An Interpretation: Mark Tansey’s Achilles and the Tortoise & Forward Retreat

Tansey  tansey_forward_lg

Achilles and the Tortoise (1986) and Forward Retreat (1949)

A monochromatic blue, gargantuan canvas immediately captures my eye. In it, a rocket juxtaposed, yet racing ahead of a stoic pine tree, piques my interest as I assign meaning to it based on current events and personal feelings. At the Broad Museum, Mark Tansey’s Achilles and the Tortoise is a fascinating painting that sits adjacent to his Forward Retreat- both of which are simple, yet complex in their design.

The first includes portraits of famous people, including Princess Diana and Albert Einstein. While the foreground depicts Diana helping plant a tree with onlooking spectators, the background has a crowd of people with binoculars, watching a rocket blast into the sky. A man with a binocular stealthily watches the tree-planting ceremony, while another looks into the background at the rocket, shooting rapidly and growing taller. Directly parallel to the rocket stands a thin and long tree. Although the rocket is obviously static on the canvas, it still gives off a feeling of intense and rapid movement, clouded in white smoke that pops out against the beautiful blue backdrop. In juxtaposition to the darker tree, the smoke’s path resembles the tree to its right in its similar shape.

My interpretation is that while human development and technology race into the future, reaching figurative and literal heights that are unprecedented, nature has already been where people cannot go. The tree, as a representation of nature, stands tall, and without much attention, does the same thing that the rocket is doing (growing into the sky) with less effort and little attention. People are planting a new tree in the front of the painting with celebratory champagne, representing the human desire to create and our own celebration of our accomplishments.

However, while we can put time and effort into growing anything, from ideas to trees, we have certain limitations beyond our control. On the other hand, nature is free and will continue to exist even after we, as humans, die. Its relative immortality gives it power and beauty, and while the tree is simple compared to the other objects in the painting, it still garners so much of the viewer’s attention, much like nature does in the “real” world.

Although people stand in intense interest, staring with binoculars at the rocket blasting into space, there is one man who is facing the viewer of the painting, looking at the tree being planted instead. Perhaps, this shows that nature is more outstanding than anything humans can make on their own.

Additionally, the rocket can symbolize a tool of modern warfare and human application of the laws of space, time, and motion for their own greed and desires. Both the rocket and tree are powerful and although narrow, take up the most space on the canvas, showcasing that war and nature are potent forces to be reckoned with.

On the wall adjacent to this painting hangs a monochromatic red canvas by Tansey entitled Forward Retreat. In it, there is a pond with broken artifacts of art floating in the water and on the shore. Below it, men in military garb sit, riding backwards on horses, all of which are painted upside down. As they look off into the future, they are actually moving backwards. I think that the broken vases and pieces of history on the shore represent culture and the arts.

Although humankind believes warfare and military action can propel them into the future as they gain more “power”, the truth is that the destruction of war truly decelerates progression as it destroys the things that really move humans, namely art and culture. The title in itself is paradoxical, but it adequately describes the history of war. While we think we are moving forward, we are actually retreating and losing a sense of human nature in the process. While we aim to create and grow, we use violence and military action to quell any group of people or ideas that seemingly threaten the standing power, even when they have the potential to improve the status quo.

While both paintings are strikingly different in color and content, they both represent an overarching theme of art, culture, technology, human progress and war, even if only to my mind’s eye.


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