Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.11.19


Michael A. Jacobsen, Karl Kilinski II and Frances Van Keuren (edd.), Jupiter's Loves and his Children. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 1997. Pp. 124, pls. 56. $15.00. ISBN 0-915977-31-1.


Reviewed by Mary Stieber, Department of Humanities, The Cooper Union.

Word Count: 1,602.

The present volume is the catalog which accompanied the exhibition of the same title held at the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, from February 1 to March 23, 1997. Its theme reflects the fascination which the mythological tales surrounding the love-life of the Graeco-Roman king of the gods (he is called Zeus for the sections on the Greek period, Jupiter thereafter) held for artists virtually continuously from the time of Homer to the present day. The fifty-six cataloged exhibits range from black-figure Greek vases from the sixth-century B.C. to a mixed media and mylar on paper by American artist Phyllis McGibbon from A. D. 1992. However interesting the breadth and originality of the art works assembled here, there is an unobtrusive subtext. The editors observe that the "unempowered female experience" has been a preoccupation of the 1980s and 1990s; this small exhibition offers a look from the masculine side of human experience, in that Zeus/Jupiter can be thought to have epitomized all of the masculine qualities that the males who invented him valued.

The figure of Eros, as the authors note, is the supreme motivating force behind the eventful sexual history of the chief god. Eros (or love, as his name is also rendered, presumably by those who feel that love and lust are synonymous) of the child-like form and behavior thoroughly dominates the otherwise all-powerful ruler of Olympus, suggesting that it is the constant exercise of the act of procreation which assures Jupiter his supremacy over the other gods and over mortals. (This is somewhat surprising, since it was his grandfather's and his father's acts of procreation which brought about their respective downfalls.) Eros requires Jupiter to disguise himself temporarily beneath countless formats, including a cloud, an eagle, a golden shower and, most confusing of all, the form of his daughter, Diana (to seduce Callisto; cf. cat. #49). His liaisons with both mortals and divinities produced (and they always produced, at least when they were with women, with the possible exception of the fifty daughters of Thespius who were said to have been "deflowered" by Jupiter in a single night) divine sons and mortal sons, divine daughters and one mortal daughter, Helen. It was Eros who drove him and it is fittingly eroticism which distinguishes the majority of the images in this exhibit. In several cases the erotic extends into the downright pornographic, again, fittingly, as these forthright images can be the most successful in conveying the pervasive mood of sexual readiness that apparently accompanied the king of the gods at most times and places and often not of his own choosing.

For the Classicist, for whom the ancient material consisting of three Greek vases, two black-figure and one red-figure, and a late Roman bone relief plaque from Egypt depicting the seduction of Ganymede will represent familiar territory, the interest lies primarily in later interpretations of the standard repertory of myths. A few highlights: cat. #3 is an engraving by the Renaissance printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi, after a drawing by either Raphael, himself, or a member of his studio in preparation for a fresco in a room called the Sala di Psiche of the Villa Farnesina, Rome, depicting a scene from Apuleius' story of Cupid and Psyche in Metamorphoses. A massive, Michelangelesque Jupiter with crossed right leg extended illusionistically into the viewer's space leans his face against that of Cupid, who is shown in adolescent form to enhance the believability of his love affair with the mortal Psyche, on whose behalf he is beseeching the king of the gods. The two divinities' literal face-to-face encounter presents the Renaissance artist the opportunity for a subtle iconographical surprise, not noticed by the editor: It is mighty Jupiter who grasps the chin of slender Cupid, in proper supplication protocol, as if the chief god, having heard Cupid's own plea, is begging the god of love for some relief from his perpetual goads. Another engraving (#6) is by the eighteenth-century Italian Francesco Bartolozzi after a design by the Englishman Edward Francis Burney of what purported to be a painting of the Judgment of Paris (featuring two lovers and one daughter of Jupiter) from either Herculaneum or Pompeii, which were currently being excavated. The most appealing aspect of this otherwise unexceptional engraving is, as the author of the entry notes, not the nude Boucheresque seated Venus but the sultry Minerva seen from behind, naked except for her helmet, shield and the strap of some nameless, functionless wrap which has fallen from her shoulders. The staid virgin goddess of war, crafts, wisdom and other serious matters has been transformed into a coquette.

The American abstract expressionist Elaine de Kooning sets aside her usual aversion to subject matter in a watercolor and an acrylic (#'s 16 and 17) depicting Bacchus (a son of Jupiter). During a stay in Paris in 1977, de Kooning was inspired by a bronze sculpture of the god in the Jardin du Luxembourg by the French nineteenth-century realist Jules Dalou and became preoccupied with recasting the statue as a two-dimensional abstract image. Unfortunately the small black and white plates do not do justice to a style of art that depends for its effect on scale and color, but something of the forceful exuberance of the paintings as well as of the sculptural source comes through in line and value alone. From earlier in the twentieth century, the German artist Lovis Corinth is represented by a couple of works from a series of lithographs called "Die Liebschaften des Zeus," one of which (#22) represents in fanciful form the story of Zeus disguised as Amphitrion seducing the latter's virgin bride, Alcmene, for three days by means of a nasty ruse; Heracles was born of this union. Zeus and Alcmene -- who does not resist -- are entwined together in a Picassoesque patchwork of flailing limbs while a frontal Hermes, holding a candle over the couple and wearing an approving grin, stimulates himself; Zeus's eagle stands nearby. A medal issued by Napoleon I (#31) shows the classicized emperor with laurel diadem and upturned gaze on its obverse, while its reverse, which bears the signatures of designer D. Vivant Denon and engraver André Galle, shows Heracles striking the pose of one of the Athenian Tyrannicides as he clubs a fallen warrior with his right hand and grasps victory around the waist with his left; the legend reveals that the scene is an allegory for Napoleon's victory against the Austrians at Wagram in 1809.

The myth of Zeus and Danaë is given a feminist twist in McGibbon's image (#41) mentioned above, which is titled Panning for Gold (Did Danaë Really Yearn for the Passion of Zeus?). Two feminine arms hold out a shallow dish above which levitate three test tubes containing a golden substance (Zeus?); the editor points out the phallic shape and suggests that there may be an allusion to artificial insemination. An engraving by the English artist W.E.C. Morgan from 1929 (#43) shows off a technique comparable to Dürer in a strange, eroticized image of Perseus (a son of Zeus) just after the act of slaying the gorgon; a more striking vision of the Perseus and Medusa saga will be unlikely to be encountered by historians of ancient art. Two copies after lost Michelangelo's are also noteworthy, one a bronze plaquette by Giovanni Bernardi after a late presentation drawing for Tommaso Cavalieri depicting the Rape of Ganymede (#53), and the other an engraving by Cornelis Bos after the lost painting Leda and the Swan (#45). The latter, the most overtly sexual image in the exhibition, may shock those who are seeing it for the first time and for whom the name Michelangelo brings to mind the Sistine Chapel and the St. Peter's Pietà. According to the editor, the Leda is a rare example of Michelangelo's copying a specific antique work, in this case, a sarcophagus which is known through drawings by other Renaissance artists. Some trace of the figure of Leda survives as it was adapted by Michelangelo for use in the famous figure of Night from the Medici Chapel.

The value of this volume for the Classicist lies in its breadth. It can be instructive to trace the history of the visual interpretation of a myth across the centuries and around the globe, if only to affirm that stories and pictures do not always coincide perfectly and that visual artists of all times and places are struck by different aspects of a myth and choose to represent it through varying degrees of inventiveness. Perusing this catalog, one is forced to compare, for example, a Rape of Europa by an unidentified black-figure vase painter (#35) which features a fully clothed Europa side-saddle on a swimming bull to a seventeenth-century pen and ink wash drawing by Raymond de La Fage (#37) showing a gorgeously naked, willing Europa to an etching from the 1940s by Ralph Fabri (#38) whose naked Europa appears frail and helpless aboard an a striding bull drawn in a conspicuous orientalizing style -- an allegory of Europe's vulnerability during the second World War -- which includes images of the Nike of Samothrace, the Pantheon, Hagia Sophia (?), Notre Dame of Paris, Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Sleyman the Magnificent and Adolf Hitler, among others. In each case, the viewer is struck by the unique vantage point of the individual artist; together, the works offer compelling testimony to artistic imagination and to the resilience of the rich repertory of Classical myths.