An exhibition searches for recurring symbols through thousands of years of art.
The psychologist Carl Jung posited the existence of the collective unconscious, a deep layer of the psyche that is shared by all humanity across time. The dynamics of the collective unconscious, which he called archetypes, find narrative expression in myths and visual expression in symbols. While Jung, as a clinical physician, was primarily concerned with healing mental illness, his investigations broadened into considerations that are very relevant to the study of art and art history. In his book Symbols and Transformation, originally published in 1912, he documented how the same images turn up over and over again throughout history in myth, religion, folklore, dreams, and art.
Taking this volume as a jumping-off point, the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery in Nashville, Tenn., has organized a very wide-ranging exhibition that looks for archetypal images in art. “Symbols & Archetypes: Two Millennia of Recurring Visions in Art,” which will be on view through December 14, gathers together objects from Vanderbilt University’s many collections, including the Fine Arts Gallery, History of Medicine at Eskind Biomedical Library, Edward Emerson Barnard Astronomical Papers, Vanderbilt Television News Archives, and Special Collections at the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries. The show is curated by Emily Weiner in consultation with Volney Gay, emeritus professor of psychiatry, religious studies, and anthropology at Vanderbilt and training and supervising analyst at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.
The exhibition is divided into four sections, each with an intriguing title—“Serpents & Slayers,” “Celestial Events,” “Major Arcana,” and “Sacred Geometries.” Each brings together diverse works to make the point that if an image truly is archetypal, it will appear in different cultures at different times, as if welling up from ancient springs, without there needing to be any direct influence or borrowing. So, for example, the image of a hero triumphing over a serpent or a dragon comes up again and again, in different contexts. An illuminated leaf from a 15th-century French Book of Hours depicts St. Margaret bursting forth unharmed from the belly of a dragon that had swallowed her. Meanwhile, an angel floating overhead is sticking a spear into the dragon’s mouth, presumably slaying it. The artist has combined two dragon killing legends here, that of St. Margaret and that of St. Michael and the dragon. A late 19th-century reproduction of an Early Netherlandish depiction of yet another such story, that of St. George, is also included in the exhibition. An image from a vastly different culture and context is on view nearby: Tokoyuni Utagawa’s 19th-century ukiyo-e print of a Kabuki Actor in the Role of a Samurai Confronting a Snake. This confirms the suspicion that there is something very basic to our psyches about the horror felt at the sight of a serpent and that it may reflect a need to vanquish something within ourselves.
“Celestial Events” shows by example that our fascination with the objects in the night sky is age-old and that images of the heavenly bodies are archetypal in nature. Edward Emerson Barnard’s photograph of a total eclipse of the sun in 1918 is scientifically dispassionate and precise, and yet it seem almost like a mandala or a symbol of divine mystery. J.J. Grandville’s The Wanderings of a Comet (1844), though made with at least a sort of scientific intent, is almost Surreal in its personification of the comet as a woman and its eerie mixture of black and white and color. Contemporary Israeli artist Sharona Eliassaf gives us 99 Cent Dream (2017), in which celestial objects become multicolored geometric abstractions, no longer material planets or stars but eternal Pythagorean mathematical ideas.
“Major Arcana” refers to the 22 main cards of the Tarot, a deck of cards dating from the Renaissance period that is full of archetypal symbols from which occultists and Jungian psychologists have divined all sorts of deep meanings. A 19th-century hand-colored French Tarot is on display at Vanderbilt, but the section contains many other works that echo images from the Tarot, directly or indirectly. Artist Bea Nettles contributes Mountain Dream Tarot (1975), a reimagining of the Tarot iconography in black and white staged photographs. French Surrealist Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob), in collaboration with her life partner Marcel Moore, created a booklet titled Aveux Non Avenus (Disavowals) in 1930. The 11 black and white photo-collages play with traditional mystical imagery such as disembodied eyes, hands holding globes, doves overhead, mirrors, and stars, functioning as a sort of Surrealist neo-Tarot.
Whether or not one is a Jungian, it is hard to argue against the proposition that mathematical truths and geometric images are innate within the human mind, everywhere and at all times. The exhibition’s “Sacred Geometry” section presents various attempts to convey the symbolic power of geometry in an aesthetically appealing way. An anonymous Tantric mandala from India features an irregular polygon with 12 vertices, within which texts are inscribed. In a completely different milieu, Jeanne Miles’ Circle, Square, and Triangle, from the American Abstract Artists’ 50th Anniversary Print Portfolio (1987), could almost be a Tantric mandala; its simple, nested geometrical figures convey a contemplative, eternal quality. Nashville-area artist David Onri Anderson contributes Super Rise Nana Spiral and Snail E.S.P., both from 2019. These whimsical graphic works express the presence of the spiral form in nature; in the former it emanates from a peeled banana, while in the latter it is seen in the growth pattern of a snail’s shell. It suggests the fabled “golden number,” a mathematical proportion that has assumed archetypal status in both science and art.
By John Dorfman