One, Two, Tree

It’s another myth-meets-modern-celebrity-couple situation today and we’re taking inspiration from the decidedly ungodly Russell Brand. For those who’ve seen the 2008 flick Forgetting Sarah Marshall, you’ll know Brand offers up in it his usual brand of awkward, not-sure-if-it’s-funny stuff. And from what his co-star Kristen Bell has since said of the shoot, he spent his off-camera hours doing what Brand did best in his pre-Katy Perry days. Brand had sent his female companion home when he spotted Bell, ready to put the moves on his co-star. But Bell was having none of it: “I made it really clear from the beginning that I would sock him in the b***s if he tried anything,” she says. “So he was intimidated, truth be told.”

Socking someone in the b***s is one way to deter unwanted advances, but today’s myth tie-in takes an altogether classier route. When forest nymph Daphne was being pursued by the hot-for-her sun god Apollo (who’d been struck by Cupid’s arrow), she did what any natty nymph would do and turned herself into a tree, a transformation that took her beyond Apollo’s talons.

This scene, filled with salacious lust and a quick-witted costume change, has been a popular one throughout art history, and the NGA has a vibrant version too. In fact, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Apollo Pursuing Daphne (c. 1755/1760) registers a really rather unusual composition. Daphne (seen with her father, the river god Peneus) appears properly propelled backwards by Apollo’s thrusting forward movement on the right. It’s dynamic, made all the more so by the double diagonal slant of Peneus’s paddle and the land-slide (which echo the shape of Daphne’s body and that of Cupid cowering behind). Against those lines are set the figures of father and pursuer, for an energetic cross-hatching effect.

Giovanni Battista (or Giambattista) Tiepolo (1696 – 1770) was the finest Italian artist of the Rococo era and the last great master of his country’s fresco tradition. Throughout his career he painted small pictures of mythological themes, which proved extremely popular. In this case he’s taken up a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and honestly I think his fast-fuel style of painting is perfectly suited to the story. As one contemporary write up sums up: “Tiepolo is full of spirit… of an infinite fire, an astonishing coloring, and an amazing speed. He paints a picture in less time than it takes another to grind his colors.” In this case his composition, colors and brush combine so that we can almost hear the crackle as legs turn to barked-trunk and the snap as fingers become twigs and leaves.