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Myths and The Contemporary Art They Influence

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Myths are traditional stories that early civilizations used to explain why the world was the way it was. They’re typically found in all cultures and while they are widely held at the time, they are false beliefs. Throughout history artists have been inspired by myths. Some of the earliest forms of artwork are the only lasting record of a culture’s beliefs and values. Today these myths continue to inspire the work of contemporary artists.

How Myths Fulfilled a Need

While history is still unable to put an exact date to when myths began to surface, it’s believed that the early form of storytelling began in Crete between 3000 and 1100 BCE. Lacking any scientifically based information, these long-ago cultures told myths about creation, happenings, and supernatural creatures in order to explain what was happening.  

While many cultures were distanced from others, the myths shared commonalities, especially the popular creation myths. At the outset, these myths were passed down verbally in the form of storytelling, but later on were preserved in a written form. Myths were often part of religious ceremonies that involved music, dancing, and magic. The one constant rule of myths is that whatever happened among the Gods reflected what had happened on earth. These myths provided an explanation for invasions as well as illustrated moral ethics. Some of the most common Roman and Greek myths were stories of heroic deeds by mortals.

How Myths Influence Contemporary Art

There are certain myths that continue to stick with us long after we’ve studied them during our school years. Often, it’s because their stories continue to be told time and time again in novels, plays, and music.

When it comes to contemporary art, myths have influence every medium from paintings to sculptures to the creation of video art. In today’s world these mythological stories of monsters and half animal half man creatures seem absurd. Yet not only does the myth continue to live on but they influence contemporary art.

Aside from the drama they depict, art influenced by myths speaks of the human condition in a way that is relevant today. Common themes explored in today’s art that originates from myths are love, rage, grief, loss, and death. While much artwork influenced by myths dates as far back as fourteen seventy-five, contemporary artists turn to myths to refer to ancient stories in their art. Greek and Roman mythology continue to inspire ideas for today’s artists.

Female Artists of Color Influenced by Mythology

Daughter of a Botswanan mother and Canadian father, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum creates with pencil and oil paint; her canvas wood panels. While her subjects are figures and landscapes, Sunstrum has been greatly influenced by mythology. In her storytelling, she labors to show the ever-changing landscape of the identity of the Black female. In the fall of twenty twenty, Sunstrum’s work was exhibited in a solo show titled “Battle Cry”. She calls her cast of characters in the work the Seven, based on the mythological archetypes using the form of seven alter egos.

Lubaina Hibid is credited with being the pioneer of the British Black Arts movement throughout the eighties and nineties. The artist has long fought for marginalized histories. Whether in a painting, drawing, or sculpture, Hibid’s uses mythology in a visual translation that amends the black diasporic identity. Hibid’s historical narratives done in bright graphics and colors are the driving force of her images and installations. 

Jeff Koons’ Gazing Ball (Ariadne)

Jeff Koons is a contemporary artist recognized for his pop art sculptures, most notably balloon animals. Despite gravitating toward sculptures of everyday art, Koons infamous sculpture in 2013 was a comical ode to Greek and Roman history that celebrated famous figures from mythology. The Gazing Ball series referenced Venus, Apollo, and the Centaurs alongside contemporary images such as a mailbox. One particular sculpture of the series, Ariadne, was modeled after the Vatican’s Sleeping Ariadne which was based on a lost Hellenistic sculpture. While the mythologically based original sculpture was created from marble, Koons’ work, in his comical message, was created from a cheap plaster one would find in a garden store.

Damien Hirst’ Metamorphosis

Created in 2016 to coincide with the 2017 Venice Biennale, Damien Hirst’ Metamorphosis sculpture bends the myth of Arachne. The Lydian woman who was thought to be a princess was highly gifted in the art of weaving. Arachne’s weaving was considered almost magical and she boasted of a talent greater than the goddess Athena herself had. Her challenging Athena to a weaving contest offended the gods. Arachne was transformed into a spider to spend the rest of her days weaving.

Artist Damien Hirst’ Metamorphosis sculpture was a depiction of a grotesque and heinous fly. Very prominent lifelike insect legs protrude from a woman’s back. Created in the image of the mythological woman, insect legs protrude from beneath her classically clad body. Where there was once the head of a woman there are multiple eyes and the mouth of a fly. In the artist’s words the myth of Arachne “can be read as a parable on the power of art and the age-old antagonism between creativity and authority,”, an example of the relevancy of myths in contemporary art today.

Richard Prince’s Untitled

Prince’s Untitled was as series of twenty-seven works created in a two-year span between two thousand nine and twenty eleven before being exhibited in twenty twelve. In this series of works, one painting was influenced by mythology. A softly lit female nude torso in grisaille inkjet print is a direct contrast to the lower half of the woman’s body. From the torso colossal almost cartoonish arms and legs depict a bulky, clumsy tree like being. Using the stylization of Picasso who depicted women as unidentified muses, Prince’s work points to the myth of Daphne and Apollo. Myth has it that Daphne, in her effort to escape Apollo’s sexual advances, transformed into a tree. The work has been compared to similar works of sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini that were earlier representations of the tale of Daphne and Apollo.

David Medalla’s Cosmic Pandora Micro-Box

Filipino artist David Medalla’s collection of odds and ends accumulated during his residency in Brazil. In twenty ten the eclectic collection was displayed as Cosmic Pandora Micro-Box. While several items were picked up from his travels, others were common objects such as the socks he wore or the discarded shells from a dinner of oysters. The unusual display even included a discarded framed artwork titled Paulathat he picked off the streets of Sao Paulo. While the display may appear to have no rhyme or reason, commonalities can be picked up in the collection such as form and function. The ordinary box with its hodge podge collection of items is symbolic of the mythical Pandora’s box that, when opened by the woman, released all the evils upon the world. However, Medalla’s message in this work is one of noticing the unexpected beauty of everyday things with a comical twist on the mythical punishment of vengeful gods.

Bruce Nauman’s Feet of Clay

American artist Bruce Nauman’s media spans a broad horizon to include photography, printmaking, drawing, and sculpture. Most of Nauman’s notable sculptures were created in the sixties. After a year in the making, Nauman’s Feet of Clay was displayed in nineteen seventy. Art critics point to how every work Nauman created, while decades old, is relevant to the world we live in today with no hint of becoming out of date. While the phrase “feet of clay” originates from the Bible, Nauman’s work was influenced by the myth of the Titan Prometheus. A Greek Titan, Prometheus was the god of fire. As such, he created humans out of clay. Though credited in mythology for the creation of humanity from clay, the god Zeus was outraged at his stealing fire to give to humanity as civilization. Bound to a rock, he was tormented daily by an eagle who was said to eat his liver, believed in mythology to be the seat of human emotions. In Nauman’s sculpture Feet of Clay, the artist depicts the image of a person bound in clay, representing a flaw buried from view. Nauman is considered one of the most influential artists that emerged from the art movement of the nineteen sixties.

While many in the art world look to the period before the twentieth century when discussing mythology’s influence on the art world, there is tangible proof that myths continue to influence contemporary art. Contemporary artists are expanding on these stories of traditional cultural beliefs of the past with a modern twist to reflect the times we live in today.

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