Et in Arcadia Ego
Exhibition catalogue curated and written by David Molesky
Agostino Arrivabene — Il sogno di Asclepio, 2015 | oil on antique panel, 29×50 in.
ET IN ARCADIA EGO
Since the dawn of consciousness, human beings have longed for the ideal. In the corners of our collective imaginations, we have built the archetype of the Utopian fantasy. As civilization began to concentrate into urban environments a few millennia ago, city dwellers wondered if perhaps the grass was greener in the shepherds’ pasture. Since then, artists and writers have shaped this longing for perfected landscape and ease of lifestyle into the myth of Arcadia.
The Arcadian myth has persisted through time largely due to the ability of poets to adapt it to new landscapes. The shepherd lifestyle of Sicily was first described as idyllic by Theocritus (Greece, 300 BCE) then in rural Italy by Virgil (Rome, 44 CE). Later, the Peloponnese Peninsula was similarly described by Sannazaro (Florence, 1503) and much more recently the Mediterranean-like climate of California by John Steinbeck, who lived and worked locally. Now Los Gatos, this hippy enclave in the hills above Silicon Valley, is the perfect setting to have a conversation about the lineage and influence of the great pastoral tradition.
Certainly poets first crafted our understanding of Arcadia, but it has been the painters, especially Nicolas Poussin, who have made the myth accessible to the populace. From 1637-1638, Poussin painted one of the most enigmatic elegiac paintings in history, Et in Arcadia Ego. Since its conception, the painting (from which this exhibition receives its title) has inspired various interpretations and is believed to contain secret messages.
From this iconic painting we can distill three essential qualities: the idealized landscape, the shepherd as outsider figure and the contemplation of mortality. For this exhibition, we have selected 20 painters from both American coasts and Europe who work within the Arcadian tradition. Although each work contains all the identified concepts, the exhibited works have been grouped into these three sections to deepen our understanding of how each aspect of Arcadian myth is reinterpreted by artists today.
The word Arcadia quickly brings to mind an image of an idealized landscape. Derived from the pastoral regions of ancient Greece, this vision might contain a vista of green rolling hills coming to life with flowering plants, dotted with trees and rocky outcroppings. Here you might see a shepherd who has escaped the heat of high noon by ducking under the shade of a tree for a siesta.
The Arcadian landscape exists on the outskirts of wilderness and human settlement. This fringe territory is not nature in its raw form, but a nature partially domesticated by transient human presence. A trodden path or comfy log to sit on helps the next passer through feel comfortable while they experience the bliss that comes from being close to nature. It is a landscape of the highest level of beauty that seems also to be catered to human pleasure.
In Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego, the idealized landscape serves as the stage for the shepherds’ discovery of the tomb. In David Ligare’s painting of the same name, he gives us a larger and slightly skewed view of the landscape depicted in Poussin’s composition. Instead of depicting a congregation of shepherds contemplating the tomb, Ligare concentrates on the tombs setting and compresses human activity into the form of relief sculpture on the sarcophagus’ surface.
Other paintings in this section concentrate entirely upon the perfected landscape with elements that suggest a former presence of humans. In Theodore Wores’ painting of Los Gatos, a dirt road traverses a hillside cutting through flowering trees and bushes above a collection of small cottages. Similarly the serpentine path of Astrid Preston’s painting guides the viewer through a landscape cultivated by the human hand.
OUTSIDER OR LIMINAL FIGURES
Aristotle famously said “Man is by nature a social animal.” We all feel the need to be part of a larger group. Anyone outside this group is considered a stranger and viewed with a certain mystique or sometimes even with paranoia.
Since the domestication of animals, the nomadic shepherd has become the iconic outsider figure, wandering territories on the fringe of both raw nature and human settlement. Romanticized for being perfectly at home in rustic settings, shepherds are civilization’s ambassadors in limbo between human and animal worlds. These liminal figures also have plenty of time for leisurely activity: naps, making music, and stopping to contemplate things that most urban dwellers would never slow down enough to notice.
In Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego, four youths gather around a tomb to discuss the meaning of an elegiac text. Poussin, one of the greatest classical scholars to lift a brush, chose to paint his shepherds in accordance with Greco-Roman pastoral poetry, dressing them in the robes of antiquity and arming them with staffs. These simple rustic people are not tainted by the concerns of urban society, and therefore they are able to interpret the tomb with wonder and curiosity. In his painting Self Portrait in Arcadia, Odd Nerdrum depicts himself as a temporary refugee, floating between two worlds. In Robin Williams’ work, The Gardeners, two male figures lounge languidly in an idyllic cactus garden, unmotivated and unconcerned. In classical literature, when shepherds are not taking a siesta in the shade of a tree, they pass the time playing rustic instruments and singing songs about their passionate longings in life. In Gillian Pederson-Krag’s painting Two Performers, one seated figure plays a lyre while another sings and dances deeper into a pasture.
CONTEMPLATION OF MORTALITY
The great paradox of human consciousness is that we are living while fully aware of our own mortality. Even within the idealized landscapes of Arcadia, in moments of bliss and wonder, reminders of the impermanence of life begin to creep in subtly. These reminders come from the beauty of nature.
A delicate flower sometimes only explodes with color and scents for a single day. The golden hour of the sunset, which makes everything seem as if through rose-colored glasses, also contains that twisting sentiment that soon the sun will set and all will be dark.
In Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, a group of youths discover a tomb and contemplate the elegy carved on the façade. For centuries, scholars have attempted to decipher Poussin’s intention behind the message. The most common understanding is that it should be read, “I too am here in Arcadia,” meaning that even within this perfect landscape exists the presence of death. Death therefore is not to be feared, but is to be seen as part of the holistic cycle of life. Other interpretations have insisted that the elegy is simply stating that the person within the tomb once also lived a life of pleasure, just as we who are living.
In Agostino Arrivabene’s Il Sogno di Asclepio, a male youth transforms into new life through the process of death and by becoming one with the earth itself. In Jason Yarmosky’s Counting Sheep, a solitary aging woman faces the last glimmers of light, counting her last moments like sheep, until she eventually falls forever asleep. In the painting Po’ Boy by Seamus Conley, the artist reflects upon being a young boy and his first realizations about the fragility of life. In Stephanie Peek’s floral composition Deeper I, the flower becomes the symbol for the fleeting, short-lived beauty of life itself. In Sandow Birk’s composition The Death of Mark Foo at Mavericks, he reminds us that man’s tragedy is small in the broader context of nature.
Self Portrait as Great Acceleration, 2015
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of the Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco
Regarding Self-Portrait as Great Acceleration, Heffernan states that it “Describes the intersection of modernism and pre-culture: a red-hot charioteer running amok meets the charred remains of earth and sky. What was once a great heap of paradisiacal possibility is now a kind of devil’s chamber, emitting smoke signals with its last breath, signaling failure. Even the trees are antic vestiges of their former selves, their natural beauty now gone grotesque with their clumps of lurid and artificial pseudo-abundance.”
Et in Arcadia Ego, 2016
Oil on linen
40 x 48 inches
Courtesy of Winfield Gallery, Carmel
In Ligare’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego, we are given a wide view that focuses on the landscape
depicted in Poussin’s composition of the same name. Ligare explains, “In my painting I have
moved the figures from their position as actors in the painting and depicted instead a tomb
with a bas-relief showing a scene of the death of Patroclus from Homer’s Iliad, set in a
landscape that represents the ideal Arcadia transferred over time from Greece, to Sicily,
Turtle Skull Rock, 2001
Courtesy of the artist
Although this image looks as if it was photographed on a blustery afternoon on the
Peloponnesian Peninsula, Keever constructs these landscapes and atmospheres in miniature
in his studio. “Turtle Skull Rock was photographed after a plaster ‘mountain’ eroded in a 200
gallon aquarium filled with water for several months,” explains Keever.
Mountain Path, 1989
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Craig Krull Gallery
Preston states that there is “no wilderness” in her Mountain Path, only “a planted landscape,
pointing to the ideal in a man-made environment.” The lack of perspective in her painting
is a nod to the human journey through life, “wherever you are, you are there in the now.”
ATTRIBUTED TO NICOLAS POUSSIN (PENDING)
Promised Land, 1650s
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Odd Nerdrum, Norway
Nomadic herdsmen traverse a lush landscape, moving towards distant blue hills with their belongings strapped to the tops of animals. The male figure wears a bright blue tunic, probably signifying that he is nobility.
The Nerdrum family discovered this painting, originally attributed to Salvator Rosa, that they have now attributed to Poussin and believe that it is a composition telling the story of the migration of Abraham, Sarah and the newborn Isaac. One of their attribution points is the claim that the same model portrayed in the role of Abraham can be seen in other Poussin paintings. Nerdrum also determined that the paint handling in the landscape, especially the quality of the glaze in the trees and mountains is typical of small paintings by Poussin.
The attribution process is ongoing for Promised Land. Obtaining the opinions of objective experts, analyzing history and searching for similar works can be an interesting, but extensive process. Authenticating a work of art and building a consensus of evidence requires several complementary and necessary steps: Art-historical documentation, stylistic connoisseurship and scientific analysis.