Image Analysis (Opinion): Die Seelen am Archeron, Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl

Die Seelen am Archeron (The Sea of Ascheron), Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, Oil on Canvas, 1898
Die Seelen am Acheron depicts Hermes surrounded by pleading souls, waiting for Charon to carry them over the river to Hades. There is a dark, creeping ring of blackness around the edges of the painting, suggesting the inescapable inevitability of what is about to happen to the souls. The shocking light blue of the woman at Hermes’ feet, coupled with the light surrounding him, draw your eye in and up immediately to his stern and steely face. Here is a man who will not be swayed by the pleas of the damned, but continue with his macabre duty. 

Off to the mid-left of the painting, emerging out of the backness is the boat with Charon on it. Nobody’s gaze is fixed in that direction but they are clearly all aware of his approach: the pleading is desperate and almost pathetic.

Hirschl was enamoured with Roman history and mythology and particularly the Classical standards of beauty. He created grand allegorical works such as Sic Transit… 1912 - a vast polyptych depicting the demise of the Roman Empire and rise of the Christian Era. By the time he painted Die Seelen am Acheron he had even changed his name to Hirémy and was living in Rome.

He was thematically concerned with the fall of empire, and at the time of the painting there was a rise of many alternative political ideas such as Anarchy and Marxism in response to the bourgeoisie attitudes of society and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A parallel could be drawn to the idea that the excessive narcissistic natures of the upper and middle classes would condemn them to hell, or at least a reckoning, with the a creeping darkness a representation of the political turmoil in the run up to the Great War. It also seems to mark the relentless march of progress, the old and damned shipped away to obscurity and the past: clearing the way for the new Avant-garde.

** During semester one of my Second Year of Contemporary Art Practice, we were set eight images to analyse in order to practice Art Writing. I will present the series backward. This is the first image, image one. **

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