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Antonio Allegri da Correggio, Jupiter and Io (c. 1530)

I am constantly fascinated by smoke. Pillars of smoke that surge skyward sinuously like a large harmless snake. Anything in the twilight zone can be the most alluring. The comfort and the beauty of being in oblivion; that behind every cloud of heavy smoke we expect to find a face, a face that within this dense blurriness greets us with a smile so illuminating that nothing can possibly conceal. It is like a candle in a stormy night, the faint flicker struggles on even when the howling wind incessantly threatens to gobble it up. Some imaginative children are also eternally drawn towards this enchanting, half-perceptible face in the gloom. These children, who are blithely immune to the foreknowledge of danger, climb out of their bedroom windows and run vigorously towards the rising smoke. Being assimilated and vanished together with the smoke leave the children, however, with no pain.

Love is not an element imperative in our enchantment with what usually fears us the most. The seducer promises no enduring happiness, but merely a brief period of drugged ecstasy, a sudden catapult to the summit of human bliss. Io is certainly overcome by all these rush of sensations when held under spell by Jupiter, who disguises himself behind throngs of grey smoke. The colour of the smoke, when it touches upon the pearl-like skin of the naked Io, renders the texture all fluffy- a rare comic quality in this chilling painting, as if the woman were in fact frolicking with a dirty rug.

I find the sheet underneath Io’s backside redundant. Io is apparently too eager to surrender to the amorous caress of Jupiter that the sheet is no longer performing its customary role of protecting its mistress’ modesty. The rumpled bed after a tumultuous night of adulterous love- this is where this sheet will most likely belong to. It would be without doubt a desecration if such sheet were scrunched beside Giorgione’s sleeping Venus.

I suppose what really scandalises the viewers is not something so insignificant as the sheet beneath Io’s body, but her face, which suggests a mingled playfulness and tipsiness. Io thus seems more like Titania, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who revels in teasing Bottom like her subjugated lapdog. This is a face which expresses no passion, not as the burning passion that renders Munch’s Madonna a hypnotised phoenix in fire, but utter impudence.

The backside of Io looks rather ill-proportioned. Her body recalls Manet’s Olympia, whose crooked torso indirectly attests to her plausible role as a prostitute- a body ravaged, battered, usurped by a score of casual lovers. Seems to me then, nothing in this Correggio’s erotica is appealing enough to act as a compensation for the luridness it confers upon. Saves that, perhaps, some scarce auburn leaves that manage to poke through the nebulous Jupiter. How beautiful the sight is when their colour is juxtaposed against the greyish-blue sky. But such beautiful sight is indisputably irrelevant in such horrifying painting, and thus reasonably granted only a few glimpses of view.

Still, this painting stops me short whenever I stumble upon it. The idea of mythological figures engaging in a disgraceful act seems to me still inconceivable and astonishing. And the result is no less shocking than seeing the most graphic photographs with erotic contents. Maybe, then, my childhood fancy with smoke and opacity just proves too difficult to be exorcised. 


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