Live Virtual Auction, 15 February 2020
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About this Item
The ancient myth of Daedalus and Icarus was first told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses (VIII: 183–235). Icarus’s hubris, resulting in his fall, is so dramatic and spectacular that one often forgets about his father, Daedalus, who seems to be relegated to the background. Daedalus, a skilful craftsman and artist, in all his wisdom and prowess, is best known for the fact that he built the Labyrinth to confine King Minos’s offspring, the Minotaur, on the island of Crete, a deed that resulted in Daedalus and his son being imprisoned in the tower. Daedalus devised the escape plan, configuring two pairs of feather and wax wings, by which the two of them could fly away. But not too close to the sun lest the wax melt, and not too close to the sea lest the feathers get wet. Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he plummeted to his death, but Daedalus flew on and reached the island of Sicily safely.
The hurtling half-figure that dominates much of the picture plane in the present lot is quite ambiguous: it could depict Icarus, with his pair of wings already going up in flames, revealing the bones of his rib cage, or it could depict Daedalus, flying somewhere between sun and sea on an even keel, looking straight ahead, but with an immense sense of sorrow expressed in his eyes and an open mouth from which tears seem to spring in the slipstream of his flight. One is reminded of the WH Auden poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, which refers to the painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560). The first stanza of the poem reads: “About suffering they were never wrong/The old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position: how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
Straight ahead of the Daedalus figure in the present lot is an indistinguishable heap, yet another ambiguity: is it the island of Sicily or the last vestiges of Icarus’s sinking body? Of particular significance in this artwork is the physical gap, a burn mark, or sharp cut, slightly off-centre in the paper, as if Icarus has escaped through that slit into another dimension.
Mason’s work is characterised by her “psychological insight” into the figures she depicts,1 rather than speculative narratives about the subject matter. According to Wilhelm van Rensburg, “it is almost as if Mason pits Dionysus against Apollo in each of her works. As if the emotion and feeling confront the intellect and the rational mind; as if nature ousts reason, or reason displaces chaos.”2
1. Esmé Berman (1983) Art & Artists of South Africa, Cape Town: AA Balkema. Page 276.
2. Wilhelm van Rensburg (2008) Judith Mason: A Prospect of Icons, Johannesburg: Standard Bank Gallery. Page 12.