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Bartolomeo Bimbi

Lemons and Limes, 1715, Oil on canvas, 174 x 233 cm, Museo della Natura Morta, Villa Medicea di Poggio a Caiano, Castello 597, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Paul Gauguin

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897–98, Oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 36.270, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Tompkins Collection / Bridgeman Images

Andy Warhol

Green Disaster #2 (Green Disaster Ten Times), 1963, Silkscreen and acrylic on canvas, 272.6 x 201 cm, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main; Former collection of Karl Ströher, Darmstadt, 1981/57, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Axel Schneider, Frankfurt am Main

Striving after Wind

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

In his search for insight into the meaning of life, and in the absence of any direct divine revelation, Qohelet tests the potential of wisdom, folly, and pleasure (1:17; 2:1). Through his experimental philosophy, he seeks to discover meaning by understanding the world around him (1:13), and identifying what constitutes a good life (2:3).

When Qohelet creates an Edenic royal garden, filled with fruit trees, he is both declaring his kingly power, and making a philosophical test of pleasure.

From the rulers of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to Louis XIV of France, a ‘king’s green thumb’ demonstrated mastery of nature, symbolized territorial expansion, and expressed virility (Brown 2000: 32). Bartolomeo Bimbi’s painting of citrus fruit from the Medici gardens demonstrates the ongoing passion among ruling elites for creating gardens and cultivating rare species. These exotic havens proclaimed their owners’ power. But they also provided a place in which to explore—imaginatively and scientifically—the world and their influence within it (Bundvad 2015: 225–70). Qohelet’s epistemological experiments (including gardening) resonated with the Renaissance pursuit of knowledge through science and philosophy; Ecclesiastes aligned well with humanist thinking, which increasingly privileged scepticism and empirical evidence (Christianson 2007: 35, 41).

Qohelet, though, came to hate his earthly paradise because it would be inherited by someone else, who, whether ‘a wise man or a fool’ would be ‘master of all’ Qohelet had achieved (2:18–19). Even dynasties as powerful as the Medici fall, and the great wealth, knowledge, and skill represented by the cultivation of bizarrely-shaped citrons become merely another form of ‘vanity’.

If gardens are one field of exploration, painting can be another. Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? is a testament to a search for meaning, as personal as Qohelet’s. For Paul Gauguin, the great question of life was, ‘What is our ideal, natural, rational destiny?’, and his enquiries into religion began with the questions inscribed on this painting (Shackelford 2014: 7). Believing that painting was capable of ‘resolving the paradox between … feeling and … intellect’, he thought that in this work he had ‘transcended the obsolete boundaries of conventional representation’, bringing together the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘ineffable’ (Shackelford 2014: 27; Gauguin 1897: 134–5, 147).

Although Gauguin believed that he had thereby surpassed other painters (2:9) he remained, like Qohelet, acutely aware of mortality. If his testamentary masterpiece brought satisfaction, it was also intended as his last work, and Gauguin planned to commit suicide thereafter. Despite the apparently comprehensive view of human life which it attempts, Gauguin’s search for understanding through painting and religious belief, did not provide the answers he craved, but returned him to the riddle of human life, (Shackelford 2014: 7), full of ‘pain’, ‘vexation’ and ‘vanity’ (2:23).

His search for a unified system of belief notwithstanding, Gauguin strenuously asserted his own individuality. In contrast, Andy Warhol famously (and perhaps ironically) claimed that he wanted ‘everybody to think alike’. His remark referred in part to the confrontation between the capitalist-consumerist society epitomized by America and the Communism epitomized by Russia. In Russia, Warhol noted, people were forced into being the same; in America, it was happening ‘all by itself’ (Swensen 1963: 26).

While his comments perpetuated a self-image steeped in the banal and commercial, his point is arguably both political and theological. His observation of increasing uniformity—whether by political repression or personal choice—subverts the equation of affluence with freedom which was ‘the ideological weapon’ of the USA. It might also be seen as rejecting the contemporary political adoption of the symbolism of ‘radiance and darkness that was no longer … primarily theological, but had become consumerist in character’ (Crow 2016: 137). In Warhol’s hands, the righteous glow of consumerist freedom is overturned by the image of the mangled car.

Warhol’s fascination with ubiquitous commodities—including cars—can likewise be read as a deconstruction of consumerism in which ‘the mass-produced image as the bearer of desires was exposed in its inadequacy by the reality of suffering and death’ (Crow 2016: 137). In Green Disaster #2, the affluence of the individualistic, automobile generation of Americans crashes headlong into the meaninglessness of wealth, and the inescapability of death. The corpse could be anyone. Two political systems, with divergent value claims, are shown to be equally impotent in the face of mortality.

Whether driving cars, cultivating citruses, building palaces, or jockeying for political supremacy, searching for meaning through hedonism or territory-marking leads to a dead end: ‘This also is vanity and a striving after wind’ (2:26).



Brown, William P. 2000. Ecclesiastes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)

Bundvad, Mette. 2015. ‘At Play in Potential Space: Reading King Qohelet’s Building Experiment with Psychoanalytic Spatial Theory’, in Perspectives on Israelite Wisdom: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, ed. by John Jarick (Bloomsbury: London)

Christianson, Eric S. 2007. Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries (Oxford: Blackwell)

Crow, Thomas. 2016. ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’, in On & By Andy Warhol, ed. by Gilda Williams (The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA), pp. 135–44

Gauguin, Paul. [1897] 1996. ‘Miscellaneous Things’, in Writings of a Savage, ed. by Daniel Guérin and Wayne Anderson, trans. by Eleanor Levieux (Da Capo: New York)

Shackelford, T.M. 2014. Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (MFA Publications: Boston)

Swenson, G.R. 1963. ‘What is Pop Art? Answers from Eight Painters’, Art News 62.7: 26


Next exhibition: Ecclesiastes 3