The Malta Independent 14 July 2024, Sunday
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Diana and Actaeon: the cynegetic nature of art

Sunday, 15 October 2023, 08:05 Last update: about 10 months ago

Written by Matthew Shirfield

Phil Dobson, Mirei Yazawa and Brigitte Stepputtis, ‘Flora’, 2023.
Phil Dobson, Mirei Yazawa and Brigitte Stepputtis, ‘Flora’, 2023.

The theme for the 2023 APS Mdina Contemporary Art Biennale is 'Mediterranean Goddesses;' a subject which throughout time has inspired the creation of several sculptures, paintings, poems, musical compositions, and mythological tales, amongst which one may find the tragedy of Diana and Actaeon.

Titian, ‘Diana and Actaeon’, 1556–1559.


"Now you may tell of how you saw me naked, tell it if you can, you may" utters the Goddess Diana unto her observer, Actaeon, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, foreshadowing his transformation and horrendous death, after he unintentionally enters the scene as if entering Tarkovsky's Stalker Zone.

Titian, ‘Death of Actaeon’, 1559–1575.


Mythology can be read as fragments of truth veiled in fictive narratives. One of the interpretations evoked by the myth of Diana and Actaeon is the problem of the truth being uttered in an otherwise veiled world. Apart from the poignant resonance this interpretation has with today's post-truth media coverage, one may delve into a deeper analysis of this mythological tale when comparing it to the role of art and the artist in today's world.

Josef Kalleya, ‘Enigma’, 1970


In the essay "Bacon's Cynegetic Vision", Howard Caygill compared the myth of Diana and Actaeon to Francis Bacon's works. He argues that Bacon's paintings are frozen metamorphoses fleeting from the location of Diana's unveiling, endowed by a "cynegetic character as a violence proper to the hunt". According to Hugh Davies, the themes of predatory pursuit became central to Bacon's belief that "an awareness of life [is] a perpetual hunt". Bacon's own statements of trapping the image and setting the subject as "bait" reflects this.

Francis Bacon, ‘Self-Portrait’, 1971


Similarly, Josef Kalleya's spiritual works which project an infantile frustration of 'Being' being unable to articulate, to capture, or even to trap the ineffable, can be interpreted within this cynegetic characterisation of art. In the book, Peripheral Alternatives to Rodin, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci states that Kalleya "recognises the limit of language and the poverty of one's own" being in the Sisyphean act of "encompassing the idea of spirituality". The artist's scratches convey this cynegetic character; a desire to hunt, trap, and capture ideas through materiality. As Nikki Petroni concludes in her preface to Schembri Bonaci's Scratches and God, and Some Lines, Kalleya "actively sought out truth, and in so doing gave birth to hundreds of quasi-indecipherable formless forms in formation."

Martina Tscherni, ‘.....in search of the mediterranean goddess’, 2023


With the 2023 APS Mdina Biennale, the hunt persists despite Diana's fatal warning. Hunting through the Mediterranean Sea, Martina Tscherni swims and searches for the primordial image of the One Goddess. Other artists, such as Phil Dobson, Mirei Yazawa and Brigitte Stepputtis ritualistically dance and perform, creating works of art that metamorphosise the human form in pursuit of the Goddess.  The knowledge of Actaeon's fate does not deter these artists from their hunt, but somehow provides hope that they too shall come across the vision beyond the veil, as witnessed in Anthony Catania's works.

Anthony Catania, 'The Death of Actaeon', 2011


Perhaps this is the reason why art distorts reality in the pursuit of it: to spare its viewer the fatal punishment endured by Actaeon for daring to gaze beyond the veil. In the eleventh century the Iranian mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam, perfectly captured this innate desire, the fatal mortal hunt for the immortal:

"There was a Door to which I found no Key;
There was a Veil through which I could not see;
     Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There seemed -- and then no more of Thee and Me."


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