Contemporary takes on the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collections.
Contemporary takes on the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collections. Mary-Jean Richardson’s As above so below (2014) talks to the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Priestess of Delphi (1903) by John Collier. A neoclassical statue to the god Mercury crouching above a pool of water and a young woman surrounded by sulphurous fumes in a cave in ancient Greece – what could be the connection? The fact that both images ‘belong’ in a sense to the Greco-Roman world of originating mythologies and beliefs is reason enough to put them in the same frame. But that’s not the full answer. Collier was a late 19th century ‘Victorian Olympian’ who subscribed to populist taste in neoclassical themes. When Collier painted Priestess at Delphi, Paul Cézanne had been painting his apples for around a decade and Picasso was embarking on his well-known Blue Period works. That academic artists such as Collier could have plied their trade well into the 20th century (he died in 1930) is an indication of the level of resistance an older generation of conservative British artists had to the perceived virus of modernism. His pre-Hollywood preference for sexier subjects such as nubile young women in diaphanous dresses embodies that coarsening of taste that accompanied the slide of high-art into ‘Olympian’ idealism. But it is a reminder of this conscious alignment in high Victorian society between the virtues of classical Greek and Roman culture and its own sense of destiny, moral leadership and achievements. It is also a window on a late 19th century curiosity, and sometimes obsession, with death and the afterlife. The young woman in Collier’s painting is the fabled Oracle known as the Pythia, a name given to any priestess at the Temple of Apollo, located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. The image is faithful to historical accounts of the Oracle mounted on her tripod seat, holding laurel wreathes and a dish of spring water. The fumes that rise up from a fissure in the cave floor add to the general impression of uttering prophecy in a drugged state. From a contemporary perspective, it is easy to make a casual connection between this scenario and the séances (usually conducted by women)associated with the spread of spiritualism in the late 19th century. Mary-Jean Richardson’s figure is Mercury, the Messenger of the Gods. The inspiration for As above so below came from a chance encounter with a fountain featuring a sculpture of Mercury, while Richardson was undertaking her Cibo Espresso Studio Residency in Rome in 2013. Mercury is usually depicted as an upright figure with winged helmet and shoes, striding through space. But this interpretation is more ambiguous. Viewed from low down, Mercury is positioned just above water level. The horizontal gesture of his figure implies listening to or about to visit the underworld. In this visual context the water of the fountain becomes an infinity pool of possibilities. Richardson comments, “Because my work is always filtered through the materiality of paint, the idea of ‘dead and alive’, or existing in more than one state, resonated very strongly when encountering so many symbols of life and death and the human and divine in Italy last year.” In Mercury, the artist found a ready-made messenger that speaks of this liminal state, not only between the living and the dead but the deliciously unstable identity of painting in a post-medium world. The artist adds, “The idea of being able to move between states/worlds/places through contemplating objects, images and symbols from the past and present was something I became very interested in. Materially, the buttery wetness of paint transforming into ‘something’ else drives my day-to-day studio practice.” Collier and Richardson have come to the classical world through different doors and for different reasons. But their conflations of fact and fiction share a common purpose in adding to the mystery of what lies beyond – or below. Image As above so below, Mary-Jean Richardson.