See pithy remarks for my personal comments.
On page 173a of Tom Phillips’ A Humument, Phillips demonstrates the futility of beauty, and the vain efforts wasted to save it. He uses a few simple colors with patterns thrown in, but overall, a pleasant yet disturbingly tranquil aura exudes the collage. The fluid words follow a relatively linear path; they juxtapose with the parts of the image. Both the picture and text start off clean and crisp, only to degenerate far beyond recognition as the viewer pans down the page. Likewise, beauty can begin with a graceful start, only to fall unto itself.
When the viewer first takes in the image, he may notice the strikingly dark border surrounding an almost completely white background. Preventing any chance of escape, the purity of the contents is left to suffer and deteriorate. The stark white background within the black boundary is only at first disturbed by a calm blue flowing down in a straight slit about three-quarters from the left side of the image. As the viewer moves down the image, the pure white, representing cleanliness, light, truth, virginity, and peace, continues to cover the picture like a fresh coat of snow. The stream of blue begins exhibiting darker shades of azure blotches scattered about itself as it descends downwards. Taken figuratively, the white represents the ideal embodiment of beauty: a pure, beautiful, serene, virginal female uncorrupted by the outside world because of her containment inside the recently created walls of isolation. She remains this virginal figure so long as the blue stream continues to flow uncontaminated.
Phillips’ use of the page’s words begins before the vertical midsection. He begins by describing a male character “softly unlock[ing] a field of dim moving blank white curtains”, the words contained within easily recognizable rectangles and an oval. After reading these words, the viewer may realize that the white areas on both sides of the stream resemble opening curtains, with a sky blue backdrop begging to be revealed. But these curtains are not alone. Within the perimeter of black isolation is a whole “field” of these white curtains, one in front of the other, hiding the next one from sight. The “dim moving blank” curtains tower above the male character, giving no ray of hope as they obscure the female prisoner at the end with unyielding expressions and lumbering appearances. Despite the intimidating circumstances, the character “unlock[s]” each of these curtains as he strives to reach the end. The curtains are “locked”, suggesting the value of the beauty they try to conceal. However, the character “softly” undoes each curtain, hinting at an uncharacteristic effeminate approach, revealing a possible compassionate motive but likely to hinder his progress.
As the viewer continues to scan down the image, Phillips’ male character carries on with his metaphoric search. The image seemingly reaches a climax towards the bottom third of the picture. The blue slit of a waterfall peacefully cascading down the pure white surroundings immediately coagulates, turning a navy, and then a blood red. Coincidentally, at the same instant, quick black lines extend from the “ground” of the picture, puncturing the once impressive cascade. The text simultaneously displays “to see her dead” in a congealed shape as the slit of blood continues down. It apparently seems that the character has indeed reached the beautiful female figure at the end of the ceaseless field of curtains. Unfortunately, upon unlocking the last curtain he “see[s] her dead”. The text, shapes, and colors in this area clearly denote the female’s death. Although representing the perfect personification of beauty, the female degenerates under her isolated and confined conditions. The character’s efforts in finding the female and possibly freeing her are futile.
The image ends with the stream flowing into a curdled pool of red, concealed by the numerous lines raised at a 45° angle that had pierced the cascade earlier. The text concludes with “her little patch of garden, the red tulips, the tumbler of water”. The character may have found next to the corpse of the virginal figure the last items she came in contact with. The female may have unsuccessfully tried to grow a “little patch of garden”, lined with “red tulips” and watered with a “tumbler of water” in a vain attempt to preserve the beauty. While a watering can is normally used in gardening, the tumbler may symbolize the female’s abrupt fall from grace, as tumblers are frequently used for drinking alcohol. Her seclusion has reached the limits, and the final sin of sowing fruitless seeds is committed before her supposed death.
In conclusion, Phillips crafts a collage brimming with simplicity but bursting with imagery, symbols, and meaning in this page from his work, A Humument. On page 173a, Phillips conveys to the viewer that beauty is a double edged sword; aesthetic appearances may be pleasant to look upon, but when left isolated and neglected, the beauty is useless and potentially harmful. Furthermore, any endeavors to save beauty that is far too degenerated are pointless as well, expressing the melancholic state of fallen beauty and hopeless efforts.