Monday, October 28, 2013

John Duncan - Heptu bidding farewell to the city of obb (1909)

Christa Zaat Catalogue Note from Sothebys:

John Duncan was undeniably the foremost painter of Celtic Symbolist art and he created a world of beauty and romance inhabited by pale princesses, tragic heroes and fantastical beasts based upon the rich narratives of Sco
ttish mythology. His imagery was based upon the fragile maidens of the Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones and Celtic folk-lore, but laced with the exoticism of European Symbolism and the works of Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes.
In 1907 Duncan had visited London and had been enchanted by the works of Botticelli, Mantegna and Crivelli at the National Gallery and returned to Scotland determined to try to capture the same bejewelled beauty in his own work. He embarked upon his most significant large oils, including Angus Obb of 1908 (National Gallery of Scotland), Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb of 1909, The Riders of the Sidhe of 1910 (Dundee Art Gallery), St Bride of 1913 (National Gallery of Scotland) and The Children of Lir of 1914 (City of Edinburgh Museums and Art Galleries). Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb is the most important painting by Duncan to remain in private ownership. It was bought from Duncan by André Raffalovich and hung in the dining room of his home on Whitehouse Terrace in Edinburgh. Raffalovich was a playwrite and Symbolist poet of considerable talent but is perhaps best-known as the wealthy companion of the poet John Gray. The jealousy that Oscar Wilde felt for Raffalovich and Gray's friendship is much documented; Wilde considered Gray to be his protegé, perhaps even the inspiration for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Raffalovich had lived in Paris in the early 1880s and was therefore educated in French Symbolist art and literature; he was a great friend of Mallarmé and several other leading Symbolist poets. Duncan met Raffalovich in 1907 when he executed a series of paintings of the Stations of the Cross for the parish church of St. Peters in Edinburgh which Raffalovich had funded. Duncan was greatly impressed by Raffalovich's knowledge of Symbolist art and writing and it is likely that Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb was the result of a direct commision.

The subject of the present painting appears to have been the invention of the artist. It depicts a naked girl with alabaster white skin and flame red hair billowing in the breeze, riding high above the sea on the back of a majestic and fantastic beast. She wears a crown of gold and her neck and wrists are decorated with strings of garnets or rubies. Her jewels and crown suggest that she is a Princess of the island of Obb that she is now fleeing. Her palace stands high on a rocky dias, an imposing fortress beside the sea, and the land is cast in shadow, perhaps suggesting that she is forsaking her homeland because it is no longer safe to remain. The painting poses more questions than it answers and this is the beauty of Duncan's work which creates its own mystery and mythology.
The beast depicted in the present picture appears to be a combination of two mythical creatures, the gryphon and the cockatrice. The cockatrice was invented in the twelfth century, based upon Pliny's description in the Natural History of a form of the basilisk, although unlike the basilisk the cockatrice was said to stand upon legs rather than slither on the ground. It was believed that it was born from the egg of a cock incubated by a toad and was able to turn its enemies into stone by looking at them or by breathing upon them. The only animals that could defeat the cockatrice were the weasel which was immune to it's stare and the cockerel that could kill it by crowing. The traditional cockatrice was said to have the body of a serpent and the talons of a bird, unlike Duncan's fantastic animal. The combination of leonine and birdlike physical attributes connects this creature with the gryphon (griffin), with the wings and head of an eagle and the body of a lion. As the lion is considered to be the King of the Beasts and the eagle is the King of the Birds, the gryphon is said to posses superior powers above the other mythological creatures. It was believed to be the physical guardian of the divine. In heraldic iconography, there are several types of gryphon, the Keythong, Alce, Opinicus and the Simurgh which was believed by the Babylonians to have lived so long that it had seen the destruction of the world three times over. Heptu's mount is combination of the Opinicus; distinguished by having four lion's legs rather than having the forelegs of an eagle), and the cockatrice. The stimuli for Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb may have been an unlocated picture entitled The Shining Land in which a naked girl riding a gryphon is seen in the background. In this painting the animal is more clearly the combination of an eagle and a lion and in Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb Duncan appears to have wished to create a more unusual fantasy, 

In 1934 Duncan painted a similar beast, a sphinx in The Challenge in which Oedipus approaches the riddler of Thebes in a wilderness of barren rocks and serpents. Like the princess in Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb, Oedipus is naked, perhaps to make the contrast between primal bestial power and human frailty. With Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb Duncan created an image which showed that the influence of French art upon Scottish artists was not limited to the influence of Manet and Mattisse upon Fergusson and Peploe, but had a slightly earlier influence upon an artist whose artistic aims were very different, to create a dream-like world of legend.

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