Painting Process: Archetypal Ideas in a Personal Art / by Sam Abelow

"Pastoral Scene: Encounter With a Hawk," Oil on linen, 24x30. Samuel Abelow, 2017.

I believe that a painting of good quality will have at least two significant levels of analysis, the first being personally relevant to the artist and the second being collectively meaningful. As I write about “Pastoral Scene: Encounter With the Hawk,” I will largely conceal the personal aspects which admittedly drove the overarching thematic content.

Backstory

As a further introduction to my writing on this piece, I will mention that paintings are essentially about communication — that is, of an idea, an emotion, either ambiguous or direct, purposeful. After completing my "Pastoral Scene," in October 2017, the painting was rolled-up and set aside. Recently, Johannes Böckmann, a German theological student, contacted me wishing to collect several works. Among those he was drawn to was the “Pastoral Scene.” When I asked him what the painting meant to him, the way in which he understood the symbolic content, grasping the archetypal core, was astounding. His reaction reconnected me with the painting.

Subsequently, I have stretched and framed the painting. It now hangs in my bedroom, where I contemplate it often. Johannes as commissioned a smaller version of this work, as well as two others. I prefer reproducing my works by hand, on a smaller scale, if cost is a restriction. It is important to me that a framed and displayed artwork be a document of my hand, oil paints and other traditional materials; digital prints cannot obtain the results I am after.

Symbols

In my lexicon, the hawk is symbolic of the transcendent aspect of the personality. New Age thought would label this character the “spirit guide.” In Jungian psychology, the protector, guide and numinous character would be called “an aspect of the Self.”

In this particular painting, I see that the hawk, typically a creature of the skies, has landed on the ground. This means that my “spirit” has landed on “earth.” Translate “spirit” to incorporeal consciousness and “earth” to mundane, concrete reality.

The two figures appear to be a priest and priestess, dressed in simple robes. Because they are largely identical, except for a difference in gender, they imply a dual-aspect of the viewer, or artist’s personality (depending on vantage point). In Jungian terms, we could refer to the male priest as the Ego (because I am a man), and the female priestess as the Anima. Psychologist Carl Jung defines the Anima as a contra-sexual aspect of the male psyche; it is the feminine personality active within a biological male.

Both of these characters encounter the moment when the hawk, all that is of the heavenly realm, of the spiritual realm, that which is “ungrounded,” has landed.

The golden field is rendered with saturated, fat brush strokes. This indicates a sense of numinosity, as if from an Early European religious painting. The brilliant, sprawling color represents the heightened importance of the scene.

Johannes Theological View

Johannes Böckmann interprets the painting through a Christian lexicon:

"There is an endangered species of German theology the type that writes comprehensive tomes called 'Dogmatik' or 'Systematic Theology'. One of those rare breeds wrote such a 3000-page monster last year. He believes, all memories are scenic. Then, when we read a scene, or look at a scenic painting, we compare the scene to our memory, and in archetypal cases recognize (re-cognize, even) these scenes as true. This happens pre-consciously. On that level, I don't understand the painting, but recognize it as true.

On another level of analysis, there is the overall feeling the painting conveys. It's a mood. In this case, it is serenity, wonder, peace, volatility, late-summer warmth. It is a true Καιρός — a perfect moment.

On a symbolical, or iconographic level, the golden landscape is reminiscent of the eschatological picture of the golden age that is to come. So too in this painting, it is not fully realized: To the left of the scene, the grass is wild and untamed.

The hawk is a symbol of seeing, flying and hunting. Here it is doing none of that. This gives the bird a serenity. It is resting. But at the same time, this state of tranquillity can change at any moment. We can look at it freely, but only because it lets us do so. At any time, it could simply soar into the air and be gone.

It is also the object of reverence and teaching. Thus it is linked to Christ.

The two figures, I think, are actually two parts of a single figure: An angel. Not only is their garment very much like that of the 'young man' described at the empty grave, they portray the main functions of angels: the worshiper of God and the messenger. The androgynous angel thus appears split into two.

As this is a pastoral scene and a pastor is nowhere to be seen, the viewer might associate with this figure. 'Pastor' is Latin for shepherd. Thus it contains the message of Christmas: The angel on the field is showing the shepherds a vision of Christ, as the field is drenched in golden light. But at that point, this is less of an interpretation and more of a reverie about the painting.

You could of course also use language colored by different expressions than the Christian ones. This painting obviously isn't specifically Christian, except for the title. I think this gives it a broader appeal. That's a good thing."

- Written February 22nd, 2018

Commentary on Johannes’ View

Astoundingly, Johannes picks up on numerous aspects of the painting which are in no way explicit, and yet after an examination are, in various examples, either intuitively, or literally truthful.

This painting is a mixture of a real encounter with a Hawk, and mythological references that amplify the personal meaning. My encounter with a Northern Harrier Hawk, which had landed in a field only several feet away, occurred in the late summer. Böckmann’s use of the Greek word “Kairos” (καιρός), is beautiful; it corresponds to the sense of synchronicity that I felt in the original encounter.

The reference to the incomplete golden age, would correspond to the Jungian idea of Individuation, or successful integration of the personality, flourishing of being in the ultimate sense. This total project, as well as this particular process of "spirit coming to earth," both remain incomplete.

Böckmann mentions that the hawk could break the serenity and fly off at any moment. I captured on camera the hawk doing just that. However fleeting, the moment and the emotions it produced have stayed with me, as a transformative force — thus, it acts as “Christ,” mediator of transcendent will.

Art Historical Influences

Paul Gauguin uses the adjective “pastoral” in the lesser-known painting, "Tahitian Pastoral.” He also references Biblical experience in his famous, “Vision After the Sermon.” 

In early November 2017, I had a chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spent ample time viewing the “19th and Early 20th Century European Paintings and Sculpture” galleries. There, they had a fantastic selection of works that I had been studying, including a Puvis De Chavannes painting titled, “The Shepard’s Song.” Also on view was Paul Gauguin’s “La Orana Maria (Hail Mary).” I was elated to discover an artist named Ferdinand Hodler, whose “The Dream of the Shepard,” struck me deeply. All of these paintings utilize religious themes as poetry for a modern mind.

This group of artists from the Late 1890s, known as the Symbolists, “Were returning to a tradition,” they were “directed towards a new classical order.” [1]

Similarly, I reference ancient, religious terminology as a way of bringing a mythological overlay to the modern experience. That being said, my “pastoral,” could equally be a “diaristic scene” — a personal experience that has been transposed, elevated to the significance of a mythology.

It is this sort of importance that brings meaning to my life; it sustains and nourishes my efforts. I hope it encourages the same in viewers.

 

Footnotes:

1: “Vuillard,” by John Russell. New York Graphic Society LTD. 1971

 

Please comment below with your own thoughts.

Also, feel free to contact me personally at abelowsam@gmail.com

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