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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Painting Mythology

Anyone care to hazard a guess what this is all about. Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1787
Every so often I get to studying and thinking about artists of the past and the various trials and tribulations they had to go through in producing their art. Inevitably I end up thankful that I wasn't born in some past era hundreds of years ago with the same creative urges I possess today. I have the freedom to paint almost literally anything I want, limited only by my own technical inadequacies which, thanks to various photographic and digital working tools, are becoming less and less of a factor as the years go by. All I need is an idea, any idea, that fascinates me for a sufficiently long enough period to conceive and produce the work, and I'm off and running. I can employ virtually any medium I want, any material, and paint any size or shape, limited only by my physical surroundings. And, although I like to sell art as well as anyone, I'm also blessed by the fact that so long as I can store my work, I don't have to paint work guaranteed to sell. That is a tremendous dose of creative freedom. If it has any downside, it's that I sometimes feel guilty in not availing myself of this priceless freedom more than I do.

It must have been a wild party, Luca Giordano, c. 1680
Had I lived in the four hundred years following the Renaissance, while I might have had at my disposal the technical ability to produce much the same work I do today, conventions would have greatly limited my choices of subject matter. Portraits, of course, would have been okay, but landscapes would hardly have entered my mind unless I wanted to paint idealized Arcadian pleasantries or the bland Dutch countryside. The still life would have been considered little more than a painting exercise for students, far beneath my professional talents unless I were Dutch or Flemish and wanted to specialize in them to the exclusion of all else. The same goes for animals. And any form of art for art's sake would have been literally unthinkable. The one overriding rule imposed by convention and society upon all artists during this time was that art had to serve some higher purpose. It had to inspire, or glorify, or educate, or decorate, or illuminate, or illustrate (and preferably all these things at once). And if it didn't fulfil at least one of these purposes, not only was it not considered art, but the artist wouldn’t even have considered creating it.

Any ideas? It's Jason and Medea, 1865, 
Gustave Moreau. Who's Jason and Medea?

Aside from portraits and some of the minor exceptions I mentioned above, to have been a fine artist before the late 19th century (the Modern Art era), I would have been forced to have immersed myself in three major sources of art content--history, the Bible, and Greek mythology. It's startling to realize that today, not one artist in ten would be sufficiently conversant in any of these areas as to allow him or her to paint them intelligently. Most artists today wouldn't even have the technical skills to try. Granted, we all know something about history (that of recent and local vintage anyway) and most of us have a layman's knowledge of the Bible, but could we--or would we--paint anything more than trite iconography from either source? I don't think so. And as for Greek mythology...well, most of us today wouldn't know a Perseus from a Phineas.

Jean Auguste Ingres, c. 1820
Take a painting by Joshua Reynolds for instance, painted in 1787 (top). It depicts a baby in a cradle with a snake in each hand. Anyone have any idea what this might be? How about a painting by Luca Giordano (second image) from the 1680s depicting a female warrior amid a ferocious battle--or a party of some sort--sword drawn, fending off her enemies using a severed head? Or picture this, a pot-bellied man, mostly nude, appearing to be in his early 20s, club over his shoulder, sporting a lion skin while in the background lies another man he has obviously just slain. Haven't a clue, have you? How about a nearly nude, androgynous young couple (above, left), standing upon what appears to be some sort of birdlike creature (hint: really it's a dragon) which they have recently slain. The painting is by Gustave Moreau dating from 1865, if that helps any. Okay, here's an easy one, a cave, a stripling nude man bearing spears stands in deep conversation with a winged, bare-breasted creature, half woman, half lion. It's by Ingres, painted around 1820 (above, right). The point of all this is, had we, as artists, lived three or four hundred years ago, these questions would have seemed as silly as asking us to identify a certain round-headed kid trying to kick a football, or duelling with a tree over the possession of a kite. Aren't you glad you're a twenty-first century artist?

Top image: The Infant Hercules Strangling Serpents in his Cradle, Reynolds, 1787
Second image: Judith Displaying the Head of Holofernes, Luca Giordano, 1680
Third image: Jason and Medea, Gustave Moreau, 1865
Fourth image: Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jean Auguste, Ingres, c. 1820
Not Shown: David having slain Goliath (not enough information to locate image).

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