Wednesday, March 18, 2015

190. The Myth of Danaë (1): The Story

The representation of Danaë in art was the subject of a thesis by Julia Köllner (University of Vienna, 2013). The text is in open access under the title La Danae tra testualità e rappresentazione. It deals (according to its synopsis) 'with the myth of Danae in texts and images, with a focus on the Italian production', starting with an inventory of representations of Danaë, followed by an analysis, that is, 'a communicational concept'. 

Ricketts's illustrations for Thomas Sturge Moore's poem are listed as IMM 54 to IMM 56, and some details are discussed. 

Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders' (1903)
Danaë was the daughter of Acrisius, who was told by an oracle that he would be killed by his daughter's son. To prevent this, he enclosed her in a bronze tower or cave. However, Zeus came to her in the form of golden rain, and she gave birth to a son, Perseus. Mother and son were cast into the sea, in a wooden chest, but they survived, and washed ashore of an island that was ruled by Seriphos. Danaë declined the love of king Seriphos, and when Perseus had grown up, in order to prevent a forced marriage between his mother and the king, Perseus was tasked with bringing him the head of Medusa. 

Köllner's first illustration by Ricketts (IMM 54) depicts Danaë in her prison cell, standing on a flight of stairs, and staring out of a small latticed window. Köllner points at a vanitas symbol: 'uno specchio decorato con piumo di pavone. Immagine riflessa del suo volto visibile nello specchio'. The mirror is above the bed, positioned between two long curtains. A peacock's tail is attached to the mirror that reflects Danaë's face.

Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders' (1903) [detail]
Other features that are mentioned are a pair of slippers, a pillow, and metal walls. The image symbolizes, according to Köllner, lust and desire.

These illustrations by Ricketts have not been the subject of an in-depth study yet, however, in his 1988 work Five Centuries of English Book Illustration Edward Hodnett wrote about the wood engravings in some detail: 'They record moments during Danaë's immurement in a tower of brass [...]. The designs convey poignantly the claustrophobic effect of Danaë's imprisonment and the melancholy of Moore's lang[u]orous verse. The first engraving, familiar from reproductions, shows the lonely girl kissing her reflection - "In polisht walls a sister found is kissed." In the second, her lover Zeus visits her as a shower of gold - "She kneels in awe beholding lavish light." Danaë kneeling and holding her head suggests pain rather than awe. In the third design, Danaë stands on portable steps to look out [of] a small round barred window - "Danaë at her twilit latice ponders." In this series of three illustrations, the third one of Danaë alone in her small room seems repetitious, particularly since a few pages later comes the most graphic event in the poem and in Danaë's part of the myth: Danaë and her baby (Perseus) being set adrift at sea in a chest.' (p. 211)

Hodnett is critical of Ricketts's illustration 'Danaë at het twilit lattice ponders'. In comparison to Köllner's listing, some points should be made.

Firstly, Hodnett compares the illustrations in connection with the text of the poem, which Köllner does not do. This allows him to remark that an important dramatic scene in the poem has not been illustrated by Ricketts.

Charles Ricketts, 'In polisht walls a sister found is kissed' (1903)
Secondly, Hodnett has actually seen the book, while Köllner took her images from the British Museum website. Not only the relation between text and image is lost, even the order of the images has been confused. Köllner's first Ricketts image (IMM 54) is the last one in the book, and Köllner's last image comes first in the book. The use of a database for research on book illustration is not without its dangers, and even if one does not have access to the printed book itself (the book, however, is mentioned in the bibliography of this thesis), an e-version is readily available on the website of the Internet Archive.

[To be continued.]