Living Art- IV. Teaching Personal Creative Expression- Painting Archetypes

Painting Archetypes

1.1 Opening 

Art is personal. Yet it is crucial to avoid the stereotypical notion of inwardness as entirely idiosyncratic. – First as an artist then as a teacher I began to work through “archetypes.”[1]


“Looking at the European “old masters” you were probably first struck by their perceptual accuracy. Yet for the artist and his/her audience this precision was often not the primary concern. Read the titles, not “Louise and Baby Jacques” but ‘The Madonna and The Infant Jesus’.

Even portraits reached beyond the individual towards archetypical existence (e.g., as ruler, aristocrat or craftsman)… Even Vermeer’s precise notations of the visually given are spiritual constructions, the prosaic blessed by grace of light.”


Many experiences helped me recognize the artistic relevance of archetypes.

In The Frick Museum I always stood for a long time in front of Goya’s “The Forge.” – Suddenly insight…. I had seen many “American Scene” paintings of workers. Here in the simplicity of form, the powerful rhythmic strokes of paint, the enclosed obsessive focus of all figures on the task, was work itself.

One afternoon I saw Brighton Beach in winter: there were gulls, white and gray on white.

Randomly spaced

On a deserted beach

Gulls stand still in snow

Only waves and their hearts move.


Sitting in the cold, almost in a trance, I saw this scene – thus every scene and season – as an emblem of a mood.

2. Presenting Archetypical Themes

2.1. Opening

We begin explicitly archetypical work by suggesting an image, from myth (e.g., Virgin Mary, Apollo, Mary Magdalene, Aphrodite) or from popular culture (e.g., the vampire, Xena the warrior princess) or from everyday life (e.g., the lover, the fighter, joy, sorrow).

The model transforms word into frozen gesture…a tableaux vivant. (Fortunately many of the models at The New School are “moonlighting” actors and dancers.) The students transform words and gestures into painted figurative or directly medial images.

Over the last thirty years we have explored relational as well as single figure archetypical patterns ….One of the earliest was master/slave. One of the most popular is “a natural history of love,” beginning with the first “meaningful glance” and ending with estrangement (“all passion spent”). Often through tenderness, or lack of time, we leave our lovers in eternal spring or summer.

I seek enough specificity for rich creative interpretation without imposing my own vision. This “scaffolding” should be a co-creation with my students. This does not always happen.

2.2. Presenting Mary Magdalene

Avron: Who was Mary Magdalene? There are three stages in her story, before and after she met Christ, and the meeting. Who was she before?

Student: A prostitute

Avron: What is a prostitute?

Student: Someone who has sex for money

Avron: Was she a prostitute? I’m not certain…She had sexual relations with many men. I don’t want to specify that it was for pay.

Even if money changes hands it might not be “the point”. … Money may, for example, lend an illusion of calculation and control to essentially irrational impulses.

It might loosen our assumptions to recall that the prostitute is not the only one paid for services that are normally personal. Psychotherapists, for example, routinely receive intimate revelations withheld from spouses, parents, children and friends.

I don’t deny that the stereotype is supported by experience. Street prostitution is mass servicing and permits little self-expression. Yet even the most constrained situations admit exceptions, even elevator operators and supermarket cashiers can find time for kindness.

Let’s assume that if she was a prostitute she was a high priced call girl with time and space for extended “private sessions” and personal expression.

Yet we are not bound to every received detail. Mary Magdalene is not an archetype but an archetypical character, a guide to potentialities. The story, as the model’s pose, is offered as material for our performance. – Magdalene as prostitute is optional (an interesting line of interpretation).

We can interpret Magdalene before meeting Jesus from knowledge of who she became.

William James explains that conversions which appear sudden are often small shifts in balance between nearly equal forces…. A man lives as a drunkard yet helplessly hates his addiction. There is a traffic accident. He was driving drunk. Luckily no one was hurt. That night he attends his first A.A. meeting.

If the intense focus that fuels addiction is freed it can propel spiritual growth.… Extreme promiscuity both reaches out for and rejects the other. It is sometimes a misplaced striving for the I-Thou unity of love.

From a religious standpoint love of God is the origin, model and highest realization of love. Even from a secular perspective the concept of God can be interpreted as “representing” the benevolent potentialities of the world, so that in loving God one loves the world.

One can conceive Magdalene before meeting Jesus as a lost, passionate and frightened woman longing for a transcendence she cannot imagine.

You’re all very quite. Somebody say something. Please.

Student: She was a prostitute. You are unrealistic. You are complicating something simple. She was a prostitute. Prostitutes have sex for money. That kind of life defines one completely. The rest is liberal nonsense. Prostitutes don’t have hearts of gold. Their hearts are cash registers.

Avron: If Magdalene was entirely a prostitute as a stone is a stone she could not transform: Christ could not reach her.

Yet your emphasis could inspire interesting art: I can imagine her painted as half animal half machine.

I am not trying to establish a definitive interpretation of Mary Magdalene. I just want to open some alternatives.

There are many possibilities…Was she Jesus’ wife? … Was she a wonderful, sensual, fun loving young woman corrupted by a charismatic cult leader?

Or one could paint the scene cynically from the outside as “a set up”: the model pretending against a gray wall…Variation after variation on and on.

2.3. Presenting Vampire Archetypes

Avron: Doing archetypical work in class takes a sounding of our shared memory.

The gods and goddesses of ancient Greece have lost their hold on our imagination. What I found amazing, and would never have predicted, is that our hold on Biblical characters is weak and shaky….We went through this with Mary Magdalene last week. Yet term after term in this class the vampire lives, or at least remains vividly undead. (I don’t know what this says about our society and ourselves?)[2]

Who is the vampire?

Student I: They suck blood

Avron: What else?

Student II: They live forever.

Avron: Necessarily or only potentially? Can a vampire be killed?

Student I: Yes, sure…stakes, fire, daylight.

Avron: Beheading…Some say vampires dissolve in flowing water…There are other allergies and limitations, painful and…inconvenient, but not fatal.

Student I: Holy water, crucifixes.

 Student II: They are hurt by garlic.

Student III: You can’t see them in mirrors. They have no reflections.

Student I: Do they have shadows?

Avron: We do not.

Student III: Come on, this is a morning class…The room is full of sunlight. 

Avron: I am ancient…. I grow endlessly stronger with age. – My powers are great, and I wear makeup…. After a thousand years I still mourn my shadow.

What are our – excuse me, their – special powers?

Student IV: They can hypnotize anyone, willing or unwilling.

Student III: Almost anyone. Not Von Helsing.

Student I: They are stronger than people. They can fly unaided.

Student III: They can become bats, and summon wolves to help them.

Avron: Yet this powerful being is frightened.

Student IV: They are afraid to be caught out in sunlight.

Avron: Yes…. What might it do to you to be afraid of sunlight, moving water, crucifixes, holy water, etc? How would you feel? Who might you become?

Student I: I’m not sure what you are getting at.

Avron: If I’m allergic to religious symbols I’m probably damned…. A subtler, to me more interesting version: the vampire is not affected by crucifixes and holy water yet thinks “If I exist then perhaps all of the old stories are true. In the Christian story in which I was brought up I am damned.”

Sunlight and water are of course necessary to life. They are also crucial symbols of life: the original scientific elements were earth, air, fire and water, running water represents the Tao, and the first monotheism (Akhnaton’s) was sun worship. To burst into flame in sun and dissolve in moving water is to be estranged from nature.

To be powerful and potentially immortal yet vulnerable, outside nature, and probably damned, would be frightening.

The powerful vampire freed from the necessity to die is trapped in dangers and taboos. S/he is also trapped by hunger…Is there such desperate obsessive compulsive life or death craving in the mortal world?

Student I: People die of hunger and thirst.

Avron: Yes….These are natural needs shared with all animals, even with plants. They connect and unify all life. – I’m thinking of addiction, with its desperate, secret isolating passion: the vampire as a powerful, violent, immortal addict.

Mortality is a bond…. Perhaps it limits brutality that both tyrant and victim will soon die….On the other hand, some cruelty is a magical attempt to deny one’s own vulnerability (i.e., to experience oneself as always agent never victim of pain and death).

The vampire’s addiction to human blood requires constant murder…. Vicious exploitative aristocrats are a source of the vampire….The original of Dracula was a Hungarian king called Vlad The Impaler. There was also a countess who slaughtered peasants and drank their blood: it was supposed to restore youth (a nutritional supplement).

The vampire has attained the status tyrants long for, membership in an immortal predatory species.

3. Art, Archetypes and the Crises of our Time


In the 15th century each group was within its order of life almost as a child within its mother’s womb.… In Europe artists painted Christian or classical Greek themes. In India they painted Krishna and Kali.

Unquestioned faith may still exist for some. Yet cultures now flow into one another…. Explicitly archetypical art arises when, as in the Greco-Roman world and now, received images appear as human constructs.


All visual images from all cultures and all historical periods are now present together. Yet they do not form an integrated constellation.

We awake from one dream to enter another (mirror in mirror). – Afloat in the body of our species no space is particularly ours.

Archetypical work assists the struggle for vital resonant intense images in crisis and breakdown. …Archetypes are fragments of a potential human universal language.

[1] I am gratefully indebted to the work of Karl Jung for the term, but am not committed to his interpretation.

[2] This is before Interview with a Vampire, Forever Knight and Buffy The Vampire Killer.

Above is from Living Art-Creative Expression Painting Archetypes, Click Here to Read the  next section-

VI. Painting Scene


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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

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