Symbols and Archetypes: Two Millennia of Recurring Visions in Art

Symbols and Archetypes exhibition
Photo by Phil Nagy

Symbols & Archetypes: Two Millennia of Recurring Visions in Art, the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery’s exhibition, made headlines (and a cover page) during its fall 2019 run. Art & Antiques profiled the exhibition in a five-page feature titled “Ageless Images“; The Nashville Scene said our trans-collection exhibition “leads the season’s must-see art shows” in its Fall Guide; and the Tennessean published a piece that included a fantastic quote from Volney Gay—emeritus professor of Psychiatry, Religious Studies and Anthropology—who advised on the exhibition.

Burnaway, The Voice of Art in the South reviewed the exhibition as “a meditative, slightly spooky trip into the collective unconscious… displaying artifacts and artworks including ancient Chinese currency, alchemical texts, a selection of tarot card decks and proto-surrealist illustrations, twentieth-century lithographs by Marc Chagall,  Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso, and works by more contemporary artists including the Tennessee-based painters David Onri Anderson and Rubens Ghenov.” Read the full review.

The exhibition examined artworks and artifacts from different eras, cultures, and disciplines, all through the lens of the archetypal themes that they share. This gallery presentation took as its point of departure Carl Jung’s 1912 publication Symbols of Transformation, which frames the unconscious as a collective psyche, and the instinctive force driving visions to reappear time and again throughout human history—in dreams, religions, folklore and art from across the world. Organized into four categories—Celestial Events, Major Arcana, Serpents & Slayers, and Sacred Geometries—the exhibition explored artworks made over the span of two thousand years, to include: Chinese currency from the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE); fifth-century illuminated manuscripts; alchemical texts from sixteenth-century Germany; early European tarot cards, proto-surrealist illustration by nineteenth-century French caricaturist J.J. Grandeville; collaged self-portraits by avant-garde French photographer Claude Cahun; twentieth-century lithographs by Marc Chagall and Salvador Dalí; and Vanderbilt Television News Archives from the Apollo moon landing. Alongside historical works were those by twenty-first century artists whose imagery delves into the collective unconscious: Martin Puryear (b. 1941, USA), Rubens Ghenov (b. 1975, Brazil), Sharona Eliassaf (b. 1980, Israel), and Nashville-based David Onri Anderson (b. 1993, USA) among them.

A lecture by Curator Rachel Lavenda focused on the history of Tarot using items from The George Clulow–United States Playing Card Company Gaming Collection in Vanderbilt’s Special Collections Library.