Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Between Good and Evil

What is the difference between good and evil? It would seem to be a straightforward question, and we might consider that the answer is clear-cut enough for us to define the difference without too much difficulty. But is it? Much that we are faced with seems to occupy an ambivalent grey area between the two, and shades of meaning and personal perceptions blur the boundary even further. But if we look at things in absolutes, then outright good and outright evil, and the difference between them, would seem to be readily defined.

Perhaps the most easily recognised symbol which defines that difference is the familiar pentagram. When the apex of the pentagram points upwards (above, left) we consider it to be 'good', and when it is inverted (above, right) it is considered 'evil'. But all ideas come from somewhere, so where did these particular ideas come from? Historically, the pentagram is ancient, stretching back to Babylon, and beyond even that to Sumer, which at its most ancient is divided from our own time by some six millennia. Those things which we now think of as being the cornerstones of our civilisation seem to have begun in far-off Sumer, from the art of writing, formal education and social laws, to astrology and astronomy. And it is among the planets that the pentagram's origins are to be found.

According to the Earth's direction of travel, the planet Venus - the morning and the evening star - orbits the sun in the opposite direction, in retrograde motion. The effect of this is that, when observed from the Earth, the movement of the planet appears to loop back upon itself. Over an eight-year period, this apparent looping traces out a five-pointed figure in our night sky (above), which seems to have been at the heart of the pentagram's origins and its association with both the planet Venus and the goddess, by whatever name she was known.

And Venus the goddess always was ambivalent. Whether she was Inanna of the Sumerians or *Ishtar of the Babylonians (above), she was a goddess whom it paid to keep on the right side of. Creator and destroyer, virgin and whore, she was the goddess of love and war in whom extreme opposites united. So it follows that these powerful opposing forces are already present in the pentagram, whichever way up it happens to be. And in the night sky, in space, there is no 'up' or 'down' anyway.

Our own association of the inverted pentagram with evil seems to be quite recent; the result of a demonising - both literally and figuratively - by the Christian church, which saw the two upward-pointing apexes as the horns of the devil, whose appearance it associated with the horned pagan Celtic god Cernunnos (above). So pagan/horns/devil/evil were terms which became entangled with each other, providing us with the version of the Devil as he is popularly pictured - an ironic twist in the language of symbols which has cheerfully been made use of by such metal bands as Tiamat (below).

So, at least when it comes to the language of symbols, 'good' and 'evil' are qualities expressed by whether a pentagram points upwards to heaven, or whether it is inverted downwards - presumably signposting the way to Satan's realm. The pentagram remains the same. What alters is the angle, as it turns through a half circle of 180° to point either straight up or straight down. But does it? Look at the pentagram (my image, below), and the two markers at the lower left (that is: at 6 and 7 o'clock).

To become either 'good' or 'evil', the pentagram in reality needs only to rotate the nearest of its five points between these two markers either to be pointing straight up or straight down. So as the two markers on the lower circumference indicate, the difference between a pentagram whose apex points heavenwards and a malign inverted pentagram is not 180°, but a turn through a mere 36°. The difference between good and evil is, it would seem, considerably less than we imagine.

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: Between Good and Evil, 2008
Medium: Digital, with elements from the works of Robert Fludd (17th century), Athanasius Kircher (17th century), Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (16th century) and Eadweard Muybridge (19th century)
Location: Cyberspace

'The Treasures of Darkness: a History of Mesopotamian Religion', by Thorkild Jacobsen.
Yale University Press, 1976.

Tiamat logo by Kristian Wahlin

The Cernunnos image is from a cauldron dating from the 3rd century BCE found at Gundestrupp, Denmark, and now in the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen.

*As well as the five-pointed pentagram, the goddess Ishtar is also associated with an eight-pointed star, perhaps marking Venus' eight-year long five-times looping cycle.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Sistine Chapel

Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi once dismissed Michelangelo's work with the scoffing word: 'beefsteak'. In fact, it's only relatively recently that I have been able to overcome my own resistance to his art to really examine what is there. And what is there is both magnificent and strange. When I look at his frescoes for the Sistine Chapel ceiling (admittedly by proxy, as I have not seen the actual building), I really wonder how he got away with it - and that he apparently continues to do so.

Forget about the storm of controversy that raged around Cosimo Cavallaro's recently banned life-sized chocolate sculpture of Christ (the work's title, My Sweet Lord, was clearly facetious) that rattled the windows of religious sensibilities. Right there on the ceiling of one of Catholicism's holy of holies, larger than life and for all to see, is a bizarre mix of paganism, gay pride, and the least flattering depiction of the Almighty that I know of in all of Western art. It's true enough that one painting in the chapel, that of God creating Adam, with its detail of the hands of God and Adam outstretched towards each other (above), has become one of the iconic images of our culture. But what are we to make of the God (below) whom the artist depicted creating the plants?

Assuming that we knew neither the artist nor the setting, but nevertheless were given the information that this was a portrayal of the Christian deity, it's hard to resist the suspicion that it would provoke either affronted howls of protest or guffaws of ribald wisecracks, depending upon the beliefs or otherwise of the viewers. It's downright cheeky - in both senses of the term. But Michelangelo gets away with it. Why? Because he's Michelangelo? Because it's the Sistine Chapel? Because we know this? Do five centuries of veneration intimidate believers into respectful silence? I wish that I knew.

Flanking the nine principal scenes on the ceiling, and serving to separate them visually, are twenty large male nudes (in fact, there are nineteen, as the twentieth now survives only as an incomplete disjointed head and leg). The reasons for the inclusion of these figures is mystifying; any relevant Biblical symbolism, if it existed, would seem to be lost upon all except the artist. The figures are clearly at their ease amongst the writhing Biblical turbulence which surrounds them: their languid poses (three of the more decorous of the twenty figures, above) would have made these nudes comfortably at home on the walls of some temple in pre-Christian Ancient Greece - or even decorating some chic gay bar. And yet here they are gracing a chapel: a Christian place of worship. Why are they there? There can only be one answer: they are there because they were the artist's preferred choice of subject matter.

Perhaps it is not so much the nudity of these figures which seems misplaced, as the pagan ethos which they project; an ethos which is as alien to Christian tradition as the artist's mystifying inclusion of the *sibyls - the oracles of the pre-Christian Ancient World - whose placement on the ceiling gives them equal status with the prophets of the Old Testament (the prophet Daniel, above left, and the Libyan sibyl, above right). Placing such figures alongside each other is no different in substance from, say, placing the figure of Christ next to the sun god Apollo. In his choice of figures and subjects, Michelangelo was not merely mixing cultures. He was mixing faiths.

The surviving study which the artist made for the Libyan sibyl (above) confronts us with a further enigma. The artist's model was clearly male. Another sketch in the Uffizi Gallery (the last image, below) of a male model whose testicles are visible, matches the pose of the female statue of the personification of Night (below, seen with her accompanying owl), created by the artist as part of the mortuary monument to Giuliano Medici. And looking at the statue, it's difficult to resist the thought that the woman's breasts look like nothing so much as the two halves of a buttered muffin which have been stuck on almost as a reluctant afterthought. Even given the artist's Mannerist style of exaggerating for dramatic effect, and given all the individual variations in the human female figure, Michelangelo seems here to be straining anatomical credibility.

If we join up the dots, Michelangelo is himself telling us what we can infer from history: that being in the presence of female flesh, even were it to be in the form of passive nude artist's models, was apparently a fearful - even a loathsome - experience for him. So much so that when needs must, he preferred to use male models even for female subjects. That's okay, of course, and to each his own, for the artist's towering genius carries it all off with the self-assurance of a titan. But the next time that overly-vocal conservative Christian sensibilities manage to get a chocolate Christ (or somesuch equivalent artwork) banned from public exhibition, let them reflect upon the homoerotic elements of the Sistine Chapel's frescoes and their idiosyncratic creator.

All of the above images in this post are to be seen in any good art book about Michelangelo's work, as well as, of course, in their original settings. Am I offended by what is included here? Not remotely. I am, however, both offended and alarmed by those self-appointed conservative forces - of whatever religious persuasion - which succeed in arbiting what others can and cannot see.

Artist: Michelangelo Buonarroti
Work: The Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508-1512 (the wall of the Sistine Chapel, whose subject is the Last Judgement, was begun by Michelangelo twenty four years later, and completed in 1541)
Medium: Fresco
Location: The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

'The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists', by Peter and Linda Murray. First issued in 1957. Revised and reprinted multiple times.
The fresco images are from the excellent scans available at:

*The art historians Peter and Linda Murray propose that the sibyls' presence is based upon their apparent prediction of the coming of the Messiah. But this, as tends to be the case with prophesies, is clearly open to willful interpretation.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Monsters Have Light Inside

They were lying piled up inside one of those coinslot dispenser machines on the way out of my local supermarket. 'Monsters have light inside!' announced the enthusiastic notice on the machine. Apparently it was the best English that the unknown translator who worked for the Chinese toy company could muster to convey the glow-in-the-dark feature of these children's plastic monsters. Horned, tentacled and goggle-eyed, the garishly-coloured mini monsters lay curled up inside their individual round plastic bubbles, looking like they were incubating and waiting to hatch.

So.. do monsters have light inside? Take a look at the rabbit below. It is not a digital trick. It is a real, living rabbit (whose name happens to be Alba) which has been treated with the DNA of a fluorescent jellyfish. Result: a glow-in-the-dark bunny which apparently otherwise suffers no ill-effects from its treatment. Unless someone can come up with an example, I can think of no instance in nature of a mammal which has this characteristic. So Alba is a very unnatural hybrid created by human intervention. Poor wabbit. One wonders just how long it will take for such manipulative tricks to hit the clubbing curcuit. And if we think of monsters as being unnatural creations, then Alba is indeed a monster of a sort - and with a 'light inside'.

The monster which features in that great classic of gothic horror, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (my image below), is portrayed in a disturbingly nuanced way in Shelley's text. Far from being a mere shambling horror, it struggles with its own awareness of the differences which set it apart from the rest of all humanity. Its self-loathing and sense of isolation are what drive it to commit acts of terrible and despairing violence. That it comes to despise Victor Frankenstein, its creator, seems within the story's context to be both logical and inevitable. Shelley's genius created an enduring myth whose tragedy lies in its pathos. Her monster is tragic exactly because it is self-aware enough to struggle with what it perceives to be its own lack of 'light inside': its lack of human spirit.

Monsters in our own day and age have come to mean movie monsters. The monsters in the alien/predator film franchise (below) perhaps have had their horrific edge dulled through mere familiarity among their fans, to the extent that it is now difficult to know how else they can shock. As someone who remembers being in the audience of the very first public screening in London of Ridley Scott's original 1979 film Alien, the sense of shock and dread among those seated around me was palpable. Since then, much has changed. Monsters, apparently, should not become too familiar. And these particular monsters certainly have no 'light inside'. Scott's original alien was shocking exactly because it was so dispassionately unreasoning. Humans were nothing more than a warm and nutricious source of incubation for a necessary stage of its life cycle. There are examples enough of this parasite/host relationship right here on our own planet.

But all the monsters so far mentioned here have in some way been created by humans. Ridley Scott's alien and Victor Frankenstein's monster, which is ultimately Mary Shelley's own creation, and even the plastic mini monsters in my supermarket, have all been products of the human imagination. Are there real monsters? Considering the odds, there must be so many unknown forms of life out there among the stars. But are they monsters? By our human standards, and if we knew about them, I'm sure that quite a few of them must be. Do they have 'light inside'? Well, some, like the green-glowing Alba, literally might have. How about in the figurative sense? Perhaps we had better hope so.

Artist: Eduardo Kac, based upon the work of French geneticist Louis-Marie Houdebine
Work: GFP ('green fluorescent protein') Bunny, 2000
Medium: Live albino rabbit with genetic material from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria
Location: Presently unknown. Alba has been reported dead, but this is unconfirmed

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: Frankenstein, 2008

(based upon artwork originally commissioned from and published by Puffin Classics, 1994)
Medium: Digital, incorporating original artwork in oils and material from the works of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, 16th century, and from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century.
Location: Cyberspace (oil painting in the collection of the artist)

Alba photo by Chrystelle Fontaine

Original design of Ridley Scott's alien by H.R. Giger

Friday, September 11, 2009

Two Towers

Now and again you can just get lucky. It happened to me when on a second-hand bookstall in my local market I discovered a first edition (at a decidedly non-first edition price) of Paul Foster Case's book on the Tarot. First published in 1947, this volume has since become a classic of its kind. It contains illustrations by the author with accompanying commentaries on the twenty two so-called Major Arcana cards which comprise the core of a complete seventy-eight card Tarot deck. These Major Arcana cards feature powerful archetypes which have - with variations - endured since their inception in the 15th century, and continue to be redesigned and re-visioned by artists today (the Tarot cards by Salvador Dali, below).

Now, whether you view the Tarot as a powerful tool for divination and personal insight, or as a distracting and dubious 'Devil's picture book', the archetypes exist. And to consider whether or not their power is real enough, and still potent, we can have a look at Case's drawing for Arcanum 16: The Tower (below left). Case's image, which has endured in its essential features for five centuries, shows us a fate-struck edifice. The building is clearly afire: flames shoot from the casements and lick upwards as a man and a woman helplessly plunge headlong to the ground below. Clouds of smoke continue to billow away into a dark sky, and one feels that once the events have run their course, the destruction portrayed in the scene will be complete.

Adjacent to Case's drawing is a terrible and familiar image from our own times. Five hundred years after its first appearance, the archetype of the Arcanum tower intruded its way into our reality in a traumatic and shocking way. Since the events of eight years ago, the world has changed. It is not better, just different. Desired or not, the perpetrators of those events have ensured that, for many, their religious beliefs and creeds have become synonymous with intolerant and uncaring acts of monstrous inhumanity. But archetypes are more powerful and more potent than the human minds which contemplate them. Neither are those same human minds in control of them, no, not even when they seek to reproduce them. And when such elemental symbols appear in our world for real, the full consequences are not to be foreseen.

Artist: Paul Foster Case
Work: Arcanum 16 - The Tower, 1947
Medium: Pen and ink
Location: Unknown

'The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages', by Paul Foster Case.
Macoy Publishing Company, 1947. Reissued by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006
'The Art of Tarot', by Christina Olsen. Abbeville Press, 1995

Dali Universal Tarot published by U.S. Games Systems.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Flight and Pursuit

The name of 19th century artist William Rimmer might not be one that springs readily to mind among rock fans. But it is Rimmer's picture of a gesturing angel (below) that was used as the now-familiar logo for Led Zeppelin's Swan Song Records.

Rimmer was an Englishman who settled in Massachusetts. He made a notable career as the author of several books on human anatomy for artists, and was also a sculptor who produced several bronzes that are striking for their writhing and compacted energy (his fighting lions, below).

But the works of Rimmer which perhaps linger the most in the mind are the select number of paintings which have as their themes a secretive something which does not yield its story as readily as might at first seem apparent. His 'Master Builder' (below) presents us with a portly architect gesturing towards the site of (or perhaps overseeing the progress of) some future - and presumably grandiose - creation. The architect's costume is vaguely classical, without defining any specific culture or period. At his heels slink two fantastic creatures, dog-like without actually being dogs. Sharp-snouted and six-legged, they are the beasts of dreams. Behind them a bearded onlooker attends the architect. But even these extraordinary elements in the painting are not what seizes our attention.

The robed architect stands sturdily upon a stone ashlar. But this solid-looking ashlar seems suspended impossibly over the void. Logic fights to tell us that the weight of the heavily-built architect must surely force the unsupported stone to give way. But it does not. Neither is there anything in the confident stance of the figure to suggest that he considers himself to be in any immediate danger. No amount of staring at Rimmer's painting will solve the unyielding mystery.

Rimmer's painting 'Flight and Pursuit' (above), also seems to provoke more questions than it answers. What is clear is that the man who is plainly in headlong flight is being pursued - but by whom, or what? And for what reason? In front of us we see a second figure; but the gilded wall behind is visible through this figure. Is the desperate man being chased by a ghost? It is unclear whether the space between the archway in which this second insubstantial figure appears is a parallel corridor or a large mirror which reflects something that is otherwise invisible. And on the floor behind the man the artist shows us a shadow cast by something that is outside the frame. This strangely-ornate building of ghosts and shadows, of pursuer and pursued, gives us no feeling of finding a way out, however fast we run.

These two paintings of Rimmer's are governed by the logic of dreams. That is their power. Perhaps only in dreams can any answers be found to their mysteries.

Artist: William Rimmer
Work: Master Builder, (undated)
Medium: Oils
Location: Private collection

Artist: William Rimmer
Work: Flight and Pursuit, 1872
Medium: Oils
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

'Nineteenth-Century Romantic Bronzes: French, English and American Bronzes, 1830-1915',
by Jeremy Cooper. David & Charles, 1975.
'Audubon, Homer, Whistler and Nineteenth-Century America',
by John Wilmerding. Lamplight Publishing, 1975.