Past or Present?

Chord II 1986 by Joan Mitchell 1925-1992

Joan Mitchell: Chord II. 1986 from

I start with one of Joan Mitchell’s paintings.  According to her biographer, Patricia Alber, in her early years as an artist she was inspired by Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ to start each painting from a memory of a past feeling.  Her painting was rooted in her past, like Proust’s work on memory, such as his well-known description of the taste of a madeleine taking him back to his visits to his aunt as a small boy.

I have been thinking about memory, especially of deep emotional experiences, since reading Maggie Nelson’s ‘Bluets’ – only published in the UK last year.  In this small book she blends reflection on certain events in her life with exploration of the colour blue; her passion for it, its history, and what others have written about it, among other things.  I just couldn’t put it down.

Alber summarises Proust’s lengthy work as follows:

the only way to grasp and make meaningful the past, which is all that truly belongs to us, he realizes, is through art made from one’s resurrected past.

Now that is intriguing isn’t it – this notion that our past is all that we possess?


Albert Anker: Still life with coffee, bread and potatoes. Wikimedia.


For many years now I have been endeavoring to keep my  personal focus on the present so that I can build up a more stable level of mental health.

In Buddhist thought, which I have been reading as part of this, there is strong teaching of the ‘now’ as the significant moment, the only space in which we can act.  Here are some examples of this teaching:

The path is the goal.

This path has one very distinct characteristic: it is not prefabricated.  It doesn’t already exist.  The path that we’re talking about is the moment-by-moment evolution of our experience, the moment-by-moment evolution of the world of phenomena, the moment-by-moment evolution of our thoughts and emotions.

Pema Chodron


Moreover you use your mind to create time, history for yourself in which you can bathe in nostalgia for the past and swim in glorious anticipation of the future, so neglecting now, which is the only moment in which you can live and act.

Roy Bhaskar.


There are, then, two ways of understanding an experience.  The first is to compare it with the memories of other experiences, and so to name and define it.  This is to interpret it in accordance with the dead and the past.  The second is to be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future, let the present be all, and thus do not stop to think, “I am happy”.

Alan Watts.

This teaching strives to get us to become conscious of the present moment, and to use it to step away from all the thoughts and emotional clutter we carry around with us. The aim is be open to where we are right now, with a clear perception of all that is around us.

Cold Cotes and autumn 2013 003

autumn woods

Ancient techniques, such as meditation, are part of building this clear awareness of the current moment, and I have found this practice very helpful to help me bring my mind back from its wanderings in the realms of time.   Many of these teachings have been incorporated into  the more recent category of ‘mindfulness’.  Perhaps a new name takes away a potential barrier to their history as religious practices?

This teaching does not necessarily throw away the past as irrelevant.  After all, it is through past experience that  we acquire the ‘habits of our minds’, which Chodron refers to.  But we can see from the quotations above that a focus on the present can lead to a more negative representation of past experience as ‘prefabricated’ ‘nostalgia’, ‘dead’.

Bhaskar, being a social theorist, does give our pasts much more space and thought elsewhere, saying we need to shed some of the identities we have mis-acquired through past experience (see also Post election reflections: shedding the ego). This kind of therapeutic work with our pasts, he argues, is essential to get to recognise and deal with emotional blocks that prevent us from being freely able to be aware of and act in the present.

All kinds of creative work, like Proust’s and Nelson’s, as well as historians, philosophers and therapists, can serve to remind us of the value of acknowledging and understanding our personal and collective pasts, alongside those who help us to become open to the importance of our moment to moment present.

As I write this people are currently working to understand and act on the terrible fire in Grenfell tower, London, where 72 people lost their lives.  Memories of these lost ones, with which the inquiry began, are an essential part of understanding the individual and collective loss that this fire caused, – as well as detailed investigations of all the past actions that led to it.  ‘Resurrecting’ this painful past is the only way we can make it meaningful, and see how to  act differently in the new present.

DCF 1.0

Twelve Witches by Christine Kowal Post. (see Christine Kowal Post


Pema Chodron: ‘When Things Fall Apart’.

Roy Bhaskar: ‘Meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom’.

Alan Watts: ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity.’





walking by water


if only I a passerby could pass

as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip

turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance

the weight of hope against the light of patience

From ‘A short story of falling’ by Alice Oswald

I have just moved house, just a short distance, from the river plain of the small city I live in, to near the top of the hill that leads down to the centre, the castle and the river it overlooks.  My local walks with the dog have consequently changed.  I am happy to be higher up, looking out into the western sky, closer to the heart of the city, but I miss the river, with its weirs, its diving birds, its tidal rhythms.

Skerton Weir Ian Taylor

photograph by Ian Taylor

I still have the canal instead, with its slower pace, its swans nesting, its straight edges and mellow stone bridges.

What is it about water that makes us seek it out?  I am focusing here on freshwater-ways, as the sea needs a salty blog space of its own.  I turned to Alice Oswald as she has a lot of experience of transforming the slippery flow of rivers into words.  On YouTube there is a video of her reading the poem I quote from above.  Introducing it, she says:

What I love about water is that it spends its whole time falling. It’s always, apparently, trying to find the lowest place possible. And when it finds the lowest place possible it lies there, wide awake.’

(the Griffin Poetry Prize, 2017,

Yes, it is the constant movement of rivers, streams, becks, and even canals, that helps smooth out any worries or burdensome feelings I have brought with me to the riverbank.  I can drop them, consciously or unconsciously, into the water flows and eddies, and they are born away.  I hadn’t thought of water flows specifically as the act of falling, as Oswald does here, but I shall do from now on.  See how she brings in the rain into our thoughts about water and flow.  How significant the falling rain is to the running rivers.  How I should always celebrate its presence.


While Oswald concentrates on the fall of water, Katharine Norbury wrote of her burning desire to walk against this seeking out of sea level place, from river mouth to river source, in the direction taken by salmon, returning to spawn, of how she walked up the fifteen miles of Dunbeath Water to find its source.

‘I crossed the tributary with a sense of elation, and was surprised by quite how much my heart warmed at the sight of the water. The river was gently and visibly rising, held in a gentle V in the land. The fear that I had felt when I first saw the map had quite dissipated. While I followed the river I could not get lost. It was as constant and as concrete as a ball of flax. I folded the map away and put it at the bottom of my bag.’

from ‘the Fish Ladder’.

Walking against the flow means the river can swiftly sweep unwanted concerns away and out of sight, downstream .  Waterways give you a choice – to climb towards its beginnings as a water flow, or to follow its fall.  Which ever direction you choose, as Norbury says, you can relax into its journey.  It is the path, for now.

summer 2009 001


‘I stepped back down into the riverbed. It was filled with new grass, brilliant and green, no higher than my foot. I was happy for the companionship of the water. The river was now little wider than a stream, but it was my clue through the labyrinth.’

From ‘the Fish Ladder’.

A river or stream or canal gives you a path you can follow, and a companion to walk with, whose flow will help open up your mind, your eyes.

DSCF0687My photos also remind me that these small or large water beings are also in constant dialogue with the light of the sun and moon, and this also why we seek them out, to watch them play together in an infinite variety of dance.

Through visual art we also celebrate these flows, this companionship, these dances.



Being a feminist killjoy

About a month ago I heard Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge student’s union, being interviewed on BBC radio 4, about her anger at being singled out by a right-wing newspaper from an active group of students working to broaden the literature curriculum , and misrepresented as trying to get rid of ‘white authors’.  She identified herself a feminist killjoy and referred to Sara Ahmed’s arguments for this.  Her proud use of this label prompted me  to revisit Ahmed’s work on happiness as a social norm, especially as the media interview

BOURgeois NY Times

Louise Bourgeois

did not give any space for her to explain this work.  Going back to Ahmed’s arguments about the unequal, conditional ‘promise’ of happiness made me realise how relevant they are right now, when the injustices of workplace sexual harassment and violence are at last being brought into public view. 

Ahmed’s argument about happiness as a kind of social norm is philosophically precise, and that makes it a challenge to summarise here.  You can find some references at the end of this post for you to read in full.  She asks us to look at which social groups get to define what happiness is – what kind of lives and objects are pushed as desirable, to be wished for.  What do we do when what is supposed to make us happy is not what we are experiencing?


Renoir’s the boating party from

Ahmed argues that happiness gets attached to what she calls ‘happy objects’.  These can be things we do as well as things we have.  These objects are pointers towards an end point of happiness.  They point  to the path that will lead to happiness if you follow it.  Think of the wedding day, or the exciting new job or role, of balancing career and children in your perfect home.  Such paths have become social goods; they are what we all should desire.  If you experience unhappiness while following them, if there is a gap between what you actually feel and what you think you should feel – then voicing that unhappiness is seen as a threat; as spoiling the happiness of others.  You become the source of tension, the breaker of solidarity, the troublemaker.  And you feel like a stranger.  We can see the reality of this in the experiences of those who are at last coming forward in significant numbers to talk about being treated primarily as sexual objects by those who have power over them in the workplace, what ever their gender.  The happiness of these men with a little bit, or a lot of power, is finally being challenged.

This kind of trouble making is the inevitable role of the feminist says Ahmed.  If you protest against sexual harassment or even assault, or against unequal pay, or work practices that don’t take a man’s responsibilities as a parent into account, then the defense is that you are the problem.  Don’t rock the boat!

Your complaint is turned back on you.  mona-lisaDon’t complain about that powerful man if you want to be successful in your job – find your own ways to deal with it and smile!  This was the message received by many of those who did voice their unhappiness, their hurt and anger, at the way they were being treated.

Ahmed says that instead of the promise of happiness being laid down for us in advance, we can think about the idea of happiness as a sense of possibility,  a sense of opening up new ways of being, rather than following paths that restrict the possibilities of so many of us.

The more of us that do this, the more change we can make, and we can see this now, in the strength of the numbers of people coming forward now, to make public the unhappiness, distress and anger that has been a hidden part of our workplaces.

LIPS Choir


Sara Ahmed

article – ‘Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness’, Signs, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring 2010), pp. 571-594

book – ‘The Promise of Happiness’ Duke University Press

blog –



When the sun goes missing

Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Norham Castle, Sunrise by J.M.W Turner.  Tate Gallery

The sun has been missing from this part of Northern England for many weeks now.  On the 21st August it also went missing from the skies of America, but only for a few minutes when the moon got in the way.  During this total solar eclipse the sun was completely covered over for 2 minutes and 40 seconds, if you were standing in the right place.  This seems a short time to do without the sun in comparison with its longer absence in my small part of the world.  People, though, travel long distances to experience this very brief blotting out, just as those living through its longer absence in the summer months often travel to places where the sun fills the skies with its powerful presence, without any bothersome clouds.  Two kinds of contemporary sun worship, perhaps?

There is not usually much media talk devoted to the absence of the summer sun in Northern places.  It is not considered to be ‘news’.  Total solar eclipses are a different matter.

total eclipse 2017 Getty Images

The moment of totality on 21st August: Getty Images.


During all the talk of the eclipse on BBC radio 4, I was struck by the number of scientists  who said that the minutes of ‘totality’ were a very special experience – an experience they could not put into words.  One even agreed that it was ‘mystical’, which surprised me.  So what do writers – whose business is words – have to tell me about this sudden vanishing of the sun that I have not yet been fortunate enough to see myself?  Two accounts of total eclipses have been brought to my attention in the run up to the eclipse; Annie Dillard’s description of the total eclipse over America in 1979, and Virginia Woolf’s diary notes on the one over the UK  in 1927.

These are different types of account.  Dillard’s is written a couple of years after the February event and is a long, carefully crafted piece of work.  Woolf’s is a diary entry a day after her night journey up to Richmond, Yorkshire to see an eclipse in June, where the total covering of the sun was only 24 seconds. Her account is much shorter and presumably just one draft.  As she says at the start of the entry, her attention is to ‘sketch out’ the experience, while Dillard’s essay has more complex aims that include critique of the culture she  was living in.   The winter morning sky was clear for Dillard, but Woolf’s early Northern British summer one was full of predictable cloud.

Despite these differences both these writers drew on similar images to try to convey the impact this event had on them.  Both included their journey to the place as part of the experience, and remarked on how standing on hilltops in the early morning, staring at the sun, made them feel connected to our early ancestors:

Woolf –   ‘I thought how we were like very old people, in the birth of the world – druids on Stonehenge;’

Dillard –‘It looked as though we were scattered on hilltops at dawn to sacrifice virgins, make rain, set stone stelae in a ring.’


Nasa satellite image of eclipse

NASA satellite image of the start of the eclipse


Both writers equated the sudden darkness with death :

Woolf- ‘We had fallen.  It was extinct.  There was no colour.  The earth was dead.

Dillard – ‘There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down.’

There was a shared sense of disquiet:

Woolf – ‘We had been much worse than we had expected.  We had seen the world dead.

Dillard – ‘We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there.’

Take the sun away from our planet and you take away the life of most of earth’s creatures.  This is stating the obvious but it takes events like total eclipses, volcanic eruptions and long, sunless summers to remind us of our dependence on this burning star – something that our ancestors were all too aware of.  Electricity and modern technologies serve to dim our sense of this vital relationship, while at the same time they bring us more knowledge about the sun and the galaxies we are just one tiny part of.  We now know that our ancient fears, brought so vividly to the surface during total eclipses, will eventually be realised.  The sun is dying and we are moving away from it.

Sun & Moon Plaque

The actual death of the sun is too far in the future for our minds to encompass, thankfully.  But I, for one, struggle to comprehend that this beautiful planet is as finite as each of our individual lives.

One theme of Dillard’s essay is the inability of everyday language to capture the immensity of experiences such as total eclipses, or, indeed, of our life on this earth:

All those things for which we have no words are lost. The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work.

She echoes what eclipse watchers were saying on the radio – that they could not describe how they felt. That is why she set to work to give a full account of her experience and what she had observed of human behaviour, as well as the motion of these masses of gases and matter that make up our world.  We need writers such as Dillard and Woolf, and other artists, to give us words for our fears and our awe.

Sometimes though, when the clouds part briefly to reveal the sun in all its summer glory, and I rush out to worship it, and top up my levels of vitamin D, what goes through my mind is a much simpler account of how the sun nurtures our well- being.  It is a song, written by a fellow Northerner, and the music (absent here, but oh so much part of the message) summons up for me the warmth of sunshine on my skin:

Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right

George Harrison, Abbey Rd, 1969.

Sun & Moon Plaque

Noticing 2: walking with other species


the dogs listen to the forest

In  my last post I was thinking about our observation of the world about us, and the other beings in it.  Here I want to consider how this noticing is shaped by the bodies we inhabit.

In the photo above, taken in a Scottish winter, the dogs are ahead of me on the forest path.  They are listening intently, their ears held erect and swivelling to hone in on interesting sounds in the thick of the trees.  While I am noticing the way the winter sun lights up the snowy path, and thickens the darkness of the surrounding forest, they are noticing the presence of other creatures within its dense growth.  As usual on our walks together, they are engaging with this place differently from me, using senses that are common to all us mammals, but differently attuned  Watching them respond to the world makes me aware of my own human-ness.

Wittgenstein said: ‘if a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’  Other species that dwell on this planet have their own cultures, interests and ways of communicating.  But he also said: ‘If I see someone writhing in pain with evident cause I do not think: all the same, his feelings are hidden from me.’    This is an example of a context in which we can understand the feelings of others, through their actions.  For this philosopher the context drives the communication. Regarding other species, we know the causes of many of our dogs actions because they are part of our daily lives. We share a long history together.


medieval illumination

As countless books demonstrate, we know a lot about this particular species, and they know a lot about us humans.  Alexandra Horowitz’s ‘Inside of a Dog’, for example, explores how dogs perceive their worlds and our relationships with them.  From childhood, we build up our consciousness of self and other through our interactions.  These interactions are not only with other humans, but also with other species and the plants and places we spend time with.

I am in a wood with the dogs and I have stepped to the side of the path and crouched down to look closely at some pale fungi sprouting from a fallen log.  The lurcher runs back to look for me.  I watch silently as she runs right past me, even though I am in plain sight.  I notice that she is looking upwards to a height which I realise is roughly where my eyes are when standing.  This unusual direction of her gaze makes visible my upright, two-legged position; how I carry my main sense and communication organs perched on the top of my body.   In contrast dogs mainly keep theirs close to the earth that their four limbs are firmly planted on.

garden and Shell Island August 2016 004

Their noticing is led by their noses, jampacked with sensory cells.  What makes a walk an aesthetic experience for me is most often what I see – the sunlight dancing on the water, the blue mountains melting into the far horizon.  The sharp tang of seaweed and salt water, or the coconut perfume of the gorse flowers may add to my pleasure.  For the dogs though, beauty is to be found in a heady mix of fragrances.  Potentially edible ones are exciting, maybe leading to a sun-cured rabbit carcass or the remains of a picnic.  Places frequented by other dogs are also of great interest to them, and they study the messages splashed onto gate posts and rocks with the same absorption as my contemplation of a graceful tree, or bank of bluebells.

As we walked along the river one day I glanced up the wooded slope to the right of the path.  Half way up, amongst the young saplings, my eyes slowly focussed on a motionless deer, almost blending into the dappled shade.  I then made out two more nearby, as immobile as statues.  The dogs were just in front of me, noses to the ground, unaware.  They discovered the scent trail of the deer some minutes later, by which time the deer had disappeared. 

Similarly, in another wood an old fox and I stared at each other for what seemed like a goodly amount of time, plenty enough for me to admire his red pelt and bushy tail.  I don’t know what he was thinking about me.  This silent interaction was abruptly terminated by the dogs rushing back down the path, ears and tails up, their noses now full of his particularly pungent perfume.  The fox made a quick exit through the undergrowth.  Dogs need movement to trigger their visual attention, whether they are looking for their human friend, or for the opportunity for the kind of chase that lies deep within their bones.

We humans also have in our minds imagination and language, through which we can enter into other consciousness, to amplify our perception of this world We use these for creative purposes as I said in the last post.  We are also slowly discovering that other species too have complex communication systems and creativity.  Sharing our time with other species can remind us that we are embodied beings too.

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Noticing 1

Arctic_Tern_141 IBC

from the International Bird Collection

This post is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s poem ‘After a Rain’ (Selected Poems, Wave Books, 2010), in which she explores being ‘a noticing kind of person‘.

Like the arctic tern in the photo above, many of Ruefle’s examples of noticing are grounded in observation.  Here is one of them:

………, I noticed an infant will grip your hand like
there is no tomorrow while the very aged
will give you a weightless grip for the same reason,

And here is a recent observation of mine, not so beautifully condensed as Ruefle’s.

I noticed that the heron on the other side of the canal did not flap away in the usual indignation as I passed by with the dogs.


Grey heron by Andy Holt for RSPB.

On my return I checked and saw it in the same intent position. Moving on, a sharp splash made me look again, to see the heron backing away from the water’s edge, a flash of silver in its beak, and then its thin neck bulging as it swallowed.  I have passed countless solitary herons staring into the water, but this is the first time I’ve seen one get its reward.

In this kind of noticing we rely on our senses – sight, of course in my case, but also hearing, and touch in Ruefle’s consideration of  the grip of a hand.  Perhaps you can think of when smell or taste have been part of something you’ve noticed?

Ruefle also makes use of another type of noticing in her poem.  Here is an example:

……… and I noticed the road followed roughly
the route of a zipper around a closed case,

Here, you may say she is drawing on sight, but this is imaginary vision, a noticing that draws on her language knowledge to make new connections between things.  She also mixes the two kinds of noticing together – as in the first example ‘I noticed an infant will grip your hand like there is no tomorrow‘.  This kind of noticing is a primary staple of poems, of course, and is also part of the work of visual artists, using the power of image rather than words.  Louise Bourgeois’ work immediately sprang into my mind as I was thinking about this kind of noticing:

BOURgeois NY Times

One of Bourgeois’ spider works from the New York Times.

This kind of noticing is a creative process of course, and so here I am, thinking about creativity again, which wasn’t my initial intention in this post!  As such it needs a great deal more practice than those based on observation only, at least to make connections that open up the eyes and minds of the rest of us.  Here is another sculpture example, this time from Kiki Smith:

Rapture by Kiki Smith


My journals are jampacked with small incidents I have noticed.  They are there for me to remember and rejoice over, but these quickly written notebooks are not the place for this second kind of noticing, such as the kind of connections Mary Ruefle shares with us in her poems.  This kind of noticing makes me go ‘oh yes!’ as the image she has summoned up in words enters my mind, and I begin to savour the rich meanings invoked.

Honing our senses to notice what is going on around us is though, something we can all make more space for in our daily lives, and prepares the ground for the second kind.

Facing my fears for 2017 with the help of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’.

I’ve recently been thinking of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’, the simplest of what are called his black paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his last years.


Goya’s ‘The Dog’, from the Prado Museum website

All his dark paintings were taken from these walls after his death, and placed in the Prado Museum, Madrid, even though Goya did not necessarily intend them for public view.

It was Laurie Anderson talking about this painting in her personal film essay ‘the heart of a dog’, that made me look it again, as we were nearing the end of 2016.  Like Laurie Anderson, I find that I learn a lot from living alongside dogs, and I have a great love and respect for them.  Perhaps that is why this image of a small dog’s head, submerged in amorphous matter,  makes an emotional impact on me.  In addition, I have been looking at it whilst full of fear for what 2017 will bring – to the UK, the USA, all countries they are connected to; and fear for this lovely planet they are part of.  This small grey dog speaks my fears back to me.

I read its eyes as full of fear, and that this is reinforced through the rest of the painting.  Goya has painted the dog as alone, its body sunk in murky matter.  He has positioned it near the bottom of the wall, just off-centre, facing a rising level of this brown stuff, as if it is about to be enveloped within it.  Trying to describe this painting, to transform it into words, is not straightforward.  No wonder John Berger pointed out

Seeing comes before words

in his seminal TV series and book ‘Ways of Seeing’, way back in the last century (the book I am using was published by the BBC in 1972).

I want to bring in Berger’s work here because it is still highly relevant, but also to mark his recent death at the age of ninety.  He lived his life to the full and used his vision and gift for words to make this human world a kinder, more thoughtful one.

goyas-dog-croppedBerger urged us to consider the context of any painting, as part of its meaning, especially when viewing a reproduction of it, rather than the original, where the work of the painter – the brushstrokes, and colours, close the time gap between the painter and the viewer, and make the communication much more immediate.  That is why I said above that this painting, and all the paintings he did on the walls of this house on the edge of Madrid, were painted for himself, and we have no information about whether he wanted others to look at them, especially in a museum, where they were changed from murals to pictures hung on walls as ‘works of art’.  What we do know is that he had recently recovered from a serious illness before painting them; had gone deaf; that he had experienced the horrors of war in his lifetime, and that the political situation in Spain was very unstable.  A Liberal government that was in power when he he was painting his walls with many disturbing scenes was, in fact, overturned shortly after he moved away.  There are some parallels here between his world and ours, don’t you think? These experiences fed into his painting of the little grey dog.

But the meanings of any image are not fixed by the creator, of course.  The viewer brings to this dialogue their own knowledge and their personal emotional state.  For example, Jonathon Jones, writing about this picture in the Guardian (‘Goya in hell’, 4/10/15), describes the dog thus

Its grey head pokes defiantly out of the brown sludge.


 Jones sees defiance where I see fear.  What do you see?

What none of us see, at this moment of reading, is the original mural, or even the painting it was trasformed into.  We are looking at a digital copy – a type of reproduction Berger knew nothing about when discussing the proliferation of reproductions of paintings back then.  He was arguing that the ready availibility of these reproductions needed to be accompanied by a similar spread of knowledge about what the artists were trying to achieve, and how, and the political and art history they are situated in, and communicating about.  He wanted to take this knowledge out of the hands of an elite few, so that:

we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experiences of our relation to the past: that is to saythe experience of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

Now we have the internet, and wikipedia, and museum websites we have instant access to a huge amount of the world’s art, and also to that previously elite knowledge.  I can use this, as I am now, to get to know a painting in which I recognise an experience of anxiety that reaches across time, and death, to connect us.  Goya was trying to deal with old age and illness when he painted this, which I have tet to face, but we share the turbulence of political instabilty caused by the strong drives we humans have to split ourselves into distinct groups of ‘us and them’, so we project our own fears onto others.

The first digital copy of this painting I looked at showed an area at the top of the wall, to the right, as painted a lighter, creamy brown than the rest, almost as if there was a distant sun struggling to penetrate the murk surrounding the small dog – a suggestion of light which the dog’s gaze could reach.  This prompted me to read the possibility of hope as part of the meaning of this work of Goya’s.  But looking at a range of digital copies, and learning more about the painting, and the painter, has led me to dismiss this reading as due to the vagaries of the software rather than as part of Goya’s own work at that time of his life.  I wish I could confirm this with a trip to Madrid, but that will have to wait.

goyas-dog-croppedThere does not seem to be much historical data about this series of murals, which ‘the dog’ is part of, and some even dispute that Goya painted them.  Goya left behind no words of commentary or explanation, or, at least, none have been discovered yet.  He has, though, left us this memorable image of a small grey dog alone in an uninviting space, and this expresses some of my emotional state at the beginning of 2017, as well as his own two hundred years ago.  Getting to know this painting has helped me situate my own fears and consider my own finiteness.  It has also helped me through the absences, through what is not included in the painting.  Dogs and humans work very well together,they build reciprocal relationships, but the human companion, who could encourage the dog to get out of the murk, is absent.  What is missing from this painting is any reference to all the amazing endeavour that is helping us understand how interconnected we all are, and how we must keep facing difficult issues together.  Goya was expressing a despair we can all recognise.  Understanding our feelings is important, but so is what we do next.


Women working together at Greenham Common