contemporary art / history of art

Artwork of the Month / September 2021

Europa und der Stier (Europe and the Bull)
Angela Hampel

Mixed media on canvas
110 cm x 90 cm


In her painting “Europa und der Stier“ (Europe and the Bull) Angela Hampel reinterprets the legend of the Rape of Europe. Differently as the in the Greek mythology, Europe is not the more or less passive seduced young Phoenician princess, but takes action. Already the title indicates a change of the perspective: the image’s title is not the “Rape of Europe” but “Europe and the Bull”. This focus on the woman is underlined by the composition. As main protagonist, she is dominant in the foreground and her body intersects the one of the bull diagonally.

Many of the classical illustrations of the story depict Europe sitting on back of the white bull during the flight from her Asian homeland Phoenicia to the Greek island Crete. Others, like Tiepolo (circa 1725) and Boucher (1747) include also the preceding events, where the transformed king of gods Zeus seduces Europe in form of a tame white bull. The princess falls into the trap and climbs on the back of the animal, who takes the occasion to abduct her. Whereas the sequel of the narration, the arrival on Crete and the birth of the three children of Europa and Zeus hardly found expression in art history.

It is not clear, which moment of the legend Angela Hampel depicts, but it is a situation onshore, since the bull stands upright, one of his legs raised with a bent knee. Additionally, the triangle formations in the lower background seem to suggest mountains. The bull – who is red in this case – clasps Europe with his fingers tightly around her hips. Her upper body turned forward, the woman takes the bull by its horns. This gesture is to be taken literally. Europe is not sitting passively on her abductors back, but deals with the problem directly. Even though, Europe is often represented naked, here the nakedness of the protagonists might hint to a sexual conflict, combined with emotional components. The dominate colour red in the painting, illustrates the diverging emotions. On one hand, they might be passion, on the other hand violence and grievance. However, the question remains, whether the princess wants to prevent her kidnapping, because she noticed the fraud of the love-stricken god or if the conflict takes place in a later stage of the relationship.

A hint to the latter interpretation might be the physiognomy of the two characters. Zeus, a hybrid creature with a human body and a head of a bull, looks mainly weak. His tongue is hanging out of the mouth and his penis is limper. Even though his grip seems to be strong, his fingers are slim as the raised leg is. He reminds more an old man than a young strong enamoured god, who carries his adored thousands of kilometres trough the sea. Whereas the princess has a strong physique with muscular arms and legs. Unimpressed she grabs the bull’s horns and might even be disgusted. The reclined torso and her unfriendly expression could point to this. Depicted with flaming red hip-length hair, Europe is a self-confident woman and not an innocent girl, who could be deceived easily. Are the protagonists older than at the moment of the abduction? Are they already on Crete, perhaps during their common life on the island?

However, it could be also the often depicted scenery of the seduction with different interpreted personages. Remarkable is that Zeus keeps the woman in the air, despite the physical imbalance. He seems to stamp with his foot. A gesture of out-bursting against the stubborn woman? At the same time, this posture underlines his clasp of her lower body, while she has squirmed out with the main part of her torso. They struggle, but Europe has already freed her upper body. With her powerful arms and her red accentuated hands with long fingers she can take action. Nevertheless, the result of the fight is still open. Does she want to free herself? Does she want to stay with her partner, perhaps in different conditions? The situation remains ambivalent.

A look into Angela Hampel’s oeuvre shows that she is often dealing with the struggle in relationships, with a focus on the female view. Hereby the physical squirming stands for emotional conflicts. This is in her paintings underlined by expressive colours and a frequent use of red. Even in her graphic prints and drawings, a colour contrast of black and red on white/bright background highlights the dramatic situations. Regularly, she embeds these sceneries in mythological legends. Europe and the bull are recurring characters as well as the Minotaur, in whom Zeus is transformed in our example. Is this perhaps a hint that the struggle continues in the future, since one of the main protagonists of the Minotaur-legend is Minos of Crete, one of the three sons of Europe and Zeus?

Nevertheless, the artist’s oeuvre includes also more harmonious illustrations of the relationship between humans and animals. There are engravings and drawings with woman and bull, which show them peaceful and tender together. This possibility might underline the inner conflict of Europe in the present painting.

Since the legend of Europe and the bull is name giving for the European continent, it is often associated with the original myth of Europe. Hence, interpretations and reinterpretations find their way into the political discourse. Therefore, Angela Hampel’s painting could perhaps also be read as a description of the current situation of the European Union at the period of the origin of the picture. In particular because at the time of the German reunification, the artist executed a version with several Europes sitting on the bull. It was meant as an expression of female solidarity, which should be reinforced after the fall of the iron curtain.

In contrast, the German dramatist, poet, writer, essayist and theatre director Heiner Müller had a more negative version of Europe. In his long poem from 1993 “Ajax zum Beispiel“ (Ajax for example) he declared the bull as slaughtered, so that Europe would never again get a godly visit. Angela Hampel does not seem to share this idea of her compatriot. Even nearly 30 years later, the transformed Zeus is still present. Nevertheless, the preceding approaches show that Europe is still struggling.


Angela Hampel

Born in 1956 in Räckelwitz (Germany, at this time GDR), Angela Hampel trained as forestry worker and driver. During two years of work in this profession, she additionally frequented the evening class from the Dresden Hochschule für Bildende Künste (HfBK – Academy of Fine Arts) in Bautzen. From 1977 to 1982, she studied painting and graphics in Dresden with Prof Jutta Damme and Dietmar Büttner. Subsequently she became freelance artist in the same town. In the year of her first solo exhibition, 1984, she started to work in the ceramic workshop Wilfriede Maaß in Dresden and Berlin. Steadily solo shows and participations followed worldwide.

Inter alia, the artist was in 1985 represented at the Biennale in Sao Paulo and participated in the travelling exhibition “Künstlerinnen der DDR” (Female artists of the GDR), with stations in Stuttgart, Bremen and Paris. Further exhibitions followed in both parts of Germany, and in 1988, her works were shown at the Venice Biennale. In 1989, Angela Hampel was co-founder of the Dresdner Sezession ’89, a women artists’ association, which was the first of its kind in Saxony. Ever since, she continued her exhibition activities. She received several awards and grants and her oeuvre is represented in more than thirty public and private collections.

At the beginning of her career, Angela Hampel read Christa Wolf’s novel “Kassandra”, which inspired her to a series of graphic comments of the text. For her, it was an encouragement and stimulation to identify herself as woman and female artist. Moreover, it was the starting point for the still lasting research for her female roots and her roots in this world.* From this engagement with the character of “Kassandra” resulted a longstanding friendship with Christa and Gerhard Wolf. Her works also reflected the analysis of the real situation of women in art. Despite the apparent gender equality in the GDR, which was inter alia formally ensured by equal payment, the inequality was evident in the appointment of key positions – such as chairs at the Academy or the East German Artists Union (Verband Bildender Künstler, VBK). Consequently, she dunned the inequality of genders, for example at the X. Congress of the VBK, 1988 in Berlin.

Artistically, the engagement with “Kassandra” guided her to approach other literary texts and characters of mythology, literature and society, for example the “Penthesilea” by Heinrich von Kleist. She works with contemporary authors and subjoins her text interpretations to their publications (for example Elke Erb, Uwe Kolbe, Kerstin Hensel und Roza Domascyna). For exhibitions, installations, performances and sculptures in the public space, she cooperates with other visual artists (such as Steffen Fischer und Gudrun Trendafilov). A significant focus in Angela Hampel’s work is – besides drawing and different types of graphic prints – painting. Often, the questioned subject is the female position in relationships. Hereby, the rapport with other women is also thematised as the one with men. Frequently, her personages are androgynous. These connections are sometimes conflictual, sometimes harmonious and tender. Beyond that, she questions our existence and the hereof-resulting responsibility. Frequently animals such as the wildcat, the snake or the bull are represented. These protagonists could refer to mythological themes, but could as well be an expression of the artist’s love for animals and nature in general. Besides, she was for several years an enthusiastic mountaineer.

In her engagement with mythological figures, the bull and the Minotaur are recurring characters. One example is the painting “Europe and the Bull” from 2019/20, which is our artwork of the month in September 2021. Furthermore, frequently appearing female legendary figures from mythology and the Bible are Medea, Salomé, Judith, Lilith or the just mentioned Europe. All these creations have in common that Angela Hampel reinterprets the stories. In her visual vocabulary, she renounces to decorative accessories and focuses directly the represented personages. Her artistic language is expressive. In painting, she uses bright colours, mostly the three primary colours yellow, red and blue with a special affection for red. For her mostly white or light-ground graphic prints and drawings, she contrasts black with red highlights. This underlines the emotional aspects of her works.

Most recently, Angela Hampel had three solo exhibitions in 2020 in Schloβ Rheinsberg, in the Gallery Klinger/Liegau-Augustusbad and Dresden. Additionally, she contributed to group shows in 2019/20 inter alia in Berlin and Düsseldorf, which showed significant positions of art in the GDR. This autumn some of her graphic prints will be on view in the exhibition “Ursache und Wirkung- Grafik in der DDR aus der Sammlung Nowoisky” (Cause and Effect – Graphic Prints in the GDR from the Collection Nowoisky) in the Municipal Museums Zittau (2 October 2021 – January 2022).

Angela Hampel lives and works in Dresden.