Anne Gardom goes to Paradise

Paradise is the title of the new exhibition at the National Gallery. Galleries in Bristol and Newcastle have joined with the National Gallery to bring together this lovely selection of pictures. London hosts its final showing; those who live in Bristol and Newcastle were able to enjoy it earlier this year.

Paradise, coming from the Persian word meaning ‘an enclosed pleasure garden’, is a concept common to many cultures. The idea of a safe and beautiful retreat and a golden Age of Innocence goes back at least as far as the pastoral poetry of the ancient world, and, as the exhibition shows, still has the power to stir our longings and imagination. The concept of a peaceful and harmonious world untouched by the corrupting influence of civilization is implicit in many of the paintings.

The Garden of Eden

From the workshop of Jan Brueghel the Elder comes a delightful painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The landscape, green and flower-filled, stretches away to the blue mountains, while in the foreground is a mixture of animals and birds, with guinea pigs and leopards, a collection of African parrots, and a couple of dogs and a swan who have not yet quite grasped the principle of universal harmony.

In the fifteenth century, paintings of the Virgin and Child frequently showed them in a garden, often surrounded by rose-blooming hedges and fences, which symbolize both virginity and the concept of Paradise as a garden, a place apart. In this exhibition there are two such pictures, both Italian, where the Virgin, attended by saints and angels, is seated in her flower-filled heavenly garden.

Caspar David Friedrich’s Winter Landscape is very different. It is one of a pair of paintings (the other is shown in reproduction) which show Paradise and salvation as something to be striven for by faith and suffering. In a cold grey landscape a young man prays before a crucifix, having flung away his crutches in the snow. No idyllic retreat here, but the promise of salvation expressed by green grass breaking through the snow and the heavenly Jerusalem by the misty Church.

Claude, painting in the seventeenth century, had many followers. His idyllic landscapes, lit by a golden light and stretching far into a serene distance, were carefully composed from many studies and drawings made from nature. His Landscape with Narcissus and Echo is just such a Paradise. The corrupting allurements of civilization are shown as a far distant walled city, while in the foreground the beautiful youth gazes, enchanted, at his own reflection in the water.

A Romantic Landscape with the arrival of the Queen of Sheba painted by Bristol artist Samuel Coleman owes much to Claude. Here the array of retainers, boats, arches and pillars are used to demonstrate an idealized vision of a grand historical occasion.

The pastoral idyll

There was, however, a different way of looking at the pastoral idyll, and this was not so much the taming and harmonizing of the natural world, as the uninhibited enjoyment of it. In Poussin’s Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (an armless statue) the wonderfully composed group of satyrs and nymphs are enthusiastically dancing and carousing in a beautifully wooded landscape. Poussin was a painter in the grand classical tradition of formal and exquisitely composed paintings, and these figures fill the picture with wonderful swirls of limbs and drapery.

The title of Garafalo’s An Allegory of Love speaks for itself, and here again the beautiful landscape is inhabited by two couples making love, while Cupid fixes us with a knowing look from the sidelines. The erotic content of the picture contrasts strongly with the serene sun-filled landscapes of Claude and his followers.

Watteau’s dreamy landscapes with their elegantly dressed figures have always had a quality of unreality. His figures often turn their backs to you, or walk away absorbed in their own world. His The Scale of Love is a painting with tantalizing mysterious figures in the background, while the players in the foreground are totally absorbed in their music and conversation.

Constable’s The Cornfield is one of the Gallery’s most famous and reproduced pictures, and shows a peculiarly English rural idyll, a genre that Constable made his own. Painted in the studio (during the winter) it glows with summer sunshine and sparkles with light, embodying the English countryside of our fantasies and dreams.

Distant lands

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the search for Paradise took a different direction. It was not to be found among Classical Arcadian landscapes or Christian devotional painting, but further afield. Gauguin searched in vain for it in rural Brittany and then among the natives of Tahiti. He did not find it, but his pictures are painted with heartbreaking yearning. His Faa Ihehe is an evocation of this wonderful simple world he never really found. His figures stand in a luscious landscape full of strange exotic plants, lit with the green and golden light of his own Never-Never Land.

Stanley Spencer looked for his Paradise in Cookham, among the dustbins, fences and everyday people. In his The Lovers and the Dustman his resurrected dustman is clasped in the arms of his loving wife and surrounded by the rejoicing inhabitants of Cookham, teapots, cabbage leaves, and an old tin in their upraised hands – even rubbish has a place in Stanley Spencer’s vision of the Resurrection.

Monet’s well-known and well-beloved Water Lilies and Askelei Gallen-Kallela’s arresting painting of a lake in Finland take the search for Paradise yet further afield. Turning his back on populous and busy Europe, Gallen-Kallela searched among the legends and lakes of his native land, and the wind-ruffled lake with its island of dark trees gives us a stark, heroic vision of paradise.

Chris Ofili’s Afro Love and Unity is a huge and brilliantly coloured picture in red, black and green (the colours of the flag of African Unity). It is embellished with glitter, map pins and decorated elephant dung (perhaps a conveniently available modelling material) and shows a man and a woman gazing lovingly at each other, surrounded by exotic flowers and foliage. It is striking and dramatic, giving a vision of Paradise with a clear political message.

In Mark Rothko’s large and untitled canvas the vision of Paradise is taken into the world of the abstract. In his painting large golden blocks of colour are stacked on top of each other, with bands of rose and lilac, the layers of colour painted and repainted to give them a glowing intensity. He said ‘the people who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experiences I had when I painted them.’

Though many of these pictures are familiar, they gain by being hung in this interesting way. We all have our own ideas of Paradise, and it is challenging and entertaining to look at other people’s interpretation of a dream that we all share.

Paradise is in the Sunley Galleries at the National Gallery until 28th September.

Anne Gardom is Art Critic for New Directions.