For hundreds of years artists have used myths and legends to inspire works of art. They have depicted scenes from Ancient Greek mythology, explored dark folk tales in gory detail, and even created their own cast of characters!
Have you ever walked through an art gallery or museum and seen walls and walls of old dark paintings depicting stiff scenes from classical mythology? Don’t let them put you off! The stories – and the heroes, gods and monsters – from Ancient Greek and Roman mythology can provide rich and exciting ideas for art.
Drama and story telling
J.M.W. Turner paints atmospheric landscape settings for stories from classical mythology. Spectacular mountains and dramatic skies form the background for battles between heroes and monsters.
Frank Auerbach made sketches of a painting by Italian master Titian called Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery in London. The painting shows Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, with his drunken and wild followers. Bacchus sees Ariadne, marries her and transforms her into a constellation of stars.
Auerbach changes the figures, trees and clouds of the original painting into a series of expressive lines and gestural brushwork. These capture the movement and energy of Titian’s painting as well as the passion of the story.
Artist Helen Chadwick used the myth of the ‘Twelve Labours of Heracles’ as the inspiration for her series of photographs The Labours 1986. In Classical mythology Heracles (more famously known by his later Roman name ‘Hercules’), has to complete twelve difficult tasks as a punishment for killing his wife and son. (There were originally ten tasks but two more were added later.) The tasks – or labours – included things like killing nine-headed monsters. Helen Chadwick’s Labours are ten photographs that represent ten key stages in her development from birth to the age of thirty (when she made the work). The stages in her life are represented by ten geometric sculptures. These are based on everyday objects that were personally significant to her. In the photographs, Chadwick interacts with the sculptures, sometimes lifting them and sometimes cradling them.
Gods, heroes and monsters
As well as the stories from Classical mythology, its gods, heroes and monsters can be a rich source of inspiration.
Francis Bacon took inspiration from Greek mythology for some of the twisted and tortured monster-like forms in his paintings. In Three Figures and Portrait 1975 the bird-like form in the foreground, with its snarling human mouth, has been linked to the Furies – fearsome creatures from Greek mythology.
Have a look at more monsters and characters from Classical mythology in art and the very different ways artists have used to depict them.
In Greek mythology, the Minotaur is a creature with the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. It lived at the centre of a labyrinth (a complicated maze-like construction).
Narcissus was a hunter and was known for being very good looking. He was also big headed about being so handsome. He despised and cruelly rejected people who fell in love with him, leaving them broken-hearted and causing some of them to kill themselves. But Narcissus was punished for his vanity. While out hunting he had a drink of water from a pool, saw his refection and fell deeply in love – with himself. When he realised that his love could not be returned (by the reflection) he melted away from the fire of passion inside him.
Venus / Aphrodite
Venus is the Roman goddess of love, sex and desire. (Aphrodite is the Greek version of the goddess of love.)
There are all kinds of myths, legends and folk stories. Often these are part factual and part make-believe. Every culture has its own legends and folklore. Some artists have also created their own legends and cast of characters to tell stories stories.
Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, were fascinated by medieval life, art and culture. They felt that Renaissance art and interest in Classical culture had crushed the creativity and feeling of earlier styles of art. They turned to medieval art for their inspiration and medieval literature and legends for their subject matter. The legends of King Arthur and his knights feature in their work.
Find out more about Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites
We take a look at some little-known facts and bust some myths about this group of Victorian painters
Fairy tales are a form of legend. Although generally written down by somebody, (Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm wrote most of the well-known fairy tales), they are often based on traditional stories or folklore. They contain elements of truth and usually a moral message. They also generally have a happy ending. (The baddies tend to get what they deserve!)
Artist Joan Jonas is fascinated by myths and legends. Her installation The Juniper Tree is inspired by a story by Brothers Grimm. But she doesn’t depict scenes from the story:
When I started using stories with The Juniper Tree, which is a Grimm Brothers story, there was a continuous voice telling the story and I worked against it. I don’t illustrate the stories, but I represent and react to them – find ways to make my own language in relation to the story. Joan Jonas
Props, relics, video projections, paintings and drawings are included in the installation, as well as garments and constructions used in the last version of the performance.
Paula Rego is fascinated by folk tales and fairy tales and often references Portuguese stories and folklore in her work. She also made a series of prints based on stories surrounding the Pendle Witches, as well as a series of paintings based on Portuguese fairy tales.
French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin moved from France to Tahiti in 1895. He wanted to escape modern life in Europe and live in what he thought would be a simpler culture. As well as being inspired by the landscape and way of life, he often included gods and stories from Polynesian mythology in his paintings.
Artist Marc Chagall uses mythology and Russian folklore as the subject for many of his colourful, dreamlike artworks.
Parviz Tanavoli developed a visual language that drew on Iranian traditional culture and its symbols. In a series of screenprints he celebrates Persian myths. He combines motifs and icons found in folk art, such as the cage, the lion, the lock and the bird, with geometric abstract forms.
Legends don’t have to be ancient. Artist Sidney Nolan created a series of paintings and prints around the stories associated with the Australian outlaw and folk hero Ned Kelly. Kelly was the leader of a gang of bank robbers who, like Robin Hood, often gave money to the poor. His daring adventures became the stuff of legends. The strange square helmet that Kelly is wears in Nolan’s paintings, references the home-made metal body armour worn by the gang.
Op artist Bridget Riley’s abstract paintings were often inspired by her experience of different cultures as she travelled around the world. Nataraja is a term from Hindu mythology meaning ‘Lord of the Dance’. It refers to the Hindu God Shiva in his form as the cosmic dancer, who is usually depicted with many arms. In her painting Nataraja, vertical bands of colour are cut across by diagonals, creating a sense of dynamic movement and suggesting the rhythm of the dance.
Artist and poet William Blake created his own mythology populated by a host of beings that he himself had either invented, or re-interpreted. In his book Jerusalem, Blake wrote:
I must create a system, or be enslav'd by another man's. I will not reason & compare: my business is to create.
So while other poets and artists used characters from Greek and Roman mythology, Blake created his own.
Experience Blake’s visionary art in his largest show in a generation
Inspired by legend and folklore, artist Alan Davie developed a language of symbols, shapes and signs. He used these to create abstract artworks that seem to refer to mysterious and mystical other worlds.
More than myths
Legends, myths and folk tales are usually a combination of fact and fantasy. They often include or refer to real people and events. Artists Ellen Gallagher and Anselm Kiefer have used legends in their work to explore and comment on significant and horrific events in history.
Bird in Hand reflects Ellen Gallagher’s interest in narratives surrounding the slave trade. In several artworks Gallagher has imaginatively explored of the Middle Passage. This was the most treacherous part of the slave-trading route between Africa and North America. Bird in Hand shows an underwater scene that seems to refer to the mythical Drexciya or Black Atlantis. This is a fictional underwater world populated by a marine species descended from drowned slaves. The central figure in the painting is a sailor or pirate with a peg-leg. His character is mysterious, but Gallagher suggests that he is an evil presence:
I think of this painting as an origin myth of sorts, with a kind of evil doctor, perhaps related to Doctor Moreau or Frankenstein, at its centre.
Anselm Kiefer uses Germanic mythology to explore Germany’s troubled past. This is one of a series of painting Kiefer made between 1980 and 1983 that revisited images of Hitler’s monumental architecture. Using old photographs and architectural plans, Kiefer transformed symbols of Nazi authority into derelict building-sites.
In this work, the vaulted structure contains the unseen presence of three figures from Norse mythology (The Norns) who represent Past, Present and Future. Their names are scratched into the ceiling. These ‘fates’ are traditionally represented in a hall, spinning the threads of destiny. In this painting their presence is suggested by the thread-like strings that hang from their names. Below a glowing fire suggests Kiefer’s hope for salvation and regeneration. The work reflects Kiefer’s attempts to reconcile his country’s history through the myths of Germanic legend.
Objects: spiritual and ritualistic
As well as depicting myths and legends, artists often use ritualistic objects to suggest them.
Artist Joseph Beuys created his own personal mythology. He was a pilot during the Second World War and was shot down over the Crimea. From this incident Beuys developed the myth that a nomadic tribe had rescued him. He would have died if they hadn’t wrapped his broken body in fat and felt (to keep him warm) and nursed him back to health. Beuys often used fat and felt in his work. These humble substances became powerful symbols of healing and life.
The rich pigments used by sculptor Anish Kapoor give his sculptural forms a feeling of ritual or ceremony. He was inspired by the use of pigment in Hindu ceremonies. The title As if to Celebrate, I discovered a Mountain Blooming With Red Flowers relates to the Hindu myth of the Goddess, who was born out of a fiery mountain. The mountain was composed of the bodies of male gods. Kapoor was interested in this idea of one force giving way to or being transformed into the energy and substance of another.
Frank Auerbach used Titian’s painting of Bacchus and Ariadne as a starting point for a an abstract painting. Have a go at re-mastering an Old Master!
Research paintings of mythological scenes. Visit a museum or explore them on the internet.
Make sketches of these paintings. You could sketch the whole painting or choose a small detail. Don’t copy the paintings exactly – try and capture the shapes, movement, colour and mood of the painting.
Use these sketches as a starting point for a whole new take on mythology!
William Blake and Ellen Gallagher created their own mythology and characters. They did this to put across their thoughts and feelings about the world and society. Super heroes such as Spiderman and Wonder Woman are invented characters created to right wrongs, do good and generally sort out the world.
Create your own mythology of characters.
Is there an issue you feel strongly about – such as social media bullying or the overuse of plastics? What sort of mythological superhero could you invent to fight this? Or, like Ellen Gallagher, you could invent a sinister character to symbolise this issue?