Artists throughout the centuries have expressed themselves in the metaphoric language of myth, from Botticelli's “The Birth of Venus” to Picasso's Minotaur drawings and paintings. Historically, these images presented the figures of myth from a distinctly masculine point of view — but with the advent of feminist art in the 1970s and 1980s, women artists began to challenge the gender assumptions inherent in traditional readings and portrayals of the tales. They re–assessed the images of women drawn from classical myths, biblical tales, folk tales, and other ancient, familiar stories, and reworked this imagery in modern, unfamiliar, thought–provoking ways.
Foremost among the artists working with myth today is the painter and printmaker Jacqueline Morreau, who uses the symbols of myth to explore the personal and political truths of women's lives. As art critic Katy Deepwell has noted, “Rewriting and rereading myths becomes in Morreau's work a vehicle of revelation about women's desires, psychology, and perspectives. Her paintings highlight conflicts engendered by both emotion and reason (mixing modes of thought which have conventionally been seen as mutually exclusive) in order to open up a space in which an active female subject's psychological dilemmas, the choices she makes and their resulting dramas can be seen.”
Morreau was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1929. She studied art with Rico Lebrun in Los Angeles, received a diploma in medical illustration from the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, and studied etching and lithography in San Francisco and Boston. Morreau moved to England in 1972 and settled permanently in London, where she made her mark has one of the most visionary artists in the emerging field of feminist art. She was one of the four organizers of the ground–breaking exhibition Women's Images of Men, which opened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and toured Britain in 1980–1981, and she participated in Mouse Katz's influential exhibition Pandora's Box in 1984. Her long list of exhibitions includes solo shows at the Women's Art Alliance, Amwell Gallery, Petonville Gallery, Art Space Gallery, Odette Gilbert Gallery, and the Battersea Arts Centre in London, as well as group shows including “Women in War and Peace” (Houston, Texas), “The Nude: A New Perspective” (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), “Marks of Tradition” (Museum of Modern Art, Oxford), Sharja International Arts Biennial (United Arab Emirates), and “From the Interior” (UK/China exchange). In addition, Morreau has been a visiting lecturer in drawing at Oxford Brookes University, a Professor of Art at Regents College, and a visiting lecturer in drawing at the Royal College of Art.
During the same span of years that writers like Anne Sexton and Angela Carter were exploring the ways that myths and folktales could provide a metaphoric language for exploring contemporary women's concerns, artists like Jacqueline Morreau and Paula Rego were doing comparable work using the tools of visual arts. Morreau's work with myth is both deeply personal and universal, with a sharp political edge. Her images speak on many different levels, and whisper stories told in multiple voices.
Her “Persephone: A Season in Hell,” for example, examines a variety of relationships — between men and women, between mothers and daughters, between the powerful and the powerless, between the forces of life and death. In classical myth, Hades (lord of the Underworld) desires Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (goddess of the Earth) and Zeus (father of the gods). He prevails upon Zeus to give the girl to him, and Zeus agrees. Zeus arranges to have Persephone separated from the women who attend her, whereupon Hades abducts the girl and carries her away to the kingdom of the dead. Demeter hears her daughter's screams but arrives too late — Persephone has vanished. The Earth goddess wanders the world in despair, grieving for her lost daughter while crops cease to thrive, animals grow barren, and human beings lose all interest in sex. Finally Zeus sends a messenger to persuade Demeter to resume her duties — but Demeter refuses to do so unless Hades releases her daughter. Hermes is dispatched to bargain with Hades, and Hades agrees to let the girl go. But Persephone can only leave the Underworld if she has not eaten the food of the dead, and sly Hades succeeds in tricking her into eating the seeds of a pomegranate. Because of this, although Persephone is restored to her mother and to the land of the living, she is obliged to return to the Underworld for part of every year. (In this manner, the story tells us, the seasons of Summer and Winter were created.)
The Three Fates of Greco–Roman myth also frequently appear in Morreau's imagery. These women spin and measure out the life threads of mortals and immortals alike: Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis determines its length, and Antropos cuts it off when life is at its end. According to Hesiod, all was Darkness at the beginning, all was void and nothingness, until the cosmos stirred and Chaos split from Darkness, containing the potential for life within it. In the very moment of that separation, the Three Fates emerged from the depths of Chaos. They are primal, powerful female divinities that do not bow to any god, holding sway over every living creature, for better or for ill. (As a sidenote, it's interesting to know that the earliest fairies of Europe were related to the Fates — they were known as Fateful Women, from the Latin word fatare, meaning “to enchant,” and they appeared when a child was born, to bless or curse their destiny.)
The Greek tale of Eros and Psyche (or Cupid and Psyche in the Roman version) is another story that has stirred Morreau's imagination, providing rich symbols for expressing ideas about sexuality and identity. Psyche is a girl so beautiful that the goddess Aphrodite is filled with jealousy. She orders Eros (the god of Love) to harm the girl — but he falls in love with her instead, and arranges for Psyche to be safely carried away to a distant palace. Each night, under the cover of darkness, a tender lover comes to Psyche's bed. She does not know that this is Eros, and she's not allowed to see his face. Although she's surrounded by mysteries, Psyche is happy for a time… until she grows homesick and Eros allows her sisters to visit her.
The sisters, believing Psyche is dead, are amazed to find her living in splendor. Jealous of her now, the sisters convince Psyche that her lover must surely be a monster — for otherwise, they say, she would be allowed to see his face. That night, shaken by her sisters' words, Psyche takes a lamp and a knife to bed — but when she lights the lamp, she sees it's a beautiful youth who is lying beside her. A drop of oil falls from the lamp, singes his shoulder, and wakes him up. “Is this how you repay my love,” Eros cries, “with a knife to cut off my head?” The ground trembles and the god and the palace disappear from Psyche's sight. Pregnant now with Eros's child, Psyche bravely sets off to search for him and eventually comes before Aphrodite, the source of her misfortune. She humbles herself before the goddess, but Aphrodite is not easily appeased. She sets the girl three impossible tasks, including a journey to the Underworld. With some timely help from Eros, who still loves her, Psyche succeeds. In the end, Zeus intervenes, soothes Aphrodite, and turns Psyche into an immortal. He then blesses the marriage of Eros and Psyche, and their daughter, a child named Pleasure.
“The Swelling Sea” (1993) was one of the last of Morreau's Eros and Psyche images, depicting Psyche and her daughter emerging together from the Underworld. After this, Morreau turned away from figurative art for a time, producing luminous paintings of the abstracted folds of sheets, and of sheet–like folds of land and water. In an interview conducted by Catherine Elwes in 1996, Morreau explained:
I started the water pictures after noticing that the bed in the painting 'Cupid and Psyche' told the story better by itself than did the figures. I had noticed this but did not pursue the idea until I went to California in the summer of 1993, after having been much impressed with the Magritte exhibition at the Hayward that year. Suddenly I saw in the Californian landscape the possibilities of combining forms of the landscape and the analogous forms of the bedclothes in a much more lucid, abstract way so that, in a sense, viewers could see one thing or the other, and then combine the two in their minds… I realized that this was a richer way of expressing ideas of sexuality than my 'Disclosing Eros' paintings and the series of prints I had only just completed.”
Another important aspect of Morreau's work for many years has been her overtly political paintings — on the horrors of wars ranging from the Children's Crusade, to World War II, to more recent tragedies in the Gulf. In concluding her interview with Morreau, Catherine Elwes asked the artist if she would sum up her work in relation to her life:
“You speak of the conflicts within my work,” Morreau replied; “perhaps this represents the basic conflict in my life which I have tried to express in the subject matter, delving into the dark and celebrating the light. I was born into the knowledge of evil in the 1930s, which no one of my generation could escape. That shadow often oppresses me; at the same time, I have had a love affair with nature, which sustains me. I see the world as full of intricacies, complexities and wonders and surprises, yet in spite of that, most things are constant. Because of the legacy of violence, most art of this century focuses on the dark, the distorted, the ugly, and has found strength there. However, that has meant that the light, the beautiful and the joyful are seen as weak. In fact, it is much harder to depict such feelings. As I grow older, I'm much more interested in the light, and the Fold Upon Fold (sea/bed) paintings were my attempt to make exhilarating work… I think I just keep going, trying to make sense of my life as a woman artist and to make meaningful work out of the experiences and observations of that life.”
Morreau's art has been published in Jacqueline Morreau: Drawings and Graphics, with an introduction by Sarah Kent, in Women's Images of Men, edited by Sarah Kent, and in numerous exhibition catalogs including Jacqueline Morreau: Myth and Metaphor, Fold Upon Fold, and Themes and Variations. To learn more about the work of Jacqueline Morreau, please visit her website.
Notes: The quote by Katy Deepwell comes from Jacqueline Morreau: Themes and Variations (Artemis Press, 1996). Ms. Deepwell is an artist, art historian, and editor of New Feminist Art Criticism (Manchester University, 1995). The quotes by Jacqueline Morreau come from an interview conducted by Catherine Elwes on June 4, 1996, published in Jacqueline Morreau: Themes and Variations (Artemis Press, 1996). Ms. Elwes is a video artist. She writes regularly for Art Monthly and is Senior Lecturer at Camberwell School of Art.
About the Author: Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her website for more information.
All images copyright c 1982 — 2004 by Jacqueline Morreau. Text copyright c 2004 by Terri Windling.