Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Dark Arcadia

oil on papered canvas 31x25cm

This piece combines two very contrasting images.

Firstly, Thomas Eakins’ Arcadia. This depicts the Arcadian idyll – a simpler Golden Age inhabited by Innocents who spend their days tootling on their pipes and generally lounging around without a care in the world.

The second is a figure from Holocaust murders near Sniatyn, in Ukraine. There was an article about this photograph in my newspaper one morning, about ten years ago, and it bubbled up again after seeing the Eakins.

In subverting the Eakins, I had to make a decision whether to imitate his style, or just the composition. I decided to try for an imitation, but I provided some of my own background features – that made me feel a little more ‘independent’, and I strongly suspect that the original is unfinished. These apart, the general forms and illumination of the background are as near the original as I could get. It was very interesting to realise that Eakins was quite cavalier about putting his background together. He’s actually combined two separate scenes, and each is lit from a different direction. The paintwork here is a departure from my usual treatment; I’ve used a thin Stand Oil mix, but instead of blending the marks, I’ve been very loose (for me) and left a lot of texture straight from the brush. 

The meat, though, is in the figures. The man is a straight swap with the standing boy, and the two supine figures have their original legs with new upper bodies. The far one is invented, the near one extracted from yet another Holocaust scene. Proportional to the canvas size, they are larger than I normally paint. They went quite smoothly except for the standing figure’s legs – I had to redraw them, and that took some of the spontaneity of the looser treatment away.

I became very nervous at this point – too much work on the legs would draw unwanted attention – but I think I managed it. That done, I had to decide if, or how much, to lighten the torso as well. I took the plunge yesterday, after letting the surface settle over the weekend. Very delicate, risky, heart-in-mouth painting. I’m glad I did it though, as it makes the standing figure so much more vulnerable, and it started to suggest Gethsemane, which, come to think of it, also touches on the same subject.

This is, probably, the last finished piece before the show goes up at the Union Gallery (the butterfly larvae are already stirring in my stomach), and in a way, is a bit of a keystone for it. I’m saying nothing new here, just aiming to whisper in the viewer’s ear that even in the most beautiful place, in which hurt cannot occur, it does - and will. 

Et in Arcadia Ego

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