Michelle Scott - Symbols of Death, Rebirth and the Ideal in Neoclassical Art

The term neoclassical refers to the style of art most popular from 1750-1830. During these years, upheavals were to be found in all human endeavors. In philosophy, Locke, Burke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant and Schopenhauer were presenting their contradictory views of human nature (Magee, 2001, p. 5). In politics, French governments came and went with alarming frequency, Napoleonic conquests signaled regime changes all across Europe, and the American colonies split from England and created a new system of government. In the arts, though, a single style was overwhelmingly dominant, the neoclassical style (Hawley, 1964, p. 3). What was it then, about the neoclassical style that so impressed its contemporaries that it dominated its era? Specifically, what was it about one motif, classical ruins, which caused it to be repeated in so many individual works?

According to Carl Jung, archetypal imagery, found repeated and dominant in a culture, are evidence of commonly held obsessions and ideas. An example he used was of the Nazi party's use of symbols before and during World War II to stir the popular consciousness (Jung, 1976, p. 65-67). For our purposes, there are three layers to Jung's theory. Jung's theory of mind proposed that there were two divisions of the unconscious mind, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The content of the collective unconscious is archetypes, just as that of the personal unconscious is personal memory. Archetypes are forms that human ideas, emotions, and drives may take, and are expressed as symbols. Symbols are the specific images that make it possible for us to understand the abstract. The most commonly recognized symbols are anthropomorphic symbols, such as heroes, tricksters, or divine figures that represent other human attributes. However, Jung also recognized other types of archetypes and symbols:

There are archetypes whose content is less anthropomorphic, less readily personalized, such as the archetype of wholeness or the archetype of rebirth. These archetypes Jung called archetypes of transformation, "typical situations, places, ways and means, that symbolize the kind of transformation in question." (Hopcke, 1999, p.15)

Jung further broadened his definition of the archetype to say that "there are as many archetypes as there are situations in life (CW9.99)." (Clarke, 1992, p. 117).

The repetition of the themes of classical ruins in neoclassical art is an example of an archetype at play. The neoclassical era was an unusually unstable one and the people of the era looked back to classical times as an example of life at its best. The ruins therefore become symbols of three primary ideas: what was lost, what was ideal and what would always be. There are many paintings that could be used to typify this idea, but we will look at three: Panini's The Roman Forum from 1735, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes' The Ancient City of Agrigentum: Ideal Landscape from 1787, and Hans Ditlev Christian Martens' Thorvalds' Studio in Rome (with Pope Leo XII Visiting in 1826) from 1830.

The Ancient City of Agrigentum, The Louvre

Thorvalds' Studio in Rome, State Museum of Art, Copenhagen

Giovanni Paolo Panini's work is perhaps the best known of the neoclassical landscapes. The Roman Forum shows our three archetypal symbols fairly simply. The idea of loss, or death, is conveyed in the ruined architecture itself. The columns that once held up the city (like a skeleton) are broken and on the ground, the aqueduct (which functioned similar to a circulatory system for providing water to the city) also survives only as a fragment. There are hovels among the ancient structures to contrast between the classical architecture and the illiteracy that followed its era.

The Roman Forum, Detroit Institute of Arts

The Ideal is found in the choice of the Forum for Panini's setting. The Forum in Roman life symbolized Rome's dominance in the classical world, both in terms of raw political power and in terms of cultural dominance. Miniature replicas of the Forum were to be found all over the classical world, as Roman settlers spread out to found new settlements. By the neoclassical era, the old Roman ideas of republic and empire were rapidly gaining in popularity, so the Forum could also represent the Ideal form of government for both traditionalists and for republicans. Also significant in the painting is how many figures are pointing to various structures, as if to highlight their magnificence to the viewer.

Finally, the idea of rebirth is presented in the painting. Not only are live people in modern dress a part of the painting, but also animals and plants. The ruins have plants growing in and on them, so that they have taken on a new kind of life. Everyday business is being transacted in the Forum again. Not as noticeable are the contemporary structures interspersed with the classical ruins; besides the hovels there are also structures built with classical ideals of form in mind.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes The Ancient City of Agrigentum: Ideal Landscape takes a middle ground between the neoclassical landscapes that depict classical ruins and works that portray life in the classical era. (Another of Valenciennes' works, Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes, is here:

Symbols of loss and death can be found in the foreground of his work. The scene takes place at sunset. As in Panini's work, broken columns litter the ground, and there is even a broken infinity symbol that has fallen halfway into a lake. Behind the columns are a small party of hunters preparing to shoot a bird, and fishermen are hauling in their catch for the day. The ideal can be found in two places in Valenciennes' work. First, there is the well-lit classical city on the hill. Also, in the bottom left corner of the painting are symbols of perfect hospitality: a wealthy man has sent his servant to welcome strangers passing on the road to his home for the night (Irwin, 1997, p. 204). Symbols of rebirth can be found in the middle ground as a woman is gathering food near a lake. Also interesting is that while the vegetation among the ruins seems to be barely clinging to life, the plants and trees in the hilltop city are healthy.

Then, there is Hans Ditlev Christian Martens' Thorvalds' Studio in Rome (with Pope Leo XII Visiting in 1826). Strictly speaking, the piece does not present actual ruins at all; they are implied by the fact that several sculptures from different eras are housed protectively in a modern building. The pieces being displayed so obviously out of context, then, is a symbol of loss in that the original context has been lost to the viewer. The sculptures also represent an ideal. First, they are worth preserving in the first place. Also, representatives of the most important social groups of the era are shown studying them (the Pope, a small aristocratic family, soldiers, and scholars). The painting also represents rebirth, or more strictly in this case, continuity with the classical era. Along side monumental statues of Roman generals and the three graces, stand Christian sculptures of Biblical figures. In the foreground is also found a contemporary bust of a philosopher or political leader.

In Jung's mind, recurring themes in art represented the common obsessions of the era in which they were created, because the fact that the theme resonated with a person was proof of its archetypal foundation. Symbols of Death, Rebirth, and the Ideal were particularly powerful for people living in an era of frequent revolution and political idealism, and this power is reflected in the art of the era.

Works Cited

Hopcke, Robert H. (1999). A Guided Tour of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Clarke, J. J. (1992). In Search of Jung: Historical and Philosophical Enquiries. New York: Routledge.
Hawley, Henry. (1964). Neoclassicism: Style and Motif. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art.
Jung, C. G. The Concept of the Collective Unconscious. In Joseph Campbell (Ed.).
Magee, Bryan. (2001) The Story of Philosophy. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
Irwin, David. (1997). Neoclassicism. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
(1976). The Portable Jung. New York: Penguin.