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133 Collishaw Narcissus
Mat Collishaw “Narcissus” (1990). Print on resin coated paper, 19.3 x 29.2 cm (7½ x 11½ in), Tate, LondonPicture credit: Courtesy of the artist and Blain Southern

The book exploring the emotion of the gods and their effect on art

Narcissus, Oedipus, and other myths interpreted by artists from as early as the mid-second millennium BC to Tracey Emin, Yayoi Kusama, and Bruce Nauman

The Greek and Roman Gods have long had an affinity with the arts. “We relate to the characters ... because their emotions, desires and struggles are our own,” writes Diane Fortenberry and Rebecca Morrill in the foreword for a new book, Flying Too Close to the Sun. Twenty-five of the best-known myths – from Narcissus, Herakles, and Daedalus and Icarus, as well as themes such as crime and punishment, love and labour, and the dangers of a woman scorned – are explored through the lens of more than 200 artworks. The earliest of which dates as far back as the mid-second millennium BC until 2017, and traverse the mediums of painting, installation, photography, video art, and etching. The book’s press release explains that our fascination with such characters is so enduring because they mirror “aspects of the human condition that are as relevant now as when the Greeks first imagined them”.

“We relate to the characters ... because their emotions, desires and struggles are our own” – Diane Fortenberry and Rebecca Morrill

Deliberate interpretations of mythology from within art history’s canon include Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (1486), Caravaggio's “Narcissus” (1594-6), and the more recent, Jeff Koons’ “Gazing Ball (Ariadne)” (2013) – a reappropriation of “Sleeping Ariadne” (2nd century AD, artist unknown). However, contemporary works are also revisited with a mythological gaze, even if this wasn’t the artist’s intention. YBA Tracey Emin’s “I’ve Got It All” (2000) – a Polaroid self-portrait of the artist scooping piles of coins and money notes into her lap – is likened to the ancient myth of Danaë, “a girl debauched by a shower of gold”. Provocateur Richard Prince’s “Untitled” (2012) evokes “Daphne’s metamorphosis into a tree to escape lusty Apollo’s sexual advances”. And feminist artist Carolee Schneemann’s “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” (1963) echoes Medea “through the notion of archetypes and an activist agenda: the denouncement of women as witches throughout history ... a frequently cited examples of the perceived danger of female agency in feminist theory, while the feminist assault on the patriarchy can be seen as a latter-day parallel to the fury of Medea scorned”, reads the book.

The breadth of the works shown, and the scope in the periods in which they were made, highlight the long-standing impact that mythology has had on western culture and the art historical canon across centuries of creation.

Flying Too Close to the Sun is available from Phaidon now