Icarus: How Visual Artists Such as Myself and Bryan Larsen Steal, Borrow, and Originate

Myths, legends, and stories infiltrate our collective and individual consciousness, and the same holds true for the visual arts. The myth of Icarus, who flew too high then crashed and burned, was mentioned by Apollodorus around 150 BC and has since shown up countless times in visual art.

Icarus Landing, Phaethon, and Ayn Rand

An interesting twist in the legend comes with my 2000 version. The concept was inspired by Ayn Rand, who rewrote the myth of Phaethon in Atlas Shrugged. In the ancient myth, Apollo gives the reins of the sun chariot to his son Phaethon, who is unable to control the flying horses or escape his destiny. Phaethon and the chariot threaten to crash and annihilate Earth. Zeus, watching, kills Phaethon with a bolt of lightning, forcing Apollo to retake the reins and right the sun chariot’s course.

In Rand’s version, her character, Richard Halley, composes an opera in which Phaethon brilliantly succeeds to steer the sun chariot to a glorious course. I loved the concept of taking a tragic myth and changing the outcome to reflect my absolute inner belief that magnificent experiences are the stuff of living. The chariot thing was too archaic for my modern sensibility, but with some thought I landed on the concept of Icarus. After flying wildly high, I thought, Icarus would return to Earth with gentle gratitude, lit by the orange glow of the day’s setting sun. I opted for no wings, just the outstretched arms. Appropriately I painted this while I lived in Greece, and I won’t lie, I loved scaling the rock cliffs in the buff, jumping from rock to rock, as my friend philosopher David Kelley can attest to.

Newberry, Icarus Landing, 2000, acrylic on linen, 55x36"
Newberry, Icarus Landing, 2000, acrylic on linen, 55×36″

Icarus Variations

Bryan Larsen almost a decade later in 2008 painted his Study for the Triumph of Icarus. Cleverly conveying how the wings might realistically work, Larsen followed the legend more closely, yet he also re-purposed the legend to a successful outcome. I would guess that he went through similar thoughts as I did from Ayn Rand’s influence (he did a series of paintings on the characters in Atlas Shrugged), and perhaps(?) borrowed the extended foot from my image.

Larsen, Triumph of Icarus Study, 2008
Larsen, Study for the Triumph of Icarus Study, 2008

 “Thanks for the write-up, Michael! I’ve long admired your work, and your evaluation of mine is a huge compliment.”

Bryan Larsen

Almost two decades later I revisited my first Icarus, changing the background to my current hometown of Idyllwild, California. The race of the young black guy was purely happenstance––the model had the right sensitivity, and he looked like he was light and strong enough to fly. In effect, I stole from myself; what gave me the green light to do so was the knowledge that da Vinci had painted two versions of Virgin of the Rocks, a 1485 one in the Louvre and a 1508 one in London. If it is good enough for da Vinci, it is good enough for me.

Newberry, Idyllwild Icarus, 2017, oil on canvas, 60x48"
Newberry, Idyllwild Icarus, Summer 2017, oil on canvas, 60×48″

Narrative

Similarly, Larsen borrowed from himself for his Triumph of Daedalus Over Fate and Futility. Daedalus was the father of Icarus and the maker of the wings. Originally, the father and son used the wings to escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth, with only the father making it to safety. In this brilliant narrative painting, Larsen returns to the point after Daedalus made it back to Earth but was heartbroken guessing that his son had crashed and burned. Miraculously, Icarus appears, not having crashed, and is reunited with his father and family (friends)? For me, loving this narrative content, I will be thinking about re-exploring more storytelling in future works, not necessarily Icarus. It might take a few years of subconscious awareness for the right mental and emotional patterns to formulate.

Larsen, ‘Triumph of Daedalus Over Fate and Futility’, 2017, 120x60"
Larsen, Triumph of Daedalus Over Fate and Futility, Fall 2017, 120×60″

Backtracking in time to Larsen’s 2009 Young Icarus, it strikes me how original this painting is. As I think all of his series of children in the act of creativity and imagining are. As a young dad, Larsen was frequently struck by how his kids played and thought. Updating the Icarus legend to a boy’s imagination of flying is pure brilliance.

Larsen, Young Icarus, 2009, 30x18"
Larsen, Young Icarus, 2009, 30×18″

The influence of art and ideas is inevitable. It comes down to absorbing it all freely or fighting against it. I believe fighting against it blocks the brain’s network connections, a little like trying to paint things without shadows. An unnecessary limitation. Opening up to “stealing” and “borrowing” ideas and images, as long as we run them honestly through our souls, opens up our potential to fly as high as possible. And who knows? We might be able to tour the sun and not get burned, and perhaps come back to Earth with far greater knowledge and wisdom, making Earth a little bit better than how we left it.

Michael Newberry, Idyllwild, 2/9/2020

Image links to Larsen’s works at Quent Cordair Fine Art are a common copyright courtesy, I receive zero compensation.

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