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Modernism Inside a Mythological Painting
A folk story from early Irish mythology tells the tale of a pious monk named Saint Brandan who sets sea on a legendary voyage in search of paradise. According to the myth, the Saint and a large number of monks travel west of Ireland in the waters of the Atlantic for seven years before finally reaching their destination—a place whose actual existence wasa topic of debate for centuries ( This journey has been depicted in various ways throughout history, notably through artistic representation such as The Voyage of St. Brandan by Edward Frampton completed in 1908. This rather large oil on canvas displays St. Brandan under sail as he comes across “Judas who, for a good act during his lifetime, is allowed one hour's release fromhell each Christmas Eve” ( In addition to telling a story, Frampton pairs non-traditional stylistic elements, with contrasting symbols of good an evil suggesting that movement toward a less traditional style of art is the way in which modern art is headed.
While this work is not completely abstract like many modernist works at the time, it displays non-traditionalstylistic elements allowing it to take a slight step in a modernist direction. First, while oil paint allows a painter to pay attention to detail and perform modeling, a traditional style, the figures and objects in The Voyage of St. Brandan don’t look rounded or three dimensional. Both Judas on the iceberg and the sailboat in which Saint Brandan stands look as if they are a pieces of cardboard cut outsthat could be tipped over with a slight push. In fact, the whole painting appears to be in the same plane. These qualities give the painting a feeling of flatness. Due to this flatness, there is a lack of depth in the painting, and nothing recedes or protrudes from the background. For example, instead of withdrawing into the background like the ocean would in real life, the water looks like it’srising vertically as if filling a cup, making the picture plane look like the side of a glass of water. Next, Frampton uses a random layout technique (as opposed to an arrangement adhering to a stable geometric shape), which doesn’t necessarily create disorder, but does not add any formal structure to the painting. Lastly, all the former elements work together to remove the viewer from the painting.A painting in which a lack of modeling, flatness, and unrealistic perspective create a unique viewer perception instead of an accurate representation of reality, aligns itself with one of the goals of modernism—focus on the visual experience.
While the artistic elements Frampton employs show that the painting is moving away from traditional style, symbolism in the painting creates a righteoussource and an evil source. Therefore, because Frampton pairs his style with these symbols he is suggesting that art which rejects past conventions is meaningful art, good art, and the future of art, while art that adheres to traditional style lacks meaning and is part of the past. To begin with, many symbols point to the fact that Judas is evil in this painting besides just the fact that he isnotoriously an evil figure. He is positioned next to the moon in the painting, which symbolizes his darkness. In fact if it were not for the source of light coming from Saint Brandan, Judas would be enveloped in darkness. While light signifies salvation and goodness, darkness represents the condemned. His red garment, red hair, and red beard are symbolic of the burning flames in hell. Also, Judas’sposture kneeling on the ice while looking up to the heavens makes it seem as if he is pleading to God for forgiveness. However, the rope tied around his neck symbolizes that he will always be evil and condemned to hell. While Judas represents evil, Saint Brandan symbolizes goodness. First, there is a halo around the head of Saint Brandan pointing to the fact that he is a holy figure. Holy figures...
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