As a teenager being dragged around art galleries by my parents, a few paintings made a profound impression on me despite myself, such as this one, St George in the Forest by the early sixteenth century German painter Albrecht Altdorfer. It was completely unlike any depiction of St George I had ever seen. Here, the knight and his triumph are not given centre stage as usual but, instead, are dwarfed by the stunning ancient forest. His victory has become almost shameful, inconsequential. There is no gloating to be seen over his victim, rather a strange tacit dialogue appears to be going on. (My friend Silvia Pastore touches on a parallel theme with her In the absence of St George.)
Recently while exploring landscapes with my new camera, in part hoping to add to my UneXpected Nature collection, I've found myself pursuing a certain theme. At first I thought it of nature dwarfing man, as in the St George painting but then I realised that was just part of it. Here, wandering through the mists of Hereford, I took several pictures of people under the imposing walls of the cathedral, discovering later I got the picture I wanted with the first shot. The gothic atmosphere is something worthy of the horror writer le Fanu, or any of the writers Catherine Morland admires in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. It provides an insight into the appeal of gothic literature and art, a sense of mystery and the beyond, that there is something much greater than ourselves. J B Priestley captures this in his novel Benighted, where the characters cling desperately to good manners and etiquette as if attempting to keep at bay any sense of there being something vaster than their world just round the corner. I was touching on similar themes in my novel Quality Time: The Equivocal Return of Lizzie Borden.
This gothic imposition is in marked contrast to the sterile pressure from modern architecture, captured so eloquently by Michelangelo Antonioni in La Notte, where Monica Vitti wanders silently and aimlessly around the city, touching its forbidding walls caressingly. It is a world where Mystery has been banished, and no secrets are being yielded. Now as I traipse around London, not quite so aimlessly, I see nature reasserting itself surprisingly, like a willow being the still point by a Camden Market bridge, a man disappearing in pigeons, or a mural existing as a desperate plea for the natural:
I have also come across an exhibition by the artist Ruth Sallon who seems on a similar track. Nature, as so often, appears as a kinder emissary of the Beyond, preparing us for the ultimate reveal. Humanity goes further, sensing a greater Mystery, even if only intuitively, and expresses this through its art, unconscious as it may be. We are so small.
But man, proud man, Dress'd in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd— His glassy essence—like an angry ape Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens, Would all themselves laugh mortal.
Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare