Through the mid twentieth century an artistic lineage emerged which now spans several generations. This lineage has been called ‘visionary art’. Like a branching tree, these contemporary painters of the sacred represent a new seasons effoliation upon the un-felled ‘tree of painting’, inspired by and in dialog with the sensibilities and principles of the old masters of the renaissance and the many anonymous ancestral shamanic and tribal painters.
The tree of painterly craft stands unfelled but it has split into new branches. Numerous books hedge up a narrative of art history where conceptual and modernist art movements and trends are bolted upon pre-modern evolution of style and technique, whilst ignoring more organic continuities of tradition.
As has been pointed out by many observers, repeatedly, there is anti-classical, anti-mannerist, anti-narrative bias running through some frameworks of art. Whilst it is true Modernism can be understood in retrospect to have superceeded the limits of ‘book art’ (such as bible art), it also resulted in the loss of breakage of many lines of painterly craftsmanship.
Understandings such as ‘composition with perspective’, sacred geometry and the archetypal language of symbols were almost entirely jettisoned in the modernist fever. Amongst the technical breakages of tradition we can count the correct preperation of durable grounds, tempera grassa, curved hatching, use of lead white, optical grisaille, preperation of lapis, and sophisticated understanding of paint mediums.
The household name Dali is known for weird paintings of melting clocks. Dali had fully mastered a classical, mannerist technique. He referenced deeply the old masters and studied their principles. His significance could be seen in his mastery of such principles and technique as applied to the ontological fluidity of the 20th century. His work thus represents an expression of painterly lineage, from the pre-modern into a time of convulsion, technological innovation and global war. His work therefore deeply embraced the lineage of painting, it is a dialogue with the renaissance, mused with the painterly lineage, and then, without rejecting it, he evolved those principles to depict a new seasons effoliation upon the tree of art.
‘The past’ can never be sandboxed off as a tourist attraction and gift shop, but lives within our subconscious, remaining with us as material to transform. This embrace of the lineage, the craftsmanship, the ‘techne’ of painting epitomised in Dali also represents itself strongly in the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, who’s foremost exponent, Ernst Fuchs, also worked his craft without rejection of ‘history’, but with active engagement. He mastered a Netherlandish style of painting and then used it to express subjects never before depicted in painting.
Such a style of painting went against the dominant trends of abstract expressionism, minimalism, art brut and conceptual art. It can be rejected under accusations of kitsch or historical pastiche. But his work is better understood as what Paris Von Guttershlo described as ‘the disjected membra of the catholic imagination‘ in the ruins of the second world war. It involves the stuff of the collective consciousness and the mythical underpinnings of contemporary events. His work, and the work of many painters in the decades following, was a ‘psychedelic’ (mind-manifesting) response to the devastation of war, involving an engagement with the symbolic continuum that comprised the worldview of previous generations.
Ernst Fuchs and his contemporaries, treated paint and canvas as the means to bring forth a world, indeed to produce a ‘secondary world‘ which the viewer can enter. This is not to say decorative aspects are not evident, but they are more in the manner of embellishments of the image. Primarily the painting is a portal. Such art belongs to the tradition of icon painting, sacred and esoteric art.
Modernism seems to have a problem with these forms of art unless deployed by an artist who obviously ‘does not really mean it’, who uses sacred lexicons and symbols in extremely abstracted, obscure, obtuse, tangenial ways (or else desacralises them with marxist critique or profanes them through satanic inversion). The mistake modernism makes is not only in its radical rejection of tradition but in its seeming inability to incorporate the full data set of human existence. Such as, contemporary fields of transpersonal psychology, perennial philosophy, quantum theory, astrophysics, gaia theory. In visionary art the subject of our interconnectivity, multi-dimensionality, and nonduality are absolutely forefront, dominant and depicted in a viscerally direct way.
Not all art can strike the mark every time; Paul Laffoley coined the term the ‘kitsch barrier’ – a twilight zone the art must encounter and attempt to supersede for it to become genuinely revelatory. The risk is ‘zombie aesthetics’ – the reanimated but soul-less forms of the past. When it fails, visionary art may fall toward didactic, sentimental, or crude work. When such work succeeds, it conveys in an immediate pre-verbal way a view of life beyond the mundane shackles of materialism and the toxicity of political and intellectual echo-chambers. We are presented with visions of wonder.
Ernst Fuchs deserves recognition for this vast contribution toward such cultural preservation and dissemination of technique, but also artists who have worked with Fuchs and then passed on the flame in their own way. Amongst such we can consider a few names (amongst many) like Mati Klarwein, Robert Venosa, Brigid Marlin, Oleg Korolev, Andrew Gonzalez. Further down the line several artists have not only set upon practising craft principles passed down through the lineage but to disseminate them to artists who have stumbled across this world and become enchanted. This generation includes more names than can be mentioned here.
The perennial tradition survives in painting and is being passed through to the next generation, from master to journeyman to apprentice. There are now many thousands of artists occupying something of an artistic subculture dedicated to this psychedelic response to the contemporary global situation, conveying visions of the sacred, to regenerate the ‘vision quest‘ and the sense of the sacred within the modern world.