This is the fourth Over Underworld release, a online art exhibit of paintings and sketches in March 2020. Featured art: Pages from my Dante’s Inferno sketchbook, Cantos 1 and 2.
Since Italy has its first national Dante holiday this year on March 25, I’m releasing Dante sketches instead of paintings for the next few posts. May celebrating his poetry help Italy heal .
We are Dante. The poem opens to a scene of attack and menace. The lion is ambition to rule, the despot. The leopard is worldly luxury and lust, hedonism, consumerism. The wolf of avarice, of greed, is always hungry. After she eats, after feeding, she is hungrier than before, literally insatiable. Dante is lost in the woods, and all is lost.
I choose to see Dante as a guide through Underworlds, the times when we are trapped, in despair, lost, yet we know we are somehow on a journey, a lonely road. We need our guides. Virgil is Wisdom, who guides us through the “arduous and savage”way.
He also calls on his beloved Beatrice, who has died and gone to heaven. She appears with her girlfriends: Rachel, who symbolizes contemplation, and Lucia, who is clear vision, eyesight, and light. They indicate their approval of his journey, and then we don’t see them again for a long time. They are all making a brief visit from heaven. Hell is not their style.
So gather your friends: Wisdom from the past, Light, Meditation, Divine Love. Dante needed his beloveds to help him continually trust that he would have guidance during his pilgrimage . I noted that “Hell is forgetting that there is a paradise.” Keep to your dream-path. It’s actually a Divine Comedy, even if we walk through Tragedy along the Way. Suzanne
Featured work: Pages from my Dante’s Inferno illustrated notes. Not for sale.You may share this freely.
Events in 2020
March 25, Wednesday, is Dante Day in Italy, a new annual national holiday to honor Dante. I will be storytelling from my Dante sketchbook at Saltworkstudio via Facebook Live. See event for more details. FB live times: 10 AM, 1PM and 5 PM.
This is the third installment of the Over Underworld art exhibit, a virtual release of paintings and sketches in March 2020.
Featured art: Pages from my Dante’s Inferno sketchbook, earlier circles of Hell
The Underworld is not necessarily Hell. But, sometimes we get lost somewhere Not Good, like a Twilight Zone episode. It happened to Dante. For the past year I have been doing a close reading of Dante and making a sketchbook of visual notes. They are not illustrations, but ways to help me remember what I’ve learned.
Reading Dante is like Shakespeare or the Bible; it endlessly unfolds. But I’ll post a few pages from the notebook with some of my observations.
I’ve made up several lists of rules for going through the Underworld from reading Dante. First, a tour guide is worth paying for. Virgil leads Dante through, but can’t go with him to Paradise, as he is a Heathen, but is a good friend. I discovered that Dante loves his non-Christian geniuses of the ancient days, but has a problem with them, as the Church said they were consigned to hell. What to do, what to do?
He makes a beautiful green garden in hell so that these pre-Christian immortals can hang out! The petals of the flower hold the names of his special people. I began to be interested in painting themes from this Canto. I didn’t want to do paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins, but I discovered the Seven Liberal Virtues– top right corner– which are the antidotes for these sins, and am working on an abstract series from them.
Last year I went to the Library of Congress and got to see original Blake lithographs of Dante’s Inferno in the rare books reading room. Here is my pencil copy of Blake’s print, made in the Library, and my LOC library card.
Plagues were a fact of life in the 13th and 14th century. But Dante saw the worst infection as a moral plague infesting his time, with politics destroying peaceful structure and ripping Florence apart. This next sketch features a wasp from his description of demons flying up like swarms of hornets.
This is the Canto that orders, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I was surprised to find that there was also strong message to live fully when you are alive on earth in the same section! In all that darkness, there is always light somewhere in Dante. Suzanne
Featured work: Pages from my Dante’s Inferno illustrated notes. Not for sale.
This is the first installment of the Over Underworld art exhibit, a virtual release of paintings in March-April 2020.
I’m an artist, not a mystic, but I love to reflect on symbols. An abstraction has kidnapped our world, the coronavirus, so it now exists as our shared global symbol. Examining the metaphorical side of the coronavirus doesn’t mean we are escaping or ignoring the scientific; it means that we can be human and turn it around like an orb in our hands, exploring shades of meaning, comfort, fear and awe in it. If we seek myth and meaning, we don’t have to scrub terror away from our minds.
The virus is the corona, the crown, related to the sun, to kings, the orb that unites all of humanity and gives life. The sun is the heart, is play and fun, is wild nature in full summer bloom, the petals around the sunflower. In the Tarot deck, the Sun card shows a walled garden in which children and animals play– the original divine and protected innocence, Paradise.
Does the ball of sunflowers remind you of anything?
But the corona is what shows when there is a total eclipse of the sun, and we are experiencing this darker sun symbol. An eclipse was terrifying in ancient times. Many images from past cultures are very consonant with our experience of the coronavirus.The images are of monsters– wolves, dragons, heavenly dogs, pumas, frogs, giant snakes, insects– eating the sun, the source of life, like the spread of the virus. I saw the total eclipse of the sun in 2017, and the sky chill that descended came from a deep, instinctive place.
I am doing a ten-painting series on the Tree of LIfe, a mystical Jewish metaphor that spread throughout European culture. It is a series of orbs connected by pathways, and is a positive metaphor for continuous creation, types of ethical experience, and joyful participation in the whole. But there is also a tradition of the darker sun, a sort of shadow side to each of the ten positions. The dark sun, as a polar opposite to the vital sun/heart, prevents us from experiencing The Sun realm. Light, beauty, joy, play, trust, and a connection to the heart is replaced by consuming fear and suspicion and survival angst– the dark corona.
To reconnect to our selves, our bright Sun, we need to consciously focus on those things which are obscured: safe community, art, aesthetics, enterainment, kids, pleasure, nature, beauty, and the bright and protective sides of our chosen religions and deities. It is our riddle how we will do this, but the Italians singing from their balconies have the right idea! I suggest making a lot of noise to drive away the demons, preferably with our own instruments, pots, pans and voices. Even to the present day, after a total solar eclipse, astronomers at the Griffith Observatory dance, yell, and beat pots and pans.
The sky is falling, as it always has. Don’t get eaten by any giant frogs. Stay loving, dance with life, pet your animals, walk in nature, and use those pots and pans. Suzanne
[About Lascaux cave paintings, Paleolithic inspiration, and my abstract painting process.]
Once in a while we are lucky enough to create a painting that somehow is a little bigger than we are. This painting, A History of Home, was that for me. I want to take the time here to let the painting tell her story, her history of coming into existence.
It’s sometimes difficult for an artist to really explain what went into a particular painting. In these days of marketing, the emphasis is on the “elevator speech,” a short, catchy, 5-second summary. What a nightmare– trapped in an elevator and having to give a speech! I won’t be doing any “elevator speeches” any more, in my studio or anywhere else. Life is too short to waste it on the superficial. This will be a wandering journey, like the entries to painted caves.
The second painting of a triptych, I envisioned painting a series of abstract “maps,” entries to a colored world of cave and imagination. In this one, we have begun to enter the painted caves, specifically Lascaux cave. We stand at the threshold. It is a map of dreamtime, perhaps similar to Australian ritual paintings that mark imagined geographies mixed with “real” landmarks.
It fascinates me that parts of the painted caverns are actually called “galleries.” They may have been our first cathedrals: most were not inhabited. I am often inspired by the maps of the passages of the caves, and their abstract forms that are very unlike maps of the daytime world. Some of the marks in the painting feel like one of these “gallery maps” to me.
I really love the line drawings the earliest modern archaeologists did as reproductions of the paintings. Because photography was more primitive at the turn of the century, most archaeologists were adept at sketching artifacts and paintings. Almost all archaeologists who were allowed to enter the caves were male, of course. The most famous was “The Pope of Prehistory,” Henri Breuil. He did the most amazing drawings of cave paintings and petroglyphs from around the world.
I’ve spent a lot of time, literally many years, seeking out books with Henri Breuil’s drawings in dusty shops in so I could own some of his reproductions, with little success. I think what was “drawing” me was the beauty of the originals, but also a fascination of entering the world of the caves through transcribing the marks and animals by hand.
On the other hand, so to speak, I didn’t want to do reproductions of cave animals, no matter how compelling and beautiful. The caves themselves show centuries, perhaps millennia, of overwriting– animal on top of animal, elaborations and erasures, adaptions, handprints, and abstract graphic marks that were most likely a symbolic language. Generations of hands, eyes, pigments, footprints, erosion, stalactites, mud and flickering lights. Generations of whatever went on in these deep galleries. I wanted that. I wanted to enter that process, the one that started 35,000 years ago and is still going on today.
Back to caves, cave paintings, and my painting. After a trip in the late 1990’s to the Grotta del Genovese on the island of Levanzo, in the Egadi islands off the coast of Sicily— where I was led (by a genuine small hunchbacked cave keeper!) to the caverns with paleolithic paintings– I began to wonder why we have so few modern records of women scholars and archaeologists visiting European caves. (I would love to revisit this island: just look at the setting of the entry to the cave!)
I found that one woman archaeologist had documented Lascaux cave, Annette Laming-Emperaire. A part of the French Resistance, she entered Lascaux in the 1950’s and documented paintings and marks as a part of her doctoral thesis. Her method of cataloging and interpreting cave art is still in use today. But what fascinated me the most were her line drawings of cave paintings: sets of different style bison horns, diagrams of colored areas, and superimposed animals.
I wanted to use her marks, so I enlarged them with a copy machine, created transparent acrylic transfers, and embedded them in the painting. The black line drawings and diagrams are sunk in a dense field of paint. Because they are transparent, the paint underneath is visible.
The painting has multiple layers. Just last year I found that my paintings transform with 3-D glasses; the translucent bright layers, and the use of fluorescent paint, help facilitate. With the glasses, the layers separate, and the lines float in an intermediate space on the picture plane.
This painting emerged out of paleolithic art, a trip to Sicily, Annette Laming-Emperaire, and the modern technologies of plastic, digital copies, and fluorescent pigments. The feeling of the painting is hearth-fire warm yet mysterious, filled with the spirits of people, animals, and landscape, and invoking a great woman scholar. A History of Home is a story of entering art and making it our home over vast expanses of time— creating the new on top of the old every generation. This process is hard to explain when someone asks “How long did it take you to paint this?” (I figure about 25,000 years, give or take.)
I am pleased that it is going to the home of Rachel, Brendan and Tabitha Welsh in Alexandria, Virginia. Their home was built in the 1790’s, so A History of Home will reside in a home with history.
I saw “Leaning into the Wind” with Andy Goldsworthy yesterday. In my mind it was superimposed upon my current obsession with Paleolithic art and signs. Goldsworthy seemed to me to be a shamanic figure, making lines and markets upon the earth with clay and rocks, like our unimaginably distant ancestors. Who were us.
He climbed into trees a lot; this could have a relationship to the practice of “climbing the world tree,” one of the ways the ancients visualized entering the spirit world. His body was part of the art. It’s also interesting to me that the few colors he did use, from leaves, petals, or perhaps natural earth pigments, were deep yellow and red. The use of ochre, often heated to produce an even more striking red color, is the first evidence of differentiated color preference in early humans. Goldsworthy spent a lot of time breaking stones, which reminded me of our first tools, the chipped stone hand axes. He made grave-like stone sleeping hollows and tomb-like tunnels.
Red ochre was used to make signs, dots and forms in the deepest, smallest passages, some of them hardly more than animal burrows. I am reading “The First Signs” by Genevieve von Petzinger. She has spent years crawling through dripping, muddy, claustrophobic passages recording abstract graphic forms. Mud was everywhere in Leaning Into the Wind, along with streaming walls, slick pavements and goopy clay mixed with human hair.
The movie’s soundtrack is as compelling and hypnotic as the film. Goldsworthy talks transparently about his own evolution as an artist. For some people, preferring the Goldsworthy of sixteen years ago in Rivers and Tides, it might prove more of a “Dylan goes electric” letdown. I found it trance-like and moving. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you work hard in your dream all night and wake up tired? The film produces an effect like that. Recommended. Currently at the Summerfield, at 3:45 only.
What about our private, individual Stone Ages? What about your art that was a start, years ago, before it ripened? What’s in your art cave? Is it brilliant? Submerged? Rough? Hard to find? From ancient eras? In this post, I’ll share some personal old, extinct art. Some is destroyed, some still exists hidden, and all are my little secrets.
As I considered paleolithic creativity, I began thinking about my own ancient art. Art is transient. Periodically, I clean out and discard my old art. Ancient art in nature is drowned, avalanched, petrified, faded, scratched and licked by animals, mineral-dripped, overpainted, destroyed. Some fragments remain.
I still don’t know why I made this painting, which I named just today after years of existing title-free. It does look like a shaman within a shaman, or big foot, or a gorilla, with magic biceps. And a little hippo is sort of irresistible. Maybe there’s a little bit of Big Bad Wolf, with granny inside. It’s scary enough that it never got hung on a wall. It has a personality…. someone you may not want to meet in a stone age alley by moonlight.
And a few more details of old paintings. I was really into that heavy texture, my own modeling paste, made from thick gesso and lightweight spackle from the hardware store, half and half.
Antique fragments, excavated up from our own lost ages, still have power. What do you do with your own ancient art?
Neanderthal art has now been shown to exist and has been dated back to over 60,000 years, before Homo Sapiens was in Europe. It has graphic abstract forms and seems to have recognizable animals (see the short film below). As more and more work is done on the “abstract” sign forms in deep caves , we are finding that the abstract is not more “primitive” than the realistic animals. They occur together.
It could be more like comparing a novel with a movie made from the novel: the more abstract marks have known meaning and carry specific information, perhaps a story script, or “credits” with location, authors, and events, while the beautiful animals are the movie itself. Books and movies do not exclude each other, but enhance each other.
We always seem to want to separate the “written” and the “visual.” We have even assigned them different sides of the brain, which has now been shown to be a erroneous. It reminds me of how much we wanted to believe the Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging apes rather than sharing a known human experience.
I’m going to try to paint my own paintings using some of these beautiful Neanderthal abstract marks. I’ll keep you posted on the paintings.
Upcoming events: on First Friday May 4, 2018, I’m hosting a gallery show of modern art in ancient modes created by five artists.
The Greek Gods weren’t white! We just think they were. “The Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World,” recently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, was a revelation. Using minute traces of residual colors, historical material from past centuries that documented colored temples and statues, and all the resources of modern science, we now can be sure that temples of the gods in ancient Greece may have resembled a set on Black Panther more than a mausoleum.
“Chromophobia” is the fear of color. It may be wrong to apply it to a to a whole society, rather than an individual, but I think that we live in an era of mass chromophobia. Modernism in architecture and decor focuses on neutrals, greys, browns, black and white- with maybe a daring splash of green from a succulent. But from the earliest times, back to the time of Neanderthal woman, we have sought and ground pigments to produce beautiful, durable colors.
Seeing this exhibit reminded me of the gorgeous color in ancient Roman murals I saw when I was in Pompeii, and other examples preserved in the Naples Archaeological Museum. I notice that the stone pigments have a chalky quality with a kind of depth found in modern pastels today. Yummy!
Look at those pinkish stones! Pink was a popular color in ancient times.
I speculate that it was hard to get a sort of true blue-red: Red ocher tends toward sienna/orange/ brown, and any red mixed with a white opaque binder would turn pink. “Rhodophobia” is the fear of pink; someone with this affliction would have had a hard time in ancient Greece, because pink tones were everywhere.
A few hundred years ago it was still possible to see traces of color on Greek temples. Pre-photography, you could go out with your watercolorist and his camera obscura and paint from life. There were still traces of temple color documented in the watercolors of Greek landscapes and monuments by the English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the Italian artist Simone Pomardi.
The complex friezes of the ancient world take on a vivid, comic book quality in color.
The ancients used all the color available to them. We should too.
Upcoming at Saltworkstudio: “Paleomythic”
I’m pleased to be a co-curator for PaleoMythic, a show opening on May 4, 2018, in Backstreet Gallery. I have long loved ancient art and found inspiration in it. I have joined forces with master printmaker Caren Catterall and three other fine artists to explore our creation of modern myths from ancient sources. I feel like I’ve been waiting ages to do this show… 65,000 years or so! I hope that images recalling the sacred darkness of the cave can dispel some of the darkness rising in our collective souls.
Just for fun, a news flash on the first known ancient synthetic pigment from Egypt. It hovers between aquamarine and lapis. Even sculptures from the Parthenon show traces of it. Now I have to pull myself away from youtube videos of snoring hummingbirds and ruby-eyed lavender boas. Have a great weekend.
Have you ever noticed that the AntiquityNOW website has splashes of a particular set of vibrant colors? Perhaps you’ve even found the Our Colors section on our site that reveals the ancient history behind our beauteous array. One color, specifically the deep blue, is particularly intriguing with its 4,500-year-old past, its surprising relevance for today’s scientific inquiry and its future promise for such fields as medicine and communications technology.