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Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away: Ten Women Artists respond to secular themes from the Renaissance

January 9 2016 to February 28 2016

In many ways, the rich culture of the Renaissance came about because philosophers and artists brought renewed interest to classical subjects and ideas long hidden from view during the Middle Ages. Western culture’s connection to Greece and Rome and Earth-based religion were never truly absent during the intervening years, since each formed part of the culture’s foundation.

Drawing from literary works like Ovid’s Metemorphoses, motifs from classical art were approached with new vigor. Origin stories, mythologies, and pagan rituals reemerged as appropriate subject matter in art to adorn noble residences and public spaces. Painting in particular experienced an unprecedented flourishing marked by a new, sophisticated pictorial language and technical advances in both material usage and technique. Images of fertility and sexuality which had existed since prehistory (Venus of Willendorf, 25,000 BCE) persisted through the Renaissance at the same time that images of the Virgin Mary took a divergent course. From Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci to Francois Clouet, the female form was presented afresh. So, too, was the pastoral in pictures and in music. Emphasizing the beauty and simplicity of life, the pastoral is so much an archetype in Western culture that the story of Christianity relies heavily upon it. In paintings, especially, the pastoral also conjures classical imagery – the word bucolic stemming for the Greek for cowherd. Henry Purcell’s song “Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away” (c. 1692) condenses these themes rather perfectly: nature, fertility, the harvest season, maidens and shepherds consort in perfect harmony.

Today, women artists have far-reaching opportunities to work in the arts, novel in Western culture. At the same time, women’s perspectives and creativity have always been a fundamental presence in the culture. Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away is an exhibition born from the already existing interests of so many Poem 88 artists and a celebration of all things female. Each artist in the show approaches the theme in her trademark style.

For over twenty years, Sharon Shapiro has presented the female form, sexuality, seduction, and metamorphosis in lush compositions in which the classical and pop are intertwined. Four more artists in this exhibition, Cynthia Farnell, Judy Henson, Carol John, and Faith McClure reimagine mythology and classical renderings of the human form, in still, animated, and metaphorical expressions. In these, we find images of the Three Graces, the story of Daphne and Apollo, Diana, the huntress and Actaeon, and Venus and Narcissus, as well as figures seemingly caught in a Homeric Odyssey catapulting and leaping their way in and out of the picture. There is tremendous energy in these compositions as figures large and small, settings pastoral and dynamic, and a disturbing quietude intermingle.

In Kyoung Chun interprets the secular as the vernacular: a very contemporary idea of motherhood is presented the way Caravaggio might have. Julia Kjelgaard’s two digital collages depict the natural world – the sky above, the earth below – like tapestries interwoven with emblems floating like the Planets hermetically powerful both to the Roman and Renaissance worlds. Finally, Hannah Tarr, Nancy VanDevender and Zuzka Vaclavik give us profusions of flowers, dedications to goddesses and artists, so prevalent in Renaissance art.

We hope you will join us on Friday evening, February 12 for the culmination of this exhibit, our Annual Valentine’s Salon of music and poetry. Several local poets as well as the chamber group Harmonie Universelle will delight us with music from the Renaissance including Purcell’s “Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away.”

— Robin Bernat, curator

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