Monday Modern Art Madness #21: Arthur Boyd’s “Lysistrada” I and II, mythic love contra the sisterhood.

This week on MMAM, we venture into one of Australia’s premier contemporary visionary and landscape painters, two genres which just so happens to be right up my alley, Arthur Boyd (RIP) like so many of his similar milieu around the world (Giger, Beksinksi, Fuchs, and Heinwein to name a few) Boyd sought to re-imagine the landscape and the mythic character of the western world around him. Here we have two companion pieces he did from a whole series of etchings and works related to Aristophanes’ play about a group of woke pacifist women trying to stop the Peloponnesian war, Strap in for a very modern ode to a classic mythic play, and to the power of desire and love contra the politics of the day. Boyd came into prominence at a time when painting was dethroned as the king of all the visual arts, and now artistic modernism, with its emphasis on new materials followed in what John David-Ebert calls the “post-metaphysical age” of art; often described as the world of foam (ALA Sloterdijk), where each artist no longer is beholden to a grand narrative that lies at the heart of being, but exists within their own bubble, a micro-bubble within a multiplicity of infinite styles and brands.

Boyd’s series of paintings that gained him renowned was the 31 piece epic “Love, marriage and Death of a Half-Caste Bride” which explored the near mythic relationship between a white woman and an indigenous man, blending European mythological motifs with the often primitivist style of modern expressionism found in the adaption and appropriation of indigenous art, a trend popularized by painters around the world like Carr, Gauguin and Picasso, and carried into the later 20th and even 21st century by contemporary/postmodern artists such as Basquiat.

In Boyd is a unique weddedness to the local, the post-structural apocalyptic spirituality of the aftermath of WW2, and of course a veneration of the landscape. Now that the grand narratives have collapsed, and the primary apex-images of the west are in a process of dissolving, Boyd stands contrary to the art world of th 70s and 80s (and 90s before his death in 1999) and tries to once again revive these images in a uniquely modern-expressionistic style. We have such images that evoke his obsession with biblical history and Greek/Roman mythos, such as “Christ Walking on Water (1947-48)” ,The Expulsion (1948)” and “The Prodigal Son” shows an intense interest and study into the biblical genre paintings of the old masters, but rendered in an updated style. Like many artists of the era, now that metaphysical chains were off so to speak, Boyd appropriated images from the local aboriginal population, but chose deliberately (unlike many artists of his day and today) not to abandon the key archetypal and linchpin images of the western canon from his artistic corpus. Instead Boyd chooses to naviagte the new post-war world of chaos and confusion as a sort of quasi-reactionary, with passion and romanticism, going back into the primeval western canon, and thus western psyche, and choosing to mix and match it with the styles and multicultural explorations of his time, instead of wholly abandoning these images. Boyd often dealt with subjects that have reoccurring themes that were in tune with his sensitivity to the human condition, dealing with war, passion, lust,  and a fundamental lamentation over the state of the post-christian world filled with men at odds with each other on a deep level, as well as guild and suffering.

1.1983##s.jpg.505x555_q85Lysistrata I.

Keeping in mind that Boyd painted the Lysistrata series during the height of the Vietnam war (That Australia participated in, many Americans to this day do not know that Australia helped out as well) so the theme of love under the hardships of war from Aristophanes play was an apt mythological metaphor for the current geopolitical realities, but told in Boyd’s own intimate style of depiction.

Lysistrata the “dissmiser of armies” is a woman who organizes all of the Athenian and Spartan women during the Peloponnesian War, and helps broker a peace agreement between the two city states. The women storm and occupy the Acropolis, and vow to end the war by revoking the conjugal rights to all men until they stop fighting, I.E. a sex strike, a practice many cultures have experienced, and a technique used by organized women to this day, where women refuse to have sex with their men until war or some social ill is over with.

in both pieces we have Boyd’s geographic awareness on display. These are not the forests of ancient Greece, but the untamed thick jungles of the wild Australian wilderness. We see his wide variety of techniques used, often in his illustrative style, he would quickly rub in the first preliminary layers with his fingers and hands, and then apply quick and thick brushwork after rough sketching. We see a common Australian outback landscape color palette of muted grey-greens, vibrant crimsons, and that signature white and golden shades of ochres and muted yellow mixes. Throughout all the painted pieces are the Australian gum-tree sprouts, rendered quickly in groups and landscape hills. Lysistrata in Boyd’s retelling, is focusing on a women who deeply loves her soldier husband, evades the group of woke anti-war women in sexless solidarity, and roughs it through the wilderness to meet in secret with her lover.

Lysistrata I is where the woman is waiting at dawn’s break in the underbrush near the caves of Pan, the Greek Saytr God associated with the wilderness, love and sexual desire, to which Pan’s caves on the Greek isles were often a refuge for lovers meeting in secret. The landscape is very impressionistic and even boarders of the lyrical abstract style so popular at the time, but still in keeping with representation. The Black birds are swooping down and accompanying her on this lover’s sojourn, often a mythic symbol like all night birds for bringers of nocturnal insight, of dreams, the mysteries that are hidden in the dark, they are messengers of wisdom and terror like the Owl.

Lysistrata II (in the title image) shows the woman escaping the matrons of the anti-war movement, who could potentially persecute her for giving into the unrepentant need to be with her husband. The branches and hillside is protecting her in the cave of Pan, and the glowing yellow light of her lantern is the central focal point of the piece. With her is a dog sitting in waiting, Boyd often painted a dog next to the human protagonists in his scene, as a sitting dog is often a mythological symbol for the guardianship and companionship of humanity, often accompanying an epic hero on a noble quest (like Gilgamesh). This time it is a woman who is an active protagonist, defying the “sisterhood” of fellow Athenian women as it were, to fight and tread dangerously through the woods to reunite with her husband.

This painting is quite a unique interpretation, especially during the halcyon days of Women’s lib in the early 70s. There is a symbolic affirmation of the conjugal, the lovers hiding out from the greater meaning behind the mass separation of the sexes, a reality which has been studied. In both the play and in real instances of mass sex-strikes, this created an environment of hostility and distrust among the sexes. Instead of the solidarity affirmed between the women, Boyd is stating that it is inhuman to replace the cruelty of war with the cruelty of lovers and married couples being separated. This could have some dimensions that grate with a feminist interpretation, but Boyd is more so affirming the power of love over the power of ideology and politics during times of great conflict.


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