ANDRÉ DURAND Twenty-First Century Paintings
ET IN ARCADIA EGO
Oil on linen
On sharkskin legs, the lamb gambles with our gullibility,
floating in formaldehyde, fleecing us for all its worth.
Brassed off, the art historian turns away. Rustic simplicity
parodied in woolly counterpoint has no place on his Earth.
Ilissos, wrapped in thought; the child, the artist, all recoil:
Arcadia must have its tomb; Pan died here. We seek the thrust,
extrapolate: what words are running through each oil-
fired head? Right now the paint speaks best, for voicing sheer disgust.
Although turn of century political correctness has wrought considerable havoc with many traditional symbols of European art, the lamb, a revered and ancient symbol, has fared far better than most: the lamb. Early Christians adopted the lamb, a sacrificial animal of the Old Law, to represent a triune innocence of gentleness, purity and self-sacrifice that would challenge sorcery and defeat paganism: when the lamb bleeds into a chalice, it represents Christ’s sacrifice; when it carries a banner, it becomes a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.
Indeed, the lamb in painting has experienced a mystical re-birth in a picture by André Durand that reflects upon Damien Hirst’s Away from the Flock, a Postmodern work that has achieved iconic status as a symbol of Britart. In Durand’s picture ET IN ARCADIA EGO, OR, THE ART LOVERS, the lamb symbolizes art that has gone astray. Durand’s ET IN ARCADIA EGO is an emblematic ‘Neomodern’ picture: Neomodernism restores the traditional and eternal values of art while contemplating the essence and potential of the present.
Not only does the lamb in Durand’s picture assume new symbolism, but also the elliptical title ET IN ARCADIA EGO takes on a new meaning quite distinct from the analogue that was coined in the 17th century. George III believed Arcadia was a place of perfect bliss and Utopian beauty far removed from reality, but Greek authors knew better — that the real Arcadia was the domain of the great god Pan, who played his syrinx in a bleak and rocky domain devoid of all the comforts of life.
Once Virgil succeeded in idealising Arcadia, the pastoral kingdom of Arcady evolved rapidly into a source of inspiration for innumerable artists. Among the most celebrated pictures by Guercino and Poussin, central importance is given to a tomb said to be the final resting place of an unknown shepherd who died of grief — some would say, of unrequited passion. Even the utopian bliss of Arcady would fail to heal his broken heart.
Et In Arcadia Ego may translate several ways, such as: ‘I, too, was born [or lived] in Arcady’; or, ‘Even in Arcady, there I am’. After much deliberation, Erwin Panofsky (Meaning in the Visual Arts, Doubleday Anchor Books, New York, 1955) concluded that it is not the ghost of the shepherd that declaims to us from the depths of the rustic sarcophagus, but Death itself. Indeed, there is Death — even in Arcadia.
Just when we thought that Panofsky had unravelled the definition of this esoteric anagram, Durand gives it another spin by adopting it as a title for a picture painted during his tenure as artist in residence at Kingston University’s Stanley Picker Gallery during the summer of 2000.
In point of fact, THE ART LOVERS serves as an ironic subtitle for Durand’s picture, a composition that gives as much portent to Hirst’s Away From the Flock as Poussin gave to the symbolic sarcophagus. Durand’s four Arcadian shepherds adopt a novel attitude to the presence of Hirst’s Postmodern sepulchre, an attitude unprecedented in any of the other pictures that Durand surely must have considered before he painted his own version of Et In Arcadia Ego. In every picture concerned with this subject, the shepherds are seen carefully examining the tomb that they have come upon. But in Durand’s ET IN ARCADIA EGO, OR THE ART LOVERS, the four shepherds refuse to scrutinize Hirst’s lamb embalmed in formaldehyde. They turn their backs to it. Had the artist not painted himself as one of the shepherds, we might wonder what this Arcadian quartet could possibly be thinking about. With a self-portrait to remind us of Durand’s personal commitment to the content of his picture, we can safely guess that these shepherds have art historical questions on their minds. This supposition is substantiated by another likeness. The eldest shepherd in the upper right-hand of the composition is a portrait of Dr. Andrew Ciechanowiecki, the Polish classical scholar and collector of renaissance bronzes.
We note that Hirst’s icon, like all Postmodern endeavours, mocks the autonomy of aesthetics and form as well as painting generally. However, the four generations of shepherds in Durand’s ET IN ARCADIA EGO, OR THE ART LOVERS understand the truth in Hirst’s flippant comment, `If you can ‘do’ the art world at 32, it means that there is something wrong with the art world, not that you are a genius.` (The Big Issue) To be sure, there is something definitely wrong with the art world; and Hirst, most certainly, is not a genius.
Durand has said that he saw Away from the Flock once, in the Serpentine Gallery the same day another visitor poured ink into the formaldehyde. The thought of a black sheep triggered his imagination – a blackened, dead, Postmodern lamb. So often a victim in European art, the lamb suddenly became a symbol for art itself; the aquarium a tomb. For Durand, Hirst’s pickled sheep swiftly emerged as an apt symbol of how far art had gone astray.
Durand’s ET IN ARCADIA EGO, OR THE ART LOVERS, with its traditional painterly values, evinces an epiphany of Hegel’s Idea, eloquently manifest in the nude shepherd. His self-contained beauty dominates the composition, and links the picture’s iconography to ancient Greece. Like Henry Moore, Durand has spent many hours in the British Museum contemplating and drawing that indisputably great piece of sculpture, the so-called Ilissos from the east pediment of the Parthenon, which represents a formal discovery as valid as the formulation of a philosophic truth (Kenneth Clark The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, Pantheon Books, 1953). We understand why the artisans who painted the Greek sculptures often were paid higher wages than the sculptors were, when we study the way Durand has rendered the luminous flesh tones of his shepherd in oil on canvas. Here we are confronted with a nude equal to any that preceded it – an implacable Ilissos to greet the Millennium. A classical nude emanates, signalling a new direction in the history of art that we will baptise with a tautology: Neomodernism.
The Idea and the symbol of the Nude are two criteria of a Neomodernist picture. Another criterion exists in Durand’s ET IN ARCADIA EGO, OR, THE ART LOVERS, that is Albertian depth, as invented by Brunellesco, tempting us to abandon Clement Greenberg’s exceedingly narrow conception of Modern art as a self-inquiry, illustrated by an ‘ineluctable flatness of the surface’ which he perceived as emblematic of and endemic to modern painting.
It is true. Art had gone astray. But now Durand’s ET IN ARCADIA EGO, OR, THE ART LOVERS continues the inexorable dialectical process of movement from so-called high art to Postmodernism and beyond. Durand’s four Arcadian shepherds should welcome this U-turn in the history of art because Neomodernism assertively restores the traditional and eternal values of art while contemplating the essence and potential of the present.
Is it any wonder, then, that Andre Durand’s shepherds refuse to tend Damien Hirst’s sheep? Postmodernism is dead, and in spite of all, we still possess the power to recognise and acknowledge the Idea.
Away from the Flock has been entombed in Durand’s Neomodernist Arcadia. Spirituality and beauty in painting have been resurrected.
Armando Bayraktari, 2000