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." 
Carroll

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"
Dennis


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."
Serfontein

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." 
Serfontein

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."
Kingsley

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"
Rossetti

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

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.

Medusa and THE END OF THE WORLD

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."
London



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.



3 comments:

  1. This post is awesome and very inspiring and helped me resolve some issues with a character. I am going to post on it and your piece later in week. Medusa is the world and its reality. I like that A LOT.

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  2. Thank you so much! I'm now a little bit obsessed with Medusa and keep referencing her in conversations to make points! Comments like yours are the reason I enjoy writing these so much so thanks!

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