The art critic Peter Fuller, writing in Modern Painters – Reflections on Modern Art, 1993, said that Derek Hyatt was one of the most important painters of landscape in Britain.
Now aged 70, Hyatt still paints, draws and enthuses about the landscape he has known since childhood. His energy seems not to have diminished. He still travels to Spain to record the flight of birds, attends printmakers' conferences in Finland, gives talks at galleries including the Tate St Ives, and writes for the magazine Modern Painters. His work is known and respected by artists, but he is relatively unknown to the general public partly because he does not seek publicity and has therefore been overlooked by a media-hungry art market. There is nothing here to shock, only a quiet, powerful voice that reverberates long after you have seen his work. The paintings are not complicated, but take time to absorb. Perhaps one also needs some terms of reference to locate Hyatt in what he calls 'the long tradition'.
When I first came across the paintings of Derek Hyatt in an issue of The Green Book, a quarterly magazine published in 1992 in Bristol, I immediately felt drawn to them. They connected strongly with the lineage of art I have been exploring for some years which traces the influences of mysticism, mythology, dream states and other forms of tapping the unconscious, in Western art. Later I came across an article on Hyatt's paintings by Linda Saunders called, Close Encounters on the Moors, in Modern Painters (winter edition 1994), in which she writes: "Not many artists are evolving a personal symbolism in relation to a particular ground in this way. Plenty, it is true, are lifting, with post-modern sangfroid, archetypes from other times and cultures, but funking the risks whereby these are re-inspired with life."
In the same issue of Modern Painters, Hyatt had written an article about the poetic imagination of the artist Paul Nash, who is considered by many to be one of the major English landscape painters of the twentieth century Enthused by his writing, I found further articles, one describing a visit to the artist Victor Pasmore on the island of Malta, and an article to celebrate 1995 as the European Year of the Bronze Age called, To Strengthen the Tribe. I found his writing poetic and precise, elucidating the qualities of both artists and also the qualities to be found in the landscape.
It was Nash who used the phrase genius loci – spirit of place – which describes the inherent energies of particular locations. I sensed that Hyatt also could unlock hidden sources in his paintings, that he had the ability to 'read the landscape' and decode it for us in a new way. With often oblique and sometimes humorous references to the pagan symbolism of such deities as Cernunnos, the Horned God, the Green Man, or the sensuous and flowing incarnations of the Goddess, Hyatt evokes echoes of folklore and mythology. His reference material extends throughout Europe, from the Mediterranean shores with the muscular forms of the minotaur, to the poetic tragedies of Orpheus and Eurydice. We find elements from cave paintings in Spain and France, runic markings, creatures from Norse mythology, Celtic patterns, neolithic cup and ring markings found on stones in the Yorkshire Dales where Hyatt has his studio.
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Eventually I met Hyatt in 1999 when I decided to include his paintings in the book I was writing about the spirit of place and its relationship with various artists, writers and filmmakers, called This Enchanted Isle.
It was at his home in West Yorkshire that I saw his paintings for the first time in situ. I found the paintings exciting and admired the technical skill and the visual language he has evolved. Talking with him and looking at the work evoked memories of my own childhood. Like Hyatt, I am from Yorkshire. Born in Sheffield, I spent much of my youth walking across the moors which edge the city. Hyatt's paintings conjure up those days, of unseen forces, of a silence which deepened into something else. A hypnotic spell which drew you further, which, if the weather suddenly changed, as it often did, could be dangerous. On the deceptively benign moorland called Kinder Scout, hikers would often lose their way when a mist suddenly descended.
Impressions from our childhood remain, it seems, forever. Some years ago when I lived in Somerset, I remember looking at the Mendip hills edging the wetlands, making their way towards the Bristol Channel. They were beautiful and yet I felt a sense of disappointment, as if something was missing. Suddenly I got a flash of myself on the Pennines, staring at the vast, daunting dark contours of the moors and the ragged, surrealist weathered stones. I was still looking for that landscape.
It was these kinds of responses that connected me with Hyatt. I found his ideas and views about the world thought-provoking and challenging. What became clear in the subsequent discussions, which have continued up to the publication of this book, is that there is another view of art outside the general consensus of cultural history as taught in art colleges and universities. This 'other' view, often referred to as 'the long tradition', connects us with ancient religions and myths, rituals, dreams, and the many ways of tapping the unconscious. In his book Dreaming With Open Eyes: the Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Century Art and Culture, Michael Tucker writes in depth about the relationship between visionaries who have delved deep into the psyche, and their influence on Westem art. The long tradition is a fascinating lineage.
In discussion with Hyatt we talk about this gap in cultural history. The gap is where anthropology, archaeology, mythology and art interconnect, which causes embarrassment to many art historians who prefer a more rational, logical history for the development of Western art. The Dutch artist Piet Mondrian was influenced by the teachings of the Theosophical Society. Vasily Kandinsky, the Russian painter, was influenced by Theosophy and the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. The Russian Constructivist, Casimir Malevich, was also highly influenced by Theosophy which came through the Symbolist school of painting, It is well known that Jackson Pollock was influenced by Native American mythology and ritual. According to William Moritz, in his essay Abstract Film and Colour Music for the catalogue The Spiritual Art – Abstract Expressionism 1890-1985 to an exhibition held at the Los Angeles Museum of Art in 1986, Poflock was introduced to the ideas of the Theosophical Society by his first art tutor, Frederick Schwankovsky. He also took Pollock to lectures by the Indian mystic, Krishnamurti, in Ojai, Southern California. Interestingly, according to Moritz, the method of drip painting, for which Pollock became world famous, was introduced to him by Schwankovsky. In most art history accounts, these facts are usually glossed over. It is the secret lineage of folklore, dreams and what many term 'magic' which is a key part of the formation of Western culture. This is art made for practical reasons in the sense of unifying humans with their environment and to help, as Hyatt points out, the survival of the tribe. As for being an embarrassment to the general view of the development of Western art, the obvious reason is that any art connected with the occult or mysticism after the Second World War, was highly suspect. Hitler's involvement with occult and esoteric knowledge and his subsequent perversion of it, is well known. However, this is very different from the tradition that connects the creative endeavours of 'primitive' society and the evolution of a spiritual source to art.
Every country has its indigenous art and culture. To connect with this is natural for many artists. At the present time, interest in 'ethnic' culture is expanding. Knowing one's own indigenous cultural roots is important in this context and can only enrich our understanding of the world. However, the role the irrational plays in the development of art has often been bypassed. Many artists have railed against the stranglehold of Greek ideas of aesthetics on art. John Ruskin criticised the coldness and mathematical qualities of Greek architecture in his essay The Nature of Gothic. He saw Gothic architecture as the height of the civilised world in the sense that it was not constricted by mathematical formulae and rigid codes, but allowed to be organic.
Paul Gauguin proclaimed, "the great error is Greek, no matter how beautiful it may be." Henry Moore wrote about "getting the Greek spectacles off one's nose", and that one had to find 'the world tradition'. In John Russell's biography of Moore, Russell writes, "there is no doubt the struggle which he (Moore) was describing is a European struggle, and one which lies somewhere in the unconscious of everyone who has been brought up as a European and given even so much as wry, resentful attention to the established hierarchy of Western art."
Hyatt echoes this view when he says, "I think the folk art elements in Kandinsky and Klee and Brancusi, the Scandinavian art, the folk myth, the folk stories, fairy stories, darkness and dream, are very useful as a source for what we call modern art. Then I would question the term 'modern art.' It isn't modern art, it's the rediscovery of ancient art. That's what modern art is. It's someone discovering the potency of prehistory Picasso went to the caves at Lascaux and he came out and said, "we have added nothing!" That's Picasso, the great artist, the inventor of modern Cubism saying they were there before us! They used multiple images, they used all sorts of things, overlapping images, multiple viewpoints, flickering light and diagrams of thinking."
The role of the shaman, the psychic healer of the tribe, who appears in many guises in different cultures, is part of this worldwide spiritual tradition. In Hyatt's paintings there are strong elements of shamanism. I see shamanism in this sense as the ability to connect us with higher states of consciousness, enabling us to see the world afresh. Hyatt in no way pretends to be a shaman, but often when talking with him and viewing his paintings, I felt somewhat like Carlos Castaneda describing the knowledge transmitted from his Yaqui Indian teacher, Don Juan. Different points of view collide. Multiple references are made to art, artists, jazz musicians, poets, pop stars, Greek tragedies, neolithic carvings.
As well as his involvement with the landscape, Hyatt has a deep concern for wildlife. He has participated, with other artists in Southern Spain, in observing and capturing the flight of birds on their migratory paths from Northern Europe. He is rightly worried about the demise of so many species of birds and animals. Even the patterns on the stones on Rombalds Moor, which he continuously draws and paints, are eroding because of acid rain. He attempts to address these issues, not through any form of propaganda, but calmly and skilfully through his paintings and drawings.
Hyatt also has an intense concern for education and the role the artist can play in society. He sees art as a tool for exploring not only the unconscious, but for making our ideas about ourselves and society visible. In a time when art has become almost the domain of a cultural elite, from which more and more people have become disenfranchised, it is refreshing to connect with an artist whose ideas break through the boundaries of conventional thinking. In a period when art has little, if any 'content', then Hyatt's paintings, which reflect not only the natural world, but the world of the imagination, are a challenging breakthrough.
This book is the result of three years' communication with Derek Hyatt using written correspondence and taped interviews. The areas discussed cover his reflections on art and artists including John Ruskin, Paul Nash, Peter Lanyon, Kurt Schwitters and Jackson Pollock. There are a myriad excursions into the state of art education, the revelry of the 1960s, the relevance of dreaming, the role of the shaman, the poems of Ted Hughes. Finally, this book is about Hyatt the visual artist and poet, so reproductions of his key paintings and drawings as well as a collection of his poetry and extracts from the book he wrote and illustrated, The Alphabet Stone, are included.
Peter Woodcock 2001
JOHN RUSKIN - A VICTORIAN VISIONARY
1890 - 1900
The year 2000 was the centenary of John Ruskin's death. Hyatt, a Companion of the Ruskin Guild of St George which, among other aims, wishes to propagate the idea of drawing, is passionate about reclaiming drawing as a source of inventiveness, exploration and feeling. In the article Lifelines in the Spring 2000 issue of Modern Painters, Hyatt writes: "There are many different kinds of drawing... but if we consider the eye is part of the human brain, we misuse its potential if we equate drawing with merely copying appearances – as most people still do. Drawing as illusion and mimicry is not enough, in fact it is a barrier to discovery and revelation. Four thousand years ago artists were using marks and signs to think about, organise and project their deepest intimations of life. Their rock art was much more than hunting, 'magic'."
It is the idea that drawing creates its own language and opens up our thinking, rather than simply acting as a recording device, that fascinates Hyatt. For his own drawing he scavenges the moors looking for material which will find its way into his work. Tiny fossils, ammonites bleached white, rusted metal, a strange, battered, heraldic aluminium object which once belonged to a car. Colours on walls, lichen on rocks, a new moon seen wanly in the misty sky, are signs that interlock with childhood memories, echoes of other artists such as Nash's Totes Meer, or graffiti in a subway in New York City. All these can be drawn, made real and immediate by marks from graphite, chalk, razor blade, aerosol, fibretip, soft pencil.
Cubism was a false dawn. It did not break open memory and imagination. Too quickly it became a worldwide modem art mannerism, a style merely, lacking heart. Drawing is not about mannerism, style or copying appearances. It is a precise tool into the unconscious. It can excite, terrify, open wounds, describe, delineate, surprise. Memory is the clue. By recording things photographically, or relying on the mechanical means which computers give us, we diminish our ability for recall. Try drawing a horse from memory and you'll see what I mean. Memory is a skill. Draw to put forms into memory. The Roman poet Vico wrote, 'imagination is the memory rearranged'.
I discovered John Ruskin via a little book of his called The Elements of Drawing when I was in the RAE in Norwich. I could sit on the big stone steps above the market place reading Ruskin and I was amazed that he could so confidently lay out a course of drawing for the Victorians that was so popular, so acceptable, that so many people of that time wanted to draw. Amazing that there was that need and that he could come up with a very philosophical book in some ways, but also a straightforward manual of how to approach drawing, how to begin doing it. The Elements of Drawing contains so much.
For instance, it is the basis of the French Impressionists' thinking and approach. Ruskin said "the world is a series of patches of colour." Monet says he got it all from Ruskin – the theory of Impressionism, the colour patches of light.
In his Modem Painters series, Ruskin writes about Turner being great because he understands nature, has studied it, and understands the principles of nature. So he doesn't just record appearance, he understands why the light is reflected like that. Turner had studied optics and the early cameras, telescopes, camera obscuras and all sorts of optical phenomena outdoors. He wanted to understand light and how it reflected and so on. He did his scientific homework, but he balanced that with philosophical and mystical questions like: can I understand it when perhaps our relationship with nature isn't one of trying to understand it? It's quite honestly that, in the presence of stupendous natural events, the main thing is the power and the mystery of the experience. It's not about trying to understand it scientifically but about being deeply strangely affected by the mystery as an event. We are part of it in some way because we are part of nature, but in another way, as one appreciates, separated from it.
Our self-consciousness separates us from Nature. If all we had to do was swim about in it, fine. We would just swim about in it and be content. But because we have this complicated mechanism called the brain with the mind and the soul, we ask nature, we need other things from nature.That doesn't come through scientific understanding. It comes through the artist, the poet, the philosopher, the mystic and the shaman responding to it in other ways. Ruskin knew that but he also knew that his own experience of life hadn't fulfilled him. No matter how much he studied, talked to other people, travelled, tried to understand Italian art and architecture, there was something in it he couldn't cope with. And he was a very sad person, I think, for most of his life, because he wasn't sexually fulfilled. So he was constantly frustrated by wanting to project into nature. He had this longing, longing for another life, longing for union with someone, longing for something else. It seems Turner, by comparison, arranged his love life very well.
Peter Fuller curated a touring exhibition called Rocks and Flesh (1998) which took a very thoughtful angle on Ruskin and Turner and contemporary artists who took mother and child images and landscapes as a source. He observed that the rocks in Ruskin were trying to become human. In Henry Moore's sculptures, rocks were trying to become human. There is this sort of interchange between ourselves and Nature.
When I discovered Ruskin, I could read him with terrific enthusiasm and sense of discovery and realise that there was a lot in art, a lot in there for us to enjoy. Ruskin had gone to Venice, not on a day trip, but for six months drawing in order to understand architecture and understand why the shape of leaves became symmetrical, became spirals, or became symbols, became organic or became human. He tracked this theme, followed things up in Venice. He had a team of artists he sent there to collect material for him and they used to send their material back to England. Now this sounds crazy, but he had an American artist who studied marble in the architecture in particular, and this artist would do beautiful colour studies of marble structures and would send them back to England. Ruskin would return them saying "not enough blue, or pink. Make them more intense!" Ruskin had enough money to pay other people to build onto this research. He published books such as The Stones of Venice, he had his own private publishing house, his own printer. He didn't have to apologise or do it in relationship to the public or printers or anyone. He could do it exactly as he wanted.
When I discovered him, you could buy Ruskin books for next to nothing, his little red Everyman Library books you could buy for sixpence. They are beautiful little items, full of information if you have the inclination and time to sit down and study them. They still are the best guides to Venice. For example, where he says: "Stop! Look at that. Look at that for half an hour! Forget where everyone else is going. Look at that. Just look how someone did that bit. Didn't they do that extremely well? Notice how that carved capital moves the eye from the vertical to the horizontal forms." Think about it. They put thought into that, or religion into that, or craftsmanship into that. Care, craftsmanship, knowledge of materials, perseverance or whatever it takes.
Later on I found that the art critic and thinker, Peter Fuller, was interested in these aspects. We got into correspondence and got on well through our interest in landscape art and Ruskin research, In fact I have a copy of Elements of Drawing that Peter Fuller sent me, inscribed 'to Derek who has similar interests'. Peter Fuller was a very busy person but he was always ready to stop what he was doing and discuss Ruskin. He was searching in Ruskin for something that was missing in present day art.
The Ruskin Museum at Sheffield, in Norfolk Street, was a constant source of information and pleasure – a quiet place to pay homage to Ruskin, to visit his collection of geology and crystals, his photographs of Venice or Turner drawings, paintings, or Durer prints. It was marvellous for me to know that all that was available and then to have two exhibitions of my own paintings and objects in the gallery, and then to be elected a Companion of the Guild of St George, which is the group of people who share Ruskin's ideas on the social role of art and beauty.
I was at one time critical of what the Guild were doing, others thought the same, out of which came ideas for their present campaign, 'Drawing Power', allocating one day of the year for drawing, where all types of people across society, would share a day together drawing. All sorts of artists are joining in that with people of varied abilities, schools, art colleges and retired people – all finding out what drawing can do to them, drawing different things in different locations.
Going back to Ruskin's championing of Turner, I went to Paris to look at landscape art. I came back and looked closely at some Constables and they were mad! The vegetation, the palette knife application was madness! The French paintings were tasteful, beautiful cream cheese, good cooking taste. Taste. Even Courbet, beautiful butter slab palette knife, goodly, creamy cuisine. Constable was madness! Turner was beautiful, luminous, translucent – such subtle gradations! Look at Monet's paintings. Awful oil paint. It's only acceptable because we see it in reproduction. Reproduction gives it back its translucency. Go to Giverny and see the fish underwater. There are no translucent fish in the painted water, no reflected light on those painted water lilies. Because people do not look, they recognise echoes of what they've been told. But most of the Monets are badly painted. He over-painted and over-painted and the paint died. We don't realise how good Turner is. If we just call him the forerunner of Impressionism, we do him a great disservice, He was so much more than that.
A few months before he died, I discussed with Peter Fuller how science could, might, should affect the teaching of drawing. Recent advances in neurology and in the study of how memory works suggest that the brain's computer constantly updates the model of the world we inhabit. We have known since Darwin, and even more since the Chaos Theory, how the world is changing and adapting all the time in both large and subtle ways, and how everything is interactive. Form is always changing. Ruskin told his students there were no outlines in nature, only edges of forms expanding and contracting. As the mind probes appearances, the world changes shape. "If you have the choice between colour and form," Ruskin advised, "go for colour."
By the same author: This Enchanted Isle