Monday, 4 October 2010

Integrated theory and practice: can recontextualized ideas be contemporary?

If we think of a single image, perhaps a piece of fruit, what message can it convey if used in a piece of art? It could symbolise abundance of life, nature or simply be food. On its own it could mean anything, but nothing has a real meaning without a context. It needs a setting with other imagery to convey a message. 
The Painting of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach from 1526 depicts a scene from Genesis in the Bible with a life-like style including the two figures, animals, the forbidden tree of fruit and the snake. All of these images have clear meanings due to the text it refers to; the figures being the origin of humans, the fruit being temptation and sin, the animals being the bounty of life on earth, and the snake symbolising evil, or the devil.

This was painted in a time when religion was a very large part of people's lives and art was a way of communicating ideas in a realistic way with paint before photography was invented. Paintings were largely of religious figures and royalty, or people very high up in status, so representation was key. The richness of tones, fabrics and colour were a great indicator of wealth and objects in the painting were subtle hints, as was body language, about the person rather than just their appearance. 
Adam and Eve are both naked in this image as they have not betrayed God and so do not feel the shame and need to be modest. It also gives them a sense of innocence and naivety as if they were babies. Adam looks hesitant about the fruit, his limbs awkwardly positioned and scratching his head, whereas Eve seems a lot more confident in her stance, her arm up holding onto a branch and her facial expression looks as though she is smirking, with a slight smile. This is a representation of how Eve tries the fruit and is then banished from Eden. The snake, curled around a tree above, centred between the figures implies he has control over them but is not in their direct sight. 
The deep, rich colours in the painting echo the essence of abundant life in the garden. The tone of the sky, however, indicates either a sunrise or sunset. As a sunrise, it could suggest the beginning of life on earth, but as a sunset, it may represent the end of human life without sin.
The same image and layout has been re-created in the piece 'Adam and Eve' by Photographer Ron O'Donnell in 1989.

The new medium of photography allows a much more realistic image, however this piece seems even less real than the painting done centuries before. The tree is made of paper and cardboard as well as a real trunk, and the people are collages of photographs of real body parts. By this O'Donnell may have intended to mock the belief in religion by making it look unrealistic and strange. In a modern society, religion seems to be a smaller part of peoples' lives than in the 16th century. The way in which this piece is composed, mirroring the position of the figures by the tree in Cranach's painting, makes a reference to old beliefs and society in that it has definitely changed, so as to make the comparison more apparent. A doll with gold wings floats above the figures, carrying what resembles a piece of fruit. This could be intended as comical, making fun of the belief in angels. Where the snake would be, a twig wraps around the branches, blending in with the tree. This may imply that the demon does not really exist but instead the 'angel' is bringing the fruit to Adam and Eve.
One of the most noticeable ideas in the piece is that the figures are headless. This could suggest that Adam and Eve have no identity, that they are ambiguous characters, taking away the belief that they are real figures. 
This iconic image has been recontextualized into a new era of different beliefs and new attitudes towards life and religion. Society in our modern world has different values to that of the 16th century and therefore the ideas represented in the bible, such as the origins of life, now seem less significant. Therefore, art work displaying these ideas tends to trivialise and mock them, showing contemporary representations of old ideas. 

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