Paradise: An Art Project
About ten years ago, I began to make sketches about a modern version of Paradise. I was wondering how a contemporary paradise might look – perhaps something different than a three-dimensional place. My drawings and gouaches explored this idea.
At the time, I did not realize how all-encompassing and interesting this subject really is. Some of the drawings were sold, and that seemed the end of it – a shame really. But now, I am taking the idea further, with lots of energy to invest.
Here below, I talk about the background of the concept of paradise and about current interest in the subject. You can then read about my plans, as well as something about the long history of paradise.
The concept of ‘Paradise’ is complicated and multifaceted, and it has often changed meaning over the last 2500 years. The word sometimes refers to heaven and sometimes to the earthly Garden of Eden: the garden in religious scripture where Adam and Even lived and from which they were eventually banished. According to Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, paradise is a place where life is always wonderful, where abundance reigns and there is no disease, disaster or death.
In non-religious terms, paradise is also an idealised place, representing a world in which life is better than where we spend our everyday existences, filled with so much sadness. It is indeed when we are subjected to injustice, pain, sorrow or betrayal that a desire arises for redemption from those earthly torments, for the incorruptibility of such a paradise.
Painting Peter Wenzel ± 1800
Paradise Back in Focus
It seems that our desire for paradise increases as our problems become greater. It is striking that in recent years, paradise has been the subject of numerous artistic presentations. Paradise is presented as an ideal, a natural environment, or indeed as a place in total ruin, a ‘Paradise Lost’. Here we have a cynical view of a world in decline, where everything has failed.
After observing some of these presentations, I felt that with my earlier ideas about paradise – as a possibly intangible place, a ‘Paradise Found’ – I had something to add to this discourse. For this reason, I have again pulled out my sketches and will continue to investigate this topic in the coming years, in two ways.
First, I will have conversations with others in order to discover what the function of the concept of paradise still is in our present day. Part two of my project consists of paintings and drawings that depict my own ideas as they develop.
Paradise 2.0 – Part 1: Your Paradise
For 2500 years, paradise has been defined and shaped by prophets, seers, priests, princes, painters, explorers and politicians. Today, I am curious about what people personally (still) imagine paradise to be, and what the concept means to them. What do people know or understand about paradise today, and what fantasies does it evoke? To find out, I will conduct interviews based on a list of fixed questions. The interviews will be with varied groups of people, different in background, age, religion, social origin, nationality, education, profession and so on.
Based on the stories that these conversations generate, I will complete new paintings. These will not be literal illustrations, but will use elements from those narratives. Whether or not the paintings are directly linked, on a one-to-one basis with any particular interview, or possibly to a number of related stories, will depend on the results of the interviews.
The aim is to organise exhibitions of my paintings and publish the stories, together with the accompanying drawings in a public forum: a newspaper, magazine or digital platform. The platform that will be most suitable will in part be determined by the contents of the interviews.
Part 2: My Own Paradise
The ideas about paradise that I conceived a decade ago are now in the form of sketches that are ready to be further developed. I am asking questions: what might paradise look like in our time? Is this still about a physical location, such as a walled garden with running water, an overabundance of fruit and humans being together in blissful harmony? Has that classic conception of paradise as a miraculous garden not grown a bit stale? Does that idea still coincide with the experiences and desires of people in our time and place?
Throughout its long history, moreover, that earthly paradise has remained unattainable, at least as a permanent state of being. It inevitably shifts as soon as we think we are getting close. The concept has evolved from religious prophecy, by way of political manifestoes, to a marketing gimmick for the travel industry. Are we ready for an alternative representation of an earthly paradise? Are we ready for a form that produces something substantially different from what a wondrous garden, a tropical beach, or some ‘pampering resort’ is able to offer us?
If Not a Garden, What?
For me, the idea of paradise has always symbolised a place or situation in which the compelling and noisy presence of everyday life has no hold on me. It is where the outside world, the ego and unfulfilled desires, play no role, more of a ‘state of being’ than a place.
For this second part of the project, my drawings and paintings will reflect on the question of how we can use visual means to shape this kind of non-space. I do not yet know exactly how I will portray this, but I am looking forward to the search.
Given the confusion and multiplicity of threats that characterize our current age, with problems piling one upon the other, it might seem a bit unworldly to be concerned with this theme. At the same time, I think it is important to visualize and present a ‘workable’ version of paradise, as a comfort and an inspiration for possible spaces of escape.
Move slider over image. Left painting ±1600, possibly Jan Brueghel the Younger – Right photo Helga Kos 2023
Where Paradise Began
The word paradise comes from the Persian paradeiza, meaning a walled garden, or pardes in Hebrew. Although there is no agreement about when the word was first used in the context referred to here, there is an ancient relief from the fourth century CE that refers to it. This segment of the much larger sculptural reliefs at Taq-e Bostan in Iran depicts a hunting scene. In it, we see how, on behalf of a ruler anointed by God, men chase a large herd of boars until they are trapped inside a walled garden. This provides their sovereign with an almost endless abundance of pork.
In the centuries that followed, paradise evolved further into a symbol of immeasurable opulence, later often including sensual pleasure: a magical and walled-in place known as the ‘hortus conclusus’.
The History of Paradise
Over the centuries, a range of different motives have been behind the search for the earthly paradise. Pre-Christian, religious visions and prophecies foretold and predicted a paradise on earth, but not before humanity had evened the score with evil gods or the devil. Such purification would go hand-in-hand with terrible calamities, the prophesied Apocalypse. In several different faiths, these calamities and wars were (and are) set in motion in order to hasten the arrival of paradise on earth.
Later, Columbus’s discovery of the Americas helped generate the idea that paradise could be found in the interior of this mysterious new land.
All of these attempts to find, create or achieve paradise have ultimately failed. In the 18th century, notably in England, people therefore began designing botanical gardens. The intention was that all the known plants in the world should be included in these gardens. This was a way for us to literally create our own paradise on earth.
From Perfect Garden to Perfect Mankind
It is not difficult to understand that after such perfect gardens and parks had been created – places worthy of being called paradise – the idea took shape that along with such landscapes, a perfect, high-level human also had to be created. With this idea, the ruling classes were referring to their own descendants and to wealthy, upstanding citizens. Others, the feebleminded, the poor, prostitutes, thieves, murderers and political opponents would only stand in the way of the process of perfecting humankind. Because they always produced children who were their equals (as was believed at the time), the ideal human being would remain the exception, much in the minority.
By the late 19th century, people were experimenting with selective reproduction of human beings. In 1926, for example, in 23 American states, laws were adopted that made the sterilization of ‘idiots and moral degenerates’ possible. These same ideas about purity of race had also been prevalent in Germany for some time. Hitler’s attempts to create a world populated only by people of pure Aryan extraction was directly connected to this idea. He took matters further than sterilizing so-called sub-humans.
All the atrocities committed by elites and by military or political regimes in order to create a paradise on earth – notably for themselves – came to naught. People had come no closer to finding that beautiful, ideal and magical place. It still awaits, somewhere in our imaginations, to be discovered.
Helga Kos, Amsterdam, april 2023
For the history of paradise, among other sources, I recommend Kevin Rushby’s Paradise: A History of the Idea that Rules the World, published by Basic Books in 2006.
Thoughts on Paradise 04, Helga Kos
Thoughts on Paradise 01, Helga Kos