Finishing ‘Allegory of Wisdom’ 2023
Some pictures take a long time to finish. This picture was first conceived over twenty years ago. My idea evolved through several smaller versions culminating in this canvas, which was started in 2014. I planned to include it in my San Francisco Exhibition, ‘The Enemies of Progress’, in 2015 but then discovered that, because of its size, shipping this canvas with forty smaller paintings would double the shipping cost. It remained unfinished for years on the studio wall while my life got complicated and other projects took priority. Finally, the sale of my home and studio spurred me to action and I tried to finish it while I still had a space large enough to do so. I didn’t quite get there: it remained in storage while I was between homes but I finally got to finish it in my new home and studio in Arklow, just in time to send in to the Royal Hibernian Academy’s Annual Exhibition where it currently hangs.
There’s a strange melancholy that accompanies a project like this, worked on for so long. The boy who posed for this painting is now a married man. I haven’t seen Marianne (my gorgeous Estonian model) in fifteen years. My partner of 18 years and I appear in the background as we once were: young lovers. We are now middle-aged, estranged and separated. Following through, completing the picture as originally conceived became an exercise in nostalgia and imaginative recall.
My thinking as an artist has also changed considerably over the last twenty years. When I conceived this picture, I was aiming at a way of painting that , although idiosyncratic and entirely ‘contemporary’ as I understand the word, could also blend with the style of the Old Masters and with ancient religious and mythological traditions. Since then I’ve updated my style, forged more connections with popular culture through my work and found a great deal more freedom. As an artist I’m happier, less pessimistic, although simply as a human I’ve taken a bit of a battering. As an artist one is prone to criticise old work, to revise and evolve and do things differently, so maintaining commitment to a single pictorial idea over such a long time frame becomes quite difficult. My guess is that I’ve finished this just in time: that changes within me would make further extending a project like this almost impossible.
But I’m still not entirely convinced that it is finished! If I get it back from the RHA, there are a still a few spots in the painting that niggle me, and which I might try to fix. There’s an idea put round by certain artists (Lucian Freud among them) that finishing a painting is the hardest thing. This picture might be taken as supporting evidence, but I honestly don’t concur. The hardest part of a painting is the beginning: conceiving the image, knowing what you want to achieve, doing all the preparatory work to ensure ultimate success. Despite all the years it took and the obstacles to completion, this particular picture began well, so the path to completion was logical, inevitable. Only the final adjustments, the last finessing is an issue at this point.
The painting itself is a re-imagining of the Edenic myth of the Tree of Knowledge. The painting includes two adult figures: a Venus/Eve figure holding a basket of figs representing the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (figs are often used instead of apples in southern European images of the subject) and a male hunter bringing his catch. Each represents a different type of wisdom. The fruit of the tree is a gift; it requires essentially openness and receptivity. The hunter’s wisdom is hard-won and tainted by bitter experience. Both bring their wisdom to the child who sits contemplating the image of a human embryo and the mysteries of origin contained therein.
One inspiration for the painting was an ancient Egyptian image of people gathering fruit from a fig tree filled with baboons also enjoying its fruit: as an image of harmonious coexistence with nature it struck me as an alternative to the tragedy recounted in Genesis, and the ongoing tragedy of our relations with Mother Nature. That the baboon is the symbol of Thoth, god of wisdom, was an extra windfall.
I think of my picture as, in part, a plea for a different type of relationship with nature. The painting is intended to be frankly sensual and sexual, but nudity and sex are not the subject of the painting: they are metaphors for the ecstacy of insight, as in Neitzsche’s aphorism that ‘Where the Tree of Knowledge stands you will always find Paradise’.
You can find a more detailed explanation of the ideas in the painting here:
‘Allegory of Wisdom’, oil on linen, 160 x 240cm, 2023