Monday, October 02, 2017

Four 'Rarities in Pictures' from Dr. Browne's Musaeum Clausum

When the artists Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell, the two leading exponents of North Sea magical realism were introduced to Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum they instantly recognised the seventeenth century physician-philosopher as one possessing an inventive imagination; the paintings listed as  'Rarities in Pictures' in Browne's imaginary art-gallery in particular, attracted their interest. Subsequently, during the summer of 2016, both artists set to work, inspired by the novel idea of bringing to life a picture from Browne's bizarre art-gallery.

Musaeum Clausum (The closed or Sealed museum) is an inventory of lost, rumoured and imaginary books, pictures and objects conjured up by Thomas Browne (1605-82) quite late in his life (an event from 1673 is mentioned), several of which represent pre-occupations which fascinated the Norwich doctor throughout his life. Ever the literary showman with a flair for the theatrical and with subtle humour, Browne declares his inventory to be ‘Containing some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living’

In recent times Browne's writings in general have attracted the attention of many artists, not least his Musaeum Clausum for its anticipation of modern modes of artistic expression [1]. Indeed, the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1996) a life-long admirer of Browne who alluded to him throughout his literary career, and the writer most often associated with the literary origins of magical realism once stated, as if with Browne’s Musaeum Clausum in mind  - 

"To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed."

Musaeum Clausum's art-gallery of 'Rarities in pictures’ succinctly describes paintings roughly sketched out in a few brush-stroke sentences; some are located in exotic settings such as moonlight, the polar regions and underwater, others depict historical events such as sea-battles, amongst a variety of fancies from the Norwich philosopher-physician's imagination.

The artist Mark Burrell (b. 1957) selected the item entitled ‘A vestal sinner in the cave with a candle’ from 'Rarities in Pictures' as raw material to work on. Burrell’s Sacred Presence (detail above, oil and alkyd resin on board 19 x 19 3/4 inches) depicts a cave in which a young girl with a questioning and slightly defiant expression, stands beside a table on which several candles are lit. A highly-charged and numinous atmosphere is evoked through the lapsed virgin's encounter with a supernatural apparition. A floating, genie-like torso faces her, ambiguous in facial features, the apparition is simultaneously erotic and scary. A ghostly visage can also be seen looking on. As often in Burrell’s art, a numinous atmosphere is enhanced through highly-charged colouration along with skilful portraiture and exquisite detail. 

Candles and the magical light which they create can be seen in several of Burrell’s paintings. Exercising his artistic license Burrell has chosen to paint several lit candles, heightening the drama of the numinous moment. Until relatively recently candles were a primary source of light. In the modern age with its demand for eyes to constantly focus upon the artificial light of the phone, computer and television screen, candle-light is a relaxing and soothing balm to the eyes. Candle light retains its spiritual significance from mankind's very earliest religious experiences to the present-day. 

In  Mark Burrell’s Sacred Presence the torso of a hybrid creature, like a genie released from a bottle, hovers bare-breasted and quivers with secret Freudian allusions, the artist subtly inviting the viewer to project their own unconscious psychological contents onto its presence. From the bare skeletal frame-work of a single sentence description, Burrell has fleshed-out and conjured up a dark and mysterious, and ultimately inexplicable, fairy-tale narrative in his own unique and inimitable style. 

Burrell's Sacred Presence may poetically be described as an Hallucination gothique. It should be noted that the word 'Gothic’ in its original meaning is descriptive of the marvellous and amazing, such as found in Burrell's paintings of fair-grounds, sun-sets, bonfires and fireworks, along with the wonders of childhood, as much as the darker and gloomier associations of the word, while the word 'hallucination' here simply means a vivid, yet controlled, visual imagination, without any association of chemical inducement whatsoever. 

The setting of the cave invites exploration. In the ancient Greek philosopher Plato's famous allegory of the cave, found in book 7 of his discourse The Republic, the human condition is described as one in which unenlightened people forever mistake the fleeting and insubstantial shadows they see projected onto a cave wall for the reality of the Eternal Platonic forms. 

In the cave paintings at Lascaux in France, estimated to be 20,000 years old, various animals can be seen. First discovered in 1940, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) after visiting the paleolithic caves remarked, 'They've invented everything'. Picasso subsequently incorporated imagery found in the caves of Lascaux in his own paintings. Indeed its no exaggeration to state, as Picasso realized, that the cave was in fact the setting of mankind’s very first art gallery. 

The subject-matter of Browne’s ‘vestal sinner’ originates from Roman antiquity. The Vestal virgins were entrusted to the task of keeping the sacred flame of the temple dedicated to Vesta permanently alight. A supreme importance was attached to the purity of the Vestal virgins, and a terrible punishment awaited her who violated her vow of chastity. If a Vestal virgin broke her vows she was punished by being entombed alive with a solitary candle in the certainty of death.  

There’s a casual, though entirely coincidental similarity to Burrell's Sacred Presence to a scene in the Mexican-American film director Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic masterpiece of magical realism, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Early in the film, the heroine Ofelia who loves reading fairy-tales, descends the steps of a  labyrinth to enter a cavernous space where she encounters a faun who sets her three tasks to complete by full moon. 

The faun in Pan's Labyrinth not unlike the spectral apparition of Sacred Presence is strongly imbued with the daemonic, that is, a benevolent nature spirit, which though seemingly scary, more often than not, is helpful to mortals. The daemonische also describes the particular genius or spirit of a place, something which Burrell expresses vividly in paintings of his home-town of Lowestoft, the sea-town possessing a distinctive character in his art.

Its important here to distinguish between the word daemonic with the much latter word 'demonic' and not to confuse the daemonic with the demonic. The Greek word daim┼Źn was applied to the Judeo-Christian concept of an evil spirit by the early second century CE. Just how the original Greek word 'daemonic' alluding to the Spirits inhabiting Nature transformed to become 'demonic' is a good example of how the prejudices and hostilities of the Judeo-Christian world towards the Greek civilization  condemned Greek nature worship and labelled all such Nature-spirits originating from Greek civilization as pagan. [2]

There are many accounts in Greek mythology of mortals who encounter supernatural beings. In ancient Greek myth, the hero Oedipus challenges the female Sphinx who devoured all travelers who could not answer her riddle. When Oedipus gave her the correct answer he caused the Sphinx's death.

The Greek hero Oedipus is the subject of an early work of  portraiture by Mark Burrell. Painted over twenty years ago and measuring 6" x 9", Burrell’s portrait through sheer serendipity corresponds well to Browne's interest in the esoteric art of physiognomy as represented in the 'Rarities in Pictures' item 

Three Draughts of passionate Looks; .............of Oedipus when he first came to know that he had killed his Father, and married his own Mother. 

This early work of Burrell's is a fine anticipation of what is now a highly-developed feature of his mature work, namely, portraiture involving great psychological insight.

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The artist Peter Rodulfo (b. 1958) is a star of equal brilliance in the celestial firmament of North Sea magical realism. Mercurial in subject-matter, style, dimensions and the medium of his art (Rodulfo is a sculptor as well as a painter) he is now clocking up forty-plus years of industrious creativity. However, one never gets the impression of any Sisyphean effort to Rodulfo’s art, even though he confesses his paintings are problems which he only sometimes solves. Most often, a joyful delight in productive, often experimental creativity weaves throughout Rodulfo's varied and wide-ranging art-works, like a silken golden thread in finely-woven tapestry .

Peter Rodulfo also selected an item from Browne’s Museum Clausum during the summer of 2016, his painting Dr. Browne  goes Submarining originating from the 'Rarities in Pictures'  item of -

Large Submarine Pieces, well delineating the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, the Prairie or large Sea-meadow upon the Coast of Provence, the Coral Fishing, the gathering of Sponges, the Mountains, Valleys and Deserts, the Subterraneous Vents and Passages at the bottom of that Sea .... Together with a lively Draught of Cola Pesce, or the famous Sicilian Swimmer, diving into the Vorago's and broken Rocks by Charybdis, to fetch up the golden Cup, which Frederick, King of Sicily, had purposely thrown into that Sea.

Adhering closely to Browne’s description, Rodulfo’s giant-sized (180 x 220 cm) oil on canvas displays the artist's masterful utilization of a strong blue pigment, in conjunction with skilful perspective and an exuberant delight in marine-life. In fact there are now many art-works by Rodulfo in which marine life is a primary feature. Three paintings by the artist focus upon the stages and symbolism of the Night Sea Voyage, for example. 

An attentive viewing of Rodulfo’s 'Large submarine Piece' reveals not only the silhouetted figure of a diver, but also,‘the golden Cup, which Frederick, King of Sicily, had purposely thrown into that Sea’.  The deep fathoms of water from the golden cup resting upon seabed to surface is effectively conveyed through a shaft of hazy sunlight at the top left of the painting. A platypus with its wide, flat bill can be seen diving headlong in its top right. The viscous nature of the sea is hinted through various pieces of flotsam and jetsam floating in the water. There's also a skillful use of perspective in the outlines of rock formations, along with finely-worked frottage which enhances the depth of Rodulfo's aquatic vision.  

Digital photography can never fully reproduce an original art-work, especially one which is so large in its dimensions. Nevertheless, a detail from Rodulfo’s jumbo-sized painting (above) goes some way towards highlighting the fantastic detail of its imagery. 

In Rodulfo’s submarine fantasy, with its hints of civilizations such as Atlantis as recounted in Plato’s Timaeus, the gods of a distant time, far from being stern and implacable, are portrayed as approachable and cheerful and above all, not necessarily patriarchal whatsoever. Male and Female together, they suggest some long-lost civilization celebrating the Hieros Gamos or 'Sacred Marriage' when men and women were co-equal in a meaningful way, long since forgotten.  

Its interesting to note that both Burrell and Rodulfo were attracted to paint items allusive to the hidden in nature. For whilst Burrell selected an item featuring the subterranean, that is, under the earth, Rodulfo opted for the submarine, that is, under the sea. These settings may be considered as allusive in symbolism to the subconscious of the human psyche. Its a moot point in terminology between the difference of subconscious and unconscious, it being far easier for an artist to depict examples from under nature than the unnatural and 'not of nature'. Of  far greater importance is the fact that both Rodulfo and Burrell are well aware that much in human relationships and affairs is influenced and driven by the hidden, subconscious psyche. 

It would be a daunting task to even begin naming the numerous influences of Rodulfo’s and Burrell’s art. Both artists live and work in historic North Sea ports which for centuries have been vigorous conduits, not only of travel, trade and commerce, but also of cultures, fashions, ideas and  art. Nevertheless, above all others it's the Swiss artist Paul Klee whom Peter Rodulfo admits to admiring most, while for Mark Burrell the English artist Stanley Spencer is held in the highest regard. Both artists also take a casual interest in the psychology of C.G. Jung and the psychological element is evident in both artist's work, consciously and unconsciously, as the shared symbolism of their respective paintings suggests, the subterranean setting of Mark Burrell's Sacred Presence harmoniously matching the submarine setting of  Peter Rodulfo's Dr. Browne goes Submarining.

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In the nineteenth century Russian artist Ilya Repin's scene from the medieval Russian fairy-tale of  the minstrel singer and sailor Sadko, the hero is seen visiting a submarine kingdom. Repin's fanciful painting entitled Sadko visiting the Underwater Kingdom (1876) alludes to lost civilizations, along with depiction of a wide variety of  marine-creatures. One wonders if the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov ever viewed Repin's painting, the subject of Sadko and his fairy-tale adventures are the plot of Rimsky-Korsakov's triumph of national opera, Sadko (1889). Rimsky-Korsakov's contemporary and great rival, Peter Tchaikovsky also found Russian fairy-tales to be inspiring. The music of Tchaikovsky's world-famous and well-loved ballets Swan Lake (1875-77) and The Sleeping Beauty (1890) along with Igor Stravinsky's  ballet The Firebird (1911) are all structured in plot and narrative upon fairy-tales. 

In the sixth scene of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko the minstrel Sadko descends to the Sea-Tsar's kingdom in order to win his daughter's hand in marriage. 

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Cheerfulness, along with humour and wit are prominent characteristics of much of  Peter Rodulfo's art, not least in his choosing to realize one of the funniest of all the items in Browne’s 'Rarities in Pictures' namely, An Elephant dancing upon the Ropes with a Negro Dwarf upon his Back.

Painted sometime late 2016/early 2017, in addition to an elephant dancing upon a tight-rope with a gyrating liveried flunky upon his back, a lobster, butterfly, tortoise, starfish, seagull and the tail of a large cetaceous creature can be seen, all of which are visible evidence of Rodulfo's great love of animals. Elephants in particular can be found lumbering about in several of Rodulfo's paintings, including his key-signature art-work As the Elephant Laughed (2012). Elephants feature in Rodulfo's art perhaps because their colossal size and docile intelligence impressed strongly upon the artist's memory when resident in India as a young boy. 

In Rodulfo's Elephant Dancing on the Ropes the rough hide of an elephant has been imitated with a thick, heavy layering of paint worked onto the canvas with a spatula. The elephant's hide is strongly lit by moonlight shining  upon its back. The drama of the moment is further enhanced by the setting rays of the sun catching the tail of a large cetaceous creature about to dive, along with the strobing beams of a lighthouse on the distant horizon. The swell of the sea in its foreground, complete with ripples and bubbles are also skillfully delineated. 

Its interesting to note that although they are quite different in mood, Rodulfo's highly amusing painting of an elephant lolloping along a rope and Burrell's sombre Sacred Presence nevertheless share imagery involving moonlight and candles. 

There are two possible sources from which Thomas Browne may have been informed about tightrope-walking elephants. As an antiquarian and a keen numismatist he may have seen ancient Roman coins which appear to depict tight-rope walking elephants, but alas, such coins are in fact of elephants treading upon serpents, with the attendant symbolism of such an act, and not tight-rope walking at all. 

A far more reliable source for tight-rope walking elephants occurs in the historian Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars who records that it was the Roman emperor Galba (3 BCE - 69 CE) who introduced the spectacular novelty of tight-rope walking elephants at the festival of Floralia [3]. Perhaps Browne, who owned a copy of Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars read of tight-rope walking elephants there. However, what can be of little doubt is that Browne, who candidly confesses in Religio Medici that-

 'I can look a whole day with delight upon a handsome Picture though it be but of an Horse'. [4] 

he would have immensely enjoyed viewing Rodulfo's mirth-inducing realisation of An Elephant dancing upon the Ropes with a Negro Dwarf upon his Back.

Incidentally,  imagery involving elephants as well as the bottom of the sea occurs in Sir Thomas Browne's phantasmagorical discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) while the physician-philosopher's vigorous introduction of new words into the English language includes the words 'hallucination' as well as 'submarine'.

Rodulfo and Burrell first became aware of each other through fellow artist Guy Richardson (b. 1933) though in the eventuality they first met at a New York bar while exhibiting their art in America. As the senior member of North Sea magical realism  Guy Richardson has influenced both Rodulfo and Burrell at various stages of their artistic careers. His mixed media artwork, A Shark-wrestler in a bottle is related to themes and preoccupations encountered in both artist's work, it being a fusion of Rodulfo’s wit and humour and Burrell’s intensity of expression. 

This post is dedicated to Ms. Katerina Mayfaire  - perhaps America's biggest fan of North Sea Magical Realism, with many thanks for her inspiration.


[1] The German photographer Klaus Wehner and his art-project entitled Museum Clausum  from 2001 Link here.
The avant-garde composer Eve Beglarian and her electronic music piece entitled the Garden of Cyrus  and an American rock-band naming themselves The Garden of Cyrus spring to mind.
[2] Thanking  Ms. Clair Papillion for bringing this distinction to attention.
[3]  Suetonius Lives of the Caesars Galba section 6.
[4] Religio Medici Part II. Section 9.

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