Beyond Beauty and Beasts
Evolution of Stories
Professor Anne Dalke
“Beyond Beauty and Beasts,” Evolution by a Different Medium
Evolutionary thought has challenged the foundation of the Catholic Church (in addition to other Christian denominations) since the dawn of its creation. This struggle was an ever present concern for such scientific men as Lamark, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Charles Darwin himself, who hid his final draft of On the Origin of Species in his Down House closet with the intention of avoiding confrontation with his devout wife and community. When one questions the origin of morality from a religious viewpoint, the story of Adam and Eve undoubtedly comes to mind, for without original sin, morality could not come to be. Thus, from “darkness” came the “light” that many Christian believers use to determine their actions in life. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider evolutionary study, as it has always been and continues to be a great challenge to the belief system of a worldwide culture. What light has come of this battle? Though this question can be approached from many viewpoints and thus, remains unanswered, the exploration of this topic through a different medium proved rewarding.
Christians believe that original sin was founded as Eve tasted the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, tempted by the devil in the form of a snake. God turned away from her and her male counterpart, and from that point on, she and all of her descendents were destined to live a life of pain and struggle. In a modern day world, as the so-called descendents of Adam and Eve, it is difficult to imagine that our fate as human beings relied on a solitary bite from an apple. However, on the other side of the fence, it may be equally or more difficult for religious members to ignore the temptation of accepting evolutionary theory in a time when the world is ruled by science. Using the mediums of acrylic paint and pencil upon canvas, I illustrate this proposed struggle.
The idea of evolution as the modern forbidden fruit of the religious world captured my attention as I considered the topics addressed in class over the course of the semester. What better way to embody this concept but by transforming the snake of temptation into a strand of DNA, a major emblem for evolutionary thought. Though I had no other foundation by which to complete my painting, I felt as though further exploration through this medium would result in the development of a new story over time. I immediately pegged a cobra as the villain of my scene, knowing full well their ability to grab and take hold of their prey from lengthy distances, should it draw too near. I felt this was appropriate, as many liberal sects of the Christian faith have been captured by the vast possibilities of Darwinian thought. Though I intended to structure his entire body from a coiled DNA helix (as is exemplified by the foremost segment of his body) I considered the elaborate markings of many snakes, and decided that one bearing such symbols would be better suited for my painting. Evolution has produced an infinite number of animals with incredible and almost inexplicable external designs and features. I imagined crossing the path of a snake with such markings, and could not determine whether I would be threatened, given my knowledge of poisonous snakes and their elaborate methods of warning predators, or enamored by the thought that nature could replicate such an intricate design. I settled on the idea and decided that though his body lacked color, the snake was obviously dangerous; beautiful in nature, but a threat to the Catholic Church.
After letting my portrait sit for a night, I toyed with the idea of a hand, extended in the direction of the snake. I painted it, and then proceeded to ask myself a series of questions which would determine the future of my painting and, resultantly, the story it would tell. Whose hand was this? Was it Eve, tempted by the snake again? Adam? Did I want to flip the story around and peg men for original or (in this case) the second coming of sin? Was this God’s hand, deeming the snake forbidden unto man? Was it simply a human being in the year 2007, reaching for the same snake I imagined? This question is one that I hope was maintained as I continued to create the painting. I realized that, much like science, everything need not be explained in order to draw conclusions about the topic at hand. If it was an obvious depiction, the painting would lose all significance, as the beauty of art lies in its interpretation.
I did make the decision to paint the hand as if it belonged to an African man. The origin of human beings (without regards to religious belief) is said to have ties to Africa, and accordingly, many of our earliest ancestors have been found buried there, in million year old sediments. I hoped that this obvious representation of race would not eliminate any of the questions above, as many perceive their God or proposed ancestors (Adam and Eve) to be of the same race as themselves. Some Christians might find it difficult to praise a female God, or one that is of a different color, and thus, depending on the viewer, one might not even consider that the hand depicted is in fact that of their creator.
The last element of my painting manifested itself as I began to shade the edges of the snake in red. Though its skin lacked the obvious pigmentation of many poisonous species, this brush border of paint would attract the attention of the viewer, making it the focal point while the accompanying hand remained a topic of curiosity. The color incited a thought. What if the snake was transposed onto the forbidden fruit? The hand could still be that of God, or of any other being with an intention known only to them. Over the course of a day, the apple took shape, the snake almost resembling the shine one might perceive when viewing the skin of this fruit. The snake now appeared as though it could not see the encroaching fingers, though alert in its observation of the outside world.
Once complete, I struggled with the idea of a background. If I painted a naturalistic scene, one might be inclined to think that this was in fact the hand of either Adam or Eve, living within the Garden of Eden. Perhaps the background should be a solid color, or one that fades slightly to a darker shade with distance from the obvious subjects. Should the apple sit upon the ground or a table? Would the presence of a foundation eliminate the ambiguity proposed by this scene? I decided that this was in fact the case. Though I wanted the snake to be the focal point of the portrait, and thus, felt as if it should be the only white object within it, the attention awarded should the background take form would distract from the mystery of the snake itself. Can the snake be seen by the onlooker? Or is its presence representative of the evolutionary ideals embodied by the apple? If the onlooker is reaching, are they reaching for the snake or for sustenance of the fruit? These questions might have been eliminated if the snake was made obvious by its unique white tint amidst a panel of color. Additionally, the white background seemed fitting as the objects remain submerged in nothingness, a tribute to the steadfast battle between Christian doctrine and science. There is no hint to a future in this painting, only a dilemma whose endings are infinite in nature. This, in essence, is a painting of evolution itself, as much a mystery to us as the fate of our species.
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