Many of the artists featured in the special exhibition Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels, Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery are also represented in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum. This is the first in a series of blog posts that will highlight Milwaukee’s artworks during the run of the exhibition.
Knowledge of classical mythology is one of those subjects that will always help the student of art history, no matter what period you study. Over the last few years, I have explored mythological subjects in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection represented in ancient Greek hydriae; Baroque decorative arts and painting; and nineteenth century German ceramics.
Modern art is no exception. We have to look no further than the sculptures of Jacques Lipchitz (1891–1973).
Jacques Lipchitz was a Jewish artist from France who was born in Lithuania. He was classically trained in Paris, although he soon worked in a cubist style, such as Sailor with Guitar in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Lipchitz was extremely successful through the 1920’s and the 30’s. When Germany invaded France in 1940, Lipchitz and his wife emigrated to New York, and his work became autobiographical. He used a number of classical myths to reflect his experiences, such as the Rape of Europa and Prometheus.
The Lipchitz sculpture in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection with a mythology theme is Theseus.
In antiquity, Theseus was an important hero because of his place in the legendary history of Greece’s most powerful city, Athens. He was the son of Aegus, king of Athens, but was raised without knowledge of his identity. When he was an adult, Theseus traveled to Athens to claim his place as son of the king. Along the way, he performed many feats.
The most famous of Theseus’s feats occurred after he was living in Athens again. Every nine years Athens was required to send tribute to Crete in the form of seven youths. There, they would be devoured by the monster known as the Minotaur. The Minotaur was the offspring of Pasiphae, the wife of the Cretan king, Minos, and a bull. When the Minotaur was born, Minos locked it in the labyrinth. The tribute of Athenians had begun in the distant past when Minos conquered Athens.
As the hero, Theseus kills the Minotaur in the labyrinth and then finds his way out with the string that the Cretan king’s daughter, Ariadne, had given him.
In his bronze sculpture, Lipchitz shows the moment when Theseus kills the Minotaur. Traditionally, the Minotaur is shown with the body of a man and the head of a bull (see vase painting at above right). Lipchitz, however, does not do this. Instead, he fuses the two figures together into one.
This was deliberately done. Lipchitz wrote that Theseus is all about war. Because he was a Jewish artist who fled Europe at the beginning World War II, it is probably not surprising that he identified the Minotaur as Nazi leader Adolph Hitler and Theseus as French leader Charles de Gaulle.
Because the monster is part of Theseus, when killing the Minotaur, it is almost as if the hero is killing part of himself. For Lipchitz, this meant that everyone has a part of Hitler in themselves which one must keep killing to keep it under control. By making this image, and then recreating it in multiple casts in long-lasting bronze, it was as if the artist was killing Hitler over and over again.
Lipchitz’s use of an ancient myth in such a personal way shows how powerful such stories can be. The Milwaukee Art Museum’s sculpture is often on view in the Baumgartner Galleria—the next time you visit, be sure to look for it!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.