The Persephone Series of Paintings / by Sam Abelow

“Portrait of Polly, as Persephone (Having Eaten the Pomegranate)” — Oil paint on linen, 60 x 48 inches.

This “Portrait of Polly, as Persephone (Having Eaten the Pomegranate)” is the primary work in the series. It functions a central piece, emphasizing the dark and mysterious aspect of the Persephone archetype.

In the original Greek myth, Persephone begins as the maiden of eternal springtime, the youthful and naive “mother’s daughter.” Then she is abducted, taken to the underworld by Hades. There, Persephone wallows, and her mother, Demeter longs after her. Demeter demands her daughter back, and Hades agrees, but slyly offers Persephone a seed of the pomegranate first.

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When Persephone returns to her mother, the first thing Demeter asks is if the girl ate anything in the underworld. Persephone admits she had eaten the seed of the pomegranate. Because of her having ingested this fruit, Persephone is forever bound to the underworld; she will spend half the year in the Underworld with Hades, and half the year in the Upperworld with Demeter. For the Greeks, this accounted for the seasons of fall-winter and of spring-summer. At this point, Persephone becomes known as the “Queen of the Underworld,” and rules with Hades, as his equal.

This transition from the youthful maiden to the mature woman, the transition from upper to lower world, and the broader association with the change of seasons, is all essentially related to the theme of life and death, and therefore belongs to rebirth symbolism. In this myth, the maiden is reborn as the adult woman -- specifically a woman who has encountered psychological depth, the "dark night of the soul," and emerged from it.

I completed this smaller “Study of Persephone” while in progress on the larger canvas. The feeling and concept of the reddened face arrived in the later half of painting, which took place over a couple weeks time.

The "Persephone" archetype, when active in a woman is expressed as either the youthful, nubile, flowery, mysterious, playful young woman, sometimes with a spiritual inclination. The young woman of this type first strikes one as full of mystery and whimsical spontaneity, but deep within her is are existential and mystical longings, only to be resolved through exploration of the unconscious. Ingesting the pomegranate can be associated to a connection to this deeper realm of the psyche. The reddened face in my painting represents the intensification of archetypal forces within woman. The effects of encountering the “underworld” are so potent, that they are symbolized the blood-red color of the pomegranate seed. All of these themes are played out wonderfully in the film “The Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman, which I found inspiring.

“Goddesses in Everywoman,” a book by Jungian analyst and writer, Jean Shinoda Bolen, explains the mature aspect of the Persephone archetype, when active in a woman’s psyche. Bolen explains that, this woman will often use her gifts and connection the “underworld” in her practice as a psychotherapist, or artist. Because she has dealt with the depths of the psyche, oftentimes overcoming depression, and has come through as an integrated person, the “Persephone type” can help others with their process, and express herself very profoundly.

Working on these paintings allows me to meditate on the presence of the Persephone goddess within me — in the feminine aspects of my personality. Throughout the process of creating these works, I take time to study the wealth of material on the subject, both in psychology and the arts.

“Persephone Still Life” — Oil paint on linen, 40 x 30 inches

This painting was completed as variation, while the larger portrait was being finished up. I completed this work “alla prima,” which means “in one go.” This technique allows for a strong emotional immediacy during the painting process.

“Polly (As Persephone in the Daylight)” — Oil paint on linen, 48 x 36 inches

In this third large painting in the series, I wished to portray the Persephone archetype in her aspect of the mature feminine, as a regal and sensitive woman, content and peaceful in the “daylight” (springtime atmosphere).

 “The Persephone Anima” — oil paint on linen, 24 x 30 inches.

“The Persephone Anima” — oil paint on linen, 24 x 30 inches.

Finally, on the morning of November 6th, the day after completing the “daylight” portrait, I painted this variation “alla prima.”

This painting represents the feminine aspect of my personality — my “soul” (anima) — as joyful, free and vital with a love for life. The bird and the model are both representations of this exuberant spirit.

It is my feeling that aesthetically, in this painting I am treading between making an overly “joyful” and “pretty” painting that may become too light, or even kitsch, while still having a mysterious undertone and sophistication in color and paint application.

The bird section reminds me of a tarot card, or a child-like rendition of a William Blake watercolor. The bird composition came to me impulsively, as I glanced at a print-out of a Minoan frieze.

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This board, featuring various print-outs reveals part of my process. I reference many images, including images from fashion photography, ancient Minoan friezes, photographs of a model named Polly, my own drawings and preliminary studies, as well as a Native American textile that was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum recently.

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