Mythological Inspirations
How Artists Are Influenced by Legends and Folklore Across Cultures

Diego Velázquez, Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan, 1630. Photo: Alonso de Mendoza.

Motivated by the current exhibition at the Galerie de Buci – LIVING GODS by Reinar Foreman – which features paintings inspired by ancient Greek myths and legends – we thought it interesting to highlight some other contemporary artists that also draw on the mythological stories, legends or folklore from the past, to incorporate them in their artistic production. In this article we discover a selection of six artists that are not afraid to be influenced by past heritages, as well as the impressive, original and fascinating ways in which humans, across all cultures and continents, look at myths and legends to find inspiration.

In the rich tapestry of contemporary art, artists draw inspiration from a myriad of sources, including the myths and stories that have shaped cultures throughout history. It is easy to think that myths, divinity or religious iconography are things of the past, relegated to pieces painted by old masters such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Velázquez or Poussin. However, contemporary art is no stranger to mythological inspirations—and this is valid for all cultures. From Greek mythology to indigenous American legends, these narratives provide a fertile ground for artistic exploration, offering endless possibilities for reinterpretation and reinvention. In this article, we embark on a journey through the works of six artists who each bring their unique cultural perspectives to bear on mythological themes. From Reinar Foreman’s Greek legends coming to life, Parviz Tanavoli and his interpretation of Persian heritage, Cai Quo-Qiang’s Chinese folkloric inspirations, Jeffrey Gibson’s role reclaiming Native Americans’ place in art, how Kehinde Wiley recontextualizes Christian religious iconography and Kelechi Nwaneri’s surrealistic take on traditional West African symbols.

Abd al-Aziz, Simurgh returning to nest, Zal and its chickens. 16th century painting
Photo: Kiyoweap

Reinar Foreman and his LIVING GODS
Reinar Foreman, a self-taught painter influenced by artists like Bacon, Basquiat, and Warhol, experiments perpetually in his work, capturing movement with rapid brushwork. His paintings, intense in color and shape, blend elements of antiquity with modernity. Inspired by Greek myths, Foreman's "LIVING GODS" series updates ancient tales, portraying the powerful emotions of humanity through vibrant shapes and colors. His compositions, referencing sculptures and artworks from various periods, evoke both the classical and the contemporary. By juxtaposing bare backgrounds with bursts of color and employing unusual color combinations, Foreman creates textured canvases that reflect on the universal nature of emotions across time and culture. He focus particularly on figures like Apollo or Dyonisos, two famous Greek gods with their own traits and characteristics; or on legends such as the story of the Abduction of Proserpina or the myth of Apollo and Daphne, which both can be thought of as a reflection on universal themes, such as consent, the nature of obsession, violence and even gender roles.

"I'm not a god, and I need to try a lot before I succeed in what I want to create."

Apollo and Daphne, Reinar Foreman, 2024.
Photo: Galerie de Buci

The father of contemporary Iranian sculpture: Parviz Tanavoli
Parviz Tanavoli, born in 1937, is a prominent contemporary Iranian artist, who seamlessly intertwines the symbols and semiotics of Persian heritage with a contemporary art practice. Rooted in his fascination with locksmithing and Iranian folklore, Tanavoli's artistic production is a testament to his multifaceted interests and influences. Drawing upon Persian mythology, his sculptural works are imbued with intricate symbolism and poetic beauty, inviting viewers to delve into the timeless wisdom encapsulated within ancient legends and folktales, such as his recurrent use of symbols such as the lion, the bird or the hand. As a founding member of the Saqqa-khaneh artistic neo-traditionalist movement, he adeptly merges secular references with religious iconography, infusing his compositions with layers of meaning and resonance. Arguably, his most well-known pieces explore the concept of "Heech," meaning "nothing" in Farsi–yet embodying a wealth of philosophical and existential significance. The sculptures are always composed of three Farsi characters, the letters he, ye and če, combined in different mediums to produce the word ‘heech.’ Tanavoli's exploration of "Heech" reflects his belief that even in emptiness, there exists a profound depth of meaning and symbolism, echoing the sentiments of poets and thinkers throughout Persian history. Through his sculptures, paintings, drawings, weavings, and prints, Tanavoli continues to leave an indelible mark on the contemporary art world, bridging the gap between tradition and modernity while inviting audiences to ponder the intricacies of Iranian identity and culture.

“I like to be the ambassador for the culture of my country. The media is one-sided sometimes, they show the bad side of the news, but there is also a good side.”
Heech Lovers (and the artist), Parviz Tanavoli, 2007.
Photo: John Gordon.

Cai Guo-Qiang: Illuminating Chinese heritage
Cai Guo-Qiang, the acclaimed contemporary artist hailing from China, intricately weaves elements of Chinese heritage, folklore, and tradition into his groundbreaking artistic practice. Renowned for his awe-inspiring pyrotechnic displays, monumental installations, and evocative paintings, he draws freely from ancient mythology, military history, Taoist cosmology, Buddhist philosophy, pyrotechnic technology, and even Chinese medicine. Through this technique, Cai pays homage to China's rich heritage while simultaneously physically exploding the boundaries of contemporary art. A hallmark of Cai's art is his incorporation of iconic Chinese symbols such as dragons, wolves, and tigers, which feature prominently in many of his installations and paintings. These symbols, deeply rooted in Chinese mythology and folklore, serve as powerful visual metaphors, evoking themes of power, resilience, and cultural identity. One notable example is his use of gunpowder, a traditional Chinese invention, as a medium for his explosive artworks. He has many fascinating paper drawings in which the use of the gunpowder imbues his artworks with a sense of dynamism, spontaneity, and raw energy. but the use of gunpowder comes to its climax in one of his most acclaimed works "Sky Ladder," where Cai Guo-Qiang employed fireworks to create a stunning ladder of fire ascending into the night sky, reminiscent of traditional Chinese celebrations and rituals. Through such works, Cai Guo-Qiang not only showcases the beauty and complexity of Chinese culture but also invites viewers to explore the intersections of tradition and innovation, folklore and modernity, in the contemporary world.

“In my own art, I try to use my personal voice and effort to enable some Chinese people to see the possibilities of another kind of China. A more open China.”
Sky Ladder, realized at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian, June 15, 2015 at 4:49 am, approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

Jeffrey Gibson: Celebrating Indigenous American myths
Born in 1972, Jeffrey Gibson, a prominent contemporary artist of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, seamlessly weaves Indigenous elements, heritage, and folklore into his diverse body of work, creating compelling pieces that challenge conventions and celebrate their cultural identity. As the first Indigenous American to represent the US at the Venice Biennale this year, Gibson's art serves as a powerful platform for exploring the complexities of Indigenous experience and reclaiming narratives of resilience and resistance. Through a combination of traditional craft techniques and contemporary artistic practices, Gibson imbues his artworks with layers of meaning and symbolism, inviting viewers to engage with themes of cultural hybridity, survival, and renewal. One striking example of Gibson's fusion of Indigenous heritage with contemporary art forms is his use of traditional beadwork, a craft deeply rooted in Indigenous cultures across North America. In a series of over fifty punching bags, such as "I PUT A SPELL ON YOU,” Gibson incorporates intricate beadwork onto punching bags and shields, transforming these objects of aggression into symbols of cultural pride and empowerment, thus exploring the histories of Indigenous cultures by examining colonialism's impact. He appropriates materials tied to ethnic customs and rituals, using them to create artwork that portrays these cultures as dynamic and resilient, resisting oppression thanks to the metaphor of the punching-bag. Similarly, Gibson draws upon the visual language of powwow regalia, incorporating elements such as feathers, fringe, and vibrant colors into his installations, sculptures and paintings. Through these interventions, Gibson challenges stereotypes and misconceptions about Indigenous peoples while celebrating the richness and diversity of Indigenous folklore.

"I want to help establish space for Indigenous creativity whether it is in the art world, or the design world, or the music, or whatever it is."
Jeffrey Gibson, I PUT A SPELL ON YOU, 2015
Photo: Jeffrey Gibson Studio, photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion

Kehinde Wiley: A new context for Christian iconography
Kehinde Wiley, a renowned contemporary artist, is celebrated for his vibrant and provocative reimagining of traditional portraiture, infusing his subjects with a sense of grandeur and power while challenging historical representations of race, gender, and identity. Perhaps one of his most notable works was the presidential portrait of Barack Obama, One notable aspect of Wiley's work is his adept incorporation of Christian iconography, which adds layers of meaning and symbolism to his compositions. In many of his paintings, Wiley draws inspiration from classic Christian imagery, recontextualizing religious motifs within contemporary settings. For example, for his 2016 exhibition "Lamentation" at the Petit Palais in Paris, Wiley portrays contemporary Afro-American individuals in poses reminiscent of religious paintings or in the form of stained-glass windows, with references to Christ or the Virgin Mary. By subverting traditional Christian iconography in this way, Wiley challenges viewers to reconsider the intersections of race, power, and spirituality. Sometimes these relations can go even further and become far easier to identify, by the direct reference to well-known representations of classical artworks, such as paintings by artists so diverse as van Eyck, El Greco, Ingres ou Murillo, among others, which also represented Christian saints or episodes. By emulating their compositions, Wiley establishes a direct connection between the subjects of his own paintings —mainly Black or mixed-race Americans— and Biblical characters such as angels, saints and apostles. Through this innovative use of Christian iconography, Wiley not only critiques historical narratives of power and privilege but also invites viewers to reimagine the possibilities of identity and representation in the contemporary world.

“The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it."
Kehinde Wiley, Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted I, 2016
Photo: Galerie Templon, Paris et Bruxelles © Kehinde Wiley Studio

Contemporary Surrealism: The Art of Kelechi Nwaneri
Kelechi Nwaneri, born in 1994, is a contemporary Nigerian painter who successfully brings elements from his heritage into a contemporary perspective. His distinctive paintings merge traditional West African iconography with elements drawn from Western art history, yielding mesmerizing realms teeming with hybrid beings and intricate patterns. Characterized as "contemporary surrealistic," Nwaneri's art serves as a canvas for exploring pertinent issues like mental health and societal values within the context of his native Lagos. His compositions are rich tapestries interwoven with a diverse array of Indigenous African symbols such as Adinkra, Uli, and Nsibidi, a range of indigenous African visual languages, each with its own unique aesthetic and cultural significance, such as for the communication of ancient rituals. Juxtaposed with mystical and metaphysical imagery, his brushstrokes create surreal narratives deeply embedded in the contemporary Nigerian experience. As he explains, “the motifs on the figures—the marks—and the fabrics they wear reference African art, mostly indigenous Nigerian and Ghanian tribal arts”. In Nwaneri's visionary works, human and animal forms blend seamlessly, while symbolic motifs adorn the skin of his subjects, creating a visual language that transcends conventional boundaries, inviting viewers into a dreamlike exploration of the complexities of modern Nigerian life, while deeply rooted in the exploration of traditional folklore and heritage.

Kelechi Nwaneri, Flooded Apartment II, 2020.
“That’s basically what life is, you have to dream, you really have to dream, and hope that one day those dreams come true.”

In conclusion, these artists demonstrate the enduring power of mythological narratives to inspire and provoke thought across cultures and generations. Through their innovative approaches and profound storytelling, they continue to enrich the contemporary art landscape, inviting viewers on a journey of discovery and exploration through the timeless tales of gods, heroes, and legends. Come to the Galerie de Buci to see the exhibition LIVING GODS by Reinar Foreman until May 16th and immerse yourself in the power of mythology!

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