BMCR 1999.03.02

Myth, Sexuality and Power. Images of Jupiter in Western Art. Archaeologia Transatlantica XVI

, Myth, Sexuality and Power. Images of Jupiter in Western Art. Archaeologia Transatlantica XVI. Providence, RI and Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium: Art and Archaeology Publications, 1998. 113, figs. $45.00.

This publication of the conference papers which were presented at the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, in conjunction with the exhibition “Jupiter’s Loves and his Children” held at the museum in 1997, represents the culmination of this noteworthy project and should be of interest to anyone who takes seriously the idea of the continuing relevance of the Classical tradition. (The catalogue of the exhibition, also co-edited by Van Keuren, was reviewed recently in BMCR 97.11.19.) The exhibition’s organizers set out to document artists’ enduring fascination with one category of Classical subject matter: the active love-life enjoyed by the king of the Graeco-Roman gods. The original plan was for a rather more extensive exhibition — about seventy-five works drawn mostly from southeastern collections instead of the fifty-five which were finally exhibited — and for the present papers to be included in the catalogue; however, adequate funding for the plan as originally conceived was not forthcoming. The results of this “scaled-down version” of the project are nonetheless substantial.

All of the contributors to the present volume were closely involved with the exhibition and its catalogue. Since most of the articles center on or feature works from the exhibit, cross-references to catalogue entries are frequent and useful. The first three contributors write on Classical subjects, while the remaining four cover Renaissance through Modern, a range of expertise which reflects, as well, the broad scope of the objects included in the exhibition. But there is an unusual cohesiveness in this collection of papers (and coherence is not the rule in publications of this sort), something which may be due to the delay in time between the papers’ presentation and their final publication, thus permitting the incorporation of responses to the exhibition, itself, and discussion at the conference, held a week after the opening. As Van Keuren suggests in her introduction, the common themes which underlie and unite these papers and the objects in the exhibit are “masculinity in art” (serious study of which is in its infancy compared, for instance, with women’s studies) and “female response to male sexual attention” (p. x). These bounds, however, allowed room for the wide variety of attitudes and approaches which are represented in this publication. The individual articles are well-illustrated with generously-sized black and white plates at the end of each. As the first four are of direct interest to Classical scholars, their contents will be summarized in somewhat more detail than the others.

R. Ross Holloway (“Marriage and Death: A Lebes Gamikos by the Pan Painter in Providence”) offers a mostly iconographical analysis of an important, if not especially fine, piece by this major Athenian red-figure vase-painter, whose works at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, also include three lekythoi. The vase was not in the exhibition. Prominent sphinxes under the handles of the bowl would seem to confirm that the object was intended for funerary use; true to type, it contains wedding imagery. The author proposes that the genre scene decorating the main face of the bowl should be read as a domestic interlude in the life of a woman who is about to be married, in which she finds herself surrounded by her servants and conversing informally with her two brothers, and, as such, the imagery should be read as a prefiguration of a favorable match. Holloway’s reading of the figural frieze decorating the high conical base of the vessel devolves directly from the imagery on the bowl above: a woman lifting her skirts to run while at the same time extending her left arm in a half-hearted gesture of resistance toward a pursuing, trident-wielding Poseidon (a brother of Zeus) is likely to be Aithra, the mother of Theseus by either that divinity or the mortal Aigeus. The fact that the “bride” appears together with a brother and a maidservant, echoing the scene above, connotes not the violent pursuit of Aithra by Poseidon, but the god’s welcome arrival to woo a sister and a mistress. Thus, rather than the usual negative array of associations engendered by the idea of divine rape, the scene evokes a positive attitude toward marriage, mortal or otherwise.

Van Keuren’s contribution, one of the most interesting of the collection, also starts from the iconography of a little-known vase. In “The Upbringing of Dionysos on an Unpublished Neck-Amphora by the Eucharides Painter” she argues for a non-traditional, sociological interpretation of a familiar scene as well as for a male-centered notion of child-rearing in fifth-century Athenian society that has not heretofore been recognized. According to Van Keuren, this red-figure vase from c. 490-480 B.C. on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, shows Zeus in a moment of rare tenderness, child in arms, personally conveying his son Dionysos to the nymphs of Nysa because he was genuinely concerned for the boy’s nurturing and education. That such a humanizing image of a god would appear on a vase reflects the fact that, in real life, men were involved with child-rearing and child-welfare, contrary to the traditional view that leaves all of this to the women. Van Keuren finds further evidence for the existence of the caring, fatherly male in mythology (e. g., the rearing of Achilles by the Centaur Cheiron) in the imagery of Classical Attic grave monuments (which, while no males are shown holding infants, document that the holding of an infant in a certain way is meant to evoke an aura of kindliness towards it), and in literature (e. g., the famous farewell scene between Hector and Astyanax in Iliad 6).

In “Greek Masculine Prowess in the Manifestations of Zeus” Karl Kalinski II argues that the patterns of behavior which are discernible in the tales of Zeus’ seductions of mortal women both reflect and reinforce the salient features of real-life gender relations in Greek society. With the exception of Helen and Thebe, these unions invariably produce males, the preferred sex for offspring in a male-dominated society. The virtually unfailing sexual potency of the king of the gods represents the projected sexual ideal of the Classical Greek male, but that condition would be considered ideal in most any society, ancient or modern. A careful review of the symbolic guises, both animate and inanimate, that Zeus assumes in the effort to consummate his desires — such as the bull for Europa, the long-necked swan for Leda — constitute a set of stock-in-trade male alter egos one of which has been in use at least since c. 3000 B.C. when King Narmer of Upper Egypt is shown both wearing the bull’s tail as an attribute and in the form of a bull sacking a town on the famous slate palette in the Cairo Museum. Kilinski proceeds to make the case that the female responses to the acts of attempted seduction are reflective of male-centered real-life attitudes toward women and femininity. It may be significant for his thesis that the author refrains from using the word “rape” to characterize any of these acts in order to avoid that term’s utterly negative modern associations. Other contributors (Jacobsen, Wood, Sheriff), however, are not so reticent.

Michael A. Jacobsen’s “Back and Forth: The Renaissance and Mythology as our Means to Antiquity and to Ourselves” is the most wide-ranging paper of the collection. While the major focus is on Hercules (a son of Jupiter) and how and why he and certain of his exploits were so popular during the Renaissance, the author manages along the way to allude to broader issues such as the use of the term “Modern,” the periodization of history, and the women’s movement, and he tucks in, as well, a thoughtful overview of the aims and scope of the renaissance of Classical antiquity in Italy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Jacobsen’s assumption is that, to the Renaissance, the figure of Hercules exemplified the struggle to control one’s inner “appetites” (p. 55) which were personified in the hero’s various human opponents (Antaeus, Cacus and Diomedes) and which appear, in Renaissance terms, to be centered primarily on the sexual. A brief chronological discussion of Hercules in art and literature ensues, followed by a digression on another popular group which was regarded as a typological parallel for Hercules and Antaeus: David and Goliath, the famous subject of Michelangelo, Donatello, and Verrocchio. What may have been overlooked by these artists and thinkers is that Hercules does not necessarily need an opponent: The subtlety of the original Herculean formula allows for the hero and the imbecile to be embodied in one perpetually struggling frame. The Greeks (especially Euripides and Lysippos) were the first to acknowledge the flawed character of this Greek demigod and to exploit it in wry lessons on the nature of “heroes” and ultimately of heroization. Few emerge from battles external or internal scar-free; Hercules is no exception. If Hercules personified the tendency for human beings to struggle against their own basest instincts, for the most part, his was a losing cause. But he never yields the notion that humans are charged with challenging their own vulnerability in the inexorable face of fate, however imperfect their equipment to do battle may be.

The remainder of the papers will only be briefly characterized. Carolyn H. Wood (“Ruling Passions: The ‘Rapes’ of Giovanni da San Giovanni”) writes on the iconographical program and the patronage of a little known cycle of ceiling paintings from 1627 in the Palazzo Rospigliosi-Pallavicini in Rome which incorporates three mythological rape scenes, one of which features Jupiter and Europa. Mary D. Sheriff’s article “Reading Jupiter Otherwise: or Ovid’s Women in Eighteenth-Century Art” is best read in conjunction with Kilinski’s. Sheriff, however, focuses exclusively on the female responses to Jupiter’s amorous overtures in light of the preferences in the Rococo period for certain of the seduction myths over others and the ways in which they are reinterpreted by artists such as Angelica Kauffman, whose c. 1781 painting (or workshop copy thereof) Jupiter in the Guise of Diana and the Nymph Callisto appeared in the exhibition.

Finally, Mary Lee Sullivan’s “Questions of Gender and Subjectivity in Elaine de Kooning’s Bacchus Paintings” extends in a feminist direction a discussion which was begun in the exhibition catalogue entry (#’s 16 and 17) about de Kooning’s near obsession later in her career with a statue group by the nineteenth-century sculptor, Jules Dalou, of a drunken Silenus teetering on the back of a donkey led by nymphs and satyrs. This group, which de Kooning saw in situ in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, provoked a series of paintings both non-representational and representational; while she is more generally known for her abstract compositions, de Kooning was always, it should be remembered, a great portraitist. Although the artist mistook Silenus — the actual protagonist of Dalou’s group — for Bacchus (a son of Jupiter), the presence of women supporting the central male figure, still dominant in spite of his weak and compromising predicament, struck a personal note. De Kooning’s choice of this imagery, according to the author, was deliberate; it offered her material for social and psychological commentary on the anomaly of her own position as a major female artist in the predominately male Abstract Expressionist milieu. The up-to-date tenor of Sheriff’s article, and the startling evidence of an avowed abstractionist’s deliberate reversion to Classical subject matter, attest to the contemporary vitality of Zeus/Jupiter and Company and serve as a fitting capstone to an admirable project.