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IN THE DARK SPEECH OF PRAISE AND BIRTH:
THE PRINTS OF JUDITH ANDERSON
by Catherine Madsen

The artist's engagement of soul and art resolves itself in the body divine.

CATHERINE MADSEN is a visiting lecturer in the religion department at Mount Holyoke College and a contributing editor to Cross Currents.

The picture is printed in viridian ink, so dark as to appear blue (see below). The central image draws the eye first: a three-quarter view of the Venus of Willendorf, etched not only with photographic precision but with a certain fundamental seriousness (however the eye knows seriousness; it is compelled, above all, to keep looking). Gradually the other layers of the image make themselves known: the skull on which the Venus is superimposed, the woman's body in which the skull rides as womb, the lilies and the tree that sprout from the Venus's head. Snakes are twined with the woman's legs and feeding upon the lilies. Roman letters awkwardly positioned supply a caption, AVE IN MY OWN WAY. Ave/Eva? The prehistoric Venus incubating toward her resurrection? Lilies, limbs and snakes are reaching, sinuous, in motion -- but all is contained within an eggshell: the skull and the stone figure are the still center. Womb, grave, fetus, yolk.

"Ave in My Own Way," etching 1978, by Judith Anderson. Photo by Jim Colando.

When Judith Anderson made this print she had been studying Jung's thought and her own dreams for some months, preoccupied by the archetype of the Great Mother. She was known as a Christian artist: she had done several striking prints on eucharistic and biblical subjects, and had carved liturgical objects and furniture for the local Episcopal church (All Saints' in East Lansing, Michigan). Ave in My Own Way is one of several prints made in 1978 that signal a decisive shift away from the church and toward pagan feminism. (Its title is drawn from Alan Watts's autobiography, In My Own Way.) Since that time her work has appeared in feminist journals, books on the revival of Goddess religion, on a Bill Moyers program on spirit and nature, and (pirated) in at least one college women's newsletter; she has become, not a household word, but a presence respected by a small public. Her output, though steady, has not been large -- owing to the distractions to which women's artistic work is often subject -- but it is work of distinction and power. The case for a feminist exodus from the church has often been made by rational argument; Anderson's work -- intelligent, scrupulous, complicated -- makes the case for her own emigration by a compelling irrational argument.

Anderson is of Sylvia Plath's generation; she graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1956. As a young woman she faced the same painful tension between work and traditional marriage as Plath did, the same expectation that one could be an educated woman and an artist without ever sacrificing wifely forbearance, maternal solicitude or gracious living. Unlike Plath, she managed to survive -- partly because she took longer to discover the nature of her work, partly because by temperament she has a greater trust that the world is not her enemy -- but the stresses of the dual life, and the vulnerability of the artistic life to the collapses of the domestic life, form a subtext to her work that is especially familiar to women of her generation.

After college she studied for a year at the Art Students League with George Grosz, Robert Beverly Hale and Edwin Dickinson. She went on to do graduate work in English at the University of Minnesota, married (uncertain what else to do, she says now) and moved with her husband to Bloomington, Indiana, where their three children were born, then moved to East Lansing. There, in 1970, she took an evening course in printmaking and found her work: etching, on zinc plates, images of immense detail and intricacy. Her first prints had such authority that her mentor from the University of Minnesota, Samuel Holt Monk -- professor of 18th-century literature -- insisted on giving her an etching press. (Anderson's son, and several other Sams among Monk's former students, are named for this remarkable and generous man.) For all the subtle costs of her position as faculty wife, the gift was a magnificent one, and she had the time to make use of it.

At about this same time she underwent the religious conversion that returned her to the Episcopal church, which she had left twenty years before. It was not so much an intellectual conversion as a sense of being known in a private anguish; not so much an attachment to a theology as to an iconography. The religious work that emerged is restrained, intense and ambiguous: it is in a Christian tradition that -- at its artistic best -- has always allowed the darker realities of loss and death to push to the wall the promises of forgiveness and redemption. The Still Point (1973), its title from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, presents the eucharistic bread and chalice in a protected space at the center of the print, set off by a Gothic arch and an uneven floor of white space; under the floor a multitude of little troll-like men and animals crouch and sway, holding up a roof of rock, and under their feet in a ghostly sea swim sharks. Above the Gothic arch soars another arch made of large bones: the delicate joints of knee and shoulder, the rib cage, the hand. Fraction (see below) is an immensely complex image, dominated by two hands (Anderson's own, and seen from the owner's vantage) in the act of breaking the sacrificial bread; between the torn edges of the bread appears a visual quote of Rembrandt's Christ at Emmaus. Arching protectively and threateningly over all is an image of a Vietnamese mother and child flanked by two eagles with outspread wings. Images of sacrifice are everywhere: mice dangle from the eagles' talons, a human body hangs from each thumb of the priestly hands (at the left a warrior enduring the Sun Dance ordeal and at the right Judas in his suicide, an act which Anderson sees as redemptive, "an expiation and not a punishment"). Below the mother and child and above the Rembrandt image is another quote, from Poussin's Slaughter of the Innocents. A buffalo skull, images of wild horses, and a heap of human skulls at the bottom of the picture flank a wrapped figure in the doorway of a stone tomb. Tucked under the eagles' wings are lozenges with faces peeping through them: on the left the eyes of Picasso, on the right the smiling face of a reformed thief. The mother and child bow under the eagles' wings with a sense of inevitability. The question of the print is the question of willing or unwilling sacrifice: the food chain -- physical and metaphysical -- on which are placed the mice, the buffalo, the murdered humans, the warrior in his ordeal, the betrayer in his atonement, and the child born to die and become a sacrament. Whose will is done? Anderson says she came to see the mother who gives the son for sacrifice -- in the absence, or the silence, of the Father -- as "the darkest secret in Christianity, what no one will say."

"Fraction," etching 1976, by Judith Anderson. Photo by Jim Colando.

Other prints from this time have no religious reference, but are purely introspective. Herons Walk in Their Shroud, an homage to Dylan Thomas, incorporates herons, gulls, fish bones, a net, and images of Thomas's face. Through the Unknown, Remembered Gate (1975) began as a meditation on Anderson's dogs and ended as a meditation on her childhood; it is dominated by her own profile back-to-back with her dog Glück's, the two profiles filled with images from old photographs: the house she grew up in, her mother, herself at her baptism, her first dog (and, in a symbol, her next dog: Glück died during the months she was working on the print, and the new dog -- Lily -- is represented by lilies in the foreground). The profiles serve as a visual "gate" into clarity through a misty backdrop of children bathing in a stream. Find Me (1976) is a baby, printed in green ink, the whole surface of its skin tattooed, as it were, with images: faces (her own, her mother's, old friends'), animals and plants (the dog Lily, twined snakes, ivy, grapes, lilies, wheat sheaves, an egg). The effect is disturbing, for the baby's eyes are deliberately skull-like and other faces look out through them, but there are visual jokes in the print for those who look closely: a set of teeth in the armpit, the baby's sex represented by a French horn. Anderson's wit -- much more rambunctious in person -- is never entirely absent from her art.

Find Me was made at the beginning of her Jungian investigations. She worked with an analyst who also lectured on Erich Neumann's The Great Mother, showing slides of ancient goddess imagery which in the mid-1970s were radically new. There was debate then in feminism -- it has not altogether subsided -- whether the image of the Great Mother was essential or retrogressive in the struggle for women's well-being; for Anderson it became essential. The prints of this period are rapt with contemplation of female imagery. He Drew Me out of Great Waters (1978), whose title is a line from Psalm 18, shows a face bent over cupped hands full of water, in a womblike enclosure defined by a veined umbilical rope which is also a snake swallowing its tail. A child with outstretched arms stands at the top of the picture, on the snake's head, between two spheres that hold letters of an imagined alphabet. Two hands droop down on the far sides of the spheres, in the upper corners of the print, the fingers limp like the fingerlike ends of the Fallopian tubes that wait to catch an egg from the ovaries. At the right side, Anderson as a young child waits with her mother at the top of a flight of steps that descend diagonally across the lower half of the print. At the left, two overlapping images of a newborn baby, held upside down, seem to drop from the limp hand. The whole is in black ink, extremely shadowy, but the water in the cupped hands is painted a faint blue with watercolor; it drips down between two more upheld hands -- flayed hands this time, the bones and muscles and the pale wrist-cuffs exposed -- which support the Ouroboros/uterus and serve as conduit for what is certainly an umbilical cord. At the end of the cord, at the center bottom of the print, is a little square with a baby's head in it, wrong way up for birth and already caught between the doctor's or midwife's hands; the final pair of hands are the baby's, outspread in an echo of the child's at the top of the picture. In the lower left corner, on the lowest step but one, rests an egg; this image comes from a dream in which Anderson saw a stone egg on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica. The print radiates a profound stillness that never becomes stasis; like The Still Point and Ave, it centers on a point of repose around which all the world's motion rolls.

By this time Anderson had begun to find the iconography of bread and chalice impossible to use. Her attraction to Jungian archetypes and to the image of the Great Mother had been matched by an equal and opposite disaffection with the Christian schema. It was not yet feminism in the political sense; it was grief for the uncomprehending treatment of women by the church, and also for the exclusivity of communion which seemed to her to set needless divisions between Christians. Later, with freedom and distance, she could afford anger, but the grief has never entirely subsided. Annunciation (1978) gives form to her changed consciousness: it is a tenebrous, barely visible image of subtly colored flowers growing from a dark cube that is chiseled with the letters

HE
IS
NOT
HERE

The "annunciation" of the title is -- those words make clear -- the annunciation at Christ's tomb, not the annunciation to the Virgin Mary. Anderson's encrypted meaning is that neither the miraculous child nor his mother can be found in the neat theological box in which the lord of life has been immured: the flowers (lily, iris and rose, all associated with ancient goddesses and eventually with Mary) are the growing and dying locus of the source of life. Ghostly bees hover near them, enclosed in six-sided cells: the Great Mother's insects, workers of fertility and transformation, makers of honey and wax -- as Swift said long ago, of sweetness and light.

But for feminism, Anderson's work might have remained obscure: the strong and skillful work of a suburban faculty wife, known only by a regional audience and in the national community of printmakers. Feminism changed her subject matter, her audience and her life. Her marriage failed, after nineteen years, in 1978 (a circumstance with which neither the church nor the Great Mother had much to do); within two years she had moved from the church to the women's movement and the lesbian community, from the church choir to a small and uproarious feminist singing group that experimented with rituals, from using lines from the Psalms as titles to making a series of erotic-fantastical ink drawings for the group's songbook. In the university library, where she took a clerical job, her prankish sensibility and irreverence for hierarchy kept her and her co-workers sane (among other things, she once set a page of the departmental procedural manual to Anglican chant for an office party). She became for almost twenty years a fixed star of the women artists' community in Lansing. Her work was published in books and journals, including Elinor W. Gadon's The Once and Future Goddess (Harper & Row, 1989), Women's Art Journal, and many feminist magazines and calendars; she found galleries on both coasts (In Her Image Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts); she began to exhibit nationally in shows of women's work as well as juried print shows; she was included in The World's Women On-Line in connection with the United Nations women's conference in Beijing and in the Bill Moyers Spirit and Nature program on PBS. Both her skill and her preoccupations found a responsive audience.

Mandorla of the Spinning Goddess (1982) is a sepia print of many curiously angled hands spinning thread out of and across a vulvar image (the mandorla, in Christian iconography, is the almond-shaped nimbus of light, formed by the intersection of two circles, that surrounds a holy person); one thumb, descending from the top border like the hand of God from a cloud, is placed frankly at the peak of the almond. The heads of an old woman and a baby occupy the upper corners of the print; at the center, far within the shadows at the point of the cervix, a goddess image appears. Her Runes of Earth and Stone (1987), made after a trip to the ancient pagan holy sites of England, shows snakes, standing stones, and a nautilus-like labyrinth superimposed on a woman's body within a halo of bones. Mystery of Generation (1987), a simple but extremely compelling print, is a narrow vertical strip containing three images: an ancient woman's face, pensive and troubled; a bird-headed child, curled and upside-down as if in the womb (or the egg); and the Green Man, the foliate head of Celtic tradition, prepatriarchal man. In these prints and others of this time, Anderson was consolidating the images she could still trust.

Like any audience for liturgical art, the feminist audience is not always discriminating; it appreciates skill and taste but does not demand them. In a small community with a short history it can be more difficult to make exacting judgments about one's work, especially when the community is suspicious of outside standards and ambivalent about the very act of judgment. In moving from the church to the women's movement Anderson had shifted from an artistic tradition of enormous subtlety and range to a subculture of protest with a much smaller and much less ambiguous iconographical vocabulary. It was a risk. The individuality of her line and the persistence of her intricate private vocabulary -- the lilies, the faces of friends -- always save the work from being purely polemical, but in some cases a certain tension goes out of it: sides have been chosen and it is clear which side she is on. Her Runes of Earth and Stone tends in that direction: a celebration without any difficult questions (the snakes, as goddess symbols, not being a difficulty). Call Me Judith (1989), a fierce and striking sepia print of an old woman, one breast bared, who stands against a parched ground, her helper holding by the hair the decapitated head of a miniature Holofernes, is an image full of difficult questions, but it takes on somewhat the air of a nineteenth-century tableau through its inclusion of floating women wielding labryses (the ancient Minoan women's double axe) and through the delicate, ceremonial labrys that hangs loosely from Judith's hand. (Meanwhile, in a visual quote superimposed on one of the tent flaps, Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith, knowing her job, saws away with a sword). Medusa Unwound (1993), portrait of the artist with snaky hair, rictus of rage and cherry-red protruding tongue, surrounded by female figures ranging from the Kilpeck sheela-na-gig to a bather from Ingres's Le Bain Turc, verges on caricature. (Though the rictus is laughter too: Anderson was thinking of Margaret Atwood's famous informal study which found that what women feared from men was battery, rape or murder, and what men feared from women was being laughed at.) To an audience outside feminism, to whom such images are new and rare, their ferocity may well be shocking. To an audience within feminism -- accustomed to the labrys and the Medusa's head as motifs for jewelry -- the shock has worn off, and the images' potential as recognition signals is weightier than their power to cry out against injustice. They remind but they do not move. Compare Kollwitz's slit-eyed peasant whetting his scythe in the Peasants' War series: oppression is brutalizing. Kollwitz gives us not the romance of rage but the real thing; she conveys without euphoria the high cost of rage to the one who is driven to it. She does not give the peasant a hammer to go with his sickle. The labrys and the Medusa's head are, in a sense, merely women's rage in shorthand. Women's rage in action is Lorena Bobbitt, the women who shoot or set fire to the men who abuse them, the women who throw their unfaithful husbands' belongings out on the lawn; it is not emblematic and stirring but desperate, miserable, ugly. Anderson gave her Judith a labrys because she would not give her a sword; Gentileschi came closer to accuracy.

The antiwar print Myselves the Grievers Grieve. . . and Miracles Cannot Atone (1986), its title taken from Dylan Thomas's "Ceremony after a Fire Raid," takes a more complex approach. It was made after several years' brooding on Adrienne Rich's book Of Woman Born, and on the sardonic question asked of Rich, the mother of three sons, during the Vietnam war: "Vous travaillez pour l'armee, madame?" (You are working for the army?) The focal image is a mourning woman who holds her emaciated hands to her head; a bandaged sphere is held before her face by another pair of hands. Above them, small silhouettes of women dance in a circle and another woman, naked and howling with grief, lifts a dead child to the moon. Butterflies and a yin/yang symbol float encapsulated in circles; a lioness's skull and a stag beetle, creatures "red in tooth and claw" but innocent of moral evil, are placed below the feet of the dancers. The bottom border of the print seems at first merely a decorative pattern, but on closer examination it yields the meaning of the picture: it is the outline of a row of bombs, which are packed with a cargo of skulls and fetuses. "Vous travaillez pour l'armee?" Behind the bombs a flight of labryses arises, delicate and weightless as the butterflies, but here their meaning is ambiguous: are they an antidote to the bombs? an answering symptom in the plague of violence? an ancient weapon prefiguring a new one? Similarly, the circle of dancing women offset by the woman with the dead child is not simply a suggestion that women's celebrations will prevail over men's wars, but a disturbing visual echo of the Bacchae. One who knows Anderson's work may assume that she intends in this print, as in the others, to indict male violence without implicating women; yet women are not in the same category with the lioness and the stag beetle, bloodstained and guiltless. They are human creatures with wills. The griever may be grieving the impossibility of women's miracles on the scale of men's devastation; she may also be clutching her head in madness at the remembered knowledge of Fraction, that the mother too gives the son for sacrifice.

Missa Gaia: This is My Body (see below), the print shown on PBS and Anderson's best-known work, at first appears to be pure lament: a brooding woman, a visual quote from Kollwitz's sculptural Pietà, the Great Mother lost in an insupportable anguish. Animals surround her and are superimposed on her: an ingathering, a biotic implosion to that original body. They seem unaware of her grief: simply there, as animals are, quizzical, alert, anxious, the large ones impassive. She holds a whale by the tailfin between finger and thumb. Gradually the lower outline of her body becomes clear, and it is apparent that she is mourning and birthing at once; her knees are open, and an otter's head emerges from her womb. Even in her grief for her creatures -- "because they are not" -- she goes on producing them; regeneration proceeds in the midst of destruction. "I decline to accept the end of man," said Faulkner in his Nobel statement; in Anderson's vision, nature declines to accept the death of nature.

"Missa Gaia: This is My Body," etching 1988, by Judith Anderson. Photo by Jim Colando.

Bone Woman (1994) is a self-portrait of Anderson as a lithe old woman, half-squatting, half-lying in a midden of human and animal bones, drawing in the dust with the thumb and two fingers of a skeletal hand she has salvaged, like Blake's God with his compass. The bones of her near arm and leg show through the flesh. Lilies grow at her head and feet; entangled in her white hair, as if at the back of her thoughts, is an image of herself with her three children when they were small (a shadowy three-year-old self who stands to one side blesses the mother's small head with one hand and the Bone Woman's head with the other). The image is quiet, absorbed: the artist at work, taking from the refuse of death what is needed for new creation. Nature and art are prolific and at peace.

Bone Woman may serve as the pattern for Anderson's recent work. On her retirement from the library she made a cross-country move to live with her partner, writer Kathleen Collins; the move entailed dismantling the etching press, building a studio and waiting a year for the press to be reassembled. During this interim she made ink washes, watercolors, figure studies in red Conté crayon, and extremely fine pencil drawings in the style of a fellow artist in Lansing, Kathryn Darnell. She continued the intricate carvings in wood and bone -- spoons and containers chased with Celtic interlaces -- which she had substituted for the liturgical carvings when she left the church. She carved in stone: soapstone, limestone, alabaster. She thought on the work of artists she admired: the surgical line of Leonard Baskin, the intimate and protective sculptures of Georges Jeanclos, the strange images and

dark moods of Odd Nerdrum's paintings, the mysterious figures of Pavel Tchelitchev's Hide and Seek which she had puzzled over endlessly in the Museum of Modern Art forty years before. Increasingly she is moved by the "motor stuff" beneath the skin: the mysteries of hands and eyes and collarbones, the exquisiteness of the body in the midst of moral imperfection. These small works and sketches -- and the life drawings she has produced in a weekly class for the past two years -- are the equivalent of Bach's cello suites as compared to his cantatas, pure form without statement; they are the thanks of eye and hand and brain for their own workings. At this level there is no distinction and no quarrel between Christian and pagan imagination; at the place of their convergence -- in the absence or failure of all icons -- there is only actuality without doctrine: the human form divine.

Her new prints work with this understanding on a larger scale. Ultimate Grace (1995) shows a woman bent slightly forward, her face utterly at peace, her hands crossed on her breast, and a pair of hands behind her gently touching her head. Her shoulders show the marks of ropes, and in her mind bound figures struggle toward release. The Fullness of Time (Easter 1998, the first print after the press was reassembled) uses the silhouette technique of Through the Unknown, Remembered Gate, but this time the silhouetted heads are Anderson's and her partner's, gazing at each other in an embrace, surrounded by playing children and images of lilies and by visual quotes of Demeter and Kore and of the Visitation. In a bright mandorla between the two faces, a hand emerging from a lily holds a stalk of ripe wheat, triumphant sacrament of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The newest print, Dance in Shadows (1999), is a triptych of dancers' torsos and leaves in a glowing yellow ochre. "Low on psychological angst," Anderson remarks wryly, and wonders what she ought to say about the fighting in Kosovo. But in a sense she has always said it: in the interpenetrating images of birth and death, in the reflective and unromantic images of motherhood and childhood, in the very gravity of her line and shading, unmistakably the work of a mind that considers the price of our life. Whatever can be said about the futilities and cruelties of war, one thing is sure: the Great Mother, in an act that is at once the antithesis of conscience and the essence of conscience, will bring life out of that death.

* * *

NOTE: The title of this essay comes from one of Judith Anderson's unpublished songs.

I am grateful for Judith Anderson's illuminating written commentaries on her work, and for a generous and candid interview on November 1, 1998. Most of all I am grateful for our long friendship, which has survived the old usages of the Episcopal Church, the rise and fall of the Greater Lansing Spinsters' Guild in which we sang together, the atmosphere of the university library where we both worked, and other vicissitudes of life. She is one of the people whose work taught me to work.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1999, Vol. 49 Issue 2.