XI: Religious and Mythological Subjects

 

In rare moments Lahner undertook a mythological or religious subject. With the exception of his stained-glass windows and a few oils derived from them, most of these subjects were executed in various media on paper as studies for larger works. Some of these were never carried out. There are, for example, three watercolors illustrating various aspects of a Nativity. The first scene shows the Christ child enthroned and surrounded by the Virgin and three barnyard animals. In another watercolor, a bearded man who is probably Saint Joseph appears with a bull, a female angel, and a dove flying overhead. The angel, in a lavender tunic and with voluminous wings, holds onto a white cloth -- Lahner's perennial studio prop. The third scene is a close-up study of the angel with the same cloth in her hands. All three watercolors have a light pencil or charcoal underdrawing and an identical color scheme. On account of this interrelationship, it is tempting to suppose that a larger composition unifying these strands exists, or existed; it is also possible, however, that the watercolors represent the painter's one-time intention to paint an overtly religious subject that in fact was never executed. The airborn dove appears in several other paintings and drawings by Lahner, for example, in La Liberté of about l949. In addition to its connotation as the emblem of the Holy Spirit, the dove was also used by Picasso as a symbol of peace.[89] In view of Lahner's incipient interest in religious iconography, the dove in La Liberté may be a symbolic amalgam of the painter's normally concealed spiritual leanings with his equally seldom expressed concerns for the delicate balance of political affairs in the post-war era.

To a greater degree than in his religious subjects Lahner betrays a lightness of spirit in his mythologically-based themes. A tiny watercolor, Bacchus and Ariadne, shows the artist at his witty best.[90] Here the god and goddess ride a wagon drawn by a pair of stolid oxen and are up to their waists, not in grapes, but in peaches from the French countryside. The gesture of Bacchus as he holds the branch of fruit above him while reaching for Ariadne's thigh below and the inane expressions of the two have an erotic and disarming appeal. Lahner seems to be fond of stories like Europa and the bull where he has the opportunity of depicting a delicate nymph astride a rather stupid-seeming animal. In one woodcut variation (Néréide), Lahner portrays a nymph comfortably seated on the dorsal side of a fish, one leg crossed over the other and with an expression of carefree contentment. The comic eroticism of such works almost never finds its way into Lahner's oils, indicating that the mythologies were largely intended for the painter's private amusement.



Footnotes

(89) The "dove of peace" was chosen among Picasso's lithographs by Louis Aragon for the poster announcing the Peace Conference in Paris in April 1949. See Pablo Picasso. A Retrospective, New York 1980, 382.

(90) Lahner's paintings with mythological references, like much of his later work, can be read in terms of a simple design or as a picture with a subtext. In neither case, however, does the painter strive for a "narrative." He told René Barotte that "My aim is to seek out poetry while avoiding all that which in art, so misunderstood, resembles literature." See Barotte 1950.