How to create a lover - the ancient way

A Valentine's Day lesson in art and love from our new book, Flying Too Close to the Sun
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Pygmalion and Galatea (1890) by Jean-Léon Gérôme,  as featured in Flying Too Close to the Sun
Pygmalion and Galatea (1890) by Jean-Léon Gérôme, as featured in Flying Too Close to the Sun

The idea that we can create, rather than merely court, a lover is ancient, as our new book, Flying Too Close to the Sun: Myths in Art from Classical to Contemporaary, makes clear.

“Pygmalion was a mortal sculptor from Cyprus,” explains the text in Flying Too Close to the Sun. “Disgusted by the immoral behaviour of a group of young women from the local town of Amathus, he carved a perfect woman out of ivory. He fell in love with his own creation, praying to Aphrodite that he might have a wife similar to his ivory maiden. The goddess granted his wish, and before Pygmalion’s eyes – and under his clammy touch the ivory warmed and softened into flesh. The Pygmalion story has been used prolifically as a metaphor for the production and reception of art.”

For a long time Pygmalion served a jolly allegory for art’s capacity to transform artifice into sensuous realism. Consider the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 19th century depiction of the myth (top), in which “the sculptor breathes life into his creation in the midst of his studio – or perhaps Pygmalion is being graced by her kiss, falling into her embrace as she leans from her pedestal.”

That’s a happy couple, regardless of who made whom. However, in more recent depictions of the tale the tone changes, as the notion of manufacturing a sexual partner is less a distant fantasy and more an imminent reality.

 

The Artist and his Model (1980) by John Deandrea, as featured in Flying Too Close to the Sun
The Artist and his Model (1980) by John Deandrea, as featured in Flying Too Close to the Sun

Take a look at US artist John Deandrea’s 1980 life-sized sculpture, The Artist and his Model, which, is as our new book explains is “so uncannily lifelike that it gives viewers a shock, leading them to mistake the hyper-real sculpture for living bodies – an illusion only broken by the realization that the couple do not breathe or blink. The figures’ flesh is plastic, cast from life using quick-setting plaster and silicon moulds, and their skin is meticulously painted.”

No leaning in for a kiss, here. Instead, this latter-day Pygmalion seems less pleased with his work, more lost in the magnitude of his creation, or even unsure of what comes next. It’s certainly not as romantic a scene as Gérôme, but maybe a more accurate depiction of that moment when a skilled engineer creates a convincing, artificial romantic surrogate. Happy Valentine's Day!

 

Flying Too Close to the Sun: Myths in Art from Classical to Contemporary

For more on acient myths and the works that inspired them order a copy of Flying Too Close to the Sun here.


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