The current exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until April 2) is Gods and Heroes: Classical Mythology in European Prints. The show features 21 prints that cover the Renaissance through the early twentieth century and are by artists from Germany, Holland, France, Italy, and England. Each print offers insight into why European artists used the narratives of classical mythology. This is the third and final in a series of posts focusing on the exhibition.
Remember how French Rococo artist Jean Honoré Fragonard showed satyrs as lighthearted, family-orientated creatures?
Well, today we’re going to see how another artist used those creatures to represent something totally different.
In this etching, German artist Franz von Stuck (1863–1928) shows two fauns fighting just as goats do, by butting heads. The effort and pain of the two creatures is emphasized by the balled fists on one and a grimace on the other. Von Stuck has turned to the ancient symbolism of the faun, which used the faun to represent the instinctive, nonrational side of human nature.
It might not surprise you to learn that Franz von Stuck was one of the founders of the Munich Secession, a group of artists unhappy with the limitations of the official art establishment in Germany. He loved using mythological creatures to create artwork that was mysterious and troubling. Fauns, in fact, were one of Von Stuck’s favorite subjects. He made a number of compositions that show fighting fauns, including a painting in the National Museum in Munich.
What are some of the possible interpretations of the subject matter?
The timeless setting and the fauns’ savage nature in many ways parallels the turmoil and violence of the late nineteenth century world of urbanization and industrialization. Von Stuck seems to suggest that despite the trappings of modernity, humankind finds its true nature in the ancient past.
The active line that Von Stuck used provides great textural and tonal contrast between the fauns’s shaggy legs and their bare human torsos. In this way, the artist emphasizes their dual nature—part animal, part human. And maybe it makes you wonder—where do you fit in the spectrum?
Looking carefully at the background, we can see that two fauns watch the fight, high on a wall, while in the shady area to our left, other figures are just hinted at. It looks as if this is some sort of sporting event with spectators. Another comment by Von Stuck on the dark side of human nature, where violence and pain are entertainment?
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.