Winslow Homer - The Obtuse Bard (draft 20150402) screen 007

This is Allston's painting Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea. According to Gerdts and Stebbins, it is the only surviving original painting Allston painted in Paris in 1804. Allston would have seen Mantegna's painting Triumph of the Virtues at the Louvre, which may have influenced him in a way that is of interest here. There are pareidolic faces in the waves of Allston's painting, very indistinct, but sufficiently defined to be recognized as faces (right edge, just below the horizon line).

Unlike Vedder's moon on the cover of Harper's or the multiple faces in Mantegna's Triumph of the Virtues, where Vedder's and Mantegna's intentions were obvious, Allston's faces here are marginal and quite indistinct, and the waves are not obviously distorted by the addition of the faces.

There are three very indistinct faces, plus one more, at the right edge, which is a more distinct image of a man wearing a turban (see the red oval in the marked detail image, on the left). The man with the turban faces forward, with his head turned a little to his right, positioned like the man in the #2 reference image. He wears a turban, that looks more like the turban in the #1 reference image. He also appears to have a beard. The marked image is not enlarged, because when that image is too large, the face dissolves and cannot be seen at all.

If we have no knowledge of Allston's thinking as evidenced by his writing, including his Lectures on Art, we might be likely to regard any faces in the clouds or waves that our imagination might present to our conscious perception as being our own reaching out, our projection, rather than a perception passed to us by the artist and controlled by the artist. Here the spiritual objects, the faces in the waves that I see, are marginal and subtle, one should call them "iffy." You may see the man with the turban, but the other three you may not see at all. You think I am imagining things and you are right. I am imagining things, but for me, after seeing the man with the turban, the additional repetitive adjacent forms in the waves sufficiently suggest the additional indistinct multiple faces, because of the context created by the first, more distinct, face. Allston painted those shapes into this work and what he painted is sometimes sufficient to trigger my imagination to present to me what I believe is probably an intended illusion. In Allston's world, you will see that many of his associates sought and found such pareidolic images in Nature and published articles encouraging others to experience seeing what we now call pareidolia. Allston's associates would not have had any difficulty appreciating what he did. When their imagination completed the process merely suggested by the forms Allston placed in his painting and they consciously connected to those embodied objects illustrating faces in addition to what they were in the context of the painting, they would have had no doubt regarding Allston's intention, because they already understood his intentions.

Allston's methodology, his modus operandi, he wrote about three decades later in his Lectures on Art. From that we can learn his intentions. During the Winter of 1842/1843, Allston had read his lectures on art to professor/poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future Harvard president, but then professor, Cornelius Felton. He also had often discussed his lectures with Richard Henry Dana Sr, his brother-in-law. Lectures on Art was edited by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., his nephew, and finally published in 1850, seven years after Allston's death. Basically, Allston's method, described in that book, required the artist to embed sufficiently suggestive cues, objective correlatives he called them, to embody whatever forms, devised by the artist, sufficient to suggest images of spiritual objects or thoughts, while at the same time realistically representing the physical objects in a form true to Nature. Written poetry does this. Reading poetry, one must allow one's imagination to freely roam without limits. In literature, poems are frequently not about what the words actually say, but about ideas and visualizations, embedded but only suggested by very indirect allusions, one could say "obtuse" allusions. With imagination, ideas can be realized while reading, such as in Robert Frost's poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though.
Poetry is often not about what the words literally say, but often about what the words do not actually say, but merely suggest on another level. The words say one thing, but at the same time, the words suggest ideas in addition to what was literally written. With Allston, his ideal artist's art has images that are both what the image is, and, at the same time, merely suggestive of additional images that the thing is not. As we procede, you will gradually realize, how we need an open unrestricted visual imagination, not limited by the physical context represented by the images, in order to see Winslow Homer's intended images.

Yes, I am imagining things, but I only first started to learn to see such images in 1988 when my then six year old daughter, with fewer preconceived ideas, along with my wife, started showing me some images of objects, out of context faces, they were seeing in a painting by Winslow Homer. The perceptions of children are less filtered by expectations. Children have not yet acquired the many practical rational filters, the preconceived cultural knowledge, that control and blind the imagination of adults.

Once I entered this new visual world in Winslow Homer's art, for me the obtuse forms suggesting these additional spiritual objects became increasingly sufficient to trigger my re-educated adult imagination such that I am now able to see intended illusions I could not see before. Once I understood that Winslow Homer had consciously seen and painted these images, these images were no longer unreal. That knowledge changed the context. Understanding that Winslow Homer actually and painted these images made them real. It is knowledge that enables but also blinds our view of reality. This presentation, a series of gradual visual examples, is more than an attempt to share what I have seen in Winslow Homer's artwork since 1988. It is an attempt to change your expectations, not by adding relevant visual experience, but more importantly, by changing your knowledge. It knowledge that defines these perceptions as unreal and that false knowledge keeps them from being seen. It is knowledge that will remove the blinders and make these unreal images real, because it is knowledge that has kept these images from being seen.

Ernst Gombrich instructed me in 1988, that I needed to find out why Homer painted the images I see. Without that knowledge he wrote, I would not be able to convince others that what I saw was something actually done by Winslow Homer. I stopped showing people what I saw and looked for the reasons. It did not take long to discover that it was Washington Allston's, direct or indirect influence, that caused Winslow Homer to see and paint such images. It took a lot of effort, but I was amazed how easy that was. The two papers I wrote in 1990, actually had solved that riddle. Of course, it should be easier to prove something that is actually true, but I am amazed how long this is taking. For more than two decades, I have still failed to effectively share my knowledge. About 1997, I created a website on Prodigy, and then when Prodigy shut down, I created the website, which has been online since about 2000. This presentation is just one more step in my attempt to share this seemingly impossible truth.

Here is the problem:

With such images, painted by Allston and his followers, there are some noteable issues regarding these spiritual objects.
  1. More often than not, people do not see the image, because
    1. It is merely suggested in a way that requires a more open and active imagination for its perception.
    2. The viewer does not have a memory of an image that sufficienty matches the form viewed.
    3. The viewer is not open to seeing images that are out of the context of the physical scene represented.
  2. It is difficult to prove that the artist saw the image and intentionally represented that perception in the artwork. Because
    1. Allston and his followers were trying to be true to Nature, so we cannot depend on finding obvious distortions of Nature.
    2. Without distortions as evidence, we must look for and find other kinds of evidence.
  3. The whole idea of objective correlatives is to function as a modus operandi to keep the spiritual objects from being presented as literal objects in the view of the painting.
    1. By definition, the spiritual objects must not be literal, actual physical objects in the artwork.
    2. Yet, at the same time, somehow the spiritual objects must be represented by the literal, physical objects, forming the artwork.
    3. The spiritual objects represented in the artwork must be removed as much as possible from the literal view, not to make them invisible, but to remove them from the material physical level.
    4. When spiritual visual illusions are represented, as a consequence of the above, they are perhaps best represented marginally in a most indistinct manner.
These issues are central to the material that follows. Keep them in mind as we continue.


Copyright 1992-2015 Peter Bueschen
The presentation is available at The Obtuse Bard website