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Circe

Bertram Edgar MACKENNALc.1893

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The sorceress Circe is a central figure in Homer’s ancient epic, the Odyssey. When the Greek hero Odysseus, on his return from the destruction of Troy, arrived on the enchanted island of Aeaea, Circe beguiled his unsuspecting crew and transformed them into swine. Bertram Mackennal’s slender and eroticised Circe holds her arms outstretched, as if casting a hypnotic spell and playing with her hapless victims like puppets. This incident in Greek mythology provided the sculptor with a pretext by which to indulge in a symbolist preoccupation with the femme fatale as well as to affront conservative values.

This is a statuette, or small-scale version, of Mackennal’s most renowned sculpture. He first exhibited a life-size, plaster statue of Circe in Paris in 1893. The following year, the same work was shown at the Royal Academy in London. Around the base of Circe, there is a relief of writhing figures showing Odysseus’s companions succumbing morally to temptation and physically to sexual desire. These ‘scandalous’ images were covered by the Royal Academy’s prudish selection committee in order to uphold standards of public decency. This act of concealment fostered intrigue among visitors, only adding to the notoriety of the work. The controversy surrounding Circe launched Mackennal’s career in London, where he became Australia’s most successful expatriate sculptor.

The New Sculpture movement in Britain at the turn of the century elevated the sculptor from artisan to artist, and revitalised almost all aspects of sculptural activity. The statuette was a phenomenon of the New Sculpture Movement, whereby small-scale sculptures or ‘art bronzes’, often of mythological or allegorical subjects, were promoted as collectable domestic ornaments to the Victorian middle class. Several editions of the statuette version of Circe were cast.

Steven Tonkin

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002

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