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Rediscovered Mythology
Although it was once a staple content area for artists, I don't know of a single painter today who paints mythology. I'm sure there probably are some but, for the most part, such work would have a very limited audience and have even less marketing potential. Yet, much as we might believe otherwise, mythological painting did not die with the passing of Academicism and the coming of age of Modern Art. It did, however, recede for some fifty years. The Impressionists and those who followed them preferred their contemporary world - basically planes, trains, and automobiles. In the following decades, abstractionists went a step further and jettisoned even that in favour of art about art. But for minor exceptions, it wasn't until the 1920s that any artists felt the need to make classical references in their work.

One of those minor exceptions was Gustave Klimt, the German modern romanticist from the first decades of the twentieth century. He often made references to female mythological figures such as Danae and Athene in his highly erotic, highly decorative, yet thoroughly Art Nouveau paintings. His work sought to capture the spirit of his mythological figures rather than to delve into traditional narrative. Except for Klimt and maybe one or two others, it wasn't until the 1920s and 30s when the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico began to paint his lonely, metaphysical piazzas with their vaguely classical figures and architecture that any artist or group of artists began to once more take seriously classical mythology. Even at that, it was slow in coming back. It was only as de Chirico began to influence the next generation of painters and the Surrealist movement, that artists such as Picasso, Dali, and others began to once more take note of mythical lore in their work.

But it was not the myths of the previous century that intrigued them, and nearly always, it was work predicated upon a strongly erotic theme. Picasso chose what he called "tribute" pieces such as The Intervention of the Sabine Women (after David) dating from the early 1960s. Dali, on the other hand, seems to have embraced classical mythology almost by default in his vehement rejection of abstraction. But in both cases, these two giants of twentieth century art were intent upon reinventing mythological painting to fit their own personal needs. Yet their influence can be seen in the work of artists such as the German, Max Beckman, and the American, Joe Shannon. Beckman's The Argonauts, dating from 1949 revives, for mythological purposes, the traditional Christian format of the triptych, which he later used for several religious works as well. His paintings, with their three separate compartments, seem very much within the narrative tradition of the Academicists, yet stylistically they relate much more closely to Picasso than to Beckman's German forebears who invented the triptych. Shannon's Pink Minotaur Monitor, Night Guests, dating from 1982, draws upon the work of both Beckman (stylistically) and Picasso (subjectively). From Beckman he derives his rather heavy, idealised figures with their oversized feet and exaggerated physical attributes while borrowing from Picasso his fascination with the bull, which he displays both in "real life" and as seen in a painted TV image. His nude figures seem almost photographic, even pornographic.

Early in his career, even the abstractionist's abstractionist, Jackson Pollock, delved into mythology, though hardly from a classical perspective, as he freely intermingled Native American, Pre-Columbian, and Greek themes. His Wooden Horse of 1948 is an example. The drips, splatters, and highly gestural movement of paint on canvas that would later become his trademarks are present in this seminal work; but so too are attached items such as parts of a child's wooden horse which makes reference to the Trojan horse of Greek mythology. The common element Pollock and each of these other artists sought in their revival of painted mythology was not that of their academic predecessors. Unlike David, Ingres, Bouguereau, and others, they no longer needed mythology as a pretext for nude or erotic figures. Instead, they sought to adapt universally known mythological figures and themes to their existing style in such a manner as to add legitimacy - intellect, weight, and a literary element of respect - to their work. So, seen any good minotaurs or centaurs lately?

Contributed by Lane, Jim
12 November 2001

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