at the University of Perpignan
Visionary art is art that purports to transcend the physical world
and portray a wider vision of awareness including spiritual, ecstatic or
mystical themes - or is based in such experiences - accessible through the
subjective realm of each individual.
What unites visionary artists is the driving force and source of
their art: their unconventionally intense psychic imaginations. Their gift to
the world is to reveal "in minute particulars," (as Blake would say),
the full spectrum of the vast visionary dimensions of the mind. Blake, for
example, is famous for his identifying the entirety of the universe in a single
grain of sand.
Both trained and self-taught (Art Brut or Outsider Art) artists
have, and continue to create visionary works. The famous fantastical and visionary fifteenth-century
painter Hieronymous Bosch is a good example of the highly trained sort as he
portrayed an extraordinary array of grotesque beings, tortured souls in hell,
and angels guiding the saved to the light of heaven. His Garden of Delights - one of the
strangest paintings in the world as it is an encyclopedia of metamorphic
Contemporary visionary artists
count Hieronymous Bosch and William Blake amongst their strongest antecedents.
Also important is French Symbolism (Gustav Moreau & Odilon Redon) and then
Dada’s use of chance automatic irrational procedures (which grew into Surrealist
activities of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Hans Arp, Hans Bellmer & Juan
Miro). The visions of the Surrealists help to define a dream realm where
bizarre juxtaposition is possible and desirable. A profound truth resides in
such strangeness, for these visions can shock us into deepening our
acknowledgement and appreciation of the great mystery of the universe.
Reading William Blake in a Harlem
apartment one summer day in 1948, the 26-year-old poet Allen Ginsberg had a
tremendous mad vision in which Blake came to him in person. This was the great moment of his life,
and he joyfully told his family and friends that he had found God. Poet William
Blake called it the divine imagination.
Ginsberg seems to have been
inspired by Blake to seek to integrate the visionary imagination (a
psychological process) into the everyday urbanism (literalness). Thus Ginsberg
wrote a little booklet called Your Reason and Blake's System that
dwelled on the role of prophecy - the shamanic function of the poet and Blake’s
visions. One can also trace this shamanic impulse through the brilliant Beat
ravings of Ginsberg’s comrades William Burroughs and Neal Cassady.
William Blake, the
nineteenth-century mystic artist and poet, claimed that he conversed with
angels and received painting instructions from discarnate entities. Blake
published his own books of art and poetry, which revealed an idiosyncratic
mysticism arising from his inner perception of religious subjects. He resisted
conventional religious dogma, proclaiming "all religions are one."
Though claiming to be purely
subjective in his art, the characters in Blake's paintings and engravings seem
akin to those of Renaissance masters Michelangelo, Raphael, and Durer; yet are
softened with a distinctive nebulous light.
Visionary Art : what is it
Let’s talk about the difference between visionary art (an inner
vision) verses realism and realism’s art vision - or any standard perceptual
vision, even Op art with its mechanical functionalism.
The difference is in looking into
and projecting onto something - thereby discovering an emerging image (common
examples: man-in-the-moon, faces and things in found in the clouds and faces
and beings discovered in tree bark) - as opposed to looking AT something. In
that sense it requires an active participation on the part of the viewer.
For me, this required user
participation is essential in our climate of mass media (mass-think). Visionary
art’s complex ambiguity is valuable as it strengthens our unique personal
powers of imagination and critical thinking so as to counter the effects of our
age of simplification - effects which have resulted from the glut of consumer
oriented messages and political propaganda which the mass media feeds us daily
in the interests of corporate profit and governmental psychological
The Prehistory of Visionary Art
The preliterate prehistoric
precedent of the visionary artist is to be found in the activities of the
see-er, soothsayer, shaman typically found in nomadic tribal cultures. This
see-er’s intuitive vision was regarded as a way into invisible
spiritual knowledge useful for guiding decisions of the tribe’s movements in
relationship to weather changes and migration patterns of the animals - from
which the tribe depended on for their continued existence (and other
decisions). He (usually a man) was also often a healer.
These see-er’s often would “read”
the intestines of slaughtered animals as they tumbled out of the beast onto the
floor (labyrinth). Also they would gaze at the ashes of the campfire – seeing
meaningful patterns and signs in the abstract ambiguous array before them.
Famous female see-ers were the
Greek Oracles : babbling hysterics who could see into the future.
historical account of the global visionary art tradition would fill volumes.
The 16,000 year-old cave paintings of human/animal hybrids, such as the
Sorcerer of Trois Freres are a good
place to start – but the best example of a prehistoric visionary practice that
I know of is the Abside (Apse) of Lascaux - a roundish, semi-spherical, penumbra-like
chamber (like those adjacent to romanesque basiliques) approximately 4.5 metres
in diameter covered on every wall
surface (including the ceiling) with thousands of entangled, overlapping,
detail from the Abside
The ceiling of the Apse (which ranges from 1.6 up to 2.7 metres high
as measured from the original floor height) is so completely and richly
bedecked with such engravings that it indicates that the prehistoric people who
executed them first constructed a scaffold to do so. This indicates to me that
the Apse was an important and sacred part of the cave.
Generally the Apse however has been ignored by art theoreticians
(and there is only one widely published scholarly investigation of it per se,
in the book Lascaux Inconnu - even
though Abbé Glory spent several years trying to decipher this inextricable
chamber) as nowhere is the eye permitted to linger over any detail (even though
it holds an immense 2.5 metre engraving in its midst). Rather, the gaze is
urged on by an all-inclusive flood of sublimated optic information in need of
My appraisement is that it is Lascaux's veritable visionary
conceptualization center. Of it, Georges Bataille said that it was one of the
most remarkable chambers in the cave but that one is ultimately
"disappointed" by it. I was not disappointed however. Indeed, what
pleased and fascinated me about the Apse was exactly its cryptic and foreboding
over-all hyper-totalising iconographic character granted by its boundless,
wall-paper-like image explosion (what Bataille called its fouillis) of overlapping near non-photo-reproducible stockpiled drawings
from which, when sustained visual attention is maintained, unexpected
configurations visually emerge.
are superimposed in chaotic discourse, some fully and carefully rendered,
others unfulfilled and left open to penetration by the environment, all
commingled with an extraordinary confused jumble of lines. Its extensive use of
superimposed multiple-operative optic perception (optic perception unifies objects in a spatial continuum) presents the viewer with no
single point of reference, no orientation, no top, no bottom, no left, no
right, and no separate parts to its whole. There is only one tonal color
present – gray.
visual-thought is homospatial thought then
in that it is outside of perceptual space and inside a visionary space which
Vinci (1452-1519) offers us a rare aspect of the art of the High Renaissance
which has visionary characteristics similar to those we previously saw in the
Apse of Lascaux. He identified and worked with a general, unifying effect
called sfumato composition; a smoky
technique used for decreasing the separating dramatic force and physical
presence of isolated figures in a work of art through immersing them in a
fumey, semi-imperturbable equilibrium.
the subtle, smoothly imperceptible, gradation of dark colors which approaches a
smoggy unity useful in the creation of psychological atmospheric effects
evocative of the visionary display in the Apse of Lascaux. This is so as
sfumato invites and promotes an expanded, diaphanous, dilated focus and
necessitates a more expansive field of vision. Thus a visionary
(anti-perspectivist) characteristic of high renaissance art was sfumato
unity particularly because it depended upon a
balance achieved as a matter of intuition and hence was beyond the reach of
rational knowledge or technical manoeuvres. With sfumato we see the seeds of a
visionary counter-tradition in opposition to the crisp, detached, geometricised
optics of point-perspective.
oppositional optical practice of sfumato visualization was taught by Leonardo
to his students in his Treatise on Painting where he encouraged languid attention to the ambiguous grubbiness
of cracks and smudges on decrepit walls which may suggest faces and forms to
the viewer in order to aid artistic imaginative and visionary ability.
So we see now that in contrast to
our scientific, materialist culture, which trains us to develop the eyes of
outer perception, visionary art encourages the development of our inner sight.
To find the visionary realm, we use the intuitive inner eye. This visionary
realm embraces the entire spectrum of imaginary spaces – from heaven to hell,
from the infinitude of forms to formless voids. As I said, William Blake called
it the “divine imagination” but the aborigines call it the “dreamtime” and the
Sufis call it “alam al-mithal”. To Plato, this was the realm of
Our inner world – the life of our
imagination with its intense feelings, fears, and loves guides our intentions
and actions in the world. Our inner world is the only true source of meaning
and purpose we have. Art is the way to discover for ourselves this inner
The artist attempts to make inner
truths visible, audible, or sensible in some way, by manifesting them in the
external, material world. To produce their finest works, artists lose
themselves in the flow of creation from their inner worlds with an eye also
firmly riveted on the outer world. Thus feeling and intellect meld.