MOTHER NATURE /
Introduction: Soul of the Ocean by Laurence Fuller
"You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean" - Alan Watts
One of the most important things my mother ever taught me was how to love nature. Reading back on several of my father's essays she may have seen it as her duty. Not how to explain it, but how to feel it.
After living in two Metropolis cities for the last decade, London and Los Angeles. I began to feel the loss of this awesome power and unknowable energy that had once enriched my life. I tried to understand what it was that was missing. After my first US feature we went scuba diving in Fiji, which is said to be one of the best diving locations in the world. The first reef we saw, was a spiral, like a sculptural symbol from the ocean floor reaching up to the sky, the life that circled it flourished, engaging with it made me feel conscious of an eternal order.
We found both an expression of the melodic order of the universe amongst the coral reefs off Beqa Island and a Utopia in trouble, locals reported that each year the reef was receding and it's inhabitants suffered as a result. The biggest cause of this retraction the sea was commercial fishing. It didn't take long to discover perhaps as an inevitability living in California; the plight of the Whales. We visited them along the Californian coast line. On film there was Blackfish and Whale Wars. Paul Watson's efforts to stop Japanese whaling in the south seas captured my imagination, as the fight was noble and the loss of this beautiful emotionally intelligent being extracted from the earth, played out as the perfect metaphor for the psychodrama that raged within me. The blood stained hull of the whaling vessels signified the absence of the essential spirit of nature and the brutality of industry.
Before commercial whaling there were over 300,000 Blue Whales populating the oceans, now there are less than 10,000. I began to believe that Capitalism was the cause for the loss of this essential beauty and the organic nature of man was perverted to conform to the thrust of the Laissez-Faire system. I blamed industry for this perversion. With time, I could not find the answers within my communities, I began to look back, how did we get here?
Stephanie Fuller, The Beauty of Whales 2013, Oil on Canvas, 121 x 199 cm
The historical process of commercial whaling developed as a key part in the birth and liberation of America toward what would become a global power. In 1700 shore whaling was developed off the coast of Nantucket which expanded throughout the 18th C out the the high seas, and was at one time the most profitable business in America. The process of hunting the whales, convex to the asking price was proportionately brutal. The blood that would pour out of the whales open wounds after the intrusion of a spear pieced their internal organs was called "Chimney's Of Fire". The whale's skin and blubber would then be stripped from its body with hacks and carving instruments as its cadaver hanged from the side of the ship.
Into The Heart Of The Sea, a movie by Ron Howard starring Chris Hemsworth adapted from the book by the same name, based on the true events, when in 1820 when a sperm whale sunk the mother ship of a fleet of whalers. Depleted of resources they were faced with two options head west for a few weeks and potentially come into contact with Tahitian natives who were reputedly cannibals or risk a longer journey toward the South East. Because they feared being eaten by cannibals they chose to head South, and of course halfway through their journey they ran out of food and water and began eating each other.
This was not the only story the tragic fate of these unfortunate mariners inspired. In 1851 Herman Melville published Moby Dick, which later became one of the most popular pieces of Romantic literature in history. It's often commented that the White Whale at the heart of the story symbolizes either evil or divinity. Beyond the literary device, beyond even the intrinsic spiritual significance of the creature, it was the internal object of what the White Whale meant for each of these men, the extremities of the response it incurred internally as either a pure spirit, or a demonic destructive force, but never both at once. For many of the men on the journey what they felt were pursueing was the soul of the world, which they eventually and unfortunately hunted down and heaped up out of the ocean.
Stephanie Fuller, Migaloo Slapping 2013, Oil on Canvas, 137 x 198 cm
Captain Ahab having chased the White Whale round the globe on the high seas, because he munched his leg off, stands at the end of his ship beckoning the creature:
"Light though thou be, thou leanest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee!... But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! What hast thou done with her?" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick
The psychology of the whalers can also be seen through the Klienian theory of the aggressive infant; In Art & Psychoanalysis, Peter Fuller uses Kleinian theory of psychoanalysis to explain the creative drive to make and engage in art, as stemming from a reparative instinct, in a way an attempt to try and fix the internal image of the mother:
"The infant is seen as dividing the representation of the breast into two, the 'good', satisfying, succouring breast, and the 'bad', denying, frustrating breast. Usually (though of course there are individual variations) the infant seeks to introject the 'good' breast which forms an internal source of well-being and the basis of later autonomy, and to project his own aggressive feelings onto the 'bad' breast, which he conceives of as a terrifying persecutor. In the paranoid-schizoid position, the mother is not yet a 'whole object' for the infant. As Hanna Segal puts it:
'... the infant lives in a world of part objects: the mother's breast, hands, eyes, holding arms. These objects are not only anatomically part objects; they are also split in his mind into very good and very bad ones. The very young infant sways between states of blissful satisfaction where he feels united or fused with his ideal objects and states of hatred and persecution when he feels his objects are totally bad. His love is directed to his ideal objects and his hatred to the bad objects conceived as the sources of all his pain and fear.'
Stephanie Fuller, Migaloo And Calf Play 2013, Oil on Linen, 30 x 40 cm
The 'paranoid-schizoid' position is succeeded by the 'depressive position'... 'The "depressive position", as described by Melanie Klein, is reached by the infant when he recognises his mother and other people, and amongst them his father, as real persons. His object relations then undergo a fundamental change. Where earlier he was aware of "part objects" he now perceives complete persons; instead of "split" objects - ideally good or overwhelming persecuting - he sees a whole object both good and bad. The whole object is loved and interjected and forms the core of an integrated ego. But this new constellation ushers in a new anxiety situation; where earlier the infant feared attack on the ego by persecutory objects, now the predominant fear is that of the loss of the loved object in the external world and in his own inside... The memory of the good situation, where the infant's ego contained the whole loved object, and the realization that it has been lost through his own attacks, gives rise to an intense feeling of loss and guilt, and to the wish to restore and recreate the lost love object outside and within the ego.'
This experience of total desolation, then, 'gives rise to reparative impulses - to an overwhelming desire that what has been destroyed must be re-created, reconstructed and regained... The reparative impulses, 'the wish and the capacity for restoration of the good object, internal and external,' are held to be 'a fundamental drive in all artistic creativity.'" - Peter Fuller, Art & Psychoanalysis
Stephanie Fuller, Migaloo in the Kimberley's 2013, Oil on Board, 45 x 35 cm
As infants of a divine order that Mother Nature provides us on this earth, it feels that the destructive forces of Modernism for which we are collectively responsible, are now dawning on us and in it's place a reparative desire is forming, to fix our internal image of this world.
In 1927 America sent out its last whaler. In 2014 the UN's International Court of Justice ruled that the Japanese government must cease its whaling program in the Antarctic. It now seems undeniable that a great change is sweeping man's relationship to his world, the filling in of the internal image of nature. Something Modernism separated us from in its forward march, giving us the illusion that we are not of this world.
The fact that the post-cyber-revolution remembers the soul of the world, proves that the whale species and the affirmation of life is beyond Romantic nostalgia. Though still endangered, the Blue Whale has received an incremental increase of around 8% per year in recent times, despite further industrial progress. Does the world now collectively feel this same desire for reparation of Mother Nature?
by Peter Fuller 1983, first published in "Images Of God"
Evening Waterlilies 2019, Oil on Canvas, Stephanie Burns
British landscape painting began to flower in the mid-eighteenth century, and soon showed extraordinary richness and variety. Its heyday lasted until the death of Turner in 1851. This first century was the subject of a magnificent exhibition, Landscape in Britain: circa 1750-1850, at the Tate Gallery a decade ago. The Arts Council has offered a successor, Landscape in Britain, 1850- 1950.
The Tate show - which included Wilson, Gainsborough, Turner and Constable - celebrated a vision which, for all its variety, was nonetheless confident in itself. The best work at the Hayward is also deeply moving, and there is nothing there which is not interesting. But the exhibition chronicles the faltering of that once confident vision, its transformation, fragmentation and, finally, its disintegration.
How are we to understand the rise and fall of British landscape painting? It began as a shift in taste, a reaction against, or rather a modification of, the classical, Arcadian tradition of Claude and the two Poussins. These painters created whole, separate and radically other worlds within their pictures. The present, immediate and particular were excluded. Their idealised vistas were peopled with gods and heroes. The British artists, beginning with Richard Wilson, allowed a fresh experience of nature to replenish their work. This was partly empirical, in that they began to look at natural form more closely than ever before; but it also involved a profound change in sentiment — a shift from an aesthetic based on the otherness of the world depicted towards the celebration of fusion; from the beautiful to the sublime.
One factor which led British painters to adapt tradition in this way was the good old English weather. The older painters had required the apparatus of classical composition and mythology to make their pictures expressive of high sentiment. But the changeability, nuance and underlying temperateness of the English climate encouraged artists to evoke human moods and feelings through attending to natural phenomena alone. The relentless glare of the Mediterranean sun may be good for the growth of grapes; it is less so for the cultivation of the Pathetic Fallacy.
But there were also, of course, historical reasons. Gothic craft traditions, associated with the building of the great cathedrals and the celebration of a “divine” creation, expired here abruptly in the early sixteenth century. But iconoclastic and puritanical tendencies in British culture, stemming from the Reformation, inhibited the emergence of a secular system of visual symbolism, based on pagan myth and the human figure.
Simultaneously, a new breed of capitalist farmers encouraged the production of mundane rural imagery, depicting their estates, houses, livestock and hunts. This common-or-garden tradition provided the subsoil for the emergence of a ‘higher’ landscape painting which could offer an illusion of hope, healing and reconciliation (like a cathedral) through an image of the world transfigured. ‘The English school of landscape,’ as Ruskin so vividly put it, ‘culminating in Turner, is in reality nothing else than a healthy effort to fill the void which destruction of Gothic architecture has left.’
Turner had as acute an eye for the curl of that particular leaf, and the twist of that particular stem, as the carvers of those extraordinary capitals on the columns in Southwell Minster, and similarly his imagination led him to create a sublime, boundless, engulfing and suffusing image of nature, which drew the viewer into itself, and in which he could lose himself, and feel at one with what was depicted. In Turner’s vision of nature, as in Amiens Cathedral, a believing critic, like Ruskin, could see (or so he thought) God revealed.
Today it is possible to talk about these phenomena in secular terms. Donald Winnicott, the psychoanalyst, once pointed out that the infant’s emotional experience of the mother tends to split her into two: ‘the object mother’, who is the focus of excited, instinctual attentions — say, during, feeding - and ‘the environment mother’, whose holding, sustaining and providing forms the ground of the infant’s ‘going-on-being’ before he becomes a separate person. I believe that the aesthetic feelings we call ‘beautiful’ have their roots in the former infantile experiences, and those we call ‘sublime’ in the latter.
I am not trying to reduce our responses to Poussin’s Nurture of Jupiter (circa 1635), or Turner’s mountain scenes, to the feelings which accompanied infantile feeding, or the blissful sensation of fusion with the mother, respectively. Winnicott assumed that, in the beginning, each of us entertains the illusion that we created the mother (and by extension, the world) who sustains and supports us. But, as the child develops, he gradually intuits the separateness of the world, and accepts the disillusioning idea he did not create it.
At this time, Winnicott argued, the infant establishes a “potential space” in which through play, toys and so on, the fantasized and the real are mingled through imagination in consoling and creative ways. In aesthetically and spiritually healthy societies there is a continuity between these infantile activities and culture itself as realised in creative work, religious and artistic pursuits. But with the decline of belief, and the industrialisation of labour, ‘the potential space’ was squeezed out of ordinary life.
It came to reside in those imaginary worlds which painters created behind the picture plane. This is not, of course, a matter of regressing to the lost paradise of early infancy. Rather, the painter sought to create an adult equivalent which drew upon developed sentiments, acquired skills and mature perceptions of the external world. The pictures he offered were then ‘other realities within the existing one’; those who enjoyed them did not recognise there the world they already knew. Rather, they witnessed a vision of a world transformed, which was both memories and promise, personal and potentially historic.
However, as the nineteenth century progressed, it became harder and harder for landscape painters to offer these reconciling illusions, in either the beautiful or the sublime modes. The outside world became increasingly resilient to imaginative transformation. It was easy enough for landscape painters to avert their eyes from the impinging apparatus of modern industry, and most, of course, did. But it proved much harder to evade the changes in the structure of feeling which the continued retraction of religious belief, rise of uncreative factory work and estrangement from nature brought about.
Recently, sociologically inclined art historians have insistently argued that the omission of, say, rural poverty and the signs of advancing industrialisation from much nineteenth-century landscape was somehow morally, or imaginatively, reprehensible - ‘escapist’, rather than desirably ‘realist’.
But I believe this argument needs to be stood on its head: for what wrecked the higher landscape was not a flight from reality, but rather its progressive intrusion and impingement in a way which shattered the ‘potential space’. As Ian Jeffrey puts it in his interesting article in the catalogue to the Hayward exhibition, ‘Prosaic matter crops up again and again in paintings by Ford Madox Brown, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, in views and close-ups seemingly cut at random from Nature.’
The question arises, Jeffrey continues, ‘why this rather than some other more or less insignificant sample of earth?’ These were the first intimations of the landscape painter’s historic crisis: his growing inability to transfigure the world convincingly even in imaginative illusion.
The higher landscape, however, had one last incarnation before it withered away. In 1871, following the death of his mother, John Ruskin withdrew to Brantwood, a house overlooking Coniston Water, where he suddenly became oppressed by a sense of ‘the failure of nature’. He thought he could detect a storm cloud, and a menacing plague wind, out there in the real landscape, which portended some ultimate annihilation brought about by the blasphemous actions of men.
Ruskin’s ‘storm cloud of the nineteenth century’ has been interpreted in many ways: as the literal observation of phenomena brought about by growing industrial pollution; as an emotional reaction to the failure of the harvests of the early 1870s; or simply as a symptom of his incipient insanity. Aesthetic theorists, however, had long recognised that, within the sublime, there was an element of terror; the loss of self might be absolute. Winnicott, too, spoke of that ‘threat of annihilation’ which tinges the infant’s experience in his state of absolute dependency. Perhaps Ruskin’s vision was a depressive projection, brought about by the death of his mother (to whom he was peculiarly close). If so, it was a projection which illuminated a historical relationship to nature, too. For this desolate wasteland, this ‘negative utopia’, was the last, desperate offering of the higher landscape tradition.
You can see one of the finest examples of it in Millais’s magnificent picture, Chill October, painted in 1870, in the Hayward exhibition. The bleak, brown and grey world Millais reveals to us, with its dead foliage, ominous birds and murkily glimmering water, is the inverse of any image of Arcady. It is the sort of lake on whose shores we might expect to find a corpse.
And yet, as we look at it, we do not experience that absolute depressive despair of which Ruskin complained. For nature may have failed; but Millais demonstrates that art has not - yet. The redeeming power of his image comes not through what he reveals to us, but rather from the way he does so; from the skill through which he has realised this terrifying sight in paint.
The last retreat of the aesthetic response was indeed via the negative sublime into the world of fully abstract painting: Peter Lanyon, who often referred to ‘immersion in landscape’, provides a compelling intermediate example in his Ground Sea, in this exhibition. But the aesthetic dimension did not long survive even there. Modernist dogmas of ‘truth to materials’ reflected the relentless intrusion of the real, the remorseless sealing over of the ‘potential space’ in every area of adult experience, even painting. Just as the higher landscape has sunk into the desolation of Chill October, the higher abstraction, too, disappeared into the complete negation of the blank grey monochrome.
Landscape, of course, persisted: but it tended to become sentimental. Some painters offered images of consolation, or even desolation, without ever having experienced those sentiments which would have enabled them to make their pictures convincing. Alternatively, landscape became the reproduction of the appearances of the real - in ‘photographic’ paintings, and photography itself, in natural history illustration, Shell Guides, Ordnance Survey maps, postcards and rambler’s brochures (the Hayward contains many intriguing examples of such items). Certainly, these things have their use, place and fascination. But they are no substitute for lost illusions.
Had this exhibition, however, taken matters up to the present, it might have been able to end on a more hopeful note. Present ecological concern; disillusionment with the joys of endlessly increasing production; and the evident failure of Modernism’s quest for a machine-based aesthetic, all provide the background to the attempt of some artists to evolve a new, imaginative vision of nature.
One thing seems to me to be certain: Donald Davie is right, in the catalogue, when he defends the tradition of the higher landscape from the criticisms of the reductionists. ‘A work of art which paints a picture of a Britain that once was, or once may have been, may be commenting sharply on the very different Britain that we inhabit’, he writes. Indeed, it may be revealing to us precisely those elements of human being, potentiality and sentiment, which we need to foster and encourage if we are to avoid that ultimate extinction which Ruskin and Millais, in their different ways, both prophesied.
PETER FULLER 1983
Stephanie Fuller, Yeah Baby 2013, Oil on Canvas, 166 x 212 cm