The Panthers in My Blossoming Garden
57th Venice Biennale
Pavilion of the Republic of Armenia
The magnificent beast from the series The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden by Rafael Megall, created for the Armenian Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale, instantly grabs our attention: emerging from the ornamental world of the Garden of Eden, the predator gazes at us, forcing us to closely and fixedly stare back at him. Implanted in the painting, the dualism of perception immediately manifests itself at the sensual level, as in The Veldt by Ray Bradbury where lions in the savanna are but a computer illusion, and yet, at the same time, deadly real.
Every day Rafael Megall sees Mount Ararat, and often considers it as a metaphor of Eden, both close and unattainable, real and symbolic, existing simultaneously in the past and in the present. In his works, Megall mixes images and semantic layers, correlating the ancient tradition of floral ornamentation of medieval books with the perception and style of the present day.
Megall is fascinated by the image of the panther; just as described in the early Christian work Physiologus, he «follows the fragrance of the panther’s voice and comes very close to it», and paints the animal with a sense of time standing still and «flames underfoot». The artist is literally in love with the grace, beauty, strength and power of the giant cat, the uniqueness of his roar. Nearly everything about the panther mesmerizes him. The panther becomes Megall’s totem, his alter ego. Having first depicted the animal in 2012, in 2017 the artist creates a whole series in which the image of the beast is continuously altered. These canvases are a sort of ode to the magnificent creature. The artist’s paintings frighten and fascinate, as he himself is alarmed and bewitched. In his search for a new understanding of the ancient image, the artist focuses on different aspects of the predator. In an attempt to lift the image of the animal from the routine of everyday perception, Megall strives to reach out to the viewer, demonstrating just how wonderful and full of magic the beast is.
The panther is a familiar image to the artist from his childhood days, when he would see him in ancient basreliefs, frescoes, and paintings by Vardges Surenyants, Franz Marc. The image breaks through and comes to life at the very moment in which the artist, having absorbed the artistic styles of the 20th century and reached maturity, finds his own style. It is at this time that the image of the panther captures the artist, becoming an obsession, and requiring immediate manifesta- tion. Working on the canvases from The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden series, Megall revels in the opportunity to summon, again and again, a powerful dominant and captivating image of the predator out of nothingness. The panther, like a deity from American Gods by Neil Gaiman, craves new popularity, new faith and new worship, returning to the world through the creativity of Megall.
Megall chooses a giant cat as the object of his art, implying the variety of symbolic meanings of the «all-beast» - the inhabitant and defender of Eden, the enemy of the Serpent. The fragrant panther from medieval bestiaries «is both the radiance of Christ and the two aspects of his earthly destiny: to draw men to the light of truth and to liberate their spirit of darkness»1. The Armenian Ashkharatsuyts of the 7th century, an early Medieval Armenian illustrated book by Anania Shirakatsi, whose title is translated as Geography in English sources, describes, among the curi- osities of Ethiopia, «an animal giraffe, hostile to man, but smelling sweet», which might be a reference to the panther. However, in the polyphony of meanings, the beast, in one of its hypostases, remains a beast. Developing its image in painting #3 (Sacrificial Victim), Megall comes to a logical continuation of the evolving pred- ator’s nature that is particularly dangerous for humans.
According to anthropologist Gregory Bateson, Western civilization has embarked on the path of exalting the individual at the expense of his existence in equilibrium with the environment, and the path of hypertrophying consciousness at the expense of the interaction and equilibrium of conscious and unconscious (art, religion, etc.) forms of mental activity. The philosopher contrasted the basic assumptions and methods of various sciences with the search for patterns behind patterns and the processes underlying the structures. His main goal was to discover the principles of organization in all the phenomena that he observed; that is, the «pattern which connects».
In his paintings from the «The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden» series, Megall finds a visual «pattern which connects», which he uses to organize and structure the world’s chaos. Like pre-historic individuals, who, exploring the world around them, left the spray-painted sil- houettes of their hands on the walls of the Cave of Hands - leaving their mark and also making the surrounding world «more hu- mane», - Megall creates an image of a paradise garden, protected by an elaborate network of vegetative man-made ornamentation. He thus demonstrates the possibility of achieving equilibrium, al- luding to the ancient «locus amoenus» with its lush greenery and utterly benign and welcoming nature. At the same time, introduc- ing the figure of a predator into the composition, the artist points to the inevitable dissonance and tragedy of original sin: harmony
is fragile, its destruction is predetermined.
Megall’s special interest in ornamentation goes back to folk stone carvings, frescoes, medieval flyleaves, and, especially, to the works of Armenian historian, ethnographer, art theorist and artist Vardges Surenyants (1860-1921). Mystical and abounding in trag- ic notes, the sophisticated works of the master from the modern era still hypnotize Megall. Enigmatic, almost dreamlike faces of women in Vardges Surenyants’ paintings Salome (1907 the Na- tional Gallery of Armenia) and Woman-knight (1909, the National Gallery of Armenia) emerge through the mother-of-pearl sfumato of the ornamental background and the architecture of floridly dec- orated clothes.
Thematically, the modern predecessor of Megall is Georgian artist
Merab Abramishvili (1957-2006), with his fresco-like works Maneater of Kumaon (2005) and Black Panther (2005). What makes the works by Merab Abramishvili and Rafael Megall somewhat similar is that «the generation of artists from the 1980s juxtaposed their own constructed worlds against aggression, political instability and socio-economic uncertainty».
One characteristic feature of the world created by Megall is the absence of emp- tiness, the exclusion of space for anything casual. He appears to make a point of preventing anything chaotic from entering the continuum of his works organized by the structure of ornamentation. In their interpretations of paintings, Symbolist art critics G. Wolfen and E. Panofsky correlate the horizon line with the concept of the future; the further from the viewer the horizon line is, the more distant of a future it symbolizes, tending to become a symbol of infinity. In Megall’s paintings there is no horizon whatsoever; as a consequence, they speak of the present. A distinctive density of saturated, active surfaces in his works insistently requires the viewer’s close attention. The way he fills space visually simultaneously refers to Armenian miniatures, Medieval art, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and modern imitations on canvas of digital art forms. The artist appropriates the images of panthers from a silver cup from one of the Transcaucasian royal necropolises in Karachamba, (22nd-21st centuries BC), placing them in an ornamental garden reminiscent of 14th century manuscripts, all the while visually approaching them in a modern manner.
One of the ways in which the author plays with the viewer is through elegant allusions to the art of the past—op-art—with its objective of cheating the eye and bringing the viewer to a state of optical illusion through combining flat and spatial figures, as well as psychedelics. Megall’s painting assimilates many modern technologies, including aerial photography and autostereograms. The effect of stereograms and the remarkable ability of the human eye to see a three-dimen- sional image on a flat surface is well known. In painting #5 from The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden Megall uses visual hints of this technique to force the viewer to take a closer look at the picture, and to make a greater effort to read the meaning concealed by it, which cannot be grasped through a mere fleeting glance. The inherent rhythm of the work is pivotal in Megall’s art. Over and over again the outline of the panther’s face repeats itself, it multiplies, finding its own space in the composition. Pulsating like a heartbeat, when it comes to life it seems to vociferate its fullness, passion, intensity and fear of its very fate.
The artist additionally refers to art practices of the 1970s, with their characteristic boost of the pictorial effect, diversity of methods and play on traditions and styles. The stern and piercing images in Megall’s canvases clash with the ironic works by Gilbert and George, which stylistically precede them. Portraits of Megall’s pred- ators remind us of Siberian Tiger (1983) from the Endangered Species series by Andy Warhol, but Megall’s task is not confined to the desire to protect animals from unrestricted and limitless human progress. The artist, like the character of Snail on the slope, a story by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, when talking with the mysterious living Forest, says: «But I’m not only afraid of you, I’m also afraid for you». People «are capable of any extremes, of the most extreme degree of stupidity and wisdom, cruelty and pity, fury and endurance. They lack only one thing: understanding».2 The artist is looking for ways to achieve this understanding, this reverent worldview.
A similar attitude with regard to the world is described in the novella by psychologist Stanislav Grof Call of the Jaguar. The author writes about the present global crisis, which has deep psycho-spiritual roots and will not be resolved without a deep inner transformation of humanity through mystical states. The phospho- rescent panther looking inwards in The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden #4 is depicted as a feline from the spiritual dimension, from a psychedelic experience aimed at triggering profound auspicious changes in personality including a decrease in aggression and greed, and the awakening of love, compassion and spirituality that are universal, non-selective and comprehensive.
Despite the fact that, when interviewed, Megall clearly articulates the importance of his The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden series, the interpretational nature of contemporary art allows one to see in the artist’s paintings many meanings that were not originally included by him; for in the absence of a narrative, the image, coming to life in the mind of the viewer, acquires other connotations.
The viewer is delighted to recognize the leopard print, which, since the 1940s has been a symbol of fashion and luxury. Emerging associations with the modern world of fashion and glamor are not accidental - prints of Megall’s works adorn purses by Tramontano Napoli. Megall does not have any reservations about the replicability of his images of a powerful feline; he is indifferent to the fact that an omnivorous mass culture, so easily absorbing centuries-old history of art and cul- ture, brings a whole conglomeration of allegories down to one or two utilitarian symbols of power and sexuality. This is a testament to the modern tendency of merging the newest art with the activities of large fashion houses.
Nevertheless, the vitality and sexuality of the images of Megall’s panther do not end with the element of design, but, containing a unique artistic vision—the aura, as Walter Benjamin understood it—evoke reminiscences of the incarnation of vo- luptuousness: the «multicolored» panther of Dante Alighieri, as well as the Greek symbol of God Dionysus and of the Greek courtesan.
Meanings in the multilayered panels by the artist multiply like the patterns depicted in them, but, unlike the latter, they are completely different. Patterns become signs, hieroglyphs, using which the artist types the messages of the created mag- ical world. Plants turn into animals, and animals into a graphic symbol. In the painting The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden #6, the artist successively repeats the angles of one very short movement, while the body of the attacking panther has already become a blossoming garden. This creates the impression that it is not the beast or the pack that is attacking us, but rather the garden itself, as it is displeased with irreverent glances, or indifference.
In the work Totem, the central figure of the composition is the giant silhouette of the miniature sculpture Lionesses of Guennol, ca. 3000-2800 BC, created in ancient Mesopotamia. Found in Iraq, it may have been used as an amulet or symbol of power. Comparing the silhouette of the lioness with the lines of a cross, Megall seems to return to the images of giant heraldic lions carved in stone in the courtyard of the temple in the 13th century Geghard Monastery, side by side with the images of ornamental crosses. Repeatedly refracted, the image finds a new life in the works of Megall. In the game of shadows within the silhouette of a lioness, the eye of the attentive viewer discovers the hidden motif of a close embrace and a kiss. The misleading lightness and the apparent simplicity of his works is another game put forward by the artist. He plays with a repetitive motif, pattern or seriality. The image of a giant cat is made bigger and more dynamic through a planar ligature of the background and foreground. Visible layers of paint make the artist’s works both complex and sophisticated, requiring imagination, as well as advanced mas- tery of a variety of artistic methods and techniques.
The deceptively calm decorativeness of the first works of the series sharply contrasts with the last paintings, The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden (The door of truth), where animals with wide-open bloody jaws, captured at the moment of extreme strain, emit a roar triumphing over their victory, or die in agony. Passing through The door of truth, swallowed by a predator, and having been cleansed of all evil, we are able to exit reality and step into the unknown new myth created by the artist. The author depicts the moment in which the heat of emotions is such that no falsehood or understatement is possible. At the same time, the silhouette of the beast is preserved. Yet, dissolved in its roar, the panther loses its outline and becomes an ornament.
From the vast ocean of symbols and styles, Rafael Megall intuitively chooses those that are most vital and significant. He throws his pack of predators towards the viewer and looks to his self-portrait in work #12 (The door of truth) as if to ask if he has managed to «smear the map of trite routine?»3, to lead the viewer into his own Eden, and convert to his new religion.
1 Weinstein O.B., Odors and smells in culture, Volume 1. Moscow, 2003. PP. 272-276
2 Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, The Snail on the Slope. Bantam Books (Mm), 1989
3 Vladimir Mayakovsky, And Could You?, 1916