Portrait of Two Figures
Academic Nonfiction Visual Art

The Repetition of Life, Love, & Death by Tellie Fackelman

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two Figures)

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures), 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 7 × 10′.
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
(Figure A)

The Death of a Gravedigger

Carlos Schwabe, Death and the Gravedigger, 1900. Acrylic on Canvas
(Figure B)

Studio Ghibli: Flower Cottage

Hamlet with Skull

Hamlet with Skull
(Figure D)

Life is but a string of moments tied and glued together, uncanny, and vibrant, not quite understood, but implicit all the same. We remember our lives through snapshots, glimpses of times alive only within our memory. Art has a bodacious way of capturing those “memory-like” instants and preserving them for generations to witness and recognize within their own lives. Studio Ghibli movies are a collection of films that I have grown up with an awareness of. They are fantastical and strange but maintain an uncouth level of familiarity. The picturesque representation of nature within these movies sparked my interest in art and the idea of self-expression. I reflect on that now because within those movies, everything seems as though it could be a snapshot of anyone’s life. David Hockney and Carlos Schwabe have this incredible talent of capturing the exact emotion, continuously felt throughout time, within a mere painting, a snapshot of life. Although David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two Figures) and Carlos Schwabe’s Death and the Gravedigger are years apart from each other, both paintings have similar feelings of symbolism and emotion. Similar emotion and symbolism also appear in literary works such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Through analysis and examination of both
these pieces of artwork, and through the comparison of their visual, symbolic, and historical contexts, the viewer grasps an appreciation and an awareness that history along with all its complexity and emotion repeats itself.

David Hockney is a worldly artist; he moved from London to Los Angeles when he was only twenty-six years old. His travels allowed him to experience the world and its many different cultures and beliefs in numerous different lights. His time in Los Angeles exposed him to
something not otherwise accessible in London; and those were swimming pools. He became infatuated with the demeanor of these bodies of water, with the way the light reflected off the chlorinated liquid, and the way it made everything seem around it. His piece Portrait of an Artist
(Pool with two Figures)
contains exactly that: a pool with two figures. It is almost a love letter to the colors and the LA sunlight.

In the foreground, a male figure leapfrogs underneath the brilliant blue of the pool’s surface and he is painted as though he has no intent of surfacing within the immediate future. On the right side of the painting, a man in an attractive red blazer and aquamarine slacks looks on with interest that appears to fade into sadness as one continues to observe the painting. The piece seems as though it is split into three different sections; the far left side consists of pool water and luscious green vegetation that extends up, up, up. The middle contains the water bound form of the man and more vegetative hills that seem to fade off into the background, the effect is one of mystery and loss, one wonders what the thick forest has to hide, but it also maintains the focal point on the figures.

On the right, which is separated by the edge of the pool, the man stands on sunlit tiles against green hills. For an artist who fell captive to the effects of sunlight and color, Hockney captures it phenomenally well in this painting. It is as though he confines the natural blue of an actual chlorinated pool water alongside the all-natural hue of greens and yellows and oranges that compose the hills. The shapes in this piece convey a sense of agony and antagonism. For some are natural, such as the form of the swimmer and the nature surrounding the pool, while others are stiff or manmade, like the second man and the tiles of the pool landing and the pool itself.

David Hockney obtained a deep infatuation with a fellow student named Peter Schlesinger and this painting developed in the wake of that relationship. He captures this illusion of a three-dimensional event, one which he was so inevitably familiar with; heartbreak and the action of moving on after losing someone who used to take up space within the walls of your life. Everything in this piece ties together to create a cacophony of human emotion and a snapshot of life.

Carlos Schwabe trained as an artist in Geneva and then relocated his talents to Paris. Schwabe’s artwork falls deep within the Symbolist movement and most of his paintings and illustrations incorporate forms of mythology while also conveying his own personal interests. In 1894, Schwabe’s dearest friend, Guillaume Lekeu passed away, and his death created a particular
curiosity in how life and the idea of death is portrayed within Schwabe’s artwork.

In the handmade oil painting Death and the Gravedigger, the artist paints with such a clarity and familiarity to nature and the pain of death. The most prominent figure in the painting is a beautiful woman who kneels, barefooted on the stony earth. She is wrapped in an all-black gown
and portrays the aura of indifference. Her black angel wings captivate a large majority of the painting, not only because they stand out against the pure white layer of snow that drowns the cemetery in the background, but also because they create a sense of gravity, pulling the gravedigger into her embrace, as well as the viewer’s eye. In the foreground, a sleeveless elderly
man stands within a newly dug grave, looking up at the angel of death with awe and surprise.

With one hand he clutches at his heart and with the other he lets go of a shovel. At the bottom of the painting, a thin strip of earth completes the circular looking grave. Both figures are surrounded by the dormant arms of a weeping willow and its placement creates a figurative curtain between the rest of the cemetery and the foreground where death completes her duty. The tips of the angel’s wings seem to wrap around the gravedigger in a taciturn embrace. Upon first glance, the angel of death does not seem to belong within this scene, for her striking nature and demeanor is portrayed as being other-worldly. In her right hand, she holds an eerie green light
which reflects off her delicate neck. The plain colors, the environment in which ‘death’ and the gravedigger live silently, encapsulates an emotion of which today’s generation, is no stranger to, the inescapability of mortality.

Art stains the sidewalks of well-worn cities, it tattoos a permanent position in the halls of art galleries and in the fickle minds and hearts of everyday people. This world is no stranger to change, but throughout its history, people learn and grow and experience the exact same emotions. Over and over. Every time, we act surprised at the capacity for ‘feeling’ that we possess. In order to understand our feelings and our emotions we create, we visualize them. We compare them to other ideas and concepts. Pool with Two Figures and Death and the Gravedigger are saturated with symbolism in every brush stroke and in every color.

The physical portrayal of mystery and heartbreak and death and longing manifests itself in similar ways throughout both paintings. The forms of the men, one standing above the other, looking down with smothered sadness, while the other is confined to an ocean of chaos and peace. This hierarchy represents loss and heartbreak, and the idea that one must move on from it. The corporeal placement of these forms suggests that the two of them are in entirely different spaces emotionally. They are still oriented to face each other, and the right man’s blazer is painted a saturated red possibly implying that he still feels a longing for the other man. The angel of death
is placed above the gravedigger symbolizing the power that death has over life. Her youthful face contrasts with the old and weathered face of the old man; death is eternal.

Gravediggers symbolize the extent that humans interacted with death, something that we all must face eventually, but an occurrence that these individuals dealt with daily. Consequently, the passing on of one such person embodies the extreme irony that death touches every surface and every life. Both pieces symbolize the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas, emulated in the physicality of the forms; love and indifference, they are the other’s opposition, life and death, one cannot exist without the other. However, both ideas go hand in hand with each other. Life along with history repeats itself.

Hayao Miyazaki and William Shakespeare originate from entirely different eras and cultures. However, both men were and are extraordinarily virtuoso in their creative forms of art. Shakespeare’s works continue to steep the minds of students and scholars all around the world; his plays are works of art in their own right. Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese filmmaker, artist, and storyteller. Miyazaki’s name has reached international levels of fame for his masterful ability to create; to illustrate stories that span generations. While his films are known for their grand adventures and strong antagonists, they also retain a reputation for the fantastical simplicity and representation of ordinary occurrences; occurrences that most every human can relate to.

Studio Ghibli’s films mimic the style of anime, but I have always watched them as though they were a watercolor painting come to life. The environments are absurdly realistic, some are based off the natural beauty found in the rural mountains of Colorado, all while incorporating the sense of magic and animation that appeals to children. Humans learn through imitation and impression and as an amateur artist, I am no different. I seek out styles and images that I have the capacity to replicate and learn from. As a child I would watch with awe and allow the dazzling colors and the adventures saturate my imagination. Now, instead of watching these films, I observe. I take note of the color and the way shapes interact with one another. David Hockney’s Pool with Two Figures matches an inexplicable parallel to the styles and themes found in Studio Ghibli’s animations; the colors in both animation and painting attain a surreal level of color, the full
extent is put on display for the viewer.

The comprehension of emotion and theme occurs on a deeper level than just the physical level and both Hockney and Miyazaki encapsulate a similar genre of sentiment. Human behavior does not change, we are all the same in one way or another. We live each other’s lives without ever realizing it, therefore we can empathize and comprehend emotion so thoroughly. In his novel, Starting Point: 1979-1996, Miyazaki states that “To be born means being compelled to choose an era, a place, a life. To exist here, now, means to lose the possibility of being countless other potential selves. Yet once being born there is no turning back… that is exactly why the fantasy worlds of cartoon movies so strongly represent our hopes
and yearnings. They illustrate a world of lost possibilities for us.”

Events that we may or may have not experienced ourselves come to a perfect familiarity, as in Hockney’s depiction of the star-crossed lovers and in Miyazaki’s adventurous tales of heroic and ordinary deeds. However
different they may be, both artists represent and characterize the construct that human emotion does not ever cover new ground. As Miyazaki alleged, dreams allow us to conceive of new emotions we can feel, but in reality, we only ever feel the same things. We feel them over and over, at different times and in different eras. But we feel them, nonetheless. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet plays with the irony of humanity and juxtapositions
commonly accepted ideals. Hamlet himself is a walking paradox for he consistently says one thing and struggles to even carry it out.

One of the most ruminated scenes in the play is also the one that commonly represents the play; Hamlet interacting with a human skull. Act 5, scene 1
takes place in a cemetery, a sharp contrast to the dull and abhorrent scenes within the castle. Instead of embodying sadness and reservation, the scene contains the most joyful and goofy exchanges in the entire play and serves to represent Hamlet’s final acknowledgement towards life’s complexity. To have this realization in a cemetery, surrounded by the bones of your friends, highlights the most extreme irony. Carlos Schwabe’s painting The Death of a Gravedigger consists of the same passive irony. Is death allowed to touch even the souls of those who face it every day? The people who bury it and leave it to decompose in the cold earth? Or does that make it an even more probable cause, for death acts as the earth’s vengeance. Either
way, Hamlet’s experience with death in the graveyard shows him, as well as the audience, that life is a puzzle that cannot be solved without the inclusion of death alongside it.

Schwabe represents the same ironic idea, that no matter how far a life is lived, no matter how long death is prolonged, life does not endure without the reality of death. Shakespeare and Schwabe portray these ideas as though they, themselves had also come upon the veracity of these thoughts and notions. Humans are all alike; at first, we do not understand, but as time wages its war upon our mortal bodies, our minds start to recognize and correlate the exact same notions. We may not appreciate these concepts all at once but eventually, life becomes a force that forces us to understand. History does not repeat itself; humans do.

Despite the incredibly different eras both of these paintings were created in and represent, they remain to exemplify very similar, symbolic ideas. In that, they are not original, for artists have represented the ideas of heartache, heartbreak, and death for centuries. However, the ways in which these pieces represent those emotions and ideas are very successful because they are symbolized and embodied in creative ways. Each painting captures what could be a moment in anyone’s life, distinctive and unique, but they also encapsulate the empathy and the understanding that each person comes into during their life. With the use of color and emotion,
these paintings communicate an insurmountable amount of human sentiment, all it takes is understanding of life and how it tends to operate.

How can we stand so far apart, even in our diversity, we are the same? In a world where danger lurks around every corner, and children are born with distrust built into their spines, where art represents the emotions each and every one of us feel, how can we let our differences divide us. We experience the same snapshots and memories, but we dare turn our backs on fellow man, when really, we all feel the same?

Works Cited

ArtyAds. Carlos Schwabe – ArtyAds. www.artyadshq.com/blog/carlos-schwabe/. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.

Dewitte, Debra J, et al. Gateways to Art: Understanding the Visual Arts. New York, Thames & Hudson, 2018.

“The Death of a Gravedigger By Carlos Schwabe – Famous Art – Handmade Oil Painting On Canvas — Canvas Paintings.” ArtworkOnly.com, artworkonly.com/famous-art-pt2/deathof-the-gravedigger-by-carlos-schwabe-famous-art-handmade-oil-painting-on-canvas. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020

Miyazaki, Hayao. Starting Point: 1979-1996. Viz Media, 2014.
“Steam Workshop::Howl’s Moving Castle – Landscape.” Steamcommunity.com, steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=1963289691. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.

“Significance of the ‘Grave-digger scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Graduateway, 22 Jan 2017,https://graduateway.com/significance-of-the-grave-digger-scene-in-shakespeareshamlet/

Wikipedia Contributors. “David Hockney.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Nov. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hockney.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Hayao Miyazaki.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Aug. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hayao_Miyazaki.