Ientered one of my aunt’s cultural palaces, the Museum of Modern Art, on a mission to see what she considered an iconic cultural work, Monet’s Water Lilies. It was my first time in New York City and she was determined to show me the places and things she ‘possessed’ and was
passing to me as her heritage. She grew up a bonneted
Wilburite (conservative) Quaker, obsessed with hats
and headgear. She became a milliner in New York and
made stylish and outlandish hats for Churchill Downs,
Pimlico, Belmont, garden parties, and weddings.
She now was coordinating editor of Seventeen
magazine and was in the process of starting up a
new magazine to be called Mademoiselle. My Auntie
Mame. With her slim, long black dress, pearls, gloves,
a cigarette holder, and, of course, a hat, she cut quite
a figure. She led me briskly past guards to take me
directly to ‘her Monet’.
The Monet was impressive, just in its size within
the room. A bit out of focus, I thought, but I was
dutifully impressed. Not quite demonstratively enough
so for my aunt. In a walk through the museum, I
encountered a work that I now believe to have been
Vertical Sequence, Op 137 (1941), by Thomas Wilfred.
It stopped me in my tracks. A glowing orb of light
slowly rotating and spreading about auroral spectra.
Arresting for sure. But more than that. This was
from our culture, from our time. It connected. Not
a depiction of light – it was light, alive. And not an
import from the Old World, or our interpretation of,
or reaction to, the European tradition of painting. This
came from here, where I came from. Little did I know
that Mr Wilfred was actually Richard Edgar Løvstrøm,
formerly of Denmark, himself an import.
I stood and watched this auroral display akin to the
Northern Lights. My aunt, impatient, was not as
impressed. A bit dismissive, she remarked that, these
days, an artist could do anything (remember, this was
1957), and that it remained for the artist to make the
culture contend with their art. Looking back to that
day, I can say that Wilfred’s lumia would become as
prescient to me as Turner’s work was for Impressionism
and even Abstract Expressionism. And perhaps as
equally out of time. Wilfred had a good run. His works
were shown. Pieces sold. When they stopped running,
they were retired to the basement.
‘Go inside to greet the light,’ my grandmother often
said, regarding Quaker meditation. ‘There is a fully
formed vision with the eyes closed,’ as in a dream.
And it is light that unites the soul, the subconscious,
and the conscious-awake-state. Look to the light
within. It is within everyone. Physically, we take in
ultraviolet light through the skin to make vitamin D.
This influences our serotonin levels and counteracts
depression. We are light eaters. Emotionally, through
colour, light influences mood, as does sound.
Spiritually, many religious experiences are described
using a vocabulary of light – in Saul’s epiphany on the
road to Damascus, in Buddha’s description of Samadhi
(the light-filled void, Enlightenment), and in a near-death experience, in which light is described as being
physically present and felt. It unites the seen with the
unseen, the physical with the ephemeral, the logical
with the mystical, and our earth with the cosmos.
My early thoughts on light, I came to realise, came
from my grandmother’s readings of Rudolf Steiner
(anthroposophy), Paramahansa Yogananda (
self-realisation), and Helena Blavatsky (theosophy), which
she shared with me. It is the latter, Madame Blavatsky,
in whom Wilfred and friends were interested.
Early abstraction was inspired by the spiritualists.
The Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was close to Rudolf
Steiner. Her abstract work was earlier than that of
Wassily Kandinsky, another artist interested in the
spiritual and art. And for my money, the paintings
of Odilon Redon should not be missed. Their aural
visioning of simple flower arrangements, objects, and
such, seen with the vision of the dream, are magical.
Redon could spiritualise the object. However, the first
artist to capture my attention with the way their work
dealt with light was the Russian pianist Alexander
Scriabin. I was studying the psychology of perception,
reading the works of French philosopher Maurice
Merleau-Ponty and the American psychologist James
J Gibson, and was interested in sensory synaesthesia.
Scriabin composed music that was accompanied with
light projected from a primitive colour organ, played
by his wife. Basically, the relationship of light to sound
went through the spectrum from A to B; from low
notes to high notes; from full saturation to the addition
of more white light, for brighter hues, as one went up
in octaves. Scriabin wrote The Poem of Ecstasy in 1908
and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire in 1910. The latter
‘This was from our culture, from our
time. It connected. Not a depiction
of light – it was light, alive’