Visions of an Ideal World: The Golden Age in Art
The erliest reference to the concept of a Golden Age as an ideal era before the moral decline of humanity appears in Hesiod’s Works and Days in the late 6th century BC. Other authors like Plato, Virgil and Ovid followed this thought. The myth describes the Golden Age as a time period of perfect harmony, prosperity and nudism. Parallels to the Garden of Eden are obvious. The ideal era knew no animal sacrifices. Humans and all animals were vegetarians, and even agriculture was superfluous as the earth provided food for everyone in abundance.
In order to keep peace and harmony humans followed their moral instincts rather than a written law.
„The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear.
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast.“
(Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book the First, 18th century version, translated into English verse under the direction of Sir Samuel Garth)
In art history the subject became especially popular in the 16th century. Lucas Cranach the Elder painted two versions of “The Golden Age” in 1530.
Both paintings stage the scenery inside a demarcated area. Behind the walls castles suggest an outside world with different rules and hierarchies. The dance around a tree – a pagan fertility ritual – forms the center of the first painting. According to pagan tradition the tree stands for masculinity. Humans and animals are arranged in pairs, the vegetation is lush, and lions, deers and humans live together in peace. In the second painting Cranach moved the dance scene to the left. In the center we find a river which originates from a vagina-like grotto. Also in this version the figures are arranged in conversing couples. The bathing couple seems to flirt with one another: the woman stretches her arms showing off her sexual stimuli. The man is struggling to reach her, grab her. Will he succeed? Is this still a flirt or already the beginning of the Silver Age?
Also Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of earthly delights” (1490-1510?) shows a starting point in paradise (on the left) and the progressive moral downfall.
Part of the Golden Age idea is marked by a natural handling of the human body: the innocent human being doesn’t need to hide behind clothes. In some fantasies this is connected to free and open coupling between the sexes. Paulo Fiammingo’s vision “Love in the Golden Age” (c. 1585) later inspired Henri Matisse to his “Le bonheur de vivre” (1906). Interesting to see how the circle dance as a symbol of fertility and harmonic playful coexistence stays in the centre of the scenery from Cranach to Matisse. Also “La Danse” (1909) – one of the most popular paintings by Matisse – is very likely to have been inspired by this idea. The ritual dance reached a new popularity in art in the beginning of the 20th century through the Ballets Russes which revolutionised the classical ballet by using forceful pagan movements. The Ballet Russes worked together with many famous visual artists and musicians of their time. Particularly Strawinsky and Djagilew’s “Le sacre du printemps” (Rite of Spring) should be noted in this context.
In the 19th century Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (“The Golden Age”, 1862) and Hans von Marees (“Das goldene Zeitalter I und II”, c. 1880) have been inspired by the subject as well as Paul Signac who gave the idea a political dimension. In 1895 he transfers the nostalgic vision of a perfect time into the possibly feasible future.
The painting with its long title “In the time of harmony: The golden age is not in the past, it is in the future“ was originally called “In the time of anarchy“. Signac describes his painting in a letter to Henri-Edmond Cross:
“Great news! On your advice, I’m going to try a large canvas!… The boules player is becoming a minor figure of: in the time of anarchy (title to be determined). In the foreground, a group at rest… man, woman, child… under a large pine an old man tells stories to the young kids… on a hillside… the harvest: the machines smoke, work, lessen the drudgery: and around the haystacks… a farandole of harvesters… in the center, a young couple: free love!” (2) (Paul Signac, a letter to Henri-Edmond Cross, 1893, quoted in Anne Dymond, “A Politicized Pastoral”, The Art Bulletin (Vol 85, #2, June 2003), p 361).
Cross’ answer suggests his study of Ovid: the human being is instinctively capable to act morally. Harmonic coexistence is possible in anarchy – without a regulating law. This ideal should be shown in Signac’s painting.
“Your idea for a large canvas is perfect […] Until today, drawings related to the expression of anarchy have always shown either revolt, or a scene whose poignant suffering suggests revolt. Let us imagine the dreamed-of age of Happiness and well-being, showing the actions of men, their games, their work in this era of general harmony.”(3)
More paintings with the subject “The golden age” (e.g. by Salvador Dali and Yves Klein) here.
(1) “Aurea prima sata est aetas, quae vindice nullo,/sponte sua, sine lege fidem rectumque colebat./poena metusque aberant, nec verba minantia fixo/aere legebantur, nec supplex turba timebat/ iudicis ora sui, sed erant sine vindice tuti.” (Ovid, Metamorphosen, 1st Book, 89-93)
(3) “Votre idée pour une grande toile est parfait. […] Jusqu’à aujourd’hui les dessins relatifs à l’expression de l’anarchie montrent toujours soit la révolte, soit une scène suggérant par sa poignante misère la révolte. Imaginons l’époque rêvée du Bonheur et du bien-être et montrons les actions des hommes, leurs jeux, leurs travaux en cette ère d’harmonie générale.” Undated letter  from Cross to Signac, Signac Archives. Published by Marina Ferretti- Bocquillon in Distel et al., Signac, 1863-1935, 241.