After three months of backpacking through Europe with A., I decided to further my pursuit of painting at die Akademie der Bildende Künste in Vienna. I scraped together the money necessary to sustain me for one year, and settled myself in the Neustift Viertel of that ancient city, on Hermanngasse 21. It was, in many ways, the hardest year of my life, but also the most revealing. I was twenty-nine years of age. A. remained in Toronto. Figuring the separation would actually improve our relationship by making us more autonomous, we made no conditions about fidelity, but promised to return to each other after one year.
I had arrived with a decent knowledge of mythology and dreams, through my reading of Freud, Jung, and Campbell. But my painting thus far had only contained Gothic themes, much like the work of Dürer, Grunewald, and Bosch.
My masterpiece to date was The Dance of Death, which basically chronicalled my separation from the friends closest to me. In this painting, five figures dance round a tombstone; each figure is marked with the boils and sores of the plague. They dance to the simple childhood rhyme that innocently recalls the Black Death: "Ring around a rosie! Pocket full of posies! Husha! Husha! We all fall down!" In the background, my three closest friends are recognizable. Meanwhile, I appear in the foreground, my eye on the line of the horizon (indicating that all is seen from my point-of-view). Finally, a mysterious female figure also appears in the foreground with her back to us. Although this painting commemorates an actual event (the five of us had danced around just such a tombstone one night), there is something dark, fateful and apocalyptic about this vision.
The other important work from that period offers instead a vision rich with life. This was my Dance Among the Ruins. Here, three women of my acquaintance dance joyfully in a circle. Meanwhile, surrounding them are the ruins of an ancient stone circle, each stone taken from a Maltese temple dedicated to the Great Goddess. Once more, over the course of my life, the dark feminine appeared to me in the tri-partite form of her beauty.
Though I'd studied German at university, I was barely able to comprehend or participate in all that was happening around me in Vienna. At the Akademie, I wandered from lecture to lecture, totally lost, and spent most of my time at the museums instead. At the Kunsthistorisches Museum, I began making studies of Greek statuary. But, eventually, I moved on to Egyptian figures, and even the Aztec statues at the Volkerkundemuseum. An exhibition of Hindu sculpture at Gallerie Zacke had me enthralled: the hand gestures, the poses, the complex mythological themes. All of these works from different mythic traditions seemed to speak to me from that same dark world revealed to me in dreams. Through Campbell's books, I had a guide to these more ancient mythologies and beliefs. But I had no idea how to integrate all this into my painting.
Then, I encountered the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism. In particular, Ernst Fuchs' canvases stunned me by their beauty and originality. The first work of his that I encountered was The Marriage of the Unicorn - and that on a little postcard for sale in a department store. Through a series of exhibitions (Wien nach 1945 at Galerie Hassfurther, Die Phantasten at Kunstlerhaus), I came to see more of his work - Moses Before the Burning Bush, Job and the Judgement of Paris, The Triumph of Christ. Each of these works spoke to me of something dark, unseen, and sacred. I found the same Gothic influence in his artwork (Dürer, Grunewald, Bosch), but now juxtaposed with the styles of other cultures - Judaeic, Greek, Hindu, even Aztec. That was the clé du mystere! A door had opened to another world, and through the strange juxtaposition of different cultural symbols, I gained a greater awareness of the Sacred. The key, once more, lay in the arrangement of these different cultural symbols.
But more was happening at that time. A brief but agonizing relationship with a Viennese girl - she too an artist - had me feeling even more disoriented and alone. Every relationship I had entered into in my life had left me worse off than before - because it made me increasingly aware of how fragile, impermanent, and imperfect human love is. This feeling of being unloved pierced me right through to the core of my being. Even my childhood memories confirmed this, as did a number of dreams concerning an abandoned child.
Hence, I had become very much like the derelict of my dreams - wandering alone in foreign lands, forgotten, unforgiven. I had awoken the derelict from his drunken stupor, and now had donned his dingy black overcoat (I bought just such an overcoat in Vienna, and named it my Wienermantel). What is more, the door to damnation, which had opened in my last dream of the derelict, now became something terribly real. Two incredible dreams, dreamt while I was living in Vienna, revealed to me something about the world beyond that doorway which I would never have suspected.
In the first dream, I was in Vienna, in a section of the Innenstadt that leads to a quarter called'The Devil's Triangle'. This used to be the Jewish Quarter of Alt Wien, and has a haunting character at night. In its midsts, situated atop a steep climb of stairs, stands St. Ruprechtskirche. Dating from the 12th century, it is one of Vienna's oldest churches.
In the dream, I was walking in Vienna's old Jewish quarter along Fleischmarktgasse towards St. Ruprechtskirche. To my right was a large stucco wall. As I turned its corner onto Judengasse, I saw a series of steps leading up to the church. Suddenly, my vision narrowed and I lost my balance. I stumbled, and had the impression that I was going to fall headlong into an abyss.
And indeed, I did plunge into a horrible abyss - above me. I began falling UP, out of control, unable to stop myself or hold on to anything. Above me was a maelstrom, a swirling vortex, and I was being sucked into its centre. Desparately, I tried to twist, turn, reach out, but I couldn't. All the people whom I had known on earth, loved or felt loved by, were thousands of metres beneath me, distant, and falling ever further. I was terribly alone. Desparately clinging to my last fragment of consciousness, I managed to move my arm - really move my arm - which then led to a wild thrashing about on my bed. I pulled myself out of the nightmare, and fell into wakefulness.
I have since had a similar such dream - two or three times as a matter of fact. Once, in Toronto, I was in an elevator in the spiralling car park at the airport. As soon as the doors closed, the lift ascended out of control at incredible speed. Another time, in Malta, I was swimming in the Mediterranean, and was overwhelmed, spun, and sucked into a terrible wave crashing down upon me. Each time, I had just separated from a girlfriend. And each time, I had chastized myself for waking myself up. Confront your fears, and surrender to the ascent! But, over the course of the dream, I had no doubt that I had to escape this horrendous predicament.
Then, in Vienna on the night of February 5th, 1990, I had another dream. It was markedly different from all my other dreams because there was no plot, no action, no characters. Instead, there was only a momentary vision, a momentary arrangement of images coelescing into a meaningful whole, though the meaning eluded me (and continues to elude me to this very day).
In my dream, I saw two paintings, composed as a diptych. On the left, I saw the Gothic figure of Christ Crucified. But, rather than being crucified on a cross, he hung before a wheel - a large wagon wheel with many spokes. The wheel had an undeniable feeling of Time about it, as if it were also the forgotten face of some ancient clock. And, impressed onto the wooden spokes were two Greek letters forged in bronze: the Alpha and the Omega. (I had seen a Byzantine cross with those particular letters in a visit to the Naturehistorisches Museum the day before).
To the right, on the other panel of the diptych, was the Gothic figure of the Madonna. She too was standing before a wheel, but this wheel was reminiscent of the wheel upon which St. Catherine was to be martyred - a large wooden mill-wheel imbedded with iron spikes. And like Catherine's wheel, this wheel had broken and shattered into many pieces. Hence, while Christ was crucified on a wheel, the Madonna stood before a broken wheel.
After waking, I rendered these images into drawings, sketching quickly and naturally, barely having to erase. Later, I made two small paintings from these drawings, to depict the images exactly as I'd dreamt them. The drawing of the Madonna revealed, through her gestures and full figure, that she was pregnant with the Christ-child. But I was faced with a terrible dilemma: how was I to understand the meaning of these dream-images? Where did they come from and what did they signify? I could not deny that they came from 'the Dreamsource' - that same dark world which created my childhood nightmares and my later dreams of the derelect and the infinite spiralling abyss. But what was the logic behind their arrangement?
Images in the Abyss
Over the course of my life, I had attempted to 'enter through' each of the images presented to me in my dreams. Here in Europe, I had become the derelict, lost in his peregrinations. What is more, the derelict slept before a doorway that had opened to my damnation. Here, in my dreams, I had passed through that doorway, falling ever further upward into the depths of the spiralling vortex. And now, I knew: these last images had emerged from that same abyss. Christ and the Madonna, the Alpha and Omega, the wheels broken or whole - all of these symbols and their particular arrangement appeared, as it were, from out of the depths of the swirling abyss, and gave it some recognizable meaning and form.
And yet, the nature of this 'abyss above me' became all the more frightening, because I now knew what it was. It was God, 'the Sacred', the ancient Mysterium. It was that which I had always sensed and feared in my dreams. For I had come to know that the Sacred was, in Rudolf Otto's words, a Mysterium fascinans et tremendum. We approached it through both awe and fear. But what made things even more difficult, was that now, I knew, I was also drawn to God out of love - out of a craving for love which I could not find on earth. No human love, not that of my family, nor of my friends, nor of the women I'd met - none of these could compare with the higher, perfect and divine love coming to me from beyond, and drawing me upwards.
I knew - because I'd felt - that in a dream such as this, I was falling up to God because each shattered relationship had demonstrated to me incontestably the imperfect love of humanity.
I should say that, for the ten years before this dream, I was philosophically an athiest. Though brought up Catholic, I could not honestly bring myself to believe the things which established religions taught. Now, I could not honestly deny there was an ancient Sacramentum - faceless it was true, a swirling abyss into which I was drawn, and drawn there, no less, by a desparate longing for love. But my mind would have been playing me false, making up sham arguments and excuses, were it to deny the truth now revealed to me in my dreams. Yet, I resisted that truth for as long as possible.
This visionary dream had used the symbols familiar to me from my Catholic upbringing to give the otherwise faceless God, a face - or 'a mask' if you will. This was one of 'the masks of God'. And, as a result of that dream, I regained my faith in Catholicism - not the Church, of course, but its mythology. I engaged its symbols, myths, and rituals with my own life. And so, I adopted the symbols of Christianity, and used them in my art, to orient me, much like one would use a compass or a map. These images were like the set of tools given to me in my earlier dream of 'the Calling'. Or, I could say, they were the steps that I should have taken up to St. Ruprechtskirche in my nightmare, rather than flying upward out of control. But the most curious aspect of my visionary dream was the strange arrangement of established symbols - Christian symbols were combined with other cultural icons. Something deeply mysterious lay in their arrangement. All were arranged through the mysterious mechanisms of iconologic. And, in doing so, they bespoke the hidden presence of the Divine.
Following Joseph Campbell, I had come to believe that all the symbols and myths of this world, in their amazing depth and complexity, were nothing more than 'masks' which concealed yet also somehow revealed the inscrutible face of God. But one night in Vienna, as I sat reading in a darkened beisl on St. Ulrichsplatz, the profound implications of this idea became clear to me.
I was reading volume II of The Masks of God, where Campbell discusses the ancient Egyptian deity Ptah. Contrary to all other accounts of the Creation, "It is said of Ptah, it is He who made all and brought the gods into being... He had fashioned the gods, made the cities, founded the names, installed the gods in their shrines, established their offerings and equipped their holy places... And in this way, all the gods and their ka's are one with him, content and united with the Lord of the Two Lands." (Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, Penguin, 1962, p. 88)
Suddenly, it became clear to me: there was an ineffible and transcendent Oneness beyond all particular cultural inflections of the sacred. None successfully revealed it in toto, but all participated in its fragmented appearance. Only when myths and symbols from different cultures crossed and fused with one another did the greater aspect of that ancient Unity become revealed. The key, once more, lay in their arrangement.
My year of studies in Vienna came to an end. After our long separation, A. and I agreed to meet in Paris, then travel eastward through Europe. But I had miscalculated my finances (in my case, this was not unusual), and I was penniless for weeks before the meeting. Friends in Vienna had fed me, but when I set out on the two-day voyage to Paris via Munich and Stuttgart, I was under-nourished and without means. So in Stuttgart, with my last few pfennig, I bought an apple at the market. After consuming half of it, I fell violently ill. The nausea and dizziness were so overwhelming, I could barely stagger through the city. Eventually, I found shelter in the Stadtsbibliothek, which happened to have a copy of Heinrich Zimmer's two volume work, The Art of Indian Asia. After flipping through its pages, I suddenly saw the wheel of my dreams. Its surface imagery was different, but the sense of Time was there - the dizzying, swirling, vertiginous sense of Time felt in my dream. The book showed a massive stone wheel from the Vishnu-Surya temple at Konarak, Orissa. Each of these twelve massive wheels supports the temple, which is a giant solar chariot. Hence, like the ever-rising/setting sun, they reveal the endless cycles of time.
In my heart I now knew: I must depict Christ and the Madonna before these Hindu wheels, one whole, one broken. The seeds had been planted for two major canvases. Once re-united, A. and I drove a rented Renault cinq over the newly opened borders of Eastern Europe. We had visited Cracow and Prague in 1987, during the Communist Period, and had fallen in love with the spirit of those cities. And we'd promised ourselves, at that time, that we'd return as soon as possible. But now, due to the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of Eastern Europe was undergoing a massive transformation. Romania in particular was in a state of chaos in 1990. But I was enthralled by something else: the spirit of the place, the rich faith of the people, the intensity of their devotion. In the monastaries of Kiev, Moldavia, and Transylvania, I began studying Byzantine iconography. But, more than that, I felt an undeniable kinship with these temples, their symbols, and the style of their rendering. I had found my own, temporary, spiritual shelter.
This voyage ended in Malta, where I worked as an English teacher to replenish our funds. And it was there, in Malta, that I had another dream which planted the seeds of a new work. The night of July 7th, 1990 was hot and sleepless, with dogs howling and children crying throughout most of the night. Towards morning, I fell into a deep sleep, and had an amazingly brief but revelatory dream.
I dreamt, quite clearly and vividly, that I saw a Buddhist monk meditating in a forest of trees. He was floating among the branches of a tree, although this did not seem unusual. Suddenly there was a terrible burst of flourescent flames, accompanied by a host of demons. To my shock and surprise, the monk exposed himself to this holocaust, with neither fear nor denial, while the flames and unholy host greedily devoured him.
I awoke with a start. After calming myself, my first thoughts turned to a film clip I'd seen - of a Buddhist monk who had, in protest, immolated himself. I also remembered how another man had risked being beaten by truncheon-bearing soldiers to kiss the ground before this burning effigy. That was a modern image of faith! Then, in my morning revery, the image of the monk slowly transformed into St. Anthony as depicted in Schongauer's engraving (also devoured by demons), and from there, to Christ. I saw Christ, cross-legged like the monk, rising in the air due to his resurrection or transfiguration. And around him swirled countless demons in flames.