Sunday, 13 May 2012

Joseph's Dream (?1938-1943)

 Evelyn Dunbar: Joseph's Dream Oil on canvas: 1' 6" x 2' 6" (46 x 76 cm) Cambridgeshire County Council

Evelyn painted this in the late 1930s or early 1940s. It was exhibited in 1943. I think it's a particularly significant painting because it combines several themes of her life and work. And in her modest and unshowy way she is pointing at great eternal truths.

Like many of her most important paintings, it took several years to complete. She painted it in her early 30s, during a period of change in her life. Her relationship with Charles Mahoney, her former tutor and later collaborator, came to an end in 1938/39. In 1940 she met Roger Folley, whom she married in 1942.

It has an unusual history. I believe there was an earlier version, one which I remember as a child. The Joseph's Dream (sometimes known as Joseph's Dreams) above was sold in 1948 at an exhibition called Pictures for Schools. It was bought by Cambridgeshire Education Committee as one of a set of morally instructive paintings by contemporary artists to circulate around schools. Evelyn certainly did not paint it for this purpose. At the time it was interpreted within the confines of Christianity. Theologians certainly view the Bible Old Testament story of Joseph as prefiguring the life of Jesus. While I don't think Evelyn would have disagreed, I do think Joseph's Dream nods in the direction of Christianity and then moves on to deeper and more universal ideas.     

We see Joseph dressed in his coat of many colours, his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, if you like, a gift from his father Jacob to his favourite son. We see his twin dreams, on the left twelve sheaves of corn bowing themselves to his sheaf, and on the right the sun and moon and ten stars paying homage to him. The original text comes from Genesis, Chapter 37:

 Joseph had a dream; and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him still more. He said to them, 'Listen to this dream I have had. We were in the field binding sheaves, and my sheaf rose on end and stood upright, and your sheaves gathered round and bowed low before my sheaf.' His brothers answered him, 'Do you think you will one day be king and lord it over us?' and they hated  him still more because of his dreams and what he said. He had another dream, which he told to his father and his brothers. He said, 'Listen:  I have had another dream. The sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.' When he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father took him to task: 'What is this dream of yours?' he said. 'Must we come and bow low to the ground before you, I and your mother and your brothers?' (NEB)

(And a little later his brothers, angry and jealous because Joseph - at the time the youngest - was their father's favourite, captured him, put him down an empty well, smeared his coat of many colours with goat's blood, took the coat home to their father Jacob, saying undoubtedly Joseph was dead, an evil beast had devoured him.  In fact Joseph was rescued from the pit by passing nomads and was sold into slavery in Egypt. He rose to prominence as a trustworthy interpreter of dreams, and eventually became Pharaoh's right hand man.

A great famine arose in Canaan, the land of Jacob and his large family, and they were compelled by hunger to travel to Egypt to find corn. The man in charge of corn distribution was none other than Joseph, whom they didn't recognise, and when they made obeisance before him, and when Joseph eventually gave them corn in abundance, his youthful dreams had come true and the irony was complete.)

Roger Folley, whom she met in late 1940 and married in August 1942, remembered having modelled for the form, Joseph's stances and the folds of his coat, but not the face. Whose, if anyone's, the face is I do not know. Evelyn has been quite bold in associating Roger with the figure of Joseph, as though Roger in some way was following, or would follow, the same path, shouldering the same responsibilities as Joseph. This isn't as far-fetched as it seems. Evelyn developed this notion much more fully in her masterpiece, the very late Autumn and the Poet.

It gives an stunning impact to the Joseph we see, something akin to her close contemporary Stanley Spencer's practice of including in his visionary religious paintings people he knew, actual living inhabitants of Cookham, the Berkshire village he lived in. Evelyn knew Spencer slightly and admired his work. Evelyn's Joseph is remarkable for his unprepossessing ordinariness. We're a long way from that aura of a fey saintliness or physical beauty often associated with religious paintings.

Evelyn's Joseph has big brown eyes, and he's wide-eyed in wonder at the extraordinary vision of the sheaves. We don't see his face on the right, but his stance is the same in both: he seems arrested in mid-step, and his right hand is touching the walls of his dream-frame, as though he's reluctant to relinquish his contact with something apparently solid and physical, as though he's distrustful of the truth of his dreams. This Joseph isn't the arrogant, conceited brat, his father's favourite of the Bible story: he's incredulous, surprised, maybe a little frightened by the import of his visions. And the immense responsibilities they imply.

Evelyn has painted this as a diptych, a two-panel painting. She was fond of multi-box or compartmentalised paintings, and in exploring her work we'll come across more of them. But Joseph's Dream reminds me of other diptychs, and in particular of one of their original functions as votive or devotional pieces, portable hinged panels showing religious scenes or figures which you could open out, set up on your private altar while you heard Mass said or attended to your private prayers, and then fold up and put away afterwards. 

I don't think we're as far from this practice as it might seem. Haven't we known people who occasionally do the same thing with paintings, or more likely photos, of someone they love or have loved, and draw renewed strength from it: a silent word from time to time, a concentrated thought or prayer, even a kiss, when the viewer feels it necessary?

Here's a very famous one, the Wilton Diptych,  from about 1395, now in the National Gallery. It shows King Richard II of England on the left being presented to the Virgin Mary and the Christ-child by his saintly sponsors, Edward the Confessor, Edmund the Martyr (he of Bury St Edmunds) and John the Baptist. And clearly the angels, with their flag of St George, are rooting for England.

I can imagine Richard II, whose hold on the English throne wasn't too firm in the late 1390s, taking at least some comfort and maybe reassurance from the notions expressed on his beautiful personal altar-piece.

That's not to say that I think Evelyn ever thought of Joseph's Dream as any kind of ikon, just that she painted it within the tradition of the diptych, of images which reflected her ideas and which, through their assertion, gave her her moral strength. She was a deeply, and cheerfully, committed Christian Scientist, without being churchy or narrowly pious or evangelical, or over-credulous or proud, or morally superior or exclusive or judgemental. Which was very refreshing.

Joseph's Dream tells us what else she believed. Look at the background: it may not be anywhere identifiable, it may be what art critics call a capriccio landscape, an invented one. But it's clearly Kent again, the harvest is in, and already the fields have been ploughed in preparation for next year's crop. In Evelyn's work a ploughed field is a symbol of promise. Here the Garden of England image runs like a backdrop behind both dreams: green pastures neatly fenced and gated, those ploughed fields (with furrows at right angles to the slope: she knew what she was doing), trim plantations witnessing Man's informed stewardship of Nature. In return for this, God/Nature/Creation/Mother Earth/Gaia, however we prefer to think of it, will provide without end. And Joseph, as his dreams foretold, became the agent of that provision.

The story of Joseph is only a part of the great family saga, as it happens rich in dreams, that makes up the second half of Genesis. The chief characters, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph all undergo adventures and find themselves in situations in which the underlying theme is that God will provide. Evelyn drew on this source time and time again. This Joseph's Dream is the only one of a series that - apart from her very last painting, Jacob's Dream - that I know. Catalogue entries, sales records and exhibition programmes mention others, including Joseph in the Pit and Joseph in Prison.

And, as I mentioned before, this Joseph's Dream isn't the only one. I remember another, similar but not identical, hanging above the lintel of Evelyn's and Roger's dining-room in The Elms, the first house they lived in in Kent, near a tiny place called Hinxhill. Perhaps it was a prototype. Placed above the dining-room door, maybe it was a kind of ikon after all, an acknowledgement of the Man/Nature contractual assurance that Nature's plenty would be found on the dining table.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2012. All rights reserved.)

1 comment:

  1. Another wonderful post, Christopher. So refreshing to leave the page, feeling better informed.