The Panthers in My Blossoming Garden
57th Venice Biennale (2017)
Pavilion of the Republic of Armenia
Rafael Megall’s work is characterized by a vital reflection on the relationship between nature and civilization, concurrently reworking historical art icons from different eras. He takes on mythical animal figures found in churches and tombs, and illuminations from medieval manuscripts. The iconographic references are given new life through a stylization that is rich in color, playing on the Byzantine and Romanic era. Early Christian symbols such as decorative frames referencing wickerwork, in which the cross and vine symbolize the Sacrament and Resurrection, are often used as ornamental background for simplified figuration.
The pomegranate, a recurring element in Megall’s work, is a key symbol in Armenian mythology referring to fertility and abundance, while at the same time symbolizing a protection against forces that could destabilize Armenian peace. The pomegranate also represents the cycle of nature as, according to myth it contains 365 seeds, one for each day of the year. In 1968, filmmaker Sergei Para- janov used the fruit in the title of his masterpiece, The Color of Pomegranates, portraying Armenia’s immortal soul through the symbol that can be traced as far back in Armenian writings as the sixth and seventh centuries, in which it was described as a representation of the blood of Christ. The symbolism of the vine and the pomegranate tree are combined as a metaphor for the nation’s suffering in recent history, through the forced mass deportation of Ottoman Armenians during Turkish rule between 1915 and1917. The Armenian Genocide continues to be denied by the Turkish government, and the lack of recognition of this war crime has resulted in many artists adopting the pomegranate as a symbol in their texts and poems to describe a wide range of emotions, from suffering to hope, survival and resurrection.
Reintroducing fragments from Armenian art history as a pulsating refrain, Megall is especially fascinated by the simplified language and the universal meaning of these symbols.1 We also find clear evidence of how Postmodernism and Pop art influenced a new freedom in Megall’s paintings where art historical icons and motifs taken from the folk and pop cultural scene open up a vital playfulness.
In Megall’s contribution to the Armenian pavilion for the 57th Venice Biennial, tit- led The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden, formal expressiveness merges with an ornamental decorative tradition, resulting in a visual symphony. A musical feeling evokes the roots of Modernism and Kandinsky’s theory of synesthesia, in the moment all our senses are activated in confrontation with the colorful and graceful panthers, enclosed by a decorative frame reminiscent of Art Nouveau. The stile’s predilection for the lotus flower and the papyrus motif, inspired by friezes from Egyptian tombs, is reflected in the plant ornaments employed as a habitat for majestic cats.
Christian heritage is significant in Megall’s visual landscape as it is a central part of Armenia’s identity. We find a symbolism in early Christian churches that many experts in comparative mythology believe dates back to the worship of Dionysus (for example, the vine and the sacrament, as well as the return of the divine in form of Jesus). In The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden, it is significant to draw a parallel to the Greek God’s most crucial symbol, the panther, and show how Dionysus is generated as a philosophical manifesto throughout the series, the- matizing how the instinct’s domain is associated with the ominous and irrational. The stylized animals create suggestive rhythmic formations, where stencils of carnivore heads are depicted frontally or in profile in repetitive rhythms, creating a sort of hieroglyphic dance across the canvas. Silhouettes, reminiscent of print techniques, draw a sharp contrast between the figures and the background, reminding us of the spontaneous expressiveness of graffiti and street art. An interesting dialogue between nature and technology, history and the present, arises when the notion of the paradisiacal has gone through digital processing before being transferred onto monumental canvases.
In The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden #4, photographic evidence is parti- cularly visible in the soft, indistinguishable character of the leopard pattern and as contours give movement to the graceful feline as it sneaks its way out of the viewer’s visual field. The synthetic blue color is comparable with a screenshot of a video game, transformed into the static medium of painting through digital collage techniques. In The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden, the artist takes on the notion of an iconography associated with the paradisiacal and exotic. Con- sidering the current global challenges regarding the loss of biodiversity and the reality of climate change, the series presents us with a utopian world filled with a dreamy vision of the reappearance of lost nature.
The panthers represent the instinctive irrational forces within us that challenge our rational common-sense worldview. In the face of the roaring, graceful cats rising from their ornamental decorative habitat, we are confronted with a paradisia- cal universe, where instincts are left untouched by human regimentation and the exploitation of nature. The world depicted is not interchangeable, a dream world that reminds us of an imminent threat; the idea of reversing the development remains nostalgic. Perhaps the graceful cats are permeating our collective con- sciousness, putting us into a psychedelic trance in order to reclaim their rightful habitat. This would make sense in light of the World Wildlife Fund’s report that we are in the midst of a mass extinction of the world’s biodiversity. The feline retur- ning as the main subject in The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden can therefore be related to the fact that the world’s wildlife has more than halved in just over 40 years. How can mankind defend the fact that global biodiversity was reduced by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012?
For decades, scientists have warned that human actions would push life on the planet towards mass extinction, and the gloomy report confirms that we are in fact in the midst of this tragedy. In this perspective, Megall’s vision of lost paradi- se can be interpreted as a hope for fraternization and forgiveness from one of the world’s most beautiful animals: the panther. In monumental formats, the animal’s instincts unfold, roaring or slinking, eating its victim or meandering like a snake in the paradise’s backyard. The panther’s habitat is not a wilderness, but a culti- vated garden; an anthropogenic nature with dual meaning. Deforestation, climate change and pollution result in the loss of habitat, an example being the greatly reduced jaguar livestock in South-America as a result of the rainforest removal in an attempt to create space for incoming soy plantations.
Although the panthers defend themselves against this threat, their roars create an existentially concerned resonance. The panther as a symbol of endangered species and a direct loss of natural resources, touches on an existential dimen- sion of humanity. We are inevitably bound to nature and the animal kingdom— biologically, emotionally and culturally. Therefore, the lost paradise we gaze into fundamentally affects us. The fact that the lion and the panther have been used as guarding protective symbols throughout the history of art, raises the question of who or what they are defending in their exotic sanctuary. In Etruscan frescoes, large panthers and lions adorn graves, protecting the dead by resting a paw on either side of the altar. Originally, large stone sculptures painted in bright colors were positioned to watch over the tombs of the dead.
The two highly potent guardian lions, forming a pyramidal shape on Mykenes’ Lion Gate, marked the entrance to the city and to King Agamemnon’s palace, in 1300 BC. Another world-famous example of architecture illustrating the lion as a guard, is the Ishtar Gate (605-562) BC, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon, reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The golden lions emerge from the blue glazed mosaic, symbolizing the goddess Ishtar, heaven’s mistress and the protectress of love and military power. Transferring these structures of in- terpretation to the aggressive expression on the canvas, the panthers can be assigned a dual symbolism; as the guardians of the last remaining sanctuary of nature and their own existence, but also as a visualization of irrational and carnal human nature.
References to the roar, the door and its guard are made clear in the titles: The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden #10-11 (The Door of Truth) where the wide-o- pen jaws of the carnivores seem to be stretched to their breaking point of an imagined and extreme roar. The echo of this scream leads us to the most famous icon of human anxiety which is also concerned with nature’s primordial scream. In Edvard Munch ́s The Scream (1893), nature and man have penetrated one another so deeply that individual human anxiety is indistinguishable from nature.2 The amorphous figure’s scream propagates through the surrounding landscape like the movement of a wave. The flaming blood colored clouds hovering over the blue-black fjord can be interpreted as the primordial scream of nature, a scream the figure tries to protect himself from by keeping his hands over his ears. In Megall’s paintings of roaring panthers, nature’s primordial scream is echoed in our consciousness. Our inner and outer worlds merge into a new ambiguous reality where the primordial scream as nature’s preselected set of instincts is echoed in our own human instinct.
Munch wrote several interesting texts, one of which, written in 1892, is related to The Scream: “As I walked down the road in the company of two friends – the sun set – and the sky suddenly turned blood red – I felt a breath of wistfulness – I stopped and leant against a fence, tired to death, watching the flaming clouds ho- vering over the town and the blue-black fjord like blood and swords – My friends continued walking – I remained still, shaking with anxiety – as I felt an immense endless scream going through nature.”3 In this text, it is clear that the scream is an external one, and that humans are shaken to their core in confrontation with boundless nature.4 As a follow-up to the connection between our outer and inner natures, it is interesting to point out how The Scream relates to the contemporary literature of his time, where we find a wide spectrum of similar feelings and experiences referring to man’s anxiety in the face of all-encompassing nature.
In his research, art historian Hans-Martin F. Flaatten has related The Scream to what he designates as a literary hell-howl, a cosmic scream specifically related to Wilhelm Krag’s poem Night. Poems in Prose, 1892 (Nat. Digte i Prosa, 1892), whose main character sees a vision of the godforsaken world that lies behind him, where fear fills creation and all life.5 Perhaps it is this feeling of being part of a suffering universe that Munch expressed when he wrote that he “felt an immense endless scream going through nature.” A similar perspective in the context of con- temporary challenges, was presented by art collector and investor Petter Olsen when, in his speech during the sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream at Sotheby ́s in 2012, he highlighted how the motif reflects the seriousness of climate change, and the impact increased environmental emissions have on life on Earth.
In the above interpretation, an ecological and dystopian dimension has been ad- ded to the receptive history of The Scream, which is interesting to correlate with Megall’s roaring panthers. Despite the fact that the anthropocentric may seem re- mote from the sanctuary of awakened desires, the carnal screams are a response to the rational materialist ideology of profit and growth that has devastated the earth’s biodiversity and resulted in the panther’s placement on the list of endan- gered species. The most urgent example of this are the nine subspecies of tigers, of which four, including the Balinese and Caspian tiger are already extinct, while the other five have become a minority. When Krag and Munch describe how natu- re suffers through a cosmic scream of destruction, both have considered Friedrich Nietzsche’s thesis on the death of God, and how this secularization included a renewed confidence in that the divine exists in the sublime forces of nature.
In most cultures and religions, the carnivores have been assigned a diabolical role, linked to their untamed emotional life. The beauty that also threatens the civilized world and its established order was the reason why the panther was connected to Dionysian festivals, the foundation for the development of Greek drama and theater, characterized by a negotiation between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The Dionysian is connected to a glorification of the desires in man linked to sexuality and ecstasy. The untamed desires are unleashed in the series of paintings where the panther and leopard become mirrors of human limitless instinct, sexuality and the sensations of pain. The connection between the unta- med instincts of the leopard and the exalted uncontrolled human emotional life, is expressed in ancient art through the depiction of Dionysus riding on a leopard, as seen in a mosaic from Pella, dated 300 B.C. The God of wine and ecstasy is also depicted wearing leopard fur, as his chariot is pulled by an entourage of panthers, leopards, lions or tigers.7 The fact that the panther is directly connected to sexuality is evident in The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden #8 (The Panther Snake), in which the panther is seen from above, meandering like a snake in paradise’s backyard. The animal appears to be in a metamorphosis between a leopard and a snake, equally flexible and strong, seductive and frightening. Another prominent topic evident in Megall’s recurring depictions of the exotic carnivores is the reference to the cyclical and repetitive, seen both in a single painting, as well as a pattern and motif across all the canvases. Dionysus was a god who was able to move between spheres of the human and divine; his eccentricity can be interpreted as an oppo- sition and contrast to a regulated common-sense society.8 His triumphant and rebellious arrival proves that he and his entourage come from a place beyond the boundaries of the familiar civilized world, not unlike how carnivores stare into the human world from an opposed universe in The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden.
In Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia describes how the Diony- sian and Apollonian construct a series of dichotomies, where the Dionysian is associated with connected nature, women and sexuality, while the Apollonian with the progress of civi- lization, the structured and scheduled. The Dionysian char- ges and awakens nature with its energy. The Dionysian prin- ciple is the pagan, instinctive and chaotic forces of nature fighting against formation, hierarchical structuring and civili- zation. Examining Megall’s universe where instincts reign, it is interesting to highlight Paglia’s consideration of art history as a reorganization of human basic living conditions. Facing the panther’s unrestrained expression, Western civilization reflects on the myth that nature can be mastered, our minds tamed, and the body controlled.
Another remarkable aspect is the difficulty Western civilization faces when ratio- nality collapses, and the chaotic Dionysian forces manifest themselves.9 In Me- gall’s work, the Dionysian represents the dangerous natural state when an enclo- sure full of roaring argus-eyed panthers monitors the viewer. In The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden #5, a fiery red panther sneaks out from a scene of roaring heads with bright yellow eyes outlined in red. The roaring echo form an orna- mental background surrounding the protagonist, illuminated by an infrared light flashing out from the dark jungle. Considering that infrared radiation is being used for hunting at night, the target finds himself in the same position as the hunter, guarded by the staring eyes of Argus. The term originates from Pantoptes (Argus the “all-seeing”), a huge, observant, one-hundred-eyed monster, which, accor- ding to Greek mythology, derives from the leopard’s spots.
The eyes of Argus indicate an observer with a critical eye, yet they are also as- sociated with the forbidden sexuality related to the instance in which Hera gave Argus the task of watching over Lo, one of Zeus’ mistresses. This was prevented when the God summoned Hermes, whose task it was to sing lullabies to Argus until all of his eyes were closed. It is interesting how the eyes of Argus stare at the viewer, and how sexual desire merges with the etymology of the term. In The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden #7 (Totem), a mysterious sphinx-like figure appears, a cross between a panther and a man. The figure rises in the middle of the picture plane, and we get a glimpse of him through a decorative vine motif which gives the subject a swirling energy. The scene reminds us of shamanism, where leopard skin was used to gain spiritual power to control evil forces.
In ancient Egypt, the leopard was associated with the god Seth, and the burial rituals performed by priests wearing leopard skins. The motif manifests the fact that humans have a particular kind of cultural history related to the animal king- dom, and Megall’s main inquiry relates to how this relation should develop into the 21st Century. How does nature reflect upon us when we are responsible for the reduction of biodiversity on Earth? And how should we manage the archives of centuries of shamanism, mythology, religions, fairy tales, legends and everyday practice, in which the animal is involved? Above all, Megall’s imagery raises the question of how this loss changes our human consciousness and the position related to the fascinating cycle of biodiversity that we ourselves are part of. The eternal return of the graceful predator seems to guard the Dionysian aspect, the primordial power in nature and sexual transcendence.
In a political context, the panther can also be seen as a symbol of resistance, associated with the American Black Panther Party, who fou- ght for black civil rights in the 1960s. The Party developed self-defense programs that advocated the use of violence and weapons. The question remains open as to whether or not self-defense can be linked to a political undercurrent in Megall’s visual universe, and points out the diversity of possible interpretations of his work.
Ornamentation has a prominent position in The Panthers in
my Blossoming Garden, which can be related to directions in
art history revitalizing decorative handcrafts, mainly associated with women. In The Sense of Order A Study in the Psycho-
logy of Decorative Art (1978), Ernst Gombrich expounds on
the universality of ornamentation in human cultural history.
He explains how repetition and symmetry reflect the need to
mirror the underlying order of nature and the universe.
The human urge to express ourselves through symmetry and repetition can also be explained in terms of the body and human anatomy, indicating an inborn psychological tendency to create patterns.10 Megall makes use of textile and folk art traditions, well aware of their universal and archaic qualities. The works evoke art historical movements specifically concentrated around the rich traditions of folk art, such as the Patterns and Decoration movement. In the 1960s and 70s, the P&D movement developed a visual language giving renewed importance to the ornamental and decorative. The disintegration of the rigid boundaries between abstract art and folk art during Modernism also played a central part in this development. The movement used serial representations, and combined fabric, cloth and patterns with the monochrome surface of painting. They positioned themselves far beyond Western culture, focusing on Islamic ornamentation, architecture and Mexican textile traditions.11 Megall ́s works can be related to this postmodern tradition, deeply rooted in the culture and history of Armenia, manifested in folk art ornamentation and religious iconography, reflecting a suggestive decorative beauty.
Many of the myths of Modernism were deconstructed during Postmodernism, and through the P&D movement, critical questions about the marginalization of the decorative, seductive and literary were asked, and the boundaries of the con- cept of kitsch played a significant role. In 1978, Joyce Kozloff and Valerie Jaudon, both members of the P&D, published an article in the magazine Heresies, in which they made a detailed analysis of how many of the pioneers of Modernism marginalized decorative and literary visual expression.
Le Corbusier and Amedee Ozentant are one example, who in 1918 wrote: “There is a hierarchy in the arts: decorative art at the bottom, and the human form at the top. Because we are men”.12 During Postmodernism these marginalized areas were reclaimed through the use of art and cultural adaptations. The mythological narrative became particularly prominent under the Italian Transavantguardia movement, placing a dialectic up against modern society and considering the historical roots of civilization as an integral part of human identity and the spiri- tual state. In The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden, this perspective is pulled towards nature, unfolding an indicative vision of man’s deep historical and emotional attachment to the animal and plant kingdom, the feeling of home in the exotic and the longing for a lost paradise that reflects a hope for reconciliation and transformation. Although it is impossible to reverse the damage done to biodiversity, it is not too late to lose yourself in The Panthers in my Blossoming Garden, where the sensuous unfolds in a seamless transition between nature and culture.
1 Demetrio Paparoni: Rafael Megall, Paintings 2009-2015. Skira editore, Milano 2015, p. 38
2 Poul Erik Tøjner: Skrik, historien om et bilde, Gundersen & Tøjner, Oslo, 2013, p. 13-17
3 Edvard Munchs dagbok, Nice 1892. Munch-museet
4 Øyvind Storm Bjerke: The Scream as part of an Art Historical Canon, in Ingebjørg Ydsti ed. The Scream, Oslo, Munch-museet, 2008, p. 31-6
5 Hans-Martin Frydenberg Flaaten: Edvard Munchs «Skrik»: En studie av maleriets kunstteoretiske og litterære bakgrunn i perioden 1891-92. Master thesis, UIO, 2004
6 Bjarne Riiser Gundersen: Da himmelen ble blod. Det 20. århundrets mest berømte maleri er en fortelling om en mislykket tur. Morgenbladet, 20.12.2013
7 Terje Nordby: Forvandlinger, et moderne møte med greske guder. Andersen & Butenschøn, Oslo 1999, p. 279
8 Ibid p. 274
9 Camille Paglia: Sex og vold, eller natur og kunst. Cappelens Akademiske Forlag, Oslo 2000, p. 7
10 E. H. Gombrich: The Sense of Order, a study in the psychology of decorative art. Phaidon, London 1978, p. 95-117
11 Irving Sander: Art of the Postmodern Era, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Icon Editiopns, New York 2007, p. 141-150
12 Norman Broude: The Pattern & Decoration Movement, The Power of Feminist Art, The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, edit. Norman Broud, Mary Garrad, Judith K. Brodsky. Abrams, New York 1994, p. 280