ODYSSEUS & PENELOPE 2 painted fireplaces 2 lithographs between them they tell a version of The Odyssey.
Through human history art has had a closer relationship to the spoken word than the written one. In pre-literate times, stories were shared through their telling, with art often being used as a prompt. In earlier times, too, the light and warmth of the family hearth provided a focus for the remembering of histories and telling of myths. In this exhibition Marian Maguire presents three painted fireplaces. They draw visually from ancient Greek vase painting, the altarpieces and frescoes of the early Italian renaissance and Maori traditional carving and painting.
The idea for Odysseus strays into the realm of Tangaroa emerged from a painting I made a couple of years ago, Odysseus and the Pitiless Sea. What I had wanted to express in that earlier work was human powerlessness against the forces of nature. In the fireplace painting and accompanying lithograph here, I’ve recycled the motif of Odysseus clutching the splintered remnant of his ship. Though a famed hero, noted for his wily intelligence (it was Odysseus who came up with the stratagem of the Trojan horse), he is reduced, stripped naked by the storm, bludgeoned by waves. The fist of the Maori sea god Tangaroa will soon crash on his head. Above Tangaroa is Tawhirimatea, god of wind and storm. Opposite them is Poseidon astride a hippocampus. Poseidon, Greek god of sea and earthquakes, is given to fits of foul temper. He holds a grudge against Odysseus, who blinded his son, the cyclops Polyphemus. You’ll find Polyphemus on the outside left of the fireplace. His single eye has been pierced by a sharpened lance. Odysseus escapes from the cyclop’s cave by clinging to the underbelly of one of his moa. In my version of the story, Odysseus has strayed beyond the Mediterranean into waters around our own coastline, therefore all whom he encounters are in Maori form. Across the upper band are three scenes: the Sirens luring the Greeks to shipwreck on the rocks. The crew, their ears plugged with wax, row onward, deaf to the Sirens. Odysseus, wishing to experience their sung enchantment and knowing it can lead any man astray, he has himself strapped to the mast, disempowered from captaining the ship towards irresistible doom. Having passed the isle of Sirens they soon encounter Charybdis, the whirlpool, who threatens to suck the whole ship down in one swallow. Frenzied exertion at the oars is required to avoid this disaster. Barely have they passed Charybdis when the six heads of Scylla burst from a cliff. Scylla will pluck away the best of the oarsmen and the others must row like the blazes to save their own skins or they will be picked off, six at a time, until there are none left. On the inside left of the fireplace I’ve painted the goddess Circe in the form of a seductive Maori wahine. She amuses herself by transforming some of the Greeks into squawking bird-men (pigs in the original) and then, having relented to change them back, she detains Odysseus as her lover for one year. Opposite her on the right is a Maori Calypso who restores a lone Odysseus to health after a particularly brutal pounding at sea. But then prevents his departure. For six long years Odysseus is compelled to lie with her until finally, with Athena’s help (Athena is pictured above), Calypso is persuaded to set her paramour free, allowing him to return to the island of Ithaca and his faithful wife Penelope (outside right). The sea-faring episodes of Homer’s Odyssey are only part of the story. The climax of the poem comes when Odysseus reasserts his kingship on Ithaca after twenty years of absence.
Penelope weaves and waits. With her husband so long absent, a situation develops around Penelope. Suitors vie for her hand, charm her with words of love, but what they want is more than the queen herself. They want Ithaca. Eventually the suitors number one hundred and eight and, with Odysseus’s return seeming less likely by the day, they become more and more unruly and disrespectful. They swagger through the palace day and night. They completely dominate the feasting hall, roasting their way through herd after herd of cattle and sheep. They drink the wine from the cellar and carouse with the serving women. It is an outrage. Tension increases as Telemachus approaches the cusp of manhood. A babe in Penelope’s arms when Odysseus left, he is rightful inheritor to the kingdom and a threat to the suitors’ intentions. They insist she makes her choice. Penelope is reputed as clever as her husband, his match, and her intelligence is revealed in the tactics she employs to evade making a reply. I pick a moment when Penelope is totally alone. Telemachus, without her knowledge, has sailed away (fireplace, lower right), seeking word of his father who set off for Troy all those years ago (lower left). Penelope was born in Sparta – it was an arranged marriage – and has no family nearby; there is no one she can trust. She must keep her own counsel. With pressure mounting on all sides there are three things Penelope does. One: she states she will make a decision about which suitor to marry once she has finished weaving a funeral shroud for Odysseus’s father. She weaves by day then secretly unpicks each day’s progress by night. Two: when this ruse is discovered she says she will marry the suitor who can string the great bow of Odysseus (underside of the mantel) and shoot it between a row of axes, gambling that none will achieve this feat. As it turns out Odysseus himself, in the guise of a beggar, strings the bow, fires through the axes, then declares his true identity. He then turns his aim at the suitors and commences his bloody revenge. Three: to test this stranger who claims to be her husband, she requests he shift their marriage bed to another chamber. An impossible task. Only the two of them know that he built the bed around an ancient olive tree (pictured top side of mantel) and it is rooted to Ithaca. The hands pictured are those of the grasping suitors. The feet hanging above Penelope belong to the poor handmaidens who, having consorted with the suitors, were strung on a line; their feet were not quite able to reach the ground. Revenge shows little mercy. Human nature has its dark side.
'Odysseus strays into the realm of Tangaroa', 2016/17, acrylic on wood, 136 x 165 x 28cm
'Penelope weaves and waits', 2017, acrylic on wood, 135 x 139 x 23cm