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Floating Your Boat – Levitating a Myth

Updated: Oct 30, 2021

An essay on reinventing a timeless theme- Brian Keeler

Ancient myths have long held an interest for me and my newest painting is within this genre. My goal was to take the timeless theme of Homer’s Ulysses, as this oil painting does, and have fun while taking liberties for personal reasons.

Ulysses and the Incredible Levitating Rowboat" Oil on on linen, 40" x 40."

Applying the classics of Greco-Roman mythology has informed some important and memorable works in our modern era. James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses is a prime example where the author makes a creative inversion of this legend and applies it to one character (Leopold Boom) in one day of early 20th century Dublin. Then there is the film by the Coen brothers of 1999, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Painters and sculptors have also plumbed the ancients, especially in the Renaissance with Titian, Raphael, Botticelli and Tiepelo and many others all devoting many canvases and frescoes to exploring the classics.

In this latest painting of mine, I have taken the Ulysses theme with a bit of levity- well more than a bit, as the levitating boat is the central theme. This approach is a parody of sorts, while honoring the tradition and reinterpreting the theme in a modern context. It has been observed, that when a theme is ossified into a set narrative it dies in a sense. This is the idea behind the criticism of taking an oral tradition, which is what the legend of Homer’s Ulysses is thought to have been before it was written down, and making it into one universally accepted text. In other words, back before legends were recorded in books, each poet or actor who recited the work was given the liberty of embellishment.

"Ulysses' Levitation" A study in red chalk with white pastel highlights on tinted paper.

The idea for the levitating boat, in this painting, harkens back to another painting of mine done a few decades ago of a goat levitating in a landscape. It was also a parody related to the practice in some meditation circles that had a goal of seeking to levitate. The idea struck me has hilarious if not a distortion of the reason for meditation. The goal or reason for meditation is primarily to seek self knowledge, commune with the divine, calm the monkey mind and hopefully grow as a person. So seeking "sidhis" or powers as they are referred to in sanskrit, or as some might regard them, pranks and tricks were viewed as something like the Biblical crime of Simony. Well not quite that serious, more of comedic tale than a moral transgression. Simony was of course was based on the character Simon Magus, (Simon the Magician) who wanted to pay Saint Peter to get spiritual insights only to use them to perform cheap tricks like flying around etc. There is a famous fresco in the Branci Chapel in Florence by Filipino Lippi that illustrates this episode with the Roman Emperor Nero presiding over the scene.

A painting from circa 1995 where the idea of levitation was first put on canvas. The title of this work. " Upon the Contemplation of Two Still Lifes, a Levitation of Several Inches was Attained.

The idea in both that former painting and this one is to inspire a smile in the viewer. By serendipity during the modeling session of this work, in which the actors were posing in the boat and around the dock on our pond, the visual necessities fell into place. I cannot say the concept was planned, but by dovetailing chance it happened. The boat was on a dock and therefore it seemed to hover above the water, thereby suggesting the ascending or transcending. The sirens offering their songs, emplore the return. Who will prevail. We recall the rower, is supposed to have wax in his ears to inure him of the alluring melodies.

The parodic or spoof of the theme is further underscored by the precariousness of the scene- it is not advisable to stand in small boats. And the rower is facing backwards or at least in the unconventional direction for rowing. The staging could be construed as Vaudeville-like skit or perpaps a Marx Brothers riff witha comedy of errors. We recall that the surrealist painters were known for odd juxtapositions and illogical conundrums.

There is another dovetailing in this work that I also brought out too. I just finished a wonderful book by Ross King titled, “Mad Enchantment” about the later part of Monet’s life painting his water lilies at his home in Giverny. Our pond has lilies and a bridge too similar to the Japanese style bridge in many of Monet’s works. There are many rewards and revelations in this biography but the passages on lilies and nymphs are especially intriguing. One of these connections brought out by the author is the relation between lilies and nymphs. King explains that the two are linked etymologically as nymph suggests nubile and nuptial. Furthermore, the French word for water lily is nymphea. But even more interesting is the fact that many visitors to Monet's studio at Giverny could imagine the images of women swirling in the paintings of willows, lilies and water. In an obituary, one writer waxed poetic with this: " Weep, O water lilies, the master is no more who came to find upon the waves, among reflections of sky and water, the figure of life's eternal dream."

"Study of Ulysses" Red chalk and white pastel on tinted paper.

In regards to my composition there is another confluence of serendipitous visual dynamics. In many of my works I have sought out the Renaissance concept of pyramidal or triangular compositions. Leonardo and Raphael were the high-Renaissance exemplars who employed this device. So in this painting there is a network of interlocking triangles along with a unifying overall triangle. I would like to claim intention here, that it was be grand design. But truth be told, it is again a fortunate occurrence. Well, perhaps it was an unconscious attraction to the visual possibilities in my photo reference. Still, it was an enjoyable moment to discover these geometries at play as the painting neared completion.

In regards to the composition, it was necessary to do a fair amount of manipulation, editing and creative adjustments. The removal of the dock and inventions of lily pads to correspond with the perspective was part of this. Rearranging the models and inventing certain aspects of the figures also figured in. The moonlight and certain shifts in hue were also part of the effort to mold the idea into the visual look that I was after. A quote from the French painter Edouard Manet who told his student the following; “ You wouldn’t dream of counting the scales on the salmon, would you?” The point here is that Manet, like many painters, take liberties with the visual facts to create a better composition.

The point of view or the narrative perspective is of interest here too. I have been reading about the literary construction of novels and the narrator’s voice is pertinent. The view portrayed is from slightly above and it could be seen as correspondent with the literary convention of an omniscient perspective. The eye level is always crucial to determine in any painting, especially when there are perspective issues. In this work the eye level is about at the top of Ulysses head, which makes a downward looking view on the boat and on the nymphs swimming. So a foreshortened or truncated perspective of their torsos and limbs was required.

This painting was preceded by a plein air study from the same general location. It was later turned into a nocturne that I have included here.

"Pond Nocturne with Fireflys" Oil on panel 22" x 24."

To view a video of the plein air painting nocturne shown above- check out this Youtube link-

In regards to the models and modeling session, a better group could not be asked for. As you might imagine it can be rather a logistic challenge to get everything and everyone to come together on the same date. The weather, fortunately came through too- it was a rather iffy forecast. But there was even a double rainbow as we worked inside on another concept. Then, for this pond-side session, the sun came out softly but with enough warmth and dappled light to delight the inner impressionist in us. Matt the model posing as Ulysses, did significant research and insisted that I should call the theme by its original Greek name of Odysseus rather than the Roman Ulysses. The ladies were perfect and delightful nymphs and with a timeless beauty of form and temperament that afforded an inner harmony. Linda my partner, worked hard with the poses and supplied many accoutrements and garments for the other painting ideas done that same day. The modeling took place on the eve of my birthday, which added another boost to the auspicious nature of the conception.

The theme of Ulysses and Sirens was explored several years ago in this oil based on plein air studies at Vernazza, one of the Cinque Terre villages on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy.

To view a video of the final touches of the painting at the top of the article, check out this link:

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