Illustrated companion

Though clearly heavily indebted to the art of past centuries, McKenna's painting is unmistakeably modern both in the freedom with which it draws on diverse sources in past art and in its sense of the disjunction between the modern world and that of the Old Masters. McKenna is inspired both by their technical brilliance and by the lasting relevance of the universal themes of classical mythology. 'Venus and Adonis' of 1981 brings together two famous subjects from Greek myth - that of the goddess Venus's love for the mortal Adonis, and the story of the goddess Diana who, when seen bathing by a hunter, Actaeon, changed him into a stag and hunted him to death. McKenna has said that he was inspired not only by the original stories, which he read in the Metamorphoses of the Latin poet Ovid (43BC-17AD), but by the many memorable treatments of them in past art. McKenna brought the two myths together because both deal with the relationships of humans and the gods and with the transformation of human beings into other forms - the tree is Adonis's mother Myrrha and the male figure in the background is Actaeon transformed into a stag. Adonis, dead after being wounded by a wild boar, is grieved over by Venus. Shortly after his death his blood was transformed into the flower we know as the anemone. Characteristically, McKenna has divided his painting into two zones of different emotional quality: in the background the violent murder of Actaeon in a wintry setting, and in the foreground the peace of death itself, surrounded by the renewal of spring. The painting contains a number of specific tributes to previous versions of the subjects as well as references to other paintings. For example the shooting of Actaeon comes from the famous late Titian version of this subject in the National Gallery in London.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.282