Monday, July 04, 2016

Peter Rodulfo's 'As the Elephant Laughed'. A Panorama of Evolution

Amongst the varied proliferation of paintings by the artist Peter Rodulfo As the Elephant Laughed is exemplary of stylistic characteristics encountered in his art. These include- sophisticated draughtsmanship and polished brush-work in conjunction with an industrious creativity and an exuberant imagination; all of which harmoniously unite in Laughing Elephant to produce a key-signature work, richly rewarding to view, and well worthy of in-depth analysis. 

Painted in oils on canvas during the winter of 2011/12, and one of his last art-works before relocating studio and home from Norwich to the coastal resort of Great Yarmouth, the foreground of Laughing Elephant (ease of reference title) features titular elephant facing a fox. Above the horizon the brilliant luminosity of a star casts its light upon a vast ocean where a large floating sea-shell supports a youth who stands in an enigmatic pose. The entire centre field of the canvas is dominated by two large, spiral-like waves which swirl and bubble with protozoan life. Two grass-tufted cliffs with homes perched precariously perched upon them frame the canvas on its left and right. The ghostly remains of a church tower, a dinosaur, along with trees caught in a breeze can also be seen, as well as an elderly woman sitting upon a sea-view bench, reflectively looking out to sea.

First impressions include a well-balanced and coordinated tonal spectrum, recollecting the saturated colours of a 1960‘s magic lantern celluloid slide, with a predominance of vivid hues of blue, a colour often linked with spirituality for its association with the sky and heaven.

The element of water in various forms is also often encountered in Rodulfo’s art, perhaps from the artist’s familiarity with the world’s seas and oceans as a well-seasoned traveller.

A good example of the artist’s meticulous attention to detail can be seen in the finely-worked detail of a nautilus-shell (top left) as well as in star-light reflected in water.

Detail  - Nautilus shell (top left)
The artist’s ability to create a multi-layered perspective is also evident, through a technical device which not only juxtaposes differing views, in this case both landscape and seascape, but also in conjunction with the paradox of day-light and night-sky appearing simultaneously.

Like much of Rodulfo’s art, the overall 'mood-music’ of  Laughing Elephant is essentially up-beat, good-humoured and optimistic, yet not without a philosophical dimension, for although measuring only 60 x 82 centimetres its jumbo-sized in artistic expression and interpretive dimension.

With its depiction of a variety of life-forms, marine and mammal, trees, flowers, stars and dinosaur, along with humankind, all seemingly caught in a swirling vortex of life, a receptive viewer is stimulated towards an awareness of their own, as well as humanity’s  relationship to Time and Space, Nature and the Universe.

The centre-field of Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant is dominated by two large waves which whisk and swirl with protozoan life. According to the psychologist Carl Jung, the spiral is an archetypal symbol representing cosmic force and symbolic of the spiritual journey. The spiral pattern is also considered to represent the evolutionary process of learning and growing, it can be found in structures as small as the double helix of DNA and as large as a galaxy. At Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland, solar aligned tombs can be seen with complex spiral patterns. Dating from around 3000-2500 BC, these patterns decorate structures which are earlier in time than either Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.

Rodulfo’s imagery is worth exploring, in particular the two pairs of contrasting mammals in his painting, namely an elephant and fox, along with the human figures of a male youth and an elderly woman.

Detail from Rodulfo's As the Elephant Laughed

With a friendly, all-knowing eye and grinning chops, Rodulfo’s elephant raises its proboscis trunk aloft, as if trumpeting in laughter, perhaps at human folly.

Almost all symbolism relating to elephants originates from the Indian sub-continent, where Rodulfo spent a portion of his childhood. In Asian cultures, the elephant is a symbol of good luck, happiness and longevity; its also famed for its memory and wisdom, psychic qualities equally attributable to the English physician and hermetic scientist, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) who mentions elephants in each and every one of his major writings.

Sir Thomas Browne on the Elephant

In his Religio Medici Browne exclaims-

'ruder heads stand amazed at those prodigious pieces of nature, Whales, Elephants, Dromedaries, and Camels; these I confess, are the Colossus and Majestic pieces of her hand'. [1] 

In his gargantuan encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) Browne considers necks, informing his reader that,

'So have Horses, Camels and Dromedaries long necks, and all tall animals, except the Elephant, who in defect there of, is furnished with a Trunk, without which he could not attain the ground'. [2]

In fact Browne devotes an entire chapter upon the elephant in Pseudodoxia Epidemica discussing its anatomy and refuting the false belief  that it has no joints. It is however, only after informing his reader of ancient world historians who recorded -

‘Elephants have been instructed to walk on ropes, in public shows before the people’, and of that, ‘memorable show... wherein twelve Elephants danced unto the sound of Music, and after laid them down in ...places of festival Recumbency’,

The learned doctor finally remembers having actually seeing an elephant himself-

‘whereof not many years past, we have had the advantage in England, by an Elephant shewn in many parts thereof, not only in the posture of standing, but kneeling and lying down’.

Browne concludes his chapter on the elephant with the speculation that because they exhibit reason, along with the necessary organs of speech, namely lips, teeth and chops, that elephants, ‘might not be taught to speak, or become imitators of speech like Birds’.[3]

Given the fact that Browne believed elephants could be taught to speak, one may hazard a guess, that if he'd heard of a laughing elephant he'd hardly have been surprised at all !

Late in his life (circa 1673) Browne composed Museum Clausum  a catalogue of imaginary, rumoured and lost books, pictures and rarities, which includes the delightful image of-

An Elephant dancing upon the Ropes with a Negro Dwarf upon his Back.  [4]

In modern times, the Irish novelist John Banville remarked of elephants-

‘what amazing beasts they are, a direct link surely to a time long before our time, when behemoths even bigger than they roared and rampaged though forest and swamp. In a manner they are melancholy and yet seem covertly amused, at us, apparently...... If one set out to seek among our fellow-creatures, the land-bound ones, at least,  for our very opposite, one would surely need look no further than the elephants.  [5]

Detail from As the Elephant Laughed'
With its gorgeous russet-red fur, standing alert and looking sly facing titular elephant, the fox is invariably portrayed in world mythology and folk-lore as a cunning trickster-figure, a transgressor who breaks the rules, being at odds with humankind and living upon its wits. Yet in fact the fox shares some characteristics which are associated with humanity being- 

Independent, yet liking company, busy and inventive, yet destructive, too; bold but cowardly, alert and cunning but equally careless, the fox embodies the contradictions inherent in human nature’.[6]

Detail from  As the Elephant Laughed
Centre-stage in Rodulfo’s vision of evolution a mysterious youth stands astride a floating sea-shell. He’s engaged in a complex pose which involves one hand on the back of his head and another stretched out, as if shielding his eyes from being dazzled, his palm seemingly feeling the spiralling energy-field above him.

In almost all alchemical iconography the enigmatic figure of Mercurius is invariably portrayed as either mirthful and at play, or in the role of messenger and psychopomp to the gods of antiquity. Rodulfo's sea-shell figure is also a sophisticated variant upon the Renaissance artist Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus.

Botticelli -The Birth of Venus (c. 1486).

In stark polarity to this enigmatic, youthful figure there is an elderly woman with grey hair sitting upon a sea-view bench. She’s gazing out to sea, perhaps reminiscing memories from her past. Rodulfo here acknowledges the longevity of woman, along with the often unacknowledged power of matriarchy and of woman as the true vessel of ancestral memory.

In the German polymath Johann Goethe’s drama Faust the hero descends to the "realm of the mothers" — variously described as either the depths of the psyche or the cosmic womb.

Detail from  As the Elephant Laughed'
This pairing of figures, youth and age are identifiable  as variants upon the symbolism of puer et senex, (their technical art term), a pairing frequently encountered in Mannerist art and alchemical iconography representing Youth and Age. Together they symbolize the human life-span and Time in general.   

With its depiction of a wide variety of life-forms, manipulation of perspective in order to create depth of field, evocation of movement, featuring a complex pose, as well as inclination towards symbolism, Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant may loosely be defined as Neo-Mannerist, for each and every one of the forenamed techniques, themes and artistic concerns associated with the art-movement of Mannerism, can also be seen in his art. Other paintings by Rodulfo which may also be defined as Neo-Mannerist in style and content include his - The Klagenfurt Altar, Across the Bay and The Visitor

Characteristics of the art movement of Mannerism include variety and multiplicity, unusual perspective, staged and complex poses and utilization of mythological and esoteric concepts. Mannerist art is now recognised as being highly influential upon the twentieth century art movement of Surrealism. Indeed, the early Mannerist artist Arcimboldo (1527-1593) who used fruit and flowers to create bizarre portrait paintings, was described as the “father of Surrealism” by Salvador Dali. Rodulfo also creates his own quite unique ‘double-imagery’ as well as being familiar with Mannerist art in general. In his painting Hide and Seek an elephant is featured as part of a complex 'double-image'.

Peter Rodulfo's Hide and Seek  Oils on canvas 40 x 52 cms. (2015)
A fruitful comparison in technique, imagery and overall imagination to Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant  can be found in the Dutch Northern Mannerist artist Joachin Wtewal’s Perseus and Andromeda (1611). Painted near exact 400 years earlier than Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant, Wtewal’s masterpiece is inspired by the ancient Greek myth of the hero Perseus rescuing Andromeda from a dragon; it also exhibits variety, a strongly developed technique, a sense of movement and vastness, unusual perspective, along with featuring a complex, almost contorted pose. 

Joachin Wtewal's Perseus and Andromeda 
A closer analogy to the thematic concerns and style to Rodulfo’s art in general can be found in the paintings of the twentieth century German artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) and the British artist Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). Briefly lovers at the onset of World War II, Ernst and Carrington utilized highly-developed techniques and artistic devices similar to those associated with Mannerist art.  Both artists also occasionally allude to esoteric and alchemical concepts in their respective paintings; and although Rodulfo himself eschews any credence whatsoever to esoteric arcarna, nevertheless casual allusions to esoteric concepts can be discerned in his art, both conscious and unconscious.  

If however any esoteric themes or imagery can be detected in Rodulfo’s art, in all probability its simply because archetypal imagery is often embedded at an unconscious level in the psyche, and therefore the artist’s own encounter with such imagery may paradoxically and simultaneously be both conscious from familiarity and also unconscious in realization.

Crucially, although Rodulfo has on occasions found Classical mythology inspiring, more often his imagery is harvested from his own, home-grown plantation of symbols, producing a rich, allusive language, capable of expressing profound psychological statements. Its an imagery language which in the case of Laughing Elephant, engages in transcendental synthesis, that is, the total sum of its parts hints of a greater vision, one of evolution and humanity’s place within it. Its also a stark reminder in essence, with its depiction of dinosaur and abundant protozoan life, that humanity is only one of nature’s innumerable life-forms alive on Earth, in the past, present and future.

Just as Mannerist art was a product of Renaissance humanism and therefore inclined towards emphasis upon  the relationship between humanity and nature - so too Neo-Mannerist art such as Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant, expresses the same message. 

Although enjoyable purely as a colourful and fun decorative art-work, the central ‘message’ of Rodulfo’s panorama of life seems to be - all life is involved and inter-connected in evolution, from flower and tree to star and human,  individually and collectively; and as such its ‘message’ is of importance to those alive in the world today.

Part 2

As the Elephant Laughed      Click to enlarge

An increasing interest, acceptance and understanding of alchemical concepts and symbols now permits esoteric concepts to be applied, not unlike the famous melting watches of Salvador Dali, in a, ‘soft and flexible’ way, that is, without any fixed or dictator-like attitude, to works of art, including Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant. One fruitful avenue of enquiry worthwhile strolling down in discourse upon Laughing Elephant can be found in the lyrics of the multi-media artist David Bowie (1946 - 2016). 

In addition to being a highly original song-writer and a versatile performer who was gifted enough to work in diverse musical genres for decades, David Bowie was also a voracious reader. Throughout his long, front-running career in music, Bowie found recreation in reading spiritual and esoteric literature including Christian Gnosticism, Alistair Crowley, the Kabbalah and the writings of the psychologist Carl Jung, subjects which he sometimes alluded to in his strikingly original lyrics. [7]

Like David Bowie, Peter Rodulfo’s an artist who thrives upon rapid stylistic changes, as well as being erudite whilst maintaining his independence in creative aesthetic. He is also familiar with esoteric concepts, in particular the ideas and writings of Alistair Crowley (1875-1947), a major figure in British esotericism whose present-day reputation Rodulfo accurately assesses as one of character-assassination through the prudery, prejudices and misinformation of the British tabloid press of Crowley’s day. 

David Bowie’s allusion to the ideas of C.G. Jung can be found on the  album with its word-play title, Aladdin Sane, (1973) in the song Drive-in Saturday  in the line - ‘Jung the foreman prayed at work’, a word-play allusion to Jung’s fixation upon the number four or quaternity as the number which he believed symbolizes totality and wholeness best, citing the four points of the compass, the four seasons, four elements and the Christian tetramorph among numerous examples, as expressions of totality.

Whether intentional or not, Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant features no less than four mammals - an elephant and a fox, a youth and an elderly woman. Together the polarised figures of elephant and fox may be considered as having a relationship to the youthful figure astride a sea-shell and the elderly woman contemplating the sea, that of anthropomorphic aspects of the human psyche. All four mammals in totality form a Jungian quaternity no less; for once the polarity of the figures of youth and elderly woman are identified as symbols representing Youth and Age, (technically known as puer et senex in both Mannerist art and alchemical iconography and commonly associated with the planetary symbolism of Mercurius ei Saturnus), then the pairing of the utterly antithetical fox and elephant may also hint of planetary symbolism when explored through the prism of comparative religion and mythology. 

In Hindu mythology the elephant's thick, grey skin is likened to the latent and hidden power and strength of the sun when occulted by thick and heavy grey cloud [8]. Such symbolism is highly suggestive of the elephant's s association with the solar.

In almost all world mythology and folk-lore the fox with its nocturnal activities and changeable nature is associated with the feminine and the moon. The fox’s feminine and deceptive qualities are reflected in the anima projections of  rock-music lyrics such as Jimmy Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’ and Jim Morrison’s song ‘20th century Fox’ .  More recently lyrics by the brothers Mael of Sparks in their 2008 song This is the Renaissance in which there are Paintings filled with foxy women. Thus its possible to extract from Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant a planetary quaternity consisting of Sol et Luna in conjunction with the pairing of puer et senex (Youth and Age) which are invariably represented by the planetary opposites Mercurius et Saturnus. This planetary quaternity of two luminaries and two planetary opposites, is identical to those named in the German alchemist Michael Maier’s book of Mannerist styled emblems Atalanta Fugiens (1617). The very same quartet of planetary symbolism is allude to by the quartet of statuettes found upon the funerary monument known as the Layer monument (c. 1600, Norwich).  

Yet even in the ecstatic rubedo moment depicted, there’s a hint of a curtain ready to fall and in an instant black-out Rodulfo’s vision of the inter-connection of life, and for a cyclical return from rubedo revelation to a nigredo state of darkness, gloom and unknowingness. This return to a nigredo state is hinted by a spectral church, perhaps an allusion to the death-throes of Christianity in the 21st century, to houses perched precariously upon cliffs, and above all, by a raven seen entering in full-flight intruding into the frame. (top-right). 

Birds and avian symbolism in general often occur in the surrealist art of Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, as well as in alchemical iconography where the black raven, dove, eagle, white swan, peacock, pelican, phoenix and vulture among others, are frequently encountered. Birds can also be seen in several of Rodulfo’s paintings, sometimes making a nuisance of themselves by playfully intruding into the frame of a well-ordered composition, quizzically eye-balling the viewer.

In the early 17th century alchemical anthology the Theatrum Chemicum  a black raven settles upon a melancholic adept under the influence of  the malefic planet, Saturn.

An Elephant in the Garden

Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant has a remarkable affinity with another great art-work which also expresses itself in a lighthearted, optimistic and idiosyncratic, yet visionary manner, and which likewise delights in multiplicity and variety, as well as concerning itself with evolution and the inter-connectivity of life on earth, namely Sir Thomas Browne’s Discourse The Garden of Cyrus

Although differing in form, Browne’s hermetic discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) shares the same geographical place of origin to Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant, namely the city of Norwich. Not only does it make specific reference to a wide variety of life, including those depicted in Laughing Elephant such as trees, star-fish and seas, but also elephants, Browne giving example of the quincunx pattern when used as a battle-formation which effectively 'defeated the mischief intended by the  elephants’. 

Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant like Browne’s Garden of Cyrus, is in essence an idiosyncratic vision of the inter-connection of the cosmos. Although separated by centuries, both works of art delineate nature’s multiplicity and variety throughout the macrocosm. Crucially, both creative artists possess the necessary technical skills of their respective craft in order to construct a communicative frame-work for their vision of evolution. Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant  like Browne’s discourse The Garden of Cyrus is a work of art which expresses an awareness and sense of wonder of the artist’s own unique place in the world, as an individual and as artist. Ultimately, both works of art engage in transcendent synthesis, that is, the total sum of their imagery and symbolism multiplies into a greater vision, one of evolution and humanity’s place within it.


Not only are all four elements represented in Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant  via fish and bird, tree and star, but also imagery allusive to the Microcosm and Macrocosm, with its depiction of  the small world of humanity represented by a mercurial youth and a matriarchal senex, as well as the large and cosmic, the Macrocosm; thus it may be be interpreted as a mandala, that is, a work of art which invites contemplation, reminding and refreshing the individual of their place in the cosmos. Together, microcosm and macrocosm, in conjunction with the metaphysical framework of Space and Time, the basic template of all mandala art, can be discerned within the canvas.

The art-historian Arnold Hauser defined Mannerist art as, ‘a vision of a new spiritual content in life, with a tinge of the bizarre and the abstruse’ [8].

Hauser’s definition is applicable to Browne’s Garden of Cyrus as much as Rodulfo's Aquarian-tinted vision of evolution. Indeed, visionary art, such as both Browne's and Rodulfo's invites a receptive viewer to a cosmic ‘soul-journey’ of the imagination. As such Rodulfo’s Laughing Elephant is a canvas which is capable of producing a transcendent or numinous moment by transporting a receptive viewer from the ordinary and mundane, to a place where imagination is unconfined and to where future possibilities and unrevealed relationships are found.

K.Faulkner 2012-2016

In Memorium  David Bowie (Jan 8th 1946 - Jan 10th 2016)
Starman singer and song-writer, actor and multi-media performer.

With thanks to Krzysztof Fijalkowski


[1]  Religio Medici (1643) Part 1 Section 15
[2] Pseudodoxia Epidemica  (1646) book 7 chapter 15
[3]  Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) book 3 chapter 1
[4]  Miscellaneous Tract 13 Museum Clausum pictues Item 13
[5]  John Banville ‘The Sea’  pub. Picador 2010
[6] Dictionary of Symbols ed.Chevalier and Gheerbrant Penguin 1996
[8]  De Gubernatis, Angelo - Zoological Mythology (Volume II)  1872. 
[9] Arnold Hauser -  Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art 1964 


Mannerism - John Shearman Penguin 1967
The Alchemy of Paint  - Spike Bucklow pub. Marion Boyars 2009 reprinted 2010 and 2012.
Arcanum 17 - Andre Breton 1945 pub. Sun and Moon 1999

See Also

Rudolfu's Mandala of Loving-Kindness