Student Resource

Myths and Legends Coursework Guide

Be inspired by myths and legends – or create your own!

Parviz Tanavoli, ‘Lion and Sword’ 2009
Parviz Tanavoli
Lion and Sword 2009
Tate
© Parviz Tanavoli

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!

Classical mythology

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

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Apollo and Python’ exhibited 1811
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Apollo and Python exhibited 1811
Tate

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.

Frank Auerbach, ‘Sketch from Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’’ 1970–1
Frank Auerbach
Sketch from Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ 1970–1
Tate
© Frank Auerbach
Frank Auerbach, ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ 1971
Frank Auerbach
Bacchus and Ariadne 1971
Tate
© Frank Auerbach
Titian Bacchus and Ariadne 1522–23

Titian Bacchus and Ariadne 1522–23 National Gallery, London

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.

Helen Chadwick, ‘The Labours VIII’ 1986
Helen Chadwick
The Labours VIII 1986
Tate
© Estate of Helen Chadwick
Helen Chadwick, ‘The Labours I’ 1986
Helen Chadwick
The Labours I 1986
Tate
© Estate of Helen Chadwick

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, ‘Three Figures and Portrait’ 1975
Francis Bacon
Three Figures and Portrait 1975
Tate
© Estate of Francis Bacon

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.

The Minotaur

George Frederic Watts, ‘The Minotaur’ 1885
George Frederic Watts
The Minotaur 1885
Tate
Maggi Hambling, ‘Minotaur Surprised while Eating’ 1986–7
Maggi Hambling
Minotaur Surprised while Eating 1986–7
Tate
© Maggi Hambling. All Rights Reserved 2020 / Bridgeman Images
Richard Patterson, ‘Painted Minotaur’ 1996–7
Richard Patterson
Painted Minotaur 1996–7
Tate
© Richard Patterson

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

Salvador Dalí, ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ 1937
Salvador Dalí
Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937
Tate
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2020
Mat Collishaw, ‘Narcissus’ 1990
Mat Collishaw
Narcissus 1990
Lent from a private collection 2000
© Mat Collishaw
Lucian Freud, ‘Narcissus’ 1948
Lucian Freud
Narcissus 1948
Tate
© The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

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

David Jones, ‘Aphrodite in Aulis’ 1940–1
David Jones
Aphrodite in Aulis 1940–1
Tate
© The estate of David Jones / Bridgeman Images
Michelangelo Pistoletto, ‘Venus of the Rags’ 1967, 1974
Michelangelo Pistoletto
Venus of the Rags 1967, 1974
Tate
© Michaelangelo Pistoletto
Thomas Lowinsky, ‘The Dawn of Venus’ 1922
Thomas Lowinsky
The Dawn of Venus 1922
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Venus is the Roman goddess of love, sex and desire. (Aphrodite is the Greek version of the goddess of love.)

Explore more artworks about classical creatures and monsters

Explore more artworks about classical gods and heroes

Legends and folk tales

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.

Arthurian legends

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, ‘Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor’ 1862
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt
Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor 1862
Tate
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra’ 1857
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra 1857
Tate

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

Fairy tales

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!)

Joan Jonas, ‘The Juniper Tree’ 1976, reconstructed 1994
Joan Jonas
The Juniper Tree 1976, reconstructed 1994
Tate
© Joan Jonas

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, ‘Him’ 1996
Paula Rego
Him 1996
Tate
© Paula Rego
Paula Rego, ‘Flood’ 1996
Paula Rego
Flood 1996
Tate
© Paula Rego

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.

Explore more interpretations of fairy tales in The House of Fairy Tales print portfolio

Myths and legends from around the world

Paul Gauguin, ‘Faa Iheihe’ 1898
Paul Gauguin
Faa Iheihe 1898
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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.

Marc Chagall, ‘The Green Donkey’ 1911
Marc Chagall
The Green Donkey 1911
Tate
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

Artist Marc Chagall uses mythology and Russian folklore as the subject for many of his colourful, dreamlike artworks.

Parviz Tanavoli, ‘Lion and Sword’ 2009
Parviz Tanavoli
Lion and Sword 2009
Tate
© Parviz Tanavoli
Parviz Tanavoli, ‘Poet and Bird’ 1974
Parviz Tanavoli
Poet and Bird 1974
Tate
© Parviz Tanavoli

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.

Sir Sidney Nolan, ‘1. Ned Kelly’ 1970–1
Sir Sidney Nolan
1. Ned Kelly 1970–1
Tate
© Sidney Nolan Trust. All Rights Reserved, 2020 / Bridgeman Images

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.

Bridget Riley, ‘Nataraja’ 1993
Bridget Riley
Nataraja 1993
Tate
© Bridget Riley 2020. All rights reserved.

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.

Myth making

William Blake, ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ c.1819–20
William Blake
The Ghost of a Flea c.1819–20
Tate
William Blake, ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ 1795–c.1805
William Blake
Nebuchadnezzar 1795–c.1805
Tate

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.

Tate Britain

Exhibition

William Blake

11 Sep 2019 – 2 Feb 2020

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.

Alan Davie, ‘Image of the Fish God’ 1956
Alan Davie
Image of the Fish God 1956
Tate
© Estate of Alan Davie
Alan Davie, ‘Fairy Tree No. 5’ 1971
Alan Davie
Fairy Tree No. 5 1971
Tate
© Estate of Alan Davie

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.

Ellen Gallagher, ‘Bird in Hand’ 2006
Ellen Gallagher
Bird in Hand 2006
Tate
© Ellen Gallagher

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, ‘Urd, Verdandi, Skuld (The Norns)’ 1983
Anselm Kiefer
Urd, Verdandi, Skuld (The Norns) 1983
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Anselm Kiefer

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.

Joseph Beuys, ‘Felt Suit’ 1970
Joseph Beuys
Felt Suit 1970
Tate
© DACS, 2020
Joseph Beuys, ‘Fat Chair’ 1964–85
Joseph Beuys
Fat Chair 1964–85
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© DACS, 2020

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.

Anish Kapoor, ‘As if to Celebrate, I Discovered a Mountain Blooming with Red Flowers’ 1981
Anish Kapoor
As if to Celebrate, I Discovered a Mountain Blooming with Red Flowers 1981
Tate
© Anish Kapoor

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.

Have a go!

Frank Auerbach, ‘Sketch from Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’’ 1970–1
Frank Auerbach
Sketch from Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ 1970–1
Tate
© Frank Auerbach

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!
Mat Collishaw, ‘Narcissus’ 1990
Mat Collishaw
Narcissus 1990
Lent from a private collection 2000
© Mat Collishaw

Contemporary artists Matt Collishaw and Richard Patterson have created updated versions of Gods and monsters from classical mythology.

  • Explore the heroes, monsters and gods in mythological stories and legends. You don’t just have to explore classical stories.
  • You can use mythology and folk tales from different countries or times. Create your own interpretation of these characters. Think of them in terms of contemporary society.
  • If they were around today, what might they look like? How would they behave? Where would they live?
William Blake, ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ 1795–c.1805
William Blake
Nebuchadnezzar 1795–c.1805
Tate

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?

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