Yesterday I visited the new exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art – A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer. It was a revelation and, as a Classicist, I was immediately struck by Sharrer’s feminist reworkings of Greek and Roman myths, often mediated by art historical predecessors. I am sure I will post more about Sharrer’s work in the future, but for now I want to bring your attention to the corners of her painting Reception, 1958.
While the surreal interplay of society luminaries and birds takes place in the scene at the base of the painting, to the left and right corners we encounter two reproduced 18th century paintings. On the right is François Boucher’s Jupiter in the Guise of Diana, and the Nymph Callisto by and on the left, partially covered by the chandelier and its accompanying birds resembles (but may not be exactly) Apollo and Daphne by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. (While I cannot be sure of this latter identification, the position of the arms make the Daphne myth definitely possible).
Elsewhere in her work, Sharrer more directly intervenes in the themes of ancient gods’ deceptive rapes, abductions and sexual conquests of mortal women and nymphs, especially in her work devoted to the Leda myth.
Yet in Reception, the positioning of the two myths in their 18th century renditions in the upper corners of the canvas may offer a nuance and critical reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. While many of these tales appear in the early books of Ovid’s poem, in Book 6 we see the different gods and their rapes within a critical context of Arachne’s tapestry Arachne’s work is directly reacting to Athena/Minerva’s grandiose portrait of herself and the other Olympians by showing the male gods as sexual predators. In Minerva’s tapestry, the corners depict the punishment of moral women who challenge the authority of goddesses, especially Juno. Arachne’s catalogue approach to listing the divine rapes disturbs this neat (‘classical’) order. Could Sharrer’s Reception be transforming Minerva’s corners into those of Arachne through the myths of Daphne and Callisto? If so it add another nuance not only to Sharrer’s feminist appropriation of Classical myth, but also to the male scholarly sheepishness in actually labeling these violent episodes in Ovid’s poems as rapes (carried out or attempted).
In a review of the book that contained my first publication as a Classicist, eleven years ago, a distinguished scholar criticized my describing these episodes in Ovid’s poem as ‘rapes’. In doing so, I was criticizing the euphemistic term ‘amours of the gods’ used in scholarship and following the important article by Amy Richin ‘Reading Ovid’s Rapes’. With Sharrer’s Reception we find an artist who extends her critique of patriarchal social hierarchies, their pomp and pretension, to the casual display of rape scenes from Classical myth. Like Arachne herself, Sharrer allows us to engage with critical readings of this repeated sexual violence in direct and explicit ways.