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Quid vertit Vertumnus? Picasso’s transformation of Ovid’s tale of Pomona and Vertumnus (Met. 14)



Sophie Emilia Seidler. University of Vienna. Austria.

Quid vertit Vertumnus? Picasso’s transformation of Ovid’s tale of Pomona and Vertumnus (Met. 14)

Sophie Emilia Seidler. University of Vienna. Austria.

Picasso’s illustrations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1931) do not simply recreate their canonical source material, but rather transform the original into a new work of art altogether, while still maintaining Ovid’s metamorphotic, (meta-)narrative technique on a new level. With his use of discreet lines, stylized profiles, and carefully used cubist strategiessuch as the simultaneous depiction of linear sequences – Picasso captures vague impressions of his reading of the epic. Unlike all previous illustrations of Ovid, which were mainly one-to-one mappings accompanying the text’s core stories or transposing their motives, Picasso rather takes up Ovid’s artistic concept. Hence, Picasso’s re-reading of the Metamorphoses represents a modernist mediation of classical myth as a living organism, which offers various ways to adapt antiquity to a different age, public, and medium. The very act of intermedial transfer becomes a metamorphosis itself.

Particularly elusive in this regard is Picasso’s graphic for Met. 14, showing the episode of Vertumnus and Pomona. This conciliatory fairy tale holds a special place within Ovid’s narrative. Not only is it the last of a series of mythological stories about the interaction between gods and humans as well as the last amorous tale within the text, but it also presents a conversion of Ovid’s textual structure: Vertumnus, the Italic god of spring and growth, is unlike previous suitors in the text, but rather displays a different manner of wooing an unwilling virgin nymph, the beautiful and passionate gardener Pomona (poma = fruit), who in the beginning fearfully bans all men and masculinity from entering her well-guarded and shuttered orchard (pomarium). The god – whose name inherently signifies his transformative faculty (vertere) – makes use of metamorphosis, but unlike Sol, Jupiter, or Apollo before him he does so not in order to rape his intended or trick her into sexual intercourse, but rather to persuade her of his worth. Conversely, Pomona does not take flight like other nymphs (such as Daphne or Echo), but finally approves of his elaborate plea. He succeeds in convincing her by invoking elegiac motives and by disguising as a female – that is, by a practice of cross-dressing and travesty. She voluntarily abandons her original intention of everlasting virginity and falls in love with him as soon as he reveals his true colors, despite her previous fear and abhorrence of masculinity. In this respect, Pomona can be considered as traversing an inner metamorphosis. Thus, Ovid’s frequently used scheme of “courtship – rejection – rape” is overturned in this episode; the following tales do not cover any further romantic conquests, but instead focus on deifications of emperors and stories from Roman history.

Picasso too seems to play with the myth’s metamorphotic potential: instead of depicting the obvious, the process of metamorphosis itself, he centers on peripheral threads instead, although he does depict a single change of guises – one that is absent in the text. Thus the 20th-century artist further develops the idea of Vertumnus’ metatextual transformative skills while changing his graphic ductus without keeping to Ovid’s écriture.

The actualization of the Ovidian original in Picasso’s engagement with this paragon of classical mythology can be reconstructed through close-reading and intermedial comparison. The vertere inscribed into the myth’s male protagonist seemingly inspired Picasso to change his artistic technique, which – like Vertumnus – can take on different aspects. Thus, boundaries between text and illustration, which are often accompanied by a hierarchical placement of one art form above the other, are blurred, transcended, and undermined like the walls of Pomona’s garden. Aiming for exploitation (lecturum poma), the transformative artist intrudes in a demarcated space, acquires the skills needed there (disguised, Vertumnus praises Pomona’s fruits and speaks in gardeners’ examples), applies a different medium (elegy), before he finally reveals his true, independent nature – with great success. In this sense, Picasso does not only reenact the tale’s plot but also reflects on it, within the metonymical relationship of the work and the artist. He enters into a fertile dialogue with Ovid, particularly with a work which noticeably for once does not portray rape or shrewd deception. On the contrary, Picasso’s and Ovid’s Metamorphoses draw upon one another like grapevines and tendrils in the Vertumnus’s example, leading to mutual cross-fertilization. Thus, both media maintain their autonomy as well as their creative engagement with the same issue: metamorphosis, in every sense of the word.

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