Breathing life into an old story: the Pygmalion myth through the ages

It is always enthralling to find a fresh eye and mind at work on things familiar and already enjoyed, getting us to see differently and to learn anew. Romanian art historian Victor Ieronim Stoichita, Professor of the History of Art at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, is one such person.

His book A Short History of Shadows (1997) exemplified the extraordinarily imaginative range of his erudition; starting with Plato’s myth of the shadows of the cave and following the thread through painting and literature to film, Lacan, and more, he threw entirely new light (this cliché for once is apt) on the subject

of shadows in art and thought, in a brilliant series of insights. With the same grand sweep of time and subject he repeats the technique in this new book,

on the presence in art and imagination of the story

of Pygmalion.

The compelling story of the Cretan sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with a statue he had made of a young woman, is resonantly told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book X, and it has since had a profound grip on the western psyche. Four operas, several musicals, two plays, two films, any number of poems and paintings, allusions galore, and elevation to the status of syndromes in psychology (agalmatophilia is sometimes known as Pygmalionism, denoting an erotic fixation on statues) and “the Pygmalion Effect” itself—in educational psychology, the way student ability is enhanced by the mere fact of a teacher’s positive expectations—are the exhibits before Professor Stoichita’s judicial bench. And what fascinating work he makes of them, once again spanning the history of the theme from the classical world to cinema.

His key insight is that there are images which detach themselves from the subordinate task of representing a portion of reality and become realities themselves—take on a life of their own, as we say, as did Pygmalion’s statue courtesy of the gods. And in their autonomous existence they assume an iconic power that makes them perform a great deal of cultural and psychological work. It is this work, and of course its mediation in art, literature, and most triumphantly and fully

in cinema, that Professor Stoichita examines.

Professor Stoichita’s palette is rich. We have discussion here of the artist’s model (a living statue too), the sculpture not just as sculpture but as represented in painting, the idea of Helen of Troy and the concept of the image, the relationship between photography and sculpture (reminiscent of Professor Stoichita’s discussion of silhouettes in the Shadows book), and Kim Novak characters—we have to use the plural—in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. For Professor Stoichita, film is the place where the Pygmalion theme gets its optimal expression: it is obvious that the tricks of cinematography can make statues come alive, but that is only the start of it—everything that went before, from mythology to surrealism, from the limitless yearning of the Pygmalion in all of us to the psychoanalytic significance of that fact, finds its possibility of summation in the moving image. Pygmalion wanted his marble image to move—what painters would not have rejoiced to make their pictures move—here in the cinema at last the desire is fulfiled: images move, and come to life.

The irony in the title thus becomes plain. If the Pygmalion Effect is the effect of Pygmalion’s desire on what he sculpts (the teacher’s effect on the pupil he forms), and the truth is that the sculpted then overpowers the sculptor, having taken on that life of its own, then the depths of the myth are—partially—revealed.

Helpfully, Professor Stoichita includes Metamorphoses, X as an appendix. The illustrations are apt, and glorious. In short and in sum, the book is an intellectual thriller.

A.C. Grayling

Birkbeck College

University of London

o Victor I. Stoichita, translation by Alison Anderson, The Pygmalion Effect: from Ovid to Hitchcock (University of Chicago Press), 232 pp, £23, $45 (hb) ISBN 9780226775210

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