July 24 2013

The miracle by which Life enters into its Kingdom […] is described by the Hellenic mythology in the parable of Pygmalion’s statue, and portrayed by our Western art in Watts’s picture of Chaos. In the Hellenic myth, a piece of marble turns to human flesh and blood in response to the prayer of a sculptor who has fallen in love with the creature of his own creative hands.

The Pygmalion story is in Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X. The Cypriot sculptor had offered his prayer to Venus.

In Watts’s Chaos, huge figures of titans are pictured in the act of shaking themselves free from the frame of their Mother Earth. They are still clay of her clay – glowing-red forms of one earthy substance and one fiery heat with the glowing-red landscape. Some of them are drowsily stirring in a flux of volcanic flames; others, wholly liberated and fully come alive, are leaning, stupefied, upon the Earth-Mother’s breast. But we know that in a moment – the moment after this which the artist has caught in his vision – these giants will surely rise to their feet and then stride forward over land and sea. We know it because already, on the peaks of the mountains, the grim chthonic glow is turning miraculously into the ethereal flush of dawn; and because, down here in the shadow, unhurried but unhindered, there floats or dances through Space and Time a living chain of Goddesses, hand linked in hand: the endless procession of the Hours.

The Hours represent the establishment of measurable time and space.

We forget that in 1880 Watts was the most revered figure in British art, a British Michelangelo. He died in 1904. See, to return to a thread in this blog, George Clausen’s The Art of G.F. Watts RA, OM, A Lecture Delivered in the Town Hall, Manchester on 31 May 1905, Sheratt and Hughes, 1905, delivered the year after Chesterton published his book.

Watts, Chaos

GF Watts, Chaos, Tate Britain, c 1875-82

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

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