Wednesday, April 15, 2015

194. The Myth of Danaë (5): Conclusion

This little series of blogs about Ricketts's images that illustrate the myth of Danaë, published to accompany a poem by Thomas Sturge Moore, comes to a close.

Charles Ricketts, 'In polisht walls a sister found is kissed'
(wood-engraving for Danaë, 1903) (detail)
We started with some observations by Julia Kölnner on the representation of Danaë in art. She pointed out a few details in one of the wood-engravings connecting the myth of Danaë to the stories about the biblical figure of Maria. Ricketts knew about this connection, and inserted a lily in the central image (the second illustration in the book), the one that depicts Zeus penetrating the prison cell of Danaë, impregnating her with his sun rays.

Charles Ricketts, 'She kneels in awe beholding lavish light'
(wood-engraving for Danaë, 1903) (deatil)
The same scene would be illustrated by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) a few years later (1907-1908). Klimt's depiction of Danaë's union with the god Zeus is far more erotic and direct. 

Gustav Klimt, Danae (1907-1908)
Klimt depicts Danaë receiving the god in a dreamy position, she is not actively taking part in the lovemaking. In Ricketts's picture, the god descends in the prison cell, also taking the form of golden rays that, in this case, do not touch Danaë, but strike the floor of the room. Ricketts's Danaë is not in a dreamy state at all, she seems afraid of the rays, as if she is aware of the consequences of her being visited by Zeus.

Charles Ricketts, 'She kneels in awe beholding lavish light'
(wood-engraving for Danaë, 1903) (deatil)
Ricketts's depiction of Danaë has a more intellectual and classical approach to the subject than Klimt's. The small series of three images that Ricketts engraved for Sturge Moore's poem all testify to that. 

We have also studied the sequence of the images that was criticized by Edward Hodnett who characterized the last as superfluous. However, we have established that Ricketts willfully concentrated on the captivated Danaë, a situation that he dramatized by showing us her loneliness (in kissing her own mirror image), in her aloofness and distress when she is visited by the god Zeus, and in her longing for the outside world in the third picture where she is found gazing out of a small window.

Charles Ricketts, 'Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders'
(wood-engraving for 
Danaë, 1903) (detail)
The point of all this is that casual observations about details and thorough criticism of the sequence can make us look more carefully to what an illustrated book is all about. I had never looked this close at the images of the book before, and most critics simply remarked that the images belong to the best Ricketts ever did for a book, relating the quality to the ten wood-engravings he designed for The Parables, as they show the same care for detail and a similar independent attitude towards the text. Herbert Furst characterised the Danaë pictures as 'belonging to Ricketts's principal woodcuts', and Cecil French has called them 'romantic, ingenious, fanciful, and of the best order of technical excellence'.

Most readers of the book will have had an experience like this. It is the 'last book' published by the Vale Press, as announced in its colophon, but it is by no means the easiest book to grasp. The type chosen for the text is the King's Fount, that was dismissed by many critics as an abhorrence. The Morris devotee and type connoisseur Robert Proctor - a young assistant keeper - was vehement in his judgment when he saw the book in the British Museum. In his diary of 22 July 1903 he wrote that he found 'the last issue of the “Vale Press”' a 'very ugly' book. 

Ugliness or beauty are not constant factors, and a book is best judged by examining it closely, independent of taste. Any incentive may serve to do the job, and I am sure that in the future other opportunities involving new ways of looking at these images will turn up.