Art Thoughts, Week 40 -- Puvis de Chavannes & Trust

Dramatic Poetry (Aeschylus), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (French, 1824—1898) c. 1896, oil on canvas, BF100.

Symbols are intrinsic to the receiving of visions. In fact, the idea of a vision is that the seer receives a glimpse of something outside themselves and their time – in the future (across time) – but also just as likely across space – in another country, for example. So, symbols are bridges between the vision’s displaced time and space, and our trust. The reception is usually exceedingly clear; i.e., it as if the seer was there physically; however, clear as the active reception of it may have been, it becomes foggy or nonsensical upon waking, like a dream pieced together. This, again, is why symbols are so common in visions – they can carry an enormous load of potential meaning and information, beneficial to interpretation, though they themselves are rather small on the surface. Apocalyptic literature, such as the Book of Revelation, is replete with symbols: scrolls, horses, keys, etc. But we all know that, even though a TV signal may be crystal clear, we may still have no concept of what the programming is about. Symbols therefore are potentially helpful (revelatory, even) in making sense of visions, but can also be exceedingly misleading.

Puvis is considered a Symbolist painter, and his painting Dramatic Poetry (Aeschylus) is no exception to that definition. The culturally-influential and proven symbols of mythology are the largest influence here, in the form of a bound Prometheus, the attendant Oceanids, and the descending, torturous eagle. However, the one foreground figure who twists this painting towards our own reality, and therefore makes the background even more symbolically-driven, is Aeschylus, a historical playwright of ancient Greece, who is reclining and reading a scroll. So, between the strange tableaux in the background and the viewers, lies the realm of symbols – with Aeschylus as the featured vessel. We, however, have the additional filter of Puvis. And indeed, Puvis himself, being interested in the obvious and deliberate divestment of reality through the power of paint, influences both the myth of Prometheus, as well as what becomes the “myth” of Aeschylus – that is, an additional layer of ostensible reality juxtaposed over a vision of pure surrealism. So, with symbols flying between, we simultaneously are given views of the back-side and front-side of a construct: myth displayed as reality to an historical human, which turns out to be an unreal human depiction watching a myth unfold. We may try to follow one side to an end, only to find that, like on a Mobius strip, we’ve come back to the same point. Simply put, nothing can be trusted.

Actually, we can trust one thing in this scene, which reads strangely synesthetically like white noise: the paint. With great skill Puvis has physically emphasized the metaphysics of this scene by both his deliberate modulation of edges – from sharp and bulky, to skimmed, dry and soft – as well as his colors, which are wan and dreamlike. The background cliff edges, for instance, fade in and out of the sky, differentiated by the sinking of paint into canvas, then the subsequent rise of paint again – all enveloped in those tightly analogous, sun-bleached colors. All this enhances the vision-bound state of Aeschylus, and the pained stupor of Prometheus…and also invites more connections to John the Revelator, who was blinded by his revelation’s weight. It is the one true thing we can hold on to: the artifice…and that is (probably) what Puvis wanted.

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