Ariadne’s String

My interested in mythology, the journey of the hero, and particularly of Psyche and Eros eventually brought me to Peter Paul Rubens and his painting titled “The Andrians” (a rendition of Titian’s earlier painting “The Bacchanal of the Andrians”).  Bacchus is the Roman equivalent of the Greek Dionysus, the god of harvest and winemaking. The painting depicts a riotous party on the island of Andros, with partygoers drinking their fill from a river made of wine. The right-side foreground features a small boy (Cupid/Eros) urinating over a reclining, ecstatic nymph (Venus). The urinating boy is peeing into the river of wine that flows under them. Downstream, on the left, a man scoops up the urine-wine cocktail into a gold cup. French art historian Jean-Claude Lebensztejn suggests that the peeing boy might be Bacchus himself, whose urine holds the power to transform the landscape.[1]  The nymph/Venus figure is based on a classical statue of Ariadne, who eventually marries Bacchus/Dionysus.[2]

“The Andrians”, 1630s, by Peter Paul Rubens

The various elements in the Andrian paintings related to transformation (the gold pee of alchemy, the elixir of wine, etc.) inspired me to incorporate this symbolism into my own painting. What captivated me most was Ariadne in the guise of Venus. Venus is the Isis figure who transforms the male protagonist in the classic story of “The Golden Ass”.

The name Ariadne is derived from the Cretan dialectical elements ari (ἀρι-) “most” and adnós (ἀδνός) “holy” or “most holy”. Ariadne was mostly associated with mazes and labyrinths because of her involvement in the myths of the Minotaur and Theseus. She is venerated for her ability to guide lost souls from the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Her association with Dionysus as “the liberator” who inspires creativity, inhibition, divine ecstasy, and freedom from self-conscious fear supports her ability to free those who feel abandoned in the maze of time and space. The quick version of the myth of Ariadne is as follows:

Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and decided to help him in his quest to slay the Minotaur. She gave him a sword to fight the Minotaur, as well as a ball of red thread; she advised him to tie one end near the entrance of the labyrinth and let the thread unroll as he delves deeper into the twisting and branching paths. When Theseus found the Minotaur, he managed to slay him, and then followed the thread back to the entrance, where Ariadne was waiting. She then eloped with him on his way back to Athens.[3]

Ariadne’s String leads us from the Minotaur of our self-doubt and self-criticism that blocks our creativity and the path to our fullest potential and joy.

As an exercise in creativity and freeing ourselves from self-judgment, the surrealists engaged in pure psychic automatism by practicing an imaginative doodling led by their subconscious impulses. The lines created by the doodling represent the red string given to Theseus by Ariadne to help him make his way back from the dark center of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. One of the best examples of this are the “Bacchus” series of paintings by Cy Twombly:

“Untitled, Bacchus (Dionysus), 2005, by Cy Twombly[4]

Twombly often responded to the violence of contemporary political events with works that drew on classical history and literature. In the catalogue essay that accompanied his 2005 exhibition, art historian Malcolm Bull argued that the abiding theme of these paintings was that of a force of madness rising, like a ‘fire that rises from the depths of the sea’.[5]    

“Of Sky and Earth #43 (Ariadne’s String), is an amalgamation of elements from Rubens, Titian, and Twombly with an emphasis on dream images, contemporary figures, and a certain randomness of form and brushstroke (automatism). The images of Cupid and Venus are replaced with a cat in a box. My cat’s name is ‘King’. He adopted me when I first moved to Brazil. I call him a Zen cat because of his black and white markings. He is an example of patience and tolerance—the antidote to the central figures painted as a swirling of humanity caught up in today’s political and social upheaval—the “fire that rises from the depths of the sea”. Ariadne’s string is not specifically depicted but hinted at by the Rubens-red of the background fabric. It is the unseen impulse that helps guide us from our preoccupations with loneliness, despair, injustice, and anger in a world that is spinning out of control and leads us to the white crane pointing to a higher perspective that is ripe with the potential for change and personal growth.  

“Of Sky and Earth #43 (Ariadne’s String)”


[1] Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, “Pissing Figures 1280–2014” (David Zwirner Books), from an article in Artsy.net by Alexxa Gotthardt “Why Is Western Art History Full of People Peeing?” (https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-western-art-history-full-people-peeing)

[2] http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-paintings/bacchanal-of-the-andrians.htm#analysis

[3] https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Monsters/Minotaur/minotaur.html

[4] https://www.wikiart.org/en/cy-twombly/untitled-i

[5] https://www.christies.com/features/Twombly-Circle-of-Fire-8684-1.aspx

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