Michael Ayrton

Icarus Transformed I


Not on display

Michael Ayrton 1921–1975
Object: 203 × 584 × 305 mm
Presented by Benjamin Sonnenberg 1961

Display caption

Daedalus, the father of Icarus, who made his wings, was a sculptor, and Ayrton gave this as one of the reasons for his fascination with this myth. He was also trying to find in sculpture 'a paraphrase of the human body' at the moment of death, and had studied photographs of astronauts subjected to gravitational forces that distorted the flesh of their faces. The body of the figure is modelled on an animal's skull.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

  Not inscribed.
  Bronze, 8×23×12 3/4 (20×58·5×32).
  Presented by Benjamin Sonnenberg 1961.
Coll: Purchased by the donor at the Matthiesen Gallery 1961.
Exh: Michael Ayrton: The Icarus Theme, Matthiesen Gallery, October 1961 (44, repr.).
Lit: Bryan Robertson, ‘Ayrton and the Theme of Icarus’ in Motif, VII, Summer 1961, pp.34–44, repr. p.43; Michael Ayrton, The Testament of Daedalus, 1962, pp.66–8.

In the Postscript to The Testament of Daedalus, p.66, the artist states that the germination of the idea ‘took place on the beach below the Acropolis at Cumae, north of Naples, where Virgil tells us Daedalus landed at the end of his flight.... It was in 1956.’ He wrote (31 January 1962): ‘The Icarus Theme has concerned me since 1959 and there are perhaps 150 works in all media connected with it. The first stage, two reliefs in wax and bone and several drawings were exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in 1959.’

In the introduction to the catalogue of his Matthiesen Gallery exhibition, he added, among other things: 'The myth of Daedalus and Icarus has haunted me for four years. It was conceived several thousand years ago, yet it takes place now and will continue to take place tomorrow. In its ancient form the story is very simple. Daedalus, the craftsman, made wings of wax and feathers for his son Icarus and for himself, that they might escape from the wrath of Minos, King of Crete. During their flight, despite his father's warning, Icarus flew too near the sun, his waxen wings melted and he fell into the sea and was drowned.

'I find myself involved in this legend and strangely aware of the relationship between the creative Daedalus and his son, who, lacking his father's talent, compensated for this lack in one superb and pathetic moment of suicidal action....

‘At the apex of his climb, because mass is modified by its velocity, Icarus changed his form and the anatomy of this transformation obsesses me. The image I seek is a paraphrase of the human body, adapted to those unknown areas of physical experience which it will presently enter.... Photographs of potential astronauts undergoing tests simulating high velocities have been, for me, one point of departure. The re-shaping of their flesh, under intense pressure, appears at once awe-inspiring and a little absurd, just as the ambition which led both to the triumph and fall of Icarus is both heroic and ridiculous.’

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I

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