Watts, George Frederic: The Sower of Systems (1902)

Tom Lubbock
Friday 21 April 2006 00:00 BST
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In 1901, some feisty young English philosophers put out a parody issue of the philosophical journal Mind. They called it Mind!. Their target was "idealist" Hegelian philosophy, then dominant at Oxford University.

The first page of Mind! featured an image with a rectangular border. Above the image were the words, "This Side Up". Beneath it were the words, "Portrait of Its Immanence The Absolute". It was, in other words, a supposed depiction of the ultimate principle of reality. You may have guessed that, within the border, there was nothing but blank white paper.

To make the joke even clearer, it had a caption: "Instructions for use - Turn the eye of faith, fondly but firmly, on the centre of this page, wink the other, and stare fixedly until you see It." A belief in The Absolute is being equated with one of those Victorian optical illusions, or with a game of self-hypnosis. Moral: there's nothing there. But another way of looking at this joke would be to say that the parodists had invented one of the earliest examples of abstract, even conceptual art.

It isn't art, not really. It's not even a joke about art. But the Mind! blank page is clearly connected to one of the central jobs and problems of European art: representing God. It wasn't always a problem. Medieval and Renaissance artists knew what to do. Despite the strictures of mystics such as Meister Eckhart, who deprecated those who "want to see God with the same eyes with which they behold a cow", the old man with the beard was an acceptable image for a long time.

Then qualms began. In 1802, John Flaxman did a set of line illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy. In the last one, where he had to show the divine presence at the centre of the universe, Flaxman baulked. He drew some concentric radiances, and in the middle, left a white space - with the very faintest outline of a head and shoulders in it. It's an early anticipation of the negative solution: the idea that, when it comes to depicting the ultimate, the infinite, all a picture can do is go blank. The subject is invisible, or simply beyond representation, just as it is beyond human comprehension.

By the early 20th century, it wasn't unusual for the new abstract art to see itself as a picture of the unpicturable. In 1920, Kazimir Malevich described his Black Square thus: "I had an idea that ...perhaps the black square is the image of God as the essence of his perfection..."

And what of George Frederic Watts? Just a year after Mind!, he painted The Sower of Systems. You couldn't really call it a great work. It's a messy, clumsy work. But it's an extra ordinary work, too. Made before the era of abstract painting, it teeters on the brink of non-depiction. It shows a blue-robed figure striding away, its head hidden in the fiery arcs of space, its arms casting golden comets about it. But the whole image is dissolving into sparking and swirling cosmic chaos.

If this is God, creating the universe, then it's not like the creator as normally depicted by Christianity - a creator separate from his creation, who calls it into being and gives it shape from outside, who gets the job done in one go. This divine figure seems to be involved and whirled about in the cosmos he's making, to be one force among a lot of other forces. And his onward-striding action suggests that creation is not a one-off but a continuous process, and perhaps a simultaneous process of creation and destruction.

Or, to put it another way, it's all a blur. God is a blur and the universe is a blur. It's a picture that says: I believe in something, I don't really know what. Watts's divinity is a vague, anonymous figure. His inspiration was the play of a night-light on a ceiling - his God is but a glimmer. The Sower of Systems hovers between figuration and abstraction, between the bearded God of traditional iconography, and the utter beyondness of Its Immanence the Absolute or Black Square.

Watts knew it wasn't quite right. He had an inkling of how it ought to be done: "My attempts at giving utterance and form to my ideas are like the child's design, who being asked ... to draw God, made a great number of circular scribbles, and...struck his pencil through the centre, making a great void. This is utterly absurd as a picture, but there is a greater idea in it than in Michelangelo's old man with a white beard." In his own work, Watts stopped at circular scribbles. But he saw ahead, beyond abstraction, beyond blankness even, to the ultimate step: the hole, the void. It took another 50 years for someone not to think it absurd.

THE ARTIST

G F Watts (1817-1904) is one of the heroic failures of British art. He was ambitious and high-minded, and should have been a kind of visual Wagner. He painted an inspirational hall of fame, with ideal portraits of great Victorians. He specialised in grand symbolic and transcendental subjects - The Dweller in the Innermost, She shall be Called Woman, The All-Pervading, The Sower of Systems - images that suggest William Blake, dipped in cake mix. All that's visible now is the unequal struggle between a desire to conjure mysteries and a very limited technical competence.

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