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Too Beautiful to Picture: Zeuxis, Myth, and Mimesis

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Too Beautiful to Picture
    Book Description:

    Elizabeth C. Mansfield engages the visual arts, literature, and performance to examine the Zeuxis myth. Mansfield considers depictions of the legend during the Renaissance, and offers interpretations of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and Orlan's carnal art. Throughout, Mansfield asserts that the Zeuxis legend encodes an unconscious record of the West's reliance on mimetic representation as a vehicle for metaphysical solace._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9816-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxii)

    WHEN NICOLAS POUSSIN FIRST MEETS the fictional painter Frenhofer in Honoré de Balzac’sUnknown Masterpiece, he is awed no less by the old man’s perfectionism than by his skill. Frenhofer tells his young admirer that he has devoted several years to painting an image of “a flawless woman, a body whose contours are perfectly beautiful.”¹ The canvas will be realized, he explains, once he finds the right model to pose for the finishing touches. Poussin begs to see the work even in its incomplete state, if just to catch a glimpse of the ideal form he, too, aspires to create....


    • 1 Art History as Myth
      (pp. 3-18)

      THE HISTORY OF WESTERN ART comprises many narratives. Artists’ biographies, catalogues raisonnés, and interpretive treatises have been used for centuries to render aesthetic and historic significance. But another, even more enduring, genre exists. Myths and legends about artists and their accomplishments have constituted a form of art history since antiquity. These narratives have not enjoyed a prominent place in modern scholarship, no doubt because of their dubious correspondence to verifiable facts. For art history, a discipline largely codified during the heyday of positivism, myths and legends hold little serious interest. But it is precisely their presence beneath the surface of...

    • 2 The Zeuxis Myth
      (pp. 19-38)

      CICEROʹSRHETORICAND PLINYʹSNATURAL HISTORYpreserve the earliest known versions of the legend of Zeuxis Selecting Models.¹ Their renditions differ slightly but interestingly. Cicero, writing in 84 BCE, dates the episode to “once upon a time”² but offers a precise locale: the town of Croton. A prosperous Greek settlement on the southeastern coast of Italy, Croton maintained a major sanctuary dedicated to Hera. Cicero explains that Zeuxis came from Heraclea to decorate the temple. During his stay in Croton, the artist asked whether he might include a portrait (simulacrum) of Helen of Troy among his paintings. The townspeople readily...

    • 3 Myth and Mimesis in the Renaissance
      (pp. 39-54)

      WITH THE REAWAKENING OF INTEREST in antique literature, philosophy, history, and arts during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, classical mimesis regained its currency—especially in southern Europe.¹ By the dawn of the sixteenth century, this revival had already become doctrine. As Martin Kemp observes, “Renaissance writings on art are . . . dominated by the ideal ofmimesis.”² In his definitive analysis of fifteenth-century Italian aesthetic discourse, Kemp discerns that the Renaissance notion of mimesis coincides largely with the concept of invention (invenzione). Linked to processes of empirical discovery as well as to artistic originality, invention requires both knowledge and...


    • 4 Zeuxis in the Academy
      (pp. 57-74)

      REFERENCES TO ZEUXIS SELECTING MODELS by Renaissance authors like Castiglione and Shakespeare confirm popular interest in the legend. But Renaissance theorists remained divided about the efficacy of Zeuxis’s example. Alberti accorded highest praise to Zeuxis’s method, while Vasari awarded the palm to Apelles. The ambivalence with which Renaissance authors commend the example of Zeuxis Selecting Models evaporates in seventeenth-century aesthetic discourse. During the course of the century, Zeuxis assumed a leading role in theoretical treatises and histories of painting. This heightened appreciation of Zeuxis’s illustrative method coincided, perhaps not surprisingly, with the rise of the academy in western Europe. Academicians...

    • 5 Women Artists and the Zeuxis Myth
      (pp. 75-102)

      A PERSISTENT COMPARISON between artistic creativity and masculine procreativity inflects academic discourse of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Th ematized by the legend of Zeuxis Selecting Models, the comparison valorizes aesthetic “implanting,” “sowing,” and “impregnating.” This coincidence of aesthetic and reproductive metaphors partakes of the then widespread presumption thatallcreation depends upon the action of a masculine principle (see chapter 4). Academicians simply translated such assumptions into artistic practice. The explicit and implicit sexism of academic practice has, of course, long been acknowledged. Since the 1970s, feminist art historians have documented the causes as well as the consequences of...

    • 6 Painting in the Philosophical Brothel
      (pp. 103-134)

      ZEUXIS SELECTING MODELS assumed new import during the eighteenth century. In academic discourse, the theme promoted a notion of artistic creativity akin to masculine procreativity. It would be easy—and, I believe, mistaken—to accept this discursive link between creativity and sexuality simply as evidence of social assumptions about the inferiority of women artists. Of course, Zeuxis Selecting Models does support such assumptions. But it also transmits something else.

      I argued in chapter 2 that Zeuxis Selecting Models is an uncanny narrative, that it gives form to a repressed cultural memory or “cultural primal scene.” Since access to the uncanny...

    • 7 Zeuxis in the Operating Room: Orlanʹs Carnal Art
      (pp. 135-152)

      A RECENT—AND RADICAL—CRITIQUE of the Zeuxis myth occurs in the work of the contemporary French performance artist Orlan.¹ Her project,The Reincarnation of St. Orlan(1990–93), enacts bodily the legend of Zeuxis Selecting Models. Central toThe Reincarnation of St. Orlanare the nine surgical procedures through which Orlan modified her facial features (Figure 41) to resemble those of five women depicted in post-Renaissance Western paintings.² The operations are conceived and executed as performances: Orlan remains awake and conversant, relying on local anesthesia to minimize discomfort.³ Her audience observes via closed-circuit television or satellite broadcast. During these...

  7. Conclusion: Zeuxis Selecting Models and the Cultural Unconscious
    (pp. 153-168)

    WHETHER A GREEK ARTIST NAMED ZEUXIS actually lived during the fourth century BCE is a question this study does not seek to answer. Instead, I am interested in the extent to which the legend of Zeuxis Selecting Models can be deciphered, its mythic structure exposed, and its significance for the history of Western art explored. Previous chapters traced the theme’s uncanny character to a cultural primal scene, a collective confrontation with (and repression of) an ontological threat, the threat posed by mimetic representation itself. Here I take a different tack, seeking finally to plumb the cultural conditions that gave rise...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 169-212)
  9. Index
    (pp. 213-232)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 233-233)