of soul towards creativity. Rather than being about self-expression – which cannot let go of the needs and desires of the Self – it is about becoming; about growth and self-transformation and being led to new ways of seeing and creating through allowing the nature of the medium to speak its own being. New things can emerge, as described in an earlier post.

In this way, the artist can become part of the world and experience a deep and living connection to it.

Form is movement come to rest

Form is movement come to rest. This is the essential principle of the anthroposophical understanding of how the world, and human being in the world, is in a constant state of evolving. And this evolving moves in natural cycles that are metamorphic, not repetitive, as I wrote about in a much earlier post on drawing. Through each immersion in the medium, into the experience, there is transformation, but a transformation that builds on the previous experiences, and adheres to the laws of the natural world. Theodor Schwenk reveals these laws through his repeated observations of the dynamics of natural water flow, of how they reveal their secrets in the natural world. The same laws can be experienced at work in the life of the human soul, in our thinking, which is the source and guide on the creative path.

So the creative process should be one of becoming and of transformation. The artwork reflects this process and therefore is never finished, only paused. It should leave the potential for something new to emerge out of it. In this way, symbolic art always points to the past, not the present of future. Symbolic art suggests the work is about something else, rather than expressing what is, and can only be revealed through making it visible.

Form arises out of colour

Form arises out of colour, not the other way round, in anthroposophically-inspired painting, because colours have their own movements that are expressed as part of their essential being. These movements are no secret. Anyone can experience them by painting a colour, just one colour, again and again, immersing oneself in the colour without trying to manipulate it into a form or shape. This requires patience. A contemplative but exploratory approach helps. Then you can experience that yellow does indeed shine outward: you cannot make shine inwards. Close as it is to light, it demands a breathing out towards the periphery, just as blue always draws you inwardly.

And why watercolour?

It’s not just that watercolour has a luminosity that gives it an innately spiritual quality. After all, it can be painted without luminosity. Yet this is hard to do if you allow watercolour’s essential nature, the qualities that belong to water flow, to speak for themselves. But pastels and oils can also have luminosity. It’s the translucency of watercolour I love because it breathes …. In the breathing, you can experience living and dying and becoming and dying away again. The breathing movement of watercolour leads you across the physical threshold towards the unseen and unknown. It transforms the material substance of pigment through its fluid nature and lifts it to a higher plane. For this reason, Steiner used the watercolour medium on the ceiling of the First Goetheanum where his new artistic impulse was first realised.

In 1907, Steiner was already moving towards this dynamic and metamorphic approach to the visual arts he would fully develop in the murals on the ceilings of the First Goetheanum. As David Adams says, af Klint’s work was channelling a very different approach to the one Steiner was developing.

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