Desire and Longing: Art’s Enduring Fascination with the Moon

Max Ernst, The Birth of a Galaxy, 1969, oil on canvas. Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel Beyeler Collection, image via The Paris Review
Max Ernst, The Birth of a Galaxy, 1969, oil on canvas. Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel Beyeler Collection, image via The Paris Review

The mysterious and enigmatic wonder of the moon has fascinated artists for millennia. As earth’s only natural satellite it has hovered as an unchanging force over our many civilizations, representing our timeless and enduring place in the universe. Visible with the naked eye, it hovers as a gateway between our planet and the great darkness of the unseen cosmos beyond it. In culture, literature and the arts the moon’s ever-present, yet unknowable nature has lit up minds since ancient times, appearing as a symbol of mythology, folklore, desire, and imagination.

I want! I want!

The 18th and 19th century Romantics were among the first to represent in art a captivation with the moon. In British artist William Blake’s famous engraving, I Want! I Want!, 1793, part of the series, For Children: The Gates Of Paradise, Blake captures with child-like innocence the aching desire and longing to reach out and discover the moon, which was still relatively unknown. German Romanticist Caspar David Friedrich reflected a more grown-up melancholia and longing in his painting Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825–30, where two wistful men gaze upwards at glowing, golden moonlight and contemplate their insignificance in the vastness of the universe.

William Blake, I want! I want!, published in For Children: The Gates of Paradise, 1820, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
William Blake, I want! I want!, published in For Children: The Gates of Paradise, 1820, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Two Men Contemplating the Moon

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825–30, image via The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York
Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825–30, image via The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York

Endymion and Selene

In Greek mythology, Selene was the Goddess of the moon, who fell in love with the shepherd prince Endymion; Victor-Florence Pollet’s mid-19th century portrayal of Endymion and Selene captures the conflict between her ethereal, otherworldly beauty and his earthy realism. In a similar vein, the 20th century Swiss Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed the moon was a feminine force, symbolising intuition, creativity, the anima and the mother, in contrast with the sun’s masculine realm of rational logic and reason.

Victor-Florence Pollet, Endymion and Selene, 19th century, image via The Victoria and Albert Museum
Victor-Florence Pollet, Endymion and Selene, 19th century, image via The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Yûgao Chapter from The Tale of Genji

The mythology of the moon is also a recurring feature throughout Chinese and Japanese art. Japanese printmaker Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s stunning and influential print series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1886, illustrates a series of stories from Japanese folklore, tying them together by situating each print against a theatrical backdrop of iridescent moonlight, as seen in The Yûgao Chapter from The Tale of Genji, 1886.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Yûgao Chapter from The Tale of Genji, in One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1886, image via The Standard
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Yûgao Chapter from The Tale of Genji, in One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1886, image via The Standard

Big Thumb, Beach, Moon and Decaying Bird

Symbolists and Surrealists of the early 20th century saw moonlight as the ideal symbol to represent the dwindling of daylight and the advent of the strange, illusory world of dreams and nightmares. In Salvador Dali’s curious Big Thumb, Beach, Moon and Decaying Bird, 1928, stark, directional moonlight illuminates an eerie night-time scene that makes little sense.

Salvador Dalí, Big Thumb, Beach, Moon and Decaying Bird, 1928, oil, sand and gravel on panel. Courtesy: Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL © Salvador Dali / VISDA 2018, image via Frieze Magazine
Salvador Dalí, Big Thumb, Beach, Moon and Decaying Bird, 1928, oil, sand and gravel on panel. Courtesy: Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL © Salvador Dali / VISDA 2018, image via Frieze Magazine

Lunography

The moon took on new cultural associations following the moon landing of 1969; Surrealist artist Max Ernst painted The Birth of a Galaxy, 1969 in response to the world-changing event, capturing the moon as a prismatic pattern of ordered, pointillist dots that are as light and lucid as the air around them, echoing a growing rational understanding of the universe. Today’s artists continue to be entranced by both the science and poetry of moon, from Katie Paterson’s moonlit installation rooms that omit the same colour and light frequencies as the moon itself, to Tom Hammick’s imaginative paintings illustrating a lonely space explorer on his way to the moon.

Tom Hammick, Lunography, 2017, image via The Guardian
Tom Hammick, Lunography, 2017, image via The Guardian

Phases, image via Illus prints

At Illus Prints, many of our prints capture the timeless, mystical beauty of the moon, exploring its ongoing cultural and phenomenological significance. Phases illustrates the endless waxing and waning patterns of lunar cycles slowly created by the rays of the sun which form an ordered system moving vertically across the page.

Phases, image via Illus prints
Phases, image via Illus prints

Moon, image via Illus Prints

Moon, on the other hand, illustrates a young woman’s hand gently touching the base of a circular crescent, conveying both the feminine energy of Selene from Greek mythology and Carl Jung’s female analogies still wrapped up in our understanding of the moon.

Moon, image via Illus Prints
Moon, image via Illus Prints

Silhouette Moon, image via Illus Prints

Meanwhile, Silhouette Moon is a glowing crescent amidst a darkening sky, signalling a Symbolist and Surrealist captivation with dusk and the slow descent into the dreamy, half-lit world of night.

Silhouette Moon, image via Illus Prints
Silhouette Moon, image via Illus Prints

 

 

This amazing article written by Rosie Lesso.


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