The complex, turbulent and often ambiguous years that have followed the tragedy of September 11, 2001 begged to be examined, as does the day itself. Because the events that unfolded that day are difficult to analyze, and the repercussions and ramifications are multi-faceted, artist Graydon Parrish has combined many aspects of the catastrophe to create an allegorical painting. This epic artwork was comissioned by the NBMAA following the terrorist attacks in 2001 to commemorate a New Britain native, Scott O’Brien, who died that day. To gain a more complete understanding of this work, it is necessary to consider the symbolism utilized in the placement of the figures, the color, the setting, and the figures themselves. With a complete grasp of the ideas behind the art, observers will be able to take away a powerful insight to accompany the powerful image.
The painting should be “read” from left to right but as the title of the work suggests a cycle, the right side and the left are connected so the painting itself becomes a cycle of life. There are children on the far left, youth in the center and old age on the right but there is also a child to the far right linking the right side with the left. This indicates the cycle of life in which children represent Innocence.
The figures of Innocence flank Terror and Tragedy represented by the two standing figures. Innocence is obliterated in the face of Terror and Tragedy but the child on the far right signifies a return of Innocence. This over-arching dual theme is accentuated by many features. The three children on the left are blindfolded. They maintain their innocence because they cannot see what is happening. They are also playing with toy airplanes. Here, the artist chooses to depict the planes as toys rather than weapons to further the idea of their innocence. The third child from the left is part of a family present in the painting, representing all the families affected by the tragedy. His father is just to the right of him, dying, and his mother is part of the group of mourning women.
The two central figures are youthful, representing humanity at the prime of life. They are nearly identical and are representative of the two World Trade Center towers. They are poised for motion but are balancing precariously, indicating they may topple over at any moment. The figures are also blindfolded like the children emphasizing their own innocence.
The fallen figure in the foreground is part of the family in the painting. Because this family represents all the families who lost loved ones, the man does not have any overt characteristics that would identify him as an office worker, firefighter, or police officer. He is an allegorical figure representing all those who died whether black or white, male or female, rich or poor.
Farther to the right, the three mourning women are similar to the three fates of Greek mythology. They are all-knowing and tragic therefore they are portrayed without blindfolds. The middle figure is the mother of the family in the work. She holds a cloth over her face that suggests mourning for her dying husband, like a visitor at a morgue. The other two women are holding a vigil candle and screaming, respectively, presenting more images of those who will remember and grieve long after the dust has settled.
The man to the right of the three fates embodies old age. He is bandaged and signifies survivors of the disaster along with the many Triage stations that hospitals all over New York set up to care for the survivors. He, like the fates, does not wear a blindfold but he is holding the ribbon that becomes the blindfold of the young girl to the far right.
It is unclear whether the man is trying to protect the girl’s innocence by keeping the blindfold on or to remove the blindfold thus making her aware of her surroundings. The girl represents the return to innocence and the start of the cycle all over again.
All the figures are situated on what appears to be an island that has been flooded. Obviously, Manhattan is an island but a deeper allusion here is that idea of an apocalyptic event. Surrounding the various bodies are discarded sheets of paper and roses. Parrish has replaced key phrases from the preamble to the United States Constitution on some of the sheets. Here, they are visually ripped apart at the destruction.
Once considered the highest form of art, allegorical painting is rare these days. A multitude of factors have to be right in order for an allegory to be effective. Parrish has combined an inquisitive intellect with his technical aptitude for painting to create a work that celebrates and mourns. He has captured a vivid moment in American history and expanded that moment to reflect universal truths about loss, tragedy, freedom and life in the 21st century.