Where Mythological Art ends and Fantasy Art begins…
Artists seldom worry about what category their work fits into, apart from trying to bust out of categorisation (which is really a category in itself, so that they fail miserably…) and artists finally get typecast. For example, most people associate Boris Vellejo with fantasy, and a large amount of his work is purely from his imagination. But, a picture done by him, titled and based solely on a myth, is also termed fantasy. It seems to be a marketing ploy, and this could be the root of the whole problem – Where does myth end and Fantasy start?
Mythological themes may be termed fantasy only as a commercial tag for specialising galleries, and the illustrative market. Today’s society is very materialistic, and our preoccupation with buying and selling seems the only reason for this type of art to be categorised so; it has no use for art history, and not used in official art texts and museum-like galleries. Because of this, a lot of great work is overlooked and has not been recorded – a lesson that people should have learned from how much has been lost from the past.
Throughout time, people have been painting mythological creatures, deities, and events. It has been a great tradition to focus upon mythological themes in art, and in some times myth was the only worthy subject for art to be focussed on. So why is it that, in this century, so many artworks have been based on myth and yet have failed to be classified so? Mythological based works are termed Fantasy by modern society, and have not been recognised as they once were. Is it that the line between fantasy and myth no longer exists in our time? Why are artworks with clear mythological themes (and in some cases, titles) called Fantasy art?
To begin with, classification of the actual term, Myth, must be made. Something called a myth could be a real belief to some people, and complete fiction to others. ‘Mythological’ is not a classical categorisation of art and that may be so because it is hard to define. Dictionary definitions for myth range from; ‘an event, time passes, becomes legend, time passes, becomes myth’; to ‘A myth is an unproven event in history’; to ‘Myth is fiction.’ So for this purpose, myth is classified as anything typically regarded to as Ancient Myth and Legend in the Western World - Greek and Roman myths, Arthurian Folklore, Norse Mythology etc.
In Western (read European) art history, the only subjects considered worthy of art were portraiture, Christian religious themes, and Classical Mythology. Greek, Roman and other mythological figures were utilised to explain the universe, and were used as instructional tools. The artworks were considered mythological pieces because they were created in context with the beliefs and looked up to. If not believed in by society at large, the myths were atleast respected and revered. With such an emphasis on commercialism in today’s culture, the focus of art has changed. Mythology seemed to die out with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, but Science Fiction, and the birth of Fantasy has given mythological themes new life.
Around the turn of the century, the world fully turned to science and technology to explain and ‘better’ the universe, and with that came Science Fiction. It could be that, having little outlet for traditional mythological pieces, they changed and the new, huge volume of work screamed at the top of its lungs for categorisation. Fantasy grew from that, and became a genre of it’s own. But, the frame of artist’s minds had changed considerably from the past. Ancient Egyptians strongly believed that what they painted and sculpted in their artwork existed on higher, more mystical levels than their own. Fantasy artists of today focus on what something would look like if it were real, even if it is a mythological creature, person, or even event. Society of today rationalises that past things that cannot be explained with science etc are Fantasy. It is no longer real, or there is no possibility of it being real if it is fantasy, so the world dubs myths as fantasy, because they do not understand (or do not want to understand) the myths. They were once important to whole cultures and civilisations, but now few people have any faith in them.
‘Modern’ artists are turning to mythology for a source of ideas, which may have led to a jumbling of concepts in the mind of the populace. Mythological creatures represent many different, and sometimes abstract, ideals, and it is possible that Fantasy draws from them, instead of focussing on the myths themselves. If that were true though, why do paintings called ‘Perseus and Andromeda,’ portraying men with winged shoes, saving bound women by slaying dragons over rocky outcrops by the sea, exist? Is that an abstract ideal? The first question still remains - what defines art with mythological themes as fantasy?
Myth and fantasy are linked, without myth there would be no fantasy, and behind every fantasy story there is a myth. Fantasy art, or ‘high art,’ IS basically mythology. It features dragons, unicorns, goblins and other kinds of mythological creatures or themes in them, which in turn could be categorised as myth. Fantasy is based in the imagination; every dictionary terms it so – is it no longer myth because of that? Unicorns and dragons, though talked about extensively in myth and legend, have no fixed ‘look’ and have been embellished and changed and interpreted in countless different ways. No one can say that that is wrong, because it’s from the artist’s imagination and has been expanded and elaborated; it could be quite different from the original legend or event. The influence of the myth on the artist may be so subtle; it may be almost impossible to distinguish, even for the creator.
But, Mythology must have a certain look. Aphrodite cannot look like an absolute beast, Narcissus can’t love anything else besides his reflection, and Hermes cannot be so obese that he cannot open his eyes for the fat. A lot of artists works featuring humans, although entitled with mythological themes and ‘stories’, are drawn and painted with modern ideals in mind. Any new painting of a beautiful woman from mythology will feature beauty as it is seen today. Women now should have sculpted, lithe figures if they are to be considered beautiful, and centuries ago, a beautiful woman would have been a size 20 today. Therefore, it could be argued that these paintings are Fantasy art. *A myth could be that a god gave humans fire to help mankind, a painting of this could just be a God, giving a burning torch to a group of people. Fantasy could begin where people begin depicting humans taking only the fire – without the torch, and then throwing it around with our bare hands. Even though the piece of art is be based upon mythology, it’s may be fantasy because it’s exaggerated and extended with the artist’s imagination.
Elves, fairies, dragons and other creatures may have been turned into Fantasy because of modern association. Modern Fantasy Role playing games adopt classical myths, and change them to suit scenarios, spawning new - and altering old - myths. Many ‘new’ books and fables feature mythological creatures, and so people more readily associate a dragon with a story, than they do with a myth. Grimm’s Fairy Tales are all based upon German Mythology, but few people know this; to the majority of the Western world the Brother’s Grimm made the tales up.
Not everything is clearly black or white; there is a huge expanse of grey that most things exist in, and some works of art refuse to be categorised. Metaphor plays a part here, and it may be the reason why a mythological genre (or sub-genre) has not been created. *A painting of a pretty young woman with flowers in her hair, in the arms of a man wearing black could be called ‘Persephone and Hades.’ This might represent characters from mythology, or it might be a human woman in the arms of a vampire metaphorically referred to as Persephone and Hades. Who is to say which of these - or even another version - is true? Sometimes, even the artist does not know. Normal art society has no fixed way of categorising this type of artwork, and as most ‘new’ art is said to be totally interpretable, it all gets thrown together.
Fantasy seems like, and may be is, a mess of mixed up genres, with a little of almost everything, from Ancient Greek Mythology, to the work of JRR Tolkein. Modern Bookstores, and often libraries, do not help. Books about Myth and Mythological themes come under the term: New Age. They are categorised as new, when the very opposite is true. Is this another genre that must be taken into account? It is hard to say, because this categorisation is useful only for commercial purposes, and seems as wrong as calling Little John, little.
Many genres, sub-genres and individual pieces tend to be lumped together under Fantasy. Worldwide beliefs have changed; it is now fine to question religion, and ancient mythology has largely been ignored. This does not make up for the fact that Fantasy art is most often based upon myth. The defining line between where Mythological and Fantasy art begins could be the turn of the century, but that does not cover content. Fantasy is a generic term that includes a lot of different aspects, and cannot be clearly defined by anyone. In the words of Curtis aka ‘the Sphinx’ "asking where Myth ends and Fantasy begins is rather like asking where the Pacific Ocean ends and the Indian Ocean begins: it is by no means clear, and there is considerable overlap."