“Their small-toothed interlock”1: Biomorphism and Mystical Quest in the Visual Art of P.K. Page and John Vanderpant

Messenger, Cynthia

I see them there in three dimensions yet

their height implies another space

their clothes’

surprising chiaroscuro postulates

a different spectrum. – from “Another Space”


they stretch and grow

Don waggish wigs

wear caps, capes, cloaks

gamboge and chrome

Crave mosaics

small moorish patterns

checks greek key

all intricate shapes

fine mottle stipple – from “The Yellow People in Metamorphosis”

“Really think I could have been a botanical painter.”

– from Brazilian Journal

Odd as it may sound, we can perhaps best understand the artistic currents that run through RK. Page’s 1960s visual art if we set her pieces beside those of a much earlier artist who was working in a different medium. John Vanderpant’s photographs of vegetables (see Figs. 1 and 2), taken in the 1930s, reflect in their lineation and organicism the mystical power ascribed to forms in nature by a strand of modernism that we also see decades later in Page’s most accomplished visual art. This early modernism, because it is often associated with the period (1910-1939) that produced the streamlined iconography of Art Deco, suggests to many a kind of cool reason and a break with the cumbersome demands of religious faith. Late-nineteenth-century modernists and those of the twentieth century’s first two decades, however, were fascinated by the occult2 and were heavily indebted to opaque schémas generated by the ancients and to nineteenth-century romanticism. Madame Blavatsky, one of the founders and bestknown practitioners of theosophy, was particularly influential.1

This essay will focus on Page’s poetry and visual art, and will compare her work with Vanderpant’s only briefly. Even though telling similarities in the use of line are evident in the work of Vanderpant and Page, I am not suggesting that the earlier artist directly influenced the later.4 Rather, I am interested in the discourse that surfaces in their work, in the rhetoric of biomorphism they perhaps unwittingly adopted in their pursuit of a transcendent art.


Oliver Botar, who teaches art history at the University of Manitoba, some years ago generously shared with me ideas he was developing in his doctoral dissertation, “Prolegomena to the study of biomorphic Modernism: Biocentrism, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s ‘New Vision’ and Erno Kallai’s Bioromantik.” His work, especially his first chapter, “‘Biomorphic Modernism’: Historiography, Terminology, and Literature,” has caused me to re-see RK. Page’s visual art. Even though Botar does not discuss P.K. Page – his focus is European art – after reading his work, I understood more fully the modernist influences that have, through generations of European artists before Page, made their way into her visual art. In examining the history of organic form in modern art, Botar’s work clarifies the relationship between science, romanticism, biomorphism and the occult in the modernist period. In his investigation of biomorphic art, Botar examines the work of artists such as Hans Arp, Will Baumeister, Constantin Brancusi, Max Ernst, Naum Gabo, Arshile Gorky, Barbara Hepworth, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laszlo MoholyNagy, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Botar also defines as biomorphic the close-up nature work of photographers such as Karl Blossfeldt, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston.

The term “biomorphic” originates with Geoffrey Grigson, who “proposed … the adoption of the term … from an unnamed anthrolopogist who employed it in relation to the painted pebbles of the prehistoric Azilian culture” (Botar 51). Grigson distinguished biomorphic art from “both geometric abstraction … and ‘rigid’ – by which Grigson evidently meant ‘oneiric’ – Surrealism” (52). Botar offers, in his introduction, several quotations from extended considerations of the term “biomorphic.” I report only a few here. Biomorphic art is perhaps most simply defined as “abstract art in which shapes and masses are abstracted from the … animate rather than geometric and inanimate objects” (Haggar, qtd. in Botar 1). Geometric shapes cannot be completely excluded from considerations of the biomorphic, however. Botar, citing Haeckel, argues that “orthogonal, as opposed to curvilinear forms of crystals could be seen to be ‘biomorphic’ as well” (61). The late Robert P. Welsh, in an essay on art and the occult titled “Sacred Geometry: French Symbolism and Early Abstraction” argues that for several modern artists, such as Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, “the purification of natural into abstract forms implied the proposition that geometric configurations function as paradigms of spiritual enlightenment” (64). Maurice Tuchman relates biomorphic shapes to primal life forms through an analogy to “inarticulate sound”:

Efforts to find the underlying life-form (the Ur-form, the thyrsus, the double ellipse) were made over a long period of time. The Ur-form … is used here to describe the biomorphic shape that suggests the original and the primal and is the visual equivalent of “an inarticulate sound, uttered instead of a word that the speaker is unable to remember or bring out.” (Oxford English Dictionary 19)

This analogy with utterance informs my study of the poet/painter Page. The notion that primal life forms can be expressed visually by the photographer and the painter clearly undergirds the visual art of Vanderpant and Page. Equally interesting is the idea that “the biomorphic shape” may emerge orally/aurally in the poet’s art through “inarticulate” (because poetic) speech.

The term biomorphic is useful in an examination of twentieth-century Canadian art because it helps us understand that abstraction based on nature was a loose discipline with its own signifying codes.5 The power of the line to suggest rare essences and the blueprints for life and the minutiae of form found in nature is central to my discussion of these two Canadian artists, for whom organic forms in art signified transcendence.

The two interconnected spheres of P.K. Page’s body of work, her poetry and her visual art, reflect the modernist belief that through art humankind can transcend the quotidian realm and imagine a Utopian fourth dimension. One of Page’s most highly regarded poems, “Another Space,” which embodies almost all of Page’s thematic concerns, clearly alludes to the fourth dimension.6 The ekphrastic7 elements of this poem – the reference to the “clothes’ / surprising chiaroscuro” and the configuration of the scene as “a Chagall” – point to Page’s interest in the intersection between word and image (Glass Air [GA] 122-23).8 Commentators have remarked repeatedly on the mystical nature of Page’s poetry and visual art, but the modernist influences at work in Page have not been investigated.

I have written elsewhere9 about the ekphrastic poems Page composed in response to the crisis of representation she experienced in Brazil. In the lushness of that natural world, Page’s prose took on a highly metaphorical construction, even if its polish came 30 years after the fact with the publication of Brazilian Journal (1987). Page uses famous painters’ names often in Brazilian Journal, invoking them iconographically in a willed effort to conjure visual images rather than write them. The few poems Page wrote in Brazil (her poetic silence has been somewhat overstated) reveal her sense of both the close relationship between the sister arts and their incompatibility.

In my article on Page’s ekphrasis, with her permission I published two of Page’s previously unpublished Brazilian poems. I quote in full one of these poems, a revealing meditation on her artistic crisis in Brazil.10

Could I [W]rite a Poem Now?

Or am I so

sold to the devil

that a hard frost locks

those lovely waters?

No, scarcely a matter of ice,

but a matter of guilt

having believed

(and pledged my troth)

art is the highest loyalty

and to let

a talent lie about unused

is to break faith.

But how do you write a Chagall?

It boils down to that.

The controlling rhetorical framework of the poem is the question, the first obviously in the title, the last in the penultimate line: “But how do you write a Chagall?” Embedded in this last question is the semiotic crisis Page faces in Brazil, the self-questioning and the absence of response implying the intransigent nature of the problem and the interlocutor’s struggle with identity. The poem is not, however, simply asking how, by means of ekphrasis, the poet should articulate the visual in terms of the verbal. It is asking, rather, how the modernist poet keeps faith – in the less eye-catching, but nevertheless central, question that forms the first verse paragraph. The rhetoric of religious faith suggests that art can stand in for religion, and that the artist has a duty to use his or her talent to uncover hidden truths. The absence of religious faith in the twentieth-century artist creates space for a belief in the mystical power of art. Art spiritualized, through unconventional spiritual practices and beliefs, is foundational to any appreciation of Page’s visual art.

In “Kinds of Osmosis,” published in Extraordinary Presence: The Worlds of RK. Irwin,11 the catalogue produced to accompany the 2002 solo exhibit of the same name, Barbara Godard12 notes that the unpublished poem I quote here “expresses guilt at having abandoned a sacred calling” (6). She argues that “Page at last translated Chagall into words,” in the “intersecting visual planes” of poems such as “A Backwards Journey” and “Another Space” (5-6).

Page’s “Could I [W]rite a Poem Now,” like “Another Space,” successfully evokes Chagall because it avoids mimetic reformulation of him. The name is invoked, not because it signifies the painter himself, but as a way of producing a notional Chagall who embodies the poet’s sense of what his work signifies. The “hard frost” and the “ice” of the uncollected poem are transformed by the encounter with the “Chagall” in “Another Space”:

And something in me melts.

It is as if a glass partition melts

or something I had always thought was glass

some pane that halved my heart

is proved, in its melting, ice. (GA 123)

The question posed in the poem of crisis written in 1958 in Brazil is answered in “Another Space”:” the poet writes Chagall (or visual art) both by invoking it through synecdoche and by implying it in a transcendent fourth dimension. In an essay that has profoundly influenced subsequent readings of “Another Space,” Rosemary Sullivan, citing Tom Marshall, writes, “The primitive ritual dance (a reference to Chagall brings to mind the Chassidic dance) expresses the ultimate wholeness and harmony of a universe that is forever surging and altering, yet forever one” (41). Page uses mystery, ritual and esotericism to privilege art and to express her belief in its power, but her mention of “love” in “Another Space” works as a strong and unexpected counterpoint and roots the poem in human experience.

In “Traveller, Conjuror, Journeyman,” a prose piece that accompanies the poems of both editions of The Glass Air: Poems Selected and New, Page discusses, through fragments and allusions, her sense of the connections between poetry and visual art. Phrasing in her prose is echoed in some of her poems. The essay opens: “Connections and correspondences between writing and painting…. The idea diminishes to a dimensionless point in my absolute centre” (208; ellipsis in the original). The repeated mention of “centre” is only one of the means by which art is constructed as transcendent. Page creates a chart in this essay as an expression of the relationship between word and image, the result both a constellation of influences and an unintended index of mid-to-late twentieth-century Canadian literary taste (bissett, concrete poetry, even “Suzanne” probably would not appear in a table constructed today):

I am most interested in the last column, where Paul Klee is listed, along with Tobey, under “Calligraphic.” “Calligraphic” is a significant heading: Page is responsive to visual art that, in a kind of reverse ekphrasis, uses writing, or, more accurately, writerly modeling to resolve issues related to visual form. Klee’s “calligraphy” may suggest that, through visual expression that depends on line rather than mass, Klee engages the semiotic (or representational) problem Page confronts. For a poet who is becoming a painter and who wishes she “could stop starting poems,”14 a calligraphic art might be the answer.

The significance of Tobey in Page’s chart should not be overlooked. In “Mark Tobey, white writing for a Janus-faced America,” Bert Winther-Tamaki quotes Tobey’s discussion of his interest in the differences and confluences between eastern and western art: “In China and Japan I was freed from form by the influence of the calligraphic” (80). It is a hallmark of early modernism that its practitioners sought liberation from local constraints in others’ cultural practices and in esoteric beliefs. Tobey’s commitment to Baha’i is the manifestation of this characteristic interest in the reconciliation of disparateness. His “white writing,” with its absence of figuration, may point to Islamic influences. That much of Page’s later visual art refuses portraiture of any kind is no surprise, given her interest in esoteric Islam.

In a state of artistic crisis in Brazil, Page finds in Paul Klee’s work an alternative to Raoul Duty. Klee moves Page to the surface of her “canvas”; and he offers the means by which Page can express Brazil metaphysically. According to Carolyn Lanchner, Klee revealed to Miro and Masson “a line that conjured rather than described” (24). Several of Page’s pieces in what I call her “garden” series show an astonishing likeness to Klee’s work of the 1920s, particularly his Arrow in the Garden (1929). Two of Page’s works of this type are prominently reproduced in her volumes of poetry. The Glass House (1962) adorns the cover of the 1985 edition of The Glass Air: Poems Selected and New, and The Red Garden (detail) is featured on the cover of the 1991 edition. Like Klee’s depiction of nature, Page’s is otherworldly. Page’s swaying, stretching stems of plant life are not simply reaching for the heavens, but, in their exaggerated arc and elongation, overreaching. The limitations that beset us are implied alongside the possibility of metaphysical transformation.

If we accept Werner Haftmann’s assessment of Klee, then we can perhaps understand what attracted Page to Klee’s work:

Klee’s contribution to our modern sensibility was above all the awareness that the objective world surrounding us is “not the only possible world, that there are other and many more latent truths” discernible in the world of human expression and communicable in art, which make it possible to experience the self and the world, the cosmic and the earthly, as one. (246)

Page refers to Paul Klee several times in Brazilian journal. A 1959 entry is telling in the way it borrows from the animal/vegetable/mineral trinity (a favourite conceit of Page’s) to describe landscape and vegetation. Klee is invoked by way of analogy:

Some of the lower-lying parts of this country are parklike – the trees Parana pines. Their cast-off branches look just like monkeys’ tails as they lie on the ground, and the piles into which they are raked are pure animal. It is really an extraordinary conifer. It is trying so hard to be a palm…. Odd how it has taken all the elements that make a palm and made of them its own image, so much more satisfactory than any copy. It is rather the same sort of thing Klee did in his Plants, for Earth and Air. (202)

As is so often the case in Page’s prose journal, the scene is reconfigured as a work of art. The charm and insouciance demanded by the travel journal genre suppress the metaphysical nature of the experience. (Page based her journal on letters written to loved ones at home.) She reaches for metaphor to find a means of invoking Klee, however briefly, when she should probably be exploring in much greater depth his ideas and influence on her art.

A few months after Page’s reference to Plants, for Earth and Air, she cites a book she is reading about Klee (Werner Haftmann’s The Mind and Work of Paul Klee) and makes clear the power of Klee’s ideas about nature:

He talks of drawing in detail from nature, then turning the drawing upside down and deciding upon its construction in abstract forms, then righting it and combining the two. An idea I shall try to adopt as this bending the “real” to suit oneself is something I find impossible. In fact Klee’s ideas about construction are a comfort to me. (211)

Page goes on to quote Haftmann on Klee and Kandinsky in what is an oversimplication of Kandinsky’s art:

Kandinsky stuck rigidly to his means and proceeded to apply them logically, calmly and constructively. he cast around for a structure, pinned it down and built up his picture from that basis. Klee proceeded from a germ of form within himself which he allowed to develop rhythmically.15 (Haftmann, qtd. in Page 211)

In a March 1959 entry Page admits to being “more than normally preoccupied” (213) with Klee and Schweitzer and is determined to read Goethe after discovering his influence on the two men. (Page does not expand on what she finds in Goethe. The reference is nevertheless important because it suggests Page’s recognition that the “modern” ideas she observes in Klee flow from a far earlier time and therefore deepen in significance for her.) Finally, again in a March 1959 entry, Page acknowledges that, between parties, she “stare[s] Klee out of mind” (216).

As Page reads and thinks, she grows uncomfortable with mimesis. She soon abandons “bending the real” when she invests fully in the line. Early in her experimentation with visual art in Brazil, Page began using the clearly delineated line:

Have been working with crayons. Strange how a hard point pleases me so much more than a brush. Painting, I am only really happy using the handle of the brush or a nearby nail file or the edge of the palette knife. I seem to lose all control of line and the capacity to dream when working with a flexible point. (Brazilian tournai 197)

In an interview published in 1975 in the Canadian Forum, Page acknowledges that “most of the drawings in [Cry Ararat!], the black and white ones are made with a repetagraph [sic].16 Some of them are paintings that I have scratched through with a nail file, or an x-acto knife blade” (34).

Christian Geelhar, in Paul Klee: Life and Work, states that “Klee worked more and more frequently with technical tools such as T-squares, protractors, and compasses, and deliberately abandoned the subjectively determined paintbrush” (54). Klee’s more sharply drawn line is a line with more power. Precisely because it is geometric and one-dimensional, and because it frustrates perspective, Klee’s line evokes for Page an unknowable realm. The modernist painter moves away from three-dimensional space because mimesis produces unreality, and a new reality is being pursued. The line is simultaneously structured and metaphysical; it is the line that gives Page the capacity to “dream.”

The more mechanical the production of the line, however, the more mysterious the process. Geelhar notes that “In Klee’s words, the artist’s hand becomes totally ‘an obedient instrument of a remote will'” (28). This romantic notion that the artist is not responsible for the art undergirds the principle that art is transcendent. Page, very much an inheritor of modernist conceptions of the artist, writes in “Traveller, Conjuror, Journeyman,”

And sometimes there is the curious impression of a guiding hand – as if I am hanging on to the opposite end of some giant pen which is moving masterfully and hugely in some absolute elsewhere, and my small drawing – lesser in every way – is nevertheless related, a crabbed inaccurate approximation. (211)

The notion that the creative act is a force coming from without is endemic in modernist discourse (and overturned completely in postmodernist art). Herbert Read articulates more clearly than most the modernist burden of a painter such as Klee: “the metaphysical painter seeks to find some plastic equivalent, not for the content of the thought, but for its felt intensity. The ‘idea’ is not illustrated: the illustration is the idea” (2). A central “idea” in Page’s visual art is that another reality can and must be expressed through art. Page is, in part, reinscribing the ideas of her forebears when she depicts a garden that resembles Klee’s or creates a dark archway that calls up Duty in the context of representational art, but deep space when her framing devices clearly derive from abstraction.

Linda Dalrymple Henderson, in her seminal work The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art,17 establishes the widespread importance of the fourth dimension in modern art movements:

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the fourth dimension was a concern common to artists in nearly every major modern movement: Analytical and Synthetic Cubists (as well as Duchamp, Picabia, and Kupka), Italian Futurists, Russian Futurists, Suprematists, and Constructivists, American modernists in the Stieglitz and Arensberg circles, Dadaists, and members of De Stijl…. Although by the end of the 1920s the temporal fourth dimension of Einsteinian Relativity Theory had largely displaced the popular fourth dimension of space in the public mind, one further movement was to explore a fourth spatial dimension (and non-Euclidean geometry): French Surrealism. (339)

A thorough study of Surrealism’s place in Page’s work needs to be undertaken to determine whence Page’s sense of the fourth dimension likely derives.18 Certainly many readers have used the term “surrealist” to refer to Page’s work, perhaps rather too loosely, as Brian Trehearne has noted.”It may, however, be possible to interpret Page’s interest in the fourth dimension in terms of a Surrealist aesthetic.

When Page begins to produce non-referential visual art in the late 1950s in Brazil, the vortex functions as a signifier for both deep space and infinity, and thus for the possibility of transcendence. Labyrinth 1 (Fig. 3) is remarkable for its very bright colours and its amorphous, dreamlike character. Movement is implied in every detail, in the circles, cross-hatching, arabesques, dots and curving lines – and even in the brightness of its hues (pinks, oranges, blues, black), which may evoke the vividness of Brazil. Page is suggesting in works such as this one, however abstract, that representing Brazil through mimesis is impossible. Her experience of Brazil is conveyed only through metonymiC gestures and hints. The two preoccupying images of Brazilian Journal – birds and lush foliage – are, significantly, the two images that recur in her abstract works as signifiers of Brazil. A curious little palm tree stands just to the left of centre in Labyrinth 1, a synecdochic figure for Page’s transforming experience of the natural world in Brazil. The motif of the formless centre, a sign for wholeness, cosmic integration, and infinity, quickly becomes one of the dominant visual metaphors in her abstract pieces.20 The lines of the etching in Labyrinth 1 are finer towards the centre of the work. The churning lines suggest the cosmos; the fathomless background is crucial to the lines’ weightlessness, and the absence of the corporeal urges the reader to infer the transcendent.21

Infinity in the shape of a dark centre is also at play in Page’s Keyhole (Fig. 4), among other works. Henderson clarifies the place of deep space in modern art: “Indeed, in the face of the growing surface orientation of modern art, only one movement, Surrealism, openly declared an interest in deep space. As a result, it was through the Surrealists that the fourth dimension and non-Euclidean geometry had their last broad impact on early modern art” (345). Page’s deep space vortex, which signifies the infinity associated with the exalted fourth dimension, probably grows out of Surrealism.

Readers of Page are familiar with the points of infinity in her poetry: “the absolute centre of my skull” in “Another Space” (GA 123); the “I, as centred / as a spinning top” in “For Mstislav Rostropovich With Love” (GA 104); and “That crown / a splendid yellow bony comb / grown from the cranium” (GA 120) are only three examples of Page’s interest in the possibility of access to a fourth dimension through consciousness altered by art. Many of Page’s poems offer other varieties of infinitude. For example, the ever-shrinking Dutch Cleanser woman in “A Backwards Journey” is repeated “until she was the smallest point / my thought could hold to.” A fourth dimension is hinted at when the speaker declares that the diminishing figure of the Dutch Cleanser woman “could smash the atom of space and time” (GA 134).

The “Repetition” Godard observes in Page’s visual art is the means by which Page both inscribes graphical representations of rhythm and infinitude, and quickly rejects even the barely approximate perspective and the playful referentiality of her Dufy-inspired gouaches, reproduced in Brazilian Journal.22 Page embraces the surface of the paper canvas, where only the line can reside (see Figs. 3 and 4): “Repetition, whether of patches of colour in Small Field or ink dots in Heart, participates in the greater cosmic design reaching the very Dome of Heaven as it extends the manifold aspects of a universe to infinity” (10). It is, however, through lineation that Page attempts to convey her sense of the “cosmic” in her visual art of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her finest pieces include A Kind of Osmosis (1960); Labyrinth 2 (Fig. 6; also in GA [1985; 1991]); Very Delicate; World Within World (in GA; all Souls [1961]; Bright Fish; Milkweed Forms [1959]; Ship Nocturnal [19.59] – and its skeleton, Ship Diurnal; The Unmoving; and Glass House [1962] featured on the cover of The Glass Air.23

In her visual art, Page’s non-representational work – virtually all of it taking its forms from the natural world – comes closest to expressing a Utopian relationship between the phenomenal world and another dimension. Page’s accomplished nature-inspired visual art is of two main kinds: a) drawings and etchings that signify, through abstractions of nevertheless recognizable plant life, a mystical connection to the natural world, and b) her most metaphysically challenging works, where referentiality is abandoned and where rhythm and vibration (inspired in part by the theosophical tradition in art) are expressed through intense, repetitive, often minute lineation. In these works, lines are mechanized and obsessive and do not attempt to mimic models. The “small-toothed interlock” of “The Filled Pen” and the “mosaics” and “small moorish patterns” of “The Yellow People in Metamorphosis” reflect ekphrastic attempts to convey the same visual rhythm through words.

Several allusions and echoes in Page’s verbal and visual art suggest her interest in the occult and the mystical. Constance Rooke was perhaps the first commentator to observe Page’s apparent interest in the occult when she observed “a submerged link … between astrology and the tarot pack” in her discussion of “Arras” (67). One of the clearest indications of Page’s interest in the occult is visible in The Dome of Heaven, its shapes and iconography apparently a quotation of Thomas Norton’s Hermetic Scheme of the Universe (Davis 142). Page’s Dome also resembles Jock MacDonald’s Fall (Modality 16) (Davis 143). Other hints of the occult emerge in Page’s work. For example, the title “All Souls,” one of her works of visual art of the 1960s, may echo the same term in Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine.24 The epigraph from G.I. Gurdjieff25 in Page’s poem “Suffering” immediately signals the mysticism that informs the contemplation of suffering in the poem, and (unintentionally) also positions Page as a poet under the spell of intellectual currents still in evidence in mid-century. Language suggesting these currents – that is, language that alludes to theosophy and Eastern mysticism appears also in Page’s prose: “What was that tiny fret, that wordless, dizzying vibration, the whole molecular dance? Is that what Tobey’s white writing wrote?” (GA 213). Finally, Page’s reading lists, the particulars juxtaposed to highlight eclecticism, point firmly to an interest in metaphysics. Here is one such list: “The Doors of Perception, Zen, C.S. Lewis, St John of the Cross” (GA 215).

John Vanderpant

Grant Arnold, a curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, offers a comprehensive discussion of John Vanderpant’s work in his superb article, “The Terminal City and the Rhetoric of Utopia.”26 A successful Vancouver commercial photographer of the 1920s and 1930s, the Dutch immigrant Vanderpant was also intent on raising his work more firmly into the realm of fine art. Both Arnold, in his article, and Sheryl Salloum, in Underlying Vibrations: The Photography and Life of John Vanderpant, record the influence on Vanderpant of theosophy, particularly rhythm and “vibrations.” Perhaps more than any other province, British Columbia seems to have inspired an unconventional aesthetic in its visual artists:

Vanderpant’s artistry was enhanced when he moved to British Columbia because he came into contact with a number of other photographers and artists. With them he had a special communion: sharing ideas on art; discussing a variety of religious philosophies including Christian Science, theosophy, anthroposophy, and Oriental faiths; and considering spiritual influences on the creative imagination. (Salloum 13)27

It is finally through the “rhythm” of the Canadian landscape that Vanderpant is able to break with the artistically constraining Pictorialism for which he was well-known (Arnold 42). The rhythm of the landscape was associated with a kind of spiritualism: “Vanderpant was clearly tapping into a version of modernism informed by concepts of ‘aesthetic emotion’ and ‘significant form’ as articulated in the writing of English formalists Roger Fry and Clive Bell, and the Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky” (Arnold 43). Arnold charts Vanderpant’s challenge to Pictorialism in terms that provide a rhetorical context for his pursuit: “[Vanderpant’s] crisis was also related to the difficulty of linking the vocabulary of Pictorialism to the nationalist discourse that gained prominence in the visual arts in Canada during the early 1920s” (32; emphasis mine).

Vanderpant was seeking a new rhetoric, and he found it through rhythm. Arnold notes the “formal similarities” between Vanderpant’s work and that of Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston (61) and, crucially, Karl Blossfeldt (63). Blossfeldt’s “close-up photographs of plants were engaged in a discourse which suggested correspondences between natural order and architectural forms, and proposed that modern technology would lead to a new harmony between humanity and nature” (Arnold 63). Vanderpant’s rejection of the “purely abstract photography” (Arnold 61) of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s photograms suggests that one of the main tenets of a rigorous biomorphism – that abstraction should be drawn from living organic matter rather than from inanimate geometrical forms – was central to Vanderpant’s response to the Canadian landscape.28 While Vanderpant insisted on working with forms in nature, however, Page, perhaps because her medium was not the photograph, moved more firmly into the realm of abstraction. Like many modernists, Page was prepared to see in geometry a gateway to the transcendent.29

The intricate patterns of lines (often achieved mechanically) in Page’s Labyrinth 1 and Very Delicate, for example, resemble – and evoke the same rhythms of – the repeated forms occurring naturally in vegetables and captured in the close-up photographs of John Vanderpant’s work of the 1930s. Vanderpant’s camera traces a vortex in Heart of the Cabbage (a vortex suggested faintly through curls of line in Untitled [Cauliflower]) in the crowded, insistent movement towards the centre. This seemingly unreachable place is the mystical, “absolute centre” of Page’s “Another Space,” offered graphically in her visual art, Labyrinth 1 being only one example.

Through lines that create a “small-toothed interlock,” a repetition that suggests rhythm and infinity, Vanderpant’s Heart of the Cabbage (Fig. 1), like Page’s Labyrinth 2 (Fig. 6), creates a visual representation of the microscopic, the atomic, the deep code of life reinscribing itself repeatedly. The echo of forms visible under a microscope in Vanderpant’s and Page’s lineation is one of the clearest signals of the centrality of organicism in their work. They are, like many of the most influential modernists, preoccupied with representing an almost invisible life force:

As Bousquet, Ritterbush and Schmidt-Burkhardt have pointed out, and as a review of the secondary literature and of biomorphic Modernist artists’ writings shows, artists such as Redon, Kubin, Arp, Klee, Kandinsky, Gabo, Kupka, Masson, Ernst, Miro, Moholy-Nagy, Moore, Tanguy and Zeisel either were looking through microscopes themselves, or were looking at scientific, particularly biological images such as microscopic photographs. (Botar 17)

The sense of the power of natural form is expressed in the sweep of space outlined by the main stem and its branches in Vanderpant’s Untitled (Cauliflower). The interplay of light and shadow helps create this sense of space. The point where straight line meets centre-bound curve is clearly an awe-inspiring and sacred one for Vanderpant in this image. A similar moment is realized in Page’s poem “The Maze”: “There is no returning / beyond the sudden narrowing of the curve – / (eye of the nautilus, the ram’s horn)” (GA 135). The utterance here is glancing and inarticulate – in the sense that speech cannot explain the primal form caught in the patterns of that horn.

Vanderpant’s camera and Page’s pen, in the act of tracing life forms, express a hopeful vision that prevents our reading the work of these modernists as postmodem. Both Page and Vanderpant, through their wish for a connection to a higher order, have faith in the possibility of social reform: “Vanderpant focused upon abstract patterns that could be discerned in common vegetables, in an attempt to delineate an underlying organic order in nature that intimated the possibility of social harmony and unity of purpose” (Arnold 66).

Over the past 15 years, Page has written several poems that reflect her interest in ecology and environmental activism. Her “Address at Simon Fraser,” for example, can be seen as a contemporary verbal outgrowth of her biomorphic visual art: “Surely our break with nature is the source / of all that’s out of kilter, out of sync” (GA 203). “Plant Earth,” the title and lead poem of her latest collection,30 is a glosa that weaves lines from Pablo Neruda’s “In Praise of Ironing” into a loving catechism on how we should honour the earth (“it”). Page begins the poem with the metaphor of a laundress, “her hands caressing the fine muslins” and ends it by returning to one of the fundamental concerns of her entire oeuvre – the duty of word and image:

we must draw it and paint it

our pencils and brushes and loving caresses

smoothing the holy surfaces. (15)

The adjective “holy,” particularly as appropriated by Page, suggests the exalted place of a vitalist art.

Copyright Trent University Winter 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

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