Medusa and Me

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January 16th, 2022

The Origin of the Medusa Collection in Five Parts

Mieke Marple

1.

I didn’t know the whole Medusa story when I started drawing her in the summer of 2019. I just wanted to draw a female monster. Why a female monster? Simple. Because I felt like one.

Medusa #35 from Medusa Collection
Medusa #35 from Medusa Collection

I felt like a monster less because of how I saw myself and more because of how other people treated me. People from my past as an art dealer in Los Angeles had stopped emailing me. They didn’t come to my art exhibitions. They were embarrassed to have known me, embarrassed of my choices (which included a return to art making, as well as moving back in with my parents at age 30). At least, that was my narrative. I wasn’t exactly emailing them either. My 12-step sponsor once told me that the world is nothing more than a projection of how you feel about yourself. In which case, I retract my earlier statement. I felt like a monster exactly because I saw myself as one. But enough about that. Back to Medusa.

When I started drawing Medusa, I had to make choices. Would she be sexy, like in tattoo flash? A pin-up with big scale-y hair and breasts. Or hideous? Like in the original Clash of the Titans. Of all the Medusa depictions from over the centuries, which would I choose and why? In the end, I chose art historical sculptures of Medusa by Cellini, Bernini, Canova (all Italian men) from between 1540 and 1805 as my source imagery. Why? You can take the Euro-centric snob out of the art world, but you can’t take the art world out of the Euro-centric snob. Or something like that.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini's "Medusa" circa 1640
Gian Lorenzo Bernini's "Medusa" circa 1640

In these sculptures, Medusa was not overly beautiful, nor feminine. She was androgynous. Her hair was not overtly reptilian. I suppose, then, I choose these Medusas for their subtlety—for their un-Medusa-ness. I choose them because they were the Medusa-mirror in which I most saw myself.

I hadn’t realized that Medusa hadn’t always been a monster. Someone mentioned it to me during a studio visit, prompting me to research. Nothing crazy. Just Wikipedia. And there it was: according to the ancient Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful maiden who “had sex with” the Greek God Poseidon in his wife’s temple, the Temple of Athena. When Athena (also a God) found out, she punished Medusa by turning her hair into snakes, her eyes into petrifying lasers. Athena then banished Medusa to a far-away cave where she met her eventual end by Perseus’s sword. Of course, upon further research, I quickly discovered that “had sex with” was really just Wikipedia’s euphemism for rape.

Ah ha. So Medusa, the quintessential female monster for nearly two millennia, was really just a rape victim. And not just any rape victim: a rape victim at the hands of Gods. Though I shouldn’t have been surprised. What monster doesn’t have their origin story? The parallels between Medusa and myself were striking. After all, what had some of my earlier sexual experiences been if not rape? And what had the two and a half years at my parents’ house been if not a banishment (a cush one, but a banishment nonetheless)? And what had I done to deserve it? Okay, I’d done a few things: lied, cheated, used people. And okay, that banishment was largely self-imposed. But even if I’d been a saint, I’m convinced that the art world still would have swooped in to defile me while I prayed at its temple—then left me to rot in some god forsaken cave.

Which is all to say that I never realized that, as an art dealer, I’d been a mortal amongst gods.

Medusa #28 from the Medusa Collection
Medusa #28 from the Medusa Collection

2.

I like to imagine a more empowered Medusa. One whose banishment was not a punishment, but something she willed into being. An artist retreat patronized by Athena, the warrior goddess, for instance. I like to imagine her ability to turn people to stone as, not a curse, but a pre-natural skill for making life-like sculpture. I like to imagine that Medusa loved her alone time in that cave. That she delighted in making art in a place where she couldn’t be bothered, surrounded by her gallery of spectacularly realistic stone men. Perhaps Bernini, the only one of the three Italian men to carve an empathetic Medusa, imagined this as well. Perhaps he envied her “carving” skills. Perhaps his Medusa does not contort in agony, but ecstasy—as she transforms from unremarkable mortal to supreme sculptress.

Why did I choose art historical sculptures to reference, as opposed to paintings of Medusa, such as Caravaggio’s? Partly because I hold sculptures in awe—not having any ideas for sculpture myself. My natural inclination, after all, is not to think in-the-round. It is not to be in my body, but to escape into the magnificently epic narrative in my head. At 12-step meetings, I identify as a Sex, Love, and Fantasy Addict, which is, really, a long way of saying Fantasy Addict. And all my fantasies consist of being saved by XYZ, who turns me into a star, or of saving ZYX, which leads to the same result. I tell you—it’s really a wonderfully entertaining place, the inside of my head. The problem is that reality never quite matches its sweeping epic-ness. Except that it does. Or so I’m told. If I stick with my Recovery program; I’ll gradually develop a palette for reality. I’ll start to see the miraculous in the mundane, the extraordinary in the ordinary—to see reality as far more fantastical than my most delicious, most self-aggrandizing fantasy.

Those, at least, are The Promises.

Benevento Cellini's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa" circa 1550
Benevento Cellini's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa" circa 1550

It’s worth noting that in Cellini’s and Canova’s sculptures, Medusa is not even the main character. Her head is merely the trophy of Perseus, a half-mortal, half-god character sent by some king to slay Medusa. A hero, in other words. And, clearly, the hero with whom Cellini and Canova identify and expect their audience to identify with as well.

Only Bernini—sensitive Bernini—takes a difference stance. I didn’t realize how different Bernini’s marble Medusa was from Cellini’s or Canova’s, though I should have. Not only is Bernini’s sculpture solely of Medusa—it does not portray Medusa as a decapitated head. His Medusa is cut off at the shoulder because it is a bust—of the same sort made of presidents and kings. Not that Bernini’s Medusa looks like a king. Her face contorts in pain; her hair—as you’d expect—is a looping bed of snakes. Still, she is clearly alive, as opposed to dead. And this is notable. Bernini has depicted her, not as a trophy, but as a tortured soul in the midst of transforming from a handsome youth into the famed, serpentine monster we all know.

Original Medusa paintings in "Bad Feminist" exhibition at Ever Gold [Projects] Nov 2019
Original Medusa paintings in "Bad Feminist" exhibition at Ever Gold [Projects] Nov 2019

I like Bernini’s Medusa more than Cellini’s. Sorry, let’s try that again. I love Bernini’s Medusa and detest Cellini’s. Despite this, my painting of Cellini’s Medusa has been, by far, my most popular Medusa painting. I’ve made several smaller variations of it to meet collector demand. Thus, it’s fair to say, I detest Cellini’s Medusa the way I detest an open wound I can’t stop picking. It fascinates me despite its gory, woman-hating. Or it fascinates me because of it.

Despite its title, “Perseus with the Head of Medusa,” Cellini’s sculpture also features Medusa’s body. I didn’t notice the body, over which a naked Perseus lords, when first looking at images of the work online. And that is by design. Skilled artists know where to lead the eye, and Cellini wanted all eyes on Medusa’s decapitated head. And, let me tell you, the head is something else. Though it’s not because of the face. The face is normal, a bit slack, if anything. Its eyelids are almost closed, with empty spaces behind them. Such as the trend at the time, to have holes for eyeballs—a counter-intuitive effect that does indeed make for more lifelike sculpture. (Carved eyeballs give the appearance of a death mask.) It is also not because of the hair, which looks more like curls than live reptiles. What, then, is so shocking about this head? It is, quite simply, the thick bulbous ringlets of bronzed blood—which look more like intestines than anything liquid—that spill out form her neck for well over a foot.

These neck-guts are the train wreck of her decollated head.

Medusa's decapitated head in Cellini's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa"
Medusa's decapitated head in Cellini's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa"

Neck-guts also shoot out from the top of Medusa’s headless body. Though because she’s lying dead on the floor—bronze limbs akimbo, torso arched back like a slut (slut isn’t really my word; it’s the word I imagine Perseus using as he steps over her)—it’s not really the “top” of her body. More like the side. The horizontal trajectory of these neck-guts is so supremely odd that I’m surprised they weren’t the first thing I noticed. They look like an ejaculation of small intestines out of the neck. Cellini, evidently, knew very little about inner anatomy—or gravity, for that matter—though that clearly did not bother him.

Perhaps my painting of Cellini’s Medusa is my most popular because there was just so much room for improvement. I did a good enough job translating Bernini’s greatness from one medium to another, but I performed no alchemy. However, with Cellini’s Medusa, I did. I performed fucking magic. I drew her head from an upwards-looking, deferential angle—one that gives her heavy-lidded eyes the appearance of peaceful melancholy, of inner looking. I rendered her blood delicately. My version of Cellini’s Medusa does not look outward for self-definition—but inwards. She does not judge her well-being by the number of billionaires in her rolodex, or the number of emails in her inbox, or the amount over which she is or is not gossiped over.

She tunes out the world, and tunes into herself.

Medusa #282 from the Medusa Collection
Medusa #282 from the Medusa Collection

3.

There’s speculation as to whether Bernini’s Medusa was even made by him. Though the opposite kind of speculation also exists. There are those who, in addition to knowing with certainty that the bust was made by Bernini, know why it was made by Bernini. They believe it is an allegorical portrait of his mistress, Costanza Bonarelli, a lively and big-breasted woman (according to biographers). Actually, others argue, it is a portrait of himself. Still others believe that it does not represent himself or any other particular person. That it is a portrait of the viewer. A kind of meta-mirror. The suggestion being that it is the viewer who turns Medusa to stone when setting eyes upon her. The viewer who is the evil-doer, the ruthless monster. And is it not true?

Do we, as viewers, not kill that which is alive by thinking we know the story behind it, and then writing it down and passing it onto others as “Truth”?

Before making my drawings of Medusa, I made drawings of skulls overlaid with flowers. I was listening to a lot of Eckhart Tolle and had become fascinated with the Buddhist concept of “dying before you die,” of accepting death before it happens. If you can do this, it is said, you are guaranteed bliss. However, when I showed these Eckhart Tolle inspired works in Los Angeles in April 2019 and only a handful of people—of the hundreds I’d known and helped as an art dealer—came to the opening, I lost it all. The peacefulness. The acceptance of death. Fuck that. I wanted some god damn reciprocity. In this life. Not the next. After years of pouring my inheritance, my time, my emotional labor into the art world—into others—didn’t I deserve to have some of it returned?

Eternal (Suicide/Pansies) painting from "God is an Audiobook" exhibition April 2019
Eternal (Suicide/Pansies) painting from "God is an Audiobook" exhibition April 2019

Even now as I write, I’m tempted to downplay my anger. To explain it away. To not give it its full fire-y breath.

To say, well, it was actually my fault that hardly anyone came. I didn’t promote my show enough; I wasn’t on social media; it was just a project space; etc. Blaming everyone else seems immature, and so I want to blame myself. But, truthfully, I was fucking angry. I’d sold enough artwork to help some artists buy a house. I’d turned the gallery I’d helped run from a profitless artist-run space to a million plus dollar business. And what did I have to show for it? I was, at the time, 33-years-old, living with my parents, down over $50K in my bank account. And, sure, one could argue that that’s the price of doing business. Of being an entrepreneur. That no one made me spend that money or time. That it was karma, even. For I had done some shitty things in my past. Some very imperfect things. Some things I’d do very differently now. But mostly, I felt I’d killed myself for others. For their approval. For something, I now realized, that was as fickle as the wind. Now that I wasn’t an art dealer, there was nothing to gain from me, so why bother? Or people had moved on, which was worse. I was angry.

It was after this poorly attended April 2019 opening that I started drawing Medusa. I hated all the people from my past life in art dealing, by which, I meant I hated myself. I hated myself for having valued everyone’s needs and opinions over my own for so long, for putting their art making and expressions above mine, for my monstrous codependency. And it was my anger that finally made me take new formal risks in my paintings. I began using the whole canvas, leaving no white space, filling the whole thing up with bright colors, feminine patterns, metallic sheens. I was sick of being polite, of being contained. I wanted my paintings to scream, because I felt that I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. Except that I was. I was screaming through my paintings. Screaming my pain and my sadness. Allowing the loud, boiling-over emotions inside me to be unapologetically seen.

Anger is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Medusa #56 from the Medusa Collection
Medusa #56 from the Medusa Collection

4.

How have we not talked about Caravaggio? Art history’s most famed murderer. It’s Sid Vicious. Even though his painting wasn’t a source image for me, the man deserves some word count. Now, I’m not one to believe Great Art Excuses Harm. That said, Caravaggio is one of my favorite painters. I find his paintings incandescent. When I first saw reproductions of them in my AP Art History book, new neurons formed in my brain. I didn’t know a painting—a still and inert rectangle—could be so dramatic. So sublimely psychological. So profound to the mind and senses.

And, trust me, Caravaggio was a bastard. Caravaggio was arrested several times for carrying a sword without a permit, for beating a man with a stick, for libel, for throwing a plate of artichokes in a waiter’s face, and, finally, for murder. The common explanation for the latter is that he killed a Mr. Ranuccio Tomassoni amid a heated argument, or duel, following a tennis match. However, my preferred explanation is that the two were actually fighting over a female sex worker named Fillide Melandroni, and that Caravaggio killed Tomassoni while trying to castrate him.

Michelangelo Caravaggio "Medusa" circa 1596
Michelangelo Caravaggio "Medusa" circa 1596

Caravaggio’s Medusa is, as many suspect of Bernini’s, a self-portrait. And though I love Caravaggio’s work, his painting of Medusa is among my least favorite. It simply contains Medusa’s severed head, which is really Caravaggio’s severed head, on a circular shield—with none of the chiaroscuro or dramatic composition he’s known for. It’s ugly. An outlier. And, except for the snakes, it’s an altogether static painting. The domed surface does it no favors. Someone tell me why a man who painted dark backgrounds so divinely chose such a flat and unflattering olive green for the background here?

And what in god’s name is the meaning of this portrait equivalence? What kind of person identifies more than Medusa as a lifeless ornament, than as alive and complex soul? A very broken one, I imagine. And this realization catches me off guard, for it makes me feel a surprising amount of compassion for Caravaggio. How broken he must have been to relate most to Medusa in her defeat. That’s when it hits me: I have done the exact same thing as Caravaggio. I have painted myself as Medusa’s decapitated head. Over and over and over again. In large versions and small. In prints and paintings. In pinks and mint greens and iridescent blues.

I, too, have painted myself as a lifeless monster at the end of her story, as little more than a decorative object for the betterment of others. So, really, it’s not Caravaggio for whom I feel sorry. It’s me.

Medusa #109 from the Medusa Collection
Medusa #109 from the Medusa Collection

5.

Canova. Canova. Now, this is certainly not a case of saving the best for last. Between the three Italian sculptors—Cellini, Bernini, Canova—he is, by far, the most boring. His marble statue of Medusa isn’t even original. It was openly modeled after Cellini’s earlier work. Despite this, there are some glaring differences. Namely, in Canova’s sculpture, Medusa’s body is nowhere to be found. There’s not even a suggestion of where it might be. There’s also no neck-guts. None, Anywhere. Canova must have found them, as I did, utterly distasteful. Instead of entrails, his Medusa head simply ends with a clean slice—making her neck look like a well-cut pipe. And this femme-bot quality is reflected throughout her marble face. It’s in her wide, expressionless eyes with their well-articulated eyeballs, the death-mask look. And it’s in her softly opened, expressionless mouth. Admittedly, when it comes to marble carving, Canova was a technical master. However, when it comes to the soul, he was not. His Medusa face is a big blank. Not that his Perseus has much personality, either.

It’s hard to tell what Canova’s position on women is. He doesn’t seem excessively misogynist, taking gory liberties with Medusa as Cellini did. However, neither does he seem particularly empathetic, as with Bernini. His sculpture gives the sense of a man simply doing his job: expertly making a remake from a problematic classic. Canova appears more interested in carving well-proportioned muscles and verisimilar drapes, than plumbing Greek mythology’s emotional depths or chauvinism. And, in this way, I suppose he mirrors most people who are too busy—too focused on their own achievements—to do much probing, contemplating, or, even, hating of any kind. And, I tell you the truth, I love drawing Canova’s Medusa head. The forms were so well defined. The lines so clean, so easy to follow. And though nothing I tried—not my removal of Perseus, nor my flattering angels—could fully rid it of tis death mask-ness, this did not bother me. For if Canova could distance himself from the Medusa narrative—if he could carve it without becoming overly invested—then I could too.

I could stop taking every thing that had ever happened to me so fucking personally. I could use that energy for some other purpose. Like making art. And making more art. And making more and more.

Antonio Canova "Perseus with the Head of Medusa" circa 1800
Antonio Canova "Perseus with the Head of Medusa" circa 1800

Over two years have passed since I started drawing Medusa. Two years since I began taking up space in my canvases, allowing myself to finally scream through my work. And, to my surprise, the roar has not died down. As I release my Medusa Collection of 2,500 unique NFTs modeled after these original Medusa paintings, I realize that the emotive transformation of this work has only scaled up. Scaled up in color. Scaled up in audience. Scaled up in wildness—with digital paint strokes that go far outside the lines and unthinkable color combinations that only an unbiased randomizing algorithm could generate. This private scream has legs, a body that keeps expanding and expanding beyond the scale of any one individual, because it has joined those of others. Outbursts of neon pink and saffron and translucent green. Blood red and lavender and midnight blue explosions. The rage of anyone who has ever had their sense of self buried under the projection of others. Of anyone who has been violated by Gods and felt, against their will, like a monster.

Of anyone who has tried to find some peace by screaming as loud and as long and as often as possible.

Medusa #382 from the Medusa Collection
Medusa #382 from the Medusa Collection

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