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Refining the Artist into Existence: Pygmalion's Statue, Stephen's Villanelle and the Venus of Praxiteles

From: Comparative Literature Studies
Volume 38, Number 2, 2001
pp. 95-117 | 10.1353/cls.2001.0017

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Comparative Literature Studies 38.2 (2001) 95-117

Artists have written exhaustively on the mysterious powers of the artist and his creation with an introspective fascination that suggests their exploration is linked to the human condition. The concept of art coming to life, of an artistic work being in some fashion magically linked to its subject, dates back to the oldest mythologies of Western history. In a famous competition, the great artist Zeuxis reputedly painted grapes so real that birds flew to the image, deceived by it. Parrhasios, his competitor, painted only a broad curtain, which Zeuxis asked him to pull aside to reveal his work. Parrhasios was deemed the more talented for Zeuxis could fool birds, but Parrhasios could fool the artist himself. Sculpture too became magical when realistic. Legend has it that Myron sculpted a cow so real that bulls came from miles around to mate with it. Similarly, in a Euripides tale, the legendary artificer Daedalus creates the perfect replica of a cow hollowed for Pasiphaë to enable her to satisfy her craving for a bull (Kris and Kurz 67). And the human sculptures of Daedalus, said to be the first sculptures with feet apart, arms loose and eyes open, needed to be fastened down, according to Plato's account, to prevent them from walking away (67). The famous sculptor Praxiteles was said to have created a statue of a nude woman so beautiful that it inspired desire in every man who saw it. His statue, the Aphrodite of Knidos, a representation of the Greek goddess of love and fertility, may have inspired Ovid to write his story of Pygmalion (fig. 1). But whether or not Ovid's telling of Pygmalion is related to the Knidian Aphrodite, the kinds of tensions between art and life that are articulated in both these stories merit closer examination.

Christine Havelock devotes almost an entire book, The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors (1995), to this single statue, significant because it was unprecedented, the first female nude to be introduced in three-dimensional and monumental form. Havelock links the statue with the Pygmalion myth, about the sculptor who creates a work of art so beautiful that he falls in love with it, and with Venus's help, is able to bring his statue to life. In Ovid's Hellenistic sources, Havelock points out, Pygmalion is a king who orders a statue made of Aphrodite, who then comes to life as herself, not a sculptor who brings to life a maiden through Aphrodite's intervention (Havelock 130). The complicated mythology surrounding the statue confirms Havelock's connection of the statue with the Pygmalion myth. Athenaeus writes that the Knidian Aphrodite was modeled on the artist's lover, Phryne, a famous courtesan who was seen by the artist rising naked from the sea in the manner of Aphrodite herself. At that moment, Prax-iteles fell in love with her and soon after, represented her as Aphrodite in his sculpture (11). This myth links the artist, model and work in a closely knit bond of inspiration and adoration that is suggestive of the Pygmalion myth. But there was a more ominous aspect to this association as well. According to Pliny the Elder, the statue was so real that "a certain man was once overcome with love for the statue and . . . , after he had hidden himself [in the shrine] during the nighttime, he embraced it and . . . it thus bears a stain, an indication of his lust" (10). The possibility that consummation of sexual desire is capable of "staining" a statue is also raised in the Pygmalion myth, but the story of the Knidian Aphrodite also has other implications. The amorous adventurer here refuses to serve Aphrodite with due respect and worship, instead demanding that she, a powerful goddess set in her shrine, serve him. This action, tantamount to a symbolic rape, is a treatment of the goddess Aphrodite as if she were the willing courtesan who may have inspired the sculpture. It conceptually transforms the fertility idol from an object of worship, adoration and awe into a vulnerable, helpless representation of human woman, and an object of a degraded masculine lust. It indicates as well...

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