Is a philosophical or spiritual expression possible in photography? The question was posed to me by a painting.
To accompany one of the artworks in a current exhibition at Castlemaine Art Museum, I was asked to contribute to “Reflections,” an exhibition captioned with a series of commentaries by members of the community. It was an initiative started during the 2020 lockdown while the Museum was closed. I reproduce mine here, with illustrations and some more text relevant to this post added;
“Hey, is that a Van Gogh?” I’ve heard more than one visitor to the Castlemaine Art Museum whisper to their companion on seeing this painting. The colours yellow and blue are just like, and aren’t the writhing quality and staccato brushwork similar? Is this artist like Van Gogh, of whom John Berger said “When he painted the turned earth of a ploughed field, the gesture of the blade turning the earth was included in his own act.”?
Certainly this is work by a man who in has watched the sweep of the scythe and the stacking of sheaves bearing heavy heads of oats into stooks in Heidelberg where he painted with Henry Harrison. The latter, an art critic for the Argus and the Australian, has a name as unfamiliar now as that which we read on the label beside this intriguing work in the Castlemaine Art Museum .
Indeed, it is a printmaker’s painting, with a sense of the gouge in the ploughed lines of paint, bold silhouettes, contrasts, and contours. Murray Griffin in the 1930s was celebrated for his virtuoso linocuts in both multi-block and reduction processes, most famously of birds, done in a Japanese style enviously admired by Arthur Streeton in a 1934 review. They and his landscape painting brought him commercial success and the George Crouch Award in 1935, until the financial stresses of Australia’s Great Depression forced him into teaching at Scotch College, then at the future RMIT.
A dashing young man, he was born of a well-to-do family living in a Heidelberg house designed by Walter Burley Griffin for the artist’s father, a civil servant. But World War Two, in which he was appointed an official war artist, brought him disaster; his paintings, packed ready for transport home were forever lost during the withdrawal from Singapore, then he was captured by the Japanese and incarcerated for three and a half years in Changi prison.
There, he scrounged materials to secretly draw and paint “men sweating, men toiling, men cursing and men suffering” which, brought home after the War, were regarded as too confronting for publication, before they, and other pictures he made of returned P.o.W.s from the Burma railway, were exhibited at the NGV in October 1946 and in a national tour, and attracted praise for their awful beauty.
A portrait by Dr Julian Smith made at the time conveys something of Griffin’s personality. The technique that Smith used to achieve his overwrought Pictorialism deserves mention here, especially as conveyed while fresh in his memory by Jack Cato in his The Story of the Camera in Australia of 1955.
“From a portrait negative of normal quality in his enlarger, [Smith] first made a trial print on bromide paper, developed it in a small dish of ordinary hydroquinone developer, and found that the correct exposure was ten seconds.
“Then he put a 15″ x 12” [15 x 30.5cm] sheet of bromide paper on the table of his enlarger and gave it thirty seconds’ exposure (three times the correct one).
“Next, he took a teaspoon full of pyrochatechin grains, threw it in a large dish and poured about twenty ounces of near-boiling water over it, dissolving it immediately. To this he added a tablespoon of soda sulphite, and when it dissolved —that was his developer.
“The solution had now cooled down to about 120 degrees [50ºC]. He placed his exposed paper in the dish and developed it for about three minutes, until the whole picture had gone almost quite black. He then rinsed the print under the tap for a few seconds and placed it in a plain (free from acid) hypo bath.
“Two minutes later he turned on the white light, withdrew his print from the hypo, and placed it face up on a sheet of glass, and, pouring a weak solution of ferricyanide in to a saucer, dipped a pad of cotton-wool into the solution and began to lave it over his print, gradually reducing the black image back to its correct depth.
“At first he rubbed the ferricyanide over the whole print, but as the picture appeared, he began to control it, leaving some parts darker and making others lighter. The print was now washed for five minutes, returned to the hypo for a quarter of an hour, then given an hour’s washing.
“In that finished print there was a richness in the blacks and a deep full-scale of half-tones in the face, such as I would not have believed possible. And all because over-exposure and forced development in a hot bath had used up almost every grain of silver in the emulsion of the paper.
“For all his prints, Dr. Julian used the Kodak papers manufactnred in Melbourne. Pyrochatechin is -not now generally used in photography, but can be procured from wholesale chemists. Dr. Julian’s formula oxidises quickly and can be used only once, and for one print. But for large prints it is simple and economical.”
Stooks and Storm (1948) is scorched by Griffin’s experience of war. Its uncanny light is the last glare of sunlight from beneath roiling and glowering storm clouds that hasten the harvester’s efforts to protect the precious grain.
But there is more than surface appearance.
Griffin shared in his friendship with the 27-year-older American architect Burley Griffin a devotion to anthroposophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner who in a 1907 lecture pronounced that
“When we go out in the autumn, and see a farmer mowing down the corn with the scythe, those who know […] can sense the feelings of well-being and of joy which pass through the astral body of the earth, while the corn is being cut. When the reaper cuts down the corn at harvest time, the whole earth rejoices…We can even feel the wind of wisdom, like a current of air.”
A companion painting from this series ‘The Journey’ by Griffin of a shearer, was originally titled, significantly, The Warrior.
The human protagonist of Stooks and Storm might be Samael, one of the seven archangels — not ‘The Grim Reaper’ we have come to know — but whose Kali-like destructiveness is for Anthroposophists imagined to be a benign divine assignment in a global zeitgeist. Art historian Alisa Bunbury writes in 1998, that it was such vehement beliefs which Griffin called “a recognition of a deeper world, a spiritual world which I think people at heart believe in, but are a bit frightened of”, that brought the neglect he now unjustly suffers.
A question, for our purposes, is whether an anthroposophical photography is possible. But first, might we discern spiritual philosophies manifest in photographic images, despite the essentially documentary, representational nature of our medium? The distinction of it as the ‘untouched,’ or ‘automatic,’ as opposed to an ‘manual’ or ‘autographic’ art like painting and printmaking, would seem to make engendering a spiritual nuance improbable. That may be debunked by Cato’s description above of Smith’s hands-on manipulation of his imagery for the purpose of conveying ‘character’ as just one simple example amongst the countless other expressive photographic possibilities.
Sydney became a centre for Theosophy in the 1920s, and art historian Bernard Smith, asserted in 1979 that “a thorough account of the history of spiritualism, theosophy and anthroposophy in Australia as abroad is much more relevant to an understanding of modernism than say Einstein’s theories”. Violet Teague, Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin all connect with the Theosophical Society and its associated philosophies.
In Victoria even Norman Lindsay (though more involved in Spiritualism), as well as Clarice Beckett, Christian Waller, Napier Waller, and Max Meldrum had significant links to Theosophy. Ethel Carrick encountered Theosophy thorough her Russian neighbour in Paris, the sculptor Seraphin Soudbinine. Roger Kemp‘s experience of the Ballet Russes and Rudolph Steiner’s eurythmy were major inspirations of his abstraction. Steiner schools, including here in Castlemaine, educate ever larger numbers of Australians in anthroposophy, so this is likely to be an ongoing influence on our art, despite that general embarrassment, as identified by Griffin, about spiritualism in this country .
It was examining Stooks and Storm, and wondering about those rolling storm clouds, then remembering Jack Cato’s son John, that set this consideration of photography as philosophy in motion.
John Cato, as I have mentioned here before, was one of my lecturers at Prahran College. His grasp of the history of Australian photography, and his ideas that formed his own work, impressed me deeply. In 1977, pages of the first issue of Jean-Marc Le Pechoux‘s Light Vision were devoted to John’s visual essay Proteus with a commentary by Athol Shmith, while it was being exhibited at Melbourne’s Photographers’ Gallery and Workshop.
His title Proteus, a sea-god, ever mutable, and representative of the anima mundi, animates the clouds John photographed with a life-force, and makes the changeability of their forms wilful, or willed. The series was made on one of Cato’s trips to the Coorong, with his wife Dawn, during semester breaks.
He would tell us he was an ‘animist’ (from the Latin anima meaning “breath” or “soul”):
“I believe that rocks have souls just as much as people. I think the word that has been used about my work which pleases me the most, is […] Elemental, and it is that element of life within the landscape that to some is a deep religious experience.”
Though he was an admirer of Americans Alfred Stieglitz and poet Walt Whitman, but not their imitator nor emulator, any similarity between Cato’s image of clouds and those of Georgia O’Keefe’s partner ceases at the ego-centric reading that Whitman might have ascribed to the latter. Stieglitz proposed that his were Equivalents; a representation of the emotion he was feeling as he pressed the shutter. Cato’s on the other hand represent the spirit of the landscape; as his colleague Paul Cox recalled; “In every patch of soil he recognised the magnitude of the universe.”
Fellow blogger Marcus Bunyan in an essay in Paul Cox (editor) & Bryan Gracey (editor.) John Cato : retrospective of 2013, encapsulates the spiritual dimension present in the many suites of photographs, of all of which Cato would say they “sing the same song”:
“[John Cato] understood how a person from European background could have connection to this land, this Australia, without being afraid to express this sense of belonging; he also imaged an Aboriginal philosophy (that all spirits have a physical presence and everything physical has a spiritual presence) tapping into one of the major themes of his personal work: the mirror held up to reveal an ‘other’ world – the language of ambiguity and ambivalence [ … ] speaking through the photographic print. His contribution to the art of photography in Australia is outstanding. What are the precedents for a visual essay in Australian photography before John Cato? I ask the reader to consider this question. It would be fantastic if the National Gallery of Victoria could organise a large exhibition and publication of his work, gathering photographs from collections across the land.”