January 2, 2018

Orpheus and the Animals

        If you recall the story of Orpheus from Greek mythology, you will remember that there are a number of chapters, but the one I’m looking at today is Orpheus’s ability to charm all who heard his music.  The son of the muse Calliope, Orpheus lived with his mother and the other eight muses, so clearly he had plenty of inspiration around.  Apollo gave him a lyre and taught him to play it, while his mother taught him to compose lyrics.  He’s credited with inventing other musical instruments, as well.  And so beautiful was his music that animals were tamed, trees crept near, and even rivers might bend their courses to flow closer to his voice.  What artist wouldn’t wish for that level of mastery?  So it isn’t surprising that artists of all media - music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction…- should be inspired by Orpheus.
        Printmakers are no different, so here are a few relief block prints of Orpheus and the animals.  This first one has a wonderful variety of animals, from the monkey in the tree to the ducks in the water, a turtle, and even a giraffe.  Also interesting is his instrument, which is held and bowed like a fiddle, but fretted and with a head more like a guitar.  This is probably something he invented, since it isn’t the lyre Apollo gave him.  Older prints often show Orpheus with a bowed instrument rather than a lyre.
        There are two interesting elements in this second image.  For one thing, among the members of Orpheus’s audience is a unicorn.  This was not uncommon in the renaissance, but I don’t know whether it was just for fun, or whether there was a particular significance to it.  Oddly, what seems more unusual than the unicorn is that Orpheus’s mouth is actually open.  Despite the fact that he’s supposed to be singing, artists seldom seem to show him with open mouth.  I guess it’s just too difficult not to have him look silly that way!
        Jumping forward three and a half centuries, here’s an art deco extravaganza, complete with geometric palm fronds, chiselled wildcats, and full sized harp.  I love the foliage, the antelope, and the birds to the upper right, but Orpheus himself is looking a little too emo for my taste.  It seems a little odd that none of the animals in the foreground is looking at him, and the bear in particular looks very worried about something.  Maybe they’re all mourning Euridyce?
        In my final portrait of Orpheus there aren’t very many animals - just a cat, a deer, and a couple pigeons.  Lest you fear at first glance that this is a dead cat with the hunter’s foot on its neck, just observe that feline smile.  You can almost hear it purr.  I’m absolutely tickled by the way Orpheus is petting the cat with his foot, something that doesn’t seem very high-brow artistic, and yet we do it all the time in our house.  I suspect that the artist, Gerhard Marcks, must have had a cat himself.  And while I may dream, with all the other artists, of being able to enchant all of creation with the beauty and wisdom of my artistic work, at least I know that pleasing my own cat is an achievable goal (though she probably likes my fairly uninspiring singing better than even my most inspiring art or writing).


[Pictures: Orpheus serenading animals, woodcut designed by Matteo da Treviso from Convivio delle Belle Donna, 1532 (Image from The Met);
Orpheus cythara ludens, woodcut by Virgil Solis from Metamorphoses Illustratae, 1563 (Image from University of Virginia);
Orpheus Playing for the Animals, woodcut by Henri van der Stok, c 1920-5 (Image from William P. Carl Fine Prints);
Singender Orpheus, woodcut by Gerhard Marcks, 1948 (Image from Luther College).]

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