We take refuge in fantasy, we look for symbols.  Painters since painting began have indulged themselves, and us, in following these two themes.






Raphael: 1483-1520, Italian
The Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas of Bari (The Ansidei Madonna)
1505
Oil on Poplar: 245 x 157 cm
The National Gallery London
 
Symbols abound in this wonderful Madonna; one of Raphael’s most accomplished large pictures. The Virgin draws Jesus’ attention to a passage in a book, perhaps alluding to the Christ Child’s ultimate fate. They sit under a canopy draped in blood-red cloth and supporting a rosary-bead like chain of corals. St John points to the child whilst gazing rapturously at the cross on the end of his staff again signalling the crucifixion. St Nicholas reads contemplatively on the left easily identified by the three golden balls at his feet reminding us of the three purses he threw over an indebted nobleman’s wall to save his three daughter’s from having to enter prostitution. St Nicholas is inspiration for the Santa Clause of modern-day Christmas and is the patron saint of small children.
The picture divides into thirds both vertically and horizontally and Raphael in fact designed the composition on a 3 x 3 grid. The perspective is remarkably secure for 1505.






Botticelli: 1445-1510, Italian
Mystic Nativity
1500
Oil on canvas: 108 x 75 cm
The National Gallery London
 
Here is Botticelli in fantasy mode. Both Virgin and Christ are shown super-size to emphasise their importance, angels embrace onlookers and present them with olive branches symbolising peace whilst small devils head into underground burrows to escape all this holiness. The shepherds are shown on the right and long-gowned Magi on the left of the Child. Ox and Ass fill out the back of the crib whilst angels dance in the sky connecting us with heaven. The picture vibrates with ecstatic motion.
 






 
Caravaggio: 1573-1610, Italian
The Taking of Christ
1602
Oil on canvas: 134 x 170 cm
National Gallery of Ireland
 
Along with a magnificent Vermeer this picture is one of the great treasures in the Dublin gallery. One of the best, if not the best, example of Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro this picture embodies betrayal. Judas kisses Christ to give Him away to the armed men who have come to take Him at the behest of the authorities. Slashes of light illuminate faces, a helmet and one headdress, the light coming from one lantern held high by the man at the back right. The rest of the picture is in darkness re-enforcing the evilness of the event.  A person aware of the treachery flees to our left.







Note: this picture has been lightened sligtly using Photoshop

hHenri Rousseau: 1844-1910, French
The Dream
1910
Oil on canvas: 204 x 301 cm
Museum of Modern Art New York
 
This is Rousseau’s last picture, it is also his largest. He was largely self-taught only painting full time when he retired as a Paris customs officer. His work was admired by Odilon Redon and, later, Picasso although not accepted by the critics of the day nor by the buying public. He exhibited in the gallery for those refused admission by the Salon as did the Impressionists in their early years. He was seen as a primitive painter though the Surrealists saw merit in his work. 
In this crowded canvas a woman lies on a couch listening to the music of a snake charmer who is not having much success with the snake seen slithering away on the right. Wild beasts also inhabit the space though seem more surprised than dangerous. Lush vegetation, ripe hanging fruit and a full moon complete the scene. 
Rousseau never travelled out of France and his animals and plants were all sketched at the local zoo and herbarium which adds to the bizarreness of his pictures. A real woman lies on a real couch surrounded by an imaginary landscape populated by cartoon animals. What does it all mean except that it is a dream-like fantasy; perhaps an allegory for some abstracted experience which Rousseau might have hoped to have had. Along with all of Rousseau’s pictures this one enjoys immense popularity and he is accepted today as a major player in late 19th, early 20th century art.





Odilon Redon, 1840-1916, French
Flower Clouds
1904
Pastel on paper: 45 x 54 cm
The Chicago Institute of Art
 
 
A practitioner of Symbolism, Redon came to colour mid-career after thoroughly exploring picture making in black and white. Symbolism was a reaction away from the Impressionists and a rejection of realism with its insistence that painting be representational. Symbolism claimed access to the inner life, resolving conflict between the material and spiritual and exploring the mystical. Art was to be quite simply the expression of the ‘idea’.
This small canvas glows with spiritual existence. Landscape is simply a vehicle for colour and feel. Two women sail confidently through reflections of a kaleidoscopically towering sky. Perhaps they are saints on their way to some great deed or homeward bound having accomplished some great mission. They complete their journey amidst the most hopeful spectrum of colour; perhaps we are them making an inner journey.
 



 

Henri Matisse: 1869-1954, French
Nasturtiums with ‘Dance’
Oil on canvas: 192 x 115 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
 
Matisse made several versions of ‘Dance’ all convey a mixture of emotion: hedonistic writhing, ecstatic expression, even violence or the release of violence. Here a version of ‘Dance’ is shown leaning against the wall of Matisse’s studio the floor of which comes toward us anchored in space by the chair on the left and a stool centre right. The essential structure of the canvas is two planes at right angles. A flask of nasturtiums stands on the stool, the plants foaming from the top in sympathetic motion with the dancers. Minimal colour is used and the painting is done in a restrained Fauve style however the mystery is not in the colour or technique but the geometry: the stool has a leg in the painting angled against the floor and two legs on the studio floor. It is thus part of both planes in the picture space but part of events separated by time. Does the stool provide a simple linking device between the two pictures or is there some expression of time shifting here? Einstein had produced the Theory of Special Relativity in 1905 and H. G. Wells had published 'The Time Machine' in 1895 both had said that time could slow down or speed up.






Joan Miro: 1893-1983, Spanish
Head of a Catalan Peasant
Oil on Canvas: 92x x73 cm
Tate Modern; London
 
Miro was a Surrealist painter for much of his career though his work avoided the violence and mental dislocation of Dali. Much of his surrealist work is gently lyrical, populated by loveable figures engaged in who-knows-what fantastic adventures.
The present picture was created when Miro was experimenting with dream imagery and automatic drawing. He describes how he would stand and stare at a wall until he could detect a pattern or even a face on its surface. Painted as a statement of Catalan identity the face is suffused in a blue sky ground with just a few clouds floating in the top right. There is a Catalan cap, wispy beard and two strange eyes which paradoxically speak both of determination and uncertainty. Rays of diverging vision emanate from each. Flatness and depth oscillate across the picture space rounding out the face, particularly the lower part. Here is a man who is separate from his environment but still an intimate part of it. The picture was painted at a time when Catalan identity and language was under threat.






Balthus (Baltusz Klossowski de Rola): French, 1908-2001
The Street
1910
Oil on canvas: 195x x240 cm
Museum of Modern Art, New York
 
Balthus never intended that he or his pictures should ever be understood or discussed. He refused to supply biographical details to galleries. This did not prevent his work becoming shown in the Louvre whilst he was still alive; an unusual privilege. He moved in the most intellectual of circles and was collected by Picasso. His work has attracted controversy because of its often confrontingly sexual content. He would spend years on a single canvas and an early influence was Piero Della Francesca. In Balthus’ work a moment is frozen in time. Dream-like, over-realistic figures are paused and we are left to wonder what they are/were doing and what they might be about to do next. 
In the present canvas each person is psychologically separate from the other, each moves in his or her own world and their world is an over-realistic representation of an unreal street scene. The picture is given pictorial force by the unusual composition: figures, including the manikin chef, are arranged in a frieze-like line across the canvas which might block our way into the picture except for the step perspective of the building line to the left and the flash of the red sign on the building corner. True to Balthus’ wishes our chances of understanding what is happening in this picture are slim: why are the older man and young girl struggling with each other on the left, is their some religious allegory in the man carrying the beam, is the woman on the right about to speak to someone and what can we make of the rather smug, confident young man striding through the centre of the picture?







Philip Guston: American, 1913-1980
City Limits
Oil on canvas: 196x x262 cm
Museum of Modern Art, New York
 
Initially a figurative painter, Guston joined the Abstract Expressionists, with all their rejection of realism, before returning to a more narrative style. His narratives, though, have more in common with cartons than classic studio painting. Strange, sinisterly draped figures, upturned boots and abstracted city rubbish fill his large pictures which we could read simply as a comic strip of crazy figures in a dream-like subverted landscape. Closer inspection reveals subtexts of potential violence, urban grandeur cheapened by squalor and a disappointment that the human race could not do better with all the resources at its disposal.
The present canvas shows three dominant KKK-hooded thugs cruising the town in their truck. They are aggressively looking for trouble but their impact is somehow softened to the point where they almost become figures of fun because of the absurdity of their garb and transport.
 






Salvador Dali: Spanish, 1904-1989
Dematerialisation Near the Nose of Nero
1947
Oil on canvas: 76 x 46 cm
Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali, Figueres, Spain
 
Dali was the most extrovert of the Surrealists with a huge output spread over many media, including painting, drawing, flim and sculpture. He led a surrealist life motivated by the moment, creating art by automatic drawing and recording fantasy and dreams with brilliant technical proficiency. He was one of art’s major figures for much of the twentieth century.
 
Nero, one of the empire’s cruellest emperors is shown with his nose broken off- the disfigured state in which much Roman sculpture is found to be in on discovery. The head is framed by a Renaissance arch complete with allegorical figures. The bottom third of the picture is taken up by an atomic nucleus-in the form of a pomegranate- bursting open after initiation of an atomic explosion. Dali claimed that the nuclear bomb explosions which ended the Second World War transformed his life as he lost his preoccupation with psychology and became a devotee of atomic physics: ‘my father today is Dr Heisenberg’. The world now lived in fear of nuclear devastation. Inkwells in the middle of the picture hold pens to record the Fall and the only leavening of potential disaster is the familiar landscape near Dali’s home. The perspective created by the split cube in the foreground and diminished figure size want to lead us deep into the picture; however the action is at the front. Perhaps another Dali ruse to unsettle those looking for a comfortable viewing experience.







Arthur Boyd: Australian, 1920-1999
Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall
1966-8
Oil on canvas: 184 x 176 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia
 
The Boyd family is one of Australia’s most prolific artistic families. Arthur is its best known painter. Working in Australia and London his prolific output includes landscape, allegory and social commentary. Mostly he painted in a free expressionistic style.
Nebuchadnezzar, a king of Ancient Babylon in Old Testament times, placed building his own image before that of worshiping God and so fell from Grace. For this he was sent to the wilderness and his various trials are well described in the book of Daniel. He was a powerful and war-like ruler who sacked Jerusalem in 587 BC and took the Jewish people to Babylon; he was also almost certainly mad. Boyd has used the image of a mad, violent man who may or may not have been doing God’s work as an allegory in this and other paintings in the Nebuchadnezzar series.
The 1960s were a time of great social transformation in the western world, much freeing up of social mores occurred but so also the threat to civilisation itself became frighteningly apparent. With thermonuclear weapons nations could destroy each other and the planet in minutes. The Vietnam war was in full flight with woman and children caught up in napalm attacks and self-immolation occurring as far away from the war scene as London. Nebuchadnezzar on fire reinforces the image of fatalistic man. Is his self-immolatory destruction symptomatic of the world’s demise or are we saved from ultimate fate by the end of the tyrant? His immanent death is ensured by his going over the waterfall. 
More likely Boyd used the king’s image as an allegory for the state of the world at the time: confusion, potential violence, retribution, threat and the general decline of humanity; a bitter reflection on the failure to learn the lessons on just twenty-five years earlier.






Sidney Nolan: Australian, 1917-92
Ned Kelly
1946
Enamel on board, 91x x122 cm
National Gallery of Australia
 
Nolan was Australia’s best-know artist of the twentieth century. He travelled widely but was essentially based in London for much of his career. Best known to the general public for his Ned Kelly series, Nolan painted other series, notably the Burke and Wills and Gallipoli pictures. A prolific worker he produced. Landscapes, portraits, allegorical pictures, ceramics and theatre design in a busy life.
Nolan saw Kelly as a heroic figure rather than an outlaw. The son of Irish immigrants, Kelly and his family were persecuted by the police. Kelly crossed the line between petty horse thief and career criminal when he murdered three police officers at Stringy Bark creek. Now sought by every police officer in the colonies he carried out a series of daring robberies, even holding an entire town to ransom before being captured and suffering the death penalty. During their flight from the law the Kelly gang manufactured suits of armour from plough shares- a biblical allusion probably lost on Ned. One feature of these suits was a monolithic helmet with slits for eyes.
Here Kelly trots jauntily away from us, confident, arrogant, the man of the moment- an icon-but unaware of his approaching fate, or perhaps indifferent to it. The helmet slit is vacant- usually we see eyes-vacant because this Kelly has no sight (read foresight?), no mind, and no brain. He is just part of the landscape which we can see through his helmet. Does this diminish the myth? Does the yellow glow on the horizon signal the sunset of Kelly or the Glenrowan inn fire which ultimately drives him outside to be captured? The landscape is essentially welcoming, blue sky; friendly clouds are we to read into this the support Kelly received from local people and the survival of the myth of his moral innocence?