Thursday, April 1, 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 young and beautiful Europa picking flowers with her girlfriends by a river, he fell 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 had three legendary children together and gave rise to a continent named Europe, a moon of Jupiter named Europa, and a constellation of stars named Taurus (the bull).

Who would have guessed that a girl gathering flowers in a meadow would transform the stars? (To this day, mathematicians haven't been able to invent a word to cover such a multiplier effect.)

But the story of Europa and the Bull is hardly unique. Roberto Calasso observed that gods have repeatedly been lured to cross the line 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 spotted 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 the grandeur of heaven to pursue mortal girls picking flowers? The gods are clearly unimpressed by our earthly manifestations of power and 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 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, but 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 immortality.

When Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, first saw his beloved Beatrice he felt certain that a deity 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: an artist catches a brief glimpse of a (probably not very bright) teenage girl, and transforms the experience into one of the greatest works of literature in the history of the world.

Inspiration may not always be found wearing a toga and picking flowers by the banks of a river, but history is certainly littered with artists (who let's face it are generally a scruffy and oafish bunch) who created great and timeless works of beauty from small and personal motivations. Such transformations are often more improbable than Zeus transforming his lover Callisto into a constellation of stars.

Gaston Lachaise discovered the woman he declared his "goddess" when she was strolling by the river Seine and accurately said, she “immediately became the primary inspiration which awakened my vision...." (and transformed him from a bum to an internationally renown 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 personal developments are transformed by this thaumaturgic process into something universal and divine.

Things that blur the dividing line between gods and mortals are so small and delicate they sometimes escape human attention, but it seems the gods have figured it out.

It's springtime. Pay attention.