Art that responds to nature symbolically is not new; symbolism is a language as old as religion and as widely spread as the world's diverse cultures. In the West, well before the Symbolists founded their modernist school in Europe, there were artists who discovered that correspondences between sounds, words, colours, shapes and scents were like sensory waves that vibrated in consonance with the human spirit. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, the German lyricist, Edward Moericke, created a semi-autobiographical fiction, Maler Nolton, based on an imaginary painter. The story has the young artist, who is suffering from an acute emotional crisis, ride out into the countryside in a state of near madness. With his mind in shock, closed to all rationality, he finds himself "constantly pursued by an absurd, monotonous melody... And while he was in this dreamy, dizzied state, in place of this uncanny musical visitation, his excited powers of imagination brought him with inconceivable rapidity a whole host of pictorial situations, which he was impelled to represent to himself in a disjointedly dramatic form, actively accompanied by poetic words, and sketch them roughly in broad outline."
As it happens, I came across that passage - from an introduction to Moerike's little classic, Mozart on the Way to Prague * - on the very day I visited for the first time Noelle Griffiths' studio located on the wooded slopes of Snowdonia. What struck me forcibly about her paintings was that they depicted direct experiences of nature while at the same time invoking the active awareness of the painter; they gave body to personal yet extraordinarily heightened, necessarily abstract, states of mind. For this artist, I said to myself, emotional experiences come to mind as "pictorial situations", not as items in a landscape or qualities of paint, or textures, or even colours. It's the "given idea" she paints, just as a composer might receive an idea as a motif on which to build a sonata, or as I myself sometimes receive a line to which I cannot immediately attach a meaning, though I know somehow that it's the key to a poem.
Now, I know that "given ideas" like this - artists' ideas, not philosophers' or psychologists' - are in their nature difficult to talk about. In the first place, they are not "about"; that is to say, we can't look at the series of paintings grouped under the title "Season Songs" and relate them to postcards lodged in our minds labelled spring, summer, autumn and winter. To help us see that the series renounces such shared clichés, the artist has related these twelve paintings to the dates of the Celtic cross-quarterly festivals that fall between the equinoxes and solstices. Beltain occurs on the first of May, Lammas on the first of August, Samhain on the first of November and Imbolc on the first of February. Names such as these have mystical (proverbially feminine) associations, of course, and these are enhanced by the titles of the paintings themselves. In the first series, for example, "The Singing" is followed by "The Offering", and "The Dark" by "The Light". Naming the seasons, like giving symbolic titles to the paintings, adds a poetic dimension to these pictorial situations; words reveal, if you like, a different "visitation", but they do not rationally define the experience. Nor does the fact that the paintings have been futher amplified by the creation of artist's books draw us closer to their "meaning". Only when we give ourselves to a realisation that the paintings, the words and the books are not about heightened experiences but part of them can we understand that the given idea - the vision, the whatever-it-was that made the painter paint - is still ongoing, urgent yet incomplete.
Such incompleteness, surely, is one of the hallmarks of our time. It can be identified as the creative incompleteness of contemporary artists who no longer work within the confines of a closed ideology or culture. Without an iconography set by religion and recognized as such by a tribe or society of believers, Noelle Griffiths is at liberty to choose symbols from any cultural tradition that speaks her own experiential, distinctively feminine, sign-language. Myths detached from their origins are seen to share significant symbols: circles, for example, represent (as in most primitive cultures) the sun, the moon, the earth, the womb, the creation goddesss, and they can stand, too, for offeratory dishes of supplication, or libations for healing. Griffiths relates her language of circles, then, not only to Celtic signs for healthful seasons, plants and trees but to the Medicine Wheel of a North American Indian creation myth. In another series of paintings with related books, she takes the human hand as a motif indicative of seeking. Again, in accordance with her acceptance of incompleteness, she gives shape to an imagination that asks questions rather than answers them. "I must love the questions/ themselves/ as Rilke said/ like locked rooms/ full of treasure/ to which my blind and groping key/ does not yet fit." The quotation is from Alice Walker's poem, "Reassurance", but the paintings entitled Hands I, II, III do not so much illustrate Walker's lines as fill in some comparable area of human experience.
Of the many lands and cultures that have nurtured Noelle Griffiths"s imagination, that of India - in particular, the art of Indian miniatures - seems to have found parallel expression in the delicate drawings of her Shrine paintings and Travel Books. At the heart of all her work, however, lives a passion for imagination itself. One of the paintings in a series she has simply titled "Box" (after a poem by Gillian Clarke) is called "how everything is slowly made". She hasn't, however ( as she might have) entitled her powerful paintings after September 11th, 2001 "how everything is quickly destroyed". Instead, characteristically, she has named this series "Failure of the Imagination". The concertina books in this series take for their theme the last love-messages of the victims about which Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian, "The highjackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith and dehumanising hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of imagination. As for the victims in the planes and in the towers, in their terror they would not have felt it at the time, but those snatched and anguished assertions of love were their defence."
What I have called Noelle Griffiths's gift for incompleteness - better expressed, perhaps, as empathetic openness - has enabled her to defend imagination at the expense of "fanatical certainty" but without neglecting the marvellous power of symbols - of whatever religion - to express, above all, human love. It is by representing love as an assertion of defence and endurance that this artist has created images of belief that extend beyond the "thanks for everything" that made heroes and heroines of the victims of that so-difficult-to-commemorate attack on New York. Faith in imagination may not provide the secure comfort of religious absolutes, but to those of us who look to art for confimation of the rare value of life, Noelle Griffiths"s on-going life's work represents a moving and positive way forward.
* Mozart on the Way to Prague, by Edward Moerike, translated by Walter and Catherine Alison Phillips, London, first published by John Westhouse, July, 1946.