Madrid, myths, emotions

In October I presented a paper at the biennial myth conference at Universidad Complutense, Madrid: ‘Myth and Emotions’. This was my second visit (the first, in 2014, culminated in a chapter in the fine collection Myths in Crisis: The Crisis of Myth, which I covered below). It’s a big conference, from Monday to Friday with papers in Spanish, French, and English, and I wasn’t able to attend the whole week. When I arrived, part way through an afternoon session, my Englishness painfully apparent, the empty bowl of tea-bags was instantly replenished. That’s the sign of some devoted and thoughtful conference organising.

Detail of horse from Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica detail, 1937. Museo Reina Sofia

The Essex myth blog hosts an endearing report on the conference, and I wrote some preliminary remarks there, so here I’ll limit my comments to other matters. In 2014, I planned an afternoon away from the conference to see Guernica at the Reina Sofía museum (it was controversially relocated from the Prado a few years ago). It is, of course, an absorbing work; one detail that impressed me, seeing the painting in the room, was the care paid to the texture and shading of the horse’s teeth, and then the paint being allowed to run. This juxtaposition of painterly verisimilitude and deliberate carelessness creates a rupture: a small piece of artistic violence as a focus for the horror depicted throughout the canvas.

Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child (Prado)
Bernard van Orley, Mary and Child, 1515-1520. Museo del Prado

On this latest visit to Madrid, my gallery destination was, naturally, the Prado. With just a few hours, it is only possible to see a small fraction, hence it became a trip through the greatest hits, taking in Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Brueghel, The Triumph of Death, and whole rooms of Velázquez. I somehow managed to miss Titian entirely. These days I don’t get out much, and I could tell I was missing my family because some of the paintings moved me terribly: Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child, in which the Christ child tugs on a red rosary, symbolising his eventual crucifixion; the geographical scale and quotidian detail of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt credited to a follower of Joachim Patinir, which recalls the Shield of Achilles in scope; the small exhibition ‘Childhood unveiled: Images of children in Spanish Romantic art’ had some wonderfully, delightfully expressive young faces, especially the gentle care in Joaquín Espalter y Rull’s Manuel y Matilde Álvarez Amorós, and the playfulness of Carlos Luis de Ribera y Fieve’s Retrato de niña en un paisaje. But it was Velázquez’s The Coronation of the Virgin which made me shudder. For some reason, the paintings in the Prado made me particularly sensitive to the human emotion of the Christ narrative. Well, the title of the conference was Myth and Emotions, and here I was, profoundly affected by the great numinous tale of the common era. Happy Easter.

Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin (Prado)
Diego Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin, 1635-1636. Museo del Prado

Oedipus at Theatro Technis

Oedipus at Colonus, Theatro Technis, 19 January 2012

Athenian tortoise, May 2012
Athenian tortoise, May 2012

A multi-lingual production (English, Modern Greek, Ancient Greek) of Sophocles’ play in a productive small theatre in Camden. The last Greek play I saw was a No-Theatre-inspired, Greek-language production of Aeschylus’ Choephoroi in Oxford. The Mediterranean passion at Theatro Technis is a marked contrast to the stylized restraint of the Oxford performance.

Sophocles’ text gives us Oedipus at the end of his life, blind and guided by his daughter Antigone to the grove to the Eumenides at Colonus, a little outside the centre of Athens. It presents the conflict between the polluted figure of Oedipus, the sacred status of the grove, and the political demands of Athens and Oedipus’ native Thebes. The agon was suitably mirrored in the three languages. George Eugeniou’s Oedipus spoke entirely in Modern Greek, while pre-recorded (and sur-titled) Classical Greek provided an account of the mythical situation. The other characters spoke the rationalist language of English. Michael McEvoy’s Creon was the epitome of political management-speak. Theseus (Lucien Morgan), by contrast, offered a compassionate, if somewhat camp, welcome to Athens. The Eumenides are paradoxically fearsome and benevolent spirits, and they were constant silent and graceful presences upstage in this production. One image remains imprinted on my memory, which occurs once Oedipus and Antigone (Tania Batzoglou) are joined by Antigone’s sister Ismene (Nicoletta Procopiou), who arrives with inauspicious news from Thebes. Gathered around the central figure of Oedipus, the daughters completed a powerful trinity: clinging desperately together in a deeply compelling pyramid. At once presenting an image of strength and lamentation, the unity of the three figures evoked something of the power of a depiction of the lamentation over the dead Christ. But by focusing on the figure of Oedipus, the mythical symbol par excellence of a post-Freudian age, Eugeniou’s production creates an affective image that activates the mythico-religious in the present.