Theseus was the mythical founder of Athens who stood for responsible civilized life in people’s imaginations for centuries. He fought the forces of crime and death to make a safe place where human life is possible. Theseus wins easy victories over the monsters in most earlier art. I decided to make him work for his triumphs, and to share in the sufferings of the monsters’ victims. I want to make Theseus less certain of victory in his struggles, just like ourselves when we fight the monsters. I’m retelling his story in a series of four paintings.
Theseus' task was to fight the forces of death on behalf of his people, to make a life of freedom and dignity possible. On a certain level we are all Theseus. No, we don’t battle literal monsters. But, it is our task to struggle against the forces of death, against the madness of ideological extremism and the chaos of instinctual violence within our communities and within ourselves. Our reward, like Theseus’, is not to run a victory lap before cheering crowds, but to see a grateful community building upon our legacy. Theseus, like us, was hardly a perfect hero, just ask Ariadne (whom he abandoned on the island of Naxos after she guided him out of the Labyrinth with her thread). Despite his flaws and weaknesses, he did what was necessary mindful of mortal danger, and without the assurance of success in the end.
1. Theseus Discovers His Father's Sword
Guided by his mother, Aethra, Theseus lifts a huge rock and finds the sword that belongs to his real father. He discovers in that instant that he is not who he thought he was. He realizes that he is a bastard and a foreigner. He faces a mission and a decision. He must return to Athens to claim his kingdom. He can travel there by the safe and easy sea route, or he can travel the dangerous land route full of monsters and predators.
2. Theseus and Procrustes
Procrustes forced his victims to lie on his bed. If they did not fit, he would brutally adjust their size with his axe. I’ve made Procrustes into something of a mad scientist, or a philosopher gone mad looking for some kind of perfect ideal ratio. Not finding it, he decides that imperfect humans must be adjusted or exterminated so that the perfect ideal can be realized. Theseus clearly does not measure up, and must do something or share the fate of Dr. Procrustes’ victims.
3. Theseus and the Minotaur
The Minotaur was a monster, part man and part bull, offspring of the union of Pasiphae, wife of King Minos of Crete, with a bull. Aphrodite arranged this grotesque union as punishment for Minos’ failure to fulfill a vow to Poseidon. As it grew, the Minotaur became ferocious and devoured human flesh. Minos kept the monster in an underground maze called the Labyrinth built by Daedalus. After defeating Athens in a battle to avenge the death of his son at their hands, Minos decreed a terrible price. Every year, the Athenians must send seven boys and seven girls to Crete to be fed to the Minotaur. Theseus volunteered to join the sacrifice in order to kill the Minotaur. Minos’ daughter, Ariadne helped him by giving him a ball of thread to help him find his way back out of the Labyrinth. Theseus killed the Minotaur with his father’s sword and led the children of Athens out of the Labyrinth to safety.
4. Theseus Founds the City of Athens
This painting is based on the following passage from Plutarch’s Life of Theseus:
Theseus conceived a great and important design. He gathered together all the inhabitants of Attica and made them citizens of one city, whereas before they had lived dispersed, so as to be hard to assemble together for the common weal, and at times even fighting with one another.
He visited all the villages and tribes, and won their consent, the poor and lower classes gladly accepting his proposals, while he gained over the more powerful by promising that the new constitution should not include a king, but that it should be a pure commonwealth, with himself merely acting as general of its army and guardian of its laws, while in other respects it would allow perfect freedom and equality to every one. By these arguments he convinced some of them, and the rest knowing his power and courage chose rather to be persuaded than forced into compliance.
Thanks to my photographer of almost a dozen years, Steven Bates of Art Documentation, for his excellent work.
I look at this magnificent sculpture by Canova, and the first words that come into my head are "Police Brutality!" I feel sorry for that poor centaur about to get clobbered by Theseus' righteous billy club.
I wanted to make my version of Theseus to be the polar opposite of this. Those things that Theseus faces are big and mighty, and could easily destroy any human being no matter how brave and strong. His victories, and ours, are never so assured.