Gentle Readers: Valentine’s Day is upon us, with all the accompanying mush, sap, saccharine, hearts, and flowers. We realize, however, that not everyone finds this a day full of love and sunshine. In fact, this evening Crystal Bridges’ artinfusion group hosts the third annual Black Hearts Ball, an anti-Valentine’s Day celebration for the jaded, the disappointed, the bitter, and the burned. So, in the dishonor of Valentine’s Day, here’s a less-than rosy take on four love-focused artworks on view at Crystal Bridges. Enjoy.
Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, 1966-1999 This is a popular place for smoochy engagement photos and baby pics. But a word to the wary: note the rough and rusted surface of this Cor-Ten steel sculpture. This particular version of LOVE has Seen Some Stuff. Unlike some of its shinier painted incarnations, this version of Indiana’ LOVE looks harder, tougher, and way more experienced. With its oxidation and lack of rosy hue, this sculpture—like real love, when it works, in real life—has weathered the storms, standing firm in all seasons. No fancy paint jobs here, just the Real Deal.
Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta, 1994-2006 The opposite of Indiana’s rough LOVE, the Hanging Heart is like a dream of love polished to a high gloss and drifting upward in all its mirrored, weightless glory. Also, like a dream of love, it’s blown all out of proportion and hanging well out of reach. It’s also much heavier than it looks. If it fell on you, it would crush you flat, and not even notice.
Randolph Rogers’s Atala and Chactas, 1854 This sculpture, on loan from Tulane University, depicts the fictional tale of a pair of star-crossed Native American Lovers. The story comes from a novella, titled Atala, written by François-René de Chateaubriand in 1801. In brief, Chactas, a Natchez Indian, has been captured by a band of Muscogees and Seminoles who plan to burn him alive when they get him back to their camp. The women in the band take pity on him and one in particular, the half-caste Atala, falls in love with him. They run off together and take shelter in a forest church. Alas, they cannot marry because Atala has taken a vow of chastity. Instead, naturally, she opts for poison. Presumably she did not take a vow against suicide. Interestingly, although Chactas is shown in the sculpture in the act of removing a thorn from the lovely Atalas’s foot, this scene never transpired in the original novella. The motif of compassionate thorn removal goes back a long way, however. One of the earliest instances is Lo Spinario, (first century B.C., Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome) a bronze statue depicting a boy pulling a splinter from his own foot.
Benjamin West’s Cupid and Psyche, 1808 (and the Mother-in-Law from Hell) This charming take on the myth of Cupid—the son of Venus, goddess of Love—and the human girl Psyche. Cupid’s mother was jealous of Psyche’s beauty, so she sent her son to shoot the girl with one of his love-inducing arrows so she would fall in love with a horrible monster. Instead, Cupid fell for her himself. The Oracle of Apollo had told Psyche’s parents that she would marry a monster (clearly the Oracle was in cahoots with Venus), and that they must send her up to a castle at the top of a mountain where her monstrous husband would attend her. The West Wind therefore carried the girl off to said castle, where she was assiduously attended by invisible servants by day and visited by her monstrous bridegroom by dark of night, presumably so his monstrousness wouldn’t turn her off too much.
Psyche, being understandably somewhat curious, and egged on by her sisters who pestered her for information, spied on her husband while he slept, only to discover that—Lo! He was not a monster, but the beautiful youth, Cupid! In her surprise (and delight, no doubt), she dripped a bit of hot wax on him from her candle and woke him up, at which point Cupid and his castle disappeared in a huff. Later Psyche worked it all out with her mother-in-law, who set a series of ridiculous tasks for the girl to complete in order to get her beloved back, which still required the interference of Jupiter who finally told Venus enough was enough and gave Psyche a drink of ambrosia to grant her immortality so she could enjoy her husband for longer. So it’s kind of a happy ending. Kind of. Incidentally, Psyche’s jealous sisters all threw themselves off the cliffs trying to get the West Wind to carry them off to handsome, immortal husbands. The West Wind failed to oblige, and the sisters plummeted to their deaths.