THE CREATION OF SYMBOLS BY MADELYN FREEMAN

January 11, 2015

Interview between the visual artist, Herve Constant and the psychotherapist Madelyn Freeman, November 98, London

 

MF: We have been discussing the process of artistic creation and I made the point regarding the rational and non-rational functions. Herve, would you reiterate your views on how the creation actually comes into being? 

HC: It is a mixture of rational and non-rational, which sometimes comes through directed intention and sometimes - after a while - through the process of creation, that is to say, through something I don't actually possess or direct. This aspect feels strange and timeless and can result from having thought a great deal about a particular work, over a long period of time, but sometimes it comes through a sudden instinct. For me, it is a slow process and I need to do a lot of work to derive even a small amount of good painting. 

MF: I am wondering whether the image or symbol directs you as to how it wishes to be understood and portrayed. Are you aware of an ability to step away from a painting and reflect on the symbol you created or is it something you get 'hold' of, make your own and express in your own particular way? 

HC: Very often symbols are derived in response to a theme that I am working on or they can appear as a reflection of specific past events that relate to an emotion. Symbolic representations can also result from studying the things that surround us. Symbols work on different levels, such as representing objects we relate to directly, or as things that are hidden from us. Symbols can unsettle or confirm in us certain social values. Symbols have been with us for a very long time and their application is a natural one. Everywhere you go - to the shops, cinema, on highways or simply in the street - symbols surround us. They can lead or direct us, make purchase goods, fight each other, make love to each other. As an artist, I can choose which symbols I want to use in order to direct my mind and make certain thoughts explicit. 

MF: Are you suggesting that you are driven by a compulsion from within to complete, create and make room for an image to reach visual expression? 

HC: It is true that one can be driven since many of the symbols used are derived from the unconscious, but my feeling is that often one makes a definitive and personal choice as regards which symbols are painted. Certainly one chooses the colour that re-informs or reconstructs an expression. The 'Magician' card in the tarot, for example, exemplifies for me what is still exciting about engaging in the creative process. I am now in my late 40's and the unknown is why I still feel a child-like excitement about the work, since there is a certain alchemy about it. It is because there is something that still surprises me, something that I don't know. 

MF: In terms of the alchemical process, could you describe this process as the 'nigredo' - emerging into darkness - in order to bring something from that darkness into physical reality? As you know, it has been suggested that the alchemical process runs through a distinct series of phases, which can be represented as colours. 

HC: There are many different levels involved in achieving this. Sometimes one starts only with colour in order to balance tones, adding black or white, to give weight to a picture. Certain colours become like a symphony of tones, each with their own different strengths and values, such as passion, despair, coolness or quiet dreaminess or absence. On the whole colours have their own language - whether they express spiritual or reposing values, confidence or anguish - which is why I wanted to change some previous works. As one grows older, one perceives the same things differently, so that the meaning of colours will vary. Tenderness, for example, the kind a person experiences early in life, will become a different experience in an older disposition. Enthusiasm, as time progresses, will not have the same value or meaning. After the colour process, a line or figure might begin to appear, not especially to illustrate or represent something but rather to exemplify certain feelings, thoughts or emotional sensations. This is where it becomes a certain kind of search, into the depths of oneself, in order to reach the unconscious or one's own primitivism. It becomes a search for one's inner truth. I think that perhaps we have lost the real creativity belonging to our true nature, our real self. 

MF: Are you suggesting there is a language within the imagery that is represented in your work? 

HC: Definitely, yes. 

MF: If we examine your art 'in toto' and look towards establishing continuity in its visual themes what do you think is being transmitted? 

HC: In one word? 

MF: Yes, if you like, the choice is open to you. 

HC: If it was only one word then definitely it is a kind of loneliness - a solitude - in the work. The priority for me is to discover what I am saying and to find the means to say it clearly. Achieving this can take a very long time and evolves out of a personal search, study and by travelling thoroughly through my mind. To do this require the courage to be oneself and not worry too much about other people's negative or positive statements. To be true to yourself, however, is often the very thing that other people do not like about you since we are conditioned by upbringing, culture, nationality and education. To have a personal language is a very difficult achievement for most people since the implication could also mean not having any exhibitions, reviews or commissions throughout the entirety of one's artistic life. 

MF: Will you explore this further and discern what your unconscious reveals about you in particular? 

HC: The language very often portrays my profound solitude and the difficulty that I have in understanding many of the things surrounding us, since I find so many things, particularly those imparted to us by the state, to be absurd. My art fulfils, for me, its real function, which means that I can find a certain peace and fullness in my life. It becomes a dialogue and study of oneself. Symbols are often the result of obsessional worries but their revelation I think. This balances the psyche and gives the soul a responsive inner life, which gives purpose and a richness of meaning. 

MF: This resonates with me because I have noted in your work a certain quality of stillness. I have seen it, perhaps most recently, in your photography, but I have also seen it in the imagery represented as it stands, which appears to be quite separate to the flow and movement of time and to the influences surrounding it. These images appear to get 'held out' in their own separate state. 

HC: Yes, very often in the more recent work I am using symbols to convey the stillness of an expression and therefore need to simplify the symbol to its barest minimum. I am not trying to represent it in most accurate way or as close to a photograph as possible, but to make it a pictorial statement concerning what the symbol visually, emotionally or politically means to convey. It may be a certain humour or an absurd comment that remains out of this timelessness because it is something of permanence. A symbol can be absurd and still powerful. 

MF: Are you conscious of an internal sense of stillness prior to the revelation of a symbol? 

HC: Not especially. You are still in relation to what is going on around you. When I paint the gun, it will show the value of being at peace with my own mental functions because I will go through a phase of experiencing a fear of my potential for violence. It is not something new, violence exists all around us and people are still responding to aggression, whenever, for example, they talk about road rage. So it remains something very disturbing in us all. Why are we like this? Simply because we are not at peace with ourselves. The gun - emblematic of this - can represent thoughts no longer hidden, thoughts that still make us feel powerful but not dangerous because the gun has become an external or visual factor. 

MF: And reflected upon to bring thoughts about it into consciousness, thoughts that would otherwise have remained hidden from ourselves, such as the consequences of firing a gun. 

HC: That is the reason why so many of the things I paint are symbolic. Take, for example, the suitcase. It has been nowhere and everywhere accompanying someone of passage. Nowhere is its home yet everywhere is its home… 

MF: Being nowhere and everywhere - is this a principle that applies to a major portion of your work? Can you elaborate on what you mean by travelling nowhere and everywhere? 

HC: Well, its also an attitude to life. 

MF: Can you describe this? 

HC: When I first came to London I felt that I no longer needed to have a nationality or race anymore but I needed to discover myself, which also meant I could be different. If I had remained in France perhaps I would have had a stronger feeling that I was, more or less, French, north African or whatever. 

MF: And more or less confined by that definition? Is this another major statement conveyed through your art, and idea of openness, freedom of self, non - confinement? Are you presenting a concept of 'being' in the world rather than of 'doing' which, as you suggest, is often a doing which has already been prescribed? Is this the essence of your narrative? 

HC: Yes, it may be descriptive of thematic narrative; sometimes it is a definition of political problems or feelings. Sometimes it conveys a social statement. Four obvious themes have emerged over ten years' work. Firstly, communication, especially as conveyed through poetry which, by concentrating on one idea, gives structure to the work, by giving it a fixed point. Since there is a danger for the work to become too 'decorative' in this way, because the poetry was beautiful and colourful, this led into esoteric ideas, mysticism and Kabala, which is the third theme. And I am still there which is what I was saying when we first began to talk. Although I may have different interests along the way, insofar as one travels, one more or less arrives at the same point of departure. 

MF: And the fourth theme? 

HC: I am interested in the Greek symbols of passage, which carry thoughts such as the 'ladder'. 

MF: Moving forward also means going back in time? This is quite dynamic| 

HC: When I first began painting I was commissioned to do a stained glass maquette, with more or less what I wanted to do. I chose to paint 'Jacob's Ladder' and had forgotten about this. But recently, when I was looking through some old slides, I saw that this painting still relates to the work 6that I am doing now. 

MF: The ladder also conveys an interesting esoteric principle. The Esotericists I believe also spoke about a 'side ladder', so as the masses move off in one direction, at the same time there exists an opportunity to move freely and more consciously in another (less travelled) direction. 

Interview between the visual artist, Herve Constant and the psychotherapist Madelyn Freeman, November 98, London 

 

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