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Classical mimesis, the privileged aesthetic model for antiquity, involved a combination of imitation, invention, and idealization. To paint the ideal beauty of Helen of Troy, for example, the fourth-century BCE Greek artist Zeuxis copied and combined the best features of five live female models. In Too Beautiful to Picture: Zeuxis, Myth, and Mimesis, Elizabeth C. Mansfield argues that the myth of Zeuxis selecting models is “about” classical mimesis itself, and the fundamental contradiction between its means, copying from the real, and its end, a visual rendering of the ideal. The story has held a preeminent place in Western art history and theory, and Mansfield’s analysis of the myth’s variable reception offers a condensed history of Western art. The Zeuxis myth registers and represses cultural anxieties about investing visual mimesis with the capacity to represent the ideal, and thus offer social and spiritual consolation. Its relatively rare visual representations trigger experiences of the uncanny, indexing the tension embedded in the myth, and allowing Mansfield to trace its place in the Western cultural unconscious.
The primary sources for the Zeuxis legend are Cicero’s Rhetoric and Pliny’s Natural History. According to Cicero, the story took place in Croton, a Greek settlement in Italy. Pliny sets the story in Agrigentum, in Sicily. Both agree that Zeuxis was visiting one of these towns to decorate the temple of Hera. While there he was asked to make a portrait of Helen of Troy (Cicero). He requested beautiful maidens to serve as models. The residents of Croton first showed him young men exercising and then young women. In both versions Zeuxis chose five women, noting that perfection is not found in nature, and combined their features to produce an ideal image. Unlike the stories of Pygmalion, the Corinthian Maid, and Apelles, which emphasize the erotic motive for artistic creation, the Zeuxis myth extols an intellectual approach to art making. While the story is ostensibly one of artistic triumph, the infrequence of its representation suggests the difficulties attached to the aesthetic theory it propounds.
In the first part of the book Mansfield offers a structuralist analysis of the myth and a psychoanalytic account of its uncanny narrative, tracing it to a cultural “primal scene.” Features of the story hint at its uncanny root: the liminal place, the postponement of the encounter with female nudity, and Zeuxis’s method of dividing and reassembling women’s bodies. The subject of Zeuxis’s painting is as uncanny as his method: Helen’s beauty is inseparable from wanton sexuality and great destructive power. Human and divine, real and ideal, Helen confuses categories and destabilizes clear signification. Zeuxis’s name means “method of yoking” or “bridging,” and thus announces the function of his art: to connect the real and the ideal. His name also associates him with Hera who, as the goddess of marriage, was known as Hera Zeuxidia. Helen, then, as a breaker of marriage vows, threatens to undermine the Zeuxian project.
Freud describes the experience of the uncanny as a distinctly visual phenomenon. A response to repressed castration anxiety, fear of mortality, or seeming evidence of ostensibly surmounted primitive beliefs, the uncanny arises when a visual trigger momentarily causes confusion between the real and the represented and the error is recognized but still experienced as powerfully significant. The “causal relationship between mimetic representation and the uncanny” (26) Freud highlights is already inscribed in Pliny’s account of the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, where Zeuxis fools the birds with his painting of grapes, but Parrhasius fools Zeuxis with his painting of curtains. Pliny glosses over the potentially disturbing confusion of real and represented, focusing on Parrhasius’s triumph and Zeuxis’s concession of defeat in their artistic competition. By ignoring the moment when representation reveals its capacity to defraud, Pliny avoids having to consider its potential consequences: if reality and representation can be confused, so can reality and ideality. Mansfield argues that Pliny’s narrative repression points to a traumatic interpretive impasse. In brief: The ideal cannot be seen or even imagined. The painter requires models to help visualize it, but the imperfection of the models themselves is proof that the ideal is not to be found in the world. If there is no ideal, there can be no transcendence. The Zeuxis myth offers “a series of fetishistic distractions” from this unpalatable idea: “nude male gymnasts, fragments of women’s bodies, and the assurance of a resolution that restores the body to an ideal whole” (29). Despite Zeuxis’s mastery, the mimesis in the story inspires doubt. Doubt is the root of the West’s ambivalence toward mimesis, but this skepticism manifests itself differently across time and cultures. The second half of the book explores changing responses to the Zeuxis myth and classical mimesis.
Before Plato, the West did not fear the confusion of matter and the ideal or divine. Although Plato’s theory of mimesis as mere and false imitation was idiosyncratic among classical sources, it sowed a nagging doubt that is at the root of the West’s oscillation between iconophilia and iconoclasm. In the Middle Ages the myths of classical mimesis mostly disappeared from general knowledge and visual culture. The Renaissance rehabilitated them and held classical mimesis to be more or less equivalent to invenzione. Both combined empiricism and originality, and entailed the transformation of nature into art. Zeuxis was frequently invoked in art theory to explain mimetic representation (by Vasari and Alberti, for example), but the myth itself was rarely represented.
The Zeuxis legend held a prominent place in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European art academies, histories of painting, and theoretical treatises. Every aspect of the story accords with academic principles: artistic competition, judicious selection, emulation of the best parts of successful predecessors as well as models, eschewal of commerce, pursuit of the ideal, and invention. Artists and writers including Gian Pietro Bellori, Joachim von Sandrart, Roger de Piles, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and Joshua Reynolds emphasized various aspects of the myth, including the quasi-divine aspect of artistic creation, the elevation of the status of fine art and its distinction from less sophisticated forms of visual production, the centrality of invention to the concept of mimesis, and the gender division in the story. The hierarchical distinction between imperfect, passive, feminine nature and a perfectible, active, masculine art enshrined in the Zeuxis myth equally operated in contemporary theories of reproduction, in which the female provided a passive, material, corruptible support to the male’s active, shaping seed. The link between artistic creation and human procreation, both considered masculine works, is, Mansfield argues, key to the myth.
The sexual potential of the story did not trouble Renaissance and Baroque artists and theorists. Beginning in the later eighteenth century, however, treatments of the Zeuxis myth by male artists become increasingly and problematically eroticized. The studio, in depictions by François-André Vincent, Nicolas Monsiau, and others, is unmistakably brothel-like: models in various states of undress are accompanied by crones who behave like procuresses, and Zeuxis, far from acting like a paragon of virtue, responds to the alluring flesh before him. A breakdown of moral standards is suggested with increasing urgency, the legend even becoming a subject for lewd parody around 1800. The libidinal drive underlying art practice comes to the fore in these works, but so does the potential trauma encountered in the pursuit of classical mimesis. Following Terry Castle’s argument that the uncanny is an Enlightenment phenomenon resulting from the elevation of reason and the repression of tradition and the spiritual (Terry Castle, The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), Mansfield historicizes the eruption of the uncanny in these scenes. The tension between materiality and spirituality in the Zeuxis myth (and the project of classical mimesis) made its representations ripe for the emergence of the uncanny. Changing economic structures and political events, combined with individual fears and anxieties, exacerbated the doubt about transcendence already present in the myth.
In the works of later artists, the trauma of the Zeuxis myth is stressed. The consequences of illicit looking at a threatening sexual scene are highlighted in Thomas Rowlandson’s Apelles Singling Beauties from a Variety of Models (which confuses the Zeuxis story with Apelles’s depiction of Venus Anadyomene), where the artist appears transfixed, even stricken by the sight of the female flesh before him. The resemblance between Rowlandson’s Apelles and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, which both depict five women in erotic classical poses, is, Mansfield contends, the result of both artists’ engagement with the Zeuxis legend. Both works grapple with “the impossibility of originality, the inaccessibility of the ideal, and the failure of mimetic representation to assuage our anxieties about these shortfalls” (127). Picasso’s painting places the artist and viewer directly before female flesh, in the position of Zeuxis; the terrifying “primal scene of mimetic representation is finally confronted” (134). The consequence of Picasso’s inability to enshrine masculine potency in the face of the corporeality and visuality of the idealization-defying Demoiselles was “both the destruction of painting and its rebirth” (134)—at least for male artists.
Mansfield also explores the cultural impact of the Zeuxis story’s insistence that creative agency is exclusively male (for example, the introduction of limits on the number of women allowed in academies), and examines how specific women artists negotiated institutionalized sexism through their versions of the Zeuxis, arguing that these female artists treat the Zeuxis myth in a way that men have not and perhaps cannot. Angelica Kauffman’s painting Zeuxis Selecting Models for His Painting of Helen of Troy (begun 1781 or 1782) is archaeologically erudite and formally innovative, and thus a testament to its female creator’s judicious selection and artistic invention. In the painting, Zeuxis is depicted erotically engaged with four female models, while a fifth stands behind him and in front of the canvas on which he is ostensibly working. This fifth model holds a paintbrush and is a recognizable self-portrait of Kauffman—an allegorical self-portrait as Mimesis. If the figure already stands for the painter more than a model, this is confirmed by Kauffman’s signature on the picture within the picture. The artist’s use of allegorical masquerade enabled her to claim creative authority obliquely, without directly confronting the patriarchal logic of the contemporary art world. Nevertheless, the painting was perceived as problematic: it was not exhibited publicly, and Francesco Bartolozzi’s 1785 engraving of it eliminates the signifiers of female agency in the picture, most notably Kauffman’s signature. This resistance to the work may have been a response to a slippage in the painting that unleashes the uncanny quality of the story: Kauffman’s position as artist before the canvas neatly obviates the need to show the “perfect” painting on the canvas, but her figure can also be read as exactly that—the painting of Helen, an ideal of beauty but also a threatening sexuality. The figure thus becomes an “artistic phallic mother” who “threatens to realize rather than repress the uncanny” (92).
Like Kauffman, Mary Shelley had to disclaim her own agency to fashion an appropriately non-threatening persona for the marketplace and to critique the masculinist model of creation. This was all the more necessary since Frankenstein addresses the uncanniness of the Zeuxis myth even more explicitly. A product of a Zeuxian competition between rival authors, the novel tells the story of a literal assembly of body parts chosen according to aesthetic considerations; the result of this creative process is horrific rather than beautiful, as the parts come from corpses. Through her descriptions of the terrifying appearance of Frankenstein’s monster, Shelley identifies vision as the necessary medium for the emergence of the uncanny and denies the reader the fetishistic comfort of bodily wholeness. The French performance artist Orlan’s Carnal Art takes Shelley’s story to the next level. Orlan’s plastic surgery performances, The Reincarnation of St. Orlan (made between 1990 and 1993), literalize the Zeuxian project. The artist remade her face with the features of the women in five paintings, evoking dread, horror, ridicule, and dismissal.
Orlan’s work, like Shelley’s and Kauffman’s, utilizes the Zeuxis myth to critique the patriarchy and assert feminine creative agency. It similarly addresses the historical gender imbalance between creator and created, makes use of masquerade, and confuses the distinction between different visual arts. Following Kauffman’s lead, Orlan occupies the positions of subjective creator and objectified ideal. And like Frankenstein, The Reincarnation links the studio and the operating room. Mansfield argues that the difference between female and male artists’ treatments of the Zeuxis myth stems from their different “responses to the fetishistic character of the myth” (150). Drawing on recent feminist psychoanalytic criticism, Mansfield questions the female relation to the fetish. By positioning herself as both fetishist and fetish, Orlan undermines the comfort offered by the fetishism of the Zeuxis story.
Mansfield concludes by examining the cultural conditions that gave rise to the myth, both in fourth-century BCE Greece and the Rome of its earliest known recordings, to uncover what’s at stake in the Zeuxis myth. Short answer (part 1): the immortal soul. The fourth-century BCE produced both refined classicism in the arts and Plato’s theory of forms. The consequence of art’s ability to masquerade as and potentially supplant the ideal, in Plato’s theory, is that the motivation to betterment (the existence of the soul, which cannot be verified visually or materially) would be lost. Zeuxis’s use of mimesis to render the ideal is exactly what the Republic warns against. The history of Western art, understood as an unfolding engagement with the question of mimesis, can thus be “conceived as a protracted Platonic dialogue” (158).
The soul isn’t everything, though. Politics are at stake, too. Cicero and Pliny wrote about the Zeuxis myth while Rome was changing from a republic to an empire. Croton and Agrigentum were both Greek colonies on Roman soil; their inhabitants proved rebellious during the Roman wars with Carthage, and their histories raise the question of the possibility of assimilating or living harmoniously with otherness. Mansfield argues that the Zeuxian project of creating “an ideal whole from disparate parts is itself an act of colonization, or empire building” (159), one that represses the violence of the actual activity. The myth’s modern currency may be linked to colonial interests. From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries depictions became increasingly harem-like. Mid-nineteenth century representations, such as those by Edwin Long, are Orientalist fantasies, and scholars have argued that Picasso’s Demoiselles registers the artist’s ambivalence about colonialism. Orlan lived through French decolonization, and her post-Reincarnation, culturally hybrid self-portraits position her not only as creator and created, but also as colonizer and colonized. Mansfield reads Orlan in these images as an embodiment of the postcolonial French Republic, “scarred and distorted but no longer disguising the fantasies or the consequences of imperialism” (165). The book ends with a warning about digital images and the fantasy they offer of making ideals visible, with no seams or scars to indicate the cost of their production.
Too Beautiful to Picture is a brilliant, rigorously historicized, and tightly organized book. Covering nearly 2,500 years of history gamely, Mansfield builds her argument on excellent close readings and formal analyses as well as a quite astonishing synthesis of secondary sources and methods. Indeed, she is methodologically Zeuxian, employing a judicious selection of diverse theoretical approaches (structuralist, psychoanalytic, post-colonialist, iconographic, feminist, Marxist, etc.). The result is admirable and inventive, and could definitely be assigned to an advanced methodology class for discussion.
My one major criticism of the book stems from the omission of an approach that would have allowed her to analyze what seems to me a crucial factor of the myth: that of queer studies. This lack is most evident in the book’s analysis of Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the gender-identity of creator and created is key to the plot of the novel and its critique of mimesis: the monster’s creation and actions prevent Frankenstein from having to consummate a heterosexual relationship with Elizabeth. Mansfield discusses the Promethean model of creation in Shelley’s text as well as the Zeuxian one, but Frankenstein’s creation of his monster according to aesthetic criteria equally invokes the Pygmalion story. While Mansfield’s analysis of the Zeuxis myth itself is otherwise thorough, the nude male bodies Zeuxis is first shown by the townspeople remain insufficiently examined. If one accepts this criticism, then the Zeuxis’s myth’s comparison between artistic creation and procreation has not yet been fully plumbed.
Many questions and ideas are raised in the book that will hopefully inspire further scholarship on related topics. Overall, Too Beautiful to Picture is a rich and rewarding read. It offers a compelling analysis of one of the key myths of Western art, and I doubt that after reading Mansfield’s study anyone would disagree with her premise that “without an account of Western art’s dreams and desires, its historiography remains incomplete” (3).
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Studies and Graduate Department of Art, University of Toronto