Time on Their Hands: The Evolution of Elven Art

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Time on Their Hands: The Evolution of Elven Art is an Official GemStone IV Document, and it is protected from editing.


The history of Elven art, though marked by very little upheaval or rapid change, is nevertheless of interest as a window into the culture itself. On account of their well known fascination with aesthetics, it is unsurprising that Elves have a long history of artistic endeavor. A detailed examination of the connection between Elven artistic expression and Elven society is not possible in a piece of this brevity, but as a general overview it should provide some sense of the key qualities found in each major time period.

Although there are not many surviving examples of early Elven art, enough pieces remain in the collections of the great Houses for us to gain some understanding of that era. In the first part of the Second Age, roughly 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, the depiction of individual Arkati as patrons and bestowers of blessings seems to have been the primary subject. Some examples of this form still exist in the older temples, though occasional periods of neglect have led to significant deterioration. The compositions are straightforward and usually very symmetrical. Even in these early works the Elven painters demonstrate their characteristic command over the use of light.

The chronology of the paintings from this period is a matter of great debate. The prevailing view is that the more roughly rendered works with limited detail are the earliest, progressing to the more lavishly elaborated pieces with detailed fabrics and ornamentation. This author takes the opposite view, holding that the simpler works represent the evolution of a symbolic language for discussing the role of the Arkati in everyday life. As the Elves moved from worshipping the Arkati to simply "appreciating" them (as they term it), their art reflected this more distant relationship.

One of the best extant examples of the more simplified form can be found in the private collection of House Loenthra. This large (3'x6') painting depicts Ronan, an important patron of that house. Ronan faces the viewer and his arms reach out to either side. The highly attenuated figure is robed entirely in black. Even his face is concealed, whether by a hood or by shadows it is difficult to discern. He seems to be floating or perhaps somehow suspended so that his garments trail off to a point far below his feet. Though no moons are visible in the sky behind him, their distinctive colors tint the clouds scattered loosely about. Nearly silhouetted, Ronan is painted with almost no interior detail. However, a close examination of the painting's surface reveals that different thicknesses of paint have been used to create areas of greater and lesser darkness. The piece has a powerfully dreamlike quality to it, and the resemblance between the figure's pose and Ronan's traditional symbol of a black sword is difficult to overlook.

During the middle portion of the Second Age (between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago) painting became a more recognized Elven art form. There are some fragmentary records of exhibitions, commissions, and apprenticeships. From these we learn that landscape paintings were considered to be the ultimate display of ability for any ambitious painter. A true master was one who could capture the essence of a particular place and thus touch upon the core of Elven identity. In a letter to his son, Blaenwr Modrwy comments on a painting from an exhibition held in Ta'Illistim:

"I saw the grasses bend before a brisk wind just as it did touch mine own cheek. Though of the pathways shown therein I knew nothing, yet with one glance I could tell you of the season's passing and the birds' return, of the stream so brightly dancing just beyond the strawberry-cobbled hill. The very soul of the land was so contained within this moment that it could not be other than the place itself, brought here through heart and hand." (Elsen, Voices of the Second Age, p. 249)

Although landscapes remained the pinnacle of achievement through the rest of the period, another trend emerged at the same time. Houses sought to commemorate their lineage through grand paintings of past leaders. The preferred style seems to have been a close imitation of the traditional Arkati paintings, with balanced compositions and a great deal of symbolic shorthand. These works were hung in the great halls to remind residents and visitors alike of the legacy and power of that particular House.

Naturally, it did not take long for current leaders to commission portraits as well. Very soon it became standard practice for any presiding House leader to possess a formal full-length portrait as an official badge of office. Due to the highly stylized nature of these paintings, they are not so much what we would consider portraits in the modern sense of depicting the uniqueness of an individual, but rather they are portraits of that leader's political power and historical significance as shown through the inclusion of symbolic objects (swords, wagon wheels, daffodils, nesting sparrows and others, for possible interpretations see Saretta's Image and Meaning in Elven Art), heraldic colors, and strictly hierarchical compositions.

During the Age of Chaos (between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago) much historical continuity was lost. Elves have rarely shown much interest in documenting events of historical importance, instead painting only those moments seen as aesthetically valuable. At times these two intersect, and as a result there are a few surviving pieces illustrating aspects of the Undead War.

Two paintings take as their subject the battle of ShadowGuard (both pieces are owned by the Hanesyddol Museum of Ta'Loenthra). One of these shows Taki Rassien, leader of the Vaalorian army, meeting with members of the Sabrar around a campaign table. Unfurled upon the table is a map of the fortress and its surroundings. Taki's sweeping gestures have knocked over a goblet and a dark stain has begun to spread across the thick parchment. Only Taki's aide, a young boy so out of place among these battle hardened men, has noticed the spill, and his eyes reflect a dawning awareness of what lies ahead.

The second painting is nothing more than an empty room within the fortress. The light is gentle and diffuse, providing no highlight or focus. A barren table rests against one wall and the room's sole chair has been carelessly knocked to the ground. The floor's wide expanse is uninterrupted save by a single metal helmet, its faceplate closed and its neck turned away from our view. Through a narrow window we can see the outline of a bent and leafless tree.

Following the Undead War, the fragmentation of the Elven Empire had a stifling effect on the development of painting. Absorbed with fighting off raids and struggling for power, the nobility had little interest in supporting and encouraging artists. Apprenticeships disappeared and most new paintings produced were simply copies or adaptations of old works.

Over the last ten thousand years, the rebuilding of Elven society has also meant a re-emergence of painting and other forms of art. The merchant class evolved from mere traders to powerful political figures in their own right. With sufficient wealth to enjoy the trappings of nobility, if not the actuality of it, they began to commission their own grand portraits. Although some elements of traditional symbolism were used, the primary focus was on the high quality and expensive nature of the subject's clothing and possessions. The most sought after painters commanded high fees for their work and often presided over large studios with multiple assistants.

Official patronage of the arts also returned, and with new social structures came an interest in new expressions. The still life gained acceptance as a valid subject, and several examples were accepted into House collections. Along with the depiction of common objects came the depiction of common folk, though this took longer to acquire the status of "high art." The first example of this genre was a standard landscape made shocking by the inclusion of a peasant travelling along a distant road in an old donkey cart. The outrage of the Nalfein lord who had commissioned it was matched only by the delight of those who later saw the rejected piece displayed in the store of a local spice merchant, Terfyn Rhyfel (his son, Gwael Rhyfel, is currently the most influential art buyer and dealer in the southern Nations). Eventually such pastoral works gained at least a grudging acceptance among the Elven elite.

The other major innovation in subject matter during this time was the portrayal of non-Elves in a heroic manner. Already a rarity in Elven art of any kind, all prior inclusions of non-Elves had been of a mocking nature, or else as property (see Muesham's Soul Commerce for examples of Human slaves as symbols of wealth in Elven art). Due perhaps to an increasing awareness of the size and power of the Turamzzyrian Empire, the popular (though not highly regarded) allegorical paintings of the Undead War began to include some of the human warriors who took part in battle. Paintings of migrating tribes of Giantmen also became fairly common, though to many Elves this did not differ significantly from the depiction of any other roving herd of beast.

There are a few recent trends worthy of notice, though for many of them it is too soon to predict what, if any, lasting impact they will have. With the establishment of steady trade between the Elven Nations and the frontiers of the Turamzzyrian Empire has come an increased interest in the exotic-seeming Elven arts and crafts. Many painters have become artist-merchants, creating work specifically for sale to Humans and other non-Elves. These pieces tend to cater to their intended audience, many of them showing Elves engaged in strange, archaic ceremonies sometimes so bizarre as to be almost certainly fictional. Similarly, paintings of ancient Elven palaces are popular with those who wish to somehow identify themselves with these symbols of decaying nobility.

Paintings of important Elven buildings and locations form by far the largest category in this new field of commercial art. For all those unwilling or unable to travel across the DragonSpine Mountains, these pieces provide enticing glimpses into faraway lands. The popularity of these images seems to have contributed to a renewed appreciation among Elves for their own ancient art of landscape painting. New masters of the art are surfacing and have been featured in recent exhibitions, and in Ta'Loenthra a city-funded school was established in 5101 to teach the foundations of this time-honored discipline.