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Ode to ‘Nude Woman Reading’

When writing music reviews I often use the term ‘psychedelic’ as shorthand to describe those transformations to familiar sounds which are unexpected and unusual to the extent that the senses become favourably stimulated, and otherwise hidden dimensions of the world are revealed through a desirable glimpse of freedom. And there doesn’t have to be some big mind-blowing catalyst to set it off. Psychedelic enlightenment is there for the taking from something as simple as that tingling rush when lips are locked with a good kisser or possibly the distorted guitars and sexy vibes on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’.

It is common knowledge that the onset of mind-expansion sometimes follows the ingestion of certain lysergic substances, but when it comes to musical adventures listened to in the right setting and mood, a profound and immediate impact can occur without chemical enhancement. I know that when I signed up for the inner journey that flows from such a majestic piece of music as Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’, all I had to do was allow myself to focus on sounds that are in turn ethereal and strange, and it wasn’t long before I was taken somewhere outside myself, and somewhere so pleasant, it was almost a shame to come back to everyday experience sadly defined by habit and routine.

Music is such a powerful medium that it doesn’t take much of the good stuff to spark heightened feelings and perception. And when I attended a recent documentary screening of the Grateful Dead performing a series of amazing higher plane performances at the San Francisco Wonderland venue in 1974, it wasn’t long before I felt the strains of freedom flow. Although I knew this would happen anyway, if only fleetingly, it was still a bit of a revelation to see the band kick into an emotive blues like ‘Morning Dew’ with its plaintive theme taken well beyond what would otherwise be clearly defined limits, and enhanced with sporadic yet blistering Jerry Garcia solos that shake up the emotions through rising instrumental peaks which recede when the moment seems right to provide room for infinite contemplation. At other times, the band locked together in a telepathic group mind and came across as a complex but joyfully functioning organism as a more familiar blues and folk sensibility introduced pathways into the unknown which could otherwise be described as the onset of a sonic orgasm.

All very nice really, and it does seem that the psychedelic experience is everywhere in music including such unlikely earthbound locales as punk rock, and particularly post-punk in take-off mode, which spawned the dream-state vapour trails of right stuff like My Bloody Valentine’s intoxicating Loveless album that first hit the record shelves in 1991. But I don’t want to get too hung up on the music side of things, because what I am getting to is a magnificent painting I saw at the recent Art Gallery of NSW Paths to Abstraction exhibition painted by Robert Delaunay and titled Nude Woman Reading which gets those psychedelic juices flowing even when the keen viewer keeps in mind that the first version of this three version masterpiece was painted in 1915.

Nude Woman Reading

Delaunay was an early advocate of colour as a pure expression of emotion in painting, which brought his ideas into contact with Wassily Kandinsky who believed that colour was the means through which the inner self could come alive in much the same way that decent music stimulates the soul. Kandinsky wrote that:

colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively to cause vibrations in the soul

There is a nice touch of early modernism going on here, and I really like the way Kandinsky was working out thoughts on how combinations of colour and sound could hit the right spots, because I know that whenever I look at a painting or listen to music that works a special magic I get a pleasant twinge in the places that matter, which I guess is the point about turning to art when less impressive circumstances arise. This twinge says hello whenever the freedom flow of a tasty piece of psychedelic music makes the world a better place, if only for a short while, and for a brief all-encompassing moment in the presence of a similarly inclined piece of visual art, I was more than happy to lock into the delights of the Robert Delaunay painting whereupon my beautiful female companion seemed more beautiful than ever.

Delaunay painted three versions of Nude Woman Reading between 1915 and 1920 and each one is a spectacular transformation. The first is an almost pointillist depiction of a woman seemingly lost in thought with her back turned to the viewer, and her voluptuous figure and pose make for a striking element. Her golden hair flows down her bare back and the colours from the draperies in her room pretty much burst forth from the canvas. But as the viewer moves across to the other two versions, amazing things happen. The image becomes increasingly abstracted and the enclosed interior falls away as Delaunay revisits those circular form efforts, so that optical swirls blend with the figure of the woman whose figure becomes saturated in colour, and that hair flowing outwards is like something that might invite a fleeting transcendence of self.

I was in part reminded of Aldous Huxley’s account of his mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception where he describes a dance of lights ‘expanding from bright nodes of energy that vibrated with a continuously changing, patterned life’. Huxley goes on to describe an arrangement of flowers so illuminated that ‘in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitative equivalent of breathing.’ I don’t want to get too caught up in the Aldous Huxley comparison, but, man, when I gazed upon the luminosity of that hair in the striking third version of Delaunay’s Nude Woman Reading, well, the walls in that room started to pulsate, and I felt an immediate and comfortable synchronicity with my surrounds which instantaneously aligned with other comfortable experiences in similarly luminous settings, and what Huxley was going on about began to make a great deal more sense.

I think my female companion also picked up on the radiant energy, and after exiting the exhibition we made a quick dash across Hyde Park to our hotel room for an appropriate sensual climax only stopping for necessities like a six pack of beer and bottle of wine. And this was as it should have been. Just like the time I checked out a fantastic combined Monet oils and Japanese prints retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia, and found after I stepped outside that the wild colour vibrations of the autumn leaves took on a particular vibrancy. But on this particular occasion, I felt the colours of Delaunay’s painting seep inside along with an accentuated desire for all things sublime including the gorgeous brown eyes of my female companion, and I guess this is where we return to the psychedelic experience. It can’t really be adequately described, because words can only go so far in capturing the intensity of feeling, particularly when such emotive mediums as painting and music are involved.

So, I guess it is appropriate that a truly fulfilling psychedelic experience has to be experienced within the moment rather than merely portrayed with an inadequate choice of words. In music I get totally excited by the psychedelic freedoms of Captain Beefheart or The 13th Floor Elevators, but if I wanted to capture those much sought after sense impressions with a suitable immediacy and without too much of a fuss, I would probably point the uninitiated in the direction of Delaunay’s Nude Woman Reading painted much earlier than the heyday of psychedelic music. I would also highlight the colour mind-meld of the woman’s hair on that third version, that fantastic colourful hair.

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