Assurance in a colossal vision

That English visionary painter and poet William Blake wrote in 1810: ''What, '' it will be questioned, ''when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?'' ''Oh no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, ''Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.''

The 20th-century English artist Cecil Collins, who made the lithograph ''Sun Head'' in 1960, shares with Blake (though quite unlike him in many ways) a vivid conviction that the images of his imagination are truer than the sights of his eyes. He describes himself as an artist with his face towards the dawn, the rising sun - and clearly this ''sun,'' like Blake's, is far from being just a disc of fire.

The poet Kathleen Raine has declared that her response ''to the world of Cecil Collins was of entering a world infinitely familiar; a sense of homecoming.'' She perceives in many of his prints and drawings, which are inhabited by ''angels'' and ''fools,'' and by images of the creative and the primordial, of rebirth and transformation, what she appropriately calls a ''certain grave pathos.'' There is indeed an underlying sadness, a longing, evident in much of his work (though some of it has an almost whimsical lightheartedness). He looks towards a ''paradise'' of innocence and direct perception and brings to his art a rare (for today) sense of something universally sacred; but this paradise is often evident as a distant horizon or a remote gaze. The eyes of the many faces which also emerge in his imagery often indicate the same heartache. The bold ''Sun Head'' shows this strikingly.

Collins spent his childhood, beginning in 1908, in Plymouth, on England's south coast. Two things he remembers fascinating him as a child were lighthouses and sunflowers. In the 1930s he related himself tenuously with the Surrealists, but a separation came because the political ideas of Marx and the psychology of Freud, which absorbed many Surrealists, were by no means among his own aims. In 1938 he met the American Mark Tobey, whose art and opinions impressed him greatly. Tobey was in some ways a father figure for the American ''abstract expressionists,'' and Collins, though he feels that these artists too easily indulged ''mere self-expression,'' nevertheless acknowledges that they gave him a new improvisatory freedom. The gestural plays its part in his work.

In fact his paintings and prints divide broadly into two kinds: those that are preconceived completely and then realized with scrupulous, painstaking care, and those that (like ''Sun Head'') arrive with a kind of undeliberate spontaneity out of a mutuality of vision and medium, each qualifying the other.

Collins believes that such ''qualification'' is an integral characteristic of creativity, and that there is an inevitable vulnerability or hurt involved in the process. Richard Morphet, writing in the catalog of the Tate Gallery's retrospective showing of all Collins's prints, describes ''Sun Head'' as ''an image of the creative spirit in the world, its mouth wounded by contact with worldly reality, but its assurance, and its outflow of radiance, intact.'' Its assurance seems to me to be the dominant trait - strong marks on paper which suggest both ''head'' and ''sun'': on the one hand an archetypal mask that might almost be an imprint from some pre-Hispanic Mexican carving, and on the other an expressive, elemental visual metaphor for the speed and energy of the great orb. This strangely brooding lithograph has a powerful sense of scale and wholeness, and magnificent internal rhythms. That music - its ''flow'' and ''pulsation,'' to use his own terms - is one of the main sources of Collins' inspiration and provides a powerful, ever - replenished impetus for his remarkable vision.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.