the Spiritual Fantastic


martinu 393

 Bohuslav Martinů (1890 – 1959)


When I discovered that Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů had gotten ahold of The Epic of Gilgamesh, I knew I was about to experience something remarkable. Why should that be the case, a forgone conclusion? Not only because Martinů was a remarkable composer but also because European and Eastern European aesthetic consciousness in the earlier part of the 20th century is like nothing today. Back then, visionaries lived and created.


 In France….

  Yves Tanguy

tanguy 551


Robert Desnos

Desnos 414


In Austria….

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

hofmannsthal 338


Georg Trakl

Trakl 373


In Germany….

Paul Klee



Rainer Maria Rilke

rilke 367


In Poland….

  Bruno Schulz



Karol Szymanowski

Szymanowski 440


There were others.

If I’m allowed to combine all these folks into an abstract collective, then I’ll feel liberated to say something large in scope about aesthetic consciousness.

Back then, new dimensions were opened in conceptual and artistic space. Distinctive depths were fathomed and explored. I’ll use the phrase “the Spiritual Fantastic” as a way of trying to capture that augmentation of reality.

In contrast, what do we have today? Our most prestigious composers, painters, poets, and novelists operate from less large, less deep modes of conception and creation. Superficial irony has replaced subtle artistic, metaphysical irony. In our present culture writ large, one finds the cult of celebrity replacing the cult of quality, one finds both a New Age credulity and a banal realism replacing the Spiritual Fantastic.

It’s not easy to attempt a coherent description of the peculiar regions of art opened by those now-dead ones. Their forms of seeing and making were different in texture of consciousness from today’s version. They went beyond religion, philosophy, and personal expression. Those now-dead ones gave us the beautiful strange hiding in spirit curves of the elusive Rose.

Whatever was in the cultural air during the tenure of those now-dead folks, it’s no longer our present atmosphere. Now, it’s merely a melancholy aura hovering around their surviving works, a vintage reminder of the conceptual and artistic extraordinary.

Can that quality of conception and magic of making happen again today? I think it’s possible. It would require. perhaps, our listening for visionary echoes of the earlier 20th century, while also imagining ahead into the worlding eccentric. Martinů himself was quite the imagineer. His Epic of Gilgamesh locates that ancient fellow inside music of European depth.




Posted by Tim Buck



One thought on “the Spiritual Fantastic

  1. This essay is beautiful and persuasive. I would have loved to have also seen mention women artists who made great visionary work of influence and significance, such as Remedio Varos, Diane Arbus, Virginia Woolf, Frida Khalo, and others.

    Thank you fur sharing your erudition.


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