DISPUTED BECOMING (OMPHALE HERAKLES OMPHALE)

2019

Selenium toned gelatin silver photograph

56 x 39 cm

ED 3 + 1 AP

please enlarge image for detail

This photograph (printed in negative) can be described as a partial double exposure in that only the middle section has been exposed twice. Here two overlapping exposures representing different perspectives of the same figure merge in the middle creating a doubled, dual, or commingled figure.

The material subject of the image is a slightly smaller than life-size limestone head of a statue (circa 500 BCE) that represents either Omphale or Herakles (or perhaps both). Significant discrepancies exist in our knowledge of these two ancient identities. The identity Herakles is commonly known and has come to symbolise (in Western culture at least) strength, invulnerability and (perhaps) an outmoded form of hyper-masculinity. Omphale on the other hand is little-known, she remains buried in history, yet her story has appreciable contemporary social relevance.

Omphale was a powerful queen of Lydia (an Iron Age empire in Asia Minor). She is said to have continued to rule her kingdom independently after the death of her husband. While little information is known about Omphale, the story most commonly associated with her involves Herakles, an exchange of their clothing and their gendered roles. As the story has been told since ancient times, Herakles having brutally murdered his friend Iphitos, was (by decree of the Delphic Oracle) enslaved to Omphale for three years to atone for his violent crime. Writers from Aeschylus to Apollodorus suggest that a condition of Omphale’s was that the hyper-masculine Herakles wear only women’s clothes and perform women’s work such as spinning flax, while she dressed in his lion-skin cloak took possession of his olive-wood club and engaged in men’s activities like hunting.

The head was acquired for the collection of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Inv. No. 1738) in 1899. At the time it was catalogued as a representation of Omphale. Today it is commonly considered a representation of Herakles however recent published attributions differ. 

In an abridged version of the Catalogue of Sculptures 1: Archaic Sculptures from the 7th c. BC to 480 BC (Athens 2014) N. Kaltsas refers to P. Kastriotis (writing at the time of the head’s acquisition) when he writes “this head very probably depicts Omphale wearing Herakles’ lion’s pelt” ; yet G. Despinis writing in the unabridged version of the catalogue writes “It represents most probably Herakles, young and beardless, and not Omphale, as it was believed.”

The photographic doubleness of Disputed Becoming (Omphale Herakles Omphale) can be considered a mirroring of the layered perspectives concerning the head’s attribution. It also reflects the doubleness, exchange and commingling of identities at the heart of the ancient story which calls to mind contemporary issues related with the fixity of gender identity.

Disputed Becoming (Omphale Herakles Omphale) is linked with Hazewinkel’s ongoing academic research into the powerful and mysterious Omphale and as to why she is so little represented in the canon of Western Classical Studies. It is related with his 2017 sculptural work Suspicious Marble (Omphale) - see here - and examples his continuing consideration of the contemporary social legacies of ancient archetypes, objects and myths.