The World Imagined: Entering Hugo Simberg’s Fantasy
By Gabrielle Kezia
“We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.” The Language of the Night by Ursula Le Guin (1979).
I have generally accepted that the world may never be fully available to me—I'm too naïve, too distracted. But there’s something about being faced with a blank page that makes you want to do better. For philosopher Charles Peirce, the way in which one comes to know consists of producing an interpretation of reality within the mind, and this cannot be accomplished without the imagination. (I'm always intrigued by anything that decenters rationality).
It’s often thought that we come to know through inquiry on the basis of observation. This is not entirely untrue. But observation alone does not make for a fruitful inquiry, rather a big plate of data undigested. This is because inquiry—the means by which we come to understand the world—requires thinking, which has nothing to do with the will to know, nor belief, nor logic, but with understanding. Understanding requires senses, memories, projections, just as much as theories, concepts, and arguments. Necessary to this understanding is imagination, particularly the ability to visualize something that isn’t there or to substitute a new reality for the existing one. We can certainly recall asking ourselves hypothetical questions, conjuring up scenarios, and forming assumptions that, when combined with observation, assists us in our knowing of a thing. Now I have a confession to make. The realm of imagination—and daydream—is probably one that I travel to more than I should. But it definitely doesn’t have the life-changing, productive effect that most philosophers of imagination confer on their imagining. Probably because theirs is to do with gaining knowledge of the world in the reality, and mine is mere entertainment. Powerwalking to whatever destination I’m late to becomes easy when you feel like you’re on autopilot. And I like easy. Still, it’s not hard to connect with the concept of imagination. Like the scenes that I see before going to bed, or when I'm out and about in London and my vision goes in and out of focus between it and the streets—I know that I'm not creating anything, but they seem like something that’s happening to me. (And depending on the day, has some potential in coming to life.)
The act of imagination is to penetrate and expand, to go beyond what is physically seen or heard, until our minds inevitably hands over to us knowledge in a way that explains them—and this task, I think, is captured by Finnish symbolist artist Hugo Simberg (1873-1917), particularly his Fantasy.
Hugo Simberg, Fantasy, 1896. Gold and watercolour, 16 cm x 15 cm. Finnish National Gallery. Source: https://www.kansallisgalleria.fi/en/object/423434
The undertaking of the symbolist artist is to represent the interior world and its function in establishing the ‘truth.’ Simberg isn’t very vocal about his paintings and lets his paintings do the talking, but a letter he wrote to his brother made his intentions even clearer:
“I’m sitting on something big and shapeless; I don’t know what it is, it takes me somewhere, I don’t know where… The journey gets brighter and brighter, and I wake up more and more. Eventually I am fully awake, and I see something big and shimmering that will soon disappear. You know, that’s exactly what I feel when I watch the clouds pass over the moon on a moonlit night. If you experience something like this when you get to see my picture, I have succeeded.”
This is a strange reason to paint. Here the subject of Simberg’s thought is the experience, yet he alludes to it a kind of journey—an awakening, to be more exact—that he couldn’t seem to get right. He can only think to describe the journey metaphorically, as if it can only be truly understood imaginatively. Perhaps because to know, as author Ursula K. Le Guin beckons in her literature, is exactly that. By rendering to metaphor—a language of the night—a process that exists through thought, Simberg acknowledges the darkness, or the unknown. And it is this acknowledgment, which both produces and reifies the need to settle with the unknowable, that is the ground by means of which imagination is possible, as scholar Catherine Sheckler denotes in Dancing on the Edge of the Word. Therefore, creating potential to the known that resides in the unknown. In his letter, Simberg comes to know the experience that which he seeks to understand by making the inevitable acknowledgment of the dark and replaces it with the bright. As noted by philosopher Hannah Arendt, the metaphor is ‘certainly the freest gift language could bestow on thinking and hence on philosophy.’ This has translated to his painting; the suggestive hand proposing a shiny diamond—a material object from the material world—to the figure who is deep in their imagination, becomes key to the painting’s force. That is, knowledge of the natural world can be found in the imagination.
Simberg’s figure has markedly left behind the exterior, natural world, choosing instead to sit within the realm of the imaginary. His awkward positioning of the outlined figure within the landscape of the imagination seems to me his way of blurring spatio-temporal lines; for in the imaginary, as Peirce suggests, spatial and temporal contexts do not exist in order for phenomena to build upon themselves in musement, an imaginative play of ideas typified by free speculation.
The subject of the painting for him, it seems to me, concerns the experience of life after death. The concept of death is pervasive in his paintings, and it is pretty clear that he believes in the afterlife. Without being too redolent, it’s not unlikely that Simberg, knowing his illness as he awaits for his imminent end, is seeking an amiable accord with it. The skeleton monogram that marks upper-right corner just before the gold frame, to me, signifies such an inquiry—to reach to a place that philosopher Gilbert Simondon in his On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects describes as the summit, which is a ‘privileged place that commands the entire mountainous massif, not in order to dominate or to take possession of it, but to enter into a friendly relationship with it.’ With death. Such a mission can never be met with a sufficient answer in the reality; for living humans at any given time, their afterlife has yet to exist. But what can stop him from investigating from the imaginary? It’s free, baby. What reconciliation, or knowledge, came out of it; God knows. Regardless, the painting is not merely his personal endeavour; as in his letter, Simberg desires for the spectator to experience the sensations of the journey, not commands it. The frame invites the gaze of the spectator to the interior world. And instead of depicting the real and the otherworldly in a natural way, Simberg deliberately indicates the transcendental essence of the painting. In this way the spectator is not unaware that they are regarding a construction (that Simberg views to be brighter and better, revealed by his use of gold); it is an image representing an image. The spectator, then, can come to the work willingly and agree to the terms he established, using their imaginations as they please and coming to their own understanding of the experience—in the case of this painting, such is the fact that this painting is a representation of the imagination and that imagination can indeed bring one to know; of things of the world in the reality, and of other realities.
It’s obvious that imagining something to be the case is different from knowing it to be the case. I can imagine that I’m back home in Jakarta with my sister right now, blasting songs from our childhood, and it may well be true (It’s not. I’m in the library), but even if it were, my imagining doesn’t mean I am a knower of the fact. Nonetheless, what Simberg’s Fantasy, as with Le Guin and Peirce has to offer is that we cannot truly know without imagining which requires of us to recognize the unknown and replace the what-is with what-is-not. It is the imagination that drives us to where we want to be—from observation to thought to understanding to knowledge. What Fantasy enthused me and my imagination to do is exactly this essay. The blank page is scary. Especially when deadlines to turn the blanks into a brick of words come at you all at once. But scouring back and forth, up and down to arrive at an understanding, whatever it is, and cartwheeling my way around finding the right words (And placing the right commas, and structuring my sentences) to translate my thoughts onto the paper is the name of the game. And it brings to me, most of all, more clarity in my thinking, like the bright moonlight after the clouds passed over.