Sunday, August 14, 2011

Souls on the Banks of the Acheron

In a 1900 edition of the Art Journal, Helen Zimmern described the scene in “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron” by Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl.

“In this picture we see the newly dead hovering on the banks of that river of the lower world which they must cross in Charon’s boat ere they reach their ultimate destination.

“Hermes Necropompos is here fulfilling his important function of conducting the shades of the dead from the upper to the lower world. In Mr. Hirschl’s rendering but few of these souls are glad to leave the sunlit earth behind them. Its joys and attractions still hold them spellbound, only quite a few, mostly young children and old men, are resigned to their mortal fate.

“The dissatisfied shades crowd around Hermes as he strides among them and implore him to relax his step, to stay the march of doom. But Hermes walks on regardless, with the calm inexorableness of a god, walks on and past the craving throng.

“But implacable though he must be to their entreaties, he is not here depicted as deaf and insensible to their sufferings. It is this that gives to his figures a sympathetic grandeur.

“In the middle distance Charon is seen approaching in the boat that shall row these souls to their final abode. It is the sight of his barque on the black waters of the Acheron that has struck the multitude with such terror. The dread passage once made, all hope is ended.”

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, Hungarian, 1860–1933. Souls on the Banks of the Acheron, 1898. Oil on canvas, 85 x 134 in.
Vienna, Österreishische Galerie Belvedere.
This painting is reproduced as a double page spread in Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter
Previously: Adolf Hiremy Hirschl


Michael said...

I guess this has to be seen huge to be appreciated. But compositions full of overlapping figures I find difficult to look at. It's bothersome to see all these limbs and not quickly understand the orientation or the bodies and personality they're attached to. It makes me think the artist, like geeks designing feature creep in software tools are enamored with the technical aspects and are forgetting the big story they are supposed to tell.

"Developers, on the other hand, tend to think people like sites with lots of cool features because they like sites with lots of cool features."
p126 "Don't Make Me Think" by Steve Krug.

Everett Patterson said...

I used to feel the same way, Michael. I draw comics, where the relative position of every figure should be instantly discernible, preferably by silhouette. But paintings and illustrations are not comics (or web design). The viewer is not encouraged to take it in at a glance and move on with her business, but rather invited to linger over the picture, to examine it more closely and lose track of time in its details.

"Don't make me think" is a great motto for certain arts, but I think our attitude going into a museum or gallery should be more like "I'll enjoy it more if I have to work for it."

Anonymous said...

I don't find it overly difficult to comprehend visually. Artists of a few generations prior to Hirémy-Hirschl would have probably used more tightly controlled, stylized figure groupings and fictionalized illumination (not that Hirémy-Hirschl has not somewhat employed those) to make the scene more easily assimilated visually. But then the painting would appear more mannered and less realistic, which doesn't sit well with the average modern viewer who is largely impressed by how plausibly real a particular work of fine art appears.

Aaron said...

I think you make a point felt by many people (especially young people, more on that in a sec.) Often the art seems very busy sometimes, especially looking at more classic art work (go all the way back to Raphael's School of Athens for example.) I smiled when I read where you wrote
"It's bothersome to see all these limbs and not quickly understand......"
A lot of art, design work lets say, needs to be quickly and easily digested and comprehended (you might only get only quick glimpse).

I think many people (back to younger adults especially) are locked into a world moving so fast and so explosive that anything that requires time to take in and contemplate is, frankly an annoyance. Artists are craftsmen not entertainers and I think some times the lines gets blurred.

A good size part of it is also taste, which is why there are so many different artists and different styles.

I say all of this because as a professional Illustrator I engross my painting with detail, not because I assume everyone will like it, but because I want people to keep coming back and looking at it, seeing the things that they might not have caught the first time around. Take it with salt, I don't want to upset anyone, just sharing my experience with art (and being a former high school teacher.) If you want to check out any of my stuff my online portfolio is

Smurfswacker said...

A nice canvas I haven't seen before. Those academic painters sure knew how to pile on the bare flesh. Ivar's Acres of Skin. I really like the treatment of the transparent fabric on the woman in the middle.

Am I alone in disliking the figure of Hermes? He looks exactly like a hunky young model standing in a studio, feeling terribly ill-at-ease wearing a funny costume.

I've seen this kind of mismatch in other grand Victorian paintings. Not every figure in a given painting looks "off." For instance the souls in this painting look "at home" despite some melodramatic posing. For some reason only Hermes looks wrong. Perhaps the artist followed the model so literally that he captured the man's unease. Maybe he should have exaggerated Hermes' pose a little to stop it looking so much like a figure study. I don't know.

Michael said...

Good point Mr Patterson! "losing track of time in the details" is an excellent way to put it. It's an excellent question we could ask ourselves. "Is this art I'm doing worthy of making a viewer work hard and lose track of time in the details?" I still don't like the tangle of figures seeing it at this size.
Maybe it's that they're so clean. If your such a confused soul I'd think you'd look like one of those whales are all scuffed up and barnacle encrusted.

I love crowded scenes like Pieter Bruegel the Elder or Hieronymus Bosch. I hope to gain enough skill to turn out some work along those lines. For now I do it with just line.

Mr. Gurney gives an excellent account of the details. A nuanced relationship of one character to the others describing the different psychological journey those go through when experiencing loss and looking for answers.

When this was painted I doubt the artist had the psychological information to compose such an arraignment. For example, children have a much better time adjusting to vision loss than older people. So in keeping with the important recent theme of this blog which I think has to do with how science and art strengthen one another I'll through this idea out there and say this painting may have been stronger if the artist had been armed with more information on DABDA (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.)
and how it affects different ages or those with more plastic neural patterns. I plans to paint something regarding this and this painting is giving me ideas.

So if the painting explores loss and attachments maybe the figures could have been arranged in a stepped progression of young to old or a less tangled, more varied and more distinct representation of ages and attachment (aka addition to ideas) levels. Right now it seems like they're either in the Depression or Acceptance phase. Just a glimpse of down my crooked alley.

Michael said...

I agree with Smurf, Hermes looks like a model rather than a figure in the drama.

youngstudios said...

I disagree with Michael's origional comment. The arms are to draw imaginary line to the main focus of the painting which is Hermes. Which is also true of the halo around Herme's head and the dark on light relationship of his cloak on the background. "It's bothersome to see all these limbs and not quickly understand the orientation or the bodies and personality they're attached to." To me the arms of the people convey their desperation and dispair. (they are about to go to hell after all)subtle emotion can be found in every inch of the body. not just the face or the posture. here i think the arms tell a very deep story. besides real life overlaps. when you look at a crowd of people at the mall you don't see every person standing where you can easily see where there silouettes are. to me this adds a greater senese of depth and realism. it would look kinda dumb if they were all lined up or spaced apart and all clearly distinguishable.
James this is the most beautiful painting that was in color and life ( in my opinion) i must have stared at it for over an hour before turning the page. and i enjoyed seeing again here. thanks.

youngstudios said...

lol i typed color and life

a thousand apologies.

adebanji said...

When I got your book-this painting and the one Harry Anderson did were a welcome invite into more wonderful stuff you had to share. Thanks for your inspiration!

Unknown said...

Precisely. said...

i think this is the sort of painting people who read comics love . Hermes stands out like any modern superhero with an idealistic heroic body and pose right in the middle of of action. I love paintings you get lost in.

Greg said...

I know this is late... but this IS better than most art produced today particularly in the zombie/walking dead genre. And I like how Hermes seems out of place. He's heard it all before; he's bored.

stovus said...

Yes. Very well-put.