Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Kouros - again

The New York Kouros - which I wrote about here - presents himself as a distant and remote figure; however much we might admire the form, he will pay us no heed at all, and as much as we might stare, he will never return our gaze. His gaze, instead, takes us out, into the ether, the timeless, the abstract. If he won't look at us, we may look where, or how, he looks. The consciousness he represents is entirely fixed on some other world, perhaps where geometric figures, so cunningly represented on his body, are all there is.

Much, though certainly not all, of what we find in him we can also locate in Ka-Aper, dated to around 2450-2350 BCE. Here again, we are intended to look, not to be greeted by his gaze. He is frontally posed, showing the long-lived extended left leg motif. Although geometrical pattern does underly the form-Egyptian art tends to follow prescribed sets of rules-he is far more of an individual person with individual characteristics who looks, well, alive. He has a name, a personality, a history, a staff, and a belly.

He is not, however, nude. Nor is he beautiful. These qualities had to await the Greeks. Mind you, the Egyptians knew from beauty. The differences between Egyptian and Greek notions of beauty in art are far too great for me to rehearse here, or anywhere else, but however little I might know of them, I think I do recognize what they consist in.

Susan Woodford articulates how the motif of the V or W-surely echoing the dominant triangle motif of Geometric art-plays out across the surface of the kouros. As she shows, the beauty of the statue consists in its dual nature, which both looks like a man-or, one might say, Man-and is "a beautiful object in itself." Nothing had ever been done like this before, though models are abundant from Egypt and elsewhere. His beauty derives, Woodford claims, from three elements of design: symmetry, the exact repetition of shapes across the representation of the human form, using some shapes on different scales. We see, then, how the individual parts here are conceived as shapes - geometric shapes - and that what matters here is how they relate to each other and to the whole.

The Greek sculptor, like his Egyptian counterpart, appreciated the natural symmetry of the human body with its pair of eyes, ears, arms and legs, and stressed the symmetry by keeping the figure upright, facing straight forward, standing with its weight equally distributed on its two legs. He avoided any pose containing twists, turns or bends since these would have spoiled the symmetry.

Symmetry about a vertical axis was thus easily achieved. But symmetry about a horizontal axis was quite another matter. The human form, with a single head at one end and a pair of legs at the other, must have seemed unpromising material to organize in this way. Nevertheless, the Greek artist dealt with the problem by inventing his own, rather limited, horizontal axes. He imagined a horizontal exis running across the body at the level of the navel and then produced a symmetrical design on either side of it—the upright V of the heavily accented muscle separating the torso from the legs and the balancing inverted V of the lower boundary of the thorax. He imagined another horizontal line midway between the collar-bones and the pectoral muscles. He then balanced the shallow W of the pectorals below it with the inverted shallow W of the collar-bones above. ...

The sculptor repeated certain shapes exactly, in order to produce a decorative pattern. He made the line of the eyebrows follow the line of the upper lids and composed the hair of the bead-like knobs, each of which is the same as its neighbors. This is particularly effective from the back, where the play of light and shadow on the richly carved hair contrasts with the smooth surface of the body.

Use of the same shape on different scales is a third aesthetic device employed by the sculptor. Notice how the shallow W of the pectorals is echoed on a smaller scale in the shallow Ws over the knee-caps and how the protruding V of the torso-leg division is echoed in the smaller, recessed Vs of the elbows...

...Greek artists were always concerned with striking a balance between beautiful designs and natural appearances, though sometimes the balance was tipped toward the abstract and formal, as here, and at other times toward the convincingly real” (Susan Woodford, The Art of Greece and Rome, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1982, 2004, pp 7-9).

Here he is. You can see in him traces of his patterned past and of his many, more reality-based progeny. He is realistic, but also idealistic, and what is patterned about him enhances his abstract nature without taking away from the humanity. The idea that we have a man so clearly etched out of stone, as if (like some god) he inhabited the material itself, is compelling. In fact, the kouroi are often referred to as Apollos, and doubtless some of them, at least, were intended to represent that youthful male deity.