The Riddle Master: Rupert Bunny’s ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’

Esteemed art historian and engaging storyteller Associate Professor Alison Inglis helms the Potter Museum of Art’s latest Up from the Vaults video presentation, where she explores an early twentieth-century oil painting by Australian artist Rupert Bunny titled Oedipus and the Sphinx.

Depicting the ancient Greek tale of Oedipus answering the riddle of the Theban Sphinx, Bunny’s distinctive interpretation is investigated throughout this half-hour long presentation, as Alison draws on her expansive art historical knowledge. Taking a deep-dive into the work of this critically acclaimed expatriate Australian artist, Alison shares comparisons with other historical art examples ranging from ancient Greek vases and neo-classical paintings to fin de siècle illustration and twenty-first-century art installations.

The University of Melbourne is fortunate to own both the major oil painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx (purchased in 1960) as well as the study for the work, which was gifted by the artist’s estate in 1948 along with other material from Bunny’s studio. The oil sketch and finished work shed light on Bunny’s developing ideas about his composition, and his shift from the confrontation between man and monster to the moment of victory for Oedipus, the riddle master.

Finally, the historical context in which the painting was created – in Paris, at a time when Bunny’s style and subject matter were dramatically transformed by the influence of the avant-garde Ballets Russes – is also explored. Bunny’s Oedipus and the Sphinx is revealed as a modernist reimagining of an ancient myth that overturned the traditional iconography of this subject.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Image: Rupert Bunny, Oedipus and the Sphinx, n.d. University of Melbourne Art Collection. Purchased 1960