The drawings in this book were prompted by the final lines of the last canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy. These words describe the vision that Dante experiences at end of his journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. They tell of his witnessing the creative power at the heart of creation. In this he sees a great circling of reflected spheres and rainbows and, somehow, the human image within it all.
Could a vision like this be made visible with a pen and some paper? Starting with simple circling marks on a blank page Kennard began to see what would appear if he worked without plan or previous sketches, reacting to and developing the marks as they appeared.
The result is an extraordinary sequence of images, some highly disturbing, some tinged with humour and affection. These have been paired with quotations from Dante’s text, sometimes making distinct resonances, at other times creating discords.
The structure of the book echoes Dante’s in that it contains one hundred images (the number of cantos in the Divine Comedy) and is divided into three parts (as in hell, purgatory and paradise). It does not illustrate the original text in any direct way but sets up a parallel visual and emotional experience of a powerful and utterly unique kind.
For I therein, methought, in its own hue
Beheld our image painted: steadfastly
I therefore por’d upon the view.
The unconscious mind is the wellspring of creativity, or at least that’s the received wisdom. All manner of stuff foments in that shadowy space behind the screens of consciousness. A shaft of insight beams through, unsolicited. Ah! Yes! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that! Why could I not see it? Ideas and images present themselves, full-fledged, ex nihilo. Dream residues infuse waking imagination with the scent of magic and myth. The idea of the dynamic, unconscious mind has a long history. Spun by Plato, it weaves through the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Dostoevsky, among others, culminating in those two great twentieth century spelunkers of the psyche, Freud and Jung. That a good part of our mental life is unconsciously shaped and motivated is now generally accepted as an established fact of the human condition. But the evolved view that, broadly speaking, the mind has two chambers, one housing conscious thought and another whose contents are unavailable to conscious reflection, is simplistic. Better to picture a multilevel nexus of integrated brain systems responding, incessantly, moment-by-moment, to the stream of events in the internal (bodily) and external environment. Some patterns of neural activity, a very few, filter through to the surface of introspective awareness, some are glimpsed but through-a-glass-darkly, others – by far the greater part of the brain’s activity – remain hidden to the observing “I”. Most of what we think, say and do, “creative” or otherwise, rests on unconscious cognitive substructures. Consciousness is a continuum, and that elusive observing “I”, the thinker of thoughts, the experiencer of experiences, the ego, the protagonist, is itself something of a fiction. The core, experiencing self exists only in the beat of the present moment, as the neurologist, Antonio Damasio, put it, “a transient entity, ceaselessly re-created for each and every object with which the brain interacts”. A Will-o’-the -Wisp. Through the mechanisms of memory, it constructs a more enduring version of itself, but that’s another story. And, indeed, it is merely a story.
There are famous examples of “unconscious creativity” in the arts and sciences. We have Robert Louis Stevenson’s and his “Brownies”, imps of the unconscious mind who did the work of plotting stories and setting scenes as he slept. August Kekulé fell into a reverie, and saw an image of a serpent taking its own tail into its mouth, thereby revealing to him the ring structure of the benzene molecule. The mathematician Henri Poincaré would struggle with a problem for days only for the solution to pop into his head when he was least expecting it, stepping onto a bus or crossing a street. Strongly influenced by Freud’s writings on the unconscious mind, the surrealists developed automatic drawing as a means of suppressing conscious control and tapping into subconscious reservoirs of imagery.
Garry Kennard’s improvised drawings, it seems to me, emerge from the twilight zones of consciousness. The observing (interfering?) self of the artist stands aside, becoming as much spectator as participant in the process of picture making, responding to prompts from the movements of pen on paper rather than taking full executive control in guiding them. Still, though the machineries of the unconscious mind may play a part in supplying raw materials, the observing “I” is very much on hand to supervise the construction of the image. There’s a collaboration going on. The resulting pictures have the feel of hypnogogic imagery, those vivid scenes and galleries of faces that sometimes present themselves at the brink of sleep – spontaneous, fluid, organic. They are pictures that seem to have thought themselves into shape, quite unlike the mannered tropes of the surrealists who were more calculated in seeking to tap the resources of the unconscious mind, but whose work too often betrays the stultifying effects of an over-deliberative ego.
Is there something to say here about correspondences between the poetic and the artistic imagination? Probably, but I am neither a poet nor an artist, or any sort of expert in either field. So I’ll hang fire on this, except to say that I find the juxtaposition of words and images in these pages strangely entrancing. They seem to be drawing from the same deep well and, like the lyric and melody of a song, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Worcestershire, March 2020
[ Paul Broks is a clinical neuropsychologist-turned-writer. His first book, Into the Silent Land, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. He has also written for the theatre, radio and film, as well as contributing columns for The Times and Prospect magazine. His latest book is The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars. ]
All images copyright and courtesy of Garry Kennard
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