Janson's History of Art 7th Edition (excerpt)
By Anthony F. Johnson
Published by Prentice Hall Art
In the introduction to Romantic sculpture and modern sculpture, we discussed Baudelaire's essay "Why Sculpture Is Boring" from his review of the Salon of 1846. It is time to revive the debate by asking, "Why is contemporary sculpture so boring?" Over the past 20 years, it has become bankrupt. It simply ran out of things to say using the vocabulary of abstraction that sustained it for most of the twentieth century, so that is now an empty shell, as Fabro's sculpture suggests. At the same time, it has no place in Postmodernism, where it has been : replaced by installations on the one hand, and by architecture, which has usurped its form-giving function, on the other. Through its exploitation of irony, Fabro's "The Birth of Venus" suggests the basic problem. Contemporary sculpture has lost its "idol" quality, in the full meaning of the term that Baudelaire intended: not simply its solid, space-filling reality but its role as fetish - an object to be worshipped for its demonic power, the symbol of something mysterious and profound even if, according to the author, it prevents the artist from expressing his unique point of view. But how is it possible to endow sculpture with the status of a fetish in this postmodern age, with its pervasive belief in nothing except the failure of Western civilization? It can be done, but only by rediscovering the power of myth and using it to invest sculpture with new meaning.
One of the few artists who has succeeded in this difficult task is Audrey Flack. She gave up painting some 20 years ago after having achieved everything she wanted to in that medium. She reinvented herself as an artist by turning to sculpture, which she had to learn from the ground up. As a Photorealist, Flack naturally turned to traditional naturalism. It would be easy to dismiss her work as an obsolete throwback except for its undeniable power. An avowed feminist, she has transformed the art, history, and mythology of the past through personal alchemy to invent the new ideal woman of the twenty-first century: powerful but beautiful, filled with a magic force yet magnetic in its appeal. Flack has been condemned by a number of liberal critics for concentrating on classical white figures, instead of those of other races. However, she was criticized even more harshly for her statue of Princess Catherine of Braganza, Portugal, who later married Charles II of England. Instead of following contemporary portraits of Catherine, the artist gave her a multi-racial face as an expression of the new ideal for the millennium, with its increasing ethnic mix. Flack has allied herself deliberately to the classical tradition because it is the basis for the Western tradition, even while consciously violating its canon. Yet she herself is the very antithesis of these classical figures. While she has used her own face in numerous photographs appropriated from other cultures, including American Indians, no one would mistake her, any more than they will Cindy Sherman in even her more self-consciously disguised photos.
A spectacular example of this new woman is Flack's "Head of Medusa". We discuss this work at length here, making it a demonstration of what has been missing in late modern and Postmodern sculpture: imagery that compels our interest because of its profound content. The three Gorgons (Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale) were originally hideous goddesses of revenge who lived in the far west region. (Medusa has an even more ancient origin in Minoan art as the "Snake Goddess" and "The Mistress of the Animals".) In traditional mythology, the snake-haired Medusa was so frightful that the sight of her face could turn a man (but not a woman) into stone. Thus she was the ancestor of all sculptors. Unlike her sisters, Medusa was mortal. With the assistance of the goddess Athena, Perseus beheaded Medusa while she was asleep. In some versions of the story, her head was then attached to the shield of the goddess Athena to ward off evil. By the Hellenistic era, however, Medusa had become a beautiful woman who was a victim of tragic, unjust fate. Flack drew on these later myths that told of Medusa's rape by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena, and the winged horse, Pegasus, was born from their union. (Perseus later used Pegasus to help rescue Ariadne.) In revenge, the goddess Athena punished the victim by turning her hair into snakes. According to Flack, however, the snakes were a gift to protect her from being raped again; moreover, she claims. Medusa hid herself in the underworld to protect others from being harmed by her.
The artist's quest for the "real" Medusa was set off by Benvenuto Cellini's famous statue in the Florence loggia, which incorporates both aspects of the myth: Perseus holds the Gorgon's beautiful head as he stands triumphantly over her sensual body. She is, then, both fearsome and alluring. Flack herself experimented with every kind of image, including a horrific, slightly less than life-size bronze head that is indebted to a painting by Carvaggio, and a small pendant whose tragic expression is strikingly similar to the head in Cellini's sculpture. The definitive version, reproduced here, comes closest to the Rondanini Medusa (Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich), a Roman copy of an original attributed to Androsthenes of Athens from around 200-170 b.c. Yet there was no single source for Flack's Medusa. She was also inspired by a wide range of Late Classical and Hellenistic examples. Thus she also partakes of Aphrodite, Athena, Diana, Eirene, and Klio. Comparison can also be made to Helios, Apollo, and Alexander the Great, especially for the snake-like hair. The allusions are not a coincidence. Flack's new woman is muscular and supple, yet beautiful, like the Amazon of Classical Greek myths. Interestingly enough, late Greek sculpture of around the same time as the Rondanini Medusa shows a fascination with hermaphrodites (young men who look like beautiful women, with breasts but also male genitals).
Flack's Medusa is all of these and none, for she incorporates their characteristics into a mythological creature that adds up to something entirely new. Her full significance emerges only in the context of the other mythological heads and figures Flack created in the mid 1990s. These include Daphne, American Athena, Civitas, Medicine Woman, Sophia, and Islandia; Medusa shares features with all of them and thus combines aspects of their different meanings. But the real import is found in Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All), which, too, is a severed head. This powerful work is an obvious self-portrait of the artist. On one side is a revolver, as if she had blown her brains out and they have turned into snakelike ribbons of paint gushing from tubes. Tears of anguish stream from her closed eyes. The meaning is clear: life's pain can be resolved either by suicide or the creative act.
The piece proceed from a series of canvases Flack painted in the early 1970s of Spanish statues of weeping Madonnas. She became interested in these sculptures through the work of Luisa Roldan (c. 1656-1704), one of the first important Spanish women artists, who had fallen into complete oblivion. Her father, Pedron Roldan (1624-1699), a leading sculptor in seventeenth-century Spain, was director of the Seville Academy from 1662 to 1672. Luisa had the unique distinction of being the only woman ever to hold the position of royal sculptor, under King Charles II (1716-1788).
Critics accepted Flack's weeping Madonnas so long as they could be seen as examples Postmodern irony; but, in fact, the grief they express is very real.
Flack's life has been filled with tragedy, both personal and professional, from an early age. Although Medusa masks her pain behind her classical features, the artist's obsession with this mythological creature attests to a personal identification with her. To Flack, Medusa is a kind of personal talisman, so that she is, in effect, a fetish filled with magical powers. (The amulet of the Medusa head is meant to be worn around the neck as protection against evil.) Medusa thus becomes not merely a personal emblem but a worthy symbol of woman for the new age - strong, heroic, beautiful, yet tragic in being bound by what fate has decreed.
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