This Sunday, October 9, the BLO and the MFA will present a program at the museum titled Oedipus and the Sphinx in Art and Music. During the afternoon, you will encounter the mythical Sphinx and her dramatic encounter with Oedipus in various guises, including an elegant and witty scene from the Cocteau play, The Infernal Machine, and two excerpts from opera—a dramatically tense scene from Oedipe by Enesco and a visceral, raw one from Greek by Turnage, a version which sets the story in the tough and brutal world of London's East End in the 1980s.
The Sphinx—a creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion (and often with the wings of bird) occurs in many cultures. The Egyptian Sphinx is typically depicted as a man, a benevolent guardian and the bearer of mysterious knowledge and secrets.
The last painting, “Listening to the Sphinx ,” can be seen at the MFA.
In the Greek tradition, the Sphinx is more often female and takes on a merciless and malevolent role…Those who cannot answer her riddle are killed and eaten by this ravenous monster. But she also, more positively, appears a guardian figure, particularly of graves. The Sphinx is a common subject in Greek art:
And the encounter with Oedipus is often depicted in Greek vase paintings:
From the Renaissance onward, the Sphinx became a familiar image in the decorative arts.
By the 19th century, and particularly at the end of that era, in the so-called “decadent” period, the Sphinx increasingly took on the darker aspects of the femme fatale, the voracious woman who leads men to corruption and destruction (think of Salome and the Strauss opera of 1905).
Freud had a small reproduction of this Ingres painting hanging right beside the famous couch in his consulting room in Vienna. He had most certainly seen the original in the Louvre on one of his trips to Paris—a city he described as “a vast, over-dressed Sphinx who gobbles up every foreigner unable to solve her riddles.”
I cannot resist ending with another view of the eternal charm and allure of the Sphinx.