Opening of the Eye of the Heart
the Coming of the New Dawn
A Tribute to Cecil Collins
by Anne Baring and Nivedita
‘We are entering the period of the free-flowing, universal, creative spirit of life, the unlocalised god, accessible to all men in all places. This is the age of the Holy Spirit, this is the age of the universal principle – the open, flexible field of consciousness, the understanding of the unity of life in the multiplicity of human experience.’
‘Beneath our technological civilisation, there still flows the living river of human consciousness within which is concentrated in continuity the life of the kingdoms of animals, plants, stars, the earth and the sea, and the life of our ancestors, the flowing generations of men and women as they flower in their brief and often tragic beauty: the sensitive and the solitary ones, the secret inarticulate longing before the mystery of life. The artist is a vehicle of the continuity of that life; he is its guardian and his instrument is the myth and the archetypal image; his language the symbol.’
‘Metaphysical knowledge teaches that man is a mirror to reflect divine reality. This mirror is dusty and cannot reflect it. The problem of life is the cleansing of this mirror and the transmission of the divine sun. The artist is regarded as the professional who can paint the images reflected in this divine mirror, which people perpetually forget, and of which we need perpetual reminding.’
The Greeting 1943
‘Man has the voices of all the Kingdoms in him.’
‘The imagination searches out and prefigures the mysterious unity of all life.’
‘There was a time when Artists were employed to create and set up altars to the gods of Life in civilizations that were temples, and deep within us we Artists must endeavour to remember the services we were once able to give to humanity and to man's deepest experience of reality. To remember this, is to understand why we feel exiles.’
The English Mystical Tradition
Cecil Collins (1908-89) was the most important visionary artist since William Blake: a painter and a poet in the visionary tradition that is so quintessentially an expression of the English soul. For over 60 years, in a culture focused on materialist concerns, he devoted his life to honouring the inner realities of the soul and the realm of the imagination. When he died in 1989 aged 81 at the time of his major Retrospective Exhibition at the Tate Gallery, his great contribution to English Art and Mysticism was little known or appreciated. He died of cancer three weeks after the opening of the exhibition. However, after his death, many of his unpublished sketches and manuscripts were collected and published revealing his true stature.
As William Anderson, himself a poet, wrote in the biography that he and Cecil worked on together:
‘His central theme is the Great Happiness, the paradise we come from, for which we always yearn in our innermost being, and which is restored to us through the creative imagination. To an extent rare in modern art his works lighten the spirit with qualities of joy and consolation, while opening up to us, through landscapes and archetypal figures new depths in our own natures. Among the archetypal figures he portrays are the Eternal Bride, the Angel, and the figure for which he is most famous, the Fool, which for him symbolizes purity of consciousness.’
‘What is more beautiful than the artist living and seeking with courage the imagination of God.’
But none of these images would have carried the weight they did had they not been supported by an extraordinary talent, both in the exquisite and sensitive use of paint and the quality of his draughtsmanship which lifted his work into an elevated category of artistic excellence. The artists he most admired were the English visionaries William Blake, Samuel Palmer and David Jones, and the French Symbolists, Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau – as well as Douanier Rousseau. He was deeply read in the literature of the great English mystics and poets as well as the Sufi mystics. The American artist, Mark Tobey, who became a good friend when they both lived at Dartington during the War, introduced him to the Baha’i texts.
Cecil suffered from the rejection and neglect that is typical of a secular culture that has exiled soul and rejected spirit and with these has banished beauty, wonder and awe. Great poets, visionaries and artists who in other times connected their cultures to soul and spirit hold no place of honour in our own. This made it difficult for Cecil, as a visionary artist, to gain the recognition he merited and this often threw him into a deep depression.
In the 70’s, in London, in a small flat in Paultons Square,
above the home of the poet Kathleen Raine, Cecil worked
in a tiny room, filled to the brim with books piled up on
the floor, stacks of canvases, yellowing scraps of paper
which held everything from shopping lists to lines of
poetry or thoughts that came to him while he sat in the
midst of this chaos. Years of accumulated dust as well
as exquisite music filled the room. A painting on his easel
waited for him to return to work on it, sometimes for months,
during which he was unable to paint. He slept on a mattress
on the floor in one corner of the room.
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who owned The Crucifixion and the Resurrection (1952), two of his finest drawings, invited Cecil to put on an exhibition of his paintings and drawings at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1984.
The Resurrection 1952
There he met Anthony and Anne d’Offay who realised that here was an important artist who had been overlooked. Thanks to their taking him on at their London gallery, Cecil’s financial situation at last began to ease as his work gained wider recognition, both in England and America. In Brian Keeble, who postumously published his Vision of the Fool and other Writings, he found a publisher who valued his vision. After his death, his drawings and paintings were distributed to art galleries all over England. Some of his finest paintings are in Tate Britain and several of his best drawings are in the British Museum’s Collection.
Art and the Transformation Of Consciousness
Throughout his life Cecil was true to his vision and, although this involved living with his wife Elisabeth in great poverty for decades, neither of them would compromise. For Cecil, the true artist stands implacably against the materialist belief that the world we see is all there is. ‘Culture’, he wrote, ‘is a sacramental participation in metaphysical reality.’
‘I began to be aware that there was in us a potential of transformation of consciousness, that we were lazy and let this thing lie...and I became conscious in myself that this fact was the purpose of life, the real purpose...this was the object throughout all great civilizations.’
The Oracle 1940 private collection
Like all Mystics, Cecil Collins expresses the spiritual world within and declares that ‘art is a metaphysical activity’ because ‘man is a metaphysical being.’ His paintings have titles like ‘The Quest’, ‘The Joy of the Worlds’, ‘The Music of Dawn’, ‘The Invocation’, ‘The Dream of the Angel’, ‘Angel of the Stars’. He believed that artists have a sacred responsibility to be a bridge, an intermediary, between Man and the Divine Realms because Art is the lifeblood between them.
‘Art is a life energy which moves creatures out of the apathy of the lower worlds.’
Like Blake, Cecil believed that he had a great task: to open our eyes inward to the Eternal Worlds. To do this required consistent, inner work on oneself and great focus of consciousness, not to be diverted or distracted from the goal of communion with these worlds. He once commented that ours is the only civilisation in 20,000 years of history that does not have a metaphysical foundation. For him this meant that the visionary artist stands against the flow of the culture, yet has to find his place within it in order to inspire and awaken the eye of the heart in others. His vocation is to build a bridge between the reality we see and know with our physical senses and another unseen reality that is accessible to the imagination.
Head of an Angel private collection
‘Far beyond the world of answers and explanations, far beyond all expediency and utility, who can fathom the depth and mystery of the human heart, with its great longing? Who can fathom the mystery of the radiance of the Angels who are filled with the great happiness and the world of eternal light?’
In his paintings and contemplative Essays, Meditations and Poems he documents the path of his inner pilgrimage, commenting on the sacred role of Art as the language of the Transformation of Consciousness, and setting out a vision for the future Divine Kingdom upon Earth.
The Return 1943 private collection
‘There is a growing awareness that modern culture is approaching a severe crisis and that sooner or later it will have to undedrgo a ruthless revaluation. That revaluation must reveal the cause of the disorientation of contemporary culture which for so long now has beedn made a virtue of, or has been acedpted withot intelligent criticism or questioning. The revaluation will quicken the realisation of the necessity to focus man's consciousness upon the creative centre of Life, which the great cultures of the world have named the Sacred. And with all its urgency, it is in this act of orientation towards the Sacred centre of Life that contemporary culture will find confirmation of the universal Reality, the rediscovery of which, alone, will save our civilisation.’
Guardian and Messenger of the Secret Inner Life
Christ Before the Judge 1954
on loan to Winchester Cathedral
‘The Saint, the Artist, the Poet and the Fool are one. They are the eternal virginity of spirit, which in the dark winter of the world, continually proclaims the exixtence of a new life, gives faithful promise of the spring of an invisible Kingdom, and the coming of light.’
‘They are outlawed by this society because they desire the unknown, the marvellous, the poetic; because they desire with passion those elements in the universe which they know to be the most magnetic attributes of God.’
‘What place is there for the Artist, for the Fool, the Poet, or for any human being, in a society based on the de-personalisation, de-individualising of life by the ideal of mechanical efficiency? There is no place: the human and the creative are in danger of dying out.’
The Shepherd Fool 1945
Cecil Collins lived and worked in relative obscurity as one of the great outsiders of European modernism, remaining faithful to his own unique vision of Art illuminated by the Divine. Courageously he swam alone against the tide of modern anarchic painting styles devoid of spirituality and tending towards Abstract Art, convinced that Art belonged to the Divine dimension, the Secret Inner Life.
He taught for many years at the Central School of Art and Design in London (now called Central St. Martins). When he was 66, he nearly lost his position as part-time teacher there because the head of Fine Art at that time, disliking his method of teaching and the metaphysical values he promoted, and backed by the ILEA, tried to force him to retire. However, his students and supporters, among whom were Henry Moore and Stephen Spender, managed to block this move and he continued to teach until shortly before his death in 1989.
He was a lone figure, a voice in the wilderness for decades until the1970’s when the artistic climate changed towards a more spiritual and poetic life and his vision began to be recognised. It has since closed down again.
‘The great struggle of the modern artist is to preserve and keep alive for us and for society the sense of wonder. In other words to preserve life itself, for the sense of wonder in a person is God.’
Painting of the Heart not Abstract Art of the Mind
This abstraction, which is mental abstraction, is very masculine, whereas the feminine feels experience through the particulars. We are suffering from abstraction, suffering from living in a mental world. Wholeness comes from a very human need, the human heart.’
Cecil Collins believed profoundly that Abstract art was an inadequate visual means for communicating spiritual truths and contacting the Divine, man's true purpose upon Earth. He found that it led to arid intellectualism and life-denying Puritanism. In fact, it is to find oneself on the path of disintegration where the ultimate destination is a life-denying nothingness.
Abstract art is only partial and the greatest need of humanity is for Wholeness. Abstraction is one-dimensional, leaving man bereft of the rich complexity of his total being for which he finds no outer expression in modern Art and Architecture.
‘The human heart wants a wholeness of experience, and I feel the human heart can find no satisfaction in a mental abstraction representing the Divine Reality. It must have wholeness because it must have something that it can relate to, that it can recognize, and the heart recognizes, right away, this wholeness.’
The Importance of Angels in a mechanized society: transmission of love and beauty
Cecil Collins began painting Angels in his twenties. They came to represent the Unknown, which gives fresh inspiration to a dull mechanical life. Angels are Messengers from the Divine who are here to help with the Great Transformation of Human Consciousness and whose flow of Love brings them very close to the Earth and to Humanity. Cecil Collins called them ‘the Vision of God, the winged thoughts of the Divine Mind’, and they were real and living beings for him.
Angel and Fiery Landscape 1964
‘Angels exist to help transform our consciousness, to open our awareness - and contemplation of their beauty purifies us.’
He painted grand images of Angels as spiritual messengers of Light and Love, sometimes flying over a mountain (as in his painting The Divine Land) which has the form of a transparent curtain.
The suggestion is that the Angel's movement will cause the curtain to blow aside. For Collins, curtains represent a kind of gateway to the treasures of childhood or a Divine state.
The Angels represent many things including the Friendship between us and the Divine World, the New Dawn of Consciousness and the Transmission of Light and Beauty. He lamented that our masculine scientific civilization has created a specialized, impersonal environment which leaves both the artist and the woman, the Feminine, unsatisfied.
'We must regain the idea of the Person, the more real a thing is the more Person it is. The personality of the elements, the sea, the world, the earth, stars, trees, people. The Mythos of Person in everything.’
As a child Cecil Collins spent a lot of time outdoors in nature wandering in nearby woodland. There he learned the language of stones and grass and trees and especially clouds. One day the sight of a dazzling white cloud had a profound mystical effect upon him, appearing to him as a Gateway to Paradise, just as William Blake saw the sunrise not as a ball of fire but as a heavenly host of Angels singing God’s praises.
Later he was fascinated to discover in the scriptures that God had spoken out of a cloud: 'While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, hear ye him.’ St Matthew's Gospel 17:5
It was this experience of clouds as an image of Paradise which became a Gateway to the Invisible Realms and later influenced his painting where symbolic white clouds appear often in his imaginative landscapes.
‘The purpose of Art is to worship and praise life through wonder and magic.’
Inner Landscapes: Remembering What is Lost
Cecil Collins's paintings are of inner not outer landscapes, inhabited by Angels, Fools and Sibyls (the Greek word for a female prophet), oracles of Feminine Wisdom which he called: ‘visions of certain functions of the feminine soul - prophetic, oracular, sometimes coming out of caves, guardians of altars, uttering prophesies - guarded in my paintings, I think, seldom by a man but practically always by a woman or an angel.’
Hymn to Night 1951
They represent an interior country of the human imagination where rivers and mountains and oceans, sun and moon and stars, trees and flowers and birds are painted not as copies of nature but as inner symbolic experiences.
It is our tendency to forget, and Art is a necessary reminder of the Invisible Realms of the Divine, the True Reality. Cecil Collins believed in the legend of a Lost Paradise, but that the second re-discovered Paradise would be richer and more beautiful than the original one. He called it The Great Happiness. It is the vocation of the Artist to put us back in touch with this Paradise through the Visionary Art of the Imagination and the Symbols of the Soul.
It is the loss of the original Paradise which is the cause of man's longing for the Eternal Beauty. We only recognize the true worth of something after we've lost it; and our Quest to re-find it is, he said, the stimulus of all creativity.
The Voice 1938
The Feminine Genius for Relationship: Love, Care, Nurture, Friendship
‘In Hinduism the divine reality is split up into many different facets of gods and goddesses...The feminine is pluralistic psychology where you learn that life is really creative, it is pluralistic as well as particular. Again, in Hinduism as well as other religions, you get this marvellous feminine aspect all the way through. You could say that all quarrels come from this one and only (the one god, Monotheism, which is a male idea).’
Cecil Collins believed that the lack of Feminine values in the world is due to the dominance of Masculine Aristotelian reasoning, the prison of analytical knowledge, which is at the core of modern education and thus cultural conditioning. The education of the Inner Life, the Emotions and the Imagination are totally neglected.
‘The Love! The Love! I see it in the movement of the clouds, the moving of the grass; in the dust of the roads, the leaves and branches of the trees, in the globules of the rain.’
But the Feminine knowledge of the Soul and the Inner Life is crucial for the balance and wholeness of Humanity and for the totality of experience. The Feminine Consciousness belongs to both men and women, so it is not a matter of gender but of consciousness; the Yin-Yang balance.
‘Dogma and theology are peculiarly masculine preoccupations, of finding security in justification and definition. The soul of man, which is much more feminine, finds no need for definition and no need for justification. The soul is essentially concerned with relationship with the Divine...One of the main crises in our civilisation is the absence of the feminine principle from our education, the feminine psychology: the loving, caring, empathic, affectionate and nourishing; the feminine genius for relationship which is deep in the psychology of the Feminine.’ Of the magnificent painting below he wrote: ‘Wisdom as the Eternal Bride walks through the Universe, carrying the Chalice, the Cup of Life, while before her, at her feet, is the world egg.’
The Eternal Bride 1963
The Healing Heart of The Fool: Artist, Poet, Saint
‘The Fool is the symbol of the lost ones of this world who are destined to inherit eternal life. The Fool is not a philosophy, but a quality of consciousness of life, an endless regard for human identity; all this lives in the fun of the Fool. The Fool is the essential integrity of life itself, clear and naked, overflowing in cosmic fun; not the product of intellectual achievement, but a creation of the culture of the heart. It is a continuous wisdom and compassion that heals with fun and magic.’
In 1942 aged 34 Cecil Collins began his essay: ‘The Vision of the Fool’, an Archetype which would become increasingly central to his spiritual vision of Art and the healing of Humanity. Archetypes are intermediaries between humanity and the Absolute Divinity, states of consciousness which help us to make direct contact with God through their subtle vibrations. Cecil Collins used a trinity of archetypes: Angel, Fool and Woman as Sybil or Anima.
‘The symbol is an instrument of evocation - to evoke in the soul the atmosphere and climate of that hidden reality - to set in motion an articulation of the soul.’
Since True Reality is beyond the Mind and cannot be totally understood, it is represented by Symbols, and the Symbol of the Fool stands for the state of consciousness of the Saint, the Artist and the Poet transcending the lower consciousness of the modern world's exploitative systems.
Cecil’s wife, Elisabeth, was a remarkable person and a talented painter in her own right whose work also received recognition just before and after her death. She really was, for him, an icon of the Feminine, an embodiment of the world of the Imagination. In her own beautiful and cosy room on the floor above Cecil’s she somehow, on an ancient and temperamental gas cooker that would have made Health and Safety blanch, managed to produce delicious meals for their friends, week after week, year after year. Money was a total mystery to her as she had never mastered arithmetic and it must have been Cecil who managed their finances, such as they were.
Cecil and Elisabeth Collins 1939
He acknowledged that he owed everything to her. He wrote these words for her to accompany a drawing he did of her:
Magic girl sitting in a tree
Youth is eternal
In the gift of love:
Our hearts are united
In these days of exile;
Pilgrims, we see
The secret rising of the sun,
The hidden golden face
Unknown to the world.
Aptly, the inspiration for the Fool came from this Feminine source, his own wife and muse who painted the first Fool which awakened the Fool in her husband.
The Fool has no agenda and is devoid of the arrogance of intellectual cleverness. The Fool symbolizes Poetic Imagination and belief in the Invisible Presence and the Sacred Kingdom of God, essential to the Wholeness of Humanity.
‘Now that the civilised world has almost been destroyed by the illness of uncontrolled, merciless forces at work in most of mankind; now that abstraction, utilitarianism, and mechanisation have brought forth death and sterility, the ruins of society may yet prove more fertile than the barren days of its so-called progress and splendour.’
‘For poetic imagination is only born when mankind is ready for it, ready to receive it, when men are hungry for its gifts, when they reach the supreme point of realizing that they are actually starving in spirit, and are empty...it is then that the Fool will appear among us, to be received and reverenced in all men, and the nature of true freedom understood.’
A Fool Praying 1947
The Return of Child-Like Innocence: Openness and Receptivity
‘It was the great Indian saint Ramakrishna who said, speaking of those dark periods that you find in the civilisations of the world, which the Hindus call Kali Yuga, "In those periods one does not hear the voice of God except in the mouth of a child, a madman, a fool or some such person."'
The Fool also represents the Innocence of the Child within each person, which has been practically destroyed by the abstract mechanization of contemporary society: ‘Anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it.’ Gospel of Saint Luke 18:17
Cecil Collins believed that Humanity needed to recover the lost Innocence of the Child within, who alone is capable of direct perception of the Divine Realms. Yet, such Openness and Receptivity means vulnerability, demanding true Courage because it is easily exploited and harmed by others. Only the brave few are willing to risk such childlike Openness, because all Creation comes from this open Receptivity .
‘He (the Fool) is interested in love and its manifestation in that harmony and wholeness which we call beauty. He is therefore in a state of creative vulnerability and openness and he is easily destroyed by the world. I have painted a picture of an Angel comforting a Fool who has been broken by the world...The Angel is, as it were, deeply concerned with the Fool - in fact Christ Himself says that anyone who should injure one of these little ones it would be better that a millstone were tied around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.’
Modern Architecture: Maker of Man's Environment
Cecil Collins spoke about the inhumanity of most modern architecture of his day. It was the product of an abstract puritanical and rational minimalistic masculine mind, completely ignoring the flowing Feminine poetic, organic nature of relatedness and thus creating a feeling of separateness and alienation in modern cities.
‘Most modern architects are better trained to design buildings for machines than for human beings. Man is not a machine but a richly complex living being.’
Modern Architecture reflects the outer external nature of the ego but not man's Inner Being, preventing the psyche from forming a total relationship - a Friendship - with the environment. It assumes that man is an economic and social being only, totally neglecting the other half of life. So man's Inner Being remains unloved, unappreciated, ignored and unfulfilled. Cecil Collins attributed the increase in modern mental illnesses to this unhealthy imbalance of Masculine and Feminine values and therefore the lack of Wholeness.
‘Man has an inner nature as well as an exterior one, and this inner nature must be awakened, nourished, developed and expanded so that he grows. Man's inner nature must have a world to live in as well as an exterior one, and art is an instrument for building that world for his inner nature, for building his archetypal home.’
One can feel this oppressive bleakness and emptiness in many modern minimalist buildings, where one’s humanity almost spoils the ‘purity’ of the ruler-straight angular white-washed exterior, devoid of feminine flowing curvaceous organic rhythm. He noted that all great civilisations except our own were based on a metaphysical reality, making modern civilisation an aberration because metaphysical civilisation is the norm.
‘The real artists and craftsmen who made Chartres and the Buddhist temples would have understood the great statement that: ‘Only God is’ ... Today, instead of a temple or building dedicated to the destiny of all of us we have the art dealer, the man who keeps an artistic brothel for buying and selling beauty...In our civilisation there is nothing to remind us of a destiny which transcends our small personal life; Hence our feeling of loneliness; Hence our sense of alienation.’
Painted Pictures for Inner Contemplation versus Mechanical Digital Reproductions for Outer Looking
‘The prime need of our age is contemplation. We live in a secondhand world of reproduction - television, cinema, magazine photographs - and our view of the world is becoming secondhand. We need the contemplation of the wrought image of the artist to orientate us towards Reality.’
With the advent of photography and digital technology some considered that the painted image might become obsolete and irrelevant. But Cecil Collins made a clear distinction between the created image of the painter and the reproduction or copy of the photographer or the computer-generated image, which lacks the depth of consciousness of the imaginative picture wrought by hand.
‘The experience of art - painting, music, poetry - belongs to the contemplative life, and one of the main tasks of our education and our culture is the re-educating of people in the contemplative life. Again, the feminine mode of bringing the dimension of stillness and inner space back into life.’
Everyone is an Artist: Imagination is a Power
‘I have found that the so-called ordinary person, if freed from the fear of competition and other people's opinions, and also if freed from the idea of copying nature, will create very interesting pictures. Better to have a whole society painting such pictures than just a few specialised artists. For what we really all want is more life - life abundantly.’
There is a saying that the artist is not a special kind of person but that every person is a special kind of artist. Before the age of the machine when things were made by hand most members of society could be regarded in general as arts and crafts specialists of one kind or another.
But the Machine Age (today we might call it the Screen Age) has robbed us of our skills, individuality and the sense of independence and fulfillment as creators. Being an artist has become specialized and set apart from the ordinary person, whereas in truth everyone has a secret artist within his or her soul.
Cecil Collins loved to share his painting skills, philosophy and creative experiences with others more as a Friend than as a formal Teacher. He loved his students and they responded with unswerving loyalty. He was a prophet ahead of his time and his teaching was progressive. ‘You become what you contemplate’ was one of his refrains.
True creativity was about the Transformation of Consciousness and not merely self-expression; he regarded the Imagination as an organ of active spiritual Transformation. A work of Art was an unveiling of what is hidden within the soul, rather than the creation of a product like the mass productions on an industrial assembly line.
He used sound and movement in his classes: music or recordings of Nature such as the sound of the ocean or a singing bird or passages from Plato. He had a great love for music and believed it had a deep capacity for awakening the sleeping spirit in people. He described his painting as a form of music which could be read like a musical score. Musicality, he said, was at the very root of matter.
He valued highly the discipline of drawing with concentration and taught the skills of mixing colours and how to harmonize them. He encouraged the wide use of traditional tools such as brushes and coloured inks, pens, chalk, charcoal and pencil, but also fingers and hands. Sometimes he taught his students to paint with their eyes closed to bypass the intellectual mind and access the inner images of the Soul. He taught Empathic Identification with the subject, through opening the heart (not scrutinizing with the analytical mind) and emptying the small self of its conditioning.
He wanted his students to look with Fresh Eyes as if seeing the subject for the first time, just as the Fool views life with the wide-eyed Innocence of the Child capable of marvel and wonderment. He called it ‘seeing through the eye of the heart’. In this way he opened a door to the Spontaneity and Living Consciousness of the Invisible Realms.
‘The Poet and the Artist both need solitude in order to carry out this highly concentrated intense work of revealing and distilling the essence of life to the world of man...Solitude is therefore a sacred thing, a thing to be reverenced, and if the society of man is to grow and not perish in the incessant work mania of a machine-ridden insect mentality, we must bring back if not reverence, at least respect for the solitude of any human being.’
Painting as Revelation (not Rationalization): Touching the Heart
‘There is in all human beings a secret, personal life – untouched – protected – and it is this sensitive life which my art is created to feed and sustain, this real life deep in each person. Thus my art is truly functional.’
When creating his own work Cecil Collins would wait until some outer trigger inspired him to paint, never knowing exactly what would take shape from within. More accurately he was the sensitive, receptive and honed instrument through which the Vision within painted itself.
He described painting as a special kind of birthing process, a revelation: something is born from within and revealed, not rationalized. But it is not a necessarily easy or enjoyable birth because it is difficult to translate a Vision onto a canvas using the limitations of the material realm.
Yet, life is a process of making the impossible, possible. It is only the pursuit of the impossible, the unknown, which stimulates us to strive to expand the possible. If we ask too little of ourselves our culture we will stagnate and degenerate.
‘Art is concerned with vibrations and the contemplation of vibrations. All existence is vibrations, feelings. My work gives off certain sensations. Every symbol gives off a different vibration.’
His drawing skills and draughtsmanship were highly accomplished. His lines flow in a meditative rhythmic, lyrical way and he painstakingly built up his paintings with many thin layers of paint and varnish which give them a magical luminosity. The result is not simply a painted image but a living quality of vibrating consciousness which touches the heart and soul of the viewer, opening a window onto new Divine vistas. The archetypal images herald the coming of a New World, a New Dawn, a Second Paradise: the Great Happiness.
untitled - private collection
‘My own art is concerned to give man peace and joy and harmony and to orientate his consciousness that he may have some experience of that great happiness which is forever, through the transmission of the mystery of love, through the mystery of beauty.’
Be Ye Perfect: Respond as a Whole Being
‘Beyond reason, beyond logic we feel there is a mysterious movement in the air. I am reminded of Christ's words, ‘Be ye perfect’, which means this: be whole, respond as a whole being.’
Christ’s words: ‘Be ye perfect’ have traditionally been misinterpreted in a one-dimensional way to mean a judgmental, sterile, puritanical, static kind of perfectionism (instead of a relative best according to circumstance and capacity), and which fosters feelings of shame, and crippling anxiety and despair. Not only do we judge ourselves harshly but we also judge others, blocking compassion both for self and the other.
But the Greek word for perfect, ‘teleioi’, is closer in meaning to ‘fulfillment’: to completing one's Transformation of Consciousness upon Earth and realising one's unique divine potential, just as the tiny acorn becomes the magnificent oak tree. The true meaning of ‘perfection’ is therefore ‘wholeness’ and ‘integration’.
The one-dimensional rational masculine interpretation of ‘teleioi’ as ‘perfectionism’ rather than ‘fulfillment’ kills creativity; and it robs us of the Playfulness of the Inner Child. It is a symptom of a civilisation based on predominantly masculine reductionist principles which divide and separate rather than integrate.
Kathleen Raine and Temenos: Sacred Art of East and West
Cecil Collins shared the same birth year as the Poet and Scholar Kathleen Raine, who co-founded the journal Temenos (a Greek word meaning ‘sacred precinct’) in 1980 and published it from her home in Paulton’s Square, London where Cecil Collins occupied the top flat with his wife Elisabeth.
In 1979 Kathleen Raine published a book called ‘Cecil Collins: Painter of Paradise.’ Of her friend she said:
‘His paintings are icons, for they are informed by spiritual presence, he has penetrated into a luminous world of archetypal forms. The purpose of Cecil Collins’s work is anamnesis, the awakening of imaginative reflections: he is a painter of the lost paradise.’
Universal Consciousness: Accessible to All Men in All Places
‘Life is not either/or, but is a mysterious flow that goes on all the time. One must be in contact with that flow and keep the bounds between crystallisation and openness and flowingness – to know that to fix a thing permanently is to bring it to an end.’
‘We are entering the period of the free-flowing, universal, creative spirit of life, the unlocalised god, accessible to all men in all places. This is the age of the Holy Spirit, this is the age of the universal principle – the open, flexible field of consciousness, the understanding of the unity of life in the multiplicity of human experience.’
Some critics have accused Cecil Collins of being too subjective, too personal, but as with any true Artist he was a personal vehicle only for the Universal, articulating for Humanity the inner issues which concern everyone.
‘I believe that we live in a completely universal age now. We’ve got to grow up and accept universality. Universality is maturity and the Holy Spirit is one of the great images of universality.’
In vocational service to the spiritual needs of the community the Artist creates universal symbolic images to awaken man to the Eternal. These images are not to be understood intellectually but contemplated, meditated upon. This inner contemplation actualizes the life of the Soul which remembers its true purpose and man's real life which is Eternal, since all else is transient.
‘The artist is the eternal advocate of life. Fanaticism and intolerance, no matter for what cause, is a blight upon human activity. The artist is the direct expression of the genius of life and the genius of life cannot live in the iron-clad society of intolerance. I am not making any extravagant claim for the artist because I believe that the artist is in every man and woman, and it is the artist in them that is the God in them.’
Friendship with Matter: A New Dawn
‘This is the task of Art, to give back to man that wonderful experience which the French poet René Char has called: ‘the friendship of created things’...The artist, like the woman, has a genius for and demands relationship. We cannot have a relationship with a (scientific) mechanical description of the universe. When we have this friendship of created things our experience of matter undergoes a change...we have communion with it; it becomes consecrated and is sacramental. Sacramental, what a word! I think we would hesitate to use it to describe our civilisation, where matter is something to be analysed, exploited and thrown aside without friendship.’
Landscape with Angel
As a prophet Cecil Collins saw the future need to divinize Matter in a Unity of the Spirit and the Earth. As much as we have neglected the Spirits of the Higher Worlds, so also have we denied the Spirit of the Earth.
He sensed that much of our pain comes from living in a Transitional World where the old civilisation is dying out to make way for a New World yet to be born. Meanwhile ‘we are living in a transitional period created by scientific thinking which is too sterile for the human heart with its great capacity for imaginative riches.’
He felt that there were generally two types of artists: those who portray the dying civilization, and those who paint visions and intimations of the coming Sacred Kingdom of God.
Radiant with your waves,
Flowing again with your waters of light,
O world heart,
O fountain of dawn.
He took things seriously but was not a pessimist and was known for his jokes and sense of fun. He sensed a New Consciousness entering the World, which would find its response in this Friendship with Matter, with the Earth and also with Man’s Inner Nature. This is why the Sun is so important in his paintings, especially the Rising Sun at Dawn heralding a New Birth.
‘Relationship is the key because all creativity is concerned with relationship: the relationship of the stars to the sun, the sea with the shore. In our education we now need to re-discover our relationship and friendship with nature, with organic life, our friendship with all created things...with the divine.’
Keeble, B, ed. ‘The Artist in the New Age’, in The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, Golgonooza Press, Ipswich, 1994, p. 102.
Anderson, W. Cecil Collins, The Quest for the Great Happiness, Barrie & Jenkins Ltd, London, 1988.
Keeble, B, ed. ‘Art and the Modern Man’, in The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, p. 91, and ref 2.
Collins, C. Angels, compiled and edited by Stella Astor, Fool’s Press, London, 2004.
Collins, C. Meditations, Poems, Pages from a Sketchbook: Golgonooza Press, Ipswich, UK 1997.
Eye of the Heart: The Paintings of Cecil Collins: Stephen Cross Ltd. online transcript Arts on Film Archive, University of Westminster 1978.
Cecil Collins, The Tate Gallery Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, 1989
Nomi Rowe, In Celebration of Cecil Collins, 2008 (a fascinating illustrated compendium of interviews with friends and students of Cecil Collins)
(All quotes in this article are by Cecil Collins unless otherwise specified. Paintings are from private collections with the exception of the Angel of the Flowing Light (1968) at the beginning which belongs to the Tate Britain Museum but is not necessarily on display there).