The Boot on the Landscape
By IRIS CONLAY THERE can be nobody who has not made an ink blot and then noticed that the way it has spread across the paper makes a kind of picture. But surely few ink blots find their way into pub, Iii; art collections.
The " blots" of Alexander Cozens are now hanging in the Tate Gallery. (Alexander Cozens, some believe, was the natural son of Peter the Great. He painted in the 18th century, was drawing master at Eton, where he taught the young George Ill, his work is picturesqueclassical with touches of Chinoiserie and he was full of " theories.") Briefly. Cozens' blot theory worked in this way: the artist first made casual ink spillings on his paper, then he crumpled it up, and the result, when the paper was smoothed out again, served as a design for a deliberately contrived composition. It sounds crazy, but not only are Cozens' own compositions remarkable, but the idea is a classical one which the 18th-century eccentric did not wholly invent but adapted from older sources. Leonardo knew the principle — read this from his collected writings: " A painter cannot be said to aim at universality in the art unless be love equally every species of that art. For instance, if he delight only in landscape his can be esteemed only as a simple investigation; and as our friend Botticelli remarks, is but a vain study since by throwing a sponge impregnated with various colours against a wall, it leaves some spots upon it which appear like a landscape. It is true, also. that a variety of compositions may be seen in such spots, according to the disposition of mind with which they are considered; such as heads of men, various animals, battles, rocky scenes, seas, clouds, woods and the like. It may be compared to the sound of bells, which may seem to say whatever we choose to imagine."
And although Leonardo evidently did not incline towards the theory, the 11th-century Sting Ti, a Chinese painter, believed greatly in it. This is his exposition: "You should choose an old tumble-down wall and throw over it a piece of white silk,. The morning and evening you should gaze at it, until at length you can see the ruin through the silk — its prominences, its levels, its zig-zags. and its cleavages, storing them up in the mind and fixing them in the eye. Make the prominence your mountains, the lower parts your water. the hollows your ravines, the cracks your streams. the lighter parts your nearer points, the darker parts your more distant points. Get all these thoroughly inw you and soon you will see men, birds, plants and trees, flying and moving among them. You may then ply your brush according to your fancy and the result will be of heaven, not of men."
Cozens' own definition of " true genius " as the power which " conceives strongly, invents with originality and executes readily " might well be applied to the extraordinary work of Australian aborigines—not the aborigines still surviving to-day. they do not understand the primitive work in the caves of their ancestors at all—but that of the Stone Age aborigines now copied from the rocks and showing at Australia House.
To the European familiar with the Primitives of our continent. it is at first not at all strange to be confronted with haloed heads with human-like features which float against a background, sometimes of mountain or river and sometimes of other shadowy beings, half animal. half human. But looking longer at these "spirit children," and these " wond'ina," they appear to have no mouths. Like Byzantine saints they emerge figures often sad, always dignified and remote like rising suns front a dim past.
It is said. too, of these figures, that they are the shadows of ancestors thrown upon the rock walls before they finally sank undesgiound where they continued their lista as " rain
bow-serpents " entailer link with Cozens' method, more remote than the Chinese?