Blake and Visionary Art

A talk by Joseph Nechvatal

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 plant/animal/human symbolism. 


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 manipulation.






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.



diagram of Lascaux



The Apse of Lascaux


A complete 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, engraved drawings.





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 visual stamina.


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.


Here animals 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.


Such visual-thought is homospatial thought then in that it is outside of perceptual space and inside a visionary space which transcends differentiation.





The High Renaissance



Leonardo da 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.


Sfumato is 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.


This 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 ideal archetypes.          






The Role of Art


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 life. 


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.