Monday, December 9, 2013
The focus of ''Myths'' is the famous 15-volume narrative poem about the creation and history of the world completed by the Roman poet Ovid in 8 A.D.: ''The Metamorphoses.''
''Metamorphosis'' is the change from one thing to another. In Ovid's versions of the myths, people are often changed into trees, reeds, stars and so on.
A notable work illustrating such a change is the 1513 black and white painting of Apollo and Daphne by the great Italian mannerist Pontormo. In Greek and Roman mythology, Zeus's son Apollo was one of the most important gods. Pontormo shows the love-struck god zealously pursuing the nymph Daphne, who calls out to her father for help and is then transformed by him into a laurel tree. We see her changing: Her arms are already branches.
While Ovid's tales are often about love and carnal desire, many of the most popular through the ages have been morality tales.
Nine of the 30 works in the show illustrate Ovid's story of Phaeton, which goes something like this: Phaeton's mom says his father is Helios, the sun god. Phaeton confronts Helios, and the god promises his son anything to prove his paternity. Phaeton insists on driving his father's fiery chariot across the sky (the daytime sun). Helios fails to talk him out of it, and soon enough Phaeton is careening out of control and doing things like turning Africa into a desert by driving too close (which also ignites cities, burns the skin of the Ethiopians black, etc.). Zeus, king of the gods, halts the disaster by striking down the incendiary chariot with a lightning bolt. Around his grave, Phaeton's distraught sisters are transformed into poplar trees.
The obvious moral is that you should not try to raise yourself above your station. The flip side of the coin is that a god like Helios should not have lowered himself from his.
What is striking about the morals presented in ''Myths'' is how much they are at odds with the Horatio Alger version of the America in which we live -- where anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps. The stories of Phaeton, Icarus (who flew too close to the sun) and Silenus (who gave Midas the golden touch) are about maintaining the status quo. Social climbing is a no-no, just as reaching down to lower classes is wrong. Rather than ''be all that you can be,'' it's more like ''stay where you are -- or else.''
The effect of ''Myths'' on me personally was to reinforce my appreciation of our current ideas about freedom, possibility and education. This was backed by the label copy by O'Neil's students accompanying each piece. The copy seemed surprisingly literal for Colby students, but it struck me as thoughtfully honest and worthy of discussion.
However, one comment had me laughing out loud: Regarding Carl Milles' phenomenal bronze ''Europa & the Bull'' (enamored with a Phoenician woman, Jupiter turns himself into a bull, lures her onto his back, carries her off and makes her the first queen of Crete, etc.), the student suggested the bull's up-stretched tongue and arched back -- along with Europa's exposed breasts -- ''subtly sexualized the depiction of woman and beast.'' Believe me: There is nothing subtle about this sculpture -- it would make lobsters turn red.
The other sculpture in ''Myths'' is William Henry Rinehart's marble depicting the tragic story of Hero as she waits for her lover, whom she has challenged to prove himself by facing a dangerous sea journey. ''Hero'' is gorgeous beyond my ability to describe.
Eleven of the works in ''Myths'' are by the great Dutch engraver, Hendrick Goltzius (1558 -- 1617), who could be the most important artist you've never heard of. Discovering his work is a treat.
I also love the strong and intriguing Picasso lithograph of fauns drinking and dancing.
''Myths'' is a small show in a large, world-class art museum, but it is extremely entertaining and engaging. A visit to the show will also take you through Colby's must-see 50th anniversary self-survey, on view through February 21.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at
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