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Too Beautiful to Picture: Zeuxis, Myth, and Mimesis

by Elizabeth C. Mansfield
University Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2007
240 pp.; illus. Trade, $75; paper $25
ISBN: 0-8166-4748-4; ISBN: 0-8166-4749-1.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg


Too Beautiful to Picture: Zeuxis, Myth, and Mimesis is an intensely scholarly study of myth, mimesis, and invention in art history. Mansfield traces the history of this selective mimetic practice of creating a composite idealized female image across two millennia of art production. Some highlights include her insightful discussion of the late 17th Century woman artist Angelica Kauffman, her stunning discussion of the contemporary French performance artist, Orlan’s carnal Zeuxianism and her equally provocative linked interpretation of Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon. However, despite its obvious merits, it will be extremely frustrating to read by those who reject Freudian psychoanalytic theory and its application to the interpretation of artistic imagery.

Above all, the study argues that Western ambivalence towards mimesis is rooted in the primal shock of the Oedipal experience. It presents the Zeuxian process as an expression of castration anxiety in the reputed wounded psyche in the realization that one’s mother has no penis. It may, thus, ultimately become a classic example of interpretive creativity and over-determination in the new art history. Despite this bizarre and surely unintended phallocentric feminism, the second part of the book in particular is undeniably fascinating.

It is an important study in that it pays serious attention to the enduring classical myth of Zeuxis Selecting Models in which composites are used to create ideal types, in this case to represent ideal beauty. The original myth relates how the ancient Greek artist, Zeuxis, was commissioned in the 5th Century B.C. to create a painting memorializing the legendary beauty Helen of Troy and records the story of how and why he selected features from individual woman in order to approximate Helen’s said perfect beauty. Mansfield’s most important contribution perhaps is to show just how enduring this myth has been in providing a subject in Western painting especially in light of how surprisingly little attention has been given to the topic.

Again, it is an explicitly Freudian post-modernist feminist text. It focuses over and over again on the said experience of the uncanny aspect of mimesis as a form of castration anxiety based in the Oedipal complex. Therein, to restate Mansfield’s central premise once again, the Zeuxis legend is evidence of a persistent anxiety over mimesis in art in which Zeuxian mimesis is another form of classical mimesis alternatively embraced and rejected until finally reclaimed in the Renaissance. Her argument is based on two premises. First, that the tactic used by Zeuxis, and the painting itself, transmits an ideology and that the legend itself transmits a cultural unconsciousness that triggers the uncanny. Second, that this "uncanny sensation" is "a symptom of the ontological impasse posed by classical mimesis itself". Rather than engage the fascinating topic of mimesis, what strikes me is how the book must succeed or fail depending on whether one is adequately persuaded that these art forms encode Freudian narratives that reveal an elemental castration anxiety. As a consequence, this book deserves to be extremely controversial and may well receive a highly ambiguous critical reception in cultural studies and feminist theory if it is read with a skeptical eye.

The first half of the book is an exercise in classical erudition, the sources effortlessly moving from language to language, from one arcane source to another returning us to Pliny and Cicero who provide the earliest references to the origin of the Zeuxis myth. The book thus speaks to two very different audiences, one interested in classics and the other in feminist art history, specifically in post-modern Freudian feminism. If anything then, what this book best represents, is just how far the inter-disciplinary project has gone in which art historians have turned increasingly to feminism for inspiration in the 1970s and over the intervening decades to literary theory and cultural studies.

In all this, the study fails in one fundamental scholarly respect, or perhaps that is the unstated point of the study and thus in this succeeds. It makes no mention of E.H. Gombrich’s seminal comments in "Ideal and Type in Renaissance Painting" (in New Light on Old Masters, 1986/98, specifically see pp. 91) nor Sir Kenneth Clark’s related discussion in The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956, specifically see pp. 13-14). Engaging their approaches to the Zeuxian issue is surely required in such an otherwise rigorous study in that art historians have long addressed the issues of ideal types which lie at the art historical rather than psychoanalytic core of this book. Clearly there is an oppositional disciplinary agenda at work here.

On reflecting on this absence one might then ask: Has not this new feminist art history re-enacted an intellectual corollary of the Zeuxis myth? Are such scholarly omissions, conscious or unconscious, not acts of disciplinary patricide in which the legacies of these pater figures have been strategically excised in an act of epistemological violence? Is this study not thus a clear instance of aesthetic theory in service of a particular ideology and an excellent example of what has come out of the "crisis" or "end" of art history (see Donald Prezioski’s Rethinking Art History 1989)? That being said, I have no doubt that the highly appealing interpretive work in this study will continue to inspire this brave combination of classical scholarship which does the dangerous work of bringing ideas from cultural studies, post-colonial gender studies, psychoanalysis and modern art into conversation with the ancient Greeks.

Beyond these perhaps retrograde quibbles, the second and more readable part of the study is a particularly powerful pastiche. There Mansfield argues that the Zeuxian myth is an act of colonization which served to establish a Romanized imaginary community that physically incorporated the empire’s diversity into an ideal type and that imperialism always craves metaphysical assurance. While those hypotheses are sound enough, I find the more important part of her argument that the "uncanny" is an expression of cultural anxiety over the violence of colonialism to be less than convincing. In any event, she argues that Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles exercises the racism prevalent in France at the time while finding in African culture a means for aesthetic and social progress and signaling the impending collapse of colonial rule. And continuing in a scintillating progression, she connects this instance to Orlan’s hybridization as a 21st Century Marianne personifying the post-colonial French Republic. In a climactic conclusion, she aptly revisits the composite computer generated face gracing Time Magazine’s 1993 issue "The New Face of America" and concludes quite brilliantly how the empire violently incorporates the world while masking the anxiety of rule.

Through these arguably elegiac interpretive stretches Mansfield argues that Western imperialism has generated two histories, one conscious and heroic and the other unconscious and craven. She ingeniously proposes that the Zeuxis myth interweaves imagination and experience between the two histories so as to substitute the faith of the whole for the fear of the parts. Ultimately then, it is metaphysical doubt which sustains the Zeuxis myth and the West’s irrepressible urge to see and to seize what is too beautiful to picture.

Yet I am left with several jostling images in mind amongst others. After the shock of Orlan’s carnal art passes by, and the warm after glow of the sensuality of the Orientalist Odalisques as the penultimate space for exploring the Zeuxian tactic, after revisiting the book’s opening image from Balzac, of Sarrasine’s shock at realizing that La Zambinella, his ideal beauty, was in fact a castrato, I cannot help but recall the manner in which Zeuxis met his death. He had painted an image of an old woman so hideously ugly that according to legend he died of laughter. So my parting questions to Mansfield are these: What alternative reading would result if one began instead by understanding the opening gambit of Sarrasine’s shock as about the gap between illusion and reality and not as the imagined psychic wound of incompleteness? What would happen if one applied Jungian theory instead of Freudian theory so as to revisit the Zeuxis myth with the benefit of Gombrich’s Platonism in mind? Can one really rely on the arguably absurd notion that the whole of this art history is reducible to the infantile shock of learning that one’s mother has a vagina instead of a penis? If so, would Zeuxis not surely laugh himself to death all over again?



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