When Human Soul Stops Living and Finds Itself In A Bad Eternity (David’s Painting), And When Human Souls Burst Together In Instantly Multiplied Vitality That Is Bigger Than Human Time (Lam’s Painting)

Jacques-Louis David, “Andromache Mourning Hector”
Jacques-Louis David, “Andromache Mourning Hector”, 1783, oil on canvas

The semantic punctum of David’s painting, it seems, is not Hector’s death and not so much his wife’s mourning, but the behavior of Astyanax. We see here the Freudian pre-oedipal Oedipus. In his age, Astyanax‘relationships with his father is much less important for him than relationships with his mother whose perception naturally dominates his. It’s not that he looks at the world with the mother’s eyes, but he looks through her eyes. Astyanax doesn’t comprehend yet what death is, he feels what adults mean by human death, but this adult meaning of death doesn’t reverberate in his soul. For him father’s death is not so different, for example, from father being ill or even from father’s sleeping, although he understands that they are not identical states.

What really worries the boy, what really fills him with confusion and fear is what’s happening with mother. Why is she completely ignoring him? What has he done to create in her such a nasty indifference towards him? Why has he become for her completely superfluous? Why has she abandoned him and what is it to do with what happened to father? Astyanax is trying to awaken her attention to him, but she instead is talking to Gods. What will happen to him now, when his father is dead?

We, the viewers, believe that the mother will be back, like the father did everything in his power to protect them and gave them all his love to make them happy.

Andromache will be back, and she finally will recover her glory, but without her son.

Wifredo Lam, “Hector, Andromache and Their Son Astyanax”, (1940),
Wifredo Lam, “Hector, Andromache and Their Son Astyanax”, (1940), water color on paper

The title of this Lam’s watercolor on paper could be “Hector’s Departure for the Battle”, if it were only about a departure when several souls (Hector’s, Andromache’s and their son’s), as if, for a moment, transform into each other by the energy of one cluster-like emotion (consisting of fear, love and hope for victory of love). But in this very moment all three of them feel at once a clairvoyant grief (a subliminal common knowledge that the husband and father will never return home) resisting hope and rushing to love to feel this moment with as much love as only possible in order to tame the eternity of death that can come soon.

It is to this fleeting moment Wifredo Lam, it seems, dedicates his painting, when the feelings of the protagonists are so all-embracing and at the same time so deeply rooted that it cannot be expressed through its “surface” – mimic or pantomimic. These feelings are, simultaneously common for the three members of the family and, as if, buried inside each soul from being expressed or even understood. Because these emotions are connected with expectation of death, they put the people experiencing it (including Hector), in such vulnerable state that it automatically triggers shame, awareness of being completely helpless, and that makes the situation even more unbearable.

In such situations human faces, as if, put on masks not to surrender to sentimentality (not to lose dignity in front of destiny) – the father – a bull face (equivalent of military helmet), the mother – queen-like imperturbability, the boy-Astyanax – solidarity and unconditional loyalty to father, that, as if, makes his face larger than it is. Mother’s breast, as if, wants to get closer to her husband, like her legs, as if, moving towards him, while she is just silently standing. With his left hand melting in pink color, Hector caresses his wife’s head, simultaneously, as if emphasizing the unbreachable distance between them. With his right hand losing confidence in cloudy blue, he is ready to shake his son’s hand. But what is this protrusion that looks like Hector’s third arm that is reaching out for Andromache’s body? It is something like the arm of his soul not mediated by belonging to the human body, a pure desire, the impossibility to leave her. Is there something in his hand stretched to that of his son, some kind of a symbolic gift from father to son – a kind of a transparent fruit with a secret meaning decipherable only to the one whom it‘s meant for? May be, it is message about military honor and man’s pride of his prowess, may be, a mandate to care about mother who cares about him – look how she is embracing Astyanax with her strained hand: she tries to keep him, as if, behind her, to prevent him from being overwhelmed by excess of feelings for a departing father (she doesn’t want him to suffer too much should the worse become true). But, may be, the empty fruit in Hector’s palm meant as a signifier of human vanity, and the father, already seeing things ahead, prepares Astyanax for his terrible destiny, tries to help him to learn how to perceive life without symbiotic greed.

On the father’s face we see, as if, scar – a kind of predatory animal’s teeth. Is it a sign of personal destiny, or mark of a warrior, sign of readiness to meet his death on the battlefield? But how to understand the presence of two breast-like forms on Hector’s body, one in the front and the other in the back, where usually genitals and buttocks are located? Here we approach, may be, the most challenging element of Lam’s semantics expressed in this painting. We have to return to the exceptional nature of the very moment when Hector must leave for a dangerous mission and be ready not to return alive. Military horn of honor is calling the soldiers to duty. And in this particular instant, when human soul traumatized by the expectation of a tragedy produce unconscious mutations of feelings, inside the underground layers of Hector’s soul his yearning to win over death’s eternity by intensity of love creates in him desire which he himself never knew. But the artist was able to recognize through deployment of the bizarre images strange impulses moving in Hector’s unconscious – in this unique moment he wants to love his wife and his son not like a man and the father, but more generously, in a more generous fashion, like only mother can love her baby. There is no place in Hector’s soul for genital bravado and psycho-anal self-centeredness anymore, only for breast-feeding mother’s unconditional love for her baby (that he unconsciously emulates).

Lam’s intention to depict the fleeting moment of separation forever when human soul, as if, challenging the eternity of death, could be responsible for his choice of watercolor for this particular work. It could make him refuse oil painting for its monumentality. He wanted to depict what is felt with cosmic intensity but not recognized by the conscious mind, what is produced by three souls simultaneously, unintentionally, blindly, clairvoyantly and ecstatically. It can also explain the tender, over-transparent tonality of the picture, as if, all three protagonists are spirits. Their feelings are so unconscious and so hidden while being opened to their intuitive sensitivity that they, as if, transformed into ghosts. It is this ghostish (superhuman) quality of three protagonists’ feelings by which they are trying to overcome the eternity of death with existential finality of love – their spiritual transformation – what Lam represents here. Hector and Andromache, according to Lam, are exceptional personalities, people whose spiritual sensitivity is even more expressive because it proves itself in the context of real life and the tormenting existential ordeal. Hector’s death can be considered a failure only in earthly, prosaic, “atheistic” sense.

Right before leaving (after all the words were said and all the human emotions were exchanged) Hector, an acclaimed warrior, stopped, just for one moment to be a warrior and military commander and was able to see his wife and son with a disinterested – spiritual sensation. All the victories he gained during his life became a matter of vanity and even his physical presence in the life of his wife and son a much less important than their life after him. Now, it is his spiritual, not earthly help what becomes important, and according to the painting, this help passes through subliminal channels between him and his dearest ones.

It’s possible to offer another interpretation of Lam’s watercolor that can suggest another title – “Appearance of Hector’s ghost in front of Andromache and Astyanax”. But the operational interpretative chain would be very similar. Even if we assume that Hector appears as a ghost to announce his own death to his family, the motifs of separation and spiritual encouragement of his wife and son will dominate the situation by its existential meaningfulness. For this reason the reading of the painting as a transformation of the living people into their astral bodies (under the influence of their exceptionally strong feelings) seems richer.

Wifredo Lam (in the center) shows Pablo Picasso his new paintings.
Wifredo Lam (in the center) shows Pablo Picasso his new paintings.