Failed Ambition: Icarus and Phaethon

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning
~ William Carlos Williams

Despite the warnings of his father, Daedalus, Icarus wearing wings of wax and feather soared up towards the sun.  In the Greek myth, solar rays melted the wax and loosened the feathers plunging the impetuous youth to a watery grave.  A metaphor for failed ambition, often depicted in art and literature.   

German artist Sascha Schneider (1870-1927) eroticized Icarus.   Initially Schneider’s art benefited from Germany’s “Free Body Culture” or “Freikörperkultur.”  While embracing the male nude body in public, the movement did not tolerate private homosexuality.   The gay artist fled to Italy in the early 1900s when threatened by a blackmailer. Contemporary Portuguese sculptor Rogério Timóteo explores the beauty and boldness of the human body in marble and metal.  Timóteo’s massive sculpture Icarus appears to float in the air, a moment of balance before falling from grace.   

Similar to the tragic tale of Icarus is the fable of Phaethon.  In Greek mythology, the son of solar deity Helios, and a mortal woman, journeyed to his father’s royal palace in the East.  Helios granted his son one favor.  Phaethon insisted on driving the Sun Chariot across the heavens to the West.  Against Helios’ wishes, his son took the reins of the carriage.  When steered by his father, the chariot and four winged horses brought the Sun's warmth and light to mortals.  Instead Phaethon lost control of the quadriga and set the earth aflame.  Struck down by a thunderbolt from Zeus, Phaethon fell to a fiery death in the river Eridnos.

French decorative artist Adolphe David (1828–1896), captured Phaethon’s descent in an exquisite carved onyx cameo of ochre and white set against polished black jet.