The Legacy of Pygmalion: Woman as the Art Not the Artist.

Pygmalion and Galatea No 1(2014) by photographer Elisabeth Caren

The springboard for my poem Muse was the myth of Pygmalion. This was something I’d been thinking a lot about after attending workshops with the female centric creative tribe, Siberian Lights. The Roman poet, Ovid’s, classic tale of Pygmalion presents us with the idea of the woman as the piece of art, not the artist. A beautiful ideal created through the male hand, and perhaps more importantly, the male gaze. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pygmalion made this sculpture because the real women around him were unable to live up to his ideals.

Pygmalion may be a character from a myth, but do these sculptors exist in real life, but in a different form? In the world of art, film and beyond, certain types of women are used as muses, they are idealised, put on pedestals, converted into objects, and perhaps even worse, ideas. Throughout the centuries, it is men’s work that has been shared and lauded by the public. They are the ones that have created these ideals, these standards. It is through their gaze that we have seen and read the story of women, that we have learnt how to evaluate and label women.

In the first stanza of Muse, in addition to Pygmalion’s sculpture, I mention Helen of Troy and Mona Lisa. Women that have been mythologised, not only because of their looks, but because of the mystery around them. Some could say that the most beautiful thing about both these women, is not what we know about them, but what we don’t know. Not the beauty that they possess, but the other elements that they lack. Thus, allowing us to project upon them, like blank canvases.

Helen of Troy’ by Fortunino Matania

In Muse, I refer to Helen, whose face famously “launched a thousand ships”, because she has been a symbol of female beauty and its power. She is not lauded for her words or actions, but more for the actions her mere presence inspired men to take. Helen has been reimagined throughout the centuries, however, Homer’s depiction of her , in the Iliad and Odyssey, was probably the main starting point for many that came after. Despite being a symbol of extreme beauty, the description of her appearance is fairly vague

“white-armed, long robed, and richly tressed,”

One could argue that the myth of Helen and her beauty has pervaded because of the vagueness of this description. This has allowed writers and artists to project their own ,or their society’s beauty ideals, upon her. Is this the ultimate muse? Interestingly, her beauty is powerful, but does not empower her. Notice in many of the retellings of Helen’s story she is merely a pawn in the male game of war. Her existence drives the action, yet she somehow remains almost a bystander to the action itself.

Photograph: Grzegorz Czapski/Alamy Stock Photo

Why do I refer to a 500 year old portrait in my poem Muse? What is it about Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” that has captured the collective imagination throughout the centuries? Unlike Helen, we have an actual image that we can judge against the beauty standards of the time we live in and our own individual tastes (if you can make the argument that the latter is ever independent of the former). How does Mona compare with the highly produced “natural” beauties we are bombarded with today?

Once again it is not what we know about her, it is what we don’t know about her, that captures the imagination. That “enigmatic” expression, what is she thinking, what is she looking at? Like Pygmalion, we can sculpt her story. We are the artists. Mona Lisa’s look produces more questions than answers but, somehow, without challenging us. She is also known as La Gioconda because she is the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. Meaning, one of the most tangible pieces of information we have about her, is her relationship to a man. Even the background is imaginary, allowing us to avoid placing her in reality, allowing us to consume her as an idea, a concept, not a real woman with opinions and a voice.

But let’s return to the story of Pygmalion; What happens when this sculpture comes to life? What happens when the real woman becomes more complicated than the sculpture, than the box we have put her in? Is the woman doomed to disappoint? What happens when she finds her own voice? Does she find her own voice or still echo that of the artist? Has she now been indoctrinated with a hunger for the male gaze? Will her internalised misogyny force her to compete with other “works of art”?

Come back next week to read part three of the “Muse” series. Follow me on all my socials for more art, poetry, theatre and performance here and comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Aisling

Irish actress, singer-songwriter, eejit and poet. Often found turning films into musicals with my girl gang Notflix:The Improvised Musical.