I love a painting that tells a story. Paintings that do this well allow a kind of meditation on the theme presented and let us tap into and exercise our wider cultural knowledge.
This often means we can find parallels between a painting and a story or theme in another medium – like a poem or novel. When this happens, you know the painting is truly inspiring.
It is often said that abstract art is meant to be meditative. But the point of meditation is surely to have some goal, to meditate upon something specific, purposefully? Presented with, say, a Rothko, what is one supposed to be meditating on and how, without having referred to explicatory notes by the intermediary figure of the art historian or art critic? And who are they to direct the experience?
This is why I have always loved The Questioner of the Sphynx by the American symbolist painter Elihu Vedder (1836-1923), which puts me in mind of Shelley’s Ozymandias.
It was first exhibited in 1863 and reflects the lingering influence of the Egyptian revival, which left a mark on architecture across the US in the first half of the 19th century. Vedder did not visit Egypt until much later in life, so he must have relied on source material such as travel illustrations of the Sphinx at Giza. But the image he created was a testament to his own imagination and tugs at deep strings in the viewer’s.
It is at first an atmospheric image that celebrates the romantic tradition of scenes set among the ruins of once-great civilizations. It is also about the hubris of those once-great civilizations. And it is, crucially, a cautionary tale on the lengths that seekers of knowledge, truth, call it what you will, are prepared and compelled to go to in their quests.
A ragged traveller has arrived, after an obviously long and arduous journey, at half-buried and remote ruins in a desert. A path is discernible in the sands, stretching into the dark and foreboding distance. A skull lies nearby, possibly that of an earlier seeker, to serve as a memento mori.
The setting is the remains of a once-great realm, built for eternity but now broken and swallowed up by the indifferent desert. Vedder said he sought to portray the hopelessness of man before the laws of nature. But the head emerging from the sands retains such a sense of majesty and mystery. What has that great visage witnessed, what tales can it tell?
Reason tells us our seeker presses his ear to the cold stone of its lips and hears nothing but our imagination tells us it could be otherwise. And whatever he hears, be it enlightening words or simply the desert wind, what is his fate? Will that path lead him away to shelter or his doom? Is he destined to be another skull among the ruins?
It is almost up to us to continue writing his story – although Vedder did make other versions of the painting over the years, like this one from 1875 (above right), showing the pilgrim increasingly old, skeletal and ragged as he continues his vigil at the lips of the Sphynx.
The takeaway point is that Questioner of the Sphynx expresses a compulsive drive we can all relate to, in a narrative context in which we can immerse ourselves to meditate upon it, along with the idea of hubris.
The painting’s parallels with Shelley’s Ozymandias are obvious. It is often said that Ozymandias (the Greek name for Ramesses II) is a poem every boy should read but I would go further and say every boy should be made to memorize it.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The poem has the same sense of mystery and wonder as Vedder’s image and evokes exactly the same scene of desert ruins. Like Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1834), it is not direct experience but a narrator recounting an eyewitness tale, which increases the sense of intrigue. As it was published in 1818, it is likely that Vedder, who was also a poet, would have been familiar with it (but I would need to look into that).
However, it is the theme of hubris that prevails in Ozymandias, in a more brutal image of man’s hopelessness before the laws of nature. For here we do hear the visage “speak” – and it is a message written as a proud boast that, although unchanged in wording, has now become a baleful warning.
Yet the echo of power still reverberates, “stamped on these lifeless things”, and the story recited by the “traveller from an antique land” clearly affects the poem’s narrator – and reader.
Ozymandias closes with the same sense we take from Vedder’s painting, that “the lone and level sands stretch far away”. For each work hints at the way it stretches beyond its own rich confines and into the unlimited realm of the human imagination, steeped in and nourished by rich and ancient layers of culture.