→ 14 Aug 11 at 11 am
Here is my written commentary for Harvard’s classics department. These two paintings as well as my written commentary is being used in one of Harvard’s classics courses.
Sisters in Sacrifice
The title of the first piece is “She didn’t turn into a deer…” and it’s sister painting below it finishes the title and is called “…and she didn’t run away”. These two paintings depict the aftermath of the sacrifices of Iphigenia and Polyxena in the Trojan war and try and illustrate the juxtaposition of these mirrored sacrifices and the similarities and differences between them.
To explain why I painted these two girls, I have to back track a little to explain how I got to them. A certain nugget of advice seemed to resonate with me in the year or so I did not produce much, and that advice was “to paint what you know.” Sounds easy enough, but what do I know? It took me a long time to somewhat understand (although one will never completely know, because what you know can change from day to day). I had a silly sense that I had to keep my art separate from my personal life, that things I like to watch, read, talk about, etc. lived in a different dimension than my drawings and paintings. I came to realize that that is not the case, everything I like, watch, read, talk about is fair game to express myself. So I started with something that I knew very well….I call her Marie.
When someone imagines themselves in dreams and make believe, you become an idealized version of yourself. Certain flaws you dislike about yourself seem to fade away a little, strengths you wish you had or never had a chance to demonstrate end up on the forefront of your thoughts. I’ve always made up imaginary storylines for Marie, storylines and snapshots and moments that I confess I can’t help thinking about almost everyday. She was truly who I knew, but there’s a problem with the way I imagine her. It’s never linear, only situational….and the situations, the universe can change at a moments notice. Weeding through all that noise and narrowing down on the first thing to illustrate took me a very long time. So I finally decided to figure out how Marie dies (she dies a lot in my daydreams, morbid, I know). I’d been studying in school for an art history minor with a focus on Ancient and Classical Greek art, and thus I became familiar with the stories of Iphigeneia and Polyxena. Something about these human sacrifices casually worked into one of the most beloved and well known epic traditions of all time resonated with me. Also, how casually it was addressed also struck me as peculiar from a culture and civilization almost entirely devoid of such sacrifices.
If you’re not familiar with the myth, here’s my own “cliff notes” version:
Iphgeneia was the daughter of Agamemnon, high king of the Achaeans, and Clytemnestra. There are several myths surrounding why, but for whatever reason Artemis stopped the winds so that Agamemnon could not sail his fleet over to wage war on Troy. Either Artemis asked for the most precious thing to Agamemnon or she asked for Iphigeneia specifically, but basically if Agamemnon wants to go to Troy he has to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia. There is also a whole background story of the stage of life these two girls were in, which was very holy to the Ancient Greeks. Called kore (maiden), they had just experienced their first menstruation but were not married and thus still virgins. Agamemnon after much deliberation decides for the good of the Achaean people that he must sacrifice his daughter. In the Orestia of Aeschylus it is described how she was stripped before the altar, gagged so she could not curse anyone’s house, the knife was raised, and then the chorus in the play clearly states that they do not wish to talk about what happened next, and the incident is not mentioned again directly in the play. Later in Classical Greek traditions, we see a different version of the myth: Euripides composed Iphigenia at Aulis and describes how in the nick of time Artemis sweeps down from the sky and saves Iphigenia by putting a deer in her place, much like the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Also, in the Euripides version, Iphigeneia goes to the altar willingly for her people - and because it is her destiny. I do not like the sugar coating, although I saw why it was necssary to the Greeks at the time. I wanted to paint a gruesome aftermath of what really happened, unlike all the art historical references to Iphigenia ranging from ancient Greek pottery, to wall paintings in Pompeii, to the renaissance and even to the 20th century. To make this also be Marie, I put myself in the place of Iphigenia. Human sacrifice and it’s causes and practices were also always fascinating to me. I could never quite wrap my head around the idea of one going willingly to death. By living these memories through my work for the past year, they in a way became my own just like Prof. Nagy describes in dialogue 2 of the female android who re-lived another girl’s memories, but she still owned those memories as if they were her own. So I wanted to depict the story how I envisioned it. In the painting, Iphigeneia is depicted very demure, lying on her side. A more careful graceful death than that we will later see with Polyxena. She has horns, which is an homage to the myths of her turning into the deer. In the background there is also a certain type of Greek vessel known as the lekythos, which has the double implication of marriage and of funerals. In that lekythos the viewer is confronted with the implication that we are also the perpetrators of her sacrifice looking over her dead body. And on the lekythos another, I guess, mirror of ourselves is looking down on Iphigenia as well.
I really wanted Polyxena to be a little more gritty and graphic then Iphigeneia. According to the myth, Polyxena was Trojan and could therefore be depicted in such a grotesque manner because her “barbaric” heritage allowed for it. Polyxena’s sacrifice was easier and harder to put myself mentally in. She hadn’t gone willingly (I argue neither did Iphigenia) and had just seen her brother dragged around the city’s gate, her sister raped and murdered trying to find sanctuary in their temple. And, since Achilles didn’t get the chance to claim her body in life, he now gets to claim it in the form of her death.
Now might be a good time to mention Achilles connection in both virgin sacrifices. Iphigeneia was lured to Aulis with the false promise of Achilles’ hand in marriage. In Troy Achilles was falling in love with every woman he came across. Besides Penthesileia, Achilles lusted for Polyxena. After his tragic death on the battlefield, his ghost came before the Achaeans and demanded the sacrifice of Polyxena over his grave or he would not allow the Achaeans passage home. How wonderfully symmetrical.
In visual representations, Polyxena is always shown in the act of being sacrificed, while she is being stabbed or her throat is being slit. As is known, Greek visual art usually avoids direct representations of violence and bloodshed. The depiction of Polyxena as well as the suicide of Ajax are two of the more prominent exceptions to this rule. I decided to add, in the background of the painting, the Polyxena sarcophagus because it is a perfect example of how graphic the representations of poor Polyxena could get. It explains the story a little bit better with my own loose interpretation of registers of her sacrifice in the sarcophagus and then her dying on the ground. I also included her gold crown that she’s usually depicted wearing, a pomegranate necklace, and saffron colored robes for her metaphorical marriage to the dead Achilles. I hope the sarcophagus also gives the feeling of Achilles’ grave site even if it is dedicated to Polyxena to set the scene of where the sacrifice actually took place.
What a shameful waste of pure potential, but that is what made each Iphigeneia and Polyxena such a valuable sacrifice in the Greek gods’ eyes (besides the fact that they were both princesses in their own right). The deaths of these two kore figures showcase the frailty of life and also the frivolities of war.