Progress of a Soul

(This isn’t really about language, though there are some connections.)

Not long ago I bought a box of colorful notecards from Pomegranate Communications (in Petaluma CA — Pomegranate in Petaluma, how can you beat that?) which turned out to be the work of yet another artist I didn’t recall knowing anything about, Phoebe Anna Traquair, described in some places as “the leading female artist of the Scottish Arts and Crafts Movement”, but without the “female” qualification on the Pomegranate site itself:

A leading artist of the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement, Phoebe Anna Traquair (Scottish, b. Ireland, 1852–1936) earned international recognition for her murals, paintings, embroideries, book illustrations, and jewelry; she also played a significant role in promoting decorative art in public buildings. In 1920 she became the first woman member of the Royal Scottish Academy. Originally from Dublin, she moved to Edinburgh following her marriage to Dr. Ramsay Traquair, keeper of natural history at the Museum of Science and Art, later renamed the Royal Museum.

[A small linguistic point before I go on: the pronunciation of the name Traquair, at least in the name of the artist and her husband. Various sites make valiant attempts to represent the pronunciation using ordinary English spelling; the most easily interpreted of these is “tra-QUARE”, which makes it clear that the second syllable bears the accent, and lets us figure out the range of possible vowels in that syllable (these will vary some, depending on variety). The Traquairs were presumably r-ful (rhotic) Irish/Scots speakers, though they might also have used an RP-like r-less (non-rhotic) pronunciation on some occasions, which would affect the quality of the vowel in the second syllable. In addition, the first syllable might have been unaccented for them (with a schwa) or secondarily accented (with some vowel in the [a] family). Other speakers might have still other variants; for instance, some sources suggest the possibility of [h] rather than [kw] in some Scots English varieties.]

The four embroidered panels reproduced on the notecards tell a story. From the Pomegranate site:

In The Progress of a Soul [created in 1895-1902], her series of four richly colored and detailed embroideries, the human soul, here an ideal young man dressed in animal skin and in harmony with the natural world around him, travels through four stages. In The Entrance, he is full of hope and enthusiasm, blissfully ignorant of life’s realities. The panels follow him through The Stress and Despair to The Victory, the last embroidery in the series. The figure was based on the character of Denys l’Auxerrois from Imaginary Portraits by English critic and writer Water Pater.

This brief description misses a lot, of course. It straightforwardly identifies the central character as a young man, though he’s sufficiently androgynous, feminized in appearance (showing the influence of the female figures in early Pre-Raphaelite painting), that you could at first easily take the figure to be female. Here are panels 1 (The Entrance) and 4 (The Victory) (as usual, you can click on the images to get larger versions):

It also fails to note that this is not just any gorgeous, golden-haired, and beardless young man, but an Apollo figure, complete with lyre. And not just any animal skin, but the skin of a spotted big cat, presumably a leopard. Here we veer off into the thickets of iconography: the birds, the flowers, the grape vines (with leaves and clusters of grapes), the rabbit, and more. The grape vines might be an allusion to Apollo’s brother and complement (sometimes seen as antagonist) Bacchus/Dionysus, the god of wine.

It would be a mistake to read specific meanings into all of the details of a work of art, even if you want to maintain that some of them are important despite the fact that they were probably not consciously chosen by the artist for this purpose. And of course the details can be multivalent; there isn’t necessarily a single “right” reading, though some things are close to indisputable in their significance. (All of this is as true of verbal description and narrative as it is of visual presentation and narrative.)

In panel 1 we have the innocent Apollo, in an Edenic land (Traquair mixes Christian and pagan imagery). In panel 4, the Apollo who has been tested (think of Christian ordeal tales) and has emerged victorious and apotheosized (with angel’s wings and halo, and a rainbow at his feet) and embraces and kisses Bacchus (himself transformed into an androgynous young man, not his usual virile and rowdy self).

[Yes, the homoerotic undercurrents in all of this are unmistakable. Thanks to the trial of Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater attracted considerable opprobrium, which Traquair seems to have escaped, probably because of her sex and her evident deeply felt Christianity. (She was, after all, the painter of “Edinburgh’s Sistene Chapel”.)]

The outcome of the Victory is not that they went on to live happily ever after. Quite to the contrary: several commenters understand the Victory to be a passionate union in death.

The middle panels tell the dark story of Apollo’s ordeal:

In panel 2, a serpent (Python, the earth-dragon of Delphi, and Apollo’s enemy in the underworld; in the myth, Apollo slays Python) encircles Apollo’s feet, while disembodied hands grasp at a flower, a bird, Apollo’s lyre, his animal skin, and the grapevine, breaking the vine in this panel and, in the passage to panel 4, breaking the lyre as well, tearing the leopard skin, plucking the flowers, and killing some of the birds. Meanwhile, a swan (a bird sacred to Apollo) appears and bloodily savages the poor rabbit.

In panel 3, Python (roughly doubled in size) arches over a reclining, apparently defeated, Apollo, now dark-haired in despair.

But in the passage to panel 4, Apollo triumphs over Python, who is transformed into his lover. And after panel 4, they go out in a blaze — Apollo’s wings are flame-orange, as is his hair now — of glory.

It’s intriguing to speculate how this visually presented narrative might be translated into a verbal narrative, using metaphorically-freighted symbols rather than straightforward story-telling. Imagine something along the lines of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”.

5 Responses to “Progress of a Soul”

  1. Sundance is an angel when he flies « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Progress of a Soul […]

  2. Sam Says:

    Interesting – reminds me of the works of Alfons Mucha.

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Sam: yes, you’re seeing the Art Nouveau style (at first just called the “Mucha Style”), with its lush, flowing images, especially of women and flowers.

    (Mucha’s Czech name was Alfons, as you give it here, but he became famous in his Paris years as Alphonse.)

    The Arts and Crafts Movement flourished in Scotland, especially in the work of the Glasgow artist and architect Charles Rennie Macintosh, who was a major exponent of Art Nouveau in the U.K., though in a more restrained and visually economical form (influenced by Japanese design). Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Macintosh regularly stipulated the decorative motifs and details in the buildings he designed.

    Macintosh in turn influenced the Viennese Art Nouveau style known as the Viennese Secession, whose most famous exponent is probably Gustav Klimt.

    All these artists, designers, and architects flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the time of Fin de Siecle “decadence” and “aestheticism” in British art and literature (Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, and of course Walter Pater, mentioned above in connection with Ann Phoebe Traquair).

  4. irrationalpoint Says:

    I was reminded of this post today because I went past a gallery (in Scotland) that has some of Traquair’s works on display as part of their collection of “Scottish Artists”, as well as some other good stuff on at the moment. I keep meaning to go along and have a look.


  5. The Cult of Beauty « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] thought I’d posted on Burne-Jones before, but apparently not; Phoebe Anna Traquair (here) seems to be as close as I’ve gotten. From the Wikipedia page: Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, […]

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