Then and Now : Bad Valentine

If you find yourself feeling down today, remember: almost everyone in Ovid’s Metamorpheses is having worse luck in love. Just look at Titian’s poesie paintings, which were inspired by Ovid’s bad romances. You have to agree — these are all very bad dates.

I’ve never been able to decide which one of these Ovidian situations was the worst. Being carried away by a bull? Being chained to a rock and menaced by a sea monster? Having Zeus descend on you as a shower of gold?

Titian, Rape of Europa, 1560–2 © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Lawrence Weschler makes the argument that, in all of these paintings, there is only one figure who is experiencing genuine (and pleasurable) desire — the nymph peeking out from behind a pillar in Titian’s rendition of Diana and Actaeon.

Maybe she is, and maybe she isn’t. You can decide for yourself.

Detail from Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (1556-59)

Titian, I’ve always thought, left out one of Ovid’s best worst dates—the story of Daphne and Apollo. As Barbara W. Boyd retells the story, “Ovid begins with a petty argument between Apollo and Cupid that quickly devolves into Apollo’s vindictive infatuation with Daphne; this infatuation is played out in an excruciatingly sadistic pursuit, during which Apollo tries unsuccessfully to win the girl over. Her resistance is embodied in her flight: she says nothing in response to Apollo’s self-promoting recitation of his resume, but simply runs (Met. 1.525-44). Finally, exhausted and defeated, she appeals to her father for help, which he provides by transforming her into a tree, the laurel (Met. 1.548-56).”

For me, Daphne’s transformation is the most horrific moment in the story: “Her prayer hardly finished, a heavy sluggishness takes hold of her limbs; her soft breasts are girded with slender bark; her hair grows into foliage, her arms, into branches; her foot, moments ago so swift, clings fast with unmoving roots; a tree’s crown takes her face; a gleam alone remains in her. Phoebus loves this tree too, and with his right hand placed on the trunk he feels her heart still trembling beneath the new bark; and embracing with his arms her branches, like limbs, he gives the wood kisses; but the wood shrinks from the kisses.”

Yet this is the moment that Bernini chose.

Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo is a technical marvel. It is also, at least for me, an object that both offers up a moment of great aesthetic experience–and an object that generates intense horror and repulsion.

Was this the moment when Daphne heard Apollo say to her, “Since you are unable to be my wife, at least you will surely be my tree. My hair, my lyres, and my quivers will always possess you”?

Artists have been fascinated with this moment — of possession (for Apollo)–if we can call it possession?– and metamorphsis (for Daphne) — since classical times. If you look up “Apollo and Daphne” on Wikipedia, you will find this first century Pompeiian fresco. In that sense, Bernini was following tradition in his choice of iconography. But through his technical virtuosity — in transforming marble into flesh, and flesh into a young sapling’s trembling, pliable branches and leaves — Bernini made the subject his own.

Subsequent artists responded to Bernini’s interpretation of the Apollo and Daphne myth in different ways, some more literally than others.

Elements of August Rodin’s plaster maquette for a proposed monument to Puvis de Chavannes recall Bernini’s sculpture.

Anselm Kiefer made a series of sculptures inspired by the Apollo and Daphne myth–and perhaps also by Bernini by way of Rodin.

Anselm Kiefer, Daphné, 2016 © Anselm Kiefer. Photo by Georges Poncet. Image courtesy of the Gagosian gallery.

But most of these interpretations of the Daphne myth have been by men. Rosa Loy’s Bleiben oder Gehen (2021) is strange and awkward. Apollo has vanished, and the tree-woman (Daphne?) is alone. What is going on? Who is the other woman? How do we read these faces? I have no answers.

But I will point out that the faces in this image are very different from the faces in those earlier versions of the Daphne myth. (And, I suppose I should also point out that Kiefer’s Daphne doesn’t even have a head, let alone a face.) Are the women in this image flirtatious? What is their relationship to desire? Do they even have a relationship to desire?

Rosa Loy, Bleiben oder Gehen, 2021. Three-color lithograph on Hahnemühle Alt Worms paper, published by Utopia Editions. Image courtesy of David Zwirner.

The question of faces, and how to read them, brings us full circle to the nymph’s face in Titian’s Diana and Actaeon. Is she a lovestruck schoolgirl, as Weschler suggests? (He describes the exchange of gazes between Actaeon and the nymph as one of the “great meet-cutes in the history of painting, this is a lightning-bolt, thunderstruck, love-at-first-sight, Romeo-and-Juliet, Tony-and-Maria exchange of glances (and it is as if everything else in the scene has melted to insignificance for the two of them).”) Or is her face saying something else? Or is this the painterly equivalent of Penthouse letters, a man imagining the look of female desire? And does that look ring hollow to us now?

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