If you are here, there is a solid chance you have travelled with me through all the previous chapters of our art history tour on the back of Zeus pretending to be a bull, in the charming company of an Eastern beauty with a cute penchant for taking her top off whenever she becomes stressed out.
This is the last leg of our journey, the last chapter of the Abduction/Rape of Europa series. So let’s have a bottle of something open to celebrate your patience in about ten minutes you’d need to read the post to the end.
You can find the full list of chapters at the bottom of this post if you are new, but you are welcome to join our party right away.
We have covered dozens of artists now, haven’t we? They were mostly choosing either the seduction moment to gratify clients’ sexual appetite or the climax of the myth to send across an emotionally charged message. It may seem obvious to us today that the climax is the instant when the bull leaves the shores of Phoenicia, the moment when neither Europa nor her maids understand what is happening, and only the viewer is aware that they won’t see each other ever again. But it wasn’t always the case.
Ancient Greeks didn’t care much for this intense turning point in the story, for them, the climax was at the beginning. They were a nation of travellers and adventurers, so their interest was vested in Europa’s journey, her departure to discover new lands. They couldn’t care less about the emotional state of a teenager gullible enough to become seduced by a bull. Greeks were taking it easy. Sex with a god? Come on, it’s a jackpot, not a rape! So their artists focussed on the sailing experience.
Afterwards, from the 14th and until the end of the 19th century, Europa jumped roles as an allegory for the lost soul, enlightenment, seduction, sex, and even international trade, until she turned into an outdated literary device to peddle naked damsels. Alas, unlike wine or cheese, allegories and metaphors do not get better with age.
With every alley of purpose and meaning explored towards the end of the 19th century, artists gravitated back to the Greek concept. The society morals had gone so loose in comparison to the previous epochs that mythical seductions and rapes lost their eroticised appeal. Gender roles – that’s what surfaced up on the agenda, and what better tool to explore it than a one-on-one situation in which Europa finds herself with the bull?
I am sure you remember this 16th-century fresco by Rosso Fiorentino showing Europa not as a distressed, obedient and humbled victim, but as an equal to the bull. Perhaps, she is inferior to him in terms of physical strength but way more skilled at driving control and navigation. She’s not looking back at the shore but is scanning the horizon for the best route.
Fiorentino was ahead of his time by more than 400 years in his views on gender. Now, sometime in the 1870s, would be just the right time for him to join the conversation, re-started by two Symbolist painters, George Frederic Watts in Britain and Gustave Moreau in France.
George Frederic Watts offered a colourful masculine argument.
His Europa is a victim awkwardly handling the motorbike. The bull resembles a nuclear submarine that resurfaced for a gulp of fresh air, projecting quiet menace and a “do-not-disturb” warning. The message here is crystal clear – stay away, she’s taken, men are more powerful than women; weak women shall be taken care of by strong men, and if necessary, forcefully. It is for their own good.
Today this bull’s bullshit would not survive for five minutes before a twitter tsunami buries the artist. Back in the day, it was merely a reflection on the current state of gender affairs and failed to ignite any debate.
Across the Channel, Gustave Moreau did several paintings of this subject, including a bizarre one of the bull with Jupiter’s head. Still, the most famous is this one, in which he crossed a unicorn with Pegasus and made it do a vertical.
Europa’s unsettling position can raise some eyebrows. How does she keep her balance? Is she nailed to the bull’s side through her remarkable navel? Is she an angel who just flies parallel to the beast towards a common goal? The bull here is a clearly overexcited macho with a prized girlfriend that is both shy and illicitly complicit in her own abduction. I don’t believe Moreau painted her like that by mistake. He was a talented artist and Matisse’s teacher, and my love for Matisse extends to everyone who did good by him.
Regardless of whether the artist intended to show Europa as an unsuspecting victim or a willing accomplice, the male side is still dominant here. There is no equality here. The painting does not reveal much about the changing role of women, except for the chivalrous overtones that one can often find among the French. Thus, the conversation died out before it could develop into a dispute. No one tried to ripple the waves for the next 40 years when impressionism and then post-impressionism was all the rage. The only post-impressionist artist who cared about myths was Gauguin who tried his hand at a woodcut on the story with Europa being – yes, you guessed right – an underage Tahitian girl.
Let’s start plotting the paintings on a scale from “Man Controls Woman and is Right to Do So” to “Woman Dominates Man and it is a Damn Right Time to Start Doing So”. For a balanced scale, I put equality in the middle, even though I am aware that’s a moot point. Such a complicated concept as equality is hard to put on this scale because it lacks a precise definition. The current consensus hovers over “equality starts when men don’t do what women tell them not to do, and men stop telling women what to do or not to do altogether”, and I feel that it’s somehow not linear in terms of distance from inequality.
In 1910, the conversation was picked up by a Russian artist. Valentin Serov was a well-established portrait painter. He did portraits of intellectuals, royals and the Tsar himself. He even rejected a royal commission once after a critical remark by the Tsar’s mother about her son’s portrait that he was in the process of sketching.
He first came up with the idea to paint Europa after he toured Crete in 1907 and by 1910. After a series of sketches and preparatory oils, he came up with this orange bull:
Europa doesn’t look like a damsel in distress here. She is even smiling at something while tenderly touching the bull’s side. The bull looks back at the viewer who appears to be hovering above the sea level and is still looked upon with condescension. So, I’d put it somewhat closer to the equality point on the scale but definitely not near the centre: she is still dependent on the bull for her safety and well-being.
There are two exciting things about Serov’s Europa. First, its composition. Besides the apparent diagonal movement and dolphins accentuating both the physical speed and emotional expectations of carnal pleasures at the point of arrival, the viewer’s observation point is a few meters above the sea level, and the horizon line is also impossibly high. In the normal linear perspective, it should be low. This makes the sea an overwhelming force and the waves really massive without any special effects that old school painters like Théodore Géricault had to use for a similar outcome.
Second, it is the S-shaped curves that build up all shapes in this painting. I marked just a few of them in red.
Every little detail is created with these curves:
Were Hogarth alive to see this painting, he would be impressed with a Russian artist who took his Line of Beauty concept to the extreme.
Once Serov moved Europa towards equality, he opened a new direction in the portraiture of the female body. Of course, Klimt and Shiele were doing much more radical stuff, but their nude or naked women were never meant as salon-worthy portraits of real people. Even when Klimt exhibited his Judith in whom everyone recognised the wife of a wealthy banker, it was not a portrait of the banker’s wife.
As he ended Europa, Serov painted this portrait of Ida Rubinstein, a celebrated dancer and actress of the early 20th century.
Straighten the legs of Europa in the painting, and you’d get Ida Rubinstein. Even the green flowery ribbon is there. The difference is that this portrait is a leap to equality, elucidated by comparison to one of the most famous nudes, Ingres’ Odalisque.
Ingres created the perfect nude for the sexual gratification of the male viewer. He would be placed far beyond the left bracket on my scale because the Odalisque here is a commodity. Ingres went as far as dehumanising her by adding two extra vertebrae to her spine. Ida is a person, and her personality comes through the sharp angles of her figure. She sits up and looks back at you without coquetry that implies she welcomes your advances. No sane man can stand in front of Ida’s portrait and say she’s a plaything. You look at her, and she returns your gaze with equal attention and force. So, if I were to put her on the scale, she would be almost on the equality middle-mark. I’m not making her equal because she’s still wary of you seeing her naked. She adopted a very calculated pose to prevent you from seeing her breasts and in doing so she handed over power to the male viewer by the admission that men may not be able to control their passion unless moderated.
And then comes the pupil of Gustave Moreau, Matisse, with his version of the abduction. It may look unfinished, but it is a large painting on which he worked for more than a year. So it must have been good enough for him – and we’ll see if it is complete in its unfinished state.
But before we talk about it in detail, it’s interesting to get the inspiration behind it, for it covers over 2000 years of art history.
Matisse based Europa on his own Seated Nude of 1925 that at the time was outside the windows of his studio.
This Seated Nude was inspired by Michelangelo, who in his turn, was inspired by the Sleeping Ariadne.
The Sleeping Ariadne has been inspiring hundreds of artists since 1512 when it was bought by the Pope and installed in the Vatican gardens. It was instantly adopted as the stock pose for sleep. Artists who didn’t see it in the Vatican were inspired by its proxies, Michelangelo’s Day and Night, like Rubens (in his Samson and Delilah) or Matisse.
But while Ariadne is asleep, Matisse’s Europa is awake and looking at the viewer unashamedly. Unlike in nudes, where the woman is alone, Europa is unavailable to the viewer. She has formed a partnership with the bull that is very protective of her, quite tender, and full of passion that bursts as orange colour from his eyes and makes his horn glow like a LED rod at a disco. I don’t know if Matisse meant to associate the horn with erection, but the connotation is definitely there.
Now, why did Matisse leave the painting unfinished with underpainting clearly visible? Imagine Europa sitting a bit more erect, with her arms not as tight around her head as in the painting. Yes, just like the Seated Nude. She wouldn’t be so relaxed, so trusting in the bull’s ability to control itself. By leaving underpainting visible Matisse makes her lean back and relax her whole body right in front of the viewer. Thus, Matisse makes her unafraid of both the bull and the spectator, and this is exactly what makes her equal to her male partner and to whomever is looking.
Picasso, certainly, couldn’t leave Europa exclusively in the hands of his frenemy, Matisse. In 1930 he made his own version, very similar to Fiorentino – not in style, but in essence.
Picasso’s Europa clearly dominates the bull by weight, size, line and shape. She doesn’t seat on the bull, she made a chair out of it and nailed it down with her authoritarian posture. This is why I move Picasso further to the right.
And, indeed, some artists thought the theme of love should be extracted and abstracted from the myth, like Carl Milles from Sweden.
The problem with extracting only the seduction part from the myth about a male god who groomed and sexually abused an innocent girl is that it turns the whole affair into zoophilic pornography which in some countries can get you arrested. I doubt that today’s students of Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris would get away with this poster for their annual ball of 1929:
In the 1930s the myth got political, with artists like Max Beckmann or Jacques Lipchitz playing out the apparent reference of the bull to the Nazis and Europa to Europe.
Notable post-war contributions to the topic were submitted by Dali and Bottero. Dali added saliva dripping from the bull’s tongue, which pushed his draughtsmanship beyond the limits of decency that he had already reached by adopting the style that could best be described as Disney-employed-Matisse-on-steroids.
I can’t put Dali anywhere on my scale because his Europa belongs to the Carl Milles’ zoophilic domain, and has nothing do to with gender roles.
As a true sportsman, Bottero has repeatedly approached the weight machine of the myth – and boy he knows how to pack a tonne or two – but failed to break Picasso’s record achievement.
You can’t miss his Europa if you ever meet one, but they are merely stylised versions of Matisse and Picasso. As he is still active, I am expecting more from an artist of his calibre.
I thought male artists wouldn’t dare to touch the right point of the scale, but I was wrong. An obscure Russian artist came up with this, rather brutal, view on how the story ends.
I have little doubt some women may find the painting comforting, but I feel lucky I don’t socialise with them.
Are female artists too scared or intimidated to share their take on the myth? I thought the answer was yes until I discovered an Australian painter who was brave enough to make a totally contemporary and comic version.
Europa is approached by a white bull with a flower. It looks more like a chivalrous complement than seduction. Yet Europa, a contemporary girl who believes women ought to be able to go naked to a park and stay unharassed and safe is bewildered. She’s not angry, she’s just surprised that a bull could have an idea about courting her before she made it clear to him, signed and in triplicate, that she welcomes solicitations. She is in the shock of disbelief for the moment, and we are left suspended in our expectation that she – no, not runs from the bull – but takes out her phone and starts filming and posting this sorry creature right into the midst of a twitter corrida. “Can you imagine I was just approached by a bull that offered me a flower? Can’t a girl get out of home and NOT BE HARASSED?” It seems that the dog that tries to pull the bull away is aware of the impending disaster.
I don’t know if this is a female angle on the right end of the scale, but I’d put it there anyway.
No artist has been able to reach the right end of the scale and keep a serious face about it. Perhaps, it can’t be achieved unless it is a comedy sketch? Or, maybe, it just shouldn’t be reached.
Our civilisation, after 2500 years of exploring the myth, got weary of it. Europa and the bull have become political animals. Abduction and rape are wiped off the storyline as if they never happened.
All we are suggested to remember is that Europa wanted to leave Phoenicia and fell in love with the sailor who took her with him on that voyage. This is why the sculpture adorns squares in front of EU headquarters and offices around Europe, and no one is looking at it with pity or indignation: it is a mere millennial rushing towards new horizons.
I wonder what these new horizons would look like in the post-COVID “new normal”.
PS Bonus reading on the most bizarre Abductions of Europa and the secrets of Europa’s statute in Brussels as the Epilogue to the series is coming up soon!
If you missed the previous chapters:
Part I – In Antiquity, the age of discovery and adventure, the myth of Europa was a prologue to more exciting stories. Europa was not a victim, just a participant in the grand scheme of things.
Part II – Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Search for emotions in the plot and a new meaning of the story. Durer vs Titian. Artists discovered that high-level emotions can be combined with violence and eroticism. First signs of women’s empowerment in art with Europa’s making the bull do her bidding.
Quiz: Why Rubens copied Titian’s Rape differently to the original and what conjugal infidelity, Jesuits and Velazquez had to do with it
Part III – During the Catholic Baroque, Europa was seen as a saint or a prized whore, but Claude Lorrain made her into a device that allowed his clients to show off their enlightened character.
Part IV – Lutheran Baroque – How did the domestication of women during the Reformation relate to the myth of Europa? Why is Rembrandt’s Abduction of Europa a celebration of Protestant values?
Part V – The Rococo Europa didn’t mind exchanging her virginity for a queendom. How to spot a Rococo painting using my Rococo Style Bingo Card and why you should never take the Rococo seriously.
Part VI – If Goya hadn’t seen Rembrandt’s Rape of Europa, and Turner hadn’t seen Goya’s Rape of Europa, how did they get related?