Vjera Lalin
Melpomene, 1974.
pencil, ink, pastel

Melpomene, in Greek mythology, is one of the nine Muses and the protector of poetry and art. She was the Muse of tragic poetry, that is, what we have today come to know as tragedy, a genre of drama in theatre. From Antiquity until the modern times, when her depictions became less frequent, Melpomene’s attributes – objects that distinguished her from other Muses – have been a tragic mask and an ivy wreath round her head. It is interesting that the tragic mask that Melpomene holds in her hand is actually a male bearded face with a mouth distorted in a painful grimace. The calmness that emanates from Melpomene’s body position and facial expression is in stark contrast to the image of the distorted male face on the mask, so this ancient scene can today carry a completely different, even feminist, meaning.

In Vjera Lalin’s drawing, an artist from Zagreb who graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in 1974, there is no trace of this ancient tradition. Melpomene herself, who has for centuries been portrayed as a true protector and goddess – in ancient images she stands upright and dignified, and her face is calm – is here portrayed as a half-nude woman. Moreover, in Vjera Lalin’s drawing, Melpomene is not only depicted without an ivy wreath on her head, but her head is bald. Since this is an image of two very similar half-nude women, the observer cannot be sure which of them is the protector of tragic poetry, but given the peculiarity of the scene that is actually not so important. Is it a criticism of the impotence of art to express the tragedy of contemporary life, or does it ironize the norm which dictates that in fine arts everything must be depicted as harmonious and appealing, even in situations that are far from either beauty or harmony, we cannot be sure. Either way, it is an exceptional drawing that refers to tradition, but stands out from all representational standards.

Text: Klaudio Štefančić, curator of the National Museum of Modern Art © National Museum of Modern Art, Zagreb 2022
Translated by: Robertina Tomić
Photo: Goran Vranić © National Museum of Modern Art, Zagreb 2022

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