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The image of the Siren is one of the most powerful in Western art and cultural history. Alluring, sensuous and even dangerous at its core, the notion of the Siren or femme fatale as an impossibly seductive force has, throughout the ages and art forms, proven one of the most transcendent and troubling allegories for seduction and desire.
Most of us are familiar with the Siren’s early incarnations. In ancient Greek mythology, Sirens were perilous beauties with blood on their hands. Perched on the coastal cliff tops of a cluster of small islands that the Romans would later name Sirenum Scopuli, the Sirens would use their quixotic song and beauty to lure sailors too close to shore, causing them to wreck their vessels on the jagged coastline.
Numbered between two and five, these original Sirens were depicted as bird-like in various ways. Representations in early Greek art rendered the Siren as a bird with a woman’s head, while later renditions saw voluptuous figures, only with birds’ legs and almost always with a musical instrument, such as a harp, in hand.
Ulysses and the Sirens – John William Waterhouse, 1891 – National Gallery of Victoria
But it’s the Siren’s continued cooption and adaptation throughout art and cultural history that makes a truly intriguing archetype. While prominent in early Christian art, the casting of the Siren continued in the 19th century with the British Pre-Raphaelite movement, a community of artists, poets and critics known for recasting artworks and motifs from Greek mythology and Arthurian legend. Indeed, one of the movement’s most prominent forces, John William Waterhouse, would create one of most recognisable paintings depicting the Siren with his 1891 masterwork Ulysses and the Sirens, currently held at the National Gallery of Victoria. The painting represents the story of the Ulysses Pact, in which Ulysses had his crew tie him to the mast of his vessel and block his ears with wax so as to endure the deadly song of the sirens – who, in the painting, hauntingly hover around the boat’s perimeters – and prevent him from sacrificing himself to the sea at the entrancing tenor of their music.
A Modern Day Siren – Sophia Loren
Franz Kafka would later revisit the account in his 1917 short story The Silence of the Sirens, in which he would purport the hush of a Siren to be more dangerous than her song, while in the 1950s, famed Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte would represent the Siren with a grotesque twist, rendering the figure as a woman’s body with a fish’s head.
The Siren’s morphing into the more general figure of the femme fatale – typified by the classic Hollywood ‘Screen Siren’ of 20th century cinema – pushed the archetype in a more conventional, though no less dangerous guise. Anyone from Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and original Bond girl Ursula Andress to cult Sirens like Pam Grier played roles based around the idea of using one’s beauty and seductiveness to entrap and control marauding male counterparts. Even gritty, street level authors like Charles Bukowski regularly wrote of existing at behest of insatiable and somewhat unconventional beauty.
While some schools of contemporary cultural theory and feminist thought gesture towards the image of the dangerously beautiful woman as fitting into a kind of patriarchal paranoia – the idea of the woman as inherently untrustworthy or manipulative – one might also suggest that the Siren has a more allegorical and poetic function. For all the biological and psychological research into the rules and mechanics of attraction, there is also plenty that remains unscientific and unquantifiable. Perhaps the enduring image of the Siren reflects the missing links – the inherent mysteries of desire, beauty and attraction that affect and seduce us all.
Rogerseller’s Art of Seduction runs from May to September 2013 – read more here.
Cover: The Siren – Edward Armitage, 1888 – Leeds City Art Gallery