The night is a time of inversions. Light fades to dark, waking consciousness dissolves into sleep, the external concerns of our daytime routines give way to quiet introspection, and time itself is reversed as our thoughts turn to memories. Even the dead come back to life—‘tis the hour of the ghost and the ghoul.
This special arc of time between dusk and dawn is the theme of a wonderful exhibition currently showing (until 22 January 2017) at the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne: Towards Night, curated by the artist Tom Hammick.
On display is an array of paintings, drawings and prints that span the past 250 years, all with some direct connection to night-time. But emerging from, and running parallel to, that central theme is a sub-theme—one that is perhaps more subconscious. As I move from one picture to the next, lapping up the beautiful imagery, I can’t help but notice the predominance of natural features. Trees, lakes, rivers, and skies echo like motifs in a recurring dream. Even when manmade objects such as buildings do appear, they are often being viewed from outside, set within the landscape—nay, devoured by it. The ruins in Emma Stibbon’s Rome, Aqueduct (2001) (below) have been relentlessly nibbled away at by the elements, and the cathedral in Caspar David Friedrich’s Winter Landscape (c.1811) (below) is swallowed by mist.
Why is this? Shouldn’t the exhibition be full of the interiors of homes and pubs, of intimate party scenes and lovers in bed? Of course, we can find some examples of these, such as Phoebe Unwin’s Cinema (2010), Edvard Munch’s couple embracing in The Kiss, Fourth Version (1902) and the hypnagogic visions of Louise Bourgeois’ Spirals (2010) (below), but they are exceptional. It seems the introspective self is inclined to step outdoors into the open landscape to look for expression and meaning. In the upside-down world that is night, a retreat into one’s internal mindscape is accompanied not by an analogous withdrawal into the interior landscape of the domestic setting but, contrarily, by an exploration of the wider world beyond it.
Maybe it says something about Tom Hammick’s personal taste in curating the exhibition—in fact, no street art is included despite its strong association with the night. From what I know of Hammick and his work, I get the impression he has the heart of a Romantic, which might be attracted more to the babbling brook than the bustling bar. However, there is surely more to it than that; I believe there is indeed a close affinity between nature and night.
The darkness, the unknown, beckons artists, poets and explorers alike beyond their comfortable sphere of knowledge into uncharted territory. I, for one, have often felt the tug of the dark woods during night-time walks. The void has a mysterious appeal.
Is it because darkness is disorienting? To lose our bearings might be frightening but it affords us the opportunity to see things with fresh eyes. Suddenly, the imagination is set free and we project onto that black, empty canvas. At night-time, fantasy and fiction share a bed—‘everything you can imagine is real’ (Pablo Picasso). These are fertile soils indeed for the artistic mind.
Yet, as night floods the land, we stem its flow into our homes and cities, forcing creative souls outdoors to pluck its obscure fruits. The electric light might exclude the monsters of the dark but it also veils the stars with its glare.
(Hero image: Peter Doig, Echo Lake (1998) Tate)
Towards Night, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
24 September 2016 – 22 January 2017