AMMAN- Greek mythology has been a grand source of inspiration for artists across centuries, in all cultures and civilizations. Although many people consider Greek mythology unrelatable nowadays, contemporary issues and values can actually be derived from Greek mythology. Pygmalion, a Greek myth of Cyprus, is one example of a myth that one can take interest in, as it corresponds to philosophical and social issues that extend to our day. Distinct artists, including sculptors and painters, as well as authors, and even filmmakers, adopted Pygmalion‘s character in their artistic creations. So, what is the story behind this myth?

Pygmalion is named after a legendary king of Cyprus who was a sculptor. He cultivated his loneliness in the creation of an ivory statue. The statue turned to be that of a stunning woman; so beautiful that Pygmalion fell in love with it and named it Galatea: the sleeping love. His fondness turned into wishes for the statue to become a real woman. So, he asked the Goddess of love, Aphrodite, to grant him his wish. Aphrodite executed his wish; Galatea came to life once Pygmalion approached it and touched it. He felt overjoyed for some time, but soon was dismayed with Galatea‘s imperfection as she became turmoiled with mundane life. He found her cold despite her beauty; at last, she has originated in stone!

Fine Art:

Francois Boucher:

François Boucher, Pygmalion and Galatea as Infants, Oil on Canvas, 60.3x73cm, 1700/1770. (metmuseum.org)

The French painter, Francois Boucher, has depicted Pygmalion and Galatea in a remarkable black-and-white painting in the eighteenth century. What I find to be distinguishable in his painting is his envisioning of the characters as infants, which is a perspective that has rarely been investigated in traditional representations of the myth. Boucher‘s depiction of them as infants dissolves the physical pleasures rejoiced by Pygmalion in the original story into the innocence of childhood. This gives capacity to pure love that transcends physical beauty or maturity. Through examining the painting, it is noticeable that love between the two characters is equally exchanged as it shows their mutual initiation toward one another.

Francisco Goya:

Francisco Goya, Pygmalion and Galatea, Sepia Wash, 20.5×14.1cm, 1812-1820 (getty.edu)

The Spanish painter, Francisco Goya, presents an “original and highly mocking” sepia- washed drawing of Pygmalion and Galatea. His drawing shows Pygmalion as he tries to chisel away his statue to distort the perfection he created. The drawing is oddly devoid of any romance; it unravels a misogynist layer of the story as it criticizes Pygmalion‘s physical objectification of his love, Galatea.

August Rodin:

August Rodin, Study of Galatea, Cast Plaster, 31.8cm in height, modeled c. 1889, cast before 1912 (metmuseum.org)

The French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, sculpted a marble faceless statue of Galatea as he aims to depict her in a state of incompletion. I found his work the most expressive, because he brings forth the shapelessness Galatea has deemed into as a result of Pygmalion‘s perfectionist expectations of what a beautiful woman should be.

Literature:

Tawfiq Al Hakim and George Bernard Shaw:

Photograph of the Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

Coming to literature, I find it best to shed light on the Egyptian writer, Tawfiq al-Hakim, who wrote the play Pygmalion (1942), which is always set in comparison with George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion (1912). Obviously, both plays rely on the basic plotline of the myth, however, there are differences between the two. Just as in the myth, al-Hakim‘s play revolves around a sculptor and his love for his statue. He marries the statue when it turns into a real woman, but she disappoints him as she elopes with his foster son. He regrets his desire of wanting the statue in human form, so he prays she would become a statue again. When his wish is granted, he destroys the statue and later dies of loneliness. In Bernard Shaw‘s play, the plot is reversed as a phonetician is challenged to turn a flower girl into a ‘perfect’ duchess, as if she is a work of art. He teaches her aristocratic speech and manners and succeeds in the process of perfecting her. The phonetician loses his interest in the girl once he is done with her transformation, unlike al-Hakim‘s sculptor, who is obsessed with his creation. The flower girl, Eliza, in Shaw‘s play, ultimately becomes of an equal status to her transformer, and she chooses to leave his mansion and go on with her life. On the one hand, al-Hakim investigates the philosophical dilemma of art’s preservation of beauty and reality’s destruction of art’s perfection, On the other hand, Shaw discusses the emerging possibilities of class mobility in a socially-hierarchal England at that time. Shaw‘s play also give autonomy to women and allows them the capacity to adopt non traditional roles that magnify their individuality. It is insightful to note that both plays end with the loss of the perfect creations both the phonetician and the sculptor have created, because such perfection does not exist.

Tawfiq al Hakim book cover

Upon the observation of Pygmalion‘s depiction in various works of art, it is worthy to consider how many Galateas we have created in our lives, how many people have made Galateas of themselves and how much beauty we have captivated in stone. In a world full of technological advancements and rapid transformation, have we replaced our curious transformative and transcendental beings with Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Assistant? Have our beautiful imperfections been vacuumed inside a perfectly round bubble? Has time come to burst this bubble yet? Has time come to bring Galatea to life, and preserve her life through granting her the capacity to rejoice transformation and to attain autonomy, individuality and spiritual beauty?

Read more from Leen Arkhagha.
Image courtesy indicated in captions.


Leen Arkhagha
Leen Arkhagha

I am an MA student of English Language and Literature at the University of Jordan. I have had a passion for literature since my adolescence, which is also when I started writing English poetry. I am also interested in others forms of art, such as photography and oil painting. To me, art is the means of individual expression and identity composition. I aspire to acquire an autonomous voice among multitudes of others!

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