Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Chimera Myth in Modern Figurative Art

This post was originally published in 2002 - it is reproduced here with minimal modifications.

The Chimera (or Chimaera) is an ancient myth, well known to our days. A monster, part goat, part lion and part snake, it was fought and killed by the hero Bellerophon. The modern way to see the myth has led to several attempts to revisit it in figurative art. Of these attempts, several have not been very successful, others, however, tell us something not only about the Chimera, but about ourselves in the way the myth affects us. In the image, you can see A modern version of the Chimera, by Arturo Martini. Transformed from a female into a male, this piece conveys all the rage and madness of our times

Ancient myths have fared with varying degree of success in our times. Mermaids, for instance, have become a common theme of Hollywod movies while the Sphinx has inspired a whole generation of painters, the Symbolists of 19th Century. In comparison, Chimeras are much less common and rarely appear in modern figurative art. Nevertheless, that of the Chimera is a myth strictly related to that of the Sphinx, as old as that of the mermaids, and just as common (perhaps more common) in ancient art.

The classic Chimera is a creature with the body of a lion, the tail of a serpent, and a goat's head sprouting out of the back. In ancient images what we find is a great uniformity, clearly the result of an attempt to show the same thing. Not only the proportions are always about the same, but also the chimera is shown always in a similar posture. Angry, with mouth open, often with the back arched in a position of impotent rage. Against this roaring monster sometimes we can see (or sometimes just imagine) the shining hero Bellerophon on his winged steed carrying out his monster slaying business.

The setting and the shape of the Chimera in ancient times was a representation of a well known story, with characters that people expected to be able to recognize. In a way, we can think of something similar to Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. The artists drawing comic books are not expected to exercise their creativity in order to produce an original version of the concept of mouse (or duck) dressed in human clothes. So it was for the Chimera; it was a character in a well known story: the epic fight of the hero Bellerophon against a fire breathing monster.

The Chimera was, actually, a reflection of much older stories, stories that went back to the ancient middle east, to the Sumerian age when a winged lion named, perhaps, "Anzu" was the steed and the pet of the great goddess Inanna, the giver of joy and the mistress of fertility. 

That lion, later to become a chimera, was one of the many incarnations of the storm beast, the creature that makes lightening and thunder. A few millennia later, in 1930, a Japanese painter living in France, Tsoguharu Fujita, unknowingly painted (image on the right) again Inanna and her lion, an example of how myths and the images associated to them never really disappear from human consciousness.

Back to Sumerian times, over the centuries Inanna's name changed into Tiamat and she was killed by her son Marduk with an arrow shot straight into her mouth, just as the Chimera was killed by Bellerophon by thrusting molten lead into her throat. With time, the goddess and her steed faded away from human consciousness, they lost their separate identities and the story was transformed into what Hesiod and Homer reported to us: a few lines describing the slaying of an ugly beast, a monster that in some places became known as "Chimera".

As a last injury, the Chimera lost her wings, her link to the sky, to be substituted by a lowly earthen goat. Classical writers already didn't know exactly what to do with the myth. Plato himself in his "Phaedrus" dismisses the Chimera as something unworthy for a true phylosopher to lose time with. The myth became crystallized, frozen into something that nobody could understand any more. So had its images. Over the whole classic period, Chimeras were painted and sculpted always in the same way, probably intended as little more than decorative elements. 
As the classical age slowly faded away, the myth of the Chimera faded, too, but it never completely disappeared. The concept was preserved in literary terms and it was used in Middle Ages as a way to represent the wickedness of women, as it had been popular with late Classical writers. However, its graphic aspect could not be recovered simply from the literary descriptions of Homer and Hesiod, which are very schematic or from those of the later classical writers, Plutarch, Valerius or Anaxilas who are only concerned with the symbolic aspects of the myth. Very few images of Chimeras were painted or sculpted in middle ages. It seems that in some areas the classical/etruscan image of the myth did survive, as in the 11th century mosaics of the cathedral of Aosta, in Italy. Although this Chimera (shown here on the left) is not exactly the same as the Etruscan or Classical version, some details (e.g. the heads aligned one after the other) could not be derived simply from the literary version, so it is almost inescapable here to assume a certain continuity with the classic tradition (as discussed in a paper by Guido Cossard )

On the whole, however, the numerous monsters shown in medieval art, griffins, dragons, gargoyles and others, do not seem to be related to the ancient chimera image. As late as in 16th century, even though by that time many Etruscan images of the Chimera had been found, the graphic aspect of the myth was still unfamiliar. So in the illustration for a book printed in Bologna in 1574 (Quaestiones de universo genere, by Achilles Bocchi), the Chimera was clearly drawn on the basis of the textual description only and the result has nothing to do with the way it had been represented in classical times. 

Rediscovering the aspect of the classical Chimera was a slow process that took centuries, starting, roughly, with 15th Century AD in Europe. It was the waning of the middle ages with their mystic bestiaries and the start of what we call today the Renaissance, the age of reason, of enlightenment. With the Renaissance there came a keen interest in the ancient world. It was the time when the first archaeological excavation started on a large scale. Everywhere in Europe, people dug out ancient tombs to recover coins, jewelry, statues, bas-reliefs, frescoes. Out of this great binge of discoveries, a whole world was rediscovered and of this world what was perhaps most impressive was its wealth of imagery. The admiration for Greek and Roman art deeply influenced Renaissance, some say that it was its very root. Renaissance artists looked to the ancient as their models in sculpting and painting human figures, where the concepts of beauty and perfection was at the center. 

But not everything that came out of ancient tombs was beautiful and perfect. A very different set of images appeared, too. We know that the ancient Mediterranean civilization was not just what we call the Apollinean one, with its cult for beautiful bodies. It had a dark side, the Dyonisian one, with deformed deities, monsters and grotesque shapes. These grotesque figures were discovered everywhere, but perhaps in the largest numbers in the land of the Etruscans, modern Tuscany. The Etruscans, those "most religious" people as they were described by the ancient, were, perhaps, more inward looking, more concerned with the other world of the Gods. They did sculpt and paint beautiful bodies, but there was a definite streak of grotesque and supernatural with their art.

The treasure hunters who kept digging tombs in these times did not keep careful records of what they were doing. Their finds are today dispersed in museums and private collections. Chimeras were found, and with them a plethora of different monsters: sphinxes, harpies, sirens, serpents, devils. These images are still here, today, but in most cases we have no idea of exactly when a given piece was dug out of the ground. There are exceptions, though, and one is outstanding: the Chimera of Arezzo. It was discovered in 1553 near one of the doors, of the city of Arezzo, some 50 km south of Firenze. This Chimera, nearly the size of a real lion, was something too big to be ignored. Its discovery was recorded. The news was so widespread that the Duke of Tuscany himself, Cosimo 1st, wanted the statue for himself.

And yet, by looking at the figurative art of that period you would not be able to guess that all these discoveries (and the Chimera of Arezzo in particular) had been taking place. Renaissance artists, working mainly in Tuscany, had carried out a revolution in figurative art that today we still admire, yet they seem to have largely neglected the subjects of the large number of Etruscan images that were arriving from underground. They were so concerned with the human figure that they hardly ever worried about showing animals, more exactly they had wholly lost the medieval (and earlier) attitude of seeing animals and monsters as symbols, graphic icons for concepts which were perhaps impossible to express in words.

So, Michelangelo and Donatello are said to have been influenced by Etruscan art in some of their pieces, but just in the composition and perhaps in the somatic traits of the faces. They surely were aware of the many facets of Etruscan arts and must have seen at least some of the mythological creatures that were so often depicted. Yet, there is no trace of these figures in their paintings. When the Chimera of Arezzo surfaced in 1553, some artists of the time, Vasari and Cellini, reported the discovery in their books and diaries. However, in the paintings of Vasari and in the sculptures of Cellini you won't be able to see any Chimera, nor anything that even vaguely looks like a Chimera. Mid 16th Century is, actually, the apotheosis and the waning of the Renaissance at the same time, the time of its last school, that of the Mannerists: Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Bronzino; they all brought figurative art to near perfection. But there was no place among the beautiful bodies they painted for an ugly, screaming monster, such as the Chimera.

There may have been an exception, though. In mid 16th Century, Agnolo Allori, nicknamed "Bronzino", painted the "Triumph of Venus and Cupid" a painting still well known today. A visually startling paintings, it has a visionary element in its symbolism that is quite unlike anything that Renaissance painters had ever painted. And the dark creature in the background, the little monster with a human face, lion's body and snake's scales may just be a reinterpretation of the Chimera of Arezzo, which had been discovered just in these years. 

Bronzino's Chimera may well be the first representation of the ancient myth by a modern painter and, as such, it turns out to be a symbol of almost bewildering complexity. Bronzino had worked out a synthesis of the literary meaning of the Chimera, as it was at his time, and the figurative one, for which he was inspired by Etruscan motifs. The Chimera, an evil female, as an unnatural creature, a monster, in Bronzino's times it had come to be considered also as a symbol for something also considered unnatural: homosexuality. With this composition, Bronzino had shown the contrast of homosexual and straight love, giving a new meaning to a timeless myth.
The case of Bronzino is an interesting glimpse of how the dead Etruscan culture could have interacted with the living one of the Renaissance. 

But, with the end of Bronzino's generation and with the end of 16th Century, Renaissance in Tuscany faded away. Economic crisis, wars and dictatorship moved Tuscany from the cultural center of Europe to its suburbs, where it has remained ever since. As a consequence, the Chimera of Arezzo, and Etruscan art in general, ended up also isolated in a relatively poor and remote area of Europe. With that, there was little chance that the main currents of European art were to be affected and inspired by them. Tuscan artists who lived after the Renaissance still had a chance to learn something from Etruscan art, but it seems that they did in a very indirect way. By the end of the Renaissance, another school of artists became popular in Tuscany, the school of the grotesque. Gone were the beautiful bodies of the Renaissance, the artists of the time seemed to be interested mainly in monsters. Out of their brushes, there come out hundreds and hundreds of square meters (perhaps thousands and thousands) of grotesque frescoes, of which many are still visible today. Grotesque art may have been in part inspired by Etruscan art, but, out of these thousands of vaporous monsters, you wouldn't be able to find anything that has the features of the classic Chimera. It seems that Renaissance and post-Renaissance painters could certainly look at the Chimera statuary that was in front of their eyes, but to really "see" it took a true genius, Bronzino. The others, saw it as if they were using old and dirty glasses, darkly and out of focus. The results were those curiously deformed monsters which populate post-Renaissance walls and ceilings in Tuscany.

As far as I can say, the only grotesque image that vaguely looks like to the original Chimera is one that appears on the frescoes of the first courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio, in Firenze. Painted by Marco da Faenza around 1565, more than ten years after the Chimera of Arezzo was discovered, it is a creature with the body of a lion, a serpentine tail and the head of a goat. Not exactly a classic Chimera, but you can't avoid to think that it may have been directly inspired by it (after all, the original Chimera of Arezzo was just upstairs at that time). But, as we said, that fresco was painted when the novelty of the discovery was still felt. In the later years of the post-Renaissance period there is no visible influence of the Chimera of Arezzo on European art.
It was only in 18th -19th Century that a wave of interest in everything classical reached again Tuscany and the Etruscans, This wave of interest was something that had been ongoing since the Renaissance but that in 18th and 19th Century picked up further momentum. It was a time of major excavations, also a time when the interest in ancient art reached perhaps its maximum in modern times. It was also a time when it was felt that ancient mythology had to be popularized for the masses. Bullfinch in Europe and Hawthorne in the United States set up to do just that. Both described the myth of the Chimera and, although neither one went beyond just rewriting what ancient authors had written, they revived an almost forgotten myth. In Tuscany, Robert Dennis, British amateur archaeologist, explored a countryside that in those times was as remote and exotic as today Afghanistan or Thailand may appear to us. He wrote a book "Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria" that became fairly popular in English speaking Europe, something that rekindled, in part, the interest for Etruscan art in Europe. Despite all this interest, there does not seem to have been any chimera painted by a major artist in Europe during 19th Century. In a certain way, this is surprising since the wave of interest in ancient mythology had reached not only literates but artists as well. The European "symbolist" school, which flourished in Victorian times was very much an offspring of the wave of interest in everything mythological, everything which had to do with Gods and monsters of classical antiquity. At that time, Alma Tadema, Dutch painter living in Britain, painted exquisitely detailed scenes of life in classical Greece and Rome (or, some say, life in Victorian times with people dressed as ancient Greeks).

In the late 19th century, Alexander Sèon painted "Le desespoir de la Chimere" (the despair of the Chimera) which seems to have been hugely successful and which became relatively well known. Despite the title, though, what Seon had painted was not a Chimera, but a Sphinx (actually, a Sphinx with a hairdo typical of Seon's time). As we know, the Sphinx and the chimera are closely related myths (some say that the Chimera is sister to the Sphinx, some that she is her daughter). However, in figurative terms they are completely different and no confusion is possible. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ingres and especially Philippe Moreau painted haunting and beautiful images of the Sphinx, but no Chimeras. It seems that the symbolists had some general idea of what a Chimera was, but they lacked the key to understand the myth. In an age without photography and with the Etruscan images mainly located in far away Tuscany, they also lacked the necessary knowledge that would have permitted them to integrate the creature in their paintings.

And we arrive to our times, times that we call contemporary. Do contemporary artists paint or sculpt Chimeras? Not often, but, occasionally, yes. It would be hard to say that Chimeras are a major element of contemporary figurative art, but they do exist, and with the development of recording and reproduction, the image of the Chimera of Arezzo has become relatively familiar. It is by now "the" Chimera, an image that artists may choose to neglect or repudiate, but which they cannot ignore.

So, who and why is nowadays painting Chimeras? For one thing, there is the simple purpose of illustration. Evolving from the intellectual intoxication of 19th Century, our interest in ancient myths has been popularized and somewhat trivialized. Mythological encyclopedias are, of course, common. Each one must show at least one image of the ancient Chimera. This image may be as simple and banal as the "explanation" of the myth in the text. Just as classical writers, modern encyclopedias don't really know what to do with the myth and chase it away as a childish fantasy. This lack of understanding is often reflected in the illustrations. It is either the Chimera of Arezzo, pure and simple, or a rendition of it where the artist felt he/she had somehow to demonstrate his/her freedom of expression by changing something, the proportions, or - more radically – the way the creature is assembled or looks like. The results may not be especially successful.

An example is the book "Gods, Men and Monsters" written by Michael Gibson and illustrated by Giovanni Caselli. This is a book of eerie images, often of stunning beauty, but this Chimera, well, it is difficult to say. It is not a complete failure, but it is hard to say that it is a success, either. An ungainly beast, the proportions somehow seem not to be right, with the goat's head seeming not to belong to the creature at all and the lion's mane looking as if just arranged by a hairdresser. Yet this image still captures something of the heavy and outlandish nature of the ancient Chimera.

These two images by Caselli also illustrate a problem that seems to be typical of modern renditions of the myth: the difficulty of getting together Bellerophon and the Chimera, something that, instead, the ancient seemed not to have problems with. Caselli's Bellerophon is not just on another page, it looks like he is on another planet, so different the graphic style. Bellerophon is not just a graphic problem: whatever he was, hero, monster slayer, or pest exterminator, he remains a baffling figure for us, just as perhaps he was for himself. 

Unlike Caselli's Chimera, not much of good can be said of other attempts. This one by Kye Carbone for the book "The Chimaera" by B. Evslin is an especially unsuccessful one. Come on, this ain't no Chimera, this is a rat! And even a rat would probably feel offended to be represented in this way. The only good thing that can be said about this potato sack is that it is not really much worse than the text of the book. The same kind of graphical disasters take place in the many "monsters manual" of role playing games, where the Chimera is just another monster to be thrown against the players' characters. Here, again, the quality of the imagery matches the depth of the interpretation and here the collector of graphical ugliness may find truly precious gems.

But it is not always like that. It seems indeed that the rule that graphical and textual quality are matched is often followed, so that interesting texts are illustrated with interesting images. The example here is John Barth's "Chimera", an outlandish and elegant novel where a disillusioned Bellerophon tells his story and how he slew the monster. The dancing dinousaurish creature on the front cover is perfectly adequate to the text. Strangely, in the Ballantine Books edition I have, the name of the artist author of this image is never stated. Another one of the many Chimerical mysteries.
In our times, chimeras are not just painted as illustrations of books. The image of a chimera may be required as the logo of a company or of an institution, as a symbol for the several scientific areas which are somehow named after the chimera (in biology or computer science). There are also other cases, and it seems that there are at least a few people on this planet whose last name is "Chimera" and Mr. John Chimera has been so kind to give me permission to reproduce here his tattoo. This image shows one more of the several graphical ways to represent a Chimera. This one, clearly derived from the graphic style of modern comics, has a certain freshness and originality, showing the creature in an aggressive posture which seems to be perfectly adequate for what we know to be the essence of the story and of the myth. 

These examples deal with illustrations, a case when an artist was told something like "we need a chimera painted". A different case is when, instead, the artist freely chooses the subject of his/her art. Here, it seems that the Chimera has had a modest impact on art in our times. There are, to be sure, contemporary artists who have made themselves a reputation with Chimeras. Thomas Grunfeld, for instance, has a production of "composite animals" which he calls Chimeras. I must confess that I am not sure I can understand what is exactly the point of Mr. Grunfeld's art, but that does not matter much here. Rather, Grunfeld art is another case of a change in perception, a case in which the name "Chimera" is applied in modern times to something that is wholly unrelated to what the ancient perceived as a Chimera. The same is true for the work of another contemporary artist. Annette Messager, whose "Chimeras" are – I think – delightful, but which, again, have nothing to do with the classical concept. 

The production of figurative art in our times is prodigious, and it is impossible to locate more than a minor fraction of images which, one way or another, can be classed as Chimeras. I will show you now a few examples which seem to me significant, without pretending of being exhaustive. 

First of all, here is a nice example of an interpretation of the theme goat+snake+ lion. It is, apparently, the simbol of a college fraternity and it does not have to be taken as anything like a major work of art. However, it is a little gem in showing how the concept of Chimera may look when examined with fresh eyes.

Another example is "Kinshasa, the African Chimera". The author, Mr. Boulton, told me that it was intended to be a character for some comics he and the others were planning to develop, but apparently the project was never completed. I don't know where the authors got this idea of an African Chimera, but the results are, in my opinion, fascinating. I have no idea of what role Kinshasa should have played in the comics, nor what kind of stories would have been told. Most likely, it would not have been related, or only vaguely related, to the original Chimera story and if any kind of African Bellerophon were to appear I can only imagine that this delightful Kinshasa would have kicked his ass out of the strip. Whatever the case, there is something in this three-headed creature that looks right. That is, somehow, exactly the way a modern African Chimera should look. And the human sexuality aspect of the creature is also somehow just right. We said that the original Chimera is a corruption and a debasement of the goddess Inanna. In modern times, is the Chimera turning again into a woman? Perhaps. And perhaps this Kinshasa is a step in the right direction.

The two images we just discussed are examples of the lighter side of the Chimera, a Chimera that may poke fun at herself, or a Chimera that may take a sensual aspect. But, on the whole, the myth of the Chimera has little that is fun or sensual. It is a violent myth, the brutal story of a life and death struggle, one where the winner never gave to the vanquished a chance to explain or defend herself.

The ancient myth of the Chimera is, actually, a good metaphor or our times, so violent and so brutal as perhaps no times in history have been. Arturo Martini may have understood well this aspect when he rethought the Chimera in his own terms. His sculpture still shows the same monster, but transformed into something even more brutal. Here, the change to beast has gone all the way to the end, with all traces of the sensual goddess Inanna disappeared. This chimera is a male, it has lost even the vestiges of her former wings. It has little of the lion, a noble beast after all. It is, rather, more of a dog. A brutish, rabid, angry dog, a perfect image of our times of senseless slaughter. And perhaps we have re-enacted the very same ancient story with the attack to the twin towers of New York in 2001. Senseless and brutal as many other things in our recent history, it had many of the elements of the mythical fight of Bellerophon and the Chimera, with the towers sprouting fire, just as the Chimera was said to have done, and with flying creatures hitting it, a hint of Bellerophon and his flying horse. The madmen who organized the attack to the towers saw their targets as monsters. In their madness, they could not see that the towers had a human side: the innocents inside who were sacrificed to a vision of the world that left no space for human feelings. It was just the same for Bellerophon, who could not see anything in the Chimera but an ugly monster. He could not see her ancient role of fertility goddess, her human side. Bellerophon, as many others after him, acted on the principle that what he did not understand he destroyed. The result was, as it still is, misery and pain. The true Chimera is, it seems, that humans will ever learn to live in peace.

The images in this page are believed to be in the public domain for personal use (if not, please alert the author). Feel free to use this text as you like. If you cite me, I am happy, if not, enjoy. We do not own ideas, at best we are owned by them.

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