From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides prostituting themselves, he is 'not interested in women', but his statue is so realistic that he falls in love with it. He offers the statue presents and eventually prays to Venus. She takes pity on him and brings the statue to life. They marry and have a son, Paphos.
Parallels in the technology of the time
The story has parallels in the example of Daedalus, who uses quicksilver to install a voice in his statues; and of Hephaestus who creates automata for his workshop, Talos, an artificial man of bronze, and, according to Hesiod, Pandora— from clay, at the behest of Zeus.
The discovery of the Antikythera mechanism suggests that such rumoured animated statues had some grounding in contemporary mechanical technology. The island of Rhodes was particularly known for its displays of mechanical engineering and automata - Pindar, one of the nine lyric poets of ancient Greece, said this of Rhodes in his seventh Olympic Ode:
- "The animated figures stand
- Adorning every public street
- And seem to breathe in stone, or
- move their marble feet."
The Greek sources of Ovid's tale are fully discussed at Galatea.
Re-interpretations of Pygmalion
The basic Pygmalion story has been widely transmitted and re-presented in the arts through the centuries. At an unknown date, later authors give the name of the statue as the sea-nymph Galatea or Galathea. Goethe calls her Elise, based upon the variants in the story of Dido/Elissa.
In the Middle Ages Pygmalion was held up as an example of the excesses of idolatry, probably spurred by Clement of Alexandria's suggestion that Pygmalion had carved an image of Aphrodite herself. Although, by the 18th century it was a highly influential love-story, seen as such in Rousseau's musical play of the story. By the 19th century, the story often becomes one in which the awakened beloved rejects Pygmalion; although she comes alive, she is initially cold and unattainable.
A twist on this theme can also be seen in the story of Pinocchio where a wooden puppet is transformed into a real boy, though in this case the puppet possesses sentience prior to its transformation, and it is the puppet and not the woodcarver (sculptor) who beseeches the miracle.
The story has been the subject of notable paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Honoré Daumier, Edward Burne-Jones (four major works from 1868-1870, then again in larger versions from 1875-1878), Auguste Rodin, Ernest Normand, Paul Delvaux, Francisco Goya, Franz von Stuck, Francois Boucher, and Thomas Rowlandson, among others. There have also been numerous sculptures of the 'awakening'.
Ovid's Pygmalion has also provided inspiration for several works of literature, including William Morris's Earthly Paradise, and Friedrich Schiller's Ideals. Both Morris and Schiller described the statue as made of marble. In Tommaso Landolfi's short story 'La moglie di Gogol' ('The Wife of Gogol'), the protagonist is in love with an inflatable doll of his own creation named Caracas, who proves an unsettling presence in the house as she becomes increasingly human-like, even infecting him with a sexually transmitted disease as if she were a real adulterous wife. Gogol eventually decides to destroy the doll by over-inflating her. The legend also formed the inspiration for Galatea 2.2, a novel by Richard Powers and Carol Ann Duffy's poem Pygmalion's Bride. The story is also referenced in Nathanial Hawthorne's "The Birthmark".
Opera and music
A modern interpretation of the story of Pygmalion is from the English progressive rock group Yes. They composed the song "Turn Of The Century" on 1977's Going For The One. With the music written by drummer Alan White and lyrics by singer Jon Anderson, it tells the story of the sculpter Roan who, in the grief of his wife's death, "molds his passion into clay." The sculpture of his wife comes to life and they fall in love.
George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1912, staged 1914) owes something to both the Greek Pygmalion and the legend of "King Cophetua and the beggar maid"; in which a King lacks interest in women, but one day falls in love with a young beggar-girl, later educating her to be his Queen. Shaw's tragedy in turn was the basis for the comedic Broadway musical My Fair Lady (1956).
Also, Tawfik El-Hakim, an Egyptian writer, had written a play about this legend. He could, in this play, discuss the relation between "life" & "art".
Notable 20th century feature films are My Fair Lady (1964, based on the stage play); Mighty Aphrodite by director Woody Allen; and the film Mannequin, a remake of the 1948 classic One Touch of Venus, as well as S1m0ne (featuring a computer-generated AI as the love object).
The popular horror genre in film has also had an interest in 'bringing to life' waxwork figures and show-room dummies (see: Waxworks: A Cultural Obsession by Michelle Bloom). Many horror films deviate considerably from the original story; for example, in The Stepford Wives (1975) the creators turn their living wives into inanimate (robotic, compliant) wives.
The American TV series My Living Doll portrayed a female robot whose creators attempted to transform her into a "perfect woman".
- "La Vénus d'Ille", a short story by Prosper Mérimée.