BMCR 2020.09.09

Sex, symbolists and the Greek body

, Sex, symbolists and the Greek body. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. ix, 267 p.. ISBN 9781350042346. $170.00.


Part of the Bloomsbury Studies in Classical Reception series, Sex, Symbolists and the Greek Body gathers and analyzes images of Greco-Roman myth and of the Greek body in the works of fin-de-siècle Symbolist artists. A movement that cohered neither by style nor school, Symbolism’s parameters are difficult to articulate and are further blurred by the artists’ purposeful esotericism. Perhaps the definitive feature of Symbolist works is that representation should operate as a sign for the non-material, some “inner reality,” whether an idea, a dream, or the unconscious (15).

As Warren lays out in his first two chapters (“Introduction” and “Sex and the Symbolists”), this book’s guiding assertion is that, in Symbolist art, representations of the Greek body were primarily expressions of the erotic. The erotic, in turn, operates as “a symbol that speaks to the inner world of man, and which may—by a mysterious process—unlock some greater understanding” (83). To be sure, Symbolists did not limit themselves to the representation of the Greek body or to themes derived from the ancient world. And conversely, the ancient world allowed for the exploration of other Symbolist interests, including mysticism and paganism. But this book amply demonstrates that Symbolist artists returned regularly to the stories, landscapes, and bodies of the ancient Greeks.

Unusually, Warren takes an international view of Symbolism. This seems to have informed the structure of the book, which is organized not by artist or national context, but by types of ancient bodies. After the first two introductory chapters, the core of the book is divided into three parts: The Female (Chapters 3-5), The Male (Chapters 6-8), and The Other (Chapter 9). Each chapter is named for a mythological figure that stands for a particular treatment of the body: Aphrodite—as Object (Chapter 3); Medusa—as Danger (Chapter 4); Sphinx—as Mystery (Chapter 5); Endymion—as Idol (Chapter 6); Faun—as Instinct (Chapter 7); Ganymede—as Androgyne (Chapter 8); Animals, Monsters, Orientals—as Sexual Other (Chapter 9). The individual chapters are difficult to summarize, in part because they cover so many images and characters in addition to the titular ones. This is also, in part, because the organizing categories, as Warren acknowledges throughout, are neither distinct nor stable.

This book will be a useful resource for those interested in the varied reception and adaptation of Greek and Roman themes in fin-de-siècle visual arts, particularly those that stray from academic neoclassicism. Warren has collected an impressive range of images, and his positioning of themes and figures in relationship to each other helps to articulate the different ways in which the symbolic range of a single myth or character might be imagined and visualized. Given the spectacular images with which this book deals, however, the illustration of so few is both a disappointment and a barrier to the reader’s engagement with the primary material. A rough count suggests, for instance, that Chapter 6 discusses nearly two dozen works, but includes only three illustrations. This imbalance is typical throughout. As an author, I sympathize with the limitations around illustrations, not least of which is the exorbitant cost of reproduction permissions (a special burden to those already struggling to get a foothold in academia). As a reader, though, it is impossible to engage fully with absent images. Description is a crucial part of analysis, and Warren’s are excellent. But it is a poor substitute for the images themselves, and it is a distraction to have to move between the text and internet searches, particularly when more obscure or untitled works require some digging. However understandable, then, the lack of illustrations here limits the reader’s ability to participate in the close visual analysis that the Symbolists’ work, in all of its richness and complexity, requires.[1]

Equally felt is the absence of theorization around sex, sexuality, gender, and the body, their relationships to representation, and their situation in the larger social and cultural contexts in which they operated. Throughout the text, concepts that are crucial to Warren’s discussion of these works—objectification, androgyne, misogyny, oriental, erotic, even desire itself—go critically unglossed, as do the dynamics of power that undergird these representations and to which they contribute. To expand on the problems that this poses, I focus on Warren’s treatment of the Medusa.

Warren frames Chapter 4, Medusa—as Danger, by describing the Symbolist fascination with the “tyrannical power” of “female sexuality over men” (143). This power, Warren argues, was expressed in Symbolist art by the reinvention of the (female) Greek body as femme fatale. As part of this trend, Medusa was “transformed into a figure of sexual, as well as mortal, peril” (147). Thus introduced, the first images of Medusa to which Warren turns are by Arnold Böcklin: Head of Medusa (ca. 1894, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts), Shield with Gorgon’s Head (1897, Paris: Musée d’Orsay), and Medusa (1878, Nuremburg: Germanisches Nationalmuseum). In all of these images, the head of Medusa is disembodied and gray. In the first two, her mouth is open and eyes wide in an expression of horror; in the third, her mouth is slack, her eyes heavy and unfocused. Why these images should be read as erotic is not, at least for this reader, intuitively gleaned and is never explained; to what extent they are substantially transformed from previous renderings (ancient and modern) is likewise unclear. It is particularly difficult to understand any of them—or, indeed, Fernand Khnopff’s rendering of the decapitated head in The Blood of the Medusa (1898, Paris: Galerie Sophie Scheidecker), also included in the chapter—as a femme fatale, except in the most literal sense.

Seeming to acknowledge this, Warren points to Jacek Malczewski’s Medusa (1895, Lviv: National Art Gallery) and The Artist and Medusa: Portrait of Tadeusz Błotnicki (ca. 1902, Warsaw: National Museum) as works in which “the Symbolist association between Medusa and the eroticized female body is now more clearly spelt out” (150): she serves as an allegory for temptation. But these are also positioned as works in which Malczewski has created “individual meaning” in his portraiture (150), and so there is some doubt as to how his work illuminates other Symbolist treatments of the Medusa or of the femme fatale. Other Symbolist renderings of Medusa are, perhaps, more readily understood as erotic. One wonders, given the subject of this book, why Elihu Vedder’s grotesque The Dead Medusa (1875, location unknown) is relegated to a footnote, since it features the decapitated body of the gorgon, lying nude and unprotected on the beach. The removal of her monstrous head allows the viewer to peruse the female corpse without fear, even if any resulting arousal is cause for new horror.

These images’ particular emphasis on the feminized monster cry out for a more nuanced interrogation than a general appeal to the danger of female sexuality or the application of the femme fatale archetype offers. This archetype, of course, is itself a fantasy that is both in tension with and a product of a reality in which women were politically and socially subject to men. Medusa is, indeed, a fascinating monster to revive at the fin de siècle, which was marked in part by feminism’s first wave. This context would seem productive for thinking through this figure and the ostensible danger she poses to men, particularly since her power, such as it was, was both granted to and taken from her by brutal physical violation.

With quite a different context in mind, Rosalind Gill has made the argument that criticality of sexualized representation is necessary precisely because of its participation in cultures of sexual violence and domination—cultures that have real consequences not only for the bodies that are fantasized about, but also for those that are excluded from the “privileged” status of sexual objectification.[2] Without such a structure for thinking through the impact of representation and the dynamics of power with which it intersects, Warren leans frequently into the personal idiosyncrasies of the artists, implying, as with Malczewski’s Medusa, that meaning is bound to and by the artist’s personal intent and sexual predilections. It is particularly true of the Symbolists, as Warren repeatedly points out, that they made use of themes and figures in diverse, abstruse, and personal ways. But, for this reviewer, Warren’s willingness to indulge the Symbolists’ retreat into the esotericism of the subconscious, and to suggest that the representation of eroticism is an end in itself, too often absolves these artists—and the reader—from interrogating the realities to which their images contributed.

To borrow from Linda Nochlin’s analysis of Orientalist themes in 19th-century art: private fantasies do not exist in a vacuum.[3] Even Symbolist fantasies do not exist in a vacuum, despite their claim to retreat from the modern, material world. The erotic “cannot be confronted without a critical analysis of the particular power structure in which these works came into being,” including the stakes of sexual objectification and of the effects of its displacement to a distant, mythologized past.[4]

This is borne out, further, in the treatment of Orientalized and androgyne bodies. Warren’s interest in “the oriental” in Symbolist art, included in Chapter 9 on “The Sexual Other”, is focused on images of Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and Salammbo, Gustave Flaubert’s fictional Carthaginian priestess. “The oriental” (or, more precisely, the Orientalized female subject) is an “other” because, as Warren explains it, she is “distant from the everyday world,” possessing a luxurious femininity that is “impossible to obtain” (236). But unattainability is an illusion; to borrow again from Nochlin, the gendered and racialized imagination of Orientalized female bodies come into being under the control of, and, indeed, for the (heterosexual) male, European gaze. The “androgyne” has equally complex implications. Sexuality studies or Queer theory might have helped in nuancing an approach that seems to correlate the visual indicators of sex within the image to the possible orientation of the artist, but that does not engage the emerging contemporary discourses around sexuality.

For this reader, the silence on the intersecting structures of power across gender, race, and class that underlie the Symbolist deployment of the sexualized body is resounding. To be clear, Warren seems to have made a methodological choice to read the images primarily in relationship to Symbolism as an intellectual and artistic movement. And the focus of the Symbolists themselves on interiority and the subconscious would seem to sanction Warren’s approach. It is likely that the absence of critical framing so vexing to this reviewer will, in fact, be a relief to some readers. Still others will ask, in response to this review, to what extent scholars are or should be obligated to pursue the issues raised here or to incorporate the scaffolding of critical theory. To be sure, they are issues whose nuances may change quickly as new approaches emerge for thinking them through. But images construct meaning, and if the Symbolists pushed the boundaries on behalf of some bodies, they reinscribed them, sometimes violently, around others.

To end optimistically: this book’s collection of images and its linking of them to the erotic opens exciting avenues of exploration around questions of Symbolist reception and these artists’ engagement of the ancient as a space to explore the cultural politics of sexual fantasy and the embodiment of desire.


[1] While searching the internet for the works mentioned in this text, I happened to come across a Word document on the Bloomsbury website that lists them along with links to digital images. Some of the links are to museum digital catalogs, wikiart, and Wikimedia Commons; other sources include Pinterest pages, stock photo sites, Greek mythology websites, and at least two sites that sell posters and fine art prints. This document does not seem to be included as part of the digital book package, and the audience for it is unclear.

[2] Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (May 1, 2007): 147–66.

[3] Nochlin, Linda. The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society. 1st ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

[4] Ibid., 34.