The art of Mathew Brittan: It's not all that meets the i by Rose Korber
"It's not all that meets the i*," states reclusive Johannesburg painter, Mathew Brittan, whose works forms part of a serious, ongoing quest to 'reinstate beauty as the primary focus of art.'
This investigation seems far removed from the general concerns of 21st century artists, for whom the concept of beauty is hardly a priority. Brittan, however. subscribes to the tenets of Anthroposophy, as propagated by Rudolf Steiner in the early decades of the 20th century, and which have influenced such diverse masters as the Russian abstractionist painter, Wassily Kandinsky, and the German performance artist/Shaman and art theorist, Joseph Beuys - one of the most influential artists of the last century.
Basic to this worldview, says Brittan, is the notion that artistic creation has significance beyond ourselves, and beyond the recognition it may receive, with the artist being responsible for the effects the work of art has on himself and others, as Michael Howard points out in his book "Art as Spiritual Activity - Rudolf Steiner's Contribution to the Visual Arts." Furthermore, works of art should be viewed as vehicles of spiritual realities or qualities, such as colour and form, which in fact, can be considered to be the language through which the divine speaks to man.
Of the three enduring realities of truth, beauty and goodness, Brittan's paintings address beauty, which is to be viewed as the primary focus of the visual arts, a beauty, which, in terms of painting, one tries essentially to express through colour, colour being the true medium of the painter.
His exquisite oils on canvas are delicate, intimate in scale and all the same size (oil paint on Belgian linen, 46 x 30 cm each), and they generate feelings in the viewer of great calm and peacefulness.
His colour palette consists of exquisite, jewel-like colours, and the works are often displayed as an installation of 25 or 30 paintings, hung close together. The installation follows a narrative scheme, with the works opening up like the pages of a book.
The themes of Brittan's paintings are based on esoteric themes and ancient myths, which he believes are as relevant to our age as they ever were. The artist comments that the 'themes of the paintings are derived from feelings aroused by a perspective that sees myths, not as being situated in a specific time or space, but forming part of the shifting landscape of man's soul life.'
'Myths are to be construed as depicting the ongoing evolution of man's consciousness - that is, an evolution of human thinking and a growth towards individuality.'
'The Persephone myth, for example, is the Greek equivalent of the Paradise story, with the Fall recorded in the Old Testament. In this myth, independence (that is an advance in one's consciousness) is gained when, with the plucking of a flower by Persephone, the expulsion from the paradise of childhood (an unconscious dependence) is effected.
She is immediately engulfed by matter and becomes a dweller in the kingdom of the Shades. However, the consequence of Persephone's rebellious deed are different from that of Eve. Whereas in the Old Testament, the break is definite, for the Greeks - to whom heaven and earth were very close to each other - the human soul (Persephone) is allowed to return to Paradise for half of her life, that is, each spring and summer.'
Rudolf Steiner, in his indications to artists, pointed out that the act of repetition, helped loosen the imagination from the intellect, hence, Brittan tends to repeat the same theme in the different series of paintings - for example: the Persephone series, the Botanic Series, the Janus series. The Empathy series, the Lucifer and Ahriman series, Turning Turner series - and then to juxtapose works from these different series in each installation. Because of the similar, subtle colours he uses and the fact that the works are all of the same dimensions, there is a tremendous unity and harmony at work whichever way the paintings are displayed.
As Cape Town art curator, Lucy Rayner, comments: 'While one is aware of various philosophical concerns that thread their way through each installation (of Mathew Brittan's paintings), it is their appeal simply as paintings and objects of beauty that lingers on in the mind'.
* The "i" alludes to the fact that reality is consciousness, that is, all one's perceptions, thoughts, feelings and actions are a function of one's (level of) consiousness. If one undertakes, however, the arduous task of refining and uplifting one's consciousness, beyond what is given as our birthright by Nature, then one's perceptions etc will be transformed to become an expression of one's transformed self, the higher "I" so to speak.
Artist's Statement: On art and freedom and on reinstating beauty as the primary focus of the arts by Mathew Brittan (pictured)
Given what has come to be the state of affairs in the arts over the last number of decades, firstly the confusion of originality with novelty where anything goes, here too, there being a confusion of the outer freedom to do as one pleases, with the much more critical inner freedom of knowing why one does or does not make a choice, which is born of that human ideal of self-knowledge, and secondly, the aggressive inroads of intellectuality into all sorts of domains of human endeavour (and which is often part of the aforementioned novelty in the arts), is it not perhaps incumbent upon us to try and gain some clarity in all this obfuscation by remembering what Rudolf Steiner (1861 - 1925) the initiator of Anthroposophy (who influenced artists as diverse as Kandinsky and Beuys), points out in his lectures "Truth, Beauty and Goodness" and "The Aesthetics of Goethe's Worldview".
In these lectures the issue is raised of where art belongs in those enduring, sublime, extra-human realms of truth, beauty and goodness, realms which in fact, respectively give rise and meaning to those three great human ideals of science, art and religion? And further, which aspect of our humanity - we are after all also threefold, that is thinking, feeling and willing beings - should art essentially engage? Just as we legitimately locate scientific endeavour (science in the broad sense, from the word "scire" (to know) thus including philosophy, which after all is that discipline which deals with ideas) which is intimately associated with our capacity to think in the realm of truth: and, just as we associate religion which ultimately focuses on human volition or willing (actions) with the realm of goodness, should not human artistic pursuit then primarily engage the third aspect of our soul life, that is our capacity ot feel, and thence bear us up to the beautiful - a beauty which in terms of painting, one tries essentially to express through colour, colour being the true medium of the painter? (Perhaps we can remind ourselves of how Goethe characterized beauty, as that quality which arises when one transfuses the perishable, the ephemeral with the light of the eternal, the imperishable.)
To view additional writings by the artist on his work and philosophy covering the topics below, please click here:
- Art and Freedom
- Where art belongs in the three great ideals of truth, beauty and goodness or on reinstating beauty as the legitimate, primary focus of art
- A propos of some of the themes of the paintings
1948 Born: Johannesburg
1977 BA in Philosophy, University of South Africa
Pretoria, South Africa
2008 April, David Krut, Cape Town
2008 February, David Krut, Johannesburg
2000 Millennium Gallery, Pretoria, South Africa
1993 Condeso/Lawler Gallery, New York, NY
1990 Condeso/Lawler Gallery, New York, NY
1969 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
Selected Group Exhibitions
2010 18th Art Salon, Rose Korber Art, Camps Bay, Cape Town
2008 Spier Contemporary 2007, Johannesburg Art Gallery
2007 Spier Contemporary 2007, Stellenbosch, South Africa
2003 Small Things Bright and Beautiful Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
2002 Inaugural Show, Millennium Gallery, Johannesburg
2001 Millennium Gallery, Johannesburg
1994 Chicago International Art Exposition, Chicago, Il
1992 Inaugural Show, Condeso/Lawler Gallery, New York, NY
1991 ELAAC Entré Libre ŕ l'Art Contemporain, Montreal, Canada
1991 ID Gallery, Dusseldorf, Germany
1991 ART FRANKFURT ID Gallery, Dusseldorf, Germany
1990 Summer in the City, ID Gallery, Dusseldorf, Germany
1990 Alles Neu Macht der Mai, ID Gallery, Dusseldorf, Germany
1990 Hidden Realities in Figuration, An Invitation, Condeso/Lawler
1990 Gallery, New York, NY
1990 ART FRANKFURT, Condeso/Lawler Gallery, Frankfurt, Germany
1989 Gallery Artists, Condeso/Lawler Gallery, New York, NY
1989 Chicago International Art Exposition, Chicago, Il
1989 ID Gallery, Dusseldorf, Germany
1979 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
Iziko SA National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa
Johannesburg Art Gallery
1993 Stephen Selwyn, review, Cover, March
1990 Art & Auction, March
1990 Catalogue, ART FRANKFURT
1990 KK Kozik, review, Cover, September
1989 Stephan Polomski, Catalogue, ID Gallery, Dusseldorf, December
1989 Catalogue, Chicago International Art Exposition, Chicago II