'The great epoch of the spiritual which is already begining, or, in embryonic form, began yesterday... provides or will provide the soil in which a kind of monumental work of art must come to fruition.' Wasily Kadinsky 1910-11
The contemplation of Ancient Pre-Columbian textile iconography inevitably leads us to draw parrallels with XXth century art. Ninety five years ago, the western world was entering headlong into the age of Science and Technology. Numerous artists, on the other hand, in the wake of the great archeological fever of those years, and perhaps, also as a reaction to the clearly positivist stance of certain quarters of science, investigated the past. Although these two paths of investigations seem diametrically opposed, in reality Primitive art and Science fostered a new consciousness amongst many artists who launched themselves into the world of abstraction.
We could perhaps offer two perspectives in an effort to shed some light on this paradox. The first lies in the departures of science from the realm of the natural to that of the abstract. This is particularly true with regards to the enunciation of theories of the infinitely small (quantum physics) and the infinitely large (astrophysics-cosmology) which attempted to formulate into a mathematical rather than a mythological language a new postulate on the origins of life and the universe. The other, reacting perhaps to the first, was conditioned by the widespread impact of occultism and mysticism amongst the western intelligentsia between 1870 and 1930. The re-emergence of hermetic philosophies, the comparative study of religions and the incipient science of anthropology resurrected the age old confrontation between the partisans of the Ancients and those of the Evolutionists.
Science sought the principles of existence in the 'materia prima' whilst the artist attempted, beyond the appearances of the material, to capture or reveal a glimpse of the ineffable: the spirit. Both avenues, as would be expected, penetrated into the realm of abstraction and symbols and converged in creating modern mythologies, albeit reaching very different perspectives. In those years, Piet Mondrian in search of new visual meaning illustrated this shift and testifies in his writings:"one passes through a world of forces ascending from reality to abstraction; in this manner one approaches spirit, or purity itself"3. Whilst Einstein, Eisenberg and Bohrs, grappling with the apparently insoluble paradoxes inherent in the nature of the universal forces, created the foundation of their own mythological world.
In the art world, this search for the meaningful beyond mere appearances found a powerful advocate in the Surrealist movement. Their discovery of Primitive man through his art determined a new perspective of investigation linked more closely to the spirit of primordial man and his oniric world. In other words, they attempted to understand their own hidden nature (the unconscious) by tapping into the "primitive" sensibility which seemed to provide infinite examples of creative catharsis.
Evan Maurer writes on the subject that" Primitive society found the answers to the questions of life in the spirit world and the realm of the dream. The surrealists, in studying Primitive arts and cultures, followed a similar path. It has been recognised that in Primitive societies the relationship between art and the creative process is closely influenced by magic. For the Primitive, the magical quality of the object depends on its role as an embodiment of power. In Surrealist philosophy, the ability of an object to evoke mental images and, through them, powerful emotions is its measure of the marvellous. Breton sought a way by which the contemporary artist might create forms that would have the same degree of psychic power and associative meaning as the objects of the Primitive artist magician".
In order to conclude this general overview which is necessarily reductive, we could say that science was primarily motivated in demystifying the magic of existence whilst the artist expounded all of his efforts in attempting to capture it in his creation. Whatever the objective, magic was at the center of their preoccupation. The first endeavored to explain it, tame it and in the process transform the mystery into the banal, whilst the other by celebrating it, elevates it to what is pure, therefore sublime.
Although it cannot be said that in those early years of the century the plastic researches pursued by the various artistic movements owe much to a direct influence from the Pre-Columbian weavers, the processes intuitively followed by those artists can be safely said, however, to be strictly analogous. In the case of the Surrealists, the relationship will be clear to all those who are conversant with shamanistic rituals and their reliance on the dream as a bridge between the world and the invisible realm.
On the other hand, with the Russian movements such as led by Kandinsky, the Constructivists or the Suprematists, we can only be struck by the similarities arising in the compositions of flat tints reduced to the essential, the geometrical rhythms, the vibrational power of form and colour which are fundamental features of many Andean cloths. Is this the product of coincidence ? Could this be a weird form of synchronicity that has the ability to jump the abyss of time or perhaps, more to the point, that the inspiration comes from the same source: the spiritual or the world of magic ?
The detours taken in the previous paragraphs are intended to give the reader a sense of parallelism between the preoccupations of XXth century man and his relation to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious and the intuitive relationship of Primitive man to the 'World Soul'. It must be underscored at this point that it is the opinion of the writer that both concepts are identical and are only a matter of different nomenclature.
These early enquiries into Primitive art led to the birth of "primitivism" as a mode of inspiration. According to William Rubin of the Museum of Modern Art , New York, "Primitivism is an important aspect of the history of modern art". In this respect Modern art, initially, has tended to be interested in the original function and meaning of all forms of Primitive art and in particular of Pre-Columbian artifacts only as far as these could be apprehended by the viewer through the objects themselves. That is to say that the object exists by the emotional reaction it suscitates in the viewer through its evocative power, beauty or startling iconography.
Modern man has two extraordinary abilities either to appreciate art for the sake of of its aesthetic value or to use it as a conduit for concepts and meaning. He can divorce what he perceives as a work of art from its original creative intention and allow it to stand alone unsupported. He can, on the other hand, extract profound meaning from a blank canvas. It is a feat where respectively, the emotions suppress the mental and the mental suppresses the heart. In Primitive man the two functions cannot be so clearly distinguished. Numerous antique traditions placed true intelligence in the heart and this may constitute a clue as to how the ancients penetrated into the nether world. It is significant that the Shaman undergoes transformation or "comes out of his body" from the heart, whilst the christian icon painters of the early centuries attempting to capture the sacred were required to meditate on the heart prior to holding the brush. Whilst, in opposition to this view, it is the essential theory of modern man that his intelligence, indeed even his emotions, are largely the product of the activity of the brain alone.
It would seem important in view of the above, to re-evaluate the status of primitive cultures within our Western modernist perspective in terms not only of aesthetic values but also with particular reference to the spiritual content (that which comes from the heart) of their artistic legacy. The eminent art historian Max Dvorak, states that Primitivism, the modern movement, combines the "problems peculiar to art" (aesthetic) with momentous questions which confront every thinking person"5 (spiritual). Although we could easily jump to conclusions and substitute those key concepts for, respectively, form and content, it does not necessarily follow that content is spiritual. It can also be mental. When we confront however the legacy of Primitive societies to modern Primitivism whether of Surrealist, Suprematist or Abstract Expressionist inspiration, to name but a few, we are immediately confronted with magical images of power, that is power of meaning. These do not draw their expression simply on mental conceits or aesthetic considerations as is often the case with modern art but mainly from the world of archetypes in order to render the essence of the hidden readable by the external observer.
In this sense Pre-Columbian textiles may stand in a unique position within the world's weaving traditions in terms of the wealth of its repertoire and extensive iconographic vocabulary. It appeals to every sentient part of our being, moves our emotions, satisfies our craving for the beautiful, the essential even the bizare, speaks a mysterious language to our intellect and perhaps, above all, provides us with the symbolic keys to the narrow door of the unconscious.
The ideographic quality of Pre-Columbian textiles combine figures and symbols with the vibrational energy of colour. Together they create a simultaneous excitment of the heart and the mind and we call this state of exaltation, awareness. We are taught by the Shamans, Gurus and Mystics that this state of consciousness is received as a gift (grace) when we oppose no resistance (detachment). In return it provides a deep insight akin to a metaphysical understanding of our individual nature and reveals to our consciousness the connectedness between past, present and future, the unvarying spiritual nature of Humanity and unveils the ideal images we call archetypes. This is perhaps the reason for the appearance of analogous, sometimes identical, ideographs within cultures that never had, prima facies, either by trade or conquest, any physical contact.
Although we may bring with us the impediments of our subjectivity and modern man's prejudices, we cannot deny that we are in the presence of Sacred Art from which we can draw in turn our own inspiration. In this respect, artists, critics cum curators such as John D Graham, Wolfgang Paalen, Barnett Newman, Richard Poussette-Dart, Adolf Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, Marc Rothko amongst others, which constituted the Abstract expressionist movement in the New York of the 1940's were not mistaken. Their interest in Native American and Pre-Columbian art clearly stemmed from a need to find a form of artistic renewal which tapped into what was perceived as a fountain of inspiration, the unconscious.
John D Graham whose critical and theoretical influence was determinant for the movement concluded "The art of the primitive races has a highly evocative quality which allows it to bring to our consciousness the clarities of the unconscious mind with all the individual and collective wisdom of past generations and forms.... An evocative art is the means and result of getting in touch with the powers of the unconscious".
Their particular approach to abstraction required justification in the face of a doubtful public. Barnett Newman wrote "all those who assume that modern abstract art is the esoteric exercise of a snobbish elite, for among those simple people (Native American and Pre-Columbian Indians), abstract art was the normal, well understood, dominant tradition".
Barnett Newman further expressed the poverty of an art divorced from mythology and the need to create through art "a living myth for us in our own time". The mythmakers of this American avant-garde held the belief that the mythology and spirituality of native american cultures was embodied in its art. This led to the consideration that abstract art could become the mean to propagate a new form of mythology imbued with the power to engender renewal by plunging headlong into the sources themselves. Wolfgang Paalen adds, "we can ascertain successive stages of consciousness: in order to pass from emotion to abstraction, man is obliged, in the maturation of each individual to pass through the ancestral stratifications of thought, analogously to the evolutionary stages of the species that must be traversed in the maternal womb"8. Such thoughts imply that the evolutionary impulse of consciousness finds its roots in the act of regression. This century abounds with such examples and accredit the theories and practices proper to psychology, religion, mysticism and of course art.
Understood in this light, the angst of our time must be prompted by our need to find a new meaning to existence. In the aftermath of Nietsche's proclamation 'God is dead ', man was suddenly placed at the center of a creation without a mobile. Thus modern man owed his existence to the unreasonable probability that it was apparently caused by hazard or necessity. We can understand from this postulate why the spiritual and its corrolary mythology held from time immemorial such a central position in the societies of primitive man. Our survival instinct, particularly in these dissolute and uncertain times, presses us to find new directions for the future. Although we believe that we are continually pushing forward, great primitive art, with particular reference to Pre-Columbian art, stands as a reminder that as humans we have already been "there".
André Malraux, the eminent French art critic, once proclaimed that "the XXIst century will be spiritual or will not be"; this laconic sentence contains the alpha and the omega of the great questions of our time and 50 years onward echos the belief of the great Kandinsky himself. The XXth century with all of its questions, its laudable efforts to resurrect and catalogue a past excavated from all horizons, will certainly act as the catalyst for the heralded spiritual renewal of mankind.
Even Science, adorned with the glories of its acheivements and the pretenses of its certainties, has managed, on the doorstep of the invisible, to be trapped by insoluble paradoxes. It is significant that some of the vulgarisers dealing with the most esoteric fields (quantum physics and cosmology), like Fritjof Capra, even Russell Hawkins, have either looked for answers in the great spiritual traditions of the past or come to formulate at last, a postulate in favor of the existence of an immanent force responsible for creation. Be that as it may, it is less surprising for artists in the XXth century to have undergone a form of psychological regression and to have sought from the legacy of Primitive man, a new lease for existence which provided thereby the foundation of its own rebirth and that of its public.
In the old Celtic tradition an assembly about to separate calls upon the lights of the poet to formulate an augury. It is perhaps fitting and somewhat impertinent to quote a fellow Irishman, William Butler Yeats:
"I made my song a coat Covered with embroideries Out of old mythologies From heel to throat; But the fools caught it And wore it in the world's eyes As though they'd wrought it. Song let them take it For there is more entreprise In walking naked."