Moreau’s Galatea: Poseidon Eat Your Heart Out: Your Son’s a Depthless Incel
I’ve noticed that museums often don’t know what to do with Moreau — too ahead of his time for rank among his coevals, but not famous enough to merit fanfare like other iconoclast classicists. In the Museum Thyssen, this disregarded masterpiece hangs at the portal between a hurried-along staircase and a room of 19th century French landscape paintings. Though the painting is placed alone and aloof in the corridor, it is still almost impossible to miss, splashing and raving as it is, all awash in the colors of passion and Facebook notifications.
Like Klimt and Schiele, whom he most resembles, Moreau draws on classical styles and concepts to make sense of his hairy imagination. He does so especially here in his symbol-laden interpretation of Ovid’s Acis and Galatea.
On the foreground bank of the river which refracts sunlight in multicolored disks, reposes the classical, denuded physique of water nymph, Galatea. She is sparingly covered with a gossamer shawl that glints gold in the sunlight. Gently she strokes the water. Drops of dew — tears perhaps? — run down her blond hair and all about her bare shoulders and legs stretch the ventricular stems of lippy, curling otherworldly plants. Above, foliage like striated glass is topped with multicolored flowers opening in bouquet-like arrangements. Although the colors bleed and dance and explode, the paint is darkened in such a way that the snow-white body of Galatea appears to glow. For this reason, despite the pyrotechnics, the eye is drawn firstly to her. But what does it recognize?
Perhaps a keening for her lost lover, Acis, crushed by the envious and cruel Polyphemus? Or does one read her sexuality? Is she seeking the attention of someone? After all she strokes sensually her chest and the water below her. Or still yet, is she simply reposing disinterestedly on the bank, washing her hair in the stream, cosseted by emergent plants? What does her expression say to you?
On the opposite side of the shore, an uncharacteristically solemn and reverent Polyphemus doused in Moreau’s languid, serpent-like strokes, presents himself as a monster turned man, satyr’s hide and flute in hand, to the water nymph. His singular gr-y eye pierces from his forehead precisely as his underlids simper and submit. About him, explosions of color, darkening just at his shoulders and shearing him from the rind of blues, reds, whites and yellows. In the distance, the sun, the star Polyphemus compares to his single eye in Ovid’s tale, sprays the sky with a passionate fiery red and orange, the likes of which give sailors pause at shore. But, is it the red of foreboding morning or that of consoling night?
In the above paintings I’ve highlighted Polyphemus’ placement on the canvas in red. Generally, his role is one of brooding jealousy, a mere onlooker. In two of the paintings he is thoughtlessly attacking the fleeing couple, and in three you can hardly see him on the impersonal periphery. Too ugly to share the spotlight with sex pots Galatea and Acis, too ugly to celebrate body and form, too misshapen and hideous and evil to be an archetype of male beauty, he is banished to the realm of shallow symbol, the thinning smoke above the hearth, the lightning dashing out across the horizon — and all the while, Zeus and Apollo, Aphrodite and Ares dominate our galleries. Moreau’s depiction is singular among other depictions of Ovid’s myth in visual art insofar as he depicts Galatea and Polyphemus sharing the central space on the canvas. For this reason and others, I think Moreau’s depiction is a more thoughtful reading of Ovid than those pictured above.
For one, what do these above depictions actually say about Ovid’s story? Some parts of the paintings are true to the details of the tale: in most, the cyclops is up on a mountain, in a couple of the paintings he plays a pan flute, he seems oafishly jealous in several, and in others his jealousy is marked by brutish violence. However, these details are only superficial vestiges of the story. They trace the plot, map the setting, but widely circle the meaning. If judged by only these paintings, one might come away from Ovid’s tale thinking Polyphemus an obvious and incorrigible brute and Galatea an oblivious ingenue. By oversimplifying, these painters date themselves and the tale as the stuff of a bygone era where men were hairy, jealous brutes, and love deterministically destined for punishment — a myth endemic to dusty pages. In actuality, Ovid’s tale has timeless relevance and harbors a terrible tragedy extending well beyond the death of Acis. This relevance is what Moreau draws from the tale without rejecting classical aesthetics.
In the tale of Ovid, Polyphemus changes a great deal, or at least claims to. Galatea recalls to Scylla that,
“Now you [Polyphemus] care for your appearance, and are anxious to please, now you comb your bristling hair with a rake, and are pleased to cut your shaggy beard with a reaping hook, and to gaze at your savage face in the water and compose its expression. Your love of killing, your fierceness, and your huge thirst for blood, end, and the ships come and go in safety.”
In Moreau’s painting, a kempt Polyphemus bows and presents the garb of the satyr — the skin, horn, and hooves of a goat — as if symbolically relinquishing his lust for violence and domination. And yet, all the while, he stares agog at the nude Galatea. Though flowers and vines adorn his flowing hair, he is far from submissive gallant.
Aside from dressing up and reigning in his blood-lust, Polyphemus affects other gentile airs, singing verse on Galatea’s beauty, proclaiming his divine lineage, and praising his massive riches which he supposedly hoards for her. “Every tree will be there to serve you,” he promises.
His ruses are revealed when at the end of his monologue, angry with Galatea’s rejection, he threatens to destroy Acis:
“Galatea, let me just have a chance at him. Then he will know I am as strong as I am big! I’ll tear out his entrails while he lives, rend his limbs and scatter them over the fields, and over your ocean, (so he can join you!) For I am on fire, and, wounded, I burn with a fiercer flame, and I seem to bear Aetna with all his violent powers sunk in my breast, yet you, Galatea, are unmoved.”
Polyphemus’ arc is one of persistent and festering masculine evil. He is more Satan than Goliath for the very fact that he can pretend, and pretend convincingly, to be a tamed man. There is something far more insidious about hiding one’s true nature because it implies a knowledge and therefore a disregard for, at least, normative morality. But, as Galatea knows, No handful of cold spring water can wash away the nature of Polyphemus. His is the ignoble masculinity of an old and violent man, long-stained with blood, the evil culmination of evil acts, whereas Acis, a boy of only sixteen with “a faint down” covering his “tender cheeks” is still unbloodied and courage-less. When Polyphemus attacks them, Acis does not stand up for himself or Galatea, puffs no chest, brandishes no pride, but turns his back and flees, all the while begging his lover save him.
Galatea’s is a rejection of the mythic masculinity of the dichotomous warrior- poet, which might, for instance, be seen in the likes of Odysseus, Achilles, and other Greek heroes. They are those who can stop up the blood-thirst native to the warrior-killer and don at will the harmless countenance of the poet-lover. Perhaps Acis, representing in youth just one side of this binary, was destined to embrace both, but neither we nor Galatea were ever to find out.
I believe the absence of Acis in Moreau’s painting dates the retelling to the period after Acis’ death. And I think that Moreau is taking some creative liberties by showing Polyphemus submitting after the attack rather than before. For, we aren’t told precisely what happens after Acis is killed. We know that Polyphemus eventually forces a relationship with Galatea from which comes one son, Galas, but not whether that relationship is a result of coercion or violence or otherwise. Likely, from what we are shown by Moreau, there is some complexity to the aftermath.
In Ovid’s story, river-transformed Acis was personified even after his death “except that he was larger, and his face dark blue.” However, in Moreau’s interpretation, Acis is not personified, but embodied as the river. Given his passive characteristics and the lingering question of the sort of man Acis might grow to be, embodying him as the river tells us a few things about Moreau’s reading of Ovid. This interpretation also brings to light a sensual undertone which helps to explain the strange pose and gestures of Galatea: she is with her lover, not merely bathing by a stream.
Moreau expands on what about Acis attracts Galatea and positions him as a foil to Polyphemus. So long as Acis was alive, his youth would end and he would have to decide what sort of man he would be: undoubtedly, he would grow bristling hair where once there was peach fuzz and would broaden and thicken and expand towards an end of physical power, power over Galatea and perhaps over other men. Given that Acis, in death, becomes static, embodied in a consistent piece of the natural landscape, the question of who Acis might become is left open. The answer to such a question has the potential to reveal whether men can or cannot be lovers. If Polyphemus, Zeus, and Poseidon are our only models, it seems that answer is no. The only fairytale naivete in Galatea and Acis is from the thought that Galatea could ever prevent Acis from becoming Polyphemus save by transforming him into a river.
Embodied as the river, the forever youth, the forever pure, Acis never needs to fight against his own instincts or nature for his path remains the same, to flow, supporting and taking life passively. Imperious Polyphemus on the other hand represents the breakdown of the warrior-lover. He is a man of bristling fur past his youth who affects attributes of selflessness in order to colonize love. Whether these affects are false or earnest does not matter because either way he betrays them for a more expedient route via violence. Polyphemus, being powerful, was unable to contain his power and therefore lost out on the feminine, egalitarian love Galatea craves, a love which embraces a constant weakness and vulnerability.
In Moreau’s painting, Polyphemus is shown floral and submissive while giving up his satyr’s robes, all the while keeping one eye open on Galatea. Like a gambler collared with sweat, he gives away his hand. And yet, Galatea languishes by the river, experiencing the passivity of Acis, the non-violence, the youthful sweetness forever even as the cyclops descends upon her (which he does eventually, siring a son, Galas). Embedded deep in Ovid’s story is a distrust and fear of men which carries over into Moreau’s depiction and is missed by almost everyone else (save for Odilon Redon who has a wonderful and unique version of the myth himself).
Though considered a symbolist painter, I think it is also notable how Moreau maintains a Galatea with classical aesthetics without sacrificing literary content. I like to think that this quality is a snide allusion to the one-dimensional paintings of his peers.