Lecture focuses on futility of deferring death in neoclassical and Renaissance art.
By Rachel Cooper
Two Northeast Lakeview College professors on Sept. 14 hosted the first public talk and discussion for a cultural showcase they hope to develop into an interdisciplinary class.
The 2016 Arts and Sciences Fall Cultural Showcase, funded by the Alamo Colleges Innovation Grant, consists of three public talks and three films. A discussion will follow each event.
“The goal is to create curriculum for an Enduring Questions class,” NLC humanities Professor Tony Lack told an audience of about 70 faculty, staff and students in the Student Commons Building.
He and philosophy Professor Brandon Gillespie described their yearlong project that involves developing interdisciplinary and thematic approaches to teaching and learning.
Lack and Gillespie led a discussion about three paintings that depicted Arcadia, Greece, a real place transformed through art into a heaven-on-earth idea of paradise.
“It starts to be less of a physical place … almost like the afterlife,” Lack said.
As Greek and Roman artists and writers portrayed Arcadia, they embellished it into a paradise and reflected on it in a nostalgic way, Lack said.
“Once we think we’ve lost simplicity, rural life, health and all these virtues, then we really long for it,” Lack said.
This is how Arcadia became a theme in neoclassical and Renaissance paintings, Lack said.
The first painting they discussed was “Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation” by Hans Memling in 1485. The painting depicts a naked woman gazing into a mirror, with heaven and hell on either side of her.
In the Renaissance era the new tradition of painting not only romanticized the beauty of their golden age, but also warned people about death and sin, Lack said.
Decline of civilization from this period on is associated with shallowness, vanity and ornaments, Lack said.
Memling is blaming women for the decline.
“There’s a certain sexism involved here, obviously,” Lack said.
The second painting was by Guercino, an Italian painter whose “Death in Arcadia” displays two men who have stumbled upon a skull in a wooded area of Arcadia.
He said painters of that time often used natural settings to escape the dirty cities in which they lived.
“If we think about what Arcadia was, our lives were fairly miserable so we deposit all our hopes and dreams into this other world,” Gillespie said.
The juxtaposition between the Mewling painting and Guercino’s is that “Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation” has death as something separate, but Guercino’s shows we can less easily avoid the idea of death, Gillespie said.
Gillespie said the skull shows that death and decay can even be found in utopian settings.
“We can kick this thing down the road and say, ‘this isn’t going to happen to me,’” Gillespie said of the skull. “We don’t connect this object to the humanity that it represents.”
In the final painting, “Et in Arcadia Ego” by Nicolas Poussin, the artist again makes it harder for us to defer death, Gillespie said. In the scene, three shepherds inspect a tombstone while a robed woman watches them.
Karl Frey, NLC art history professor, said Poussin was an outsider in a time of stylistic emotion in the arts, and he’s trying to add rationality to the painting.
“My interpretation has been that the regal woman is the only one who seems rational in her relationship to that tomb,” Frey said.
The tomb is a memorial to a life, and on it, it says “Et in Arcadia Ego.”
The words mean “I, too, was in Arcadia,” Gillespie said.
“I was once where you are,” he continued. “You are in paradise. And one day you will be where I am now.”
The woman is wearing blue and gold and is different than the woman in the Memling painting, Lack said.
After the discussion of Arcadia in paintings, the event shifted into a philosophical discussion on time.
If there were no beginning or end, there would be no sense of time, Lack said.
Gillespie said, “When I was a day old — I don’t remember, but I can imagine — a day was a really long time. When I was two days (old), it seemed half as long. My first week, that week was intensely long.”
If people could live forever, existence would be so infinite that every moment “would be so short compared to the whole expanse of it, I don’t know if we could even understand it,” Gillespie said.
For more information on the cultural showcase, visit http://www.alamo.edu/nlc/showcase.