How Yves Klein, Chris Burden and Henri Matisse saw Icarus
Our new book Flying Too Close to the Sun examines how artists old and new have interpreted ancient myths
Of all the classical myths, perhaps the myth of Icarus, lends itself best as an allegory for human failings. Icarus could have escaped safely from Crete on the wax and feather wings his father, the master craftsman Daedalus, fixed to his body, had he heeded dad's advice, and not flown too close to the sun.
Some artists, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his famous 16th century painting The Fall of Icarus (top), downplay the singularity of this preventable death, by placing Icarus's fall in the bottom right corner of a busy landscape, to stand, as our new book Flying Too Close to the Sun: Myths in Art from Classical to Contemporary puts it, "as either a moral against vain striving or a humanist tribute to the permanence of nature versus human transience." However, others have placed Icarus at the very centre of their works, demonstrating how this ancient character still addresses modern artistic concerns.
Icarus (1947) by Henri Matisse In this simple, yet remarkably effective cut-paper composition, "the boy who flew too close to the sun is reduced to a crudely defined black silhouette," explains our new book. "With astonishing economy the French artist, sculptor and draughtsman conveys Icarus’ foolhardy vitality with a brilliant red spot for his heart and endows his flailing body with almost balletic grace."
This late work itself a testament to human ambition and frailty; Matisse began cutting into painted paper – a technique he called drawing with scissors – in 1943, at the height of the Second World War, when he was bedridden with illness and could no longer paint.
Icarus, April 13, 1973 (1973) by Chris Burden Burden was explicitly recreating the fall of Icarus when he instructed his assistants to lift sheets of glass on to his shoulders, pour gasoline over the glass, and set them alight; the artist, who was nude throughout this performance, jumped away from the flames, sending the glass crashing to the floor.
Nevertheless, this classical performance may have had a more contemporary moral at its base, as our book explains. "For an artist who consistently pushed boundaries, this moral was of less pertinence than the potent image of the fiery wings, intended to shock an American audience desensitized by the horror of the Vietnam War."
Leap into the Void (1960) by Yves Klein Why have we reproduced this famously faked photograph among our Icarus tributes? Well, Klein may not have referred to the myth explicitly, yet the fatal looking flight, mocked up in this photograph by an artist who also died young, certainly seems to share some qualities with the doomed Greek youth.
"The image appears to show the photographer leaping from a building in a quiet Paris suburb," explains our book. "Unsurprisingly, this apparently daredevil image is a piece of photographic trickery made by the artist’s collaborators, Harry Shunk and János Kender, by faultlessly combining two separate negatives. We might compare Icarus’ wish to fly on prosthetic wings to Klein’s use of photo manipulation to create a mythologizing image of the artist as superhuman."
For more modern art based on ancient myths, and lots more besides, order a copy of Flying Too Close to the Sun here.