Art Robert Lawlor with Christopher Bamford and Dorothea Rockburne Brooklyn Rail - New York, NY, USA
After an absence of many years, Robert Lawlor, who began as a sculptor, and whose book Sacred Geometry has had a great influence in reawakening us to the importance of geometrical principles, symmetries, and proportions—not only for art and architecture but also for science and consciousness studies—was recently back in New York for a few days. Dorothea Rockburne, the painter, who had come to know Robert through his work in geometry and had worked with it herself intensely, arranged a reception for him to meet a few old artist friends and others. One of these was Publisher Phong Bui. Dorothea and Phong thought Rail readers would be interested to hear what Robert had been up to. Because I have known Robert for many years, I was asked to come along and help facilitate the conversation. So, one Sunday, Phong picked us up in Manhattan and drove Dorothea, Robert, and I out to the Rail Headquarters to talk.
Chris Bamford: Robert, you’ve been away from America for many years, so we welcome you back. You began here, in New York, as an artist. Your life journey then took you out of that world into another, the world of ideas and spiritual exploration. You went to India. You fell in love with it, exploring it inwardly and outwardly. Finally, after many adventures, you found your way to Pondicherry, to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where, by a stroke of destiny, you discovered the work of Hermetic Egyptologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz. These works revealed to you the profound geometric and metaphysical knowledge—the temple wisdom—of Ancient Egypt. You returned to the U.S. where you and your (then) wife Deborah worked tirelessly to transmit that wisdom. You both even learned French from scratch, and translated many of Schwaller’s books, including his massive masterpiece, The Temple of Man. That done, you went to Australia. You explored the indigenous world and cosmology of the aborigines. You wrote Voices of the First Day. My first question is: how do you tie all these elements together?
Robert Lawlor: I was thinking about that this morning after we talked. It made me recall sitting in the south Indian desert in a grass hut as part of an international community that was one of the major active fulfillments of 1960s social idealism. It was called Auroville and the plan was to build an international city where people could divorce themselves from their national identity and become part of a group that was totally planetary-minded. It was led by two spiritual figures: Sri Aurobindo, who had passed away in 1950, and his counterpart, known as “the Mother.” It was a highly idealistic place. By that time I had been in India about six years, and someone said to me one day, “if you stay in India very much longer, India will either absorb you or destroy you” and I didn’t feel I was ready for either one of those options. I had by that time come to know someone who had been friends with Schwaller de Lubicz, and through this contact I became aware of his work. There were only fifty copies of his major work in the world at that time, but one copy was in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Library and I was able to get it out. At the same time I was getting to know a French disciple of Sri Aurobindo and she happened to have another of the only 49 remaining copies. She loaned me that copy and there I was sitting in this avant-garde futuristic community almost compelled to translate this book. Simply to enable me to read it, Deborah and I found ourselves often cycling seven miles a day to take French lessons so we could sit there that night by candlelight trying to translate this work. This enormous cross-fertilization of traditions (such as those of Egypt and India) gave some new shape and meaning to our lives. I realized: No, I cannot live by ideals alone, I have to involve myself in ideas.
Dorothea Rockburne: That’s quite a statement.
Lawlor: Yes, it was a big realization. Until then I hadn’t realized that I was by nature a highly idealistic person, someone who threw all his energy into an enclosure of mind that might be called an idealistic tunnel. But here I was, reading Schwaller’s work—it made me aware of the difference between ideas and ideals. Both of those words, by the way, are derivative from a goddess—Dia, a female deity.
Bamford: Ideals usually come from ideas, but all-too-often those trying to bring the ideals into practice have forgotten the ideas.
Lawlor: And that becomes a big problem in the world, because then you get the evolution of ideologies, which govern religious or socio-political groups. That’s one of the reasons why it’s really important to keep the two—ideals and ideas—in contact so you know what the underlying ideas really are.
Dorothea Rockburne, “Pascal, State of Grace” (1986-87). Oil and gold leaf on gessoed linen, 6´ × 5´. ©Dorothea Rockburne. Image courtesy of the artist and Greenburg Van Doren Gallery.
Bamford: Then there is the question of doing, acting. Previously, in New York, you had been making sculpture, which is about making. Then you pursued ideals, which led you to discover ideas. When you did so, was there still a need to connect ideas to work, to making?
Lawlor: Well, in India what I had found very appealing was making village architecture—how they just cut palm leaves and bamboo shoots with mud foundations to make buildings. I thought it was so beautiful and so remarkable that every man had to make his own home. There was a whole platform of indigenous values under that. So I started making buildings with palm leaves and bamboo. I would start living in one, and then more people would come from another part of the world, and I would build another one. I had to learn how to stabilize the earth, and stabilize the leaves because there were termites. The minute you got a building up you heard munching. The houses would cave in so that people were always re-building their buildings. I worked out a way of using bitumen to make earth adobe permanent. As far as I know it works, because I saw a photograph of a wall I had made. It was still intact twenty years after I built it. The whole thing was totally an experiment, I bought drums of bitumen, I had many village men working with me and they were all covered in black tar. To make the leaves permanent I worked out a way of dipping the leaves. I was really hungry for color, so I dipped leaves in paints of various colors—thinning them with kerosene and using local pigments. Some people thought it was really gross! But in the end, I covered the land with a number of these buildings. I learned how to soak the bamboo to make curved structures.
Bamford: That’s interesting because the Schwaller de Lubicz book you discovered was not only about Egypt and geometry, but also about architecture, and, in a sense, building these little dwellings has to do with space and architecture and structure.
Lawlor: But, unfortunately, I didn’t know about proportion.
Bamford: Proportion is inherent in the creation of space.
Rockburne: Robert, last night you spoke of how you came to write the book Sacred Geometry from an experience you had at the Pondicherry library. You mentioned André Vandenbroeck, who introduced you to Schwaller.
Lawlor: André came to know Schwaller toward the end of Schwaller’s life. Later he went to Pondicherry where I met him. He started teaching me sacred geometry. André wanted to write a book [Philosophical Geometry (Inner Traditions, 1987)] on that subject. I stayed in India for four years then left and came back to the States in 1972. I met up with André again and continued to study geometry with him. It really intrigued me. It was very basic stuff. So I left the ideals to begin chasing ideas.
Bamford: Interestingly enough André too had been a painter.
Lawlor: So had Schwaller.
Bamford: Schwaller had studied with Matisse, so this link between art and number and geometry is very tight. Schwaller was also an alchemist, which is the royal art—as much of an art as a science or spiritual path. This all harks back to ancient times when art, science, and religion were one—a single gesture.
Lawlor: The other person I discovered during that period in India was the distinguished Indologist, Alan Daniélou who was a linguist, like André, and an artist. He painted, he danced, he was a musician, and at one time he was completely involved in the Parisian art world. When he got to translating Indian work, ancient Indian ideas, he also got involved in numbers.
Bamford: In this unity—of science, art, and religion—number and geometry were fundamental. They were the initiatory technology, if you would. But many people still don’t understand what number and geometry are in this initiatory sense. So I have to ask: what in this sense is sacred geometry?
Lawlor: It is an examination of the inherent laws of time and space that are embedded in the symmetry of geometric forms. I should add that as the principles of time and space are embedded in the symmetry of form—so are the principles that underlie consciousness. That is a definition that I have synthesized from the work in general. That was one of the things that Danielou pointed out in his translations of the Puranas: Indian thought is dominated by a sacred trinity—the trinity of consciousness, space, and time—and these three are bonded so that you can never really consider one separately. That idea really stuck with me: that is, in the triangulation of number we observe a genesis. One (as Unity) becomes Two (as Duality), Three (as the principle of Trinity), Four (as Manifest Reality). The triangulation of number holds the passageway of the mysteries that are embedded in form, and which move our level of awareness, our consciousness of time and space.
Bamford: So time and space really have to do with the ontological principles present in consciousness and creation, because consciousness and creation are one.
Lawlor: They are the essentials of being.
Rockburne: But back to the subject of making, what interests me about your book, Robert, as compared to other books on sacred geometry, is that pragmatically it can be used as a possible inherent structure in painting. Since sacred geometry is no longer taught in art schools, I recommend that every artist read your easy and lucid, but profound, book. Using the golden mean, if properly understood, can present an open sesame to successful work. Other books I’ve read on the subject seem only to relate to nature and natural progressions. They don’t explain its use in painting. For me that represented a huge difference. Then, too, the specific quotes you gave, such as that of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), stating that there should be no decoration, only proportion spoke to me in the language of mathematics, a language I was seeking. Some time later I came across a book titled The Plan of St. Gall, which, as I looked into the evolution of medieval monasteries, led me to realize that many of them, especially those designed by St. Bernard, were designed as a series of acoustically resonating rooms, based on sacred geometry. When the monks sang at one end of the Abbey their voices resonated from room to room throughout the whole Abbey. I was so fascinated and moved by their discoveries that I made a work called The Plan of St. Gall based on that study.
Lawlor: It must have been my previous interest in painting. When I discovered geometry, I discovered that all painting in almost every culture, right up until the 17th Century, was involved in a geometric grid that is called a “canevas”—a previous structuring of the space in proportional units before any painting began. All Renaissance painters did this, and that was a real revelation. I had been through the whole education of arts in America and no one ever even said the word “proportion,” nor gave any indication that there was a systematic method underlying the entire history of art. And then in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it was forcibly removed from the arts. Teaching proportion in art academies in France was prohibited at that time, so there was a strange, almost conspiratorial, attack on people who had that kind of knowledge in the visual field. I don’t know who, or what their motivations were, but it’s very interesting.
Bamford: If we go back only to the Middle Ages, to medieval music, for instance, everything was proportion. Proportion was the expression of living relationships and at the same time the harmony of these relationships.
Lawlor: Living in the sense that it connected everything that is a part of man to the creation of nature and to the metaphysical. Life was defined by the connection between those levels. Once we became a material culture of industrialization we lost that knowledge.
Bamford: That, and the reality that a living proportion becomes invisible when it’s alive—it is the spiritual. When you increasingly identify it with the fixed form, the proportion itself ceases to bring life into it. Art becomes dead when it uses proportion mechanically. Proportion is a living thing: a spiritual thing.