Abundance in the history of Art


For many centuries, the most important thing in an artistic work wasn’t beauty but its message and functionality. So, it’s interesting to take a stroll through the representations of abundance through the history of Art.

Gombrich said in the first chapter of his History of Art, that when analyzing a work, it’s not a matter of deciding whether this is “lovely by our criterion, but if it works.” That is, if it can “do the required magic” in the context of its community.

The author makes this point using the example of the cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux, to explain how the farther back we go in the history of Art, the more important the functionality of the work is, and the less important its objective beauty. That is, only in very recent times have portraits and sculptures begun to be made simply because the are beautiful and look good on the wall. Before, those representations had a function that could be magical, religious, informative, or propaganda, and if they didn’t fulfill that function, they were rejected.

Bisonte de AltamiraThe above-mentioned cave paintings were not painted by Ice Age people out of boredom, or to make those caves more habitable. The reason they are there is the belief in the power of representation, thanks to which prehistoric men believed they were able to subjugate animals just by painting them, an action that the beasts couldn’t carry out in turn, which demonstrated their inferiority.

This is, obviously, one of the theories that explain Altamira and Lascaux. These works are also considered, in a complementary explanation, as the first representation of abundance. It wasn’t just about the submission of the animal, but of the invocation of the abundance of proteins through the magic of the image.

In the following historical stages, the images that we find are not very different. In those remote times when basic needs were met with difficulty, the dream of abundance meant access the full satisfaction of basic needs that required food and goods that seemed scarce naturally.

Ancient Egypt

Tumba de MennaArt in Ancient Egypt revolved almost exclusively around death. Besides the pyramids, the best paintings and sculptures are found in these peculiar tombs, not to mention the elaborate sarcophagi. Progress in Ancient Egypt assumed that more and more people could allow themselves to decorate a tomb of their own, and not just the Pharaoh.

The reason that death was so present was the importance of “the Hereafter,” because it was only there that abundance would be found. Osiris, the main god of Ancient Egypt, Lord of the resurrection, symbolized fertility, the regeneration of the Nile, vegetation, and agriculture. In other words: abundance. The definitive moment after death was the Judgment of Osiris, where a court decided, based on the life of the deceased, if s/he deserved live eternally in the fields of Aaru, the abundant paradise, or rather, suffer the true death.

That full abundance only would be reached after death can be understood as a “redemption,” given the evidence of an agrarian system that only grew very slowly, but also as the expression that from very early on, the idea of transcendence – not only of humanity or society, but of individuals – was understood as being linked to overcoming the “economic problem.” If your life deserved a favorable judgment, if you had contributed to the large collective effort, there would be abundance for you, even if only after you’d died. But if you had been a hindrance, your life would end definitively and nothing would remain of you, not even among the dead, as if never you had existed.


Classical Rome

demeter_ceresA much more material evolution of this idea is found in the Roman vision of the world. Rome is a sophisticated civilization, where wars of conquest, central to Roman history, went towards expanding that civilized world, not just towards sacking. This expansion of the world gave resulted in more products for trade and more places with which to do so, besides new lands with merits to reward. It was, somehow, a path towards the expansion of well-being.

The gods of the Roman Pantheon were practical and represented useful values for social cohesion and civics. They weren’t believed in the way the god of the monotheistic religions is believed in; rather, people believed in what they represented, occupying a central place in Art, as reminders and symbols of Roman virtues.

Mitra siglo IIThe gods of the Pantheon – or those virtues that they represented – were presumed to have not only a life in abundance, but the ability to provide it. The transcendence of the individual was symbolized in one of the two components of their spiritual life: the “genius.” The “genius” – the social significance of someone’s life, seen as a whole – was differentiated from the changing “animus,” the state of mind that determined concrete behavior. The “genius” of a person or a community – the “genius” of Rome, for example – when it stood out and transformed the world, could be diefied in recognition and as an example. An extraordinary “genius” was since capable of generating abundance.

In the absorption of local deities in conquered places and the ad hoc creation of gods, variety and repetition were common and, of course, the most repeated gods were those associated with agriculture and fertility. One of the foreign gods that was accepted and transformed in Roman logic was Mithra, whose myth, for the first time, highlights the association of responsibility and freedom personal with the generation of abundance, the activity that turns humans into peers of the gods. That’s why, among the whole very rich Mithraist symbology, the most reproduced aspect is the “Tauroctony,” the moment in which the forced sacrifice of the bull leads to abundance and the diversity of plant and animal species.


But the bull will not be the only, or even the principle symbol of humans’ struggle against scarcity. The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, proceeds from Greek mythology, was then absorbed by Roman mythology, and is one of the most common allegorical objects in the whole history of art. According to the myth, the young Zeus accidentally broke one of the horns of the goat Amaltea, who nursed him, with his lightning bolts. As compensation, the horn became a magical object that would provide whoever possessed it with everything they might want. It was usually represented brimming with fruits and flowers and sometimes gold coins.

Similar objects appear in mythologies and popular tales of other cultures and times. One of the most famous is that of Aladdin and his marvelous lamp, from The Thousand and One Nights or the Finnish Kalevala, a magic windmill that produced grain, salt and gold endlessly.

The Middle Ages

Ravena capilla del arzobispo, arte paleocristianoHowever, the imposition of Christianity will hide this symbolic map for a time. This period is known as the Dark Ages or the age of shadows, but not because it was a dark time in itself, but because of the scarce information there is about it, which leaves historians to walk “in the dark” in their studies. Yes, it’s true that it wasn’t an especially luminous era regarding equality and prosperity. Wars were continuous, there were epidemics, and hunger was at all-time highs. But above all, Roman trade routes were broken with the fall of the Empire, which meant, along with the breaking of communications, that techniques, procedures, and prescriptions were lost and forgotten, making life poorer in general.

The control of the Christian religion in European art is complete. So, beyond the miracle of the bread and the fish, which doesn’t get represented all that often, there are no works that allude to any myth of abundance, and when they do, it’s almost always in a negative way. It’s not Paradise that’s shown, but the expulsion from it.

With the commercial revolution (tenth to thirteenth centuries) abundance will return little by little to the horizon. First, with myths of utopias and just Christian kingdoms lost in hostile lands, like that of “Prester John,” then, beginning with Joachimism, with the radical evolution of movements of the exaltation of poverty. But even though their mark on popular culture and on later Reformation movements will be profound, its mark on art will be practically nonexistent. In the Middle Ages Art, it is knowledge at the exclusive service of the powerful. This will only start to change shyly when a new surge in the European economy turned into what we call the “Renaissance.”

The Italian Renaissance

La edad de Oro por Lucas CranachThe Renaissance is called that (which is French for “rebirth”) because it saw the resurgence of “true Art,” of the classical models, the recovery of the grandeur of Rome… there’s no doubt that it was grandiose, but it was also a big marketing operation by the Italian republics, which were responsible in part of the bad reputation of medieval times, which they began to describe as a barbarous (Gothic) intermission between Rome and the Renaissance, positioning themselves as being responsible for reviving the glorious past.

That desire to return to the classical world, accompanied by major technical innovations, caused another change in trends. The generation that followed Brunelleschi was incapable of limiting their “creative power” to religious representation. And so it is that, after many centuries, images of classical mythology appear and with it, cornucopias, Arcadias and representations of the Golden Age again became topical, especially in paintings.

But the main innovation is the appearance of a new genre of painting, the still life, which, in a certain way, means a return to seeing paintings as an “invocation.”

Still lifes

BodegónWhile still lifes, dead or calm natural items, had existed since Ancient Egypt, it’s not until the 16th century that they appear as an independent genre and not as details in a portrait, religious scene or funeral decoration. Although they have always been considered a minor genre and a way of demonstrating the skill of the artist when it comes to showing reality, it’s true that for a long time, their reason for being was the ostentation of the first modern bourgeois that hung them in their halls.

It is no coincidence that the representation of foods, drinks, fruits, and eventually objects of all kinds became fashionable just after the discovery of America and coincided with the first boom in horticulture, in a Europe fascinated by the new species that came from the colonies. The bourgeoisie was beginning to enjoy power and proudly showed its capacity to shrink the world, to bring the wonders of remote continents close, and to enjoy what then was considered a life without deficiencies.


La abundancia Jan Brueghel el JovenThe response of the old noble and ecclesiastical order to the whims of bourgeois abundance was not a return to the dangerous medieval austerity demanded by the most radical and iconoclastic sectors of the Protestant Reformation. In Italy and Spain, the Counter-reformation materialized artistically in abundance… in decorations, and reinforced the prominence of religious topics. What must have seemed infinite was the money used to decorate churches with gold leaf, and to fatten up little angels that did indeed seem to live in paradises of milk and honey. In a commercial system that was, for the first time, creating a global market, wealth was no longer a heresy, but another argument in religious conflict.

But wealth is one thing and abundance is another, which, in itself, remains subversive. That’s why its appearances in Baroque art are timid and are related, one way or another, with the desired end of some of the interminable wars that were drying up the coffers of European kingdoms.

So, it’s no coincidence that it’s three painters of the rising bourgeoisie who reclaim the topic, though in a way that was pleasing to the European crowns. Brueghels (father and son) painted several allegories of abundance on the occasion of the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609) and Rubens, who, through his international success, had become an intermediator between the powers of the times, gave Charles I of England a painting called The Allegories of Peace (1629-30), to convince him to sign peace with Spain. The allegory, replete with characters from classical mythology, represents peace with symbols of fertility and abundance.

But while everyone took care to highlight the benevolent role of monarchy, they obviously kept well in mind the ever-disturbing popular myths of abundance. In 1567, Brueghel the Elder paints his famous Das Schlaraffenland, a Germanic version of the French “country of Cucaña” that would be blended in those years with the myth of Jauja, born of the stories of abundance from the conquest of the Inca Empire.

SchlaraffenlandIn 1638, Nicolas Poussin paints some shepherds pointing to a tomb on which is written Et in Arcadia ego (I [death] too I am in Arcadia). This is a grim reminder that they had not forgotten about the myth of the Golden Age, but also a good expression of the contrast of the two large forces of the moment: the optimistic bourgeoisie of the new Barroque economy that feels strong enough to lead the world towards abundance, and the weight of religious inheritance and its melancholy topics in the role of universal and eternal spoilsport.

Contemporary Era

Blake - Marriage of Heaven & Hell

The blossoming of the more and more critical and secularized world the Baroque Era is incubating will not arrive until the French Revolution, and then will do so at first recycling prophetic symbolism, the only language of abundance religious thought is capable of. Between 1790 and 1793, the poet William Blake publishes “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” a book that imitates Biblical prophecies, and which was very influenced by the revolutionary context, in which “he imagines the transition to abundance as the leap to a whole new form of human experience.” The book is thoroughly illustrated by himself, in a succession of fantastic images that must have shocked his contemporaries.

During the French Revolution the revolutionaries don’t have such an easy time representing the new world, which is inevitably sketched with images inherited from the past. An extreme example will be the “cult of the Supreme Being,” the revolutionary attempt to create a rationalist religion. With it, the horns of abundance and the representations of happiness will return.

fiesta del ser supremoDuring the new century, the “century of revolutions,” the idea of abundance will be in books, even in the theories of the artistic vanguard, but like the god of Islam, its conception is so ethereal that it would seem that no one can represent it.

Only Paul Signac (1863-1935), a bourgeois fascinated by the new ideas of Kropotkin and Reclus whose rents allowed him to not only dedicate himself to painting but to finance libertarian newspapers, neatly captured what the society of abundance meant to him. Attracted by scientific theories on color, used the artistic style of pointilism for his “Time of Anarchy“… which he couldn’t show until he changed the title to “Time of Harmony.” This painting is especially important for our story because it is the first contemporary representation of a society of abundance and its values.

Tiempo de Armonía por SignacIn 1917, the Russian Revolution gave hope to, among others, Signac, who was disheartened by the disasters of war. Initially, representations multiply of a new world in which the rapid expansion of technology in the hands of the government by popular assemblies—the soviets—looks like it’s going to open the door of abundance. Futurists and constructivists will use innovations of language experienced by Malevich to explain the Leninist promise of “soviets plus electrification.” Photography, collage, geometric forms, the incorporation of the machine as symbol and of anonymous faces as ruddy protagonists parallel cinematographic experimentation – “industrial art” in the happy expression of both Lenin and Mussolini – that would precede the new society.


But the revolution will not survive the decade. The exasperating and cruel civil war, the bloody consequences and errors of the first attempts at collectivization and the very limitations ideological of the Bolsheviks will open the way to a new ideology within it. Leninism will become Stalinism, and with the new narrative of “socialism in a single country,” a new form of totalitarian nationalism for which abundance no longer took its inspiration from the creative liberation of the artists that had impressed Marx, but from industrial discipline. Posters and public art become omnipresent and homogeneous didactics of the new order: ruddy Kolkholze peasants, feisty workers, and soldiers of indubitable Slavicness multiply in a return to oil paintings and the Academy.

While surrealism will maintain the debate on the “opening of perception” created by Dada in the middle of Europe between the wars, the narrative of Art, captured by the great States preparing for war, is changing. Very significantly, the Universal Exposition of Paris of 1937 features two opposing colossal structures in its entryway: one German, a rationalist tower crowned with an imperial eagle, and one Soviet, a blocky building topped by the gigantic statue of an allegory of the worker-peasant alliance. The Spanish pavillion, final redoubt of a world that was ending, though it is best remembered for Picasso’s “Guernica,” has in its entryway the work which will be the swan song of the vanguards in their love for abundance: “The Spanish people has a path that leads it to a star” by Julio López.

Then WWII arrived, and the posters of the totalitarianisms in conflict were more of the same. The Cold War had to arrive so the representations on posters and murals could recover some pretension of abundance. But was no longer an abundance born of the new transformative capacities of the new citizen and a culture that is boiling over, but rather a degraded version of them: the proud productive capacity of the well-established police-state socialist paradise (and also the capitalist paradise) in the form of great sheaves of wheat, technologized cities, and miraculous mechanical productivity. Even the posters promoting science for the Space Race had that point of ostentation of State power particular to an era of imperial nationalism.

poster chino ciencia e ingenieriaApart from relatively isolated exceptions, even if they were exceptionally successful, like Miró, we will not see liberating conceptions of abundance again until the ’60s. And then, more than with the Promethean tradition of Marxism and nineteenth-century anarchism, it will connect with Blake’s prophetic dreams. It is the time of the “pop-art” – an attempt to open the “the doors of perception” on the basis of visual exercises – and shortly later, of psychodelica. But talk about “experimentation as liberation” also has its limits, and that urbanite, bored and opulent generation will be the first to once again exalt in Nature.

Little by little, abundance again began to be thought of connected to the fertility of the land, the abundance of water and leafy nature. Everything joined together in the rise of ecology and the return to the land that followed the failure of the spirit of the ’60s. This imagery, especially in its iconic representations, sometimes seems to be accompanied by the belief that fruits and vegetables grow by themselves. There was a widespread, if not well thought-through, idea of the countryside as the Garden of Eden, where if we’re good and we recycle, everything will be given to us.


Present and future

impr-destIt would be reasonable to wonder if there are, or in the future will be, visual representations of a new kind on abundance. It occurs to me think about a self-replicating 3D printer, as advanced as the one that appears in The Diamond Era, capable of producing, at the push of a button, anything from a fillet with potatoes to a mattress in a solid oak frame. I think of that printer represented as the Ark of the Covenant or the gods of the Pantheon.

I also think about how, today, to make a marble representation of free software or a tapestry that expresses what Ubuntu is. We’re not in the time of darkness, but it looks like Art cannot yet dispose of an past aesthetic to represent the new model that already seems possible.

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish)

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