by Catherine Ferguson
‘But if almost the whole of our past is hidden from us because it is inhibited by the necessities of present action, it will find strength to cross the threshold of consciousness in all cases where we renounce the interests of effective action to replace ourselves, so to speak, in the life of dreams.’ 1
I imagine Eileen, back in the 1930s, selecting a viewpoint. She is by the sea in Cornwall or the South of France. The wind blows, in the distance an horizon line, heavenward the film colour of sky, ahead the catch of light on the moving waves, spaces of unimaginable depths and distances. But it’s not the light or the panorama that she is particularly interested in. For instance, she notices in the distance a protruding rock formation; immovable against the backdrop of cloud and wave.
Time to sit and stare. Time to make a painting. She has gathered together a portable box of watercolour paints, a block of watercolour paper (not/cold pressed probably), some favourite brushes (a mop and a round, at least) a soft pencil, a pot of water and, I expect, absorbent paper or fabric so that she can apply just the right amount of colour, just the right amount of water. Habits of practice.
Where to begin? An empty page. She knows enough not to try to repeat an original moment of great success – a would-be blueprint for today. If there ever was such a time, she is a different person now and the world has changed. Instead, she knows it is a messy process. However, the first attempts are always haunted by the idealism of best-made plans and of paintings remembered. Time to let that go. With each dab of the brush she becomes conscious of motivations and instincts distinct from the purposefulness of picture-making and her mastery of the medium. Memories return but they move at such speed it’s impossible to catch them. Perhaps what flashes into her mind are fragments from previous visits to the coast, clambering over the surface of rocks, sea-bathing, the splash of water, the play of reflected light and, perhaps as she sits in that place, fragments of ideas and images from previous painting excursions.
It’s true that before she even begins there is knowledge and expectation. There were painting materials to choose from, conventions to be learned and mastered and paintings to be encountered. The art school was already there, as were ideas and expertise and exemplars to be admired and to become familiar with. However, it is also true that there were paintings that Eileen never saw, things never known, places never visited and experiences yet to be had.
The faraway rock is a silhouette against the sky reduced to the size of a thumb. Something about it is strange and unrecognisable and, for a moment, fascination replaces purpose. The thumb is in front of her holding a brush but then, as its tip moves across the surface, the memory of a fragment of her body irrupts involuntarily. It is an irretrievable infantile memory of something very close, a memory of breath, corporeal and intimate. It is as if the novelty of this combination makes time stand still.
It could be that for Eileen, in this paradoxical moment, the similarity of the shapes she sees signals the awareness of a profound difference beneath such visual continuity, each form revealing something of the other. As she sits at some distance from the rock those unconscious, minute perceptions from which this identity “rock” emerged come into force in the act of painting. Beyond the image of its solid, monumental form an inner perception of its existence over time forces itself into her mind. She paints with the awareness that its surface and contour are the expression of the earth; aggregated particles, sedimented, stratified and shaped by rain, wind and sea over the time of millennia. The monumental presence of the rock, now a shape to be delineated on the page, is suddenly accompanied by an inner perception of something formed on a much smaller scale. The thumb-shape has grown, fleshy and functional, from the tiniest bunch of cells, which have divided and differentiated according to her genetic code.
With painting it is only really possible to imagine how the next brushstroke added to the surface will change the overall picture and it is equally impossible to imagine the effect of obliterating and of what is lost. This is a condition of the (productive) limitation of the surface. But what if that which is lost remains, paradoxically, as a presence in the work? What if the ‘underneaths’ of painting returns in the sensation of its final image? By this I don’t necessarily mean what has literally and physically been covered over, as we may be able to imagine in an oil painting, but the ‘underneaths’ of perception, as it were. This would include, as with ‘Thumb Rock’, memories of rocks and thumbs but also everything else from our past that we were not conscious of perceiving at the time, what the writer Walter Benjamin referred to as the ‘unlived’ of perception.
Perhaps the moment when time seems to stand still is this paradoxical moment when the painting holds, on its surface, this unconscious past as a sensation that is deeper than the image. By the same token, this moment is one when the surface holds time apart; a moment when everything returns, but not as a chronological past, rather it is in flux, open to new interpretations and thus with a future equally as undetermined.
1. Bergson, H. (1991) Matter and Memory, trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer, New York: Zone Books, P156
Image - Eileen Agar ‘Thumb Rock’, 1936
Watercolour on paper, 20 x 28 cm
The Redfern Gallery
About the author:
Catherine Ferguson is an artist, writer and curator. She is a research tutor at the Royal College of Art.