Though yellow conjures up sunshine and spring – warmth, growth, abundance, renewal – for me it’s a difficult colour to work with as an artist – it’s a bullying colour – and I can’t go near the yellow of a rapeseed crop in full bloom; that’s a yellow that plunges hot pokers into my eyes. I was pondering how to write sympathetically about yellow while working on a little mixed media collage/assemblage. The penny dropped when coating the substrate with shellac. I was using amber shellac. I thought immediately of heavy water.
This is the heavy water Gaston Bachelard writes about in Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter. It’s in reference to the poems of Edgar Allen Poe and Bachelard admits in his observations to drawing on the analysis of Poe’s works by Freud enthusiast and benefactor Marie Bonaparte.
Amber is fossilised pine tree resin, secreted in response to injury, to seal and sterilise. It is probably observation of this which led to medicinal uses of amber, which date back to the time of Hippocrates, and forward to the early 20th century. One could say then of amber that it is a yellow which heals.
Resin hardens over time. It survives its tree and, compressed beneath layers of sediment, it fossilises into amber. The oldest amber so far recovered dates back 320 million years to the Upper Carboniferous Period. Amber is of special interest to palaeontologists. The aroma of resin is a sweet attractor – insects, spiders, small frogs and lizards, crustaceans – are drawn to and become trapped in the substance flowing from its tree. Amber is a unique heavy water, preserving otherwise unfossilisable parts of organisms, like insect wings, bacteria, wood, flowers, fruit, feathers, even webs. A piece of amber is a lake of stories.
The image of a frog trapped in resin brought to mind supposed discoveries (scientifically-refuted) of frogs and toads trapped yet live inside stones. Reference is made to the phenomenon in Dante Rossetti’s poem Jenny:
“Like a toad within a stone
Seated while Time crumbles on;
Which sits there since the earth was curs’d
For Man’s transgression at the first;
Which, living through all centuries,
Not once has seen the sun arise;
Whose life, to its cold circle charmed,
The earth’s whole summers have not warmed;”
Jenny is a prostitute. She’s fallen asleep across Rossetti’s knee. He’s contemplating her and seems to equate her situation with the toad in the stone.
Bachelard, describes imagination as “…variable, fluid, diverse, …”. “Within the thousand shapes it takes, the imagination conceals a favoured substance, an active substance that defines the unity and hierarchies of expression.” He believes Poe’s favoured substance is water, more specifically, heavy water, water “… more profound, dormant and still than any other still water …” The destiny of the water images in Poe, is what he refers to as Poe’s main reverie, “… a reverie of death.”
In spring of youth it was my lot
To haunt of the wide world a spot
The which I could not love the less-
So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around.
But when the Night had thrown her pall
Then, ah, then I would awake
To the terror of the lone lake.
Yet that terror was not fright,
But a tremulous delight –
A feeling not the jewelled mine
Could teach or bribe me to define –
Nor Love …
Death was in that poisonous wave,
And in its gulf a fitting grave
For him who thence could solace bring
To his lone imagining –
Whose solitary soul could make
An Eden of that dim lake.
In Jenny, Rossetti is equating the prostitute’s situation to the toad trapped in stone. It’s horrific. Isn’t he describing man’s ultimate fear, a fear greater than his fear of death, that of a conscious living death, of living, sunless, endlessly, alone, trapped …? Poe finds the terror of his lone lake – his fitting grave – delightful, yet admits not understanding why. Not even Love, he writes, can bring him understanding.
In both poems there is a solitary eye. The eye in Jenny is Rossetti’s own – heavy – one, as he watches his prostitute heavy with sleep and he finds reflected in it his own fear of an endless living death, for he knows that if Jenny is doomed to this, so he is also.
The eye in Poe’s poem is his black-fringed lake. I can imagine one of those black boulders reflected into the eye-lake as its pupil. Both poet’s eyes stare back at them, reflecting the ultimate fear of a living death.
“…the jewelled mine …”. I delighted when I fell upon this line! It brings me back to my Amber Lake, also an eye. Rossetti and Poe stare back at themselves from their respective eye and see themselves trapped by death. They would see the same horror in an amber jewel in which there is a creature trapped. They would see the jewel as the creature’s coffin and by extension, themselves in their own. Imagine following yourself to your own funeral; and you see your body inside an amber coffin and that you are conscious, living, yet trapped. Both poets make convincing arguments that this is the true reality. Rossetti’s escape from horror is the Christian one of the second coming. Poe writes that he doesn’t understand his delight in terror. Yet has he unconsciously written his answer – twice – in the last line of the third verse, in the word Love?
Try this. How does it feel in the pit of your stomach (solar plexus) to contemplate the possibility that you are trapped forever “… deaf, blind, alone…” in a living death? Have been so “… since the earth was curs’d …”? How does it feel? Is it true? Is all our activity just futile distraction from the true reality of our existence?
The hair is standing up on the back of my neck. This happens when in the presence of untruth. A singular and true example is when someone I’d never met, walked into a room in which I was sitting. My hair stood up and my solar plexus (the pit of my stomach) filled with lead. Curiously, that person took a seat on the other side of the room, facing me, yet never made eye contact. That person proved to be a destructive force in my family over some years. One recognises evil – which is untruth – when one meets it; can feel it in the body. And in the same way, for the hair and stomach thing happens also in the presence of truth, to feel truth in one’s body. That’s what bodies are for.
Poe had his answer to his terror in the word Love! My solar plexus and my hair – my body – tell me that Love has overthrown the illusion that is death. When I stare into the Amber Lake, I might see an insect, but as a shell, and empty and the sun comes to flood and illuminate the lake’s depths. There are no corners in my amber lake where untruths can hide and hate. Well, okay, it’s a work in progress – I have a lot of sifting to do!
What do you see in the Amber Lake, Love or death?
Afterword: I didn’t intend this small artwork to accompany this article. The assemblage I’m working on has been waiting – a half-worked, half-abandoned, archaeological site – for some time. A couple of weeks back I found myself staring at it (or was it staring at me) and I found I knew how to progress it. And if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I’ve been decluttering. This has included my studio. In sifting through some incomplete works, I came across a sheet of acetate on which I’d printed an image over and over. It’s like a sheet of negatives of a passport photo. I felt (in my solar plexus) that one of these images ought to be included in my assemblage and had been shifting one of the images around my artwork trying to settle on its inclusion.
During the writing of this article, it dawned on me that the image is amber-coloured. It has always reminded me of an insect. My image is an insect trapped in amber. I mounted it on this small square canvas and trapped it in place with encaustic wax (made from damar (tree) resin and beeswax).
The pinky background derives from a painting The Emperor Muhammad Shah in his Garden (c1730). It’s from an exhibition catalogue authored by Australian art historian Michael Brand. The exhibition was called The Vision of Kings – Art and Experience in India. I discovered the catalogue in a secondhand book shop in the small market town of Morpeth, Northumberland, on the Scottish border. The exhibition took place in Australia. I loved the works represented in this book and wished I could have seen the exhibition. Some years later I was in Boston. I visited the Sackler Museum at the University of Harvard and discovered a temporary exhibition, displaying many of the art works represented in the catalogue and copies of the catalogue were on sale in the foyer.
Of the painting, it is written in the catalogue: “The Mughal emporers gave order to the universe in their formal gardens.” I suppose this counts as decluttering!
Gaston Bachelard: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaston_Bachelard
Marie Bonaparte: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Marie_Bonaparte
D G Rossetti: Jenny: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dgr/keefe5.html
Edgar Allen Poe: The Lake: http://www.poetry-archive.com/p/the_lake.html
You Tube video: BBC TV series Lost Worlds: Vanished Lives (Start the video at 6:54 for the bit about amber): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGS0pJHY4XY
Michael Brand: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Brand