‘Painter of Reality’ A personal recollection of Cecil Collins


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In his representation of another order of reality, it has been said that Cecil Collins is in the best tradition of Blake. All art leads to an expansion of consciousness but in such artists as Blake and Collins, this is often achieved in the form of beings at once familiar and strange. Sometimes he portrays human beings but primarily Collins chooses to paint beings who are demonstrably more than human. They are usually female with human faces but of superhuman power or humility, whose eyes are, for me, the most compelling indication I have seen in pictorial art that there are indeed extra terrestrial levels of life.

His small  (6 X 4 inches) of 1970 I would rather own than the . In this composition of brown tones the female figure, her eyes blazing with authority, is an angel – a being neither here nor there, a mediator between us on earth and what may be an infinite number of other levels of consciousness. This angel (with the Fool the main figure in his work) is in a doorway, as such figures often are in his pictures, beckoning us to pass through and willing to come to us if we will give her sufficient time and attention, although, as Richard Morphet points out, at times one is arrested suddenly by some inner quality calling forth when one is not  a particular picture to do so.

As much as with any painterof the twentieth century, the works of Cecil Collins must be seen to be fully appreciated with the inner eye. Fools, angels, ‘inner’ jewels (such as Aldous Huxley reported seeing under LSD), lunar landscapes, grass and plants vibrating, so it seems, with life’s essential energy – they are all ‘within’ us.

that I thought better than the  I liked at first sight. and so much has it grown on me as I continue to look at it that I feel I painted it myself. ‘It just shows’, said Collins, ‘to what an extent you’ve identified with the picture’. Another small oil, , only slowly became part of me. The extreme tenderness and humility of the angel figure calling to me to find and nourish these qualities in myself before the picture would be mine. But once I had become to do this, to develop those qualities, it started to happen. So it is that Collins’ works seldom appear for auction. For once the link is established, between owner and work, it would seem a species of soul murder to dispatch them to the auction house.

And no matter how involved is a picture, it is astonishing, to the patient viewer, to find that there is always an image at the heart of the composition, to know that if he trusts in the vision and skill of Collins an image will emerge and swim up out of the depths. It is a rare moment when it does. My first impression of an extraordinary angel in pen and blue ink was of a mess; a head of sorts I could distinguish and the heart shape of the body, but apart from that it was for me a mass of cross-hatching and lines drawn at random. Suddenly, after twenty or thirty minutes, the form emerged from the ‘extraneous matter’ while remaining at one with it; revealing itself as a work of wonderful richness. Simlarly, a head in gouache turned, to my great surprise, into that of a concerned, wise young woman.

It seemed to me that the images were plucked ‘out of the air’ and laid on the canvas in one fell swoop. ‘Yes’, said Collins, ‘it’s a real world’, he didn’t make it up. He could sit down at his table and enter it at almost any time. Almost at any time, for as Sir John Rothenstein reports in his essay on Collins in , in 1959, he lost touch with his inner world and did no painting for a year.

It is Collins’ opinion that the business of the artist is to raise the consciousness of the world. Some worship God with form, some God without form: he tries to infuse his formed paintings with the formlessness of the other world. He does not believe, as do so many, that either world should beemphasised at the expense of the other. He is not concerned with proclaiming a message but in showing forth a vision. He sees his pictures as votive offerings which he hopes will make people happy. It is not a message, rather the experience of things that are there. He wants people to have an experience, after which they might find other similar experiences within themselves.

Despite this wish there is, at his best, nothing in his mind as he paints. The pictures cast from him as objective works. Unlike such people as Francis Bacon, a therapeutic painter whose work is filled with the pus he squeezes from his own boils, Collins tries to keep the egoistic part of himself out of the paintings. Yet, denied the pleasure and sense of relief a Bacon may have in his easement of pain, the attempt is for him agonizing and frustrating. Empty as he is in the act of creation, the fullness any artist feels at this time is something he experiences only at the completion of the work.

People have been kind enough to tell him that his paintings reveal to them ‘the other side’, which he speaks of as naturally as do most people of a nearby neighbourhood. Yet to him the wafting of the image onto his favoured hard board is something that he knows nothing about, an event that happens in spite of himself. Things happen. Paint is applied, images are conveyed to the surface and when he has finished, Collins wonders how they got there. So detached can he feel from his creations that at his big retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1959, he came to the door, as one who is a newcomer to the work of Cecil Collins, bought a catalogue and stood before No. 1., a nine-foot high monster. ‘I wonder who painted that?’, he mused, before proceeding to No. 2. He quite enjoyed the show.

His works are his children but where they are from and how created is a mystery. Words that he uses often to describe his pictures are ‘absolutely un-analysable’ and ‘hypnotic’, which they seem to many people to be. A 1958 watercolour study , for instance, meaningless for a time until the meaning suddenly came to me, (or I had grown into the meaning), it has become an even more fruitful experience, a picture which fascinates me in the word’s sense of irresistableenchantment. Three women are seated side by side, though clearly not together, representing as they do, different aspects of consciousness. The figure on the right is an old woman composed of a mass of apparently chaotic black lines and splashes of paint, some form of original energy before it was worked on and given clearer definition. In the centre is a young woman with no facial features, a contemplative figure of the utmost serenity, one of those beings of Collins’ almost overwhelming in their gentleness. Finally, looking towards us from a doorway on the left, is a woman akin to the angel of , an hieratic figure in which we see a fusion of the energy and poise of the other two women, a woman, the light in whose eyes flashes out towards us with tremendous, irresistablepower.

Apart from the pleasure I have in looking at the picture (and in being looked at?) I feel that I receive from it a communication, though what that might be is, as Collins says, beyond definition. In a small oil of 1962 ( a time of introspection and ‘intimate thoughts’ in paint), a white-robed young woman with downcast head and eyes stands in a doorway, in an attitude of the most tender solicitude, and with profound humility. A messenger from another world? A mediator standing at the meeting point between other realms of life and our earth? Someone setting us an example of true self-abnegation? These and other thoughts arise from contemplation of the picture. Finally one sees that the meaning of the picture is not to be expressed in verbal terms, but in what can only be described as meditation. Culled from afar, the woman seems truly to have a life of her own and to be, ultimately, like all human beings, trees, fish, and the rest of creation, beyond understanding.

That a Collins picture changes the atmosphere of a room is undeniable, though how it does so I do not know. Let he who claims to explain it beware! Collins thinks that such people as Jungians err in interpreting his works, no matter in how sophisticated a way they do it.

For how could they ‘explain’ his angels (those meek or terrible figures that, as well as anything in art today, convince me of levels of life beyond the intellect) in terms of , Great Earth Mothers or that marvellous and convenient rag – bag, the collective unconscious? It is clear, remember, that to most Jungians, as well as to those of a less extravagant cast of mind, angels are not  but are a metaphor, to express another order which may not really exist either.

Cecil Collins has seen Angels. In his work, they do not just stand for something. In the midst of the daily round and at almost any time he chooses, he can change the level of intensity of his experience and enter the region where angels and other forms and creatures dwell. In their mediation between an unknown world and earth, angels perform a vital role. Ignorant and imperfect as we are, we could not bear the direct reality of that unknown world.

Angels have human faces. They would be of no use in relating to human beings if they did not have. In Collins’ work they are female rather than male. He is, in this emphasis, in harmony with an increasing number of thinkers and creative artists who, over the past twenty years, perceive that the feminine in life has been and is undervalued and are attempting to redress the balance.

Much involved with ‘vibration’ and ‘intensity’, Collins takes great pains to ensure that his paintings can be appreciated from any distance. This is unlike, for instance, England’s greatest impressionist, Hercules Brabazon Brabazon, whose watercolours are revealed in their full beauty only at a certain distance, usually six to eight feet. In a small oil, Collins has painted a white-robed angel kneeling beside a pool in a barren plain, overshadowed by purple mountains and a looming orange sky. The angel scarcely visible from 10 feet one is impressed by the strange austerity of the terrain, while at two feet the seemingly fragile figure is felt in all its power and dominates the picture. So it continues, even if one proceeds to a degree not normally taken; a slide was made of the picture, the angel enlarged, and this new image projected to cover a wall. Such was the clarity and detail, it was almost impossible to believe that it had all been contained in the original.

Whether they are ‘intimate thoughts’, as in the  or works of full assertion like, one senses in all Collins’ pictures great energy. There are no histrionics, no tricks, nothing but the real thing: a conviction of image which flows from his almost unbroken contact with the Source of all form. In a day when the word has been used too often, ‘life-enhancing’ is a true word for the work of Collins. As well as the indefinable change of atmosphere his paintings can effect, they also, paradoxically for works not conceived in a moralistic or didactic vein, make you feel better.

It might seem, from the way in which one speaks of the connection between the ‘other side’ and the power of Collins’ paintings, that any mystic could do as much after a few lessons with the brush. This is of course not so. Time and again Collins stresses that. as an artist, the finding of the image is of no import without a highly-developed technique with which to set it down. No mean painter by his fortieth year, he nevertheless devoted the whole of 1948 to the study of technique, starting with the Romans and gesso and working his way through art history. We see, for instance, that the calligraphic style of the grey, monochromatic  owes much to the East. In he achieves an extraordinarily rich effect by applying a solution of inexpensive gold paint which he then ‘traps’ under several layers of other paint and glaze.

As well as the glazing process, in which layer upon layer is applied slowly and with great care to the finished picture and where we see Collins in what might be called his symphonic aspect, there is the chamber music of his drawings in pencil. In June, 1976, at the d’Offay gallery, he had an exhibition composed solely of pencil drawings, a rare event these days. Angels there were, of course.  (simple, innocent men looking out without guile at the world – not foolish men), a mysterious young girl before a table shape that with the impress of Collins can be nothing but an altar, re-workings of a huge oil of his wife and himself painted in the 1930s and two female heads transferred to the paper with such delicacy that it seems that they have been created in smoke and could at any moment drift away.

He prefers different mediums at different times – oils, watercolour, pencil or pen and ink. In the last of these, in his employment of beautiful blue ink or that evocative umber of Rembrandt, he is,unchallengeably, a master.

So, too, does he work on varied surfaces: from the thick paper of those recent pencil drawings, tocanvas and his favourite surface, hardboard. Its nature yielding and feminine, canvas is not as suitable for him as the ‘masculine’ wood which fights his brush and provides the ideal complement to his predominantly feminine sensibility.

But whether board, canvas, paper, the etching plate or the stone for the lithograph, Collins approaches the surface on which he is to work in the same spirit as the icon painter blessing his wood. As in all aspects of the work of Collins, one is reminded that for him, art is a sacramental activity.

A mystic, a ‘visionary’ as a critic described him recently, Collins seems at 68 a man who would be equally at home in a cloister or a nineties cafe, a man who, while aware of the crudest details of everyday life, yet has his real home elsewhere.

For years it has been the connoisseur who has appreciated him. His work is in the collections of, amongst others, Lord Clark, Lord Britten, Peter Pears and Stephen Spender. Today, with the time catching up with him, his work is being recognized by more and more people. The surging interest in mysticism and the occult, the desire of the young for direct experience instead of dogma, the search for inner authority – it is the knowledge that Cecil Collins has been on this ‘wave length’ for fifty years that endears him today to the young.

For the thirty years in which Roger Fry and Clive Bell ruled the critical roost he was ignored. Later, because of his inner experience and for faithfully attending to his work for so long, the young were enthusiastic and numerous at his London College of Art classes and at his lectures at the Tate Gallery and City Literary Institute. Stalwart, too, were they in his defence in his significant 1975 battle with benighted bureaucrats, his victory which enabled him to continue teaching after the stipulated age of retirement.

Collins feels that few critics appreciated his paintings. Having slowly grown into his world over two years, I can see that it might have been so.When an artist’s pictures require so much time for their just appraisal, it would be an exceptional critic who, amidst the hundreds of images of a dozen exhibitions a week, could make connection with one of Collins’ truly inspired works. So it is that he lays much emphasis on learning to an artist’s work (and by no means only his own) and that he holds regular classes in this art of reading. There is too much ideology in art, he thinks, too much exaltation of message over technique. Time and again one is reminded of Collins’ mastery of technique, of his having painstakingly equipped himself to show forth his visions.

With no ‘periods’ or good and bad times, Collins paints on, slowly, now putting down the fruits of contemplation, now surging forth in pictures of great energy. His pictures are to be enjoyed. We may, if we choose, read into his female figures our own disregarded feminine aspect, we may put on a Jungian hat and connect this image to that myth. But, finally, such analysis counts for very little, if for anything, in an approach to Collins’ work. Let us be content that each of his pictures touches us in a different way, until we feel that if he went on painting forever, we would have eventually a map of the entire human psyche, of which each picture is a part.

It is Collins’ view point that is so unusual; when we look at most pictures we believe we can imagine ourselves into the artist’s mind and wonder why we had not seen the subject in that particular way, without his assistance. With Collins, however, it is not like looking at a picture screen from a seat in the stalls, but as though we have turned around in our seats to look towards the projector (our real self) on the dual sides of which are angels, demons and all those other beings and forms that have been in existence since the dawn of creation.

Images, let us not forget, are not passed down to us only from the third and fourth generations but from the four hundredth and four millionth and from that time too before there were human beings or other life on earth. Each evolutionary stage contains the images of all that had been before, just as we see the baby in the womb recapitulating the evolution of creatures on earth. We can appreciate, and perhaps experience, that, deep within us, we are birds, reptiles, fish, prehistoric animals, rocks, flowers and that original one-celled amoeba whose appearance is such a mystery. So much has been experienced by some. And if this is so, is it beyond credence that before the amoeba, when the earth and other bodies were very old, there were angels and other beings whose consciousness helped in the  of the amoeba and which is, therefore, part of us today?

When I see a pencil drawing of leaves in which there are tiny human heads (‘the leaves were full of children’), when I fancy that I discern in a trunk and branches of a tree the figure of a man, or when, meditating on a tree’s foliage I see the image of a head and angel’s wings emerge, I am deeply moved. On one occasion I was actually brought to tears. In one of his finest lithographs the human (or angelic) image is clear, that of an age-old young woman before whose face leaves can be taken to be drifting or to be embedded in the face; in this, as in all his pictures, we see that we are more, infinitely more, than flesh and blood and conditioned responses.

All is one, the mystics say and in each one of us is all. The contemplation of Collins’ images is like a reunion with a loved one who has gone away and become lost to us, but who, unexpectably, knocks at our door and embraces us with all the fervour of the father rushing to embrace his Prodigal Son.

The essential quality of this loved one is the way in which it directs its attention. There is, in many of Collins’ paintings, someone looking out at us or at something in the picture, like the young male being who lies, leaning on his right elbow, as he gazes accross a bare plain to the sun rising behind a hill. With complete non-attachment he watches, a child who in a careless moment has created what he sees about him and who is wondering now what it is. It is the attitude of pure experience, of meeting the world without any guile or preconception whatsoever; of the original principle ofconsciousness we see embodied in the Fool.
With eyes at once expressionless yet with the sum of all possible expressions, the watching being is at the same time empty and full of knowledge. What the knowledge is of I do not know. It is something I knew once but have forgotten. We all knew it once and Collins’ pictures create in us a longing for and a dim recognition of something we cannot fix, something very close to us. In this nostalgia for eternity and ourselves, it is not surprising that tears may come.
Before the angels and all else there was God, in whose service the foolish shall be made wise. Though it has been said that meditation and contemplation are essential for appreciating his paintings, one senses that it is not the practice and technique of meditation but prayer that lies at the heart of Collins and his work. Below all one’s groping and fumbling towards meaning and explanation, one is simply more convinced because of Collins’ paintings that there is a God and that He is a God of mercy and love. If such a God did not exist, it is impossible to believe that these pictures could have come into being.