Up from the Vaults with Associate Professor Alison Inglis - Ian Potter Museum of Art

Up from the Vaults with Associate Professor Alison Inglis

27 May 2020

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

Esteemed art historian and engaging storyteller Associate Professor Alison Inglis helms our latest Up from the Vaults 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.



Alison Inglis is an Associate Professor in Art History in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.  Her research areas include nineteenth-century British art, Australian colonial art and the history of art museums and exhibitions. She has coordinated the Master of Art Curatorship program for many years, and has been on the board of a number of museums and galleries.  She is an Emeritus Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria.  Her publications include the co-authored book: Australian Art Exhibitions: Opening Our Eyes, Thames & Hudson, Melbourne, 2018.