Caspar David Friedrich, “Abbey among Oak Trees” (1809-10)
The Romantic Symbolism of Trees by Allison Meier
“As with the Victorian language of flowers, specific trees have their own symbolism. Reverend William Gilpin, an artist and cleric, stated it “is no exaggerated praise to call a tree the grandest, and most beautiful of all products of the earth.” In the form of the tree, artists found expressions of life, death, and the great beyond.
A Dialogue with Nature includes work both from the Morgan’s works on paper holdings, and the Courtauld Gallery in London, and emphasizes this “cult of nature.” Here are some of the meanings of trees in Romantic art that are evoked in the exhibition, as well as in the landscape tradition of the time.”
Dorothea Tanning’s “foray into imaginative botany,”
“In the months before beginning this series, at the age of 86, the artist thought she had finished painting in her New York studio but then remembered a set of stretched Lefebvre-Foinet canvases, which she had purchased years earlier while living in Paris, and was compelled to use one. Her discovery provoked “a burst of energy and obsession that lasted the better part of eight months and was responsible for 12 outsized, hauntingly erotic flower paintings” (Jane Kramer, The New Yorker, 2004).
“I had a vision of a mauve flower,” Tanning says of that time, “Then more and more wanted to be painted. I could hardly finish one before I’d start the next one”
(Boston Globe, 1999). Using preliminary sketches as “touchstones on the way to the flowers,” the artist represented “naked, precise depictions of visions as real to me as botanical specimens are to the scientist” (Another Language of Flowers, 1998).
Tanning painted 12 flowers over the course of a year, from June 1997 until April 1998; one for each month of the year, or one for each hour of the day or night. Her preoccupation with the female figure, which is evident throughout her work from the 1940s onwards, remains present in these last paintings, where bodies and limbs embrace the flowers or blend into her dream-like landscapes. Tanning’s hybrid flowers take us on a journey through a never-before-seen garden, which she described as a “foray into imaginary botany”.
As she wrote, each flower “had the good fortune to be identified and blessed with the words of twelve poets, friends of the artist, who have given them their voices” (Another Language of Flowers, 1998). With the exception of James Merrill, who is quoted posthumously, the poets were inspired by the images themselves to write poems and create fictitious Latin names, sometimes with a faux-translation in English: Agripedium vorax Saccherii (Clog Herb); Siderium exaltatum (Starry Venusweed); Zephirium apochripholiae (Windwort); Pictor mysteriosa (Burnt Umbrage); Victrola floribunda; and Convolotus alchemilia (Quiet-willow window).
Tanning was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1910 and attended Knox College before moving to New York in the 1940s. There she began exhibiting at the Julien Levy Gallery, becoming known for her very personal and powerful surrealist paintings. In New York she met and married Max Ernst, moving with him to Arizona in the mid-’40s, and then to France in the mid-’50s. Two decades later, after Ernst’s death, Tanning returned to New York where she embarked upon a new and ambitious series of paintings, increasing both the scale and the scope of her work.
In addition to her activities as a painter, printmaker, and sculptor, Tanning designed sets and costumes for ballet and theater in New York, London and Paris. Her work is included in collections at the Tate Gallery, London; the Georges Pompidou Center, Paris; the Menil Collection, Houston; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
“More abstractly, it’s a method of consciously entering into a dialogue with the unconscious, which triggers the transcendent function, a vital shift in consciousness, brought about through the union of the conscious and unconscious minds. Unexpected insights and self-renewal are some of the results of the transcendent function. It achieves what I call that elusive Goldilocks’ condition, the just right’ of having the conscious and unconscious minds work together, rather than being at odds. In the process it produces a third state more vivid and real’ than either; in it we recognize what consciousness should be like and see our normal’ state as at best a muddling-through”
I was introduced to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke through his Duino Elegies, as analysed by James Hollis in his book “The Archetypal Imagination”.
Hollis is a Jungian analyst, and the chapter on Rilke begins with Hollis writing:
“What we wish most to know, most desire, remains unknowable and lies beyond our grasp. In this chapter we will celebrate the power of speech to assist us in our task of articulating this deep longing”.
I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the chapter to try to summarise it here, but my new-found love of Rilke’s poetry led me to a poem of his that Hollis did not allude to; the author is focusing primarily on Rilke’s mystical longing for glimpses of the divine world and how Rilke’s poetry illustrates the capacity of the archetypal imagination to “name the gods” by providing images “which link us to the numinous”.
This poem, however, illustrates Rilke’s versatility, that he understood that we live in the ‘space between words’ and that his ability as a poet was not solely to ‘bring us closer to the sacred’ but also to render the invisible world accessible.
You Who Never Arrived
You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of
the next moment. All the immense
images in me — the far-off, deeply-felt
landscape, cities, towers, and bridges, and
unsuspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods–
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.
You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house– , and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon,–
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and,
startled, gave back my too-sudden image.
Who knows? Perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening…