Reviewed: ‘The Pygmalion Effect’

Posted in books, reviews by Editor on September 17, 2010

Recently added to caa.reviews:

Victor I. Stoichita, The Pygmalion Effect: From Ovid to Hitchcock, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 232 pages, ISBN: 9780226775210, $45.

Reviewed by Alison Syme, Department of Art, University of Toronto; posted 26 August 2010.

In ‘The Pygmalion Effect’ Victor Stoichita makes the astonishing claim that there is a libidinal component to mimetic production. Western art history—taken here to be a history of mimesis, of copies—has a dark, disavowed, erotic heart: the simulacrum. The simulacrum differs from the copy in that it is magical rather than mimetic, invites touch rather than merely looking, and is autonomous rather than merely derived from a model; Pygmalion’s statue is its founding myth. Arguing that “the simulacrum was not completely banished by Platonism” (3), Stoichita explores the “reverberations” (5) of the Pygmalion myth through Western art, paying close attention to shifts in iconography, animating tropes, and materials. Unsurprisingly he finds echoes of the work of one great male artist after another (van Eyck, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, etc.) in the work of lesser artists in a triumphal tale of the legacy of original creation. The author’s contention that “the ‘evolution’ of the Pygmalion Effect duplicates, in a significant way, the path taken by various methods for simulating movement, or even life” (6), while hardly new (this idea has been explored in the work of Kenneth Gross, Hillel Schwartz, Michael Cole, and Allison Muri, for example), is certainly borne out by the examples he uses. But Stoichita does not deliver on his claim that he is concerned “with the ‘imaginary woman’ and her place in a phallocentric universe” (6). . .

Chapter 5, “The Nervous Statue,” is devoted to the eighteenth century, a period “haunted” by the Pygmalion myth (111), which is explored in dance, literature, painting, and sculpture. Rather than the blush or the pulse, which had hitherto dominated Pygmalionian iconography, in the Enlightenment the statue’s power of movement becomes the key proof of life. The statue moves and even dances. Stoichita argues that its steps must be considered “in dialectical relation” to the plinth (113), for the sculpted works depicting the Pygmalion myth that appear are faced with a challenge unique to the medium: how can animate, inanimate, and becoming-animate figures be differentiated in sculpture? Falconet solved the problem with a double plinth. The contemporary understanding of the nervous system also informs representations of the myth. Louis Lagrenée’s 1770s paintings emphasize the characters’ actions and reactions—their responsiveness to physical stimuli and the circulation of vital energy through a network of touch and sight—which create “a veritable interaction” (143). Later, Girodet’s 1819 ‘Pygmalion in Love with His Statue’ takes “the idea of a network of energies already authoritatively suggested by someone like Lagrenée” (151) and extends it to the idea of magnetism: the importance of touch gives way to the idea of mesmeric fluids. Such changes in the representation of the myth reflect the materialism of the age, but religious iconography does not vanish from the scene: following Rousseau’s conflation of “artistic creation and religious adoration” (120) . . . .

For the full review, click here» (CAA membership required)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: