Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.47

Lisa Florman, Myth and Metamorphosis: Picasso's Classical Prints of the 1930s. Paperback reprint of 2001 edition.   Cambridge, MA:  The MIT Press, 2002.  Pp. xv, 263.  ISBN 0-262-56155-7.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Thomas E. Jenkins, Trinity University (
Word count: 1518 words

Picasso's drawing that prefaces Book 14 of his illustrated Metamorphoses neatly showcases the artist's ambitions for the work as a whole. A hand-drawn rectangle, shakily ruled, contains within it exactly four lines; a dominant stroke swoops down in sinuous fashion from top to bottom, dividing left from right, outside from inside. Three smaller lines, all tangential, form on the left a cluster of curves, culminating in a sharp jab to the bottommost boundary of the drawing. Take away any line, and the viewer is staring at a figure without form, marks without meaning. Regarded as a whole, however, the four lines coalesce (shockingly) into a woman's shapely behind, now reduced to its absolute essence, its quintessential derriere-ness. With perfect economy of ink, Picasso offers this Fragment of a Woman's Body as a type of homage to Ovid, even as the reader nears the end of his metamorphic journey through Ovid's world of changing shapes. Both artists -- the ancient and the modern -- exhibit an evident fascination with the possibilities (and ambiguities) of appearances; the myths of the Metamorphoses allow each artist to explore, expand, and even subvert the human form.

Fragment of a Woman's Body is just one of the works included in Lisa Florman's illuminating analysis of Picasso's 'classical' illustrations of the 1930s, Myth and Metamorphosis. This book covers not only Picasso's illustrations for the Metamorphoses but also the artist's later classically-themed Vollard Suite as well as the minor masterpiece The Minotauromachy. A professor of the history of art, Florman naturally emphasizes the illustrations, not the ancient texts (I don't believe there's a word of Latin or Greek in the book), but she is sure to cite authorities on classical literature to back up specific readings, and a few specific Ovidian passages -- such as the rape of Philomela -- receive extended treatment. In the main, the book concentrates on Picasso's manipulation of "classicism" as an extended dialogue with (and occasional polemic against) the teleological thrust of much art criticism in the 1920s and 1930s. As Florman elucidates in her introductory chapter, Picasso's choice of a classical text signals the artist's intention to dispute the notion of 'classicism' as either a throwback to the past (an exclusively reactionary trend) or the wave of the future (a revalorization of purity, harmony, and completeness). For Picasso, classicism and modernism are synchronous impulses: how appropriate, then, for Picasso to choose Ovid's boundary-bending epic for his experiment in classical modernism (or modern classicism -- to each his own).

Florman's second chapter -- on Picasso's illustrations for Ovid's Metamorphoses -- is the one with the most immediate appeal to classicists, particularly those working in the now booming field of reception-history. Picasso is, of course, only one of many artists who have found inspiration in the works of Ovid; unusual, however, is Picasso's apparent agon with the father of epic illustration, John Flaxman (the neo-Freudian critic Harold Bloom would have a field day here). Flaxman's graceful 18th-century line-drawings of Homer have long been recognized as paradigmatic of the ways in which graphic interpretations of classical texts form an independent construction of antiquity; Flaxman's spare, linear illustrations depict an antiquity of nearly inconceivable tranquility, beauty, strength, and stoicism. Flaxman's artistic debt to classical sculpture (and, to a lesser extent, vase painting) is clear: his illustrations are peopled with the inscrutable kouroi and kourai of the British Museum, perfect in proportion, whole and complete.

Picasso's chaotic illustrations, by contrast, are a direct assault on Flaxman's aesthetic sensibilities. As Florman convincingly argues (pg. 34), the "planar" drawings of Flaxman, with their "figures rendered in strict profile" are transformed by Picasso into a phantasmagoria of "overlappings, foreshortenings, and other uncertainties." The complete bodies of Flaxman's compositions are metamorphosed into the twisted, sketchy form of Polyxena or the whirlwind of hooves that surround the falling Phaethon. Instead of Flaxman's immutable snapshots of antiquity, Picasso offers the tumbling bodies of The Death of Orpheus or the action-packed The Combat for Andromeda between Perseus and Phineus (this last caption being a bit of a misnomer). Occasionally, Picasso adverts to his earlier experiments in cubism and non-naturalistic representations of the body; the Calydonian boar is even cute in a trapezoidal sort of way. In her most stimulating discussion in the chapter, Flaxman leads the reader through the series of drafts for Tereus and Philomela, beginning with Picasso's (apparently unsatisfactory) static representation of the rape's aftermath, and culminating in a powerful image of the rape itself, one in which the bodies and boundaries of Tereus and Philomela are violently, poignantly blurred.

In the end of this chapter, Florman argues that previous scholars have failed to acknowledge Picasso's engagement with Rubens' depictions of the Metamorphoses and skillfully demonstrates that Picasso not only responds to Flaxman but Rubens as well. As an example, Flaxman proves that Cephalus' bow (pp. 45-49) is a detail culled from Rubens, not directly from Ovid and that Picasso here engages in metamorphoses of the art historical kind. Combined with analyses of The Fall of Phaethon and The Death of Eurydice, Florman's examination neatly establishes that illustrations of Ovid possess their own hermeneutic pedigree, an independent line of interpretation passed down -- and metamorphosed -- from artist to artist.

The third and fourth chapters offer a more narrowly circumscribed interpretation of two works with some classical themes. Chapter three examines the composition and arrangement of Picasso's Vollard Suite, a series of one hundred seemingly disconnected plates. Florman argues that the suite embodies the idea of a capriccio, which is not to say that the collection is formless, but, rather, is held together "through a complicated network of similarities and associations rather than by some feature or 'essence' common to them all" (pg. 85). A schematic diagram from Freud (Florman's figure 3.19) shows how word association operates within a psychological schema; by analogy, then, the Vollard Suite functions as a network of object associations, revolving around a nucleus of "classicism" but never expressing its classicism straightforwardly. Certainly, some classical themes emerge from the morass -- minotaurs, statues, heroic nudes -- and these intermingle with decidedly more modern subjects (like Picasso's fantastical one-ring circus, figure 3.9). One avenue of exploration is Picasso's fascination with the male (and, for that matter, female) gaze, as a series of plates constructs sculptors and sculptures in ways reminiscent of Ovid's Pygmalion episode (pp. 130-131). At other moments, the unexpected appears: Vollard Suite #33 features a surprise appearance by the visage of Rembrandt. Throughout her treatment, Florman offers a judicious account of the Suite, arguing finally that the collection is a "'classical' work that is both decentered and decentering" (pg. 138) as it struggles to identify the essence of the classical (and by implication the modern).

The fourth chapter, Of Myth and Picasso's Minotaurs, is Florman's most theoretically-charged chapter. This may puzzle some readers; it apparently agitated some evaluators of the original manuscript, some of whom (as Florman disarmingly puts it) reacted to the switch in methodology "nearly with dismay" (pg. xvi). Though Florman's analysis is focused on Picasso's employment of the figure of the minotaur throughout his works -- particularly in The Minotauromachy of 1935 -- it engages deeply the work on myth and sacrifice by Georges Bataille (and, through Bataille, Hegel's observations concerning self-knowledge in the Phenomenology of Spirit). For Bataille, only the practice of sacrifice first permitted an insight into the true nature of death: a moment of ritualized violence that in its turn spawned self-consciousness and even an intimation of Meaning (pg. 160). Picasso's use of the Minotaur, the half-man/half-beast sacrificed by the shining hope of Athens, Theseus, thereby engages deeper, problematic notions of civilization, Christianity (via allusions to crucifixion scenes), and identity. Though this chapter is slow-going -- the passages on Caillois and objective ideograms seem at first glance digressive -- the rewards are sure and fruitful as Florman leads the reader through a maze of philosophical ruminations on what it means to be the sacrificer and the sacrificed all at once.

The book concludes with a short epilogue about the place of "classicism" within the wider arc of Picasso's oeuvre, followed by endnotes and bibliography. The book is very handsomely produced (so much so that a colleague scooped it off my desk as I was writing this review -- he "just wanted to look at it." My neighboring Teubner text of Ovid, by contrast, remained untouched and a little lonely.) All the figures are sharply presented, though only the The Minotauromachy is featured in a color reproduction. The book is clearly geared towards art historians, particularly in its later chapters, but it would be a shame if classicists ignored the real pleasures of its second chapter on Ovid's epic; it is encouraging, in fact, that this book ever floated down the BMCR pipeline (if only in its paperback printing). Classicists who are working in the field of reception history -- whether or not of Ovid in specific -- will find Florman's treatment to be a valuable addition to the corpus of scholarship that finds in the collision of antiquity and modernity the seeds of our own struggle for interpreting the past.1


1.   I would like hereby to record my debt of gratitude to the undergraduates enrolled in my Antiquity and Modernity seminar at Trinity in the spring of 2003; their keen observations on Picasso's illustrations have done much to shape this review.

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