Saturday, April 28, 2007

Artemision Zeus

The Zeus or Poseidon of Artemision (c. 460 BCE)

This iconic piece explains as it demonstrates the Early Classical ("severe") ideal. The body is captured at a precise moment - and a momentous precision it is. The god's entire body, and his mind, which we can begin to comprehend, are both alert and supremely focused. It is an exhilarating piece to admire, in part because we can begin to participate in the anticipated throw.

This is one of the only bronzes to survive from this era. He was recovered from a shipwreck. He might be Poseidon, but I think of Poseidon as rougher around the edges. This to me is Zeus, the god of storms and lightning, not earthquakes, and of balanced harmonies, not sudden bursts of passion. One of the things that works so well in this statue is the combination of relaxation with poised tension. The contrapposto stance is expressed by way of exaggerated extension in a body that is anatomically precise, while seeming to exemplify geometric patterning.

Woodford, her good and well-trained eye especially observant here, points out some of the technical problems with the piece; they're interesting, but don't much matter in the end.

We have seen that doing something new can easily unbalance the coherence of a work of art and that unforeseen problems are likely to emerge. This has happened with the Zeus of Artemisium. A novel sense of movement has been brilliantly captured, but at the same time two new problems have appeared, neither of which is solved. First, though the torso should be dramatically affected by the vigorous activity of the limbs, it is as still as it would have been in a quietly standing figure like the Kritios boy. Second, though the Zeus of Artemisium is splendid from the front and the back, it is pathetically unintelligible from the sides, which was not the case with the Kritios boy or even the kouroi (Woodford, The Art of Greece and Rome, 2004, 16).
I recall a passage, I think from William H. Gass somewhere (The World Within the Word?), in which he used the image of an equestrian statue in which the fellow points with his sword - to nothing. He was writing about meaning in a literary work, but it would serve as well, I think, for a statue like this. Although the expansive gesture encompasses more space than many other pieces of its (somewhat large) size, we don't turn to see what he has in mind to smite. We turn to see how he's doing it.