Work of Art

Title: The Sphinx Artist: Gustave Moreau Completion Date: 1864 Style: Symbolism Genre: mythological painting Technique: oil Material: canvas Dimensions: 105 x 206 cm Gallery: Metropolitan Museum of Art “The purpose […]

Title: The Sphinx

Artist: Gustave Moreau

Completion Date: 1864

Style: Symbolism

Genre: mythological painting

Technique: oil

Material: canvas

Dimensions: 105 x 206 cm

Gallery: Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The purpose of Symbolism is to objectify the subjective (the exteriorization of the Idea) instead of subjectifying the objective (nature seen through a temperament).”

Gustave Kahn (1886)

Currently exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Gustave Moreau’s The Sphinx is one of the Museum’s few Symbolist works. Once described to me as the ‘leering drunken uncle at a family reunion’ by a Manhattan contemporary art critic, Symbolism perplexed and unnerved the Met’s directors. Consequently, there are only a few examples tucked away in the European art wing. A few Redons, a decent Böcklin and this remarkable Moreau painting largely constitute the Met’s collection. It’s certainly a pity that the Met catered to its rather prudish Park Avenue benefactors and discreetly stepped over this vital art movement. However, at least one far-sighted curator was perceptive enough to include this magnificent work, which is one of Moreau’s finer pieces.

Depicting the Classical myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx, Moreau’s painting does not showcase the Sphinx’s legendary savagery. Instead, it only hints at the potential danger Oedipus faces by including a corpse’s hand and foot at the bottom of the picture. Instead, the viewer’s gaze is meant to focus on the ongoing symbiosis between the young man and the otherworldly creature. Moreau positioned Oedipus as the dominant, masculine figure staring down the Sphinx with fixed eyes and hard features. Conversely, she gazes back at him with an inscrutable expression. Is it respect, desire, hunger, expectation? We know the outcome of a  previous victim but will Oedipus necessarily follow him or will he correctly answer the Sphinx’s famous riddle? Locked in contest, we will soon learn the outcome and its ultimate victor.

Moreau’s best paintings were those in which he froze a specific, legendary moment by providing a memorable illustration. Like Salome Dancing before Herod and The Apparition, this work captivates our attention and inspires our imagination. Both figures are raptly engaged with each other with rigid forms and striated muscles. Will the Sphinx extend her claws into the youth’s flesh or will Oedipus throw the monster down forever into the gorge below? Moreau judiciously chose oil pigments as this work’s medium and also darkened the background with a leaden sky and storm clouds. The painting’s brightest areas are the exposed flesh of both combatants. Our eyes are drawn to their luminescence and their faces are coldly burned into our minds’ eyes. Whatever the outcome, we depart from our viewing with a renewed appreciation of myth’s effect on our mortal selves.

 

About Peter Sayles

Peter Sayles ist eine junge rechtsextremistischem und glühender New Englander