Davie Bowie and the Cauldron of Regeneration

Davie Bowie and the Cauldron of Regeneration

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When that fabulous shape-shifter David Bowie died I was curious to see the videos he had done to accompany the release of his album ‘Dark Star’. If you have not seen them, take a look here. The imagery is enigmatic and visceral: the ritual shaking of the buxom women in their summer dresses, the crucified scarecrows with their rotting faces, his own withered hands, the weird black costume with silver stripes (lines of coke?) and his final disappearance into the wardrobe at the end of ‘Lazarus’. These images haunted me, particularly one night as I lay awake worrying about a friend who had just had a life-or-death operation. To me the images were all about a terrible fear of death. For me there was no sense of acceptance or equanimity about dying in these videos. Fair play to Mr B for his courage in exploring and exposing this terror via these images, but I needed to get them out of my head if I was to get to sleep.

I got up and found that my friend was fine, up fiddling on his computer. Reassured I slept and woke to make a trip to the British Museum to see the Celts exhibition. I was not feeling too good myself, being dogged by a virus which was draining my energy – and then London is a shock to us country dwellers and the BM staff were grumpy and unhelpful. Or was it me out of step with ‘life’ having spent the night thinking about death?

Anyway I was finally admitted, still feeling fragile and bad-tempered about the crowds who were obstructing my view of the beautiful Celtic artefacts. But then I got to the Gundestrup Cauldron.

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Abruptly it all changed. As I clambered up the steps to look inside and saw the images face to face a wave of joy swept through my body: the horned god clutching his snake!

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the silver warriors marching towards the cauldron to be reborn!

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And at the bottom the  sinuous victory of the woman warrior over the Death-Bull with her three dogs (I can’t find a decent pic of that).  I wanted to cry and laugh. There was no reason for despair! This was the cauldron of regeneration itself, famed in our old stories! It was there to tell us there is nothing dies, everything goes into the cauldron and is reborn in a new form.

Later, back in Wales, I lay on my sofa staring at the pictures in the BM book (worth buying). I wanted to investigate how the cauldron had had such a galvanising and cheering effect on me – but I didn’t want to kill the joy and physical exhilaration I could still feel coursing through my body with analysis. There is plenty of that around, no more needed.

Here’s what I experienced looking at the horned god plate, here’s what I felt in my own body: the antlers connect me with the world around, melting my usual boundaries and joining me to the beasts and plants; the snake connects me to the life force, the chi, of the natural world, the torc anchors me and makes me feel safe. Sitting in the dancing half-lotus I sense the kick of the kundalini energy rising through my body.  I feel a blissful pulsing power flooding through me… I find myself letting go of thought, of ideas of who I am and what I want, I want to dissolve into the cauldron, to just let go … in the faith that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

This is the quality I found missing in Bowie’s videos – but which I hope he did experience when he died. The Tibetan Buddhists say we feel this intense wave of bliss when we die, when we let go of the painful and constricting coat of flesh we have worn for our lifetimes here. The great mystery rituals like the one enacted at Eleusis in ancient Greece freed the initiates from fear of death. The great silver cauldron of regeneration, made by men and women long ago who knew the truth about life and death, has risen up from its bog in Denmark is delivering the same message. It’s only on show at the BM till 31 January, then it moves to Edinburgh. You have GOT to see it: it has come through time and space to bring back what is lost.

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A Taste of the Avant-Garde – in Brecon

A Taste of the Avant-Garde – in Brecon

I’d just seen the film On the Road when I went to the Cardiff launch of a book about a group of artists in Wales, A Taste of the Avant-Garde; 56 Group Wales, 56 Years. The room was full of ‘older’ people who had been arty beatniks in the fifties and sixties, like my much admired cousin Dave (who was not only a painter but played the sax, and is still cool of course.) These people were (mainly) still elegant and hip-looking: they had the ever-youthful freshness and bold style of those who had witnessed the dawn of the New Age, an age of self-expression, sexual freedom and spiritual adventure. ‘Oh the parties…’ sighed one woman I met, and I recalled the ecstatic frenzy of the jazz club scene in On the Road. Where would you find that vibe nowadays?

The group was founded in 1956 by a three abstract artists who wanted the power to show and promote their own work – David Tinker, Eric Malthouse and Michael Edmonds. Before long their numbers had swelled and they were deservedly successful, touring their work round the UK and Europe. You had to be invited to join. As time passed they even allowed a few women in (though never more than 25%) including feminist artists like Erica Daborn and Sue Williams (powerful stuff). Gradually they became part of the art establishment, were resented and reviled by some outside their orbit. They still exist today, though now all sorts of art is represented, not just cutting-edge abstraction.


The earlier pictures in the book are evocative of a world recovering from WW2 when it seemed everything was being discovered for the first time – jazz, sex, drugs, etc – but also an innocent world, a world where sports jackets were still worn, smoking was good for you, and women were usually decoratively secretarial or wifely. Abstract art, like jazz, was a badge of this world. If you didn’t like it, you couldn’t enter. The Welshness was an added touch of cool – in one black and white photo from the seventies, Sally Hudson stands in front of her husband, Tom’s paintings featuring the Welsh map, clad in a long dress, with sleeves and hems bordered in a repeated pattern of the same map.

I am not myself part of the art world and was only at this event because the people who created this book are friends – the scholar and collector, David Moore, and his partner, Sue Hiley Harris, a sculptor-weaver whose extraordinary textile version of her own family tree has been widely exhibited (including a brief, partial glimpse in my chapel.) These two are part of a genial group of artists who animate the small world of Brecon, with their un-self-regarding enthusiasm for art and sociability. At the weekend Sue and David opened their Georgian house overlooking the canal for an exhibition of work from the 56 group Wales. My favourites were the vivid, animalistic canvases of Will Roberts and the dynamic glass sculptures of current member, Antonia Spowers – plus Sue’s own work (though she is not in the group), especially the ghostly veil called Hidden Wave in her attic studio.

To find out more about this fascinating book and other artistic activities in this quiet-yet-buzzing part of mid-Wales, visit the Crooked Window website.

And if you like abstract art, take a look at my talented brother’s website.