"Their Small-Toothed Interlock"1: Biomorphism and Mystical Quest in the Visual Art of P.K. Page and John Vanderpant

By Messenger, Cynthia | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

"Their Small-Toothed Interlock"1: Biomorphism and Mystical Quest in the Visual Art of P.K. Page and John Vanderpant


Messenger, Cynthia, Journal of Canadian Studies


Even though Canadian artists John Vanderpant and P.K. Page were working more than three decades apart and in different media, biomorphic modernism is observable in their visual art. (Biomorphic art is visual abstraction based on organic forms.) Vanderpant, an early twentieth-century photographer, and P.K. Page, a mid-century poet and painter, both exhibit in their visual art the intricacies of lineation that signify a belief in the transcendent powers of forms in nature. The works of both artists attest to their belief in the transforming power of art in society. Page's poetry echoes the modernist undercurrents of her visual art. The ecological themes of her late-century poems resonate with the vitalist impulses of early twentieth-century modernism.

Bien que les artistes canadiens John Vanderpant et P.K. Page oeuvraient a plus de trente ans d'ecart et dans des medias differents, le modernisme biomorphiquc est visible dans leur art visuel. (Par art biomorphique, on entend une abstraction visuelle fondee sur des formes organiques.) Vanderpant, photographe du debut du vingtieme siecle, et P.K. Page, poete et peintre du milieu de ce siecle, revelent tous deux dans leur art visuel les complexites des lignes qui traduisent leur croyance aux pouvoirs transcendantaux des formes de la nature. Les oeuvres des deux artistes temoignent de leur croyance au pouvoir de transformation que detient l'art dans la societe. Les poemes de Page font echo aux courants modernistes qui sous-tendent son art visuel. Les themes ecologiques de ses poesies de la fin du siecle retentissent d'impulsions vitalistes, propres au modernisme du debut du vingtieme siecle.

I see them there in three dimensions yet

their height implies another space

their clothes'

surprising chiaroscuro postulates

a different spectrum. - from "Another Space"

Molecular

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.

Biomorphism

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. …

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