Painting the Dionysian End of the Pandemic

This is what two paintings 423 years apart have to say about feeling good post-pandemic. How the myth of Dionysus and his philosophical dynamism is in conversation with art, self-direction and the instability of choice, as the Covid-19 pandemic seemingly comes to an end.

What do you want the end of the coronavirus pandemic to look like? Do you have a particular hand you want to grab hold of? Does the end include hugging? No masks? Two bright and colourful ‘I’ve had my Covid vaccination’ stickers? Lavish pre-drinks and all nighters? Or please baby no more parties in LA, let’s have a sit down dinner with our dearest friends.

The official end of the pandemic is only possible when the virus has a transmission and infection growth factor below 1.0, though the CDC currently reports that there are at least five SARS-Cov-2 virus variants of concern in the US. Transmission rates cannot be guaranteed to decrease and even though genomic surveillance tracking isn’t widely available, some governments have provided national roadmaps towards the end. In person-interaction restrictions and household lockdowns may come to a close, in the UK as soon as the 21st of June.

The despair everyone, especially frontline key workers, has felt from being potentially exposed to the fatal disease may be coming to an end, but will be replaced is a new disconcerting vulnerability: after a year of physical restraint, what is going to make you feel good again? What of your old life do you choose to re-enter? What of your old life do you choose to replicate and renew?

When we’re allowed to do anything that we want again, what will you allow yourself to do?

The end of the coronavirus pandemic lifts the lid on our choices and, as with all things, the freedom of our potential choices got me thinking about art and antiquity.

You don’t have to look at two portrait oil paintings of Dionysus for hours to rationalise the ambiguous ending of a global pandemic, and how maximising happiness in conflict with self-control, as it relates to others, is a trap society invented for productive consumption. I already for some reason did that.

Now, while this could have turned into a ten-page op-ed essay on Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (1490–1510), I found myself drawn to figure portraits of the Greco-Roman Hellenistic god Dionysus. Sometimes known as Bacchus. Mostly associated with drinking, leisure, Cyrenaicism, luxury, carelessness, the turn up. Often misunderstood: in Orphic legend his heart was all that could be saved by Athena, most of his myths describe him as somehow being born twice and he grew up in a rain cloud.

For all intents and purposes Bacchus’s subversive nature pierces into the centre of hedonism, a philosophy that evaluates the preferential pleasures wrapped in a single choice. Further reading into Dionysus may lead you to The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche, who measured up subjective self-expression and art in Greek culture, as needing more than just the self-control, or the Apollonian rational side of life, but Dionysus’ immediacy and earth-bound frenzy.

Nietzsche was adamant about the stuff between the formal lines, where mystery said more about the emerging world, than formalism did. To Dionysus or Bacchus, the art of life is about crowding in as much enjoyment into each moment and freeing one’s self from self-consciousness, words, responsibility or communication into a state of euphoria.

This past year we’ve had to become especially selfless while in isolation and decidedly Apollonian. Even those who may have found the pandemic ‘relaxing’, at first might have battled with the stress of enforced leisure.

The first thought has gone to the others with underlying conditions and loved ones, sheltering them. The impulse of selflessness, social distancing and stricter hygiene practices could become undone by vaxx-galore — vaccines which at present do not have global equity of access — and by people urgently getting ready to maximise the vibrancy of upcoming public gatherings. The pandemic ends when the party next door begins. Being vaccinated may cause some people to do too much or do the most to make up for lost time and celebrate making it through.

Making choices for themselves, without the limits of the state, that make them naturally feel good. With consideration’s being given more to the sweetest choices, the most extraordinary and with the biggest risk of fun.

It could be argued, however that maybe there is no morally intersectional way to celebrate the ‘end’ of a pandemic, the virus may continue to evolve and develop into a deadly seasonal flu. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism anyway; the pandemic ending will still have a world carrying inequality and hedonistic attitudes on its back, alongside the collective good we’ve achieved this year. When lockdown limits are taken off, the freedom of choice may have to overcompensate for higher standards of ‘what fun is’ and tense new expectations in our physical interactions.

Now that you’re fully vaccinated you can’t just lead your cult devotees into the woods to dance under the guise of a fertility festival. Not just because social distancing but because the emotional release compared to lockdown life may be too much! And compared to the many other choices there’s always the tiny chance that another fun choice, that you missed out on by making this fertility-festival-wine-down choice, may have been better.

Aristotle argued that pleasure when attached to a primary activity which has its own intrinsic value — say managing to book and pre-pay for an al fresco terrace dinner slot amongst the 300,000 other hopeful table bookings in London– no matter the pleasure, the primary activity is always in a compromised position, making our choices more vulnerable. It’s not about self-control it’s about not knowing any better the intrinsic value other choices that you could have made had. This conflict is present in the lives of many who struggle mentally with addiction or may have difficult relationships with substances. They know more keenly the tragic dynamic of the Apollonian and Dionysian, they experience the weight of choices very complexly.

The pandemic ending, will hopefully make it easier for a lot of people around the world to make fulfilling choices that really make them feel good. When the virus is no longer a threat hopefully satisfaction and sufficient access to safe spaces in their lives can become wider.

Safe spaces that do not just have to include their own living room and a static-weighted phone call.

Experiencing the world in portrait mode, limited to interior placements as opposed to grand sweeping landscape, has been rough. Or I suppose it has been like experiencing life on selfie mode and not even having someone around to help hold a camera up for your portrait.

Discussing Bacchus and critiquing the art he inspired does not indicate at all what we should do post-pandemic, the public health measures or how to respond to the world around us. It is more about the wider discussion on the delayed consequences of our choices and the value of our intentions: evaluative hedonism.

Doing fun, wild, hoochie-cute things are not always careless, but they are not always fulfilling. My art criticism don’t got to tell you that. I just find it very cool, when art seems to respond to us in the present, even when it was created hundreds of years ago (I will be discussing Immanuel Kant and Michael Fried later on — who in their own ways argued for objective purity in art or at least the differentiation of art and materiality. They made it known that if art relied on the subject matter, or interactions with spectators then this was a sign of excess or theatre. The presence of the object/art and viewership should not be as important than the physical object itself, just putting a pin here to let you know) and casts an eye over us.

So how do two paintings of Bacchus embody the sweet taste of chaotic and instinctual choices? What do they have to say to us about choosing what makes us feel good?

There is one particular painting of Bacchus that always struck me as pretty wonderful, but alas, unless you write it down it becomes very difficult to find the original piece of art that moved you again.

Generally, most Bacchus paintings are landscape scenes that include wild gardens, forest floors, his followers, the details of his romance with Ariadne and his leopard-pulled chariots. Think Triumph of Bacchus by Ciro Ferri from the 17th century or Titus’ Bacchus and Ariadne painting, drafted by Raphael and then completed by Titus 1522–1523, a painting in which I still have questions about the dismembered head of a doe or deer possibly female deer, at the feet of a man wrestling a massive python, questions questions questions.

I think, the self is a wonderfully compelling natural subject, so I’m putting the conversation of hedonism and the ripening end of the pandemic in portrait mode, to discuss two specific subject portraits of Bacchus. Putting a higher power in the face of man has somehow always been man’s first commandment — made in His image we made Him in our best imagination… and none have done this better than Caravaggio.

For every reason that I find Bacchus (c.1696) to be extraordinary I find Bacchus Painting (c.2019) by Romy von Rijckevorsel to be just as generative and wonderful. Rijckevorsel, a Dutch painter, said of the painting for Saatchi Art, “For me, Bacchus is not only the god of the drunk and drink. For me, Bacchus is primarily an inspiration. My work is bold, colourful, very inviting for personal interpretations and not without obligation! Actually, I am not so concerned with similarity anymore. My starting point is usually a few photos that appeal to me very much, which I add together…I also like to exchange detailed pieces with rough, sometimes abstract surfaces and patterns.”

This is interesting when taking into account the wider philosophical discussion on the conflict of Apollonian and Dionysian elements in art and culture.

Before Nietzsche’s Dionysian revelation in 1872, Kant’s Critique of Judgement in 1790, argued that pleasure in art should be based on aesthetic formalism, so that anything imperfect in a piece, or art that relied on the subject matter, was a sign of excess. For Kant, the formal pattern manifested by a piece of art and the way in which elements in the piece are interrelated in space or time, was enough to maintain beauty or artistic integrity.

Yet Rijckevorsel says of her Bacchus Painting and other work, “When the result is not always correct, then I am very happy with that. I like paintings that rub! Attract and repel at the same time.”

Despite Kant’s formalist conclusions, both paintings maintain a sublime integrity that captures the essence of Bacchus and tell deeply rich and subjectively similar stories, just with different aesthetics. The stories being that of hedonism and choice.

The cover of the April 12th New Yorker, Lorenzo Mattotti’s “Coney Island Swings Back” is wonderful, feestive and probably more relatable, but nothing signifies the end of reason, order, lockdown, control and structure like a painting of the three-thousand-year-old Bacchus, lord of festivity and freedom.

First thing I notice is how Caravaggio handles the eyes.

In the portrait there is just as much tension and energy in the arch of Bacchus’ dark eyebrows as in his grip on the neck of the kylix glass. They are both two focal points of balance-soon-to-be-out-of-balance. Movement can also be traced in the tilt of Bacchus’ head, which is painted leaning forward, even as he is reclining in repose. It implies an unexpected invitation to the viewer in a relatively flat picture that doesn’t have massive depth of field. Bacchus is saying more than come hither, he’s saying you’ve already arrived. He was one of the more benevolent Olympians towards people and I can’t help feeling propositioned, as well as seen.

The line of focus from the heavy eyes go directly to the viewer and puts an urgency on them no matter how long they look at the painting. The subtle tilt of the head also puts Bacchus in a position where he’s looking down on the viewer; leaving them on the outer foot and making them feel like they’re playing catch up.

The mood of the painting indicates that Bacchus must have already suggested something before Caravaggio painted the moment down. The depth of emotion for this subject is more about that implication on the viewer as opposed to the usually pained, distraught and surprised animation on the faces of Caravaggio’s subjects, where the emotional depth comes from what is happening to the subjects.

Red is the boldest colour in this palette, where there is red there is action in the painting or at least red is found where the subjective narrative is clearest. The rosy-red cheeks do more than indicating the flush of alcohol intoxication but also allude to how young Bacchus is. He’s young that in a way that isn’t hyperbolically cherub but realistically youthful; Caravaggio often used the principle of hic et nunc meaning “here and now”: in his paintings. Caravaggio may have used the ambiguity of his model’s age because of all the twelve Olympians in Greek mythology Dionysus was the last to arrive, after the unusual circumstances of his birth, and so the youngest. This almost makes the knowing look he is giving worse because it comes from a mature beyond his years.

Just as in Caravaggio’s painting of The Lute Player (ca.1596–97) the subject’s gender in Bacchus is somewhat androgynous, which is cool — one of Caravaggio’s biographers, Giovanni Bellori, first thought the subject in The Lute Player was female and they are now thought of as a castrato. Similarly, both Bacchus and the Lute player as devotional subjects have been painted by Caravaggio over and over again. This ambiguity and gender non-conformity may also be a call back to the context of Dionysus’ upbringing, since he was raised in secret as a girl to protect him from the vengeful goddess Hera.

Most likely the softness of the subject’s features could be Caravaggio honouring his sexuality.

Recently it was discovered that he painted another aspect of himself into the painting in the jug of wine. His literal self portrait hides inside the carafe in miniature, and this could be for a variety of reasons owing to his alcoholism, Dionysus’s demi-god relationship to man being rooted in teaching them how to make wine, and the fact that Caravaggio often painted himself into his work — in the scene painting of the arrest of Christ, he is seen holding a lamp and more famously in the beheading of Goliath his child self is seen beheading his adult self.

Bacchus (c.1696) is overall very balanced and dramatic, and though it seems like a typically ideal beauty portrait, of the Mannerist style, other aspects hide under the surface to show that this is a more naturalistic and Baroque representation of Bacchus.

The bubbles in the round jug of near-black wine that contains Caravaggio’s own face are surely set to burst. His outstretched hand with the wine kylix has dirty fingernails and the hastily strewn together lectus Bacchus is reclining on shows an old-rumpled mattress beneath the white cloth.

His super defined muscular arm is his only balance on the lectus and this all the more adds to the precariousness of the liquid, glassware and fragile vine crown that any moment could be done away with.

The kylix wine glass tilts forward — painted just one second before spilling, like if you stared for one second too long or closely the red will spill over, the red that is already rippling on its surface. This ambiguity of movement is just one example of the many imbalanced elements in this painting, such as the overripening fruit bursting on the table (a nod to the futility of youth, the circle of life, yolo you know mortality). One apple has a worm burrow and the leaves in Bacchus’ crown are curling brown and you can almost hear the coil of their decay, thanks to Caravaggio’s impressive chiraroscuro.

Unlike the encroaching darkness that floods most of Caravaggio’s other work, this portrait is light. Bacchus doesn’t emerge or work themselves from out of the darkness, Caravaggio’s usual dark macabre is seen instead in the smaller object’s shadows and folds. The deliberate weight of the shadows in the painting subtly hold symbolic weight, typical of other sottoboscos.

The large black ribbon grasped in his hand to both conceal and hold himself together, is in direct contrast with the cult-frenzied energy Bacchus is known for. The deliberate restraint and assuredness blends more with traditional Christian imagery than of intoxication or pagan release. The same arm that balances the subject from tilting into or out of the plane of the painting is at the same time playing with the robe in a mode of leisure; the strength and control of hedonism along one arm.

Looking again at the play of light in the whole painting, the brown background easily could be the wall in the back of the room. There is a soft light coming from the bottom left corner travelling to the top right. The light hits the wine chalice first — creating a shadow behind it that looks like an apple. This dark shadow is an unmistakable impression of the Biblical first sin and the first choice of man(simultaneously while Bacchus is offering the viewer another in the wine glass which alludes to the eucharist). Bacchus leans into the soft light to where we as the viewer stand on the other side of the table, on the precipice of that light. And although he leans forward, he casts no shadow, the light travels beyond Bacchus’ right shoulder; and the space beyond him? Endless.

Rijckevorsel‘s acrylic charcoal painting of Bacchus is incredibly vibrant and multiple body parts and objects and lines overlap and melt over each other. The hands do more than offer up a carafe of wine and a glowing superimposed scarab beetle, the multiple hands seem to leave imprints on other parts of the painting; diluting the colours where other hands have touche. As if they weren’t just painted in place but drifted into that part of the canvas, settled in and got comfortable.

The flighty representations of the self within projected selves, and sometimes outside of the bright boundaries and colours of the self, urge the viewer to connect lines and symbols of the painting together.

My favourite part of the painting are the pink collaged leaves that stain the chaise lounge Bacchus is sitting on, as if they’re leaking onto the fabric.

Two pieces of Egyptian iconography in the painting include a scarab beetle which embodies protection from death and rebirth and the wadjet (Eye of Horus) which embodies royal protection and healing. The scarab is offered in place of Caravaggio’s kylix of wine, or like a rose, and though this may be a sign of benevolence Bacchus’ other hand is painted red. Egyptian symbols between 1400–1500 were thought to just be mysterious, esoteric, multi-layered clues as opposed to part of a logical language and writing system.

Similarly, Rijckevorsel’s work requires the viewer to look for symbolic clues within the symbols even as they are being handed to them. While language and complete hieroglyphics would tell a complete story, Bacchus Painting fragments it, into its most vibrant parts. Which is pretty Dionysian. Nothing of the body or limb propositions as well are entirely realistic making the body and spacing new and strange. I think that Rijckevorsel’s work, and it’s several eyes on the viewer, is a testament to how vividly one can bring their interpretations and personal situation to a piece of art and identify the purity of antiquity, Renaissance symbolism and Christian iconography for themselves.

There are two subjects in Rijckevorsel’s piece: Bacchus and the leopard. The leopard having a very similar expression to Caravaggio’s Bacchus is a little bit jarring and unexpected and perfect.

Simultaneously, the moulding and blushing face of Rijckevorsel’s Bacchus is only just about recognisable, their original features re-shaped and details muddied with green paint and cloudy dark grey. They don’t look unfilled or that their features are missing, but like their face has been filled to overflowing with mystery. The painting overall looks like a slowly brewing, ripening wine, that we opened too soon.

The platter and plate of fruit didn’t even make it, yet the second painting just as full of vibrant decay. “I like to leave large parts of the canvas free or not filled in because I really love an unfinished, not perfect image,” Rijckevorsel explains on Saatchi Art. “And I also like to be able to fill in things myself.” The jug of wine in this painting is being offered in fingers that are just as mismatched in Caravaggio’s Bacchus, and is in motion, leaning towards the viewer.

The gold ensconced third eye, or misplaced second eye or seventh eye (have you ever listened to that Badbadnotgood and Charlotte Day Wilson song In Your Eyes) is The Eye of Providence also known as the Eye of God. It watches and observes just as Caravaggio’s Bacchus did, although the textured skin around this one seem more tired and less sensuous . This symbol is also associated with Freemasonry and other ‘secret groups’ conspiring to ruin the world yet the surrounding gold indicates glory, compassion and divinity — just as it would have in early Renaissance period art. The eye represents the opening of the threshold to God’s inner self or to His heart, as the viewer is held in His eye. There’s no shadow of an apple in Rijckevorsel’s piece, but perhaps we are it, in the directed gaze of several disembodied eyes that are tethered and connected. Perhaps the eyes are sightlessness just in the same way that the viewer cannot look into each of them all at once.

Folding in Modernity with her own flair the overall portrait is post impressionistic or surrealist, like Remedios Varo’s Ojos Sobre La Mesa. Additionally, the leaf growing out of the eye, on the right side of Bacchus’ right shoulder reminds me of Francesco del Cossa’s golden Renaissance portrait of Saint Lucy (c.1473–1474) and her legendary disembodied eyes.

The painting always has something new to notice in a way that makes you wonder whether every stroke and figure was a guided choice or a whim. Of her process Rijckevorsel says, “I like working with acrylics. Acrylic fits very well with my method. Fast smooth painted wet layers. Sometimes the canvas lies on the ground and sometimes I put it back on the wall. The charcoal drawings lines have started to play an ever greater role. It was first a way to quickly set up the portrait, now the lines are an important part of the final result. I recently also incorporated collages through my portraits.”

Rijckevorsel’s Bacchus Painting enacts some of what Anthony Giddens in 1990 called ‘disembedding’ — the overcoming of time and space by removing ‘events from their local time frame’ and reorganizing ‘time and space in a way connects presence and absence.’ Our maximum narrative — what we choose to do and feel good post-pandemic—has to consider our relative placement in linear time for a moment: “As the distance between the ‘now’ and the future disappears, the latter ceases to have any forward projection, and collapses in on itself.” The stylistic collapse of Rijckevorsel’s Bacchus Painting reminds me of that post-modern chase.

The many differences between the two paintings highlight the impact of literacy and understanding as time has gone on since the 1600s. The vulgarity of realism is confronted daily by the fractionated ways we think about reality, time and our relations to others. That’s why imagining a global pandemic was so hard in the first place back in 2020, that’s why seeing it come to end feels like we’re watching it through our periphery even as it comes towards us. Where’s the language for having been removed from our spatial time frames and suddenly being projected forward? How can we choose what to do next when we’ve been dis-embedded from linear time by this global period of mourning and survival.

If Wallace Steven’s was of three minds in 1917 then a modern person in 2021 may find themselves in seven or nine. It is useful to imagine art offering that much ambiguity of movement and balance-soon-to-be-out-of-balance while we are being confronted with the promise of better times after grief, loss and economic decay.

This is where I would like emphasise that this article is more of a conversation and I’m not making points to die on those hills. Unlike most good art criticism and philosophy I connect can only disparate ideas like an ambitious Marianne Moore poem. Also I don’t necessarily care which choice you make, it’s intrinsic moral value or how you choose to turn up. This article is more about the mad instability of choice and pleasure in extraordinary times than of morality.

How involved you can be with a piece of art has changed since 1596. Michael Fried claimed that when an object depended upon the beholder, it degenerated into the condition of theatre. In other words, when the pictorial essence of an artwork is compromised through its relation to particular situations (who is viewing it, what they know of culture, their socio-political context, and even how they feel) more than the materiality of the object, then art no longer functions in its ‘pure form’ but becomes something else — excess of the pure.

Art shouldn’t be made to promote spectatorship but objective purity. It shouldn’t require us staring at it for it to exist.

Yet the self is the heightened difference of time-we in every cell are built of the passage of time- and if either Caravaggio’s or Rijckevorsel’s work were up on a stage then they would depends on us to behold them.

Yet these two pieces have sort of alluded that they do require us being there for the intentions of their subjects — Bacchus’ many looks — to communicate meaning.

So is art having meaning more important than just having beauty?

Is a pleasurable choice more important if it means something, in it’s dis-embedded location of space time, or if it feels good at that time?

Can we ever dis-embed our choices and maximum narrative out of linear space-time, like Dionysus would want? During lockdown it seemed possible that time was running and returning in a circle. Hedonism only works if there are no linear consequences of having passionate, ecstatic Dionysian state of mind.

If every choice therefore in linear time has consequences than how do we choose what we want to do and value it appropriately?

The evolution between these two paintings lies in their presentation of choices. Bacchus in each gesture of kylix, wine, scarab or carafe generates a sense of ontological security in an otherwise ambiguous, uncertain world. It is through consumption, then, that the modern self post-pandemic is fully realised and expressed. You have no choice but to choose and consume. Or choose and produce, Rijckevorsel’s Bacchus offers a scarab beetle which spends it’s life rolling balls of manure for mating, food and for their larvae eggs to grow in. Produce or consume. Making the choice is contributes to your growth, self-actualisation and self-realisation. Making choices for oneself and self-control is effective precisely because it bridges the divide between self and other. It fills the empty space with intention, self-preservation, and hopefully collective preservation.

You are what you choose to do, so let it be ratchet good. Let it be good(see disclaimer). During lock down you were probably dis-embedded from linear time anyway so how will you know it’s consequences? But making choices is difficult because responsibility helps to legitimise the workings of neoliberalism by diverting attention towards the individual and away from wider structural features. What good is your good choice if all the other choices being made around you cause harm?

And even if you choose a selfish and fun more hedonistic choice it may lead to despotism because ultimately you had ‘no choice but to choose.’ Now that you’re fully vaccinated you can’t just write a think piece about post postmodern post-pandemic indecision and not decide if it’s about art criticism, philosophy, ethics or circular time, it’s not with public health guidelines, gosh.

I want the end of the pandemic to remind me that I still have time left, linearly or on a loop. Even as the fruit rots beneath me I hope to still be offered more time.

There’s so much to do but at the same time we’re already doing it. We’ve already made all the decisions, Bacchus has already offered us the wine, we are already here painted in. Still breathing.

she/her| writer & producer| author of grotesquely unaffected, of sapiens and stars & the creole pantheon project(forthcoming)| earnest earth scientist