This begins a multi-part series on magic and movies. Does magic really exist? If so, what is its definition and who are its practitioners?
The digital reproduction above comes close to being, itself, a kind of magic spell by depicting the famous encounter between Circe the sorceress and Ulysses, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. The painter’s treatment of his subject is an example of the kind of visual tour de force that storytelling artists were able to draw on and enchant motion picture audiences with as soon as they were invented.
This type of painting makes use of our imaginations the same way as movies do, which is to prompt us to fill in essential information that is left out of view. In order to help his audience fill in the missing story with strictly visual cues, a pictorial storyteller must exercise complete control over the frame. The same goes with a magic spell or enchantment.
Whether attempted by a painter, filmmaker, magician or any other artist, a well-performed trick keeps our reasoning brain busy while it plays with our subconscious. Film appears to defy nature’s laws by shaping the action at 24 frames per second. Magicians can swap sets and props to string together a series of illusory events. Painters have only a single canvas with which to cast their spell, but we can study it for as long as we wish.
The convenience of being able to freeze the action in painting will give me an opportunity to read into every detail of Waterhouse’s interpretation of Homer and see if we can dodge Circe’s trap.
To be effective a spell or enchantment must be worked out in intricate detail. In “Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses,” we see a gorgeous woman garbed in silvery gauze, seated on some kind of throne. Sunlight accentuates her left breast–a rosy nipple peeks out over the sharply slanted whisper of her gown. On a totemic footstool, her naked toes bathe in the sunbeam with her breast. On the floor to her left is an intoxicated swine–one of Ulysses companions that drank from Circe’s cup. A wary Ulysses, which you will detect in the circular glass that comprises Circe’s backrest, stands before the sorceress. He appears behind her in the mirror, like he is bowing to her breast.
Her face tilts back in a wily, come-hither gaze while she raises the potion in her right hand and steadies a long wand over her head with her left. Gold-cupped incense fumes waft up from lower right toward the raised-cup in the upper left. Her forty-five degree neckline ups this rapport. The painter invites us to notice how these details combine to stupefy Circe’s subject with multi-sensual assault.
Supported on the backs of roaring lions, each with a serpent coiled around its neck, the painter poises the sorceress, literally, between the man and his reflection. She reigns there on her altar, capturing his eye, her ready cup and rod held high. Classic columns fill in the glass, interspersed with shards of Aegean sky.
Circe’s leonine throne recalls the wild cats Ulysses encountered outside, wandering her domain. They were strangely tame and approachable, having been drugged by this demonic dame. So the painter manages to articulate the essential mark of a good magician, who begins weaving his or her spell even before the audience has entered the dark. Let us not overlook the profusion of purple flowers tumbled down from the diabolic shadows. No doubt this is the wicked herb. It looks so fragrant and appealing.
I have left out, until now, the erotic charge of the image. It portrays a naked woman most desirably and represents a clear case of high-class smut. Sexually stimulating paintings, for the past 500 years, have been socially accepted in the west. Why? Their ability to arouse and enchant is highly prized. If you wore the fashions of The Guilded Age, long before porn went pop, this picture could put you in touch with your passion, provoking potent and inspired thoughts.
Even today, if your imagination is given to flights, you might readily put yourself in this scene with a keen thirst for her drink and the aftertaste of regret. For it is quite intentionally the same moment when you will be close enough to appraise her exquisite skin, navel, knees, hips. Voila! Are we swine yet?
The circular censor and tiled rings repeat the cup and mirror in shape and theme. Graduating circles emblemize the enclenching cinch of Circe’s ingenious scheme. Notice too the stoop that raises her above the rabble has a radial indent, to impress upon us one more way that we are ensnared already by her intent.
Now she may be imposing her illusion on you and me, but Ulysses was warned about Circe’s treachery. He has drugged himself to resist her with the Holy Moly. Holy Moly! To this day, when we see something unexplainable, those two words are sometimes exclaimed. It stems from ancient superstition, invoking the antidote with which Ulysses foiled Circe’s aims.
With that in mind, there is a peculiar detail in the upper right corner–a very important feature of the painting–that slice of light above the sorceress’s left hand. Why that shape in that position? It appears most distractingly strong up there in the darkest zone of the composition and makes her hand look deformed, projecting from it like a dagger or a talon.
Why did the artist paint that? Why there? What are we looking at? He fails to completely conceal some background behind a large curtain or tapestry which subtly dilutes the illusion of Circe’s magic trap.
We can escape the fate of Ulysses friends, through this brilliant detail, in which the set is left slightly open for us to see, so that we don’t fall victim to Circe’s spell. Ulysses sees through her deception and anyone who finds this antidote in the painting can too and avoid becoming plump, languid and jowly with a snout and a squiggly tale. That little up thrust dagger of light becomes our counter-spell.
Needless to say, this is superb pictorial storytelling. It took more than 800 words for me to briefly make plain the narrative evident in one single pass over Waterhouse’s exquisite frame. We will have to leave it now in order to take Homer’s allegory to it’s logical extreme, but we’ll take it up again in a subseqeunt part of this series in which we introduce the first magician of motion pictures, Georges Jean Méliés.
To conclude the tale, when Ulysses leans over to sip the potion, Circe taps him with her wand and is shocked when he does not go porcine. Since he can resist Circe, her yearning for Ulysses grows. Swine are turned back into soldiers. Circe now moves to Ulysses’ tune. His men stay on her island with him for a year, eating, drinking, and nursing their wounds.
By the end of the stay they are such good friends Circe sends her lover to seek council from the ghost of the prophet Teirisias in the underworld. She wants Ulysses to avoid certain pitfalls that await him on his way home.
When I recalled this episode of the Odyssey and decided to explore it as an allegory for connecting motion pictures to magic acts, I had forgotten about the Holy Moly. It ends up providing the perfect metaphor for how movies themselves are the antidote to the many spells of our modern day.