Wednesday, 28 July 2010

'Yes' to Catastrophe: Roger Dean, Prog and SF

I saw an excellent BBC documentary on Progressive Rock recently. Titled Prog Rock Britannia, it told the story of that shunned and often hated musical movement, Progressive Rock, forming part of a twosome of docs on British music, Synth Britannia being the other. Both can be found now on YouTube, and I wholeheartedly recommend watching them: Prog Rock Britannia in particular being one of those one-and-a-half hour, well-made pop cultural histories that the Beeb does so well.

So why mention it here? Certainly I won’t be looking here at the way in which Prog took SF as an inspiration for its fantastical concept albums. I don’t know the movement well enough to do that. That’s not to say however, in the loudmouth manner of a critic, I haven’t slighted Progressive Rock before when writing about SF.

I once wrote a piece for the HG Wells Society about the many adaptations of The War of the Worlds. Inevitably, I wrote about the popular album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978). There I made a couple of throwaway comments about the merits of Wayne’s record. I declared that the only compelling elements of the album I could find were Richard Burton’s sonorous voiceover and the pulpy illustrations found on the gatefold sleeve. “Wayne’s Worlds” however, I sniffed, was Prog, and therefore the result of a misguided attempt to self-consciously graft ‘high art’ onto pop— and I didn’t like it.
I got some friendly feedback about the article from one reader who felt that I was too dismissive about Prog. After speaking in heartening tones about my piece, he wrote that he did have one objection. “Some of us feel that there is no barrier between pop and high art”, he argued. I confess I never wrote back to the Society paper to continue the correspondence, or answer his letter to the contrary. This was partly because I wasn’t interested in arguing with someone who had been so encouraging to me, and partly because, of course, I agreed with him. There is no barrier between pop and high art. No, where I disagreed with that reader— and so decided it would be churlish to bicker— was that I felt that I could never find high art in Progressive Rock. In a sense, this post is tackling that thought from another angle. How good was the art of Prog Rock? 

For what Prog Rock Britannia did remind me of was of the contribution of the movement’s artists to the visualization of SF tropes and themes, and especially the contribution of one particular artist, Roger Dean. By happy co-incidence, Dean’s work has itself been thrust once more to prominence with the release of Avatar, which has shamelessly rifled Dean’s imaginative lumber-room. I’d like here to look again at Prog, Dean, and the historical roots of this influential vision of the fantastic worlds of SF. It’s a very partial investigation that I propose: I’m not interested so much in Dean’s later artwork, but in the beginnings of his imaginative output, which coincided with the pomp of Prog. It’s there, I think, that we find most plainly a strand of romantic SF that has reinjected itself, via Cameron’s film, into the mainstream culture of today.  

Prog Rock Britannia took a surprising and creditably serious look at progressive rock.  It’s not over-exaggerating to say that Prog still inspires in many music critics and fans a visceral repulsion. The Prog Rock project was to bring high art virtuosity to a supposedly too-formulaic popular music. Beginning a heroic journey beyond the artistic boundaries of Pop, it made musical ground in the early seventies as an inheritor of self-conscious experimentalism in popular music. Prog produced high-concept albums with symphonic movements, syncopated rhythms and diminished chords. Yet it soon became stale, its crusty take on Pop soon washed away by punk with its aggressively proletarian DIY ethos.

The list of crimes read against Prog’s name are many. Prog was unashamedly elitist, but kitsch: think of Rick Wakeman conducting The London Symphony Orchestra in a cape. It was overblown— E.L.P.’s stainless steel electronic drum kit could collapse stages, weighing in at just over one and a half tons. It was self-consciously mature and ‘credible’: as the young Mike Rutherford of Genesis admitted, “we like audiences that sit down and listen, rather than get drunk and pick up girls”. It was a white, male, middle class rebellion, and a questionable outpost of Science fiction and fantasy to boot— think of all those references to The Lord of the Rings. Finally, it was very, very hairy, but not in a good way. For all these reasons and more, Prog is one of the most scorned pop-musical genres of the past forty years— the hobbit in the woodpile. And yet, watching Prog Rock Britannia, I expected more villains. 

Villains there were, of course. Phil Collins was there, of course, speaking with that self-justifying bitterness that is his one tone— Peter Gabriel, thankfully, was absent. Carl Palmer was perkily annoying, and Mike Rutherford had the morose air of a disappointed headmaster. Pete Sinfield of King Crimson was irritatingly proud of his knuckle-headed elitism: “if it was popular, it was out. It had to complicated,” he boasted. But villainy was very far from the overall effect of Prog Rock Britannia.

For most of the bearded gents on the program had eased into old age with a likeable and even sage air about them. Rick Wakeman was affable, self-effacing. Mont Campbell of Egg even looked like Gandalf. Campbell, as it happened, came out fighting and gave the best defence of Prog heard on the show: “I do think that self-indulgence is a good thing in art, because if you’re trying to please others all the time, you just stick to the same model… nobody hears anything new, so no-one expects anything new”.

Prog’s disregard for its audience was a theme that ran through the documentary, and in the long run that self-imposed isolation and self-indulgence pretty much did for the movement. Yet it did foster an attitude of adventurous modernism that was heard again and again on the program. Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine argued strongly against the Prog stereotype. “I don’t like people to think that we were clever Grammar schooly people who came in and thought we’d do something to pop,” he said: “we were awestruck by pop music”. For all the many sins of Prog, it was an earnest spirit of pop experimentation that shone through in the documentary from many of its aged musicians.

Given this experimental mode, perhaps it should not be surprising that from the very beginning of the documentary— the first act was entitled ‘The Shape of Things to Come’— it was impossible not to be struck by the references to SF and fantasy as important elements of the Progressive Rock aesthetic. Both genres had been important elements of the countercultural imagination in the 60s, and would be a key inspiration for Prog lyrics and visuals: the Progressive rock aesthetic would be, in many ways, an offshoot of the moribund hippie rebellion of the previous generation. 

The documentary picked at this generic knot and the way Prog rejected Bluesy sex, opting for the myths and symbols of SF and fantasy. “We hadn’t experienced much outside education,” Genesis’s Mike Rutherford admitted— “that’s partly why we wrote more about fantasy lyrics”. Bandmate Tony Banks agreed. “Coming from a public school background I was very self-conscious,” he said. “I could never have written [about sex] in those days”. This candour about the public schoolboy’s difficulty in meeting let alone understanding the opposite sex feeds easily enough into a common stereotype about Science Fiction: that it was and remains a genre for nerdy teenage boys, more comfortable with the thrust of rocketry than dancing hips. Yet Wyatt made clear that this was only the experience of a few, more socially isolated Prog rockers: not everyone in the movement was looking to move beyond the lower classes’ dirty songs and dreary.

Science Fiction wasn’t necessarily an imaginary retreat from the opposite sex, but it was one part of the more self-consciously cerebral thrust of Prog. As the narrator of the program declared, “‘My baby done left me’ never did work with complex musical structures. This music didn’t want the blues— it needed fantasy and myth. Cupid meets psyche: not boy meets girl.” Prog favoured the exploration of desire through symbolist narratives, and when not plumbing pagan religions or ancient myths for these stories it was SF and fantasy, those great modern myth-machines, that gave these musicians a lyrical focus. 

It is through the use of SF in the design of the Prog package that the movement can claim to have reinterpreted rather simply retread SF narratives, and the vehicle for this innovation was the album cover and insert, the gatefold sleeve and the giveaway print. Prog Rock Britannia showed flashes of other artists’ work— one of the most arresting being E.L.P.’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ album, designed by HR Giger in his infamous ‘biomechanical’ style— but focused on the work of Roger Dean, British designer, artist and illustrator. 

Prog Rock’s album covers are routinely cited as one of the movement’s achievements, and Dean’s work is probably exemplary. Prog made much of the interface between its music and the visionary quality of its album illustration. Indeed, the whole idea of the conceptualised album-as-design-package could be said to be a Prog project, from Peter Blake’s design for the Ur-Prog album— Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band— onward. The self-consciously amateur cut-up of punk and the sleek design of subversive eighties pop labels like Factory both owe something to Prog pioneers.

A number of factors mitigate against Dean’s visuals being given credit for such a role in pop culture. First, as we have seen, as an artist working with Prog Rockers like Yes and Asia, his work is deeply unfashionable, and fronts products that relatively few people these days are interested in buying.

Second, Dean works in a similarly unfashionable SF / Fantasy idiom. A thought experiment. You announce at a fashionable party that you really, really like Yes. This is perhaps a slightly dangerous eccentricity, but not, forty years after the fact, a cause of social death. Telling all present, however, that you have a love for SF or fantasy art (particularly those featuring castles and dragons) becomes a little stickier, denoting a fanciful imagination and bad taste to boot. Yet admitting at a fashionable party that you really like Yes and love SF art would be akin to boasting to the room that you clean your teeth with your socks. It just won’t do.

Third, Dean’s medium— the album cover and inlay— is dead. In the early eighties the music video embodied a move from the fixed to the moving image as the central means whereby pop product was shifted to an audience— or, put another way, established a relationship with its audience. From the mid-eighties onward, moreover, the smaller CD format neutered much of the impact of the gatefold sleeve album. Today the digitalization of music almost completely removes the static visual from its once pivotal place in album production and consumption. Prog-influenced bands like the Super Furry Animals or high-concept bands like the Gorillaz may persist in producing a recognizable album-to-album aesthetic, but there is little sense that the album cover is a vital part of a band’s image any more. The significance of album design in contemporary culture has lessened accordingly, and with it— at least, until Avatar— the chances of Dean’s work being reappraised.

British illustrator John Coulthart has written an interesting defence of Dean’s ‘neglected’ artwork. Arguing that the roots of Dean’s work can be found in Romanticism, Coulthart suggests that Dean's SF aesthetic is considered kitsch by mainstream criticism because establishment voices are still in thrall to modernist aesthetics. There is some merit to this argument, and I want to develop Coulthart’s argument by looking at two artists whose work obviously presages or prefigures Dean’s own. For the sake of his argument, Coulthart neglects to mention the obvious debt that Dean owes to a less critically credible artistic heritage, the colourful cover art of early SF pulp magazines, like ‘Amazing Stories’ and ‘Wonder Stories’ (where the art of Frank R. Paul, for instance, as defined by its portrait frame as Dean is by the landscape projection). Yet Coulthart’s is an interesting proposition, meriting closer inspection. Looking at Dean’s Yes gatefolds, two Romantic artists come to mind. One gives us a clue to the particular tone of Dean’s alien landscapes; the other a prototype for his framing of the Romantic vision.

Dean’s covers are representative of the best of Prog Rock visuals. They are a peculiar mixture of Science Fiction and fantasy, realism and magic. His most recognizable motifs are the hanging rocks that hover in his translucent skies, shaped like inverted teardrops. His ‘houses’ meld fantastically into strange landscapes as bulbous outgrowths, the dreams of speculative architects like Archigram realized in fantasy worlds. What is most striking about his work is the importance of levitation and flight, a kind of aesthetic of anti-gravity. Everything floats; the land itself has become suspended; seemingly not as the result of any explosion or disaster, but rather through some comfy, timeless drift. Even his castles seem ready to rise into the air, moored only by impracticably steep and winding roads.

Where do we find the roots of such a peculiar vision of the future, with its picturesque fusion of imaginative SF speculation, nostalgia and pastoral quietude? We must first return to the romantic visionaries of the nineteenth century to find models for Dean’s SF imagery, and begin with an artist and painting that only superficially strikes a wholly different tone to Dean’s own.  

In many ways, John Martin (1789-1854)— nicknamed by his contemporaries ‘Mad Martin’— comes from central casting for the role of the Romantic discontent. Anti-establishment and nonconformist, he specialized in dramatic and didactic Biblical subjects. His most famous painting today, and the one that best prefigures Dean’s floating islands, is his dramatic image of apocalypse, ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ (1851-54).

This picture, incredibly popular in its time, shows the instant of tumult as the Earth breaks up and immolates on the day of judgement. It is a genuine product of the fundamentalist imagination, and for devout Victorians captured the fearful and thrilling moment of earthly dissolution with awe-inspiring realism. Continents crack as the abyss opens; lightening smashes mountainous chunks into the void. A tide of rock falls towards boiling chaos. Martin’s painting is a snapshot of one of the last seconds of mortal time, as found in Revelations, “when every mountain and island” will be “moved out of their places”.

In ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, Martin takes the transcendent Romantic landscape and accomplishes a turn we are familiar with in SF. The landscape was at the heart of Romantic art: it was there that the Romantics reclaimed Nature as divine. In Nature the visionary artist and poet found the very forms and expression of God, and ‘sublime’ was the word that expressed the awe-inspiring connection made with this numinous reality. Scale was one part of this sublime language for God: hence the mountains, valley and seas of the Romantic imagination. Indeed, the aggressive representation of sheer massiveness courses through Martin’s picture: if a canvas could inject anabolic steroid, this is what it would look like after three years of reworking.

Martin conducts his own revenge on Romanticism in ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, while remaining a Romantic at heart. He takes the Romantic metaphor (‘God can be found in the very landscape we look upon, and God is great’) and literalises it according to his own devotional ends (‘God can be found in the very landscape we look upon, and He is smashing it to smithereens. God is great!’). As has been observed countless times, SF, especially cinematic SF, often takes this turn; it literalises metaphors. Imaginative speculation becomes materialized in the form of an exuberant realism. Martin is painting the original Death Star, and its name is God.

Dean, of course, also depicts a moment “when every mountain and island” are “moved out of their places”. Martin literally depicts apocalypse; Dean’s imagery, on the other hand, is if anything less materially convincing and more obviously metaphorical, for all its SF trappings. Which is to say that science can today give us evidence for catastrophic events that lend plausibility to the scale of destruction depicted in Martin’s painting: the Yucatan peninsula impact, for example, or the Theia impact event. If we ignore the stylized bluster— a few less divine darts of lighting, involved, perhaps— we can map the imagery of ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ onto scientific theory and, more importantly, the SFnal narratives that grow out of those theories.

On the other hand, by any scientific rule, Dean’s images of floating islands depict the impossible. Where Martin harnesses all the energy of a fundamentalist reading of Christian apocalypse, Dean applies the materialist tropes of SF to a vision of one moment of sublime Otherness. In Dean’s pictures of floating islands, we find an alien landscape in which the apocalypse is similarly suspended as in Martin’s freeze-frame, but instead of noise and destruction we find peace and quiet. The Romantic emotionalism of Martin’s great painting has been absorbed and subdued, tamed for a pastoral vision of sublime beauty. Here, the picturesque has been channeled and chewed through the revolutionary grinder of Romanticism and emerged unscathed on the other side, a safe nirvana of spent energy. The mood of Dean’s ‘floating islands’ paintings are therefore deliberately quiet and meditative, right down to the oriental cliché of the topiary growing on fragments of rock. Sweet isolation and peaceful contemplation for the aloof mind— these yearnings of the Prog imagination are realized in his images of floating, contented worlds.

These obsessions are already there in the artwork for Dean’s first Yes album cover, ‘Fragile’ (1971). A planet roughly the size of a small London park— or is it a tiny planetoid dotted here and there with several stratospheric oak trees?— seems split like an old tennis ball by broad paths and seams of jutting rock. A ship flies over the surface of the planet, noting its cracked peculiarity from a distance. Dean’s leisurely vision here seems logically prior to his floating islands: the shards of rock suggest the arrested beginning of a planetary explosion (in fact, on the reverse, in a less ambiguous and far uglier image, the planet does fragment). Dean was, in a way, prescient: his theme of fragile global beauty anticipates the reaction of the public and ecologists to Apollo 17’s famous picture of the illuminated face of Earth the following year. 

As in much of pop culture at this time, the moon missions hover unconsciously behind the scene as a technological project both inspiring and threatening: ‘Fragile’ is a homely, almost twee image that responds to this perspective-shifting series of events, an image redeemed by the vague sense of repressed threat that the rock formations imply. If Prog Rock was suspicious of sexual thrust, Dean goes further still, and eyes the thrust of spacecraft warily: explosions are deliberately stilled in his work, and Dean’s spaceships and planetoids drift on solar winds. Temperamentally, the artist is drawn to sublime Nature, not technology, and the sedate, epochal pace that he pictures is deliberately opposed to the ever-gathering pace of Capitalism. In this, he finds himself in tune with 70s Environmentalism, with its conflicted attitudes to scientific and technological innovation. 

The environmental theme is an crucial one, especially when understood in the light of Martin’s earlier work. One important strand of Western Environmentalism is concerned precisely with catastrophe as a consequence of tampering with and perverting a greater ‘natural’ balance. Science, of course, has confirmed some of these fears of impending global disaster, most clearly in the science of climate change. The Fall in Christianity leads inexorably to the revelation that Martin depicts. Dean’s art at this time is interested in depicting what is, psychologically and culturally, a closely related rapture of dethronement: the end of what Wells once called in his own homely apocalypse, The War of the Worlds, “the fear and empire of man”.

The following year, the gatefold for Yes’ ‘Close to the Edge’ (1972) saw Dean develop the theme of proggy isolation and disassociation in a fantasy image of a lake atop a high rock formation. As the lake overbrims, waterfalls pour into a mist-filled void. His fantasy world has begun to break up: the paradox of the floating islands, with their odd ecosystems and microclimates, are taking form.

In his Yessongs (1973) sequence, Dean does provide a kind of SF backstory to the appearance of the floating islands: mushroom-like fragments of rock apparently travel the cosmos, eventually caught in the gravity of another world where they settle like dandelion seeds and, bizarrely, evolve flora and even moose-like fauna to chew the cud on them.

It’s almost a shaggy tribute to Panspermia, the idea that life on Earth may have been seeded by bacteria piggybacking on meteors from other worlds: but not quite. The sequence shows an interest in origins, especially the cosmic origins of life, but is essentially a myth of creation. The cosmic-spiritual mood once again predominates, rather than scientific extrapolation: indeed, this is the nature of Dean’s loose interpretation of SF. His mythic imagination predominates and an idiosyncratic brand of SF surrealism, filled with the artist’s own imagistic crotchets and obsessions, is the result. 

A typical Dean motif is the arc of attenuated substance often found sweeping across his paintings: Dean’s landscapes are unashamedly designed topographical constructions. We see this in another floating island picture, the image with which Dean’s own website leads, ‘Flights of Icarus’. Amusingly, in this later picture ‘Yes’ even seems ghostwritten in sirrus clouds in the upper atmosphere, the ‘S’ terminating in the downward twirl of a gnarled tree-trunk.

Curving forms like these lead the eye across Dean’s compositions. They help structure and balance the queer architecture of his works, of course. They are part of Dean’s interest in fragile beauty, symbols of the ecological idealism that runs through his art. Yet, just as the romantic artist saw the divine in Nature, elevating Nature from its traditional place in art as a merely incidental or picturesque setting, Dean’s weird rock formations and tenuous clouds and creepers introduce a note of subdued surrealism.

Surrealism was a favourite of Prog Rock musicians, just as the Dada cut-up was the house style for punk. For a movement that peddled artistic virtuosity with such vim, its quality control department seems to have often taken the day off when it came to selecting many of its cover artists. Some of the most drearily pretentious and badly painted covers in the history of pop result from the meeting of Prog and Surrealism. Consider for a moment Marillion’s ‘Script for a Jester’s Tear’ (1983), or, a personal favourite, Genesis’ ‘Foxtrot’ (1971).

Perhaps we should be glad that when Peter Gabriel performed on stage as a fox in a red dress he didn’t sport a pair of fake breasts, such as the vulpine beauty in this picture has. Why is this enigmatic creature so peeved by the whale that sports behind her? Why is she standing on a block of ice? Has a dance been refused by said cetacean? Sadly, we may never know. The beauty of Dean’s SF imagery stands in strong contrast to badly executed visions of self-conscious strangeness like these. Dean’s surrealism is subtler. It can be found in the attractive feeling of frozen time in his work, and in the sweeping, thinned arcs of stone that reach across his landscapes. This spatial structure is similar to the kind of physical attenuation found in Giacometti’s sculptures, of delicate things defying material laws.

Dean is, then, an SF topographer influenced by the surrealist unconscious, a surveyor of imaginary landscapes. The second of the artists whose work I want to say prefigures Dean’s art was, by coincidence, an eighteenth century topographer by profession, before he turned to romantic art. Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is German Romanticism’s best-known landscape painter. Friedrich produced a unique and idiosyncratic body of art: he was a speculative and philosophical painter, whose peculiar landscapes and odd spatial arrangements anticipate Dean’s own. It may seem perverse to do it, but it is helpful to begin by identifying a common weakness in Friedrich and Dean’s work, in the hope of moving more gracefully onto their strengths. And it seems to me that these flaws are obvious, and so cleverly circumvented by both artists, that what was a flaw does ultimately become a strength.

The flaw is this: that neither Friedrich nor Dean can draw a satisfactory human being.

This is hardly the end of the world, in artistic terms. A technical difficulty in convincingly representing the human form puts both Dean and Friedrich in honourable company: look at the great achievements of Eastern antiquity, of medieval art, or Edward Hopper’s modern visions of American alienation. But an inability to adequately portray human beings when your style, like Friedrich and Dean’s, is itself predicated on a talent for close attention to detail in painting natural forms is a problem. If in your landscape everyone you paint appears to be a cipher, a pretty central avenue of classical realism has been closed off. Both Dean and Friedrich explore topography and symbolism as alternative forms of expression. For both, just as the human form becomes more peripheral and diminished in their work, the landscape opens up as a means of surpassing limitations— in fact, of exploring the very nature of human and earthly limitations.

Friedrich made his name as a topographical draughtsman and so, in a manner of speaking, did Dean. Certainly the word ‘topographic’ is linked closely with Dean: thanks to his cover art for Yes’ 1973 album, ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’. The title is pretentious, and for Dean the artwork is weak, but the album cover does show us something important about role of the landscape in his work.

The gatefold depicts what seems to be a sandy ocean floor without an ocean, replete with gravity defying, bottom-feeding green fishes, ‘swimming’ under a bright night sky. We see a trio of triangular rock formations recalling coastal and, to the far left, desert rocks. In the middle foreground sits one pyramidal mound, running with springwater, set by on one side by a kind of bough or bower. In the far distance— centre front as it would be on the album cover, but far right across the whole landscape— a Mayan-style pyramid squats before the moon. Dean’s distinctive ‘Yes’ typography hovers incongruously above the pyramid. 

The landscape that Dean has painted is in many ways representative of the artist I’ve described earlier. Dean’s work is surrealist, pastoral, and full of yearnings for a world of silent contemplation after the eventual fall of civilizations— of a little quiet time to think to oneself after the world ends. Yet the gentle mystery of his other compositions have here become something more kitsch. There is something a little laughable about this painting— more Foxtrot than Floating Islands— and this does not necessarily come, I think, from a shoal that we might today expect to flex awkwardly towards us, singing “don’t worry, be happy”. It comes from a failure in Dean’s work that is normally his finest asset as an artist: ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ is a mess spatially and compositionally speaking.

What is most striking about this album image when compared to many of his others is the lumpen nature of its composition, enforced in part by the dictates of splitting the landscape in two for front and rear covers. The whole does not hang together at all: the suggestive sense of strange abundance we find in his other pictures is absent. The pyramidal blocks in the picture look ugly and randomly composed, and block rather than lead the eye onto the remote horizon— the place where so often in Romantic works the ambiguous limit between the visible and invisible worlds is found. It is interesting to compare this image to one of Friedrich’s, ‘The Polar Sea’ of 1824.

Here, a topographical image of a remote ocean, similarly expressed through the plotting of pyramidal forms, creates an altogether more dynamic and strange effect. A truly interesting tale begins to be proleptically told here: a ship lies crushed by jagged ice floes. As in Dean’s picture, there are no humans to be found; the drama of the piece is expressed purely through the glimpse of a wrecked deck and the thrilling diagonal thrust of shards of ice. The point is this: though it is humans who tell tales, and though Friedrich has absented humans from his composition, the terrible barrenness of the environment he imaginatively depicts (Friedrich, of course, never actually saw such a scene) speaks of human endings, of nemesis after hubris.

Dean’s picture, on the other hand, screams bathos: a far flung planet that owes more to B&Q than the truly fantastic. The Utopian impulse that underlies all Dean’s work has been reduced, in this instance, to a cross between the kind of snooty bourgeois Englishness that leads prog imagery so often to the grounds of country houses, and a kooky Californian mysticism. Doubtless Prince Charles would find much to admire in Dean’s ‘Tales from Topographical Oceans’.

Friedrich is a painter whose landscapes are speculatively metaphysical when not devoutly Catholic. His landscapes are varied and depict views of the German coast, mountains and countryside. He also painted visions of far-flung and unseen places, though even his works depicting famous tourist spots like the Chalk Cliffs of Rügen (1818) were often imaginative composites of different places and scenes.

The Chalk Cliffs of Rügen is, like most of Friedrich’s work, heavily freighted with symbolism. Three figures respectively sit, kneel and stand before a seascape. Below them, framed by the white of the cliffs and two trees whose foliage bows to cover the indistinct horizon, two small boats sit on the serene sea. The figures, while integral, also seem peripheral, onlookers gazing out over the gap. Art critics tend to read the figures as embodying Christian virtues: the ships are souls making their way to God. By any reading, however, it is the gap that is heart of the image and the object of the onlooker’s contemplation. Beyond the rocks lies a kind of liquid vale within which the blue of the sea rises to a gaseous height. The white walls and pinnacles of the cliffs edge like ice upon the space, bringing the view beyond into two dimensions, presenting an almost abstract field for the viewer of the painting. The central space that it is the speculative core of the painting, then, is at once a gap and substantial. As in other paintings by Friedrich, this gap which the people look upon symbolizes death.

Another of Friedrich’s paintings that rides the much the same metaphysical seas is his late work, The Stages of Life (1835). Again, a group of people, this time a family, rest upon a hillock at the edge of a bay on which sail five ships, at differing stages of departure. The five ships correspond to the five people in the painting, all at different stages of their journey towards death, represented by the horizon beyond.

For Friedrich, human figures or symbols of human endeavor in his works— ships at sail, for example— often merely provide an entry into the broader mystery he is enraptured by, the relationship of man to God. Something similar holds true for Dean: this is why his paintings so often seem to be spatially similar to Friedrich’s work, and employ all the romantic vocabulary of indistinct horizons, glimpsed vistas and serene lakes that Friedrich in his time employed too. Look again at the Chalk Cliffs of Rügen: the gap at the centre of the composition is a negative of a floating island. Look again at the ships that rise towards the horizon in The Stages of Life: each an individual world, pendants of mortality, they hang in the middle of the field like the fragile devices Dean populates his work with. The obscure rock-formations of Tales from Topographic Oceans, in turn, serve the same function as the devotional crosses and mounds found in the German forests that Friedrich began his career painting. But Dean is not simply borrowing or even making clever reference in postmodern fashion. He is reinterpreting romanticism and its numinous longings through the lens of SF, constructing a scene where humanity has been dethroned and become peripheral. The violence of this dethroning is hidden, has happened before or elsewhere, and is never made truly explicit as in Martin’s painting: but it is the precondition for his ecological idealism. With this turn away from catastrophe and death, Dean’s work becomes an interesting and implicit commentary on the submerged longings of a certain kind of misanthropic environmentalism.

As a postscript to my reading of Dean’s influences and themes, it seems clear why James Cameron— who in his latest movie proves to be a Prog SF director— chose Dean as a key influence for Avatar. Never mind, of course, that Cameron’s Na’vi are patronizingly chunked and reimagined out of the diverse cultures of native America, much as the Romantic movement dreamed of the noble savage. Never mind that Cameron’s ‘copters seem to be joyful re-imaginings of Deansian robot flys, lifted from Dean’s bizarre cover to an eighties Motown compilation. It is Cameron’s realization in Avatar that violence is the missing component of the catastrophic strand of Utopian environmentalism that is key: that humans, with their intrusive technology and sin, must be routed and destroyed. Only by removing the human from a world of floating islands and stratospheric trees can a world be created that will once again capture the prelapsarian oneness of Nature and mind. This ecological lesson has no room for the messy desires and necessities of human existence: we humans are all too artificial to exist in true happiness. 

Dean is too interested in the reach of human desire to dwell too much on this matter of necessity, and his work is the better for it. Utopia, as each generation imagines it, does not bear too close examination by the next: but not to imagine it at all— that is the greatest failure. Though Dean’s oevre is uneven, and like prog today, often ignored and scorned, his idiosyncratic vision has created an influential SF imaginary. What did Mont Campbell say, that most proggy of Prog-rockers? “Self-indulgence is a good thing in art, because if you’re trying to please others all the time, you just stick to the same model… nobody hears anything new, so no-one expects anything new”. Dean's art brings news from Nowhere: says 'yes' to that peaceful place beyond the apocalypse.

1 comment:

  1. Your article is a very lenghty plunge into prog rock and some of the visual artists that came to influence Roger Dean on making his covers and artwork in general.
    I'd say prog rock is confined to someplace very narrow, nowadays, with all its pretentious fling. But I still find some of Dean's works to be inspirational, and the artists before him, from which he received influence.