A garden of earthly delights secretly existed… we were granted a summer afternoon’s photography there.
Suspended within our consciousness, somewhere, stories exist of heaven and hell, of sinners and saints, of good and of bad. Narrative notions of heaven and hell are laced throughout ancient mythology and permeate pop-cultural stories and archetypes. These narratives, generally, begin with Adam & Eve, with a paradisiacal garden and a choice; a choice to select the light or the dark. Original sin. Fables depicting a tension between the choice of good and evil have been illustrated, appropriated and reappropriated by artists and story tellers for time immemorial.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch is one such work. Arguably considered one of the first surrealist artists, Bosch, a painter creating works during the renaissance era painted his delightful garden triptych in the early 16th century. His works separated themselves from others at the time due to the fantastical and sometimes disturbing content; playing with proportion and illustrating darker themes found within medieval Christian narratives and moralistic debates of what is good and what is evil.
One of his most known works, The Garden of Earthly Delights, depicts a lush landscape filled with oversized forbidden fruit, candy coloured structures and nonsensical creatures all laced through the delicate surface of worldly indulgence. The central story of the work begins with God, as all things do, introducing Eve to Adam, and, as the story goes, sin and all it’s lustful, indulgent pleasures are henceforth released upon the land. The story descends into a fantastical hell, depicted in the final panel of this triptych work. The work is generally read as a cautionary tale for those succumbing to the sinful indulgences of the world, a warning to those of us who may choose to eat the apple, cavorting with snakes and delicate flesh. The painting serves as a fearful fable for the outcomes of those sinful choices.
Whatever the artist’s original intention; the work is a beautiful, deeply layered painting, rich with symbolic meaning and the potential for open ended readings.
What does this renaissance painter and his depiction of The Garden of Earthly Delights have to do with significant, contemporary, fashion photographer Tim Walker?
Walker’s work is regularly shown within the pages of British Vogue, Vogue Italia, ID and W Magazine. He began his foray into photographic image making in the 90’s. After completing an honours degree in Photography at Exeter College of Art, Walker famously worked under the eye of photographer, Richard Avendon. Since venturing out to carve his own photographic practice, Walker has been creating photographic dreamscapes where art, fashion and fantasy converge. Often using fairy-tales and romance archetypes, Walker proceeds to disrupt these tales, introducing distortion, surreal proportions and an ethereal darkness. The glossy surface of his images present a dream; aspirational marketing for the fashion industry, but look a little deeper into that dream and you will see his images equally subvert and question the very culture the images are promoting, creating a beautiful and sometimes, unnerving dreamscape.
Artists and cultural producers are each building on what has come before, providing a contemporary context or new creative voice to the narratives of our collective past. Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights was a work that had been suspended in Walkers mind since he had first viewed the work as a child, waiting, for an opportunity to be given a voice. When Walker was approached by photographic collector and patron Nicola Erni to create a body of work of his choosing, Walker knew immediately that he would create a reimagining of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Walker’s interpretation selects the whimsical, Arcadian aspects of the original garden and crafts an enchanting world of layered textures, delicate skin, intricate details and a balanced tension between dark and light.
In discussing the power of his imagery Walker notes that it is due to the collaborative nature of every detail within his images; the models, stylists and the incredible garment designers along with the set designers. The magical, whimsical work of Tim Walker cannot be discussed without noting the work of his long time collaborator and incredible set designer Shona Heath. It has been an important aspect of his work that the elements within each image are material objects for his models to interact with, their engagement with the photographic sets then becomes something completely real within all that is unreal. Heath has consistently taken two dimensional imagery and given it a three dimensional, fantastical life within Walkers other worldly landscapes.
Shona Heath curated the exhibition of Walker’s Garden of Unearthly Delights shown between 2017-18 at Het Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. The photographic works were juxtaposed with the hand-crafted set elements, creating a divine, immersive experience. Heath will again be curating an exhibition of Tim walkers work showing later in 2019 at the V&A museum in London.
For Walker’s reimagining of the Garden of Earthly Delights, set designer Shona Heath recreated hero elements from the original painting; the glass orb, candy pink structures comprised of magical thistles, disproportionate ears and oversized shells, hand-crafted objects layered with velvet lustre and beautiful guilt details to line each photographic landscape.
The delicate set details are combined with Walkers unique photographic approach, creating lens distortion and subverting the medium with intentional, occasional image blur or textured surfaces. The hero element within each photographic world, as with all of Walkers images, are his stylishly painted models or fashionably encased subjects; their eyes our portal into his otherworldly landscapes, in this instance, into The Garden of Earthly Delights.
In Walker’s contemporary re-contextualisation of The Garden of Earthly Delights the crisp divide between sinner and saint is blurred, what was once seen as sinful indulgence is questioned; we are instead, lost, in colour, fantasy and glassy skin … where is the evil in these delicate, velvety worlds?
This body of images further seems to question what is right and what is wrong?
What is light and what is dark?
Walker’s images create a divine tension between the one and the other, we, reflected in his images, are both, we are each beautiful and terrifying, good and bad, sinner and saint. Judgment of self is left, in medieval times with Bosch and his religious patrons, in Walker’s reimagined Garden we are romanced by a luscious darkness and candy coloured details, we are enchanted by a deliciously dark dream and liberated from the original sin.