Myth Meridians- An essay on allegory and antiquities aligning in art- by Brian Keeler
Updated: Oct 7
The myths we live by and the narratives that inform our experience and entire culture have long interested me. The way they align on meridians of thought and through art is what I am exploring here. The sources are both literary and from the visual arts. In the great repositories of art, our museums in America and in Europe that I have been visiting have brought these themes alive. The exhilaration and "the museum high"of having our minds enlightened and our spirits elevated by viewing these great works is the avenue for access to the timeless narratives referred to here.
I must admit I am an amateur, or an autodidact, which I actually like, as I think even with the best tutelage at any university or college, we are all teaching ourselves in a way. And the word "amateur" is usually used as a pejorative, but actually the term means something like one who loves what they’re doing.
The word "myth"also somewhat misleading, as it may suggest a lie or subterfuge, but as the author Joseph Campbell suggests, the word "myth" might more accurately be thought of as a legend to add clarity and direction to our lives. A myth could even be an informative credo or ethos to supply a moral compass and an ethical framework. As Campbell is one of the authorities on the subject, judging by the popularity of his writing, his admonition to “follow our bliss” is taken to heart, but easier said than done for many, but still worth considering if not embracing.
Allegory implies a broader meaning than myth, and often uses the human figure to express the message. Even genre scenes can illustrate a higher message that widens the optic. The purpose is to not be confined to the classics and stories of antiquity. I like to combine the myth and allegory so as to be more inclusive. I have been asked on many occasions why I do these works. The implication, is why not stick to straight-forward representations of landscape? Well, the short answer is that I want more challenges and the chance to be more creative and to delve more deeply into our lives and our collective history. Furthermore, history and tradition foster innovation, whereas innovation needs history for support. There's another adage from antiquity; "We are mere dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants." The message is of course, that the masters of the past are the giants and we can see further by and through their example.
As I see it, we are subject to an embarrassment of riches. There could be worse fates. The shear breadth and amazing virtuosity that is available to us in abundance in books and museums is staggering. So, while visiting museums for decades, I have availed myself of their rich repositories with a focus on realism. These representational works often portray these timeless narratives of antiquity and then in later centuries up to the present, the genre scenes of common human endeavors.
For example, a good place to start would be at the Borghese Gallery in Rome where this relative small museum in a beautiful city park offers us for starters the incredible marble statues of Bernini. I have on many occasions over the years visited the Borghese to indulge and to sketch from these works. The Daphne and Apollo is simply awe-inspiring as is the Rape of Prosperina. Who would have ever thought that hard marble could represent soft flesh so convincingly. But it is in the antiquities of Italy that present us with the creme de la creme. For instance, in the Farnese Bull in the Capo de Monte Museum in Naples is one of those treasures, and we realize while looking up at it, that we are face to face with greatness. This multi- figure ensemble is almost behind comprehension in accomplishment. We mere mortals tremble as we behold it on a plinth.
For practical purposes, for a painter like myself, there can be no better way learn than by standing in front of Caravaggio for and extended period. This is why copyist were so prevalent in Museums, like Louvre in Paris in the past, but not so much any more. Sometimes it is even against museum rules to sketch, as it inhibits the flow of the throngs of visitors.
But why Greco-Roman myth for me? It could just as easily be Biblical themes, as the art of the renaissance and before and beyond is dominated by illustrations of Christian and Jewish history. Well, as much as I admire the work I am not so much interested in the fire and brimstone moralizing. As it was once said; "these Christians are like a bunch of old frogs, sitting around a pond croaking about sin." There is also the propagandistic aspect of so many of these works that is grating, as they present the saints as so many victims of Roman cruelty and intolerance. We don’t need to search too far to uncover episodes like; the inquisition, burning at the stake or the index of prohibited books, and the selling of indulgences etc. Also, I have always had a problem with the saints always depicted in art with their methods of martyrdom. For example, Saint Lorenzo has to be portayed with his gridiron that he was roasted on. This is akin to the sad fact that John Kennedy's assassination is first in many peoples minds, instead of his moral fortitude and many accomplishments.
The illustration of ancient myth is not without issues as well and with muddy waters and moral slippery slopes. At a certain level the behavior of these characters, the Gods and Goddesses is nothing less than mean spirited, ghastly, vindictive and petty. Hmm, so there's a dilemma to a certain extent, and not easily resolved.
The part that I enjoy and find beneficial, is connecting with the great artists of the past. There is a story of Machiavelli, that is relevant here, that always struck me with interest. After a long day of toiling with his vines and crops in his fields outside of Florence, he would clean up and put on his best clothes and enter into a conversation with his literary predecessors like Cicero and Lucretius – and they would dialogue, a two-way conversation in other words. So I have viewed the act of sketching from a work by Rembrandt in the Reich Museum in Amsterdam, for instance, as way of having a rapport with a genius of pigments and human expression. We can see other artists throughout history doing the same, like Rubens copying Leonardo’s drawing for the mural of the Battle of Anghiari, that was intended for the great hall of five hundred in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
My solution has been to interpret theses myths and legends but updating them and adding my own narrative to make them relevant and contemporary. We see, after all, that artists like Botticelli were doing the same during the Italian renaissance by using his friends and mistresses for the models, clothing them in the garb of the quattrocento Florence and putting them in landscapes of Tuscany and Umbria. The main thrust of the Renaissance was to meld or reconcile Biblical themes with classical wisdom. This was an apparently old dilemma, as it vexed Christian newbies like Saint Augustine who struggled mightily with the wisdom and knowledge of divinity apparent in the writings of Plato, Socrates or Plotinus. The crux of his conflict was; how can one have such profound knowledge or address divinity with such authority and wisdom without Christ? And with artists, like Michelangelo this melding of the two ( Christianity versus Paganism or Monothesism versus polytheism) could be said to be his great accomplishment- deriving his skill from the ancients but applying it to Biblical narratives.
So in the act of drawing and painting my own expressions of these timeless works from antiquity, it allows for a prolonged reflection on these themes. What do they mean in the context of today's world? In other words, these projects can be thought of as visual essays and explorations. Sometimes, of course, I am mostly involved with the technical aspects of craft- by just making any given project effective visually. Other times I am assuming the tonalist or limited palette of Velazquez or Caravaggio.
Our study of history, I believe, should not be merely antiquarian, which is to say; not just for the sake of assembling a bunch of facts. The purpose and the real rewards in studying ancient art is by deriving lessons and revelations from history. To find relevance and connections, (meridians) is the raisonne d’etre.
Speaking of updating the Biblical and mythic themes, these subjects have been brought to the fore by current events. Refugees, beheadings, autocratic and paranoid heads of state, like Herod of the Bible or current demagogues, controlling the narrative as in burning of books, the index of prohibited books, cultural wars, religious extremism and so much more, that all have parallels between our lives of today and those of the renaissance or in Christ’s time and beyond. In a recent article in the New Yorker Magazine, an author makes mention of these corollaries with the Caravaggio’s work in Rome. Specifically, the panting of the Beheading of Holfernes, in Gallerie Corsini in Palazzo Barberini. I too sketched this masterpiece, and was absorbed in admiring its accomplishment. Then I realized the macabre extremity and how our news reports at the time were filled with incidences of beheadings by Islamic extremists. Old testament heroines or radical Isis thugs, it could be context.
On gentler note, we can finish with a glass half full perspective, with transformation or metamorphosis in mind, as many of these Greco-Roman Myths provide a message of sacrifice leading to rebirth, as of course so does the Christian message. Think of Daphne changing into a laurel tree, or Iphigenia being sacrificed by her father to secure good winds to get the Greeks to Troy. Well the cost was extreme and to be honest the cause and result also circumspect. But, then again, the entire civilization of Rome was the result. Compassion, concern for the welfare of the downtrodden, kindness and so much more are all available in many of the examples available to us in the timeless classics of literature, art and music.