Thursday, April 01, 2010


The surest way to breach the dividing line between gods and mortals is with girls gathering flowers by a stream.

Vassar college girls practicing their Greek dances, circa 1923

When mighty Zeus spied the beautiful Europa picking flowers by a river, he fell crazy in love and-- adopting the shape of a white bull-- carried Europa off across the waters to Crete (causing pandemonium amongst both mortals and gods).

Zeus and Europa gave birth to three legendary children and gave rise to the continent of Europe, a moon of Jupiter named for Europa, and a constellation of stars named for Taurus (the bull).

Who would have guessed that a simple girl gathering flowers in a meadow would transform the stars?

The story of Europa and the Bull is hardly unique. Roberto Calasso observed that gods have repeatedly been lured down from heaven by girls picking flowers:

How did it all begin? A group of girls were playing by the river gathering flowers. Again and again such scenes were to prove irresistible to the gods. Persephone was carried off "while playing with the girls with the deep cleavages." She too was gathering flowers... mainly narcissi, "that wondrous, radiant flower, awesome to the sight of gods and mortals alike." Thalia was playing ball in a field of flowers on the mountainside when she was clutched by an eagle's claws: Zeus again. Creusa felt Apollo's hands lock around her wrists as she bent to pick saffron on the slopes of the Athens Acropolis.
And those were only the beginning. In the tale of Cupid and Psyche, the Roman god of love broke the rules by falling in love with the mortal Psyche who, depending on the version of the story you read, was either picking flowers or receiving flowers given in tribute to her beauty.

Cupid and Psyche by Bouguereau

Meanwhile, over in Mexico the gods spied Princess Iztacihuatl taking "long walks picking flowers along...a lovely mountain spring" and were so smitten that when she came to a tragic end, the gods intervened and "turned her into a beautiful white mountain to watch over the Mexica people and bring joy to their sight with her beauty."

Princess Iztacihuatl and her mountain

Why do gods repeatedly abandon heaven to chase after mortal girls picking flowers? The gods are clearly unimpressed by earthly assets such as power or wealth, yet they are moved by the most gentle, delicate things-- sunlight on a particular face, or flowers in someone's hair-- to come down to earth and wreak havoc, creating whole mountains or scattering constellations across the night sky.

Sometimes things that seem small and mortal are in reality immense and divine. It's just that they can only be experienced in small and mortal increments.

You may wonder why any of this is relevant to a blog about art (apart from the fact that this is the first week of spring and at such a season, no topic other than girls and flowers is conceivable).

The answer is that the same types of inspiration that lure gods down from the heavens seem to raise artists up to divine heights.   Titian's loving depiction of Europa, her thighs spread and her helpless arms flailing, is nothing short of exquisite.  

In fact, history is full of scruffy lowlife artists who were inspired by  girls and flowers to create timeless works of beauty.  When Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, first saw his beloved Beatrice he felt certain that a god had come to earth. He famously declared, "Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi" (Behold, a god stronger than I, who coming, shall rule over me.) There's that crazy multiplier again: a humble artist's brief glimpse of a (probably not very bright) teenage girl sparks one of the greatest works of literature in the history of the world.

Such transformations by artists might even be more miraculous than Zeus transforming another of his mortal lovers, Callisto, into the stars of the heavens.

Gaston Lachaise spotted a woman he declared his "goddess" when she was strolling through gardens by the river Seine. He (accurately) said, she “immediately became the primary inspiration which awakened my vision...." (and transformed him from a bum to an internationally renowned artist). Bonnard spotted a young woman who made wreaths and who went on to transform his artwork and his life. Gustav Klimt's affair with a housewife led to a $135 million portrait (the most expensive painting in history up to the time of the sale) and a quarrel among nations. Time and again the smallest, humblest most mortal experiences are transformed by this thaumaturgic process into something universal and divine.

Experiences that blur the dividing line between gods and mortals can be so slight and unobtrusive they sometimes escape the attention of humans, but it's pretty darn clear they haven't escaped the attention of the gods.

It's springtime. Pay attention.


अर्जुन said...

I love the flower girl, yet one should always be keenly aware that there is a Dark Side of the Flower.

MORAN said...

"artists (who let's face it are generally a scruffy and oafish bunch)"


Anonymous said...

And don't forget the Nephalim, the offspring of fallen angels allured by the beauty of mortal women, according to some Rabbinical scholars.

Love that Titian; very prescient of the Baroque.

Great post, David.

Rob Howard said...

The girls change, the flowers change but wending its way through the ages and through the myths is the water...always by the side of a river.

The only reason that connection with flowing water became apparent is, like everyone else in New England, I'm only at the computer between breaks of pumping out the basement. No flowers, no nubile girls, just lots of water. Thank goodness I live on a hill. The lowlands are taking on a mythical quality about this time and I'd not be surprised to see Posieden appearing between the pines.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

RE:'no topic other than girls and flowers is Conceivable'
is...why we love your blog, with themes so Delectable!
and vocabulary sooo ...incredible!

thaumaturgic -- (Time and again the smallest, humblest most personal developments are transformed by this thaumaturgic process into something universal and divine.)
thaumaturge--Greek; a worker of miracles,a magicican
thaumaturgic or thaumaturgical--magical, wonderful.
Like this blog.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

Rob, best of luck!
move out to Ca!~ :-)

norm said...

yeah...but it's drizzling here in CA (the bay area) too today....though no rivers or Greek sea gods.

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- That "dark side of the flower" is quite... unusual. I'm not even going to ask how you came across it.

MORAN-- and yet, look at what they produce!

etc, etc-- Wow, I had completely forgotten about the Nephalim. When I was little, Erich von Daniken was peddling this theory that the Nephalim were men from outer space who mated with earth girls. It was big news at the time.

David Apatoff said...

Rob Howard-- They say that the reason we find it so soothing to be around pouring waters (babbling brooks, burbling fountains) is that all life came from water originally and remains dependent upon water (blood is evolution's way of keeping us moist after we climbed up onto dry land) so we are subliminally reassured by the sound of water in the background. From the newspaper headlines, everyone in your area must be feeling very reassured these days.

Leibesreime-- does this mean I'm forgiven for misspelling "Weimar"?

norm-- don't take anything for granted; you never know when you'll hear someone will call out, "Release the Kraken!"

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the exquisite reminder that earth still has beauty worth leaving the heaven of the gods for--if one takes the time to notice it. Another absolutely delightful post!

kev ferrara said...

I hear ya brother! (Just saw the first summer dress of the season today. And the first perfect smile.)

Surprised you didn't mention any of the beaux arts era pagan tonalists (to coin a phrase.) Guys like Arthur Matthews...

Or Kenyon Cox:

They always seem to be painting young girls on perfect lawns in bygone springtimes of yore.

Also surprised that you (seemingly) hadn't considered that that ring of Vassar girls were probably picking flowers for each other, if you know what I mean. (Vassar has a long history of being like one particular Island in the northeastern Aegean Sea, and the power-fems in charge there still fiercely frown on female faculty that fall fertile, to the point of being taken to court for withholding tenure based on that bias.)

Rob Howard said...

>>>Rob, best of luck!
move out to Ca!~ :-)<<<

The pleasant weather and access to fresh produce are very appealing but the rarity of anything that could be called cultural stops me at every turn.

norm said...

Don't Europeans say the same thing about your east coast? (aside from the weather and fruit part)

Anthony Z said...

Aww, Rob - "The pleasant weather and access to fresh produce are very appealing but the rarity of anything that could be called cultural stops me at every turn."

Sounds to this Californian like a fresh harvest of grapes - the sour kind.

Canuck said...

A very romantic take on some horny greek gods.

I guess our modern equivalent is some exalted figure like - um - a certain golf god who hit on a mortal pancake house waitress... Now let's see someone be inspired by that!

norm said...

Pancakes....flour....gathering flours?
It may be a reach, but I see a connection.

norm said...

...and if they were by a water hazard...

Rob Howard said...

>>>Don't Europeans say the same thing about your east coast? (aside from the weather and fruit part)<<<

They say the same thing about neighboring cantons and counties, let alone neighboring countries. They have a long history of mutual hate and distrust of each other, so "Europeans" are hardly the unified group of soignee and highly cultured people they protest themselves to be.

Let's not forget that in our revolution, we managed to carry it off without decapitating all of the intelligensia and well-bred members of society, leaving breeding stock that resembled a Brueghel painting.

Sorry, been there and speak lots of the lingos and most of the cultural stuff was old and dessicated...done by people in long past ages. Taking pride in the accomplishments of ancestors is a form of death worship for the semi-living.

Rob Howard said...

>>>Sounds to this Californian like a fresh harvest of grapes - the sour kind.<<<

Your rodomontade is born of cheering for the home team, even if it's not very good. An ebdless source of amusement for us is to discuss west coat prep schools....(sorry, but I couldn't help bursting out in laughter as I typed that oxymoron.

I call your attention to the fact that Harvard is not called the Stanford of the East whereas the reverse is the case for Stanford. What you call culture is rightly preceded by "agri," and a very good job of farming you do. As I said, I am frankly envious of your access to fresh produce.

But there is more to life than nourishing the body and, as Pasteur is reputed to have said as he lay dying..."the milieu is everything." Like me, he appreciated fresh produce. So congratulations on your farming skills and, especially, on winemaking skills that have been, from all accounts, surpassing generations of French peasant farmers. Now that you've given them their comeuppance, you can turn your attentions to surpassing the cultural and intellectual institutions upon which the East Coast has rested far too long. Wall Street needs to move to sunnier climes, and all of that ivy climbing over the Ivy League needs to be replaced with brightly flowered vines. It could profit from bold Californian colors that have produced Disney and ILM.

Rob Howard said...

>>>I guess our modern equivalent is some exalted figure like - um - a certain golf god who hit on a mortal pancake house waitress... Now let's see someone be inspired by that!<<<

I grow bemused when I see the attention we give to what other fellows do with their willies. I guess it goes to our belief in what's printed on the Wheaties box..."eat this and become a champion." Well, now we see that the breakfast of champions is similar to what so many of us have been doing and still, we can't play golf like Tiger Woods. Is his willy different? Are his Wheaties different?

I am always amazed that we think professional athletes are ANYTHING like us. When you sacrifice so many common pleasures in the pursuit of a narrow goal, it is inevitable that you become a person with portions of a personality that have been left unattended and undeveloped. But being Joe Averages (don't ever say that to our faces) we jump on Picasso, not because of his art but because of his treatment of neurotic women. Or we jump on athletes who, in order to shave 1/10th of a second off their time will risk taking enhancing drugs. We want them to be the guys on the Wheaties boxes and, deep in our unexamined hearts, we want them to have gotten there by eating Wheaties. Fortunately for most of us, we arrive at these idiotic ideas naturally, without needing to take special drugs to think those thoughts (although it appears that some drugs do aid in our pursuit of blind stupidity...they don't call it DOPE for nothing).

MORAN said...

David I googled your name and found a TV news clip of a washington lawyer talking about genocide against children at a museum ceremony. Is this you?

MORAN said...

Sorry, either the url got cut off or David cut me off. The link is here.

Anthony Z said...

Hey, Rob, you want rodomontade, I'll give you rodomontade. I'll call your attention to the fact that for billions of people around the world American culture is defined by celluloid not oil paint. Please. That old saw that "there's no culture in California" is about as up to date as "French is the language of diplomacy" or "the sun never sets on the British Empire."

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- thanks!

Kev-- amen!

I couldn't get all of your links to work, but I am familiar with the genre. In fact, I certainly thought about using pictures of nymphettes frolicking in the grass, but there are millions of them--not surprisingly, this is a very popular theme-- and I wasn't sure of a good way to sift through them.

Rob Howard said, "...the rarity of anything that could be called cultural stops me at every turn."

Rob, isn't that kind of harsh? Harkening back to the subject of this post, is there any culture anywhere that is not subordinate to the first spring peach? And was Odysseus truly happier than the lotophagi?

kev ferrara said...

David, if you double click on the line, you will hilight the whole url, even the parts that blogger seems to clip. Then command-c (copy) and paste into your browser address field. This should be the entire address. (I tried this after I posted originally to make sure. So the urls are there, if slightly hidden. This is also relevant to MORAN's comment)

kev ferrara said...

Make that triple click on the line.

Rob Howard said...

Culture has been defined down so much that the more easily defined kultur has taken its place.

As we see with the ludicrous suggestion that because movies are seen by so many, that they are elements of culture. Yeah, and McDonalds are haute cuisine because billions are served.

It is the imposition of such popular (low) taste...raising Barbie dolls, matchbook covers and comic books to the level of collectibles, that lends such credence in the unexamined life. In truth, what that does is simply dig a hole in which to throw Mozart in order to have him on the same level with Snoop Poopy Dog. It's the ruthless imposition of egalitarianism as if that was the engine of human progress and the denigration of elitism.

In truth, elitism has become a perjorative term. How dare anyone become an elite (unless a member of a elite fighting unit...that's okay because it don't got none of that faggy culture stuff. Just buff guys kicking that's real kultur).

Yes, the film INDUSTRY is a big influence in bringing some of our most base ideas into wide commerce. Man, there's nothing like a good flaming car chase to capture the imagination...over and over again, that and simulated sex with the bra on (in what society do women screw with their bras on?). Then there are the deep and meaningful films exploring different degrees of victimhood.

Oh well, I suppose a car chase, some explosions, splattered blood, attractive people humping along with displays of perfectly airbrushed people can easily rival the products of the Renaissance because, well...they have a wider audience and as we know, the bigger the crowd, the more valid the art, the writing, or the philosophy.

Using that measure, Chinese communism was the most evolved political system of all time because more people adhered to it than any other philosophy. Majority rules (except if you are aminority claiming eternal victimhood). So take that Plato and screw you, Michelangelo and your poorly endowed David. Today's kultur hunter wants something real...a life size statue of a priapic John Holmes cast in that's West Coast kultur at its finest. It will attract huge crowds at the mall and as long as the numbers are up, it will remain a kultural icon.

Rob Howard said...

>>>Rob, isn't that kind of harsh? <<<

Do you have a problem with harshness? If so, put down that Mencken or Wilde and tune in to Barney. By all means, do not expose your eyes to Kollwitz or Goya. Instead turn your gaze toward Margaret Keane.

If you break with homogenous "thought" you will bring down the wrath of people who immediately throw off the protective veneer of their Barney suits and reveal the large case of pissed-off they carry with them, only to release it when stuck in rush hour traffic.

I don't make this stuff up. Being an artist kinda guy, I have to make somewhat clear observations.

People we think of as nice civilized people turn into fumin' beings with distended arteries, screaming obscenities at the person ahead of them in traffic. I suppose that a non-harsh person would not ever notice that and just see miles of happily padded Nerf cars with perpetually smiling Barneys at the wheel.

I love you,
You love me,
We're a happy family,
with a great big hug,
and a kiss from me to you,
Won't you say you love me TOO!

I wuv you too, David!

Laurence John said...

"...raising Barbie dolls, matchbook covers and comic books to the level of collectibles, that lends such credence in the unexamined life."

don't forget those other low brow forms... magazine covers, adventure story illustrations, pin-ups, movie-poster art, advertising art... come to think of it, aren't base ideas being celebrated on this very blog ? i'm outraged !!

David Apatoff said...

Rob, if I have to give up Mencken, then I will insist that you surrender Walt Whitman, and I'm not sure you come out ahead in such an exchange. There are wonderful benefits from the careful reading of books in a monastic cell, but fragrant breezes wafting through palm trees swaying in the moonlight have kind of an irrefutable argument of their own.

अर्जुन said...

"Barbie dolls, matchbook covers and comic books", sorta like Bettie Page, pool inflatables and cartoons ~ Ride That Dolphin!

"Today's kultur hunter wants something real...a life size statue of a priapic John Holmes cast in PVC", kinda like ~ Hanging around with Jeff.

norm said...

Rob...Barney and Friends came from Connecticut public television (1992-2005) and WNET New York (2006- present)...out there on the East Coast!
And, as far as I know, Goya and Kollwitz are dead europeans (referring to them is "Taking pride in the accomplishments of ancestors is a form of death worship for the semi-living"...isn't it?)

norm said...

...If you want to dig even deeper, Barney is from "Hit" Entertainment, headquartered in London and New York.
At this point, I have no idea what this does to our brain is pretty much done right now.
(Hit Entertainment also brought us Bob the Builder,and Thomas the, maybe we should bury the "East coast/ West coast" hatchet and pick on those sick Brits.)

chris bennett said...

Hi David, your theme concerning the imortals and the little things of life reminded me of something I wrote a while back:

“I had a walk on this beautiful morning and realised it was spring. The experience is like seeing your girlfriend step off the bus and smiling with delight as she recognises you. Holding her cool hand the backs of your knuckles brush the newly washed folds of her frock and imortality, with dancing eyes, pays you a brief visit.”

The ‘spring moment’ (when you catch yourself saying “hey it’s spring at last!) is one of those universal themes that goes right to the roots of our being. Yet unlike many of the other great themes it is intrinsically delicate. A tiny thing.

Perfect for painters you would have thought.

Yet very problematic to capture through feminine analogy in all its intensity without it becoming over ripe.
Since the theme at stake is a sense of the everlasting in the fleeting moment it is with a sinking feeling that an artist puts down his brush and realises he has just made yet another painting of good looking girls dotted about the lawn.

Little sparks are what most of the pictures in this ‘genre’ turn out to be, yet David Inshaw’s ‘The Badminton Game’ seems to me to almost touch the flame itself.

Anthony Z said...

I love you Rob. You are the best. We'll have to agree to disagree about what constitutes culture: I'll take the San Diego Comic-Con over High Tea and Crumpets any day, or Noel Sickles over Reubens, for that matter.

But I have to tell you, when you launched into the Barney song I just about lost it -- hysterical. As a side note, and you'll probably not find it surprising, I actually storyboarded the Barney feature film about a dozen years ago. It put food on the table for a young family and, hey, I enjoyed doing it too.

So let's raise a glass in David's honor to Spring! You with your $200 bottle of French Cabernet and me with my Green Flash West Coast IPA (nectar of the gods, by the way).

norm said...

Oh no...are you telling me Barney really can be tied to us out here on the west coast?

(by the way, among other crimes, I've storyboarded commercials for various evil banks and soulless financial who am I to pick on an innocent purple dinosaur)

Mellie said...

Enjoyed your post as always.

But the Bouguereau and the Mexican image are the most dreadful kitsch!

David Apatoff said...

Mellie said: " But the Bouguereau and the Mexican image are the most dreadful kitsch!"

No argument there! There was not a wide variety of pictures of Princess Iztacihuatl to choose from>

Anonymous said...

may i suggest you look at Van Gogh's later drawings, also Rembrandt's and a great illustrator you may not be aware of is Chris Riddell, his mark making reminds me of Rembrandt's,

Graphic Designer Atlanta said...

Very interesting artwork I must say.

Paula said...

I would really like to know how I can get a print of the first photo. The black and white, with the girls dancing around holding hands.

Please. :)

David Apatoff said...

Paula-- I cut that photograph out of an old, battered book I found in a used book store about 20 years ago. I can't recall the name of the book; it was probably missing the cover. The best I can do is send you a high resolution scan, if you are interested.