Ellen Schwabacher’s Antigone

Spotlight on Ellen Schwabacher’s painting, Antigone, in which Jane and Kimberly delight in finding an old myth informing a modern abstract expressionist painter who raised her voice in an art world dominated by men and left a body of work to show that the vision of flow in abstract expressionism is particularly well served by women artists. 

 Do you see her?

Yes, she is the central white figure in the black.

 Yes, as I walked into the museum, I was drawn to the passionate leaping figure in black surrounded, perhaps supported, by fiery flames of red before I discovered the title – or identified the artist.  Imagine my delight that such enthusiastic expression of feeling was painted by a woman and carried a mythic name, Antigone. Ellen Schwabacher’s work embodies the spirit of abstract expressionism.  She paints the feeling of rising up and challenging an unjust law, one that in her mind went against the laws of the gods and of nature.  It’s an abstraction of passionate choice and for me, it works.

The dominating color in this piece is red and I think that color depicts the abstraction of passionate choice you mention perfectly, in this case, passion is violent, bloody, heated and both sides – the masculine in its ego-based adherence to law and rule and the feminine in its devotion to the organic, harmonious rites of life, death, and natural order — are embroiled in its chaos. I like the use of abstract expressionism, a movement founded on internal passion seeking an outlet, to convey the spirit of a mythical tale. It works for me too.

Sophocles’ famous mythic story of Antigone is a tragedy.  How then is this painting such an exuberance of feeling?  Antigone was a young woman who rose up against authority and died an early death by her own hand. She made her death an example of the inhumanity of the king’s laws that would leave one of her brothers to rot without burial because he was more of an enemy of the state than the other.  She insisted on giving her brother a burial, refusing a lesser sentence than death from the king for her crime because she was the daughter of Oedipus Rex. She claimed her right to die by the law and hung herself, choosing to make her death an example of the inhumanity of state law. Antigone did not die in flames like a martyr but she did live a fiery protest and was a woman of choice. She chose to be an example of the tragic fate of any ordinary citizen upholding the laws of nature against the rule of law and king.  This is the passion we see in Schwabacher’s painting, a splash of irrationality with all its conflicting implications of rising vitality breaking through walls of oppression.

Helen Luke in her seminal book The Way of Women talks about your “splash of irrationality” as a decidedly female trait, necessary as a counterpoint to masculine logic. She says the feminine spirit consents to a receptive devotion to “making those childlike pictures and fantasies, called by Jung active imagination, which seems to the rational mind entirely pointless.” I see this inner intuition as a key ingredient in abstract expressionism and it might be noted that the men in this field were being helped along by their own anima in creating these types of works.

The first thing I thought upon seeing this painting was that there was something pure being represented by the white in the middle. Being unaware of the myth, I looked it up and after reading about Antigone, I felt she was indeed my “angel bogged down in darkness” at its center. Above her to the right was a crescent sliver of yellow light, perhaps a reminder that, while she would not find support for her convictions on this earthly plane, she would indeed find it in the glow of the afterlife. The two spots of gray to her upper left became, to me, the metal helmets of the soldiers appointed to her arrest. The mustard colored figure at the bottom right may be her poor dead brother, already stroked with heavenly white and glowing from the light above which, thanks to his sister, will be able to appropriately now welcome him into its fold.

You ask how is this painting such an exuberance of feeling when based upon tragedy?  When a woman stands up for what she feels is right, despite her inevitable doom from doing so, another woman gains a minor ounce of liberation, and the confidence to find her own freedom of expression. That’s red. I love it from my red, red heart and also, hate it from the boiling bottoms of lava flames.

Antigone’s rising spirit could be a symbol for what women brought to the break of modern abstract painting from representational art, an abstraction of feeling. As I was visiting the exhibition where Antigone is on display, I noticed that people did not walk by these paintings as they often do with modern art. They stopped awhile, talked to a friend about what they were seeing, and often returned for a second look. Like a metaphor that provokes more than literal description, women’s abstract painting presents viewers with a feeling of contemplation.

In claiming her right to die by the law, while also being a beacon of anti-law inherent morality, I find that splash of irrationality we discuss above “with all its conflicting implications of rising vitality breaking through walls of oppression.” I have a feeling that Antigone knew clearly that the struggle between man’s nature and mother earth/God’s nature would be perpetual.

Since you’re an artist, do you look from the outside in or the inside out when you see a painting like this?  I mean, once you know the story, does the idea of an “angel of purity bogged down in darkness” appeal to you as an onlooker or do you think Ellen, as a woman artist in a male-dominated world of artists, was expressing her own Antigone?

I am always drawn to a work emotionally first, stricken by an image or a color or a technique that resonates on some unconscious level, thus the angel in the darkness. The fun is discovering other interpretations, both of the artist’s if there exists one, and other viewers, like you. I like the idea that Ellen may have been expressing her own Antigone in the inequitable field of art at the time, in which female artists were contributing greatly yet marginalized or altogether absent in the history.

In that respect, this painting makes me think of the exuberance women are showing now in marches. They’re not just angry. They are expressing desire.  I like your association to hard energized work to achieve a goal, or be seen and heard.  So often that ambition is viewed as cool when what it takes is heat, the fire to demand respect and, even the right to end things on one’s own terms, fulfill one’s passion for loyalty to one’s values. Antigone gave her life to claim her right to live by her own rules – those of the gods and nature.  When she defied Creon, she was making a choice and knew that to accept his leniency was to yield to his rule again. If I think of it as an internal struggle, I get closer to understanding her suicide – and the larger tragedy, which I think is what you’re referring to by the perpetual struggle.  As an internal struggle, she had nothing to go back to but a life of hypocrisy, never able to be herself.  The monster of patriarchy ate her innards. If she lived, she would be the only one who knew she was dead. I’m not sure I could live with this painting as a decoration on my wall.  I guess if it were on a wall in my home I’d feel like I was living with a force of nature!

And forces of nature, represented in both the mythical and the art worlds, are what we require as humans to jostle us out of our staid complacencies into the transformative and new.

As I try to capture the rapture the Antigone painting holds for me, I feel into the strokes and color and into, perhaps, the feeling of the painter who let the painting speak for her.

In my words, Schwabacher is saying, “I rush the brush upward, grabbing colors of red and orange as I go, pushing upward over the hurdles of white coals beneath my feet and slashing outward with a stab of bright yellow light.  Ah, perhaps I’ve gone too far and I should cover myself a bit with gray, soften the blow of force roused by urgency, a need to get myself in motion before I’m weighed back down in somber tones of remorse.  I do feel a creeping empathy from the lower quadrant beneath my left side, perhaps an ochre scramble wishes to join me in my protest?  I am a bit bruised, a bit charred and a bit off balance but I keep my drive to the right.  Onward and upward, even as I fall into a fluidity of flamboyance.”

And a fluidity of flamboyance it is! I am back to that passion. The passion that makes a man like Creon veer off the natural so much in his anger that he ends up ruining his whole life as a result. The passion that makes a woman stand up for what she feels is right even if it means her end. And the passion of a female artist expressing her own Antigone in a male-dominated art market.

A time-old tale. Perhaps one that took artists like Ellen to move the myth into the 20th century for a fresh look?  Imagine that it took this long – into the 21st century for these women to get their own museum show!

Helen Luke also said, in The Way of Woman, that, “an old myth grows into contemporary relevance through the imagination of an individual expressing the unconscious need of his or her time.”

So, even though Ellen and the other women painters in this show weren’t given much fair due until now, they were certainly injecting forms of feeling into the modern art expressionism world and the culture at large. That’s what Antigone stands for, the feelings or empathy that ties people together, behind the scenes.

As we are finishing up our conversation about women and abstract expressionism, I come across Emily Dickenson’s poem, The Scarlet Experiment and make a connection with our work on Antigone.

Split the Lark — and you’ll find the Music—
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled—
Scantilly dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood—you shall find it patent—
Gush after Gush, reserved for you—
Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?

Antigone might have said to all those who doubted her loyalty and love of family because she defied the law, do you know me as one who is true.









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