The Big Sur: Paintings by David LigareBig Sur Landscape: Grimes Point, 2012
o/c, 40 x 60 in.
Winfield Gallery, Carmel, CA
Inspired by the writings of John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers I moved to Monterey County while in my early twenties. I was fortunate to find a small house on Rancho Santa Margarita in the Big Sur where I was surrounded by the wild beauty that Jeffers had described so profoundly. At the same time I was exhibiting my paintings in New York (a contrast I relished) and I was experimenting, as young artists do, with new styles and concepts.
Now, more than forty years later, I am again looking at the landscape of Big Sur. Many styles and fashions in art have bloomed and faded in that time but the landscape of the south coast has remained virtually unchanged. There is an immense power and dignity about Big Sur with its broad, golden shoulders set against the cool sweep of the sea. I believe in the value of recognizing the integrity of the thing seen, that is, in representing every element of nature as carefully and reverently as I can. In certain respects this attention to detail and place is reminiscent of the New Path artists of the mid-nineteenth century or the f64 photographers like Weston, Adams, Cunningham and others. They all turned away from the artful and the "painterly" to embrace the literal. In both cases the artists/photographers in question approached their subjects with an insistent honesty and deep fidelity to nature.
Finally, there is the light. To see and to present the Big Sur in the intense golden light of the late afternoon is to celebrate the great beauty that burns there. Every hill, copse of trees, ragged stone or spread of sea is bathed, molded and carved by the light. Time stands still and it is that exact timelessness - without the qualifier of human activity or artistic style - that interests me.
Aparchai: Ritual OfferingsStill Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches, (Xenia),1989
o/c, 20 x 24 in.
Collection: DeYoung Museum, San Francisco, CA
In 1989 I painted a still life of a pitcher of grape juice and a stack of sandwiches,
now in the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. The pitcher and the shape of the
sliced loaf of bread were distinctly contemporary but the sub-title of the painting,
"Xenia," put the objects into the realm of history painting.
In ancient Greece, according to the Roman writer Vitruvius, when one had houseguests, "on the first day they would be invited to dine with the family, on the next, chickens, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and other country produce were given to them to eat in their own quarters. This is why artists called pictures representing the things that were given to guests "xenia." In my case, the bread and sandwiches depicted were exactly those served to homeless people in a soup kitchen where I volunteered in Salinas, California. They were literally, xenia or food gifts for strangers.
Another genre of still life painting in ancient times was the depiction of ordinary
objects that played paradoxically with the extreme care with which they were
created. These were called rhopography, The best example of these was a floor
mosaic from Pergamum called "The Unswept Floor," with the remnants of a meal
scattered about. There are bits of bone, husks from nuts, a seashell, a bird's foot
and even a very real-looking mouse nibbling on a nut.
It has been thought by historians that most existing images of foodstuffs painted
in ancient times are either xenia or rhopography, indeed any real evidence to the
contrary is nearly as lost as Greek still life paintings themselves. But I believe
that there is another category of imagery - hidden in plain sight - that has not yet
been recognized by scholars.
About ten years ago, I began looking and thinking more carefully about the
paintings found in ancient Roman Pompeii and Herculaneum. Many of the
images were clearly not of items that one would give to a houseguest to eat. The
most famous example, usually described as a xenia, is of four peaches and a
glass vase of water from Herculaneum. It's a very beautiful painting but as a
xenia it represents a scant meal - with green, seemingly inedible peaches. I
recalled from travels in Nepal seeing small shrines with offerings of fruit, rice or
flowers and I wondered if these peaches might have served a similar function.
I confess that, while I had made a careful study of Greek art, I had spent no
time studying Greek religious practices. Art history texts generally ignore
religious practices and the surviving ancient writings may neglect them because
they were so commonplace and deeply ingrained. The casualness with which
these rituals are performed in Nepal attests to both the obvious depth of belief
and the off-handedness of their practices. Ritual offerings seem simply to have
been taken for granted as a part of everyday life.
In ancient Greece, ritual offerings and sacrifices may have been extremely
commonplace but, according to Historian Walter Burkert, "The most important
evidence for Greek religion remains the literary evidence, especially as the
Greeks founded such an eminently literary culture. Nevertheless, religious texts
in the narrow sense of sacred texts are scarcely to be found." I would add that
evidence depicted on Greek vases is suggestive, if not necessarily specific, of religious practices. Presumably easel paintings (pinax) of which there were vast numbers, would also have included depictions of processions, offerings, sacrifices, burials and other rituals.
Still Life with Olives and Wheat,
o/c, 20 x 24 in.
Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York
The ritual of first-fruit offerings was deeply ingrained. Burkert writes that "an
elementary form of gift offering, so omnipresent that it plays a decisive role
in…the origin of the concept of the divine is the primitial or first fruit offering, the
surrender of firstlings of food whether won by hunting, fishing, gathering, or
agriculture. The Greeks speak of ap-archi, beginnings taken from the whole, for
the god comes first." But without specific textual proof that early still life paintings
represented aparchai, how do we know that it might be so?
First, there are the surviving wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum that depict imagery of foodstuffs in conjunction with small votive statues of Dionysus or Demeter, goddess of the harvest. In these original pine panel paintings (later recreated in fresco, including their frames) the depictions might be stand-ins for the offerings themselves, or representations accompanying the offerings or perhaps allegorical images expressing piety. William Rouse in his book, Greek Votive Offerings, notes that, "the offering in kind was often commemorated by a model." He cites gold sheaves of wheat left at the temple at Delphi, gold clusters of grapes at Delos and even a golden radish. In the National Museum in Reggio Calabria there are many terracotta models of fruits and vegetables found at the Temple of Demeter. Animals were also depicted: a gold deer dedicated to Apollo, etc. Indeed, all manner of enterprises might be represented in kind. Herodotus wrote that "Mandrocles, who built Darius' bridge over the Bosphorous, spent part of his fee on a picture of the bridge which he dedicated to Hera in Samos for a firstfruit."
And so it seems clear to me, with these and other evidences, that it is entirely possible that many early still life paintings were representations, not just of hospitality gifts (xenia), or pleasurable arrangements of ordinary objects (rhopography), but, that they may have been intended to metaphysically stand in for or accompany offerings of thanks to the gods (aparchai). Within the art history community, a new archeology is needed to look more carefully at this wholly overlooked genre of ancient art.
David Ligare, 2012
Burkert, Walter. "Greek Religion." Harvard University Press, 1985, pp. 66-67
Rouse, William Henry Denham. "Greek Votive Offerings: An Essay in the History
of Greek Religion."
Cambridge:At the University Press, 1902, pp. 39 - 93
Vitruvius. "The Ten Books on Architecture." Dover Publications, 1960, p. 187