Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 26, 2010
Victor I. Stoichita The Pygmalion Effect: From Ovid to Hitchcock Trans Alison Anderson Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 232 pp.; 16 color ills.; 105 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226775210)

In The Pygmalion Effect Victor Stoichita makes the astonishing claim that there is a libidinal component to mimetic production. Western art history—taken here to be a history of mimesis, of copies—has a dark, disavowed, erotic heart: the simulacrum. The simulacrum differs from the copy in that it is magical rather than mimetic, invites touch rather than merely looking, and is autonomous rather than merely derived from a model; Pygmalion’s statue is its founding myth. Arguing that “the simulacrum was not completely banished by Platonism” (3), Stoichita explores the “reverberations” (5) of the Pygmalion myth through Western art, paying close attention to shifts in iconography, animating tropes, and materials. Unsurprisingly he finds echoes of the work of one great male artist after another (van Eyck, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, etc.) in the work of lesser artists in a triumphal tale of the legacy of original creation. The author’s contention that “the ‘evolution’ of the Pygmalion Effect duplicates, in a significant way, the path taken by various methods for simulating movement, or even life” (6), while hardly new (this idea has been explored in the work of Kenneth Gross, Hillel Schwartz, Michael Cole, and Allison Muri, for example), is certainly borne out by the examples he uses. But Stoichita does not deliver on his claim that he is concerned “with the ‘imaginary woman’ and her place in a phallocentric universe” (6).

Stoichita begins by exploring the Pygmalion myth as set down by Ovid. In ancient sources Pygmalion is not always a sculptor; Ovid does not identify his profession. This is relevant because in making his statue Pygmalion “is not imitating anything (or anybody)” (3), as a typical Western artist would. In the Metamorphoses Pygmalion is “celibate” and “disgusted by women” (7), specifically the whorish Propoetides. He sculpts a figure out of ivory and falls in love with it; eventually, with the help of Venus, the sculpture becomes animated. Stoichita makes a number of interesting points here, notably that if Pygmalion’s figure is ivory it cannot be life-sized. The visual cultural context for Pygmalion’s figure includes ancient small-scale ivory statuettes from the Mediterranean basin, similar figures on Hellenistic steles of young girls, and antique dolls of ivory, wood, and terracotta, some with articulated limbs. Stoichita insists, however, that Pygmalion’s ivory figure is not a doll or based on one. That would be neither manly nor original. Instead, like the small nude female figures on Hellenistic steles, the nature of which is “votive and propitiatory” (13), Ovid’s figure is talismanic: “it is to protect himself from women that Pygmalion creates a simulacrum” (13). Compelled to preserve his chastity, apparently, Pygmalion “does not intentionally create the perfect form of a virtual woman” (13). Amazingly, and by its own power, “art creates her for him and in spite of him” (14, emphasis in original). This mystification of art will shortly be replaced with that of the great artist, for the question of whom or what animates the statue is of particular concern to Stoichita. He concludes, “it is neither Pygmalion nor even the gods who bring about the trans/formation, but the text alone” (20)—in other words, Ovid.

The second chapter, “Amplifications,” is by far the most compelling in the book. Stoichita looks at the rise of a Pygmalionian iconography in thirteenth-century illuminated manuscripts of the Roman de la rose. In the medieval romance, Pygmalion is a skillful sculptor who desires to prove his genius. This in itself, Stoichita points out, “is an extraordinary assertion, as it implies . . . an awareness of autonomy in the artistic act in an era when commissions—be they religious or profane—prevailed over personal initiative or the need for individual expression” (36). While fourteenth-century illustrators often depicted the sculptural act, the emerging female form recumbent on a workbench or even a sarcophagus evoking contemporary tomb sculpture (the new realism of which held out a “promise of resurrection” (39) that Pygmalion’s statue echoes), fifteenth-century illustrators emphasized the artist’s own ability to create life (the assertion of the text itself). Claiming to choose a manuscript “at random” (30)—perhaps art chose it “for him and in spite of him”—Stoichita finds that the marginal drawings of Pygmalion and his nude statue, shown in a carved frame, contain “a distant yet meaningful echo of the major innovations introduced by Jan van Eyck in his Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent” (32), in particular the highly realistic nude Adam and Eve pictured in niches. Stoichita explains this echo: “when the miniaturist . . . came upon the Pygmalion episode, he probably felt that there was no way round a reference to the great paintings of his time. His hero stands awestruck before a ‘living’ image, something that would have been unthinkable without the work on artistic illusion van Eyck had introduced shortly before then” (35).

The third chapter, “Variations,” is one of the least convincing. During the Renaissance the Pygmalion myth was rarely referenced in art or artistic treatises. Stoichita argues, however, that Vasari’s emphasis on artist-patron and artist-model relationships is a symptom of “the sudden shift undergone by the Pygmalion myth during the Renaissance,” for although the myth was fading, “its effects were multiplying and diversifying” (57). The “effect” he treats in this chapter is the model’s desire to become a statue, which he explores via the “most beautiful story of an artist’s model bequeathed to us by Vasari” (57): Pippo del Fabro posed nude for Jacopo Sansovino’s sculpture Bacchus (1510–12) in the cold winter and then died. While Sansovino was trying to best Michelangelo with his Bacchus’s raised arm and dancing step forward, Pippo was tasked with “giving his body the appearance required by a ‘true’ Bacchus, the sacred god of furor and delirium” (67), and unsurprisingly, given the nature of the god, went mad. Stoichita’s reading of Vasari’s text concludes that it “bears a Dionysian mark, imbued with the furor of possession, polymorphism, ritual suffering, and expiatory death for the sake of a superior order” (69). While the idea that the model must die for the simulacrum to come to life is relevant to a discussion of art and animation, Stoichita ignores the sexual politics that invariably inform the Pygmalion myth and its “reverberations.” He quotes Vasari’s description of the Bacchus as “among the most beautiful creatures ever created by a modern master” (57) due to its “marvelous fusion” of “round and fleshy female curves” and “the svelte build of a young man” (64), then offers the following heteronormative gloss: “While Sansovino could not ignore these qualities, it is true that his intention to remain detached and original emerged forcefully once again. It was not Bacchus’s mythical androgyny that interested him but rather his youthful enthusiasm” (64). What place “truth” or “intention” might have in a book that supposedly “attempts to deconstruct” the functioning of the “so-called aesthetic object” (5) is unclear, though Stoichita confidently identifies these throughout. In this case, having divined both truth and intention, Stoichita need not countenance any “possession” of the model that is not purely divine, even though he acknowledges that Pippo’s story, “dealing with the illusions of desire, is exclusively a story of men” (6).

Chapter 4, “Doubles,” explores the story of Helen of Troy’s double and the possibility that the Trojan War was waged over a simulacrum while the real Helen remained faithful. There are various ancient sources for this “countermyth.” Euripides, for example, wrote a tragedy about the eidolon composed of ether that fooled both Paris and Menelaeus. An iconography of Helen and the statue develops in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with Benoît de Saintre-Maure’s Roman de Troie and Guido delle Colonne’s Historia Destructionis Troiae. Both texts compare Helen and a statue of Venus on Cythera, and miniatures depict their parallel abductions. Martin van Heemskerck’s 1535–36 Panoramic Fantasy with the Abduction of Helen, based on delle Collonne’s text, not only establishes visual parallels between Helen and the statue, but also creates “a paragone of the second degree.” Stoichita reads the recumbent, gilded statue of Venus in the painting as “one of the first allusions to Michelangelo’s decoration for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo,” and Helen as “one of the very first reworkings of a key work by Raphael”—the Fornarina (95). After bringing Raphael and Michelangelo into the picture, Stoichita offers a relatively straightforward iconographical tracing of Helen’s appearance in seventeenth-century art. He then turns to the famous scene of Hermione’s animation in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1610–1611). Hermione, who has been figuratively frozen by her husband Leontes’s cruelty, reappears at court after an absence of sixteen years in the form of a statue, supposedly by the Italian artist Giulio Romano. The name Hermione links Shakespeare’s figure to Helen (Hermione was her daughter), and there are other echoes of the story of Troy in the play. The “upright and life-size” statue of Hermione is, Stoichita claims, typical of the sort found “in English mausoleums circa 1600” (102), a claim which is both demonstrably false1 and an example of the author’s art-historical sleight of hand.

Chapter 5, “The Nervous Statue,” is devoted to the eighteenth century, a period “haunted” by the Pygmalion myth (111), which is explored in dance, literature, painting, and sculpture. Rather than the blush or the pulse, which had hitherto dominated Pygmalionian iconography, in the Enlightenment the statue’s power of movement becomes the key proof of life. The statue moves and even dances. Stoichita argues that its steps must be considered “in dialectical relation” to the plinth (113), for the sculpted works depicting the Pygmalion myth that appear are faced with a challenge unique to the medium: how can animate, inanimate, and becoming-animate figures be differentiated in sculpture? Falconet solved the problem with a double plinth. The contemporary understanding of the nervous system also informs representations of the myth. Louis Lagrenée’s 1770s paintings emphasize the characters’ actions and reactions—their responsiveness to physical stimuli and the circulation of vital energy through a network of touch and sight—which create “a veritable interaction” (143). Later, Girodet’s 1819 Pygmalion in Love with His Statue takes “the idea of a network of energies already authoritatively suggested by someone like Lagrenée” (151) and extends it to the idea of magnetism: the importance of touch gives way to the idea of mesmeric fluids. Such changes in the representation of the myth reflect the materialism of the age, but religious iconography does not vanish from the scene: following Rousseau’s conflation of “artistic creation and religious adoration” (120), Stoichita describes the eighteenth-century Pygmalion’s reaction to his statue’s animation as akin to the “codified attitude of religious ecstasy in Baroque paintings.” If De la Mettrie’s Man a Machine (1748) is the text that best exemplifies “doubt as to the divine nature of the human being” (112), Stoichita argues that the motif of the “man-statue” (although he only discusses woman-statues) is its artistic counterpart (111): the Pygmalion myth “offers itself as a powerful metaphor for man’s creative abilities, within which the continuity, or even the consubstantiality, of body and soul is given renewed evidence” (113). The artist, rather than a divinity, endows the statue with a soul by manipulating matter. He creates his own image, animates it, and worships it—a kind of self-deification, though this autoerotic idolatry receives no further comment from Stoichita, who merely notes that “the presentation of the prodigy resembles in some ways the repetitive formulae followed in the early Immaculate Conceptions” (127), but does not pursue this seemingly essential point about alternate forms of conception or non-normative births explored in the Pygmalion myth.

The sixth chapter, “Photography/Sculpture,” discusses the entry of the camera into the “private and ‘sacred’” world of the sculptor’s studio (162) through an analysis of Gérôme’s paintings and sculptures, and of Louis Bonnard’s 1887 photographs of the artist’s studio. Gérôme, whose work was reproduced in multiples by Goupil, equated photography, painting, and sculpture at the level of the perfect finish. His polished paint surfaces, smooth polychrome sculptures, and the photographs of his studio, which employ their own particular animation strategies (framing, after-images, etc.), betray a “dream of identity,” of “transformation of one matter into the other” (172). Zola, on the other hand, images the end of the era of traditional mimesis in the insufficiently reinforced sculpture in L’oeuvre (1886), which literally falls apart when heated. Stoichita argues that, “for Gérôme, photography serves as an apology for the academic ‘masterpiece,’ whereas for Zola it unveils its inevitable catastrophe in broad daylight” (174). Gérôme’s works are, Stoichita imagines, a futile and belated rebuttal to the truth of Zola’s perception: “It is hard to believe that the author of Fin de la séance (End of the Sitting for Omphale) in 1887 knew nothing of Zola’s great novel, published in 1886” (174). In the fin de siècle, the Pygmalion myth becomes a technological fantasy explored in works like Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s L’Ève future (1886), where “photosculpture” is used to create a “new, electro-human creature” (180), and Jules Verne’s cinematic Château des Carpathes (1892). Stoichita ends with a weak segue to the next chapter’s focus on cinema: the emphasis in Villiers’s and Verne’s texts on “shadow” and spectacle can only be explained by the fact that “during the era of initial experiments which eventually led to the ‘discovery’ of cinema through the work of the Lumière brothers in 1895, the ‘very lifelike ghost’ would necessarily remain black and white” (180).

The last chapter, “The Original Copy,” treats Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, released in 1958, and discusses its negotiation of the themes of the double and the multiple. Hitchcock approaches the idea of the double through art-historical references; Stoichita argues that Carlotta’s profile portrait is “a preferred form for effigies of the dead” (189) and concludes that there can remain “little doubt that Hitchcock made use of this tradition with an originality peculiar to the methods of the cinema and to his own genius” (189). In keeping with his attention to specific media, he notes that in “Vertigo, as in the art of photography and of film, it is the negative that is the original and the positive that is an imitation” (190). If Vertigo affirms the role of the genius creator—the director, magician-like, is “endowed with the powers to breathe new life into an actor” (183)—it also contains challenges to this figure’s omnipotence. Other characters in the film make claims for possession of the images of the woman, her simulacra. Fashion plays a key role here, and Stoichita links this new emphasis on the fetishized surface to the 1959 launch of the Barbie doll, a “fundamental multiple” (198), and the cult of the film star who “is never ‘herself’ . . . never ‘one’” (190). Beyond Vertigo “lies virtual reality” (202). Perhaps this is why Stoichita avoids concluding the book, offering a simulacrum instead (“In Guise of a Conclusion”).

The nature of the “Pygmalion effect” is “to reverse the hierarchy between model and copy” (5, emphasis in original). Stoichita’s overarching idea is that the aesthetic object is a magical device created by men to protect themselves from women and indulge in god fantasies. However, although he allows that “in the present day, post-Nietzsche (and post-Freud), no one can continue to doubt that the images fabricated by man are vessels for power, devices of desire” (4), these power relations are precisely what the book ignores. Stoichita’s insistence that “Pygmalionian creation is above all a solitary and fantastical act” (9) requires that he downplay or omit altogether any evidence of the statue’s subjectivity, agency and/or oppression, and the cultural context of the mystified male artist’s creation. He might, for example, have explored the intertwined politics of colonialism and gender in the chapter on Gérôme: the whiteness of the statue and the white flesh similarly displayed on pedestals in the painter’s slave markets form an obvious parallel. While he does acknowledge the eighteenth-century statue’s newfound ability to speak and budding subjectivity explored in texts such as Boureau-Deslandes’s Pygmalion ou la statue animée (1741) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Pygmalion, scène lyrique (1762/70), he makes no mention of the fact that the statue, for the first time in history, receives a name: Galatea. That this key marker of autonomy receives no discussion is typical of the book’s omissions. No feminist interventions in the myth are discussed: the work of art historians such as Mary Sheriff and Bonnie Roos is ignored (Mary Sheriff, Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004; Bonnie Roos, “Oskar Kokoschka’s Sex Toy: The Women and the Doll Who Conceived the Artist,” Modernism/Modernity 12, no. 1 [April 2005]: 291–309); George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1912) is not even mentioned. Again, while claiming that most of the book “is concerned mainly with the ‘imaginary woman’ and her place in a phallocentric universe” (6), Stoichita’s concern seemingly extends to the point of insisting on her non-place in the book and even the myth. Vertigo is thus a fitting end for the book: the woman steps off the pedestal and off the top of a building. She “falls into the void,” Stoichita explains (182). And dies when she hits the pavement, we might add.

Stoichita, as indicated above, seems to perceive same-sex desire as a challenge to the hegemony of his ideal white male creative artist. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), for example, whose male creation is made to be beautiful, has no place in this account of the Pygmalion myth’s reverberations. I can only imagine this is the reason Stoichita claims that “the scientific-Promethean myth of the android . . . would never attain the success of the artistic-Pygmalion myth” (113). How this “success” would be measured is unclear. I conclude on this seemingly minor point because it is typical of the book’s argumentation (and its lack thereof). Art historically and theoretically, this book is disappointingly unrigorous, and its commitment to a model of male genius and a lack of social history is, in a work published in 2008, simply amazing.

Alison Syme
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Studies and Graduate Department of Art, University of Toronto

1 See Nigel Llewellyn, Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 102–3, 105: “Standing statues are rare, unknown until the early seventeenth century and restricted in use to Royalist heroes” (102); “The standing figure is not generally significant for the post-Reformation in English monument” (103); there were some seated figures, generally female, but these are “much rarer” than “the semi-recumbent figure” (105)—and certainly not, as Stoichita puts it, “customary in English mausoleums circa 1600.”