Three different artists and styles of work have been selected to more easily delineate the differences between the categories of the mystic-religious, the non-rational, and the visionary artist. What these selections have in common are that all three were part of the Surrealism movement in art.
The Surrealism movement was based on the conviction that dreams and other para-rational, particularly non-rational mental processes were the most effective way to deal with life. As Hughes states it, this art was meant to “set people free: to save them as evangelists and revolutionaries promise salvation, by an act of faith” (Hughes 212). And the dream, was a vehicle for a “new reality, a new way of defining or view truth” (Hughes 212-213). With dreams comes much difficulty in interpreting the meaning of art such as those pieces discussed in this paper. This essay must try to use a rational sequence of words to logically infer, to explain and validate the examples as demonstrations of para-rational art. Each of us can look at a picture, sculpture, or other piece of art and see something different or see nothing at all, or try and provide meaning to the meaningless.
Jackson Pollock’s (1912-56) Guardians of the Secret (1943) (Hughes 264, plate 181), provides an example of the Para-Rational category of mystical-religious art. Pollock was greatly influenced by artists, Siqueiros, Tintoretto, and Native American sand-painters of the American Southwest (Hughes 262). Pollock developed over many years, a technique of “drip painting” involving developing his works at all angles of the canvas. This particular selection comes from the period of what Hughes refers to as, Pollock’s totemistic (1940s) era (Hughes 262).
His Guardians of the Secret consists of veiled images set on a blue background. Images subdued by various lines and shapes in an interwoven web of color. Arguable two figures: totems, guards of a sort, set one on the left and one on the right of the painting, protect a hidden object or message represented by a white but veiled rectangle, possibly a tomb, a coffin, a container of secrets. Beneath the protected item, more clearly discerned, a dog, a watchdog perhaps, assisting in the duties of the Guardians. Pollock only provides a slight hint to activate the associative faculties of the mind. His work as described by Hughes is a “struggle between harmony and disharmony,” consisting of vivid colors, bold lines, and entangled forms (Hughes 262). Pollock’s painting avoids being a static view, not so simply seen and distinguished, but continually explored to uncover the mystery.
Para-Rational art, falling into the category of mystic-religious art, often has “iconographic or referential subject-matter, . . . where a sense, a mystical aura exists, in which ordinary mundane objects imbued with allegorical referents” (HUX 12). There are many shapes and symbols that can be postulated as visible in this painting, animals, masks, ancient forms and languages. Pollock makes an effort with his swirling of paint and somewhat indistinguishable figures to mask the message, to build and maintain the mystery existing within this painting. However, assuming the Native American symbolism of the totems is true; this work of art infers a religious nature. He expresses his hidden messages from a mythical foundation of ancient ideas of protectors as indicated by the totems. Though Pollock’s piece is often categorized as Expressionism, the Surrealistic elements cannot be denied.
Ferdinand Chavel provides the visionary example of the Para-Rational perspective in his “unofficial” work of art, Ideal Place (Hughes 230, plate 156). The irony in this selection of art is in its creator, a “postman” that up to this point “had nothing remarkable for forty-three years of his life” (Hughes 229). Chavel’s creation is a spectacular combination of mixed architectural styles and sculptures created by the artist’s hand for over a 40-year period. His creation was a mixture of his vision of ancient worlds and ancient times constructed from the collection of “pebbles, stones, shells, bits of glass, wire, iron, and other pieces of material he deemed interesting” (Hughes 229). As Chavel says, “I construct in my dreams a faëry palace, surpassing all imagination, everything the genius of a humble man could imagine (with grottoes, gardens, towers, castles, museums and sculptures) . . .” (Hughes 229). Each piece assembled to achieve his vision of his dreamed “faëry palace” (Hughes 229).
The Ideal Palace demonstrates its creator’s intense personal vision. A visionary work of art, as Michael Mahone states, “fills the viewer with emotions such as awe and ecstasy” (HUX 12). Just to view and imagine the incredible effort and imagination needed to create this fairy tale place, not to mention the 40-year dedication to its construction, is awe inspiring. Furthermore, this palace of fantasy sparks the viewer’s imagination. Looking closely at this fantasy place, opens the mind’s imagination to not so rational notions of mythological tales from the Mediterranean, the Middle East and South Asia, all coming to life at once. Hughes’ last words on this subject were, that this “was the palace of the unconscious mind that no architect had ever built, a nearly sublime fantasy in which the formal means of ordinary Edwardian garden-builders – grottoes, stones, shells – had suddenly shot up to the heights of obsession and revelation” (Hughes 231).
Salvador Dali’s (1904-89) The Persistence of Memory (1931) (Hughes 239, plate 163) is an indisputable example of the Para-Rational, non-Rational artist. This typical and famous Dali work is a landscape depicting a smooth dark beach with a rocky outcropping in the background to the right.A square shaped three dimensional box is set to the left and forward of the painting with a dead tree sprouting from its top and a melting watch lay across its single outstretched branch. Next to the tree lies another melting watch draped over the edge as if pouring itself on the ground. A watchcase also lies near the lifeless tree, ants all busy focusing on whatever their work may be atop the center of the watchcase. Forward and slightly obscured by the dead tree is a flat geometric shape, not unlike a sheet of metal with a blue finish much like the sea that it lies near. In the foreground lies a sort of “biomorphic blob, a profile of the artist; in fact, turned nose to the ground” (Hughes 238). His painting is smooth, detailed, and cartoonish: his approach is what Dali calls the “paranoiac-critical method,” meaning that “looking at one thing and seeing another . . .” (Hughes 238).
Dali creates a non-rational world. The three melting watch images seem to be metaphors for time melting away. The ants are people busily working away as if time matters though time melts away just as life melts away. Time doesn’t last, and neither do we as Dali melts his own image on the sand. As Hughes, points out, “Dali’s Persistence of Memory, preserves its “magic because they cannot be verified” (Hughes 238). Dali’s effort to confuse the rational function of the brain is with the intent of revealing other levels of knowing. With Dali, Hughes states, “one is always looking down the wrong end of the telescope at a brilliantly clear, poisoned, and shrunken world, whose deep perspectives and sharp patches of hallucinatory shadow intrigue the eye but do not invite the body; one cannot imagine oneself walking in this landscape, or even touching it, for is all illusion” (Hughes 238).
These three selections of art exemplify each of the three categories of the Para-Rational Perspective’s of the mystic-religious, the non-rational, and the visionary. Additionally, all three are examples of the Surrealism movement of art portraying, as stated earlier, that dreams and imagination through the para-rational were, what artists of the period believed, the most effective way to deal with life. Though the meaning of a selected piece of art maybe arguable, in the case of the para-rational, it defies the rational mind and challenges the attempt to clearly define its meaning with reason. There will always be a different interpretation offered and rationalized.
Hughes, Robert. The Shock of The New. Alfred A Knopf, Inc. Borzoi Books. New York (© Robert Hughs) 1980, 212-13, 229-31, 238-39, 262, 264
Mahon, Michael, HUMANITIES 542, Para-Rational Perspectives. CSUDH 1998 12