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Document Details :

Title: Een huid van ivoor
Subtitle: Het Nachleben van Pygmalion's geliefde
Author(s): BAERT, Barbara
Journal: Bijdragen
Volume: 63    Issue: 2   Date: 2002   
Pages: 171-199
DOI: 10.2143/BIJ.63.2.805

Abstract :
In the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses there is a moving story which explores the relationship between the artist and his work of art. It is the myth of the sculptor Pygmalion. The story of the Cypriot artist for whom the ivory statue of his ideal woman came to life knew a very widespread transmission. The myth inspired authors and artists to reflect about love, idolatry, lifeless matter, the artist vis-à-vis the one Creator, and so on. The secondary literature which has been published on the reception of this metamorphosis is proportionately plentiful. However, it mainly takes Pygmalion as its starting point. Scant attention has been paid to the other figure: the woman, who is silent in Ovid’s tale, but increasingly became the mouthpiece for a Western vision of the image of women. The Middle Ages ascribed to Pygmalion all the vices they could come up with. Already in the early Christian period there was mention of a Cypriot artist who had intercourse with a statue of Aphrodite. He was adduced as an exemplum warning of the madness of idolatry in Antiquity. With the development of humanism these Christian interpretations are swept away and the simple love-story comes into its own again. Pontormo (1529/30) paints the female figure as a woman of flesh and blood who gazes, not towards the kneeling Pygmalion, but towards the viewer and the painter. For various reasons this painting fits into the so-called paragone, which was in full swing at this time: the struggle for rank between the arts of sculpture and painting. For the art of painting can do what the art of sculpture cannot: paint skin, suggest movement, paint the art of sculpture itself, etc. The influence of the Pygmalion myth reaches a peak in the eighteenth century. Rousseau gives the female figure what Voltaire, in his poem of love for an actress, had not: a name. She is Galathea, after the nymph, the image of perfect inner and outer beauty. The beloved thus acquires an identity? Well, she does speak, in any case. Rousseau’s musical play – in the eighteenth century the arts of the stage recognize new challenges in the Pygmalion theme – endswith the words of the beloved: “c’est moi” (I), “ce n’est pas moi” (an unworked piece of marble), “aussi moi” (Pygmalion). This points to a complete amalgamation of the beloved with her creator. Diderot subscribes to the same body of ideas, and again relates them to the paragone. But for him it is sculpture, and not painting, which provides the ultimate access to Nature, and thus to the Divine. For the third dimension is the most direct emanation of the internal image of the artist, his muse, in reality. For him, Falconet’s Pygmalion et Galathée is the sculpted group which on all fronts revives the supremacy of the discipline. He even claims that Falconet is the eighteenth-century Pygmalion. In the nineteenth century we see the first signs of change. Galathea begins to reject Pygmalion. In literature she is portrayed a the cold and unattainable woman. From the point of view of gender we see indeed that women’s self-image had come to a crisis. She could not mirror herself in the past. The woman of the nineteenth century had to put an end to a male ideal image. Christina Rossetti’s (1830-1894) poems express this impasse. Galathea – who had in the meantime herself become a “metaphor” for the plastic arts – becomes the fitting cue to mark the beginning of the new, “modern” art. Rodin has her looking away from Pygmalion in disgust. Goya portrays himself as the sculptor who, as it were, rapes Galathea. This moribund Galathea was intended to express criticism of the academic “dictatorship” of mimesis, but also the social responsibility of the artist in a society wracked by civil war. Paul Delvaux reads another subjection into his Pygmalion (1938). The domination of the artist by his mother, who segregates him from the female sex. He puts himself in Galathea’s place as a helpless torso; his mother embraces him. Here we pick up the trail of the psycho-analytical archetypes in the myth. They are not so clearly established as in the case of Narcissus, for example, but they relate to the feminine attributes which the beloved has personified throughout the ages: from lust-object to frigidity. Ever since her awakening, the story of her tranmission has been fed on the evolving images of woman herself.
(Translated from Dutch by dr. Maria Sherwood-Smith)


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