TWO CIRCES (Mackennal and Waterhouse)

© Donald Richardson, August, 2007


In Greek legend, Circe, the daughter of Helios (the Sun), was an enchantress and a sorceress. She lived on the island of Aeaea and is most renowned for having turned Ulysses' sailors into swine and for using her charms to cause him to take a year off from his odyssey.
The Art Gallery of South Australia has two wonderful representations of Circe, created within a year of each other: a small bronze sculpture by Bertram Mackennal showing her casting her spell on Ulysses' men and a magnificent oil painting by John (J W) Waterhouse showing her poisoning the ocean.
The Mackennal bronze is the miniature form of the life-size version that is in the National Gallery of Victoria. The Australian sculptor made the full version - one of his earliest masterpieces - in his Paris studio in 1893 and it received an honourable mention in the Salon. But, when it was exhibited in the Royal Academy, in London, it became a succes de scandale when it was realised that the relief sculpture on its base illustrates Ulysses' sailors copulating, naked, with Circe's women! This tableau so shocked the authorities that it was ordered that the base be covered.
But Circe failed to find a purchaser until 1901, and it was 1910 before it came into the Gallery's collection. More positively, the attractive femininity of the figure brought Mackennal a number of commissions from women who hoped that he would treat them similarly.
Major bronzes cost a fortune to cast - an expense which must be born by the artist, unless the work is a commission. So, nineteenth-century sculptors made scaled-down editions which they hoped to sell to offset some of the expense. Our gallery's example is one of eight such Mackennal made of Circe. Despite its reduced size, its striking pose reproduces the steely, feline grace and magical potency that is so well represented in the original.
Circe Invidiosa (Jealous Circe), by the English painter, Waterhouse, has been voted the most popular picture in our gallery. It was purchased in 1892, still freshly-painted and - when Waterhouse learned of the purchase - he donated a fine, strong charcoal study of Circe's head to the gallery - at the subtle suggestion of the Honorary Curator of the Gallery, Harry P Gill! A wonderful work in its own right, it is preserved in the print-room.
The subject of this picture is not connected with Ulysses but relates to the time when Circe fell in love with the sea-god Glaucus. But Glaucus loved the beautiful Scylla so, when Scylla went to bathe in the sea, the vengeful Circe poisoned the water with magic drugs - which transformed Scylla into the monster we can see glowering in the depths. It is a striking, and daring, composition - an unusually emphatically-vertical canvas dominated by the perfect, near-central, line of the streaming poison. And brilliantly - yet subtly - coloured, the blue-green foreground emphasised by the dull brown of the rocks and trees behind. The translucent green of the poison-laden glass bowl and the noxious floating bubbles is a triumph of representational painting.
Cire is represented as appropriately alluring, selectively revealing her pink flesh under her peacock-patterned peplos. Like Mackennal, Waterhouse's reputation was enhanced by his ability to represent alluring femmes fatales. It is a curious feature of the Victorian period that - in an era when even chair legs were swathed in drapery - it was socially accepted for artists to represent such sexy figures. Other examples of this are the contemporaneous marble sculptures that are in the gallery's foyer.


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