Joe Tilson

The Arrival of Demeter


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joe Tilson born 1928
Etching, aquatint and carborundum on paper
Image: 552 × 464 mm
Purchased 1984

Catalogue entry

Joe Tilson born 1928

P77058 The Arrival of Demeter 1982

Etching with aquatint and carborundum on laid paper 552 x 464 (21 3/4 x 18 1/4); printed by Jack Shirreff at 107 Workshop, Westbury, Wiltshire and published by Waddington Graphics in an edition of 25
Inscribed ‘Tilson 1982' b.r. and ‘19/25' b.l.; publisher's stamp b.l.
Purchased from Waddington Graphics (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Lit: Susan Smith, ‘Joe Tilson: Prints of the late 1960s and 1970s', unpublished MA report, University of London, Courtauld Institute of Art 1985, pp.18-33; Marco Livingstone, ‘Unity and Wholeness: Elements in the Art of Joe Tilson' in Joe Tilson: Recent Works 1985-7, exh. cat., Waddington Galleries 1987, pp.2-4

The following entry is based upon a conversation between the compiler and the artist on 4 December 1987 and has been approved by the artist.

P77058, P77059 and P77060 are visual explorations of Greek mythological themes in celebration of the earth and of the cycles of nature. Each focuses on one of three inter-related mythological figures, Dionysos, Demeter and Kore (Persephone) whose myths are concerned with the sacred underground forces of nature. Tilson has worked closely with the earth myths over the last eight years, producing many variants in different media. Much of the iconography is drawn from Hesiod's Homeric Hymn to Demeter, while other details are drawn from information contained in the works of Jane Harrison, Mircea Eliade, Carl Kerenyi and H.W. Parke.

From 1970 to 1976, Tilson produced an integrated body of works, ‘Alchera', involving sculpture, objects, reliefs, paintings, prints and books, which analysed the themes of the four elements - fire, air, water, earth - and more generally explored the continuum of Eastern and Western cultures since the earliest times. Of the four elements explored initially in the ‘Alchera' series, the earth is the element that the artist has felt closest to, since the early seventies when he and his family, disillusioned with an urban ‘political' life, moved to a simpler existence in Wiltshire. In this context the artist has stated that he came to believe that ‘the underlying ecological problems are really connected with our view of nature ... so that behind what I'm doing is a connection with the sacred in nature and therefore [I am] reintroducing the idea of "mythology"'. Tilson's notion of mythology is informed by Freud and Jung (collective unconscious) and most notably Levi-Strauss's work on the universal structural basis of myths. He sees his work as ‘iconographically part of a long tradition in its structure but also as part of a long tradition in its meaning'.

Greek themes first appeared in Tilson's work in 1981 following a visit to Greece. The idea of paying homage to the earth was developed in the ‘Proscinemi' prints (1978-82) which are connected with visits to sacred places associated with the gods: Dodona, Tiryns and Delphi. P77058, P77059 and P77060 follow on naturally from ‘Proscinemi' and repeat many of the individual motifs already explored. The image of the hand in P77058 recalls the ancient ritual of laying hands on a sacred site while the cross beside it suggests the marking of a place. Both are images connected with the history of ‘Proskynema' practised by the Greeks in Egypt whereby a Pilgrim would leave some trace - a votive offering, an inscription, an image - of their visit to a holy site. Similarly, the variously formed ‘tablet' shapes with eye-holes that feature in all three, and which have their origin in an earlier work, entitled ‘Demeter Box' 1979 (British Council), where a number of real panels were taken from a box and hung on the wall, suggest ancient writing tablets from which their inscriptions have long since disappeared. Finally, the oak leaf in P77058 refers to the rustling of the oak trees at Dodona, the oldest place of the oracle.

Each print bears clues to the identification of the myth and each represents a single profile head ‘relating back to the god or the goddess'. While Demeter and Dionysos are composite heads, taken from early Greek images, the profile in P77060 was based on ‘The Kleophrades Painter, Maenad' c.500 BC from the Museum Antiker Kleinkunst, Munich, which Tilson found reproduced in John Boardman's Archaic Greek Art, 1971. It is also reproduced in Robert Rosenblum, Ingres, 1967, p.21. Both Ingres, in ‘Jupiter and Thetis' 1811 (repr. Rosenblum 1967, p.21), and Picasso in ‘Guernica', 1937, used this image as a model in their work.

Tilson finds this cross-fertilisation of imagery deeply satisfying. In P77060 Persephone is surrounded by images of growth and fruition, grass and seeds, and a simplified tree motif centre-left. There are also images taken directly from the story of Persephone, hence the six seeds of the pomegranate, bottom left, which she was tricked into eating by Hades and which assured her annual return to the underworld; an allegory for death in winter and resurrection in spring. In the bottom right corner a crack of light in the dark shows the earth opening to swallow up Persephone as she descends to the underworld for the first time. The image is also suggestive of the female sex. The print also features a simple triangle, a Platonic solid, which echoes the tripartite structure of the print and the series and gives shape to a notion of near symmetry and equivalence which Tilson sees as crucial in his work.

In P77059 Dionysos, god of wine, is surrounded by symbols of natural growth, the vine, a simplified bunch of grapes in the top left panel, ivy, buzzing bees in the bottom left panel and, in the centre, a schematic representation of crossed branches. The enigmatic black and white circle in the bottom right corner was arrived at, according to the artist, through Orphic cosmogony ‘... an idea about chaos - about the division of night and day from chaos, and the beginnings of the forming of the world'.

P77058 is devoted to Demeter, goddess of grain and the earth's fertility, and also mother to Persephone. In addition to the three motifs culled from the Proscinemi series, the central panel depicts the pomegranate and, immediately to the left, the image of a torch points to another episode in the myth of Demeter, here searching for her daughter by torchlight. Both images offer ‘clues' to the earth mythologies narrated by Hesiod. The cube is the regular figure assigned to the earth by Plato in ‘Timaeus' and it bears the inscription Gaia (sometimes Ge), the goddess of Earth.

Much of the iconography in P77058, P77059 and P77060 is difficult to grasp without a detailed knowledge of Greek literature and culture. However, the artist has stated:

You don't need to understand Greek mythology or obscure things in alchemy to understand what I'm doing ... But hopefully also as you would go into it and pick up clues that are scattered in it like seeds, you would wonder what is the word Kore? What is the myth of Persephone in relation to Demeter? What does it mean? Why have the poets used it for century after century? Why is it central to D.H. Lawrence and Pound and Eliot? It is an ongoing process that forms part of European culture in general and has a resonance that works on many levels (Quoted in Marco Livingstone 1987, p.2).

Each print employs nine individual panels laid out in a tripartite structure, like a game of noughts and crosses. As the individual details have featured in numerous other works, in different combinations, P77058, P77059 and P77060 are in essence geometrical, numerical reworkings of pre-existing images; part of an ongoing series rather than a new statement. This idea of pattern making is not gratuitous. Tilson has always been concerned with the notion of number and pattern. He has been interested in structures and systems of thought (in art, myth and language) since the early 1960s and his hi-tech socio-political images. Behind the ‘Alchera' works lay a vast exercise of re-reading the whole of the literature of the world, a project inspired by the Joyce of Finnegan's Wake and which necessarily continues. The artist has stated:

Reading not only things from India, Africa and North America, but things like Jung on Alchemy ... led me to an understanding of the idea of structures and devices which I have used all the time ... for about twenty-five years - that is the four elements, the four seasons, the seven days of the week, the alphabet - and so it was marvellous to find that they were basically underlying religious concepts as far away as the Sioux Indians, pre-Homeric Greece, in India, Tibet and China; in every civilisation you could possibly look at, there was this strange structuring system.

Thus, for Tilson, number is sacred in nature and form itself can carry meaning.

Each print was produced from ten separate plates. In each case a large copper plate using aquatint provided the speckled background and detail drawings for the individual sections. The plates extend beyond the edge of the paper so that the paper carries no physical impression of the initial print, just colour and faint registration marks for the second stage. This later stage is completed by the impression of nine small individual plates for each print and is done while the paper is still wet from the first stage. The nine individual panels use aquatint and in some cases a technique invented by Henri Goetz whereby a silicon carbide powder, Carborundum, is attached to the plate with adhesive by brushing on with a palette knife or with a stencil. The powder hardens to the plate and creates ‘a sort of aquatint in reverse, giving a very dense and very strong mark which corresponds in (my) printmaking to the things I do in painting'. Tilson was first introduced to softground etching by Giorgio Upiglio in Milan in 1975 and it was through Upiglio that Tilson met Henri Goetz, author of Gravure au Carborundum 1969. The physical process of making prints and the resulting object are important for the artist: ‘I really love the use of acid, and biting, the whole thing of making a plate, cutting it out and actually inking it up and getting an imprint into the wet paper ... ends up with an object which has its own significance ... the significance is already inherent in that process'. Tilson developed these prints to the proof stage in his Wiltshire studio. The proofs and plates were then handed over to Jack Shirreff who reproofed the print at the 107 Workshop, Westbury, Wiltshire, before running the edition itself. This procedure is the artist's normal practice.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.465-7

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