The Timelessness of the True
University of Georgia
The Timelessness of the True
I make no bones about resorting to the vernacular in writing about the latest work of Robert Rivers. First, because his images give a powerful and profound jolt to the mundane nature of much that passes for art in today's world. Second, because their content, and the forms which shape it, show an ongoing and significantly evolving personal vision - a constant preoccupation on Rivers' part with the deeper levels of human consciousness and the force they exert on our attitude to life and creation.
And third, because his graphic skills are superb: consummate handling of line and tone over the plate on a grand scale - from the slightest of marks to the most basso profundo and passionate. A technique always adventuring to serve and keep pace with the growing intensity of his revelations.
"Revelations of what?", you ask. May I beg this question for the moment - at least decline to answer it by means of a 'clever' one-liner. Instead, I ask that you regard what follows - in its entirety - as an attempt to discuss the nature of Rivers' insights: in particular the sort of intuitions which lie behind his symbolism, giving his drawing the power to evoke ideas which stir us provocatively, even take us beyond our own brief experience of Time.
I should start by saying briefly what Rivers' grand, baroque designs are not. They are not trendy; they are not images serving the latest shallow and self-conscious fashion which passes for culture in our society. Neither does his work strive to be pseudooriginal - to surprise, shock or intellectually titillate. He is neither minimalist, conceptualist, nor nihilist. .. he belongs to no avant-garde school or persuasion. Rather, he is his own man and has been so over the many years I have known him; and if one were to place him anywhere it would be with Delacroix, Goya, Blake - with the men of the Romantic movement active during the first half of the nineteenth-century. He fits Delacroix's definition of genius well enough: "A man who has his own peculiar way of seeing things."
Robert Rivers therefore, in my view, belongs to the mainstream tradition of western art which commences with the Paleolithic animal drawings found in caves like Lascaux, and continues to develop throughout western history - a development which sees the human figure supplanting that of the animal as the artist's principal motif. A long list of illustrious names - from the art of Classical Greece to the important movements of our own time - attest to this involvement with the figure: subject matter to which the late Sir Kenneth Clark gave the general title of "The Nude." For hundreds of years the human body has been the vehicle used to express the gamut of human emotions and drives; to reshape in order to reveal the ideal form of beauty; and to suggest, symbolize, something much more difficult - the attribute of that immaterial element known as the human spirit.
When we talk about art which is 'timeless' we mean, surely, that irrespective of the historical period during which a work was made, of the geographical locality where it was produced, or of the underlying influence exerted by the prevailing culture ... the image continues to maintain its authority over the years, thus transcending the temporal, existential facts of its beginning. In such a case, it would seem obv ious that the work embodies some kind of archetypal or universal truth.
This is what the late Phillip Toynbee - a wonderful man and leading British critic of the 50's - meant when he wrote: "Great art is never a mere barometer of local affairs." So here is Robert Rivers ... giving us animal and human figures - taking the two historic motifs, sometimes separately, sometimes juxtaposed, but always teasing the mind,
touching a primitive nerve of awareness that some sort of cosmic link binds living creatures together.
A barometer of local affairs? Never.
Of animals and men. I think I know the nature of Rivers' involvement with these two archetypal themes. In the majority of cases throughout history, the artist's concern with the animal is based on what the Abbe Breuil described as a 'participation mystique' - the need to 'capture' or identify with the wild creature by drawing or carving its likeness, thus tapping into its life force. Through this ritual of creating and possessing a tangible representation of the animal, two kinds of power devolve upon the shamanartist: that of gaining influence over the animal's destiny in the physical and practical aspects of its life, and that of receiving the gift of 'psychic equity', or spiritual sensibility, acquired through making contact with the animal spirit itself in the making of the image - an inspirational faculty only available when the artist knows a true empathy with the animal condition .
This idea that both human and animal forms of life share a cosmic, spiritual component is, as they say, as old as the hills. There was a belief in Classical Greece that the dog spirit would be one's guide after death, leading the soul through to the place of Shades - so better look after your dog. And for centuries the Chinese have incorporated animal forms in prominent places on and around dynastic and more humble buildings as a protection against evil spirits, even inventing mythical creatures, such as the omnipresent dragon, to symbolize the power of good over evil supernatural powers. (Curiously enough, in the West, the dragon took the other side - was seen as the evil force which must be overcome by a hero like Saint George. No Saint George in China, I'm afraid. I admit to preferring the Chinese version of the dragon myth.)
So, deep in Rivers (no pun intended), runs a guiding vision: to quest intuitively after the nature of both human intelligence and that of the creatures we call animals; to probe the interplay between their sentient ways of being; and to reach a conclusion as to what constitutes the essence of the links between them. Why do we run about in Zodiacs wanting to touch whales; why do dolphins seem to like our company; why do we feel uncomfortable seeing animals in captivity; how is it that the trust of a dog or cat - any 'pet' as such - can soothe the spirit and promote health? Did the cave painters of Lascaux in 15,000 B.C. have the right idea in seeing themselves and the animals they must hunt for survival as belonging to a common spirit world? Is there any of this kind of feeling behind the movement to protect endangered species today? Is that why we can love and grieve after animals?
Symbolic, Expressionistic, Surrealistic: Rivers makes use of all three creative responses to shape his thoughts and sentiments about ourselves and the living things around us. And always employing a bravura of drawing - a plasticity - which lends great morphological significance to both the nude and animal motif alike, so ensuring that their every movement and gesture implies meaning. I come away from his work supported in my view that there is more going on in the great chain of being than meets the eye. I am always surprised to realize that he would have been equally welcome in the remote caverns of Paleolithic painters as in the workshops of the Greek sculptors 10,000 years later.
Animals are nothing but the forms of our virtues and vices, wandering before our eyes, the visible phantoms of our souls. (Victor Hugo: Les Miserables)
Since this Introduction was written it has been disclosed that a new Stone Age treasure trove of animal paintings has been discovered near Avignon in France - a 20,000 year old collection deep in the limestone bowels of the earth at the Chauvet Cave. Here are to be found not only the usual non-predating wild animals, but dangerous cave bears and cave lions, a panther and many wooly rhinos: all formed with the most fluid and elegant of lines, the most subtle of tone-colors to impart volume, and the most perceptive use of pre-existing rock textures and contours to lend verisimilitude to the images. What "an eye" these hunter-shaman-artists possessed! Leonardo da Vinci would surely have been happy had he been included in their ranks. Once again we must ponder the fact that these picture galleries were obviously not intended for public viewing - access would be dangerous and intimidating. The drawings were created in the deep and secret recesses of the cave complex - places, where the deepest and profoundest urges of the human mind to gain "spirit power" in an outside world of apparent chaos and chance, could be realized. Curious that such insight, vigor and beauty of aesthetic expression, should have been present at what we take to be the very beginning of art. Find a deep cave Robert Rivers, as befits your calling.