INTO THE ABYSS

A PAINTING BY JOHN A WALKER

OIL ON LINEN, 2010, 90 X 120 CM. This painting was based on a sketchbook image created during the late 1950s when I was a teenage art student - an image of existentialist angst. Existentialist philosophers - Christian ones - argued that the act of faith (believing in God) was a leap into the unknown; for atheists it referred to choices and acts of engagement with the world which had to be made despite the fact that the results of such actions may not turn out as intended. The idea fed into the thinking of the action painters of the 1950s.

A precursor is a painting by Salvator Rosa (Italian baroque artist 161573) entitled ‘The death of Empedocles’ (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth Texas).

Painted in 1665-70 re the flying figure Empedocles, an early Greek philosopher

Diogenes Laërtius records the legend that he died by throwing himself into an active volcano (Mount Etna in Sicily), so that people would believe his body had vanished and he had turned into an immortal god; however, the volcano threw back one of his bronze sandals, revealing the deceit. Another legend has it that he threw himself in the volcano to prove to his disciples that he was immortal; he believed he would come back as a god among man after being devoured by the fire. (wikipedia) This pictorial motif - the falling man - is one that appears in the early work of the British pop artist Derek Boshier and in a painting by the German Max Beckman (1884-1950): ‘Falling man’ (1950) National Gallery of Art, Washington.

More recently it has featured in the title sequence of the TV series Mad Men, which in turn may have been based on Hitchcock’s film Vertigo or the people jumping from the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Leap into the void is also the title of a 1960 photo by French artist Yves Klein of a performance in which he launches his body into space over a wall.

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