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Maria Tomasula is a contemporary artist who paints strange collections of beautiful items coalescing into miniature glowing geometric systems (usually against an empty black outer space backdrop). Dew, flowers, and fruit are the most frequent items in these compositions, but sculptures, amphibians, skulls, mollusks, weapons, and disembodied organs (among other things) also find their way into these little microcosms.
Tomasula paints the shining or dewy objects which make up her still life works with finicky photorealism, yet the abstract structure of the works takes these images towards mathematical abstraction. Her delightful little paintings give us the aesthetics of the natural world as viewed through a dark melting kaleidoscope.
Tomasula has a particular flair for teasing humankind’s magpie-like fascination with shininess and bright colors. From across the gallery, her works beguile the viewer closer and closer. Only when one is next to them does one notice the carnivorous pitcher plants and bird skulls among the velvet, petals, and jewels. However the dark imagery does not outshine the sensuous appeal of these fastidious spirals, loops, and curtains. Tomasula invites us to reach into the dark fractal pattern of beauty to grab the waxy flowers, the moist fruits, the polished gems…if we dare.
The story of Cupid and Psyche is a breathless tale of hidden identity, subservience, misplaced trust, and true love. It is a favorite theme for western artists, particularly since it features Cupid (the capricious god of love who wreaks so much chaos in mortal life) emotionally caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Each of these three paintings by Edward Burne-Jones depicts the moment, late in the story when Cupid finally forgives Psyche (who has suffered endless woe, pain, and setbacks). Psyche has visited the underworld and returned with a box containing divine beauty. Warned not to open the box, she has decided to steal a pinch so that Cupid will love her despite her mortality. Unsurprisingly the otherworldly box contains poison of infernal sleep. Cupid then intervenes directly and utilizes his divinity to rescue her from the curse.
As a young man Edward Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford and was anticipating a career as a minister–until his spirit was seduced by ancient poetry (really!). He left the university without a degree and joined a brotherhood of artists and poets. He painted three nearly identical versions of this dramatic scene over the course of several years. The first and finest from around 1867 is a gouache portrait of Maria Zambaco, a Greco-English beauty. In 1866, Maria’s mother had commissioned Burne-Jones to paint Maria (as Psyche no less) for an entirely different picture, and the (married) Burne-Jones fell in love with the (married) Zambaco. Their tempestuous affair destroyed both marriages and nearly led them to suicide before ending in 1869 (although it resulted in a number of gorgeous paintings—which were pilloried by the Victorian art world for portraying female sexual assertiveness in a positive light).
Although outwardly the same, these three paintings are also subtly different. In the last painting, from 1872, Cupid is not red and radiant but gray and diffuse (and he has lost his ever-changing wreath). Psyche’s hair has changed color and her features have been altered. Additionally, the sheer repetition of this same moment of divine intervention suggests that romance is a figure eight: our arguments and passions keep repeating themselves (which is in fact what happens in the tale of Cupid and Psyche). Lovers relive the same moments of longing, confusion, and passion again and again and again even as the world changes like water and our lives wear out.