Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Quest for Personal Myth (part 2)

In part 1 of The Quest for Personal Myth, I told you about my own, specific story. In part 2, I will let somebody else who is infinitely smarter and more competent than myself to talk about this subject matter, to tell us about OUR story and why this Quest is so important. Here is an extract from Joseph Campbell’s book Pathways to Bliss to inform and inspire you. Here we go:
“(…)Mythological images are the images by which the consciousness is put in touch with the unconscious. That’s what they are(…) When these symbols disappear, we have lost the vehicle for communication between our waking consciousness and our deeper spiritual life. We have to reactivate the symbol, to bring it back to life, and to find what it means, to relate it to ourselves in some way or another.

Now, what did Jung (Carl Gustav Jung) when he decided to seek out his Myth? His process of discovery is interesting in that it was so childish. Here he was, thirty-seven years old or so,  and he asked himself, What was it I most enjoyed doing as a little boy when I was alone and allowed to play? As it turned out, what he liked to do was to put rocks together and make little cities out of stone.

So, he said, Why, I am a big man now, so I’ll play with big stones. He bought himself a piece of property in a beautiful place on the lake opposite the city of Zürich. He began planning and building a house in this lovely place, Ascona, and as he worked with his hands, he activated his imagination.

Now, that’s the big thing, to activate your imagination somehow. You can’t do this by taking suggestions from somebody else. You must find that which your own consciousness wants to meditate on. With his imagination activated, Jung found all kinds of new fantasies coming, dreams of all kinds. He began making records of what he had dreamed and then amplifying it by all kinds of associations.

By doing this, he began the work of discovering his myth. He found that his dreams were becoming very important to him and very rich; he began writing about his dreams in a little journal. He put down each silly little impulse, each theme that came up in his dreams. He recorded the dreams as to bring them up into his consciousness, and as he kept the journal, the underlying images began coming through. Then he would make pictures of some of these dream things - always in a very solemn way. Now, this book is the kind of thing one would not wish to have published; it is just too private (Joseph Campbell refers here to The Red Book that was first published in 2009, 48 years after Jung’s death). It was his ceremonial, ritualistic exploration of the place from which the mystery of his life came.

If you keep a dream journal, you’ll find the dreams begin piling up on you. You want to go to sleep again and have some more. And you’ll find a story is building itself up there. Of course, you have to have a little free time to do this(…)

Soon after he began keeping his dream journal, Jung realized that his dreams correspond to the great mythic themes that he had been studying in working on Symbols of Transformation. Mandalas began coming - Jung was the first to become interested in mandalas as a psychological vehicle of self-discovery(...) With the newly activated imagination, Jung came to the realization that dreams are of two orders: little dreams and big dreams.

Little dreams come from a level of dream consciousness that has to do with quite personal complications. They emerge from the level that has come to be known as the Freudian or unconscious. Little dreams are essentially autobiographical in their character, and there will be nothing in these particular dreams of yours that you would share with others - you are sorting through the expansion of consciousness as it bumps up against the taboos and “thou shalt nots” of your childhood and infancy.

Then comes another kind of dream, where you find yourself facing a problem that’s not specific to your peculiar life or social or age situation. Rather you have run up against one of the greatest problems of man. These are what Jung calls big dreams.

For instance, take the question that I broached a while ago: what is it that supports you in the face of total disaster? At such times, the psyche and the ego consciousness are forced to wrestle with the two huge mysteries of the nature of the cosmos and death. No other animal recognizes itself as being pulled between these two great mysteries. Also, deep within yourself lies the mystery of your own being to be dealt with. Your ego consciousness  will be confronted with these overwhelming mysteries – the cosmos, death, and your own depth. When you face these sort of questions – instead of whether you should or should not go to bed with somebody – you are in a field of profound problems. As it happens, the great mythologies of the world also deal with these problems.

Now, as I’ve said, these themes are universal. Of course, they occur with different historical inflections here, there, and elsewhere; just so, they’ll occur with different inflections in your life from those in anyone else’s. For every mythological symbol, there are two aspects to be distinguished: the universal and the local. Adolf Bastian coined the terms Elementargedanken (Elementary Ideas) and Völkergedanken (Ethnic ideas or Folk Ideas) to describe these two aspects.

I find that in India the same two aspects are recognized. There they are called mãrga and deśī, respectively. Mãrga comes from the root that has to do with an animal trail; it means “the path”. By this, Indians mean the path by which the particular aspect of a symbol leads you to personal illumination; it is the path of enlightenment. Deśī means “of the province”. All mythological symbols, therefore, work in two directions: in the direction of mãrga and in the direction of deśī. The deśī, or local, links the individual to the culture. 

A mythologically grounded culture presents you with symbols that immediately evoke your participation; they are all vital, living connections, and so they link you both to the underlying mystery and to the culture itself. Yet when that culture uses symbols that are no longer alive, that are no longer effective, it cuts you off. The mãrga or Elementargedanken provide a path back to the heart of the issue. Looking at the symbol in terms of its universal meaning rather than its local, specific reference takes you down the path to self-discovery and illumination. 

The way to find your own myth is to determine those traditional symbols that speak to you and use them, you might say, as base for meditation. Let them work on you.

A ritual is nothing but the dramatic, visual, active manifestation or representation of myth. By participating in the rite, you are engaged in the myth, and the myth works on you – provided, of course, that you are caught by the image.

But when you just go through the routine without real commitment, expecting it to work magically and get you into heaven, after all – you’ve turned away from the proper use of thee rites and images. 

First, think about  your own childhood, as Jung did – the symbols that were put in you then remain. Think not how they relate to an institution, which is probably defunct and likely difficult to respect. Rather, think how the symbols operate on you. Let them play on the imagination, activating it. By bringing your own imagination into play in relation to these symbols, you will be experiencing mãrga, the symbol’s power to open a path to the heart of mysteries(…)”

Good luck!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Quest for Personal Myth (Part 1)

Prince Marko and the Dragon, 90X63cm, Oil on wooden board, 2016.

This painting, titled Prince Marko and the Dragon (Kraljević Marko i zmaj), has been created for a private collector. It is also one of the paintings from my new book project. It shows Prince Marko, a great Serbian epic hero, performing one of his heroic deeds. The character of Prince Marko is based on a 14th century Serbian king of a minor historic importance, whom the people, while under the Turkish occupation that lasted for more than 4 centuries, turned into the greatest epic hero who bravely fought against  the oppressor and the injustice, and kept the people’s spirit alive during that long and complicated period.
Although based on the real person, the character of Prince Marko is basically constructed from two major elements – an old, forgotten mythic hero, and the character of an existing medieval ruler upon whom the people projected their needs, pains and aspirations. Prince Marko is unbelievably strong - this strength comes from his mythic base - brave and righteous. He’s a true chevalier; the protector of the weak and the oppressed. However, his human side makes his character more balanced and rather easy to identify with.  Like any human being, Prince Marko has a shadow. Next to the noble side of his personality, there is a darker side too - at times, Marko can be very jealous, vain and even cruel. This contradictory element in his character brings him closer to a real person and makes him more accessible. On one side he is a perfect embodiment of the people’s struggles and needs from a specific time; on the other, he genuinely reflects people’s character with all their good and bad sides, their virtues and their vices, as well as the moral principles people lived by. While still a quintessential epic hero, Prince Marko is also a human being, one of us. This particular trait in his character makes him very intriguing. 

I was always impressed by the old epic poetry about Prince Marko. But as I set out on my journey to become an artist, I focused my attention primarily to the foreign art and culture, especially the western culture. Then, in 1993  (I was 28 years old), when I decided to illustrate the most popular Serbian fairytale, Baš Čelik, eventually turning it into The Legend of Steel Bashaw, I was finally back to my national and cultural roots trying to express my relationship to that part of my identity though my art. It took another 22 years to finally turn my attention to the epics, and to create my first Prince Marko painting.

But as soon as I started to work on this project, I faced a problem that presented me with a serious challenge. Although I loved the character of Prince Marko, I was now not very inspired to illustrate the old epic poems, apart from a few that I greatly admired. The old epics are…well, old, and in spite of a number of aspects that are universal in character, most of them deal with the specific problems that reflect the existential struggles of the people from centuries ago. The Ottoman Turks, the oppressor and the archenemy, have long gone and disappeared from the stage. To continue to fight them and the specific problems that went with it, seemed to me nothing but fighting against a spectre, a shadow of the past. It felt so awkward, pointless and irrelevant to me, like a symbol that has lost its meaning and purpose, but kept its empty shell – a dead symbol - that is how mythologies and religions die, and in my opinion the myth of Prince Marko was dying too. So, in spite of my relative lack of competence regarding the study of the old epics, and guided only by my own vision, I finally decided to try to update Prince Marko and his world, and bring them back to life. Now, if you are familiar with the universe of Prince Marko epics, you will understand how tricky and difficult this task is. 

Nevertheless, stubborn and persistent as I am, I set out on this new adventure to change Prince Marko’s world, both in outer appearance and in content. The only way for me to do it properly was to write new epic poems about Prince Marko. I began my work by stripping off the epic  world of Prince Marko of all the archaic, irrelevant elements, at the same time emphasizing its mythic foundation. Likewise, I took in consideration the fact that the time spirit has changed, and that people’s view, needs and aspirations have changed too, although the universal values have stayed unaltered. I moved the balance, as it were, from the irrelevance of the archaic to the universality of the mythological, and the relevance of the contemporary. But, I kept the specific form of the old epics, and most importantly I kept their original spirit, so that the new epics would sound as if they were created by the folk bards of long ago. 

This is my way to try to reconnect the dying epic past with the living present, and to give my own quest for the personal myth a firm, healthy starting point. 

However, the final encouragement to set out on a journey to discover my own myth by researching the myth I was brought up with came from a dream. In other words, my future doings and the direction that my artistic aspirations were about to take, was announced to me in a dream. It was one of those vivid, striking dreams that one remembers for the rest of his life, a type of dream that announces an important change (change of direction) in one’s life. I wrote down this dream and I named it “The Golden Book”. The biggest problem and challenge with dreams, however, is their interpretation. It is quite complicated to know if the dream has been correctly interpreted until that particular “story” ends. Therefore, and although my gut feeling tells me that I am on the right path, I am not yet completely certain if I interpreted my dream in the right way. Nevertheless, I intend to follow my intuition and will do whatever is required to accomplish this important project.  

To be continued…

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Importance of role models

Anima the Dreadful (Conan) - Oil on wooden board, 70X50 cm, 2015. Private commission.

Back in the eighties, when I was studying art at the Novi Sad Art Academy in Serbia, we had a teacher of Art History, an elderly lady who told us that, once in her youth, she had met Picasso, and even had got from him one of his famous painted vases as a present. She mentioned this little anecdote often, and not without a certain amount of pride and self-contentment. This little lady used to say:  “No one is born without a mother and a father”. The message of her saying was obvious -  every person, creator and artist, has his own roots, his creative parents, his springboard. We all had teachers, mentors and role models at the beginning of our art career who helped us and showed us the way, motivated and inspired us. Nothing comes out of nothing! As human animals, we begin the process of learning by mimicking others from our surroundings.

People often asked me how, or where, did I learn to paint. Well, as mentioned above, I did study painting at the art academy, but although the time I spent there was not wasted – on the contrary, it was extremely important for my artistic development -  I can’t say that I have learned how to paint there. The prevailing approach to art and painting at that time was still very much based on and driven by the modernistic dogma that favored free expression above the technical skills. Therefore we were not encouraged to spend time and energy on learning the technical aspect of painting, but rather to open ourselves to free expression. Focusing on learning and developing the technical skills was not exactly prohibited, but many did look upon it with a contemptuous eye. 

I learned to paint mostly by studying the works of my favorite artists, my role models, and by trying to learn from what I was able to see and understand. Some of my most important role models included Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch,  Ilya, Repin, Paja Jovanvic, Uros Predic, John Singer Sargent, Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan Bilibin, Aksely Gallen-Kallela, Walt Disney, Arthum Rackham, Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta, Alan Lee, among many others. 

Conan by Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta

When I was about 12 years old, I began spending more time on drawing. I copied works of various artists, mainly comic artists ( I was at that time very much into comic art, and wanted to become a comic artist). My mother used to drive me crazy by criticizing my urge to copy other artist’s work. She would say: “You copy too much! Why don’t you try to do something out your own imagination”? Her remarks were disturbing to me and have often hurt my feelings (hence I never forgot about it). It was frustrating. On one hand, I knew she was right. On the other, I felt I had to copy in order to learn. I was so unsatisfied with what I could do from my own imagination. I did not like very much the results - my own drawings seemed to be so imperfect, lacking in all sorts of things and qualities. The  copies of other people’s work which I did looked much better, more convincing and mature. Little did my mother knew  that I would later become quite myself and unique in my artistic expression. Somehow I managed to escape a dangerous trap of becoming somebody else’s epigone. I don’t know when, or how it happened, but it did happen – gradually I found myself. Moreover, I even became a kind of “preacher” of the importance of going after your own uniqueness, and becoming utterly yourself in your artistic expression.

However, I never forgot my role models. From time to time, I revisit their art in search of inspiration, motivation and consolation. Sometimes, I do cite them in my own work, or, now and then, even paint a homage to some of them. But I never copy their work anymore. I just allow myself to be inspired by their creations, but then let this impulse go through my own artistic inner prism, and try to create something uniquely mine…. as much as I am able to.