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The Triumph of Demeter

Acrylic on greyboard, 59.4 x 84 cm. 2022.

Robert Bridges' play Demeter, based on the ancient Homeric Hymn to Demeter, retells the myth of Persephone's abduction by Hades and the efforts of her mother, Demeter, to recover her from the underworld. 

Finding herself unable to rescue Persephone on her own, and unable to convince Zeus (who sanctioned the abduction) to return her, Demeter does not give up. Although she is apparently powerless before Zeus and Hades, she is the goddess of agriculture and, in a grand display of uncompromising maternal willpower, withholds rain from the earth. She knows that if humanity is destroyed by famine, the gods themselves will be starved of worshippers. This threat of mutually assured destruction succeeds and Zeus orders Hades to relinquish Persephone. 

The painting, one of a series of abstract "illustrations" of Bridges' play, represents the moment of Demeter's triumph, restoring the land to its former abundance. No attempt was made to depict any scene or character from the play, but rather to convey some aspect of its meaning beyond anything that can be contained in the words themselves. Nevertheless, there are identifiable elements within the painting that can be explicitly linked to its subject matter. 

In the play, Demeter doesn't merely allow the crops to wither, she replaces them with useless weeds and flowers, in homage to her missing daughter: 

There shall be dearth, and yet so gay the dearth
That all the land shall look in holiday

The medley of bright colours in the painting is therefore appropriate, combined with the dusty ochres and browns, as an indication of the barren farmland covered with useless plants of every colour, "every field with splendour aflame." Demeter elaborates:

For wheat the useless poppy
In sheeted scarlet; and for barley and oats
The blue and yellow weeds that mock men's toil,
Centaury and marigold in chequer'd plots:
Where seed is sown, or none, shall dandelions
And wretched ragwort vie, orchis and iris
And garish daisy, and for every flower
That in this vale she pluckt, shall spring a thousand.
Where'er she slept anemones shall crowd,
And the sweet violet. These things shall ye see.

The top region of the painting suggests a sky dark and heavy with rain, presaging the end of Demeter's drought, while the bright green and yellow 'fields' contrasting with the 'sky' suggest the strong angular illumination of the sun peeking through storm clouds. The central mass of the painting, a vertically oriented conglomeration emerging out of and looming over the 'landscape,' might represent Demeter herself, powerful master of nature's superabundance, understood not in her usual guise as beneficent patron of the harvest, but seen in the chaos of her fury as a force beyond the power of human comprehension.

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