Greta Sykes

Influences and Philosophical Background


My work arises from several key influences, apart from the childhood ones mentioned.

The German Enlightenment and the philosopher Emanuel Kant were very important from school years onward. When I searched as a confused adolescent for answers to questions of right and wrong I witnessed my sisters’ quarrels and fall outs over moral questions. I did not think they were resolving the questions they posed. Also at the time I failed to find solace in the teachings of the Christian church because I understood that the Ten Commandments proposed that a woman is the property of a man. Such a notion runs counter to my intuition as well as everything my mother taught me. From my teens I had a strong sense of myself as equal to my brother, and my mother supported such an attitude. To help me find my way through the muddle of everyone’s views I bought a small volume called ‘Ground works of the metaphysics of Morals’, Kant’s first work discussing morality. It also originated the famous Categorial Imperative - 'Do not do to others, what you don’t want them to do to you'. You might just as well listen to one of the best, I thought. The small Reclam booklet fitted neatly into my handbag with paper and pencil, often accompanied by a mini bottle of Schnapps for long tube journeys and waiting for friends at cold bus stops. The Enlightenment had brought egalite, fraternite and liberte and raised the hopes of the European people for a better life. Kant wrote about the Enlightenment and developed a philosophy combining empiricism, idealism and rationalism which incorporated early scientific speculations. His theories on ethics became emblematic.

The German Romantic movement and German Idealism were the other spiritual movements that embedded themselves in my thinking. The romantic movement sought out the elementary. What Hegel called ‘this enthusiastic vision of a holistic unification of everything’. Out of the Enlightenment with it’s deliberations of individual culpability necessarily evolved idealistic visions of what a human being could achieve, as well as an awareness that a darkness resides at the bottom of their soul, which could bring forth chaos. Kant saw the badness of humans controlled through a striving for world peace by way of individual reason and collective institutions. Hoelderlin sought a way out of the chaos through the divine: 'The divine dies, when humans treat each other as a thing.' Karl Marx and his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 was much loved by the romantic Heinrich Heine who contributed in his own way to leftwing political thoughts of his day: ‘Poets must become the new priests'. Nietzsche brought both of these movements to a climax with his celebration of chaos: “One must have chaos in one’s heart to give birth to a rising star.” With him the belief in Idealism and perhaps Romanticism expired and Modernism arose with it’s awareness of the potential dreadfulness of sobering positivist pursuits. The philosophical literature, as well as Hermann Hesse’s novels, such as ‘Narziss und Goldmund’ deeply influenced me and buried themselves into my mind as seismic currents. My mother used to be a Wandervogel. This was a romantic socialist movement wedded to a profound love and respect for nature. Nudism and walking were some of their main occupations. When I grew up my family used to go on nudist summer holidays, a late remnant of her Wandervogel days.’

WWII and the Nazis

It is impossible for me to escape from this episode in German history. When I think I have grasped it; a word, a picture, a story or a person will bring it up close again in another shape and illumination, often larger than before. There is some evidence that past traumsa can haunt you more as you age. When I became aware of myself as a person growing up I found myself in a country in which all the dreams and hopes and culture of a people lay shattered. Throughout my life the catastrophe of the murder and destruction bequeathed on Germany by Hitler and his supporters has left its mark on my life and influenced my work and beliefs. The invisible devastating loss of lives and the very visible destruction of the city of Hamburg became lasting scars inside my mind. I made Bertolt Brecht’s poetry and plays with it’s easy to understand vision of socialism into my daily psalms, as well as Marxist literature. Out of it grew my political perspective, my poetry and art, but also my love for London and it’s wonderful ancient and modern architecture. I sought refuge in London with it’s visible landscape of history away from the destroyed town of oblivion, Hamburg.


“The redemption of humans from themselves and as a practical aim means to become an artist (creator), a saint (lover) and a philosopher (full of wisdom)". Friedrich Nietzsche in ‘And so spoke Zarathustra’. Similar to the influences for my poetry, romantic, idealist and socialist ideas mingle to create a Pantheistic world vision that seeks to find and unite the basic building blocks of nature and culture, a theory of everything. The ancient theory of Tao, meaning God, path, reason, word, meaning all in one, being stillness and movement at the same time come close to my vision. Tao views the world we live in as the ten thousand things that comprise everything that is going on around us, small details, humans, words, thoughts and feelings form an intricate network of a meaningful whole. Psychologists call it coherence. It is the deep-seated need of people to experience all aspects of their lives as somehow being meaningful and interconnected. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is not dissimilar with it’s notion of earth as a living organism that responds to invasive and negative inputs as a living body would do.

As an artist and poet I see myself building on all the work of human creativity of the past, ancient and modern. I feel affinity with ancient art movements, such as Egyptian art and the Byzantine passion to create Christian images against all the odds. In particular, I view my work as deeply embedded in the European artistic creativity of the early twentieth century, with Expressionism, Surrealism and Cubism. These were abruptly shattered by the rise of the Nazis. The cultural wasteland that followed their seizure of power in 1933 is best described by Jean-Michel Palmier in his ‘Weimar in Exile’, 2006. My favourite artists therefore come from those days, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky. Both as an artist and a scientist I work intimately with the observation of nature. All my work, painting as well as poetry and prose are founded in observing the natural (and cultural) world in how it presents itself to me. Aware of the fact that we each construct our view of the world, I know that it is my own perception that presents me with the world that I see. Therein lies exactly the contribution of the painter and the poet: to add to the immense creativity of those who have laboured before us to add our own unique perspective on the beauty and mystery of nature. In that sense my works are a tiny step in humankind’s evolution to self-awareness. They are my miniature narratives in the grand story that we want to tell about life on earth with the hope that one day a mass awareness will bring the aims of the French Revolution to all, namely egalite, fraternite, liberte.