Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Flight and Pursuit

The name of 19th century artist William Rimmer might not be one that springs readily to mind among rock fans. But it is Rimmer's picture of a gesturing angel (below) that was used as the now-familiar logo for Led Zeppelin's Swan Song Records.

Rimmer was an Englishman who settled in Massachusetts. He made a notable career as the author of several books on human anatomy for artists, and was also a sculptor who produced several bronzes that are striking for their writhing and compacted energy (his fighting lions, below).

But the works of Rimmer which perhaps linger the most in the mind are the select number of paintings which have as their themes a secretive something which does not yield its story as readily as might at first seem apparent. His 'Master Builder' (below) presents us with a portly architect gesturing towards the site of (or perhaps overseeing the progress of) some future - and presumably grandiose - creation. The architect's costume is vaguely classical, without defining any specific culture or period. At his heels slink two fantastic creatures, dog-like without actually being dogs. Sharp-snouted and six-legged, they are the beasts of dreams. Behind them a bearded onlooker attends the architect. But even these extraordinary elements in the painting are not what seizes our attention.

The robed architect stands sturdily upon a stone ashlar. But this solid-looking ashlar seems suspended impossibly over the void. Logic fights to tell us that the weight of the heavily-built architect must surely force the unsupported stone to give way. But it does not. Neither is there anything in the confident stance of the figure to suggest that he considers himself to be in any immediate danger. No amount of staring at Rimmer's painting will solve the unyielding mystery.

Rimmer's painting 'Flight and Pursuit' (above), also seems to provoke more questions than it answers. What is clear is that the man who is plainly in headlong flight is being pursued - but by whom, or what? And for what reason? In front of us we see a second figure; but the gilded wall behind is visible through this figure. Is the desperate man being chased by a ghost? It is unclear whether the space between the archway in which this second insubstantial figure appears is a parallel corridor or a large mirror which reflects something that is otherwise invisible. And on the floor behind the man the artist shows us a shadow cast by something that is outside the frame. This strangely-ornate building of ghosts and shadows, of pursuer and pursued, gives us no feeling of finding a way out, however fast we run.

These two paintings of Rimmer's are governed by the logic of dreams. That is their power. Perhaps only in dreams can any answers be found to their mysteries.

Artist: William Rimmer
Work: Master Builder, (undated)
Medium: Oils
Location: Private collection

Artist: William Rimmer
Work: Flight and Pursuit, 1872
Medium: Oils
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

'Nineteenth-Century Romantic Bronzes: French, English and American Bronzes, 1830-1915',
by Jeremy Cooper. David & Charles, 1975.
'Audubon, Homer, Whistler and Nineteenth-Century America',
by John Wilmerding. Lamplight Publishing, 1975.

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