Artists often develop what might be called ‘a visual language.’ They become known for recognizable (but still often mysterious) symbols, and many also revisit ideas and subjects that continue to hold challenge and fascination. Alexander Eldridge’s houses and eggs, Van Gogh’s numerous self portraits and sunflower paintings, Gustav Klimt’s multiple visions of mermaids, couples entwined, and pregnant women, Michael Parkes‘ goddesses and beasts, are just a few that come to mind. But the tendency to repeat subject matter goes back much further than our records of well-known artists and their works. Archeologists, mythologists and art historians, including notables Joseph Campbell and Marija Gimbutas, have written extensively on the clear evidence that creatives of the ancient past (who rarely signed their art) worked with common themes and universal subject matters (which are still common today), whether in sculpture, painting, ornament, or pottery. It seems that beneath our surface individuality, there are similarities that run deep. It is somehow comforting to know that we humans are all thinking about, wrestling with and exploring the same things…
Persona is a theme I’ve painted from several times. The first version, “Parlor Persona” was painted in oils in 1995, as part of my Transformation Series. Sold to a collector long ago, this particular painting is still one of my favorites. With the up-front disclaimer that every viewers sees—and should see—something personal and a bit different in an image, here is one interpretation for this painting: a wild-ish female figure (note the hair) stands on a luxurious carpet in the middle of a well-furnished parlor or living room. There is art hanging on the wall behind her which is, in fact, changing from wallpaper to dark forest. This mysterious figure, wrapped in a magical robe or drapery, holds a shining mask before her face, a mask that is striking in it’s smiling perfection of female beauty. What do I think it all means? The title holds the clue. Without having ever intended a specific scene or composition before I began, this image feels like a symbol of a particular human dilemma: the hiding of one’s deep nature behind a socially-acceptable mask of smiling blandness. How sad that this might be necessary!
In a second version of the persona theme, this time in a smaller watercolor format, the same draped figure stands within the white space of the paper’s background. The surrounding space implies that she stands somewhere within the great expanses of time, without specific place or reference to era. But the night sky that opens up behind her head is the real change in a revisitation of this theme. This figure is slowly dissolving into the beautiful, timeless vastness of space, just over her shoulder. Here again, that subtle theme of what a person truly is behind a socially-approved mask or persona… but this time on a grander scale. The figure represented is not simply wild behind the mask, she is something much bigger, much more unknowable. This version hints at the depths and breadths of the Soul, the inconceivable Mystery of being human and Spirit at the same time.
Persona is a subject of contemplation that I find myself returning to over and over, and I am sure that there will be many more paintings inspired by this idea. ❦ What do other people see in these two versions of the “persona” theme, I wonder?
“Persona” (watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, pen & ink)
Museum-quality prints of both of these images (and the original “Persona” painting too) are available here.