The raven is one of the most enigmatic characters in art. On the one hand raven is a fierce and cunning bird, on the other hand it is wise and ingenious. Therefore, interpretation of raven’s symbolism is dual. This ambivalence adds it even more mysteriousness. There are a lot of sources «to cloud» the raven. Let us try to understand that this bird has more to offer than gloomy superstitions. As you know, ravens are scavengers. Most of all negative symbols come from a raven’s appearance at the mangled remains of fallen warriors. In addition, many people associate ravens with messengers of troubles and even death. Those facts evoke various nightmarish associations. Such superstitions really have some mythological causes. But they are quite exaggerated.
In fact raven is a more complex character than just a «harbinger of death». Let’s talk about other higher attributes of raven as a counter to such superstitious negative interpretations. We’ll consider the origins of raven’s symbolism and connection between its visual image and metaphysical sense.
Raven holds a special place in Norse, Celtic and Native American Indian mythology. In the main it signifies metamorphoses and transformation. In some tribes the raven was considered as a deceiver and a trickster. Nevertheless, there are many positive emphases in the history of raven’s symbolism. The raven was a solar animal in ancient culture. Interestingly, some legends say that ravens were white birds originally. A lot of cultures characterize this bird as a keeper of secrets. What is important, the raven is mentioned in the Bible. As is known, Prophet Elijah is portrayed with a raven. This bird was appointed to bring him some meat, and did so.
Famous Japanese woodblock prints (XVI-XIX cent.) play a major role in the interpretation of the raven image in the art. «First Day of the Year» by Yashima Gakutei, «Crows and the Moon» by Korin Ogata, « Raven on a branch» by Kawanabe Kyosai, etc. You can easily recognize these works by laconic form and contrasting palette. Ravens are considered a solar symbol in Chinese mythology.
The Japanese raven Karasu (Garasu) is a big, strong and aggressive bird. It is not like the elegiac image, which is well known for Basho’s haiku…
By the way, modern Japanese artists come back to the raven’s image. With its midnight-colored feathers this raven looks very delicate and noble.
Animal painters specialized in portrayal of different animals, including ravens, essentially up to about 1900. They are also called «wildlife artists». Ravens are depicted in paintings by such animal painters as Melchior d’Hondecoeter, Nicasius Bernaerts and Pieter Casteels.
Ravens suffer from a negative reputation, associated with known words of Edgar Poe: «…”Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil…». Thence the raven entrenched as a symbol of the darkness and cruelty. The generally negative symbolic significance of ravens is, according to the Dictionary of symbols by Chevalier and Gheerbrant, a European phenomenon. Symbolism evident in the 19th century suggested ideas through symbols. It developed new means to express psychological truth and metaphysical reality. Let us consider one of the most famous French symbolist painter Odilon Redon. His works represent an exploration of his internal emotions, he himself wanted to «place the visible at the service of the invisible». Nothing less than the motto of the symbolists! «The Raven» is one of the most mysterious Redon’s works.
The raven by Odilon Redon
This picture belongs to the so-called Redon’s «black period». It is an illustration of an already mentioned poem «Nevermore» written by Edgar Poe. Painter inspired by dream world, melancholy and decadence. The Raven looks very contrast to the background of the daylight. Using the allegorical meaning and logically impenetrable image made it possible to break on through to the «hidden reality».
Dark-colored animals have often been perceived as harboring superstition. Black cats, witches, dark knights, etc. Many mysterious characters of art are often dressed in black. It is not surprising that the raven is among these dubious ranks.
Book illustrators XVIII-XIX are also fond of the theme of mysticism and fairy tales. And what a tale without a raven?
The Raven by Charles Livingston Bull
The Twa Corbies by Arthur Rackham
«Wheatfield with Crows» (1890) is supposedly Vincent van Gogh’s last work. The painting shows a dramatic sky filled with black crows. A sense of isolation is heightened by a road leading nowhere. It is a symbol of the long journey of life. Black crows personify some problems, doubts and experiences.
Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent van Gogh
Pablo Picasso also used an image of the raven. «Woman with a Crow» was painted during Picasso’s «blue period». A young woman gently kisses a crow – it is possibly a reference to the Poe’s mystery. It may be a sign of wicked thoughts. There is some hidden essential beauty and empathy. It is not easy to guess what is hidden in the image of a raven. But we know it is not accidental…
Woman with a Crow by Pablo Picasso
Let’s say a little about the picture «Ominous» painted by Nicholas Roerich in 1901. There is a huge northern lake with cliffs and Old Slavic fortified settlement in the background. The exaggerated crows collected on the rocks in the foreground of the picture. It is a sign of the approaching ruin. Ravens represent the war and destruction. It is the prediction of inexorable sufferings through allegorical raven’s symbol taken from the folklore.
The characteristics attributed to the raven have been resurfacing in literature, cinema and art over the all XX century. Let us consider some interesting works of modern artists who are indifferent to the raven.
City Bird by Lindsey Kustusch
Raven by Lindsey Kustusch
As I think American painter Lindsey Kustusch just loves Ravens. Their large size, shaggy hackles, long wing tips looks very impressive.
The tree by Aron Kravets
The Raven by Aron Kravets
Author takes the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and gives it a picturesque form. Here Kravets used succulent broad picture planes, applying uplifting colors. The figure seems to dematerialize, the body becoming one with the blue-gray raven. It is an integral part of human beings. Human nature is revealed not only in the physicality. Much more important is their inner world full of impulses and feelings.
«You talking to me, portrait of a Raven» by Deb Kirkeeide – this raven looks mischievous and nosy. It seems he is going to talk with you… «No One’s Watching» by Andrea Kowch – ravens carrying little scraps of paper look awesome. They represent a contrariness and perversity.
The world is not black and white, it is multi-colored. White is merged with black, and black with white. Things that don’t look absolutely good are not necessarily absolutely bad. That is the main lesson taught by the raven…
Thanks for reading!