T03541 Venus and Adonis 1981
Oil on canvas 59 × 78 3/4 (1500 × 2000)
Inscribed ‘sMcK’ b.r., and ‘Stephen McKenna/1981/OIL ON CANVAS/OIL GROUND’ on reverse
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: Stephen McKenna, Patrick Verelst, Antwerp, February–March 1982 (no catalogue); documenta 7, Kassel, June–September 1982 (works not numbered; repr. in Vol. ii of catalogue, p.222, as ‘The Blind Orion with Eos and Artemis’); New Art at the Tate Gallery, Tate Gallery, September–October 1983 (works not numbered, repr. in colour p.27); The Hard-Won Image, Tate Gallery, July–September 1984 (98, repr.)
In a statement for the Tate Gallery, dated 10 November 1982, Stephen McKenna wrote about this work:
The use of mythology in Painting gives the possibility of referring to particular human situations as part of the general natural condition. The Venus and Adonis myth grows out of the winter/summer cycle, and represents the yearly death and re-birth of vegetation. This is paralleled in the two halves of the background, which also refers to the differences between the natural, or divine, and the cultivated, or human.
In a more directly human sense, the story contains elements of love, mourning, jealousy and rashness, with the expressive possibilities which go with these. There is also the relationship between men and the gods, or man and animals.
The ... descriptive techniques vary from the naturalistic to the theatrically artificial.
McKenna owns a number of informal sketches for this painting and a finished sketch in pen and watercolour. Related to the subject of the scene at top right in the Tate's painting is ‘The Destruction of Actaeon’ 1983 (oil on canvas, 2000 × 1500mm; repr. catalogue of exhibition Stephen McKenna, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, September–November 1983, p.9) and a charcoal study for it (repr.ibid., p.51).
The two separate episodes represented in the Tate's painting are derived from passages in Ovid, Metamorphoses, where the story of Venus and Adonis is recounted in Book x. Myrrha, daughter of Cinyras, King of Cyprus, conceived a child by unwitting incest with her father. Ashamed, she begged the gods to change her into another form. They granted her prayer by turning her into a tree, after which she gave birth to a son, Adonis. When Adonis (who was mortal) grew up, the goddess Venus fell in love with him. She warned him to beware of - and not to provoke - various species of wild animals, including boar. But in Ovid's words (The Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated Mary M. Innes, Harmondsworth 1955, p.244), Adonis's:
natural courage ran counter to her advice. By chance, his hounds came upon a well-marked trail and, following the scent, roused a wild boar from its lair. As it was about to emerge from the woods, the young grandson of Cinyras pierced its side with a slanting blow. Immediately the fierce boar dislodged the bloodstained spear, with the help of its crooked snout, and then pursued the panic-stricken huntsman, as he was making for safety. It sank its teeth deep into his groin, bringing him down, mortally wounded, on the yellow sand.
Venus, as she drove through the air in her light chariot drawn by winged swans, recognised the groans of the dying Adonis from afar. As she looked down from on high she saw him, lying lifeless, his limbs still writhing in his own blood. Leaping down from her car she ... cried ... There will be an everlasting token of my grief, Adonis, your blood will be changed into a flower ...
With these words, she sprinkled Adonis's blood with sweet-smelling nectar and, at the touch of the liquid, the blood swelled up, just as clear bubbles rise in yellow mud. Within an hour, a flower sprang up, the colour of blood ... its name, anemone.
In the Tate's painting the central tree represents the transformed Myrrha and the fissure in its trunk the point through which she gave birth to Adonis. In the centre of the painting lies the dead and wounded Adonis, tended by the grieving Venus, with Cupid beyond (his bow broken) and the boar to the right. The red flowers closest to the wounds in Adonis's groin are the anemones into which his blood has been turned.
The scene at top right represents the death of Actaeon (Ovid, Metamorphoses, iii), of whom the Oxford Classical Dictionary relates that ‘a keen hunter, he one day came upon Artemis [Diana] bathing; offended at being seen thus naked by a man, she turned him into a stag and he was chased and killed by his own hounds ... [Actaeon was] torn by hounds under Artemis's eyes.’
McKenna had long been a close reader of Ovid. He was further inspired to paint ‘Venus and Adonis’ by the large number of memorable treatments of this subject (and of that of Diana and Actaeon) in past art. However, while many of his paintings are inspired by particular works from the past there was no particular source for the composition or style of ‘Venus and Adonis’ as a whole.
As the foregoing account of the subject of ‘Venus and Adonis’ shows, McKenna's picture brings together three separate instances of the transformation of human substance into some other form, and a corresponding number of demonstrations of the relationship between mortals and the gods. McKenna emphasises that (as here in the case of Actaeon) such transformations, which more often than not were disadvantageous for the lesser being that was transformed, were usually the result of presumption on the part of the mortals in coming too close to the gods. This last point is exemplified also in the fate of Adonis, for not only was he loved by a goddess, but their continued association contravened an agreement that after half a year he would return to Venus's rival, Persephone.
McKenna divided the composition of ‘Venus and Adonis’ into contrasted zones - the right side dominated by movement and mayhem, in a principally wintry setting, the left characterised by peace and by the abundance of Spring. The image of the death of Actaeon was derived from Titian's ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (National Gallery); the dog at b.r. from Stubbs's ‘Park Phaeton with a Pair of Cream Ponies in Charge of a Stable-lad with a Dog’ 1780–5 (Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon); Adonis and the sleeping dog from an engraving after Martin De Vos (c. 1531–1603) of which McKenna saw a reproduction in a catalogue not confined to the work of De Vos; the boar from an engraving in Johnsonus, a seventeenth century book of engravings on subjects in natural history; the plants from McKenna's garden in Brussels; Venus partly from invention and partly from a model; and Cupid, the herm, the trees and the landscape from invention alone. For the oak branches in the foreground, see the entry on T03540 ‘An English Oak Tree’. The stone in the foreground, with marks incised in its surface, was conceived as suggesting both a natural, weathered form, a weapon and a sculpture, thus occupying a position open to associations, midway between the natural and the man-made.
Closely related to ‘Venus and Adonis’, though not a pendant, is an oil of the same dimensions, also on the theme of transformation and the gods, ‘Apollo and Daphne’ 1981 (repr. in catalogue of exhibition Stephen McKenna, Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels, April–May 1983 (4)).
This entry draws substantially on an interview with the artist on 19 April 1986, and has been approved by him.
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986