When at the British Museum just before Christmas I bought a fascinating book, a Jungian tome on symbols and archetypal images. The text is interesting, though not perhaps as expansive as it could be. More inspiring is the eclectic choice of illustrations sourced from around the world and spanning a period of over 2000 years. It is rare to see such a diverse collection of images, with most art history books focusing on the West, or on a specific subject matter such as 18th century Japanese art, or Burmese bronzes. The illustrations in this book are an affirmation of the genius and creativity of man and also of the power of the collective unconscious.
Many of the pictures are not available online but I have made a small selection below. All the quotes are from the book: (Eds.) Ronnberg, Ami & Martin, Kathleen, 2010, The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images: Koln, Taschen
Hokusai (1760-1849), Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Highway, Japan.
I find this print captivatingly grandiose and delicate at the same time. The depiction of a waterfall is highly stylised, majestic, and ethereal, its scale emphasised by the inclusion of three small men picnicking on a precipice.
‘The descent of a great mass of water can … overwhelm us. The waterfall has been imagined as a stream feeding the dark realms of the underworld and circling up to issue again from craggy heights. It has been suggested the descent of the immutable into an ever-dividing stream that defies capture, cannot be contained, is eternal movement, eternal change, generating life and death … The waterfall itself is an emblem of balance. Chinese landscape paintings portray the waterfall in contrast to the upward movement of the rock face over which it descends, and the dynamic movement of its rushing waters with the stillness of the rock.’ (p48)
Uccello, St. George and the Dragon, 1465, Italy.
This bold composition with its vivid colouring is one of my favourite paintings at the National Gallery, London. St.George, clad in armour and riding a white horse, is in the midst of saving the princess by spearing the dragon. Behind him is a dark forest and spiralling clouds, contributing to the drama of the scene. The princess, however, stands, unperturbed, holding the dragon on a leash as though it were a pet dog.
‘Long ago, the dragon began as a winged or flying serpent, expressing the primal harmony between the subterranean and aeriel dimensions … As an image of the unconscious, the dragon moves in and out of psyche’s darkness, showing only parts of itself, evanescent.’ (704)
“Inside the Bubble of Love,” a detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, c. 1504, the Netherlands.
Hieronymous Bosch – the first surrealist? An altogether bizarre scene which is on the one hand, distinctly medieval, and on the other hand oddly 20th century with its peculiar juxtaposition of objects and nature, and almost nightmarish in its conception, with giant birds, oversized foliage and small people. It brings to mind Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’ which terrified me as a child.
‘The archetypal symbol of a bubble exists in the psyche beyond time and space. It constitutes an invisible reality imaged by mystics throughout the ages, a round nothingness that is paradoxically the primordial source of all.’ (52) ‘Throughout history, the translucent bubble has inspired contemplation of the infinite and the eternal .. The translucency of the bubble, introduces … the numinosity, etheriality and spirituality associated with the celestial light of heaven.’ (52)
Kotah Master, Rana Jagat Singh II of Kotah, Rajasthan, c. 1750 – 1800, India.
I was drawn to this painting because I visited the palace at Kota earlier this year (see a previous post). Today the palace is a little decrepit, with a few splendid reminders of how rich and extravagant this complex once was. This miniature depicts the gardens of the Rajput palace when they were still very much alive and in use. Looking at this painting is strangely nostalgic, albeit nostalgic for something never experienced.
‘Eighteenth-century patron Rana Jagat Singh II of Kotah, India, cultivated the arts as one might cultivate a fine garden … The Kotah master … has honoured his patron by depicting him enthroned in the center of a flourishing garden, divided into four sections of pink and orange blossoms, lush vegetation and fountains flowing with water.’ (146)
‘In almost all cultures and religions, the garden represents a sacred space, a uniting of the conscious self with its unconscious source. Muslims speak of gardens as states of bliss and call Allah “the gardener.”‘(146)
Ogata Korin (1658-1716), Raijin, detail from Gods of Wind and Thunder. Japan.
Raijin is the Japanese god of thunder, here looking rather comical.
‘Stormy of countenance, the Japanese god Raijin makes thunder as he pounds on a great ring of drums. The crash of thunder can still unnerve us. While science has explained thunder as the explosive expansion of heated air in lightning’s path, it was in former times the signature of the highest, earthshaking gods: Thor, Zeus, Yaweh, Indra, Baal, Taranis. Always ambivalent, the gods of thunder and lightning could bring either death and destruction or fertility and new life to humankind and its surroundings.’ (68)
William Blake (1805), The Descent of Man into the Vale of Death: “But Hope Rekindled, Only to Illume the Shades of Death, and Light Her to the Tomb,” England.
A magnetic example of Blake’s visionary world. Here ‘death is depicted as an “under” world, to which the spirits of the dead initially descend before Hope illuminates the possibility of an eternal home.’ (432) The underworld is a labyrinth of catacombs into which a steady stream of figures are descending from the hills above.
‘Myth and ritual from the oldest times attest to the transformative possibilities of descent. It is return to a transpersonal matrix for rebirth, the obtaining of treasured self-knowledge from realms of luminous darkness, or a boon of understanding that brings “up” to collective consciousness the genuinely profound.’ (432)
Samuel Palmer, “The Sleeping Shephard” 1832.
“Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself.”
- L.W. Gilbert
Van Gogh, “The Sower”
I never tire of this painting with its honeyed hues, mysterious light, and those dark, confident lines. Despite the intensity of the composition, this is a soft and intimate scene depicting a solitary man, sowing seeds, creating life. The painting is overwhelmingly tranquil, especially to urban eyes.
Perhaps though the reality is starkly different, perhaps the farm worker is exhausted, living a gruelling existence.
I feel, however, that this work is about the cycle of life and death. The simplicity of the composition makes this message all the more powerful. The almost bare tree has a few leaves emerging. The sun is rising, or setting. The earth is barren but will soon be brimming with life, and only then will the man reap the rewards of his labour. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s words:
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
The man in this painting is anonymous, his identity is not important. He is simply another soul acting out his part in life.
There is a reason why Van Gogh’s paintings are so coveted today. He had the ability to capture or convey something so extraordinarily primal, so dark, and yet so comforting in his landscapes, something that is inside each and every one of us. Something that we all long to return too.
Claude Monet, “Water Lilies” 1916.
John Constable, “The Traveller”
Cezanne, “Le Mont Saint-Victoire” 1902-4. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Gustav Courbet, “The Valley of the Loue in Stormy Weather” 1849.
J.M.W. Turner, “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory): The Morning After the Deluge,” Tate Britain
Turner: The first impressionist.
Auguste Renoir, “Springtime in Chatou” 1875.
“And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” Kahlil Gibran
Gustav Courbet, “The Chateau de Chillon” 1873
Botticelli, detail of irises from “Primavera” c.1478
William Harvey. Drawing of the Alahmbra.
John Frederick Lewis
Oscar Neiymeyer. Plan of Brasilia.
People who live there, or have visited, say that Brasilia has a great vibe. In photographs though, Brasilia appears to be a vast and unappealing concrete jungle. I find it unsettling that a city is designed in the formation of a cold and functional machine. It is as though a statement is being made that the machine has begun to dominate man. On the other hand, airplanes symbolise freedom, and new horizons, but then again so do birds, and goats (in my opinion).
Brasilia was designed largely by Lucio Costa, Oscar Neiymeyer, and Roberto Burle Marx, and the entire city was built between 1956-1960. Incredibly Oscar Neiymeyer continues to work today despite being 105 years old! His work has shaped 8 decades of Brazilian architecture. Whether that is a good thing or not is a matter for debate, but either way he has certainly made himself a national institution.
Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Altar for the Temple of the Spirit (Sketch for the creation of an altar at the Institute of Kinetics) 1969-70 by Lev Nussberg and Natalia Prokuratov.
Project: Transferring Cultural Heritage with New Technology. Funded by the EU.
Leonardo da Vinci.
Surely the best draughtsman in the history of art.
George Aitchison. 1895. Leighton House.
Thomas Daniell. Hindoo Temples at Bindrabund. 1797. Oil on Canvas. Royal Acadamey of Art, London.
I had the fortune to see a number of Thomas Daniell’s paintings in Delhi last month and was impressed. The canvases were much larger than I had anticipated and the compositions delicate. Daniell has a masterful understanding of light as can be seen in the work above. He painted numerous works featuring Indian temples which were at the time appreciated for their ‘exoticism’ but are now valuable not only for their beauty but also as records of important monuments which in some cases have disappeared, or have been overly renovated, or are simply looking much the worst for wear.
Roma, Accademia di San Luca
Adam Hardy. Indian Temple Superstructure.
Drawing of the Sarcophagus in Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Aside from being a brilliant architect, John Soane (1753-1837) was a collector and an highly eccentric individual. His home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, which he bequethed to the nation as a museum, is a wonderful, worthwhile place to visit. The way in which he has played with light and darkness using windows, skylights, and stained glass is fascinating, and manages to transform a living space into an experience. He even created a dark and eerie crypt in the basement which is pictured above.
Frederick J Parkinson
Roma, Accademia di san Luca
Helen Hyde (1868-1919) was born in New York, and studied art at the Californian School of Design. She then moved to Berlin where she studied under Franz Skarbina, and after a year moved on to Paris where she trained with Felix Regamay.
Regamay owned an extensive collection of Japanese prints, and these, along with her admiration for the work of Mary Cassatt, encouraged her to explore the Japonism movement. In 1899 Helen Hyde moved to Tokyo where she resided until 1913. There she studied Japanese painting techniques and woodblock printing. She had a fiercely independent and adventurous spirit. Though from a wealthy family she chose to provide for herself in her adulthood through her printmaking, and was successful in her endeavours. She never married or had children, despite her artwork being almost entirely populated by mothers with their offspring.
Helen Hyde is little known in England though several American museums and galleries exhibit her work. She certainly deserves more recognition on this side of the Atlantic for her unique and gorgeous compositions. Printmakers though, rarely if ever, attain the fame of painters in oil. Hyde’s work merges the delicate colouring, and neat, stylised lines of Japanese prints, with the warmth and playful qualities of the European Impressionist movement. The results are delightful.
The imperial Tang dynasty (618-907) is often said to be the Golden Age of Chinese art. Not being an expert on China, I am in no position to debate this claim but all I know is that I have become hopelessly enamoured with the chubby forms and contented, comical expressions typical of many Tang sculptures. I have never before thought that it could be possible to make a terracotta look cuddly, and since terracotta is my speciality this is a revelation. Even the hardest, most resilient of hearts could not fail to be moved by the round cheeks of the figurine from the Shanghai Museum. I have nothing more to say except that I am in love.
Well, maybe just a few more details. The capital of the Tang dynasty was Chang’an (Xi’an) located in Central China and was at the time, the most populous city in the world. Trade and cultural exchange with India and the Middle East helped the arts to develop and flourish.
Buddhism became important in China during this period, and a Nepalese influence might be seen in the British Museum painting, and in a couple of the Buddha or Bodhisattva sculptures below.
The pieces selected here are made from a wide variety of materials including marble, jade, stone, terracotta, wood and pigment, paint, and bronze.
Dancing figurines. 7th-8th Century.
One of a set of ten belt plaques carved from jade. 7th-8th Century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Head of a Buddha. V&A Museum, London.
Standing Female Attendant. Wood with pigment. Late 7th Century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Standing Court Lady. 7th Century.