Mousse Magazine: Images of Irretrievable Sound

April 7, 2020

Stephanie Cristello

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Images of Irretrievable Sound: Theodora Allen
By: Stephanie Cristello 

In the exhibitions of the Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris in the 1890s, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice garnered close consideration in works such as Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau’s Orpheus in Hades (Orphée) (1897), Jean Delville’s The Death of Orpheus (Orphée Mort) (1893), and Alexandre Séon’s The Lament of Orpheus (Lamentation d’Orphée) (ca. 1896), among others. In all accounts, Eurydice is absent. Contrastingly, the depiction of the lyre is a prominent, if not central, subject. No image of Orpheus exists without the instrument. Regardless of whether Orpheus’s music ever existed—a melody so beautiful it charmed the gods, allowing him passage into Hades to retrieve his lost lover, killed by a snakebite—what is fascinating is the sheer number of visual representations that endure in the canon of Western painting. An almost obsessive desire to give image to an extinct, perhaps even invented, but nonetheless irretrievable sound.

Los Angeles–based contemporary artist Theodora Allen’s paintings contribute to this history of mute images—similarly soundless compositions that evoke the atmosphere surrounding the emanation of a melody that has never been and will never be heard. For Allen, the lyre imports two other symbols within the ancient Greek myth: the serpent (whose bite caused Eurydice to die) and the Moon (whose light is ever-present in the narrative itself). Upon descending into the underworld, Orpheus was given one condition; as he led Eurydice toward the land of the living, he was not to doubt the gods by looking back. Failing this instruction, he sets his eyes on her, and she vanishes forever.

In Allen’s From Dark into Light, and Back Again I (2019), the outline of a diamond-shaped frame opens into the portrait of a woman, framed by waxen hair, whose soft jawline is turned upward from a bare elongated neck. The visage, whose features are barely articulated in hues of warm sepia, appears melded into the image of a full Moon, obscured by the texture of passing clouds. Surrounding the frame, moonflower vines and a coiled serpent are bathed in a desaturated emerald-blue glow. Is she looking away or looking back? As Sarah Lippert writes of French Symbolist Gustav Moreau’s Salomé Dancing before Herod (1874-1876), “She need not look, given that she is the object that is viewed.”1 Two similar portraits are inverted in Allen’s Refraction (One Million Dead Soldiers) (2019), a diptych whose source is a 1974 performance by Todd Rundgren of A Dream Goes On Forever. In a video accessible online, we see him at a piano, long multicolored hair center parted, adorned in a silver halter top, with blue eyeshadow in the shape of a robber’s mask across his gaze. Yet the reference in the portrait could just as easily be to a work by Dutch Symbolist Antoon van Welie, La Douleur (1895), whose paradoxical expression exists somewhere between suffering and ecstasy. Rundgren sings, “All is silent within my dream / a thousand true loves will live and die / but a dream lives on forever.” As Allen proposes, perhaps this is the fate of Eurydice: in the regeneration of dreams, she is eternal.

Many elements of Allen’s paintings establish the collapse of a Symbolist tradition in the history of Western painting and literature, which took classical mythology and idealism among its key subjects, with folk and glam music aesthetics of the 1970s, which similarly borrowed attributes of Pre-Raphaelite and medieval imagery to develop the spectacle of stage personas. From the 1870s to the 1970s, the desire for a renewed centrality in faith was replaced with the desire for disguise. From the depiction of mythic beings and visionaries in painting to the self-aware performance of androgyny like that of Rundgren’s, Allen’s figures are often portrayed as genderless transmutations—“ideals” in the Symbolist sense.

In The Lyre (2019), a pale golden instrument wraps around what appears to be an iron support. The gray metal circle nearly touches the four edges of the square canvas, as if depicting a cropped shield or a crest. Lily pads, softly painted in hues of powder jade, surround the base of the musical stand-in like an inverted wreath. The registration of the iconic instrument is, in every sense, a distillation; the painting asserts its presence as a symbol. Yet, while seemingly of another century, Allen’s works belong to current discourses in painting: for instance, how the technique used in The Lyre and other works references day-light passing through either a stained-glass window or a backlit screen.

Lilith, who tempted Eve. Medusa, who turned men into stone. The serpent is a female archetype. If Orpheus was the savior, the snake that killed Eurydice was the villain. Though it was Orpheus who transgressed by looking back, it is Eurydice who vanishes, who is denied representation. In the twenty-first-century in the United States—which has seen Women’s Marches and the rise of the #metoo movement—the same anti-feminine sentiments that reigned in the fin de siècle West are very much relevant today.2 It was, after all, the spread of these concerns that invented the figure of the femme fatale in the 1890s: a sexualizing of newly seized power as a means to diminish and control.

Through the Orphic lens, Allen’s paintings engage with the femme fatale in the face of contemporary visual culture—to weave, to snake, a serpentine structure all her own.

[1] Sarah Lippert, “Salomé to Medusa by Way of Narcissus: Moreau and Typological Conflation,” Artibus Et Historiae 35, no. 69 (2014): 238.
[2] A rule set out by Joséphin Péladan, founder of the Salon de la Rose + Croix, strictly stated that under no condition were works by women to be exhibited.

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