The Roman Poet Ovid gave us Pygmalion, an Artist Obsessed
IN WESTERN CULTURE, we always go back to the Greeks. And as John Updike showed us in his National Book Award novel, The Centaur (1963), the ancient mythology of the Mediterranean can still give us modern books about artists. (More about Updike on artists another day).
However, we look in vain for a surviving text from the ancient Greek writers that is about a craftsman or painter.
As a story-telling people, the Greeks must have had verbal tales about artists. These artisans were renowned for composing murals, decorating amphorae (storage jars), and painting the bright colors on the limestone and marble statues that filled Greek temples. Today we see the Greek statues as white stone, but in their own time, colors covered them in gaudy celebration.
The painter, however, was not a sufficiently heroic or tragic figure, apparently. As Aristotle might have said, a mere craftsman was not enough to create “catharsis”—a beneficial release of emotions—in a work for the Greek theater, filled as it was with betrayal and revenge and commentary on the vanity of the powerful. Nor was the artist the kind of action hero that would fit Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
We might note that the first Greek comedy, titled Frogs and written by Aristophanes, pits two Greek playwrights, Euripedes and Aeschylus—two painters of words—against each other to make fun of their pretensions. Not real artisans, though.
Only with the Romans do we start to read about the visual artist as a main character.
This is thanks to Ovid, the Roman poet. He wrote about metamorphoses, that is, gods and humans changing into each other and into other things. Ovid’s narrative—titled Metamorphoses, or “book of transformations”—compiles 250 myths. The stories go back to the beginning of the world and end with the reign of Julius Caesar.
Tucked into the magnum opus is the story of Pygmalion, the first surviving story in which we meet a studio artist worthy of the name.
Pygmalion is a Greek from Cyprus. He is not a painter but rather a sculptor, the art that had the highest ranking in classical antiquity. As is well known in this poetic myth, Pygmalion carved a beautiful female form in ivory. After that, he was no longer “interested in women"; he fell in love with his artwork.
On the day of the Aphrodite festival, he appealed to the goddess with offerings: give him a bride who is “the living likeness of my ivory girl,” he said in his heart. Back at the studio, all it took was for Pygmalion to kiss his ivory beauty, and she came to life—and in truly a first, the artist married his work of art.
We’ll have lots of artists obsessed with their creations in the novels that follow over the centuries. The nonfiction version began during the Italian Renaissance with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. (1550, expanded 1568). When the modern novel was being invented in Germany and France, bridging the late 1700s with the early 1800s—the Romantic era in European arts and letters—we finally get the artistic type as a central character.
And for better or worse, the obsession theme has retained an odd prevalence.
Take Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). It’s about a young wandering artist enthralled by drawing nature. Being unlucky in love, though, young Werther commits suicide.
By the late nineteenth century, the French writer Émile Zola put a permanent stamp on the image of the obsessed artist. His 1886 novel, The Work (in French, L’œuvre, often translated The Masterpiece), sees an artist lose his wife and his sanity trying to finish a painting. Zola lived among the French Impressionists, and it has been said that his fictional painter mirrors his friend, Paul Cézanne. The novel’s fictional journalist is no doubt Zola himself.But there are obsessions and there are obsessions. An artist needs to be a little obsessed to finish a difficult and excellent work. After that, the trick is to move on. The same goes with writers of novels, some of whom are ultra-obsessive, perhaps making Pygmalion look, by comparison, more like a calm amphora painter.