Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Doryphoros - Spear-Carrier - The Canon of Polykleitos

Doryphoros, Polykleitos, 450-440

Galen, [de placitis hippocratis et platonis 5]: “Beauty arises…in the proportion (symmetria) of the parts of the body, such as that of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and the wrist, and of those to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and, in fact, of everything to everything else, just as it is written in the Canon of Polykleitos.

For having taught us in that work all the proportions of the body, Polykleitos supported his treatise with a work of art; that is, he made a statue according to the tenets of his treatise, and called the statue, like the work, the “Canon.”

Galen, [de temperamentis 1.9]: “Modellers and sculptors and painters, and in fact image-makers in general, paint or model beautiful figures by observing an ideal form in each case, that is, whatever form is the most beautiful in man or in the horse or in the cow or in the lion, always looking for the mean within each genus. And a certain statue might perhaps also be commended, the one called the “Canon” of Polykleitos; it got such a name from having precise symmetria of all the parts to one another.”
The loss of so many original Greek bronzes is tough. Those we do possess - the Zeus (Poseidon?) of Artemesion, the Charioteer of Delphi, the Riace Warriors - are, whatever else they are, convincing. In so many cases, however, we are stuck with base Roman copies like this one. Fragments may be tragically incomplete and yet strike us for some quality or other worth noting; often they summon us in spite of their tatters. For most copies, however, we must take an entirely different approach. We are not moved. Nothing especially noteworthy calls our attention until we start reading the work and re-imagining it as quick and vivid and vital and compelling. Instead of being convinced by the work itself, we have to convince ourselves, which is not how it ought to work.

Sigh. But so it goes.

And this, then, is the masterpiece of Polykleitos, the so-called "canon of proportion." The book of that name, by Polykleitos, is, of course, lost, and we can not recover the exact proportions themselves. So, let's take a look. He holds a spear in his left hand and is about to take a step as he looks off to the right. All his weight is supported by the right leg. His right arm is relaxed, his left tense. We begin to pick up a cross-rhythm here, a chiastic pattern in which the tension of the right leg is balanced by the relaxation of the right arm, and the relaxation of the left leg is balanced by the tension of the left arm. It is through the torso we may see how most of the energy is distributed. The contrapposto stance, with that left leg relaxed, extends the contour on this side through the lowered hip. The relaxed line of his left side contrasts with the tension we find on the right, where the hip is raised. And so in the torso here we find a dynamism that animates the entire figure, so that the shifting of axes at both hips and shoulders, combined with the chiastic nature of the limbs and that curious head tilt, give the whole piece life and energy while preserving both rhythmos and symmetria.

Lord Clark calls our attention to the torso [pictured above] based on the Polykeitian canon located at the Uffizi.

The cuirasse esthetique, which so greatly delighted the artists of the Renaissance, is one of the features of antique art that have done most to alienate modern taste. It seems to us ungraceful in itself and completely lacking in vitality. But although a row of formalized torsos in the Galleries of the Vatican or the Naples Museum may not cause the pulse to vary its beat, we can see from certain replicas that this was originally a construction of great power. Such is the copy of the Doryphoros in the Uffizi, which, being in a hard, smooth basalt, conveys the effect of bronze, and is executed with unusual care. It preserves some of the urgency and concentration of the original, and proves that Polykleitos’ scheme of the body, like all abstractions that have survived, not only contained life, but was bursting with a vitality all the more potent because forced into so narrow a channel (Clark, The Nude, 68).