Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Girl who cried Wolf

"Consulting the Oracle" - Waterhouse

Once upon a time there was a young boy. As a lot of young boys like to do, he enjoyed playing tricks on the gullible villagers in the town below the fields where he tended his flocks. In order to revel in the chaos that ensued, the young boy would cry "Wolf! Wolf!" and snigger as he watch the villagers panic and hurry for cover. Inevitably, when no wolf did appear, the boy was chastised for falsely starting the alarm and was warned of the dangers in telling lies. The young boy was foolish and did not heed their warning. Continuing his game far too frequently, the villagers grew tired of the charade. One day, the boy whilst resting under a stooped laurel tree spied in the corner of the field a skulking and ferocious wolf. Leaping to his feet he fled to the edge of the field and shouted with all his might "Wolf! Wolf!" The villagers, having being deceived so often, chose to ignore the cries and rallied on with their daily chores. This time, the young boy though telling the truth was unconvincing and stranded up in the field fell prey to the unimpeded wolf. The young boy would certainly never cry wolf again.

This is the tale I remember, I'm not even sure its accurate but I always think its more interested to retell the story you remember than the precise details of the original. Similar to the ever-changing mythology of the Greeks, it's a nice thought to think that we contribute to the Chinese whispers of changing stories.

This fable comes with a clear message: lying is wrong and perhaps more importantly those who lie will dearly pay the price. No-one in Greek Mythology knew this better than poor Cassandra, who although not a typical femme fatale will be the focus for this post. A favourite subject of the pre-raphaelites, Cassandra is a famed symbol of cursed prophecy and few in mythology can lay claim to a more tragic tale of woe.


"Priestess of Delphi" - Collier
Living in 2012, we are well aware of DOOMSDAY prophecies, the study of the finality of earth is known as Eschatology and we are facing this on 21st December 2012. this has come about because the calendar invented by the Olmec people of Mesoamerica ends on this date. This has popularly been then associated with the Mayans. Having taken a brief look into this theme of doomsday. I was shocked to see how many times the world was supposed to have ended. With the prophets swearing blind that it would happen on a certain day only to take a rain check and reschedule the Apocalypse when it didn't quite occur. Harold Camping predicted that the world would end on the 6th September 1994, 29th September 1994, 2nd October 1994, 31st March 1995, 21st May 2011 and the 21st October 2011. At this rate, he'll get it right just by dumb luck.

The most shocking prophecy I saw was that of Joseph Kibweteere and Credonia Mwerinde who formed in 1989 a religious group (cult) which splintered from the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda. Credonia claimed to have seen a prophetic vision which told that the world would end on 1st January 2000. After slaughtering cattle and buying mass amounts of Coca-Cola, believed to be for some sort of final feast however even after the prophecy was proven false, the cult participated in a mass suicide by poison and burning down the Kanungu church with the followers trapped inside. Joseph died in the fire however, it is assumed that this was part of a mass murder and that their followers did not choose their deaths voluntarily. Credonia is suspected to still be alive and was sought after by authorities for sect murdering.

In September 2011, acknowledging their foolishness, the Ip Nobel Prize (a sort of Razzie for odd/stupid achievements) was awarded to several of these false prophets including Credonia for reminding the world to take more care when making calculations!


Cassandra, meaning entangler of men, was the daughter of Hecuba and King Priam, the rulers of Troy during the Trojan War according to Homer's Iliad. Cassandra was a beautiful young woman, blessed with the gift of prophecy by Apollo, who was infatuated with her. Unfortunately, she shunned Apollo at the last minute and he added a twist to her gift; Cassandra was doomed to tell the truth, but never to be believed. King Priam did not know what to do with her, so he tried to keep Cassandra locked up and out of the way of the warriors of Troy. When Troy finally fell to the Greek invaders, Cassandra was attacked and supposedly raped by the Greek warrior Ajax of Locris, but eventually avenged by Athena. When Cassandra accompanied the Greek hero Agamemnon as his mistress to his homeland, she was killed by his vengeful wife, Clytaemnestra

The Pre-Raphaelites, fairly predictably, sought to spin their own sympathies towards this character, displaying her in a more favourable light.

"Cassandra" - Sandys

The composition of this painting is an interesting one. It feels layered and delicately positioned and whilst I applaud yet another well captured expression of doom and the fabric in the bottom corner is beautiful, I am really unsure about the placement of the hair. I conceptually understand the use of the fiery hair to represent the forthcoming fire of troy that Cassandra foresaw. This painting cleverly tells us the full Casandra myth without ramming it down our throats. Cassandra foreseeing the fire of troy submerged in the background is struck with the doom of knowing and trapped in her own knowledge of this. The whipped hair simulates the future fire that comes from Cassandra who feels responsible for its coming to pass.

Sandys - 'Helen and Cassandra"
Oh, joy. I love this (Sandys - "Helen and Cassandra"). What is the art version of intertextuality? Is there one? Interpictuality - I've invented it now, if not. Sandys, replays one of his sulking expressions to signify what is happening here. The same insipid look is displayed on the painting of Helen who is also depicted below by Sandys.

I think the use of fire in white on the skyline is an interesting storytelling device. On first appearance we see the chastisement of Helen and the clear outline of Cassandra to the backing yet it only appears on second look that the clarity of her outline is due to the fire of troy. I really do think Sandys is at his best in pen and ink, it is such a lovely medium for detail and the fabric in this piece is so beautifully drawn and falls effortlessly unlike the De Morgan fabric which looks like it would crack if you dropped it.

Notice how Cassandra is stepping on a mirror, now discarded on the floor, we can see the reflection of her foot and note this intent by Sandys as perhaps to show the abandoned vanity pursued by Helen as she look sullenly at her sister. Cassandra fervently allocates blame on her sister since she would feel so helplessly connected with the event since she knew its occurrence but was unable to stop it.

Sandys Helen is indeed sullen and stubbornly spoilt looking. I feel very much like I know her just from that one look. Choosing to portray Helen in such a way was a clever means of perhaps creating antipathies towards her but rendering the audience unable to place culpability on her with her child-like appearance. It's like the small child who smashed the priceless plate, perhaps unwilling to own up and sad to be caught looks meekly up at their chastiser with self-pitying and sullen eyes. The Helen we see in the above drawing has been taken one step further, she is even coyly sucking on her hair, blocking Casandra's advancing wrath with her arm and she sheepishly turns away from her.

Perhaps I am just Sandys only fan, but I really just love the sense of character you get from these works. Yes, it's true they are over-dramatised and caricaturish but you must admit, Helen the petulant sulking teenager makes for a fairly jolly and innovative interpretation.

Rossetti's Cassandra

In contrast with the melancholy and pained Cassandra that is portrayed by Burne-Jones, Rossetti chooses to show Cassandra in the throws of some meltdown. In the heights of frustration, Cassandra tugs at her hair, no longer like the De Morgan piece, which (in my opinion - sorry Evelyn!) fails to display imperative or drama, the wildness of Rossetti's piece echoes an almost Gothic feeling. Overcome with frustration or doom, Cassandra's expression displays a state of madness.

Oh, Rossetti, for what reason did you decide not to complete this. It actually looks excitingly dramatic and a good 'ole Cassandra is missing from your beautiful collection of damsels in distress.

Rend, rend thine hair, Cassandra: he will go
Yea, rend thy garments, wring thine hands and cry
From Troy still towered to the unreddened sky.
See, all but she that bore thee mock thy woe:-
He most whom that fair woman arms, with show
Of wrath on her bent brows; for in this place
This hour bad'st all men in Helen's face
The ravished ravishing prize of Death to know.

What eyes, what ears hath sweet Andromache,
Save for her Hector's form and step; as tear
On tear make salt the warm last kiss he gave?
He goes. Cassandra's words beat heavily
Like crows above his crest, and at his ear
Ring hollow in the shield that shall not save.

Rend is such a lovely word: "to tear (the hair or clothing) as a sign of anger, grief, or despair". I really love this poem my favourite part being "wring thine hands and cry from Troy still towered to the unreddened sky" I just think that the word "unreddened" has such foreboding as if its a reminder of what a reddened sky might foretell, like Cassandra herself...clever.

Cassandra the Political

"Cassandra" - Rossetti
Now I'm just not a hugely political person so I am always up for a foray into learning something about politics when it links in with mythology. When looking at Cassandra as a symbol, I came across a woman called Cassandra has become symbolically recognised for several phenomena in the modern age. Robinson Jeffers writes this poem:

The mad girl with the staring eyes and long white fingers
Hooked in the stones of the wall,
The storm-wrack hair and screeching mouth: does it matter, Cassandra,
Whether the people believe
Your bitter fountain? Truly men hate the truth, they'd liefer
Meet a tiger on the road.
Therefore the poets honey their truth with lying; but religion—
Vendors and political men
Pour from the barrel, new lies on the old, and are praised for kind
Wisdom. Poor bitch be wise.
No: you'll still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men
And gods disgusting—you and I, Cassandra.
Robinson Jeffers

The message is conveyed clearly, that humankind would prefer to be told sweet lies than the harsh truth and that Cassandra is a metaphor for the truth that no-one wants to listen to or believe.

Nixon, Cassandra and Psychiatry

Infrequently, my interests interact with politics. Does not happened often, less so with American politics. I belong in the world of the aesthetic. But here was the opportunity for me to broaden my horizons to finally learn what "Watergate" is. Yes, of course, know the expression "X-gate" (the most famous for British reality television fans being "Verruca-gate" - how times have changed).

I'm going to keep this short, sweet and relevant so bear with me on the facts. Nixon is the only president in American history to resign and here's why. Basically some guys got caught burgling a hotel in June 1972, they were trying to wire-tap the Democratic conference. Sadly for Nixon, these guys were on his reelection committee (SCANDAL).

So why am I talking about this? Well, Martha Mitchell (wife of the Attorney-General in Nixon's administration) alleged that White House officials were involved in illegal activities. Poor Martha though, her claims were put down to her mental illness. Obviously after the debacle, she was vindicated and she became known as "The Cassandra of Watergate".

In general, when a paranoid claims something that seems ridiculous and is unbelieved, but later it is discovered to have been telling the truth it is known as the Martha Mitchell effect.

"Sometimes, improbable reports are erroneously assumed to be symptoms of mental illness due to a failure or inability to verify whether the events have actually taken place, no matter how improbable intuitively they might appear to the busy clinician"

The classic quote has to go to Joseph Berke: "even paranoids have enemies"!

Lets end this brief foray into Cassandra in a melancholy fashion, with the captured despair from Edward Burne-Jones. Cheer up love, it might never happen...

"Cassandra" - Burne-Jones

Monday, 5 March 2012

Millay the Poet

I, being born a woman and distressed

By all the needs and notions of my kind,

Am urged by your propinquity to find

Your person fair, and feel a certain zest

To bear your body's weight upon my breast:

So subtly is the fume of life designed,

To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,

And leave me once again undone, possessed.

Think not for this, however, the poor treason

Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,

I shall remember you with love, or season

My scorn with pity,-let me make it plain:

I find this frenzy insufficient reason

For conversation when we meet again.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

This poem really struck a chord, I think it rings beautifully when read aloud so I thought I would share it. Also, the poet Edna Saint Vincent Millay was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize. New post will be up this week (promise)...

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Beauty of Horror: MEDUSAaaah!

Our lives are filled with horror, whether this is being accosted by thugs down dark alley or looking at a particularly unpleasant bank balance. It is near impossible to flick through the television channels after 10pm without finding something horrific on the box and the filmmakers always seem to try harder and harder to push the scare buttons of their audiences.

I think horror has become so prolific that perhaps we as a society have become desensitised to it, our tolerance for gore and horror becomes lowered over time. Sixty years ago, we were sat in our cinema seats petrified by Alligator People, Crab Monsters, Killer Shrews and the Beast from Hollow Mountain (for a full list see this, the film posters are very funny) and now we have to deploy Jigsaw to torture his victims in ways that the human imagination never thought possible and American Horror Story is played on mainstream TV (seriously not for the fainthearted, my nightmares have been numerous.)

So what is it about horror we like so much?

As always, I get totally wrapped up and carried away with my posts which makes me feel that, very cornily, I have little control over what I am writing and they just seem to write themselves! After deciding to choose a very niche topic - Horror, which I thought would be a challenge with the Pre-Raphaelite in fact turned out to spiral into a epic book-like topic so in order to prevent people from becoming comatose after reading, I've split this one in half.

I am going to be taking a look at what horror is, why aesthetically we are drawn to it and focusing on the Queen of Monsters - Medusa.

The Horror of Art

It seems that there are three ways in which we can answer the above question "why do we gain pleasure from horror?":

1.) Curiosity
2.) Desire to see violent spectacles
3.) The Sublime

The first proposed answer comes from Noel Carroll in his book "The Philosophy of Horror". He looks back to Aristotle's discussion of the tragic and applies it to modern day horror. He coins the term "art-horror" to explain the emotion that we feel when we experience horror from the aesthetic be it art, film, literature or theatre. Carroll first begins by distinguishing horror from other genres like westerns for example where they are characterised by a setting. Horror is characterised by the "intended capacity to raise a certain affect". In horror fictions, we find that the emotions of the audience are syncopated with those of the characters i.e. when the character shudders, so do we, when the character panics so do we, when the character feels relief because the monster has been shot by the strapping hero, so do we, when they die...we cower. 

Carroll continues to explain why we enjoy horrors, why we gain pleasure from feeling the mix of disgust and fear they evoke. As I discussed in my post about Disgust, this is an emotional response that is characterised by repulsion, by the inclination to get away from the object. So why do we find ourselves attracted to horrors when one of the main components of horror is disgust. 

"To a large extent, the horror story is driven explicitly by curiosity. It engages its audience by being involved in processes of disclosure, discovery, proof, explanation, hypothesis and confirmation...Monsters are obviously a perfect vehicle for engendering this kin of curiosity and for supporting the drama of proof because monsters are impossible beings." 

The level of disgust we endure during horror films is combated by our desire for knowledge of the unknown. The disgust is required by the plot to engage the curiosity for feel for the monster and draws us in to seeing how the plot is played out. The problem is that Carroll’s answer for curiosity works only for fantastical horror, meaning only for those horrors that we believe to be based around a villain that we do not believe to exist. Carroll himself applies the definition of a monster as "any being not believed to exist according to contemporary science". We have a strong desire to know something unknowable and the genre of horror allows us to bask in such curiosities.

Villalba - "The Way of the Dead"
As Cynthia Freeland notes, this definition falls short when considering realist horror as we can have little curiosity when we see a film like Psycho where the villain is naturalised in the form of a psychotic killer. These films showcase a monstrous violence committed by a human opposed to violence committed by a monster. It is the act not the being that is frightening. Plato ranked our human drive towards spectacles of violence as the lowest desire and Aristotle said that this was the least artistic of the six parts of tragedy. However, these realist horrors pervade our modern culture, in fact the majority of horror films around nowadays are based upon the slasher element of these horrors or indeed the torture element for example in Saw or Hostel. These films force us to "attend to the very problem of moral perverseness that Carroll wants to avoid that we are somehow attracted to the monsters and to the horrific spectacle itself". Freeland argues that Realist horror represents a 'postmodern phenomenon' in creating horror that is intended to mimic reality. It intentionally suppresses plot and fantasy to initiate the feeling in the spectator that it could be you. "Paradoxically these films also send out the comforting message that we are safe because the violence is, at that moment' striking someone else." Fundementally though, we are interested in the spectacle of violence that can be carried out by a human being.

In a very Family Fortunes type manner, I asked my friends and family to name the first horror film they think of in a poor effort to see what type of Horror is more forefront in our minds: Realist horror or Supernatural horror? (Thanks to everyone who answered). And our survey said...

71% Realist Horror
29% Supernatural Horror

The Sublime

John Martin "The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah" (1852)
The sublime is an interesting concept when considering Horror, it is one thing to try to relate why we enjoy horror to aesthetic experience as Carroll or Freeland have attempted to do through the concept of 'art-horror' but this is a perhaps a more fitting task for the concept of the sublime. Originally conceived by British philosophy as a distinct aesthetic quality from Beauty which describes the pleasure in seeing greatness beyond all measure of calculation, something which gives the viewer a sense of infinity or insignificance or which inspires horror, an overpowering or vast malignant object of great magnitude, one that could destroy the observer.

Dennis in "Miscellanies" 1668 wrote in reference to his tour of the Alps:
"We walk’d upon the very brink, in a literal sense, of Destruction … The sense of all this produc’d different emotions in me, viz., a delightful Horrour, a terrible Joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleas’d, I trembled"

The sublime is a fascinating phenomenon since it evokes horror and aesthetic pleasure simultaneously, we can therefore derive from this that it is possible to gain pleasure from horrific sights. The sublime is able to account for our pleasure gained by natural horror. Schopenhauer details the pathway from Beauty to the sublime: 

"Schopenhauer saw beauty (pleasure through peaceful contemplation of a benign thing) rising to sublimity (pleasure through seeing a vast, threatening thing capable of undoing the observer) and reaching a terrifying crescendo in the ‘fullest feeling of sublime’ – knowledge of the vastness of the universe in all its dimensions and the consequent insignificance of the observer." 
Karlin - "What a picture really wants" (Sublime Oblivion)

The sublime is a difficult concept to convey in art since by its very nature it requires both vastness of scale and dangerousness and is therefore usually found in nature. It’s pretty tricky to pick up the Gobi desert and put it in an exhibition although Al Weiwei got pretty close with his sunflower seeds.

John Martin "The Great day of his wrath" (1853)

John Martin deals with the sublime in his pieces by creating pictures with overwhelmingly infinite details and space as well as giving a demanding sense of insignificance to the subjects of his painting who appear miniscule in comparison with the doomsday, apocalyptical landscapes that are in fact so much more significant. The John Martin exhibition at the Tate Britain is fantastic (the have even created a trailer for the exhibition which I thought was innovative - below). I would highly recommend it especially since computer productions simply cannot do these vast canvases justice; it closes on the 15th January so not much time left. Even if you don't particularly like the Art, you get the sense that Martin loved it himself and the endearing nature with which the painstaking (and somewhat geeky) detail is done is impressive in its own right - you certainly can't knock his technical ability.

The Beastly Femme Fatale

When considering the two different types of horror, the supernatural and the real, the femme fatale is so divided from the former. This is usually because the tales of the femme fatale are geared so decisively towards shaping or reinforcing gender norms and condemning certain female behaviours. To take this into the fantasy, the world of beasts and ghouls further detaches us from the reality that the femme fatale tales seek to create parallels with.

Reubens - "Head of Medusa" (1618)

That said, we can find evidence of female beasts of horror in mythology and literature, the problem being that so often these creatures are not usually the prettiest things to look at for example, I can't see anyone being seduced by, the clue being in the name with fantastical horror it is so often the creature's appearance itself that invokes the mutual feelings of fear, terror and revulsion. The femme fatale by nature is seductive and therefore beautiful often overwhelmingly. To take as an example, the Sirens, these vile creatures would lure and destroy men sitting on islands of rotting flesh and yet, they lured these men by their beauty. Though we may be horrified by the result of their actions, it does not evoke the same feelings of revulsion as most beings of fantastical horror like zombies or monsters.

There is perhaps one figure, which arguably links both the femme fatale with fantastical horror: Medusa. At face value, Medusa is not a femme fatale. She lacks the inherent seduction and beauty that femme fatales possess but yet she does have one significant attribute in common with the femme fatales - the danger of the aesthetic. In actual fact, Medusa represents the most powerful aesthetic attributes because unlike Lilith or the Sirens or indeed many other femme fatales, she does not need to ensnare men with her visage to devour them, a mere glance at the beast will turn your very being to stone.

Beardsley - "Perseus slays Medusa"
Medusa has a complex relationship with horror and beauty. With the former, she is an interesting figure of horror since she does not seek out people to kill, there is very little written about her threatening behaviour. In fact, she chooses to live with the blind gorgon sisters so as to avoid the accidental death of innocents, not the usual behaviour of creatures of horror, however, because of her attributes alone she is still able to create fear for the spectator mainly because the revulsion factor is so strong, the idea being that she is so ugly that one look would turn you to stone. Aesthetically this is interesting since the fear and disgust are determined not from the character of the beast but the physical appearance alone which reminds me in fact of beauty and the beast, the idea that you become attributed with the characteristics of your aesthetics i.e. that the ugly beast somehow becomes evil and the beautiful woman becomes the heroine.

The femme fatale defies the logic of horror in this way and becomes an ever more dangerous archetype because whilst we can be aware of the danger that beasts may incur because their aesthetic lends itself to a fear response, we are drawn to the characters of beauty. This is often why the creatures within these tales have such grizzly comeuppances to show the consequences of vanity and no tale more than any other shows this better than medusa.

The Medusa Myth

Trying to make heads (ha!) and tails of the Medusa story was (as usual) actually a lot more complicated than I thought. The original telling from Hesiod are insufficient to give us the full myth and were later expanded by Apollodorus to tell the full tale however, as with many Greek myths, this tale - although the classical version - has a couple of tweaks in it that just don't seem in line with the modern view of Medusa, for example Apollodorus describes the gorgons as dragon-scaled creatures with swine tusks and golden wings. So I have mismashed the tale as follows:

Medusa in some capacity offended Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. From reading the different versions of these tales, it seems that she either:

(a) boasted that she was more beautiful than Athena,
(b) that she had carnal relations in Athena's temple with Poseidon or
(c) that she was raped by Poseidon.

Firstly, if she was indeed gloating about her beauty in front of a goddess in her temple then that wasn't all too smart considering the gods don’t have the most even of tempers at the best of times. This works well with the morality factor and links well with the Narcissus myth i.e. don't be vain or bad things will happen to you. If the second myth version is correct then once again, this stigmatizes a certain kind of behaviour about women being promiscuous or having relaxed or casual attitudes towards sex which places chastity and virtue on a pedestal which along with countless other stories helps to demonise the sexual female and angelise the chase and pious one. The third version seems fairly horrific quite honestly, the fact that Medusa would be raped by a god, not a pleasant experience then solely blamed for the event by another female who cursed her never to be loved again or even looked at by a man only to then have her head chopped off by Perseus for a dare seems like Medusa got a really raw deal. This seems to me to focus perhaps on the horrible idea that Medusa was in some way culpable for the rape considering her prior beauty lured Poseidon to her.

Anyhow, Medusa was turned into a Gorgon. Once again the story diverges, some versions paint her as so terribly beautiful that she turned men to stone with just a look, some stay it was because she was so grotesque. Some accounts say that Medusa was bitter about the transformation and so sought out the destruction of men whereas other say that she sought solitude with her fellow gorgons. Either way, the 'hero' of the piece, Perseus with all his macho bravado came along to behead Medusa, the only mortal Gorgon all just to prove he had the courage to save his mother Danaë from a bad marriage.

With any of these stories, Medusa gets a pretty rough deal.

The Beauty or the Beast?

Walter Crane - "Beauty and the Beast" (1874)
In the classic fairytale of Beauty and the Beast (lovely illustration by Walter Crane left) written originally by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (What a name!) in 1740 and tells us a story of acceptance of those who are aesthetically displeasing because what counts is what's on the inside. This is therefore a juxtaposition between those who are by character or morally beautiful but aesthetically horrific. The Horror we experience from Monster is a face-value instinct, usually derived from the fear of the threat they pose and the ugliness of the creature itself. However, by the end of the film, I don't know about you but I just don't find the beast so ugly...I kind of understand why Belle is into him. This is because the first feeling of horror is dissipated when we discover his gentle nature.

The same is therefore true with Medusa, by her physical depictions, we are given a sense of horror and yet we grow in sympathy towards her after her tale is told in full. It is in this way that Art is so important to the telling of the tale, artists throughout the years will endeavour to depict Medusa aesthetically in accordance with their sentiments towards her. So those choosing to portray Medusa as a vain nymphomaniac will show her in an unappealing fashion. The Greek ceramicists themselves after the initial stages of a beastly depiction progressed towards the more subversive 'characters' of Medusa (this is explored in detail in "Medusa: From Beast to Beauty in Archaic and Classical Illustrations from Greece and South Italy" by Susan M. Serfontein):

"Around the mid-fifth century B.C., a beautiful maiden with refined features and seductive form initially appears in vase illustrations and is particularly well- represented in decapitation scenes revived from the archaic period. By the fourth century B.C., Medusa has become a defenseless victim, whose vulnerability is enhanced by her lovely head and figure, exposed breasts and desperate gestures that serve to instill a new sense of tragedy into the grisly episode. By the late classical period, she is actively engaged in a futile struggle against the merciless attack of Perseus. Her vulnerable state, which is effectively conveyed through her sensuous beauty and desperate gestures, serves to instill a sense of pathos that is unique in these brutal scenes of her beheading. The divergence between her pictorial image as a harmless woman and her mythological description as a terrifying and dangerous beast apparently undermines the heroic act of Perseus, as the once fearsome monster is far too beautiful in her weakened state to elicit fear."

Each phase of Art, then plays an important role in shaping the way that Medusa was viewed and this is only well representative of the society they take place in, but how do the Pre-Raphaelite interpretations of Medusa reflect the Victorian attitude towards the myth.

The Gaze of Medusa

Kotarbinsky - "Medusa"
The Pre-Raphaelites in their infinite wisdom chose often to reappropriate characters, twisting the conceptions of these femme fatales or monsters and enabling the spectator to view the other side of the story. Medusa is no exception to this. Unsurprisingly, as with Lady Lilith and indeed many other negatively portrayed female characters from the canon, the Pre-Raphaelites have reappropriated Medusa for the Victorian Era from a canonical interpretation of her aesthetic:

"Medusa's round, grotesque head with its grimacing, toothy mouth, protruding tongue and glaring eyes, together with her extraordinary size, characterizes her archaic canonical form. Since it is her glance or look that could turn men to stone, the artist gave particular emphasis to her eyes. They are usually inordinately large, glaring, sometimes bulging, and always frontal to face the viewer, thereby stressing their petrifying power....Medusa's remaining features serve to enhance her beastliness. Her nose is generally broad and flat, more animal than human in appearance, while ferocious tusks are sometimes portrayed, adding to her grotesqueness." 

The Pre-Raphaelite Medusa Gaze breaks down into three interpretations as follows: the Terrifying Medusa, the Sleeping Medusa and the Melancholy Medusa

The Terrifying Medusa

Alice Pike Barney -  "Medusa" (1892)
Representing the classic view of Medusa - the penetrating eyes, the protruding tongue, the wild hair and monstrous features. This portrayal is interesting perhaps evidence for one of the first zombies in literature/mythology. Theoretically the idea of Medusa that no one was able to look upon her could possibly explain she looked like, the interpretations therefore obviously had to come from the imagination. The depictions of Medusa were then derived from the scariest image that the Greeks could imagine, that of their dead. Medusa's features in the terrifying version are those of death itself, Medusa is therefore death incarnate.

When you die, your body undergoes several unsavoury process which I don't really have the stomach to guide you through fully so if you do have a morbid curiosity for this then take a gander at the cheerily named Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying (lovely). When you die, the first occurrence is that you undergo rigor mortis which is when your muscles become tensed, the first thing to go is your eyes so opened eyes will remain opened. Interestingly even up until the early nineteenth century, in Britain and America it was believed that a corpse with open eyes posed a threat to its kin. Bacteria within the body begins to decompose the organs and tissues releasing an unpleasant gas which builds within and the increase pressure causes the eyes to bulge out their sockets and the tongue to swell.
Paton - "Dowie Dens o' Yarrow" (1860)

If you look at Paton's representation of the Scottish ballad The Dowie Dens o Yarrow, you can see the very Medusa-esque face upon the dead face of the Lady's Lover. Paton was actually a friend of Millais and was at its origins asked to join the Brotherhood, which he declines mainly due to the fact that long distance relationships just don't work - who did Millais think he was kidding...

Few Pre-Raphaelites chose to portray Medusa in this way but key works from the Victorian era, which show the terrifying Medusa, are from Sandys, Alice Barney and Kotarbinsky.

Sandys - "Medusa"

Sandys is a genius. 'Nuff sed. Correct me if I'm wrong (please don't, you'll break my heart), but Sandys is the greatest capturer of expression, to my recollection, there isn't an artist which displays the ambiguity of expression like Sandys, the feeling of terror, torment, sadness, revenge, anguish and horror is so transmittable through his painting and his drawing of Medusa is no exception. For me, this goes beyond a Terrifying Medusa, beyond the previous interpretations and portrayal to convey a new message. Sandys not only grants the viewer a sense of the myth through the expression alone, but also recreates the myth for the Victorian audience.

Sandys - "Medusa" (1875)
The painting's concept in essence reminds me of the film "The Ring", though obviously predating this by a long shot. The Ring is a horror film about (*Spoiler Alert*: if you care?) a video which after viewing it, you receive a phone call warning you that you only have seven days to live, over the week a series of event happen to you eventually culminating in a creepy girl in serious need of a good wash and a haircut coming through your TV to kill you. The mother of the son who has seen the video figures out that you need only copy the tape and replay it to another victim to set yourself free of the curse. It is at this moment that you, the viewer, realise that she has just shown you the tape. You are the next victim. In a similar fashion, Sandys kills his spectators, by displaying Medusa and forcing her death-stare upon the viewer which with her haunting eyes, leaves you in no doubt of the doom Sandys was intending to convey.

True aesthetic experience is such that it creates willnessness, a certain arresting of your cognitive function, you engage aesthetically with the piece, which transmits a certain emotion to you. This arresting (deriving from the Vulgar Latin arrestare - to stop) in some ways acts as a physical metaphor for the 'stonifying' of the victims of the Medusa stare. Being presented with an arresting work of art that commands a sense of willlessness also in turn mimics the freezing Medusa stare.

Sandys progresses art from the aesthetically engaging to the realms of viewer participation, for a moment, you become part of the myth and narrative that the artist displays.

The Sleeping Medusa

Solomon - "The Head of Medusa" (1884)
Though a fleeting second stage in terms of the Greek ceramic depictions of Medusa, this litters the Pre-Raphaelite canvases, most obviously by Burne-Jones who displays several views of Medusa in his Perseus Cycle. The sleeping medusa with the serene face and closed eyes is powerless, we know well from the Tale of Perseus and the Serpent (Also depicted by Burne-Jones in The Finding of Medusa or The Death of Medusa) that Medusa's head still had the power to turn those who looked upon it into stone even after it was decapitated. In this portrayal, the artist has enfeebled the Medusa by rendering her power useless. The appearance of the closed eyes suggests to the viewer a more sympathetic version of the fatal blow by Perseus. It seems that rather than being poised for attack, the sleeping Medusa was asleep at the time of Perseus's attack and was in fact defenseless. This certainly paints a different view of the previously courageous Perseus who slew a predatory Medusa, their are literary references which in fact support this telling: 

"While a sound sleep held her and her serpents entranced, he took the head from off the neck" Ovid

"The Death of Medusa" - Edward Burne-Jones
Burne-Jones - "The Death of Medusa" (1888-1892)

Burne-Jones perhaps sympathising with this creates the passive and solemn head of Medusa which harks back to those first pieces in 4th Century BC which in trying to combat the vileness of Medusa does not seek to confront you with her beauty and its terror but seeks to immortalize the Medusa head as a demure and serene icon, with the eyes closed and the body in a state of plea, Burne-Jones perhaps demonizes Perseus in his macho endeavours for destroying such a beauty. Burne-Jones has again and again chosen to create sympathies with the androgynous or genderless creatures of his paintings, the over masculinisation of Perseus almost parodies him as a farcical archetypes who blazes in to cause irreparable destruction something we see from the lack of horror with which he depicts the Medusa.

This is a moment of immanence told by the writhing figure of Medusa below. The odd jammed figures give a sense of commotion and you feel the peak of the moment as the aftermath of the tragic beheading. The barren landscape only seems to emphasise the confinement and solitude that Medusa has endured as a result of Athena's curse. The passage below also evokes a sympathetic tone for Medusa "She fell upon the ground and felt no more of all her bitter pain" which almost suggest an act of mercy by Perseus.

"Over the waterless ocean, the valley that led to the Gorgon.
Her too I slew in my craft, Medusa, the beautiful horror;
Taught by Athené I slew her, and saw not herself, but her image,
Watching the mirror of brass, in the shield which a goddess had lent me.
Cleaving her brass-scaled throat, as she lay with her adders around her,
Fearless I bore off her head, in the folds of the mystical goatskin
Hide of Amaltheié, fair nurse of the Ægis-wielder.
Hither I bear it, a gift to the gods, and a death to my foe-men,
Freezing the seer to stone; to hide thine eyes from the horror."

The Melancholy Medusa

Bernini - "Head of Medusa" (1630)

This really is the true reappropriation of Medusa, going to the farthest stage in changing the perception of this character. Whilst the Sleeping Medusa is useful in creating a passive narrative for the Medusa and perhaps demonising the 'all-guns-blazing' Perseus, it tells us little of how we should view Medusa. The Melancholy Medusa focuses not on her final demise but on the sad tale which precursors Perseus's entry. These pieces remind us of the toils that Medusa went through and perhaps choose to display her as the victim as many women were in those times.

Evelyn de Morgan "Bust of Medusa" (1876)
Although, whilst dealing with these characters of Greek times, it is quite easy to separate ourselves from what these tales are about. They represent attitudes towards women of the time, the idea that of that time, it was acceptable or expected to punish the victim of rape, which itself says a lot about the prevailing attitudes towards women at the time. We can often distance ourselves with the morals of these times given that they existed over 2,000 years ago. Yet, it seems that these morals remain prevalent today, as noted from the multiples prolific case studies from Saudi Arabia where women who are rape victims in today's society are lashed and punished for being abused. Notably, the famous Qatif rape case (for more info about this generally see this.)

Evelyn De Morgan explores this melancholy Medusa in her bust of 1876. You can tell from the oblique angle of her head, the open eyes that display not sleep but distinct melancholy and introspection. The oblique angle gives a sense of shame, as if Medusa feels ashamed of her appearance and the curse that befell her. As an outcast and unable to look upon another man again, Medusa is left with the memory of the rape by Poseidon and the punishment of solitude. Alice Fleming, the sister of Rudyard Kipling and close friend of De Morgan encapsulates the sculpture with a verse:

"Medusa -
Is there no period set?
Is pain eternal?
Still through the eons must her vipers sting?
For all eternity the anguish burn?
An endless circle, endless suffering!
Beauty that had lit heaven, shut deep in Hell." 
Alice Fleming

The Dilemma of "Aspecta Medusa" - Rossetti

Rossetti - "Aspecta Medusa" (1867)

Despite the fact that Rossetti himself described this piece as a "very straightforward work", I am genuinely baffled by this painting. Rossetti has left clues in two different directions on this one and it appears that I'm not the only one to be so confused by it. A number of sites discussing this piece have directly conflicting views about the subject matter yet neither acknowledge that the contrary opinion exists.

There are two possible interpretations for this piece:
1.) The subject of the painting is Medusa
2.) The subject of the painting is Andromeda

To explain further, Rossetti wrote a couple of stanzas to accompany the painting to clarify things or to be honest, make things more obscure:

"Andromeda, by Perseus saved and wed,
Hanker'd each day to see the Gorgon's head:

Till o'er a fount he held it, bade her lean,

And mirror'd in the wave was safely seen

That death she liv'd by.
Let not thine eyes know

Any forbidden thing itself, although

It once should save as well as kill:
but be 
Its shadow upon life enough for thee"

This describes the story of Perseus, Andromeda and the head of Medusa. As mentioned previously Medusa's head still retained its powers even after being severed. Perseus, after turning his almost stepfather into stone chose to save Andromeda from being tied to a rock where she was being sacrificed to a sea monster Cetus. All thanks to her mother's boast of her beauty (Mothers eh?). Perseus with his wily ways used Medusa's head to turn the serpent to stone. With Andromeda rescued and then married to Perseus, the curious damsel wanted to see the head that saved her life so Perseus shows her the head in the basin.

The title of the painting is "Aspecta Medusa" which does give us a hint on translation as to which female is portrayed in the painting. Sadly, my knowledge of Latin stops at Amo, Amas, Amat but Google Translate (usually reliable) and other translation sites come up with the same thing either "The appearance of Medusa" or "Countenance of Medusa". This weighs quite heavily in the favour of option one since the idea that this is the appearance of Medusa means that's who we're probably looking at. On the flip side in the book "The Medusa Effect" by Thomas Albrecht translates "Aspecta Medusa" as "Medusa Beheld", the simple difference between the passive or the active verb is the problem here. The book goes on to explain the context of the painting, which gives significance to option number 2.

Frauenhofer writes in contradiction of this:
"In this picture, however, Medusa retains her original beauty. She is the typical Rossettian ideal: she has a strong facial structure, her lips are full, and her long, reddish hair has been left loose and flowing. Yet she has an air of doom about her. Medusa merges with the murky background, gazing downwards into the darkness as her head tilts ominously to the side."

Study for "Aspecta Medusa" - Rossetti
This highlights the importance of looking at the picture itself; two clues lead me to believe that visually there is a strong argument that the subject is indeed Medusa. Rossetti although did not complete the painting also chose not to show any clues that this was Andromeda by painting a basin of water or Perseus. He did however tilt the subject's neck over in such an elongated manner that it symbolically reminds me of the placement of a head to be slaughtered on the chopping block; the neck is clearly exposed and has a foreshadowing feeling of Medusa beheading. The hair in the picture dangles and is voluptuous, it is certainly a focal point in the composition which parallels with the fact that Medusa was renowned for her hair prior to the change and once again foreshadows the hair of snakes in the Medusa myth. Finally, the ominous surroundings and darkness do not belie the surroundings we see in Burne-Jones's display of Andromeda and the water basin; it has a macabre, dark atmosphere which envelopes the subject building upon the other elements that foreshadow Medusa's fate.

If we look behind the more famous chalk piece and discover the story behind it then we ad another facet to the story. It was originally commissioned for 1500 pounds by Charles Mathews who sought a depiction of Perseus showing Andromeda the head of Medusa however, he cancelled the agreement when he saw the first draft simply because he did not like the gruesomeness of the severed head. I think this is our most convincing clue since it is clear that you can transpose Andromeda's position in the draft pencil drawing to the chalk piece. Although it appears fairly well balanced on both sides, it seems to me that as much as I would prefer for it to be Medusa perhaps this evidence cannot be overlooked and I must find in favour of option number 2...but a number of other sites do disagree, so what do you think?

Even if it is indeed Medusa Beheld then we can still obtain a sympathetic view of Medusa since Andromeda does not look on her face with disgust but rather passivity and perhaps gratitude or even empathy.

Ruskin, Medusa and the Weather?

Burne-Jones - "The birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor" (1876)

Ruskin displayed a complex relationship with Medusa. He heralded her as a concept of the masculine and feminine combined a powerhouse of destruction and dominance mainly by referring to the weather.

Ruskin calls Medusa, the personification of "towering cumulus cloud seen in approaching thunderstorms...Medusa (the dominant), the most terrible. She is essentially the highest storm-cloud, therefore the hail cloud of cold, her countenance turning all who behold it into stone...The serpents about her head are the fringes of the hail, the idea of coldness being connected with the Greeks with the bite of the serpent."

Poor Ruskin. He had a tough old time but managed to even put his feeling into words eloquently when in despair and whom did he think of in his hour of comfort. Yes, that's right - Medusa:
"I try to feel that life is worth having - unsuccessfully enough...I sometimes wish I could see Medusa"

In fact, Richard Dellamora in "Masculine desire: the sexual politics of Victorian Aestheticism" states that even though Ruskin "celebrates Medusa associating her with the immanent presence of a divine masculine principle" that "Medusa haunts Ruskin's imagination during the decade."

The Sublime Medusa

Medusa, as a character, can herself be seen as a creature of sublimity since in many conceptions of her she is depicted as so beautiful to behold that it is the overwhelming nature of her beauty which catalyses the 'stonification'. Shelley in his poem (in full here) remarks:

"Yet it is less the horror than the grace which turns the gazer's spirit into stone
"Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror"

"Of all the beauty and the terror there-
A woman's countenance, with serpent locks,
Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks."

Shelley seems to be conveying that it is Medusa's beauty that is driving the destruction. Medusa can be represented aesthetically as something, which is so ultimately destructive to humanity that she evokes the concept of the sublime and it is in this way that Medusa, is a femme fatale.

The reinterpretation of Medusa by the Pre-Raphaelites means we can view her as a commandingly beautiful being capable of instilling aesthetic pleasure, yet her character is so dominantly and innately destructive that she becomes a figure of horror creating terror within the spectator. We must therefore find that Medusa is actually a femme fatale that ensnares and destroys men not by the conventional beauteous qualities of the other femme fatales but by her sublimity making her one of a kind.


To leave you on a happy note, in addition to living at the end of the world there has been theoretical talk that Medusa is a symbol for the end of the world or at least the end of the world having meaning. Ruskin as mentioned above seeks Medusa to deprive him of life and to end his world.

Looking at another film "The Medusa Touch" is a psychological horror/thriller centred on a novelist with telekinetic powers, who causes disasters simply by thinking about them. In this way, he is an extension of Medusa's powers holding the ability to cause apocalyptical catastrophes with only his imagination. The reference to Medusa derives from the idea that his power is uncontrolled and unintentional, just like Medusa has no choice over whether her gaze turns you to stone, the thoughts that are imagined by the protagonist occur whether he intends them to or not.

Both the film and the Medusa have been linked with the idea of Nihilism which in simple terms is a philosophical approach which negates the meaning of existence or other ideas like truth, knowledge etc.

Refraining from looking into the eyes of Medusa is then interpreted as humankind's reluctance to face the depressing reality that the universe is meaningless. Jack London in his book "The Mutiny of Elsinore" writes a confusing passage explaining this: 

"The profoundest instinct in man is to war against the truth; that is, against the Real. He shuns facts from his infancy. His life is a perpetual evasion. Miracle, chimera and to-morrow keep him alive. He lives on fiction and myth. It is the Lie that makes him free. Animals alone are given the privilege of lifting the veil of Isis; men dare not. The animal, awake, has no fictional escape from the Real because he has no imagination. Man, awake, is compelled to seek a perpetual escape into Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love. From Medusa-Truth he makes an appeal to Maya-Lie."

So in simple terms:
Humans are instinctively and innately against truth i.e. reality, choosing to believe lies/fiction in order to evade the depressing reality of the world. We do this by escaping reality through our imagination including "Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love". We have no control over this ignorance of reality, we cannot help believe the lies. Animals, however, have no imagination and so see reality for what it is. Rather than look at the eyes of Medusa, which would reveal the fact that reality is meaningless, we choose to believe the Hindu concept of Maya based on the illusion that we do not experience the world itself but rather our own created projection of it. Phew.

Perhaps Medusa is beyond a femme fatale, beyond destruction of a single being but in fact a representative character for a self-destructive interpretation of reality. Deep.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Beardsley Reanimated

Whilst researching my next blog post, I came across an amazing find for you fellow aesthete-lovers. A short film by Chris James called "After Beardsley" (1982). I had never even heard of this film and was amazed at its creativity and its impressive 'Beardsley-like' animation. 

Most of all, I really like the film's message and I really think that Chris James did a hauntingly beautiful job at reanimating Beardsley's character through the modern ages. Here is what he has to say about his film:

"The film After Beardsley attempts to depict today’s world through Beardsley’s eyes and in his drawing style…Beardsley is ‘resurrected’ from his death bed and begins to walk through time to the present. On his journey he witnesses the evolution of the car and of air and sea travel, then climbs a phallic mountain before descending into 20th century New York City. 

[The] ghost of Aubrey Beardsley explores the urban jungle of New York City where, amongst other things, he sees Bob Dylan as a satyr sitting by an iconic 1959 Chevy, and Lenny Bruce being injected with heroin. He is then beckoned by Patti Smith (as Beardsley’s Messalina) into a hospital room where he finds himself hooked up to life support equipment. His hospital persona shows his ghost the horrors of the present day—overpopulation, pestilence starvation, and death. Via John Lennon, he sees the horrors of a nuclear winter. 

The premise of the film is that, if Beardsley had been alive today instead of the 1890s, modern medicine would have kept him alive, but that, having had a glimpse of where the world was heading, he may have chosen to die anyway."

The film is below in three parts, the first video is just the pre-credit sequence so bear with the films:

 - Part One -

- Part Two - 

- Part Three -

The film is wonderfully atmospheric and certainly holds the eerie and disturbing quality that Beardsley often brought to his own work. I think aesthetically, the lines and patterns in the film are intriguing and the music really accompanies the film. 

These videos fit really well with my next post but I guess I'll just leave you guessing what it could be about for now...

Monday, 21 November 2011

Gender-blending, Hermaphrodites and the Androgynous figure in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Aubrey Beardsley - "The Mirror of Love"
When you sit down and watch the fluffy and lighthearted 'Finding Nemo' you don't realise the complex balance of the clownfish's 'harem' that is involved in the reproductive process of these jolly-named fish. I'm not expecting Disney to explore the gender bending nature of these fish but did you know the confusing life of a male clownfish?

All clownfish are born male. Each 'harem' of clownfish includes the larger female, a reproductive male and several non-reproductive males all living in harmony with the Anemones. Should anything happen to the female clownfish, the male clownfish undergoes a process called protandry whereby he becomes a she. The reproductive male replaces the female fish to accomodate the loss of the female making way for one of the other males to get activated as reproductive.

This is just one of many unusual gender-bending animal quirks but this post is focusing on what happens with Humans and is going to look at the representations of hermaphroditism and androgyny in the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic art.

I actually wrote this blog backwards. Unlike most posts, I started where I normally end up, with the literary context for the PRBs paintings. I re-discovered the tale that explains where the term hermaphroditism comes from and upon re-reading this I realised that Salmacis is one of the most powerful femme fatales that existed given she went beyond simple seduction and literally emasculated her target. I was then pleased to discover that Burne-Jones himself had represented this tale.

The Pre-Raphaelites were known for characterising gender within their paintings, but their aims for their representation shifted from the early polarised depictions of the weak and fragile beauties (Ophelia) and the chivalrous knights (The wedding Of Saint George And The Princess Sabra) to the damsels in distress (The Lady of Shallot) and in these latter stages of the movement the powerful women of mythologies (Pandora, Persephone). The Aesthetes namely Beardsley, the master of monochrome took this one stage further and really sought to portray the wicked power of the females in their representation of femme fatale creating strong images of Salome. We can even see that Beardsley chose to represent hermaphroditism within his more riske version "Mirror of Love" (above).

Rossetti's Stunners

Rossetti - "Pandora"
Although concerned with conventional gender ideals such as the female beauty and 'damsel in distress' and the male counterpart of the chivalrous hero, the figures of the Pre-Raphaelites were often depicted in unconventional ways. The idealised 'stunner' with her thick neck, long jaw, broad strong shoulders and masculine features was to be found in a number of Rossetti's muses namely Fanny Cornforth and Jane Morris. We can see from the picture here of "Pandora" that Jane Morris has been displayed in such a way that only her volumous hair, facial features and breasts belie her gender in an obviously feminine way. The strong muscly shoulders, thick neck and her tensed posture belong to the characteristics of the masculine, at the other end of the spectrum to the soft feminine facial features and long hair. Rossetti has employed the extremes of each gender to create a sense of power for the feminine. The PRBs who in the early days spent so long polarising these genders into very opposing archetypes were now combining these characteristics to create the new creatures that they became famed for. It is this interplay with the masculine and feminine which holds so much interest for me when looking at the portrayal of the femme fatale.

Simeon Solomon

Known for his portrayal of androgynous figures, Solomon played with the boundaries of gender characteristics. As Mckenzie states, it was this trademark androgyny that he was to become known for ("By the mid 1860s, the homoerotic and androgynous figures are unmistakeably his own" - Mckenzie). 

Solomon "The Sleepers and the One Who Watcheth"

The above painting is very serene. The soft palette and technique used gives a dream-like feeling and the figures certainly are true to the trademark Solomon androgyny. I have stared at this picture a long time and yet I still always question the hand placement. I just cannot figure out if there are too many hands, which hands belong to whom or if there is even someone below the picture reaching up to grab the red-head's chest. Artistically, it does add a certain mystique to the picture and a surreal element and it definitely caught my interest but honestly, i think its a little disturbing, there's something not quite right about an unknown hand.

Solomon - "Bacchus"
His transgressive portrayals of his subjects may have stemmed from his own personal sexual orientation conflicting with the mores of society. Solomon despite being raised in a strictly religious household was a known homosexual and was convicted of buggery in 1873. Perhaps as an outlet for his feelings which due to the times, were clandestine, his art told the story of the subvertive underworld of non-normative genders and sexualities often favouring depictions of same-sex love or homoeroticism. Despite sometimes choosing to starkly homoeroticise as in "Bacchus" (1866 - right), many of Solomon's characters were sexless, aimed to confound the viewer to assign or label the gender of the subjects, for this I believe Solomon must be applauded. He deconstructed gender, perhaps unknowingly, decades before the birth of post-modernism. as you can image, post-modernism wasn't really recognised in the Victorian era and he was chastised for this:

"These faces are without sex; they have brooded among ghosts of passions till they have become the ghosts of themselves. The energy of virtue or of sin has gone out of them and they hang in space, dry, rattling in the husks of desire."

Thsi quote must have struck home for Solomon, since it is almost certainly an attack on his own personal life, conjuring images of eternal punishment of limbo ("they hang in space") for the sins they have enjoyed.

Although, I'm neither Solomon's greatest proponent or critic, I feel strongly that Solomon more than all the other Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetes  reflects and expresses his personal life throughout his life's work. Scanning through his images chronologically, you really do get the sense of his anguish and the rocky, tumultous life that he endured from his piety, Moses in his Mother's Arms (1860) to his homoeroticism, Bacchus (1866) to the despair he felt towards the end of his life, Tormented Soul (1894). Something really profound transmits through to the viewer about his life experiences in this way, Solomon is able to combine the attributes of a great narrative teller and expressor within his paintings, choosing the narratives that inspire and evoke his emotions at the time. Bacchus placed homoerotic narrative within his art, placing his pieces within a political commentary, not just for his own personal aesthetic pleasure, as you can see from "Sappho" he made artistic represnetation of Lesbians in the period where homosexuality was criminalised under the Labouchere Amendment and Queen Victoria famously exclaimed "Women do not do such things" when an amendment to criminalise Lesbianism was placed before her (Sadly, I found out recently that this is a complete myth). For biographical information about his life, I'd recommend this.

Hermaphroditus and Salmacis
Ovid's tale

So much of the Pre-raphaelite influence derives from another passion of mine, the greek mythologies. When browsing my repetoires of these old tales I came across one I had forgotten . The tale of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis.

Hermaphroditus was a beautiful young man who a nymph called Salmacis fell in love with. He rejected her advances and then believing himself alone again decided to go for a swim in a pool. Salmacis fell even more in love when she saw his naked body and wrapping her arms round him in the pool she prayed to the gods that they might never be parted. The gods granted her prayers by making them one composite being, both male and female -- hence our word hermaphrodite.

I think this is a wonderful tale. Ever more wonderfully recanted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a poem which is among my favourite poetry if not the favourite and I can't recommend it highly enough, some of the lines are so beautifully crafted:

HOW Salmacis with weak enfeebling streams 
Softens the body, and unnerves the limbs, 
And what the secret cause shall here be shown; 
The cause is secret, but the effect is known. 
 The Naiads nurst an infant heretofore, 
That Cytherea once to Hermes bore; 
From both the illustrious authors of his race 
The child was named; nor was it hard to trace 
Both the bright parents through the infant's face; 
When fifteen years, in Ida's cool retreat, 
The boy had told, he left his native seat, 
And sought fresh fountains in a foreign soil; 
The pleasure lessened the attending toil. 
With eager steps the Lycian fields he crossed, 
And fields that border on the Lycian coast; 
A River here he viewed so lovely bright, 
It showed the bottom in a fairer light, 
Nor kept a sand concealed from human sight. 
The stream produced, nor slimy ooze, nor weeds, 
Nor miry rushes nor the spiky reeds: 
But dealt encircling moisture all around, 
The fruitful banks with cheerful verdure crowned, 
And kept the spring eternal on the ground 
A nymph presides, nor practised in the chase, 
Nor skilful at the bow, nor at the race; 
Of all the blue-eyed daughters of the main. 
The only stranger to Diana's train; 
Her sisters, often, as 'tis said, would cry, 
"Fie, Salmacis, what, always idle! Fie! 
Or take thy quiver or thy arrows seize, 
And mix the toils of hunting with thy ease." 
But oft would bathe her in the crystal tide, 
Oft with a comb her dewy locks divide; 
Now in the limpid streams she viewed her face, 
And drest her image in the floating glass: 
On beds of leaves she now reposed her limbs, 
Now gathered flowers that grew about her streams; 
And then by chance was gathering, as she stood 
To view the boy, and longed for what she viewed. 
 Fain would she meet the youth with hasty feet, 
She fain would meet him, but refused to meet 
Before her looks were set with nicest care, 
And well deserved to be reputed fair. 
"Bright youth," she cries, "whom all thy features prove 
A God, and, if a God, the God of Love; 
But if a mortal, blest thy nurse's breast, 
Blest are thy parents, and thy sisters blest: 
But, oh! how blest! how more than blest thy bride, 
Allied in bliss, if any get allied: 
If so, let mine the stolen enjoyment be; 
If not, behold a willing bride to me."

The boy knew nought of love, and, touched with shame, 
He strove, and blushed, but still the blush became; 
In rising blushes still fresh beauties rose; 
The sunny side of fruit such blushes shows, 
And such the moon, when all her silver white 
Turns in eclipses to a ruddy light. 
The Nymph still begs, if not a nobler bliss, 
A cold salute at least, a sister's kiss; 
And now prepares to take the lovely boy 
Between her arms. He, innocently coy, 
Replies, "Oh leave me to myself alone, 
You rude, uncivil nymph, or I'll begone." 
"Fair stranger then," says she; "it shall be so"; 
And, for she feared his threats, she feigned to go; 
But hid within a covert's neighboring green, 
She kept him still in sight, herself unseen. 
The boy now fancies all the danger o'er, 
And innocently sports about the shore, 
Playful and wanton to the stream he trips, 
And dips his foot, and shivers as he dips, 
The coolness pleases him, and with eager haste 
His airy garments on the banks he cast; 
His godlike features and his heavenly hue, 
And all his beauties were exposed to view. 
His naked limbs the nymph with rapture spies, 
While hotter passions in her bosom rise, 
Flush in her cheeks, and sparkle in her eyes. 
She longs, she burns to clasp him in her arms, 
And loves, and sighs, and kindles at his charms.

 Now all undrest upon the banks he stood, 
And clapt his sides and leapt into the flood: 
His lovely limbs the silver waves divide, 
His limbs appear more lovely through the tide; 
As lilies shut within a crystal case, 
Receive a glossy lustre from the glass. 
"He's mine, he's all my own," the Naiad cries, 
And flings off all, and after him she flies. 
And now she fastens on him as he swims, 
And holds him close, and wraps about his limbs. 
The more the boy resisted and was coy, 
The more she kissed and clipt the strippling boy. 
So when the wriggling snake is hatched on high 
In eagle's claws, and hisses in the sky, 
Around the foe his twirling tail he flings, 
And twists her legs, and writhes about her wings.

The restless boy still obstinately strove 
To free himself and still refused her love. 
Amidst his limbs she kept her limbs entwined, 
"And why, coy youth," she cries, "why thus unkind! 
Oh, may the Gods thus keep us ever joined! 
Oh, may we never, never part again!"

So prayed the nymph, nor did she pray in vain: 
For now she finds him, as his limbs she prest, 
Grow nearer still, and nearer to her breast; 
Till, piercing each the other's flesh, they run 
Together, and incorporate in one: 
Last in one face are both their faces joined, 
As when the stock and grafter twig combined 
Shoot up the same, and wear a common mind: 
 Both bodies in a single body mix, 
A single body with a double sex.

The boy, thus lost in woman, now surveyed 
The river's guilty stream, and thus he prayed. 
(He prayed, but wondered at his softer tone, 
Surprised to hear a voice but half his own.) 
You parent gods, whose heavenly names I bear, 
Hear your Hermaphrodite, and grant my prayer; 
Oh, grant that--whom so'er these streams contain, 
If man he entered, he may rise again 
Supple, unsinewed, and but half a man!

 The heavenly parents answered, from on high 
Their two-shaped son, the double votary; 
Then gave a secret virtue to the flood, 
And tinged its source to make his wishes good.


There are several references in the Metamorphose poems which refer to the zoomorphic (attributing animalistic characteristics to humans) qualities of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus:

“So when the wriggling snake is hatched on high,
In Eagle’s claws, and hisses around the sky,
Around the foe his twirling tail he flings
And twists her legs and wittles about her wings"

Bertling - "Salmacis and Hermaphroditus"
Firstly, the fact that the eagle clearly a powerful bird of prey who catches and eats snakes is rendered incapicatated by this particular snake in this metaphor. This emphasises the unwitting strength and power of the snake i.e. Salmacis. The snake is so unassuming at first, so easily targeted by the brute force of the eagle which says a great deal about the usual interactions (or Ovid’s perceptions of the interactions) between male and female power and the dominance that men display toward women. Hinting perhaps that men both see and treat their female conquests as prey. In this tale, the depiction of the snake is in line with the characteristics of the femme fatale. Warnings to beware of the unknown female because she may be deceiving you and indeed Salmacis like the snake has placed herself in a position whereby Hermaphroditus (the eagle) is vulnerable and when the time comes the femme fatale “flings off all and after him she flies.” The snake itself is a motif of the femme fatale that sadly cannot be explored here, but the ideas of binding , writhing and suffocating links nicely to the Salmacis entangling herself irrevocably around Hermaphroditus. The final point to make about this passage is the use of gendered pronouns. The eagle is clearly distinguished as female and the snake male. This is an interesting choice since the snake in the metaphor clearly refers to Salmacis (female) and the eagle is Hermaphroditus (male prior to fusing). The author has clearly assigned these gendered pronoun to indicate the qualities and characteristics of their representative counterparts. Salmacis displaying the masculine being predatory, domineering and strong and Hermaphroditus is submissive, passive and the object of desire.


In the animal kingdom, Banana slugs are hermaphroditic. During copulation Banana Slugs can become stuck together. When this happens the acting female will bite off/sever the male’s genitalia from the acting male Banana Slug. This banana slug will then continue to be able to mate but only as a female. The fear of a ‘literal emasculation’ by a femme fatale and by this I mean castration is something that has plagued mens minds since the Ancient Greeks. Fears of ‘Vagina Dentata’ have even been realised in the comedy horror film ‘Teeth’. Castration is the most extreme form of emasculation which places Salmacis’s breach as the most powerful femme fatale attack. The rape of Hermaphroditus shows the transition for Hermaphroditus as a potentially virile male into an epicine something demasculinised and by the standards of greek thinking – weakened. Hermaphroditus is consistently referred to as a boy and yet Salmacis views him sexually. “To view the boy, she longed for what she viewed” Hermaphroditus is depicted as naïve and is objectified in this statement. At the moment of the fusing the language becomes violent and explicit.

“For now she finds him, as his limbs prest,
Grow nearer still, and nearer to her breast
Till piercing each other’s flesh”

This violent action of piercing flesh represents the penetration of Hermaphroditus by Salmacis, forcing her way into him she becomes one with him. Hermaphroditus is victimised and helpless to prevent this invasion. In an unheard of version of events the woman has been the rapist and has extended her emasculation to actually deforming his own masculinity in a parallel to castration. The femme fatale archetype portrayed by Salmacis serves as the stronger warning to men of this creature who will rob them of their virility and manhood. Men are well-warned from this tale to beware of the femme fatale's deceptive ways and to fear for what may be at stake – their very gender. Applying this to their real lives in greek/victorian society, the suffocating controlling woman is emasculating and deceptive and must be prevented from truly rendering their masculine dominance destroyed.

Gender to gender

Notably Salmacis is observed as unusual by her fellow nymphs and despite their pleading they are unable to convince her to join the hunt.

“A nymph presides, nor practised in the chase, 
nor skilful at the bow, nor at the race; 
of all the blue-eyed daughters of the main. 
The only stranger to Diana’s train.”

Jan Van Eyck "Hermaphroditus and Salmacis"
Salmacis is from the offset, distinguished as the other, defining the norms of her kind and inviting criticism from the other nymphs “Fie Salmacis, what, always idle! Fie!”. Though Salmacis is taunted for her idleness though Ovid explains the reason for her sloth. Salmacis is more concerned with historically, feminine pursuits. She is in the feminine mind.

“But oft would bathe her in the crystal tide,
Oft with a comb her dewy locks divide,
Now in the limpid streams she viewed her face,
And dressed her image in the floating glass:
On beds of leaves she now reposed her limbs,
Now gathered flowers that grew about her streams.”

Firstly, the references to the mirror fit nicely with my previous post “Mirror mirror on the wall”. The preening and checking to ensure she looks her best seems to be the trap for men. We can see parallels with Rossetti’s ‘Lady’s Lilith’ and the use of her beauty and femininity to ensnare victims. Ovid clearly markers Salmacis as the feminine in this passage. His juxtaposition between Salmacis and the other nymphs only serves to reinforce this. The flowers, the combing of her long locks all point to the feminine mind.

The metamorphoses more generally is thematically about the transition from one state to another. In Narcissus, from man to flower, Daphne from goddess to tree and in this tale from man to hermaphrodite. We can also see Salmacis transition from the feminine mind as in this passage to the masculine referring to the rape of Hermaphroditus. This relates strongly to the femme fatale. The exterior, the initial mind or perception is a feminine one, the beauty and aesthetic of the feminine to draw men in (e.g. the sirens) and yet the reveal of the femme fatale is aggressive, corruptive and fatal to men which displays a masculine mind, the femme fatale itself itself is linked to this idea of transferrance from feminine to masculine which is illustrated clearly in this tale.

The final point to make about this passage is the way in which Salmacis seems to objectify herself. She adorns herself, bathing and combing to make her more alluring. She then lays herself down on a platter of leaves and reposes. The language used here seems to suggest to suggest the objectification of herself as though she is laid as bait to tempt and ensnare men. She leaves this state of object to pursue Hermaphroditus. She becomes the subject at this time and Hermaphroditus as the prey is desired and therefore objectified in her eyes. Once again highlighting the metamorphoses from object to subject, subject to object. 

Foreshadowing the event

Probably reading too much into it but I just can't help noticing that in all the paintings that depict the event where Salmacis and Hermaphroditus are fused as one, Hermaphroditus is unsteady on his feet, he's unbalanced. Now this could quite simply be because he is caught unawares but the positioning of the right leg is so similar to these pictures that it almost seems to be a motif for a characteristic of Hermaphroditus himself. 

If we look at the actual construction of Hermaphroditus's name it is an amalgamation of both his father's name (Hermes) and his mother's (Aphrodite), his name is a combination of the male and the female. Perhaps something that even at birth foreshadows the merging with Salmacis.

Hermaphroditus goes adventuring perhaps unsatisfied with his life before and looking for change (little did he know he was in for a sex change). He remains unbalanced prior to the fusing with Salmacis. Hermaphroditus is 15 at the time of the event, this is the time that a boy would show sign of hermaphroditic qualities as he transitioned through puberty. We see the meek, unsure and unsteady poses of Hermaphroditus prior to the change and then the proud, assured and at ease displays of his hermaphroditic gender after the merging. This is very expressly conveyed in statues like the one to the left where the apparently female statue lifts the skirt to reveal the male genitalia underneath or by simply showing his relaxed demeanour by laying down in the famous statue by Borghese which is found in the Louvre.

Burne-Jones "Hermaphroditus and Salamacis"

Burne-Jones - "Hermaphroditus and Salmacis"
Drifting back to the artworld and that of Burne-Jones, I was overjoyed to discover that he had depicted this tale beautifully, in a work that I was actually unaware of until I researched this post. I think this picture is mesmerising, what strikes me immediately is the palette of the painting. The delicate tones of the  yellows, creams and browns contrasts starkly with the deep red of Salmacis's hair. A colour so singularly particular to the Pre-Raphaelites. 

This picture reeks so wonderfully of Burne-Jones and illustrates his particular aesthetic clearly and once again is a supreme example of the brillant skill of the pre-raphaelites to convey narrative beautifully. 

Salmacis is woven around Hermaphroditus and despite being smaller in stature entagles herself with such force that we see a clear grip in her hands around Hermaphroditus's ribs. Hermaphroditus despite being literally built like a greek god seems oddly contorted in this picture, especialy noted by the upturned placement of his hand which makes me feel a certain helplessness from him. His shoulder is jutting toward Salamacis as he turns from her, cowering. And yet, most importantly, he does not look away, one might imagine that someone repulsed by her may turn to face the other way, but he looks at her directly, pleading to be set free, helpless at her hand to escape. She gazes not romantically, but fervently, infatuated with her unreciprocated lover. Let's not forget that she has forced herself upon Hermaphroditus in what has been called the only rape by a nymph. 

Burne-jones has strayed slightly from Ovid's tale to enable the viewer to understand the mythological context of this painting. Not longer is Salamacis springing upon Hermaphroditus in the spring, she is unleashed from the trunk of the tree itself. This signifies to the viewer her status as a nymph and is suggestive that this was a surprise attack upon Hermaphroditus since she has already wound herself around him before fully leaving the tree. Her connection with nature is clear, her hair is woven into the blossom of the tree and her lower legs are still within the confines of the tree. 

One theme that has been mentioned above is the emasculation of Hermaphroditus in this tale, we know the fate that results from this picture. We know that the sequential picture would depict one figue not two. Burne-Jones has chosen to cleverly foreshadow this union by his use of colour, note the similarity in skin tone, in body position and the contact between these characters, they are already almost as one. Also, whether chosen to reflect the modesty of the Victorian era, I cannot help but feeling that the covering of Hermaphroditus's genitalia is suggestive of the upcoming emasculation, You will note that in every single depiction of this attack, Hermaphroditus's privates, remain private.

The femme fatale certainly strikes again, and with such fevour, the fear in Hermaphroditus eyes conveys the power of Salmacis. Though one may argue that Salmacis is no more after this fusing of two bodies, she has literally emasculated Hermaphroditus, robbed him of his masculinty, of his manhood and has forced herself in, penetrating his very being whilst he remains helpless in resisting. Burne-Jones, focuses on the beauty of these characters and yet leaves a haunting impression upon the viewer to anticipate the inevitable. 

Human Origins (according to Aristophanes)

Let’s get a little high brow and bring it back to Plato, not an author, despite recommendation, I am familiar with. When looking into this idea of the Hermaphrodite or the adjoining of the two sexes, it appears that Plato had considered this as well in "The Symposium" under the speech of Aristophanes called The Origin of Love. 

Brace yourselves for a bit o' multimedia (my first embedded video in my blog) I have to say, this video explains this story in a lovely way, the song is actually from a film called "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" which is actually about a transsexual woman who gets pissed off when her ex-lover steals her songs and makes money off them - worth a look. 

Long ago, humans were composed of two people stuck back-to-back, with two faces and eight limbs. Male-male humans came from the Sun, female-female humans from the Earth and male-female humans from the Moon. The gods, out of jealousy and fear of their actions, split them in half. Now, throughout our lives, we are always trying to find our "other half", and sexual intercourse is the only means we have to put the two halves back together; this desire to be one person again is what we call "love". However, it is impossible to fully rejoin two people because it is our souls and not our bodies that most desire to be reunited. This is why we often say things like "I've found my other half" or "what till you meet my better half" or if you're feeling soppy "you complete me".

What a lovely tale

Androgyny and the Femme Fatale

The political ramifications of an androgynous figure in art or the combined aspect of the male and female in turn, demanded the equality of women. In terms of the femme fatale, it certainly indicated their power and strength. By combining the features reflecting the feminine ideals of luminous beauty and seduction with the more typically physical masculine features of broad strength and power made the unmistakeable conclusion that the femme fatale was ever more threatening to their counterparts. This idea of combination, to take the more powerful elements of each gendered characteristic, the beauty and the strength, fabricated an androgynous being which was more domineering that either sex. By uniting together these attributes the PRBs and Aesthetes created creatures of overwhelming seduction and power, not to be challenged by any man or woman. No longer do we conceive androgyny as a weakening of the sexes, as sexless or emasculation; we see the power of this combination, the best of both sexes and the terror that they can inflict..