Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Capitoline Aphrodite and the Venus de Medici

The Capitoline Aphrodite (left)
The Venus de Medici (right)

Both of these female nudes illustrate the Classic pose known as the Venus Pudica, or Modest Venus, as it appears she is trying to cover her breasts and genitals with her hands. Both derive from the idea first exploited by Praxitiles in the Aphrodite of Knidos, but in a more compact and distinctive manner. Lord Clark contrasts the Capitoline with the the Praxitilean model:
The Knidian is thinking only of the ritual bath she is about to enter. The Capitoline is posing. Herself self-conscious, she is the product of self-conscious art. Her pose, whenever it was evolved, is the most complete solution in antique art of certain formal problems presented by the naked female body; and it is worth trying to see how this has been achieved. … At no point is there a plane or an outline where the eye may wander undirected. The arms surround the body like a sheath, and by their movement help to emphasize its basic rhythm. The head, left arm, and weight-bearing leg form a line as firm as the shaft of a temple. Approach the Knidian from the direction to which her gaze is directed, and her body is open and defenseless; approach the Capitoline, and it is formidably enclosed.

Clark is not fond of the Venus de Medici, referring to its "vapid elegance" as "stilted and artificial."

With these two characters branching off from the Praxitilean model, a schema for the female nude in western art has been established which will become standard visual practice for centuries. She will usually depict the goddess Aphrodite, generally with her Roman identity, Venus, and at some point around this time, it seems, she will no longer be the object of religious veneration or cult, or at least, not exclusively. Elements of the female nude from now on and until the modern era, however else they are configured, will often involve some relationship to the Knidia.

The elements of the female nude consist principally in her poses and her anatomy - as it is with the male nude - and how the different parts and gestures of the piece interact. We learn to look at the body - head, face, arms, legs, hands, feet, hair, genitalia, and whatever drapery there is, along with other parts of the scene such as the hydria or a shield - finding ways in which one part will parallel or contrast with another - as part to part and part to whole - creating or exploiting geometrical abstractions (as earlier in the Greek tradition) or not (starting in the Hellenistic age) and with more or less realistic and naturalistic modes of expression, and more or less abstract modes. The Classical ideal has been widely influential.

Also, of course, we find relations between the piece and ourselves, the audience, spectator, me, you.

Elements of the female nude are bound to include something about the social and erotic character of the person represented; when the cult is abandoned, women will be represented more as they are seen by sculptors and their audiences than by how the goddess is or was - worshiped. Miranda Marvin's review of the book, The Aphrodite of Knidos and her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. 158. ISBN 0-472-10585-X) is worth reading for a survey of the Praxitilean model of the female nude.

Approaches to the female nude since the 19th century - when the Praxitilean ideal was both revived and challenged, have tended to problematize the subject.

Head of Alexander

Head of Alexander, Lysippean tradition c, 200

This is a portrait of Alexander the Great. One of his generals is said to have done a double take when he passed the statue, after Alexander's death. The dreamy look, with the eyes cast upward and the mouth slightly open, was widely copied.

Alexander, of course, was the most significant, world-changing leader of the Classical world. From Macedonia, just north of Greece, he went on to conquer most of the known world. One of his teachers was Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher and natural scientist, and Alexander was a strong proponent of Hellenic (Greek) culture. Upon his death his generals divided up the empire, most of which continued with the sort of Greek traditions and culture Alexander had brought to them. This is when the Hellenic becomes the Hellenistic.

This is probably one of the first portraits we possess. The head of Themistokles, from several centuries before, seems very much like a portrait, so this would not be the first. From this piece we get a sense of Alexander's character or temperament.

The Theater at Epidauros

Theater at Epidauros, c. 300 BCE

Greek art begins in geometry. By the time of the 3rd century BCE and later, after the death of Alexander the Great - known as the Hellenistic age - artists were moving away from the expression of abstract geometric harmonies. This design, however, is geometric through and through.

Theatrical productions began in Greece with ritual and communal dances performed by choruses. The circular orchestra here is the performance space. Originally, a squarish skene building (where we get our word scene) would have been just behind the orchestra. The audience sat in the amphitheater, which carved into a mountainside in conic sections. The combination of geometrical forms is basic.

It is as if, by the human mind’s capacity for abstract thought, nature has been transmuted into geometry. The orchestra becomes a perfect circle, the hillside the interior of a truncated cone, the backdrop a simple cubic form (Pollitt, 171).

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Apoxyomenos, Lysippos

Apoxyomenos, The Scraper, Lysippos c. 330 BCE

This is an athlete who has doused himself with olive oil and is now scraping off the dirt and sweat after, presumably, working out. So it would be the equivalent, I presume, of watching someone take a shower. Olive oil was also used to eroticize the body, so that its glistening surface highlights what we call the sculpted look.

Watch, though, how the arms create another set of planes in which the piece takes place. This piece is all carefully worked out and measured, as Greek artists have always done, but now the measuring is of a different sort, with quite different effects.

Lyssipos is the last of the great named sculptors of the Classical era in Greece; after him, the Hellenistic period. He was recognized - and recognized himself to be - an innovator, stretching out the conventional proportions, so that rather than 7:1 (head:body) Lyssipos makes it 8:1. The effect is supposed to be based more on the way we perceive and apprehend a body as opposed to the actual dimensions found when measured. He also exploited the space around the statue, as we can see, using optical devices - foreshortening, overlapping - which derive more from how we see things than how our bodies are in fact composed and measured.

Foreshortening is a particular technique used in the visual arts to depict spatial relationships more as we see them than as they in fact are: If you point your arm at me, I will not see its full extension because it will be foreshortened. The dimensions of lines, contours and angles in a piece are worked out so that they do appear to be out of proportion. Lysippos is exploiting that visual effect, and the one of overlapping - things in front block out things behind - to enhance the subjective sensation of seeing someone.
The stance is extraordinarily mobile, for although the weight is on the figure’s left leg, he seems almost in the act of shifting it onto the right. The arms, strikingly extended before the figure and drastically foreshortened from the front, carry the idea of the statue penetrating the surrounding space to its logical conclusion. The first stirrings in this direction could already be seen in the raised arm of the Antikythera youth which breaks into the space in front of the figure in a way that had never been considered in the 5th century BC….

The pose, like the proportions, forms part of Lysippos’ systematic refutation of the Polykleitan ideal. The bent left arm of the statue deliberately cuts the front view of the torso so that no appreciation of the carefully balanced forms is possible. The bold foreshortening of one or the other arm from the four cardinal points of view compromises the finality of the very views that Polykleitos had made so harmonious. The intermediate angles, somewhere between the full front and full profile, which were less successful in Polykleitan works, have, however, been made very much more interesting by Lysippos. He has created a statue that has no single entirely satisfactory point of view, but which is visually exciting from a multitude of viewpoints and which the observer is invited to walk all round if he is to appreciate its full spatial complexity (Woodford, 1984, 162-4).
Athletics, we remind ourselves, was a fundamental feature of Greek life and culture. The Olympics, created at some point between the ninth and the eighth centuries BCE, meant a time and a place for Greeks everywhere to declare a truce and to come together to celebrate excellence - arete - of all kinds. both physical and intellectual. Individual excellence comes first in these Olympics, which test by competition and in front of everybody - its a community thing in that respect - not only the best athletes but the best poets and singers. Lysippos decides to represent an athlete not at the moment of his athletic prowess or upon winning the event - that has been done before - but as a body cleaning itself up after a hard workout. What's more, he is presented to us as we look at ordinary people, doing ordinary things, from particular perspectives that make the experience of seeing the Apoxyomenos far more subjective and personal than anything in the earlier tradition.

Benvenuto Cellini, that paragon of Renaissance sensibility, wrote in 1547: I say that the art of sculpture is eight times as great as any other art based on drawing, because a statue has eight views and they must all be equally well made. (Artlex) This idea, in effect, derives from Lysippos.

Because Lysippos is deliberately creating work in distinction from the Polykleitan ideal, this Scraper makes an interesting comparison with virtually all of the principal male sculptures. Those discussed on this blog can be found here.

Bronze Youth from Antikythera

Bronze Youth from Antikythera, 350-330 BCE

Is it unfair to compare how much more successful is this piece to the stale and flat Belvedere Apollo? Well, yes. This is a bronze original, found at the site of a shipwreck. And it is, however fair or unfair, a much better realized work. Although it might not have changed Winkelmann's mind concerning the Belvedere Apollo, I think he would have appreciated this work.

He practically comes alive at every level: his step, his gesture, his head, his face, his posture, his physique, his hair, his eyelashes... The whole thing works. Although we don't know what round thing he might have held in his hand - is this Paris holding the golden apple out to Aphrodite? - is he an athlete with a ball? - the delicacy of gesture - an elaboration of the same sort of feeling we find in the Hegeso stele - and the concentration of his stare - animate the rest of the pose.

This artist understands much more about human anatomy - and rippling muscles - than earlier artists; it is more realistic and naturalistic than previous work, and yet retains that sense of what we call the "Greek ideal."

He is a personification of the Greek ideal of harmoniously developed body and firm inner forces of the spirit, a synthesis of lithe physical discipline and well-ordered psychological resources. The powerfully built body is subtly modulated in contours and muscle and flesh, but there is no exaggeration or worship of mere physical strength, such as is often seen in Roman statues and some later ones, particularly in the Renaissance. The head is manly yet refined and delicate, its clear features admirably proportioned, the hair a lively pattern that is realistically casual but not without a pleasing orderliness. (Schoder #58)
Contrapposto is by now, of course, the norm; the varieties of the pose have been explored and exploited, as here, to attain particular effects. Here the left foot bears the weight of the body as the right toe barely scrapes the ground. This sets off the contours of the body in an elegant curve which might - I don't know - derive from discoveries of the pose in the female form. Certainly Praxiteles exploited that curve, but here it seems both subtle and compelling at the same time, and not at all feminine.

The gesture of reaching out is especially fine. It breaks the plane, and helps to modify the contrapuntal rhythms of the contrapposto. Also, it sustains and enhances the boy's focus, bringing physical expression to a mental state, a technique or device that goes back to the Zeus of Artemision but which here is both more relaxed and more penetrating.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Apollo Belvedere

The Belvedere Apollo, marble copy of Bronze from late 4th century

The Apollo Belvedere is one of the best known ancient statues. It gives us a youthful, trim Apollo, whose gaze takes us to one who, er, is just looking. There's nobody inside. I never got this piece. I thought it was dull, and kind of embarrassing. It was supposed to be great art and I didn’t see it. Then I read Kenneth Clark on its “weak structure and slack surfaces.” Clark quotes Winckelmann, the great 19th century critic, who calls it, “the highest ideal of art among all the works of antiquity. Enter, O reader, with your spirit into this kingdom of beauty incarnate, and thee seek to create for yourself the images of the divine nature” (The Nude, 84). Clark doesn't actually say "Phooey," but you can sense it lurking there.

Winckelmann had some odd notions, it turns out. He wrote,

As it is confessedly the beauty of man which is to be conceived under one general idea, so I have noticed that those who are observant of beauty only in women, and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of men, seldom have an impartial, vital, inborn instinct for beauty in art. To such persons the beauty of Greek art will ever seem wanting, because its supreme beauty is rather male than female. But the beauty of art demands a higher sensibility than the beauty of nature, bcause the beauty of art, like tears shed at a play, gives no pain, is without life and must be awakened and repaired by culture. Now, as the sirit of culture is much more ardent in youth than in manhood, the instinct of which I am speaking must be exercised and directed to what is beautiful, before that age is reached at which one would be afraid to confess that one had no taste for it. (Quoted in Rictor Norton, "Johann Joachim Winckelmann", The Great Queens of History, 30 December 2000 .) {typos preserved}


The Belvedere Apollo was widely copied and became part of the popular repertory of the fine arts, or classical art.

Woodford contrasts it with the Olympia Apollo, the earlier Apollo being still, geometric, firm, and majestic while this one moves, avoids geometrical effects, and looks sleek, soft, graceful, and urbane.

The version in the Vatican, of course, wears the fig leaf.

Grave Stele, Ilissos

Illissos Stele, Athens, 350 - 330 BCE

Death remains a compelling subject for Greek artists; this is one of their masterpieces. The stele marks a grave, often creating in the relief a quality that calls forth both life and its passing from us. We've seen this in the Hegeso stele. Here a vivid and surprising group portrait - of idealized types, there are few if any real portraits as we know them at this time, at least with names to them - conveys something about that sense we have of people whom we know well but who have died, whether recently or not, and they still feel present, but not here (or, still here, but not present, if you take my meaning). The guy is dead, the others are grieving. He doesn't look dead, but he doesn't look with it any more.

It is a very deep relief, creating emphatic shadows. The nude man - well-built, vigorous, though modeled gently, handsome - is a hunter; what may be his brother or his slave (I guess if there was a young son there would be a wife) and what might be his father, and what does seem to be his dog, surround him. Without acknowledging him, they each react in their own way to their loss; the piece reflects their thoughts and feelings, all of which are exposed to their inmost touch by the absent presence of the dead hunter who gathers our attention.

The old man is meditating; he might be us. His thoughtful quality and engaged mind contrasts with the blankness of the nude man. The young boy is lost in grief, absorbed in the pain. Especially effective, I find, is the detail of the huddled boy framed by the man's crossed calves - the boy's head is cradled under the man's knee - whose strenuous diagonals and deep shadows make an effective contrast. Of course, the whole piece is structured around the series of contrasting ages, and now here comes the dog composed of parallel diagonals sniffing around, trying to find his master's scent. The relief depicts the combination of the mental and the sensory world.

Here is where I most miss the aedicule; the piece was originally framed as if it were a little shrine or door to the world of the dead, like the Hegeso.

I am reminded of Emily Dickinson #1691:
The overtakelessness of those
Who have accomplished Death
Majestic is to me beyond
The majesties of Earth.

The soul her "Not at Home"
Inscribes upon the flesh -
And takes her fair aerial gait
Beyond the hope of touch.

The Venus of Arles and the Venus of Capua

The Venus of Arles, Roman copy of Praxiteles original
The Venus of Capua, Roman copy of 4th C original

The Venus of Arles is probably a copy of an original statue by Praxiteles. The Venus of Capua is a variation on the pose. The pose here is what interests us; it. Like the Knidan pose, it was widely copied in later art, with its most successful interpretation the Venus de Milo.

Aphrodite here is somewhat more regal than in other representations, and is associated with military conquest. Aphrodite holds in her hands the shield (now missing) of her lover, Ares (Roman Mars), the god of war. She is admiring herself in its reflection. A common motif in the art of the West will be the Venus at toilette, in which she looks into a mirror. In this representation, she seems absorbed in thought.

Neither of these statues, it should be noted, can represent much of what the original would have been. The Arles, which was discovered in the 17th century, was re-worked at King Louis Xiv's instructions. Although the revisions were done by Giraudon, a fine sculptor, the tastes of the time - the King's tastes in particular - were to avoid messy things like muscles and ribs, and so the torso was smoothed out. Bad idea.

The drapery is very low, and looks about to slip off, which somewhat diminishes, or transforms, her regal presence; perhaps she is thinking too much and, hence, unaware of her imminent wardrobe malfunction. In a sense, then, these pieces re-frame the idea of energy and motion discovered, for example, in Myron's Discobolos - who is about to throw the discus - and in the Polykleitos's Doryphoros - who is about to take a step.

The drapery around the legs has the effect of providing a solid - albeit slippery - base for the figure. As Lord Clark points out,

It has always been the despair of sculptors that the torso, that perfect, plastic unity, should rest on tapering, spindly supports. Praxiteles has simply draped the legs and left the torso bare. He has thus achieved so firm a foundation for his figure that he can dispense with any support—vase, pillar, or dolphin—and allow the arms free play (The Nude, 130)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Beauty and the Knidian Aphrodite

Marble head from Chios, Praxitelean model
Torso, Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Cnidos

The Aphrodite of Knidos - known as the Knidia - comes to us, eventually, in so many shapes and sizes, and has such a large and beautiful progeny, with all those different copies in so many states of wholeness and repair, and all those many Venuses - we start calling them that rather than Aphrodites because of their popularity from Roman copies throughout the history of art in the west - so that her identity as a goddess seems to become less certain the more this Knidian Aphrodite starts spreading around the Mediterranean. But here, certainly, she is a goddess, with sudden and inordinate powers.

For one thing, she is understood not just by means of the Aphrodite myth but by reference to the actual model - or what is said to have been her - named Phryne. I don't know all that much about Phryne, and it is possible she was not the model for this particular statue, because what people claim to be the case is not always the case, but what I get from this is a story of the power of beauty, which seems to fit my response to the work- si non e vero, e ben trovato. Phryne is said to have undressed before the public, in particular to have displayed her breasts, and as a result to have won judgment over some accusation made against her, not by means of rational judgment or proof, then, but simply because she is so beautiful, because in fact it is not all that simple at all, since beauty is a sure sign from the gods. Or, because it seems to be. Or, perhaps, because it really should be.

This is a powerful and meaningful observation; any social psychologist will tell you that beauty wins arguments, at least for being so very convincing, even if only on that score.

One feature of a person that influences overall attractiveness is physical attractiveness. Although it has long been suspected that physical beauty provides an advantage in social interaction, research indicates that the advantage may be greater than supposed. Physical attractiveness seems to engender a "halo" effect that extends to favorable impressions of other traits such as talent, kindness, and intelligence. As a result, attractive people are more persuasive both in terms of getting what they request and in changing others' attitudes. Cialdini on Influence

Better looking people on average tend to do better than others; so, we live with it. But how we live with it tends to mean creating and responding to myths. And so, the myth, the myths, of beauty.

Myths of beauty of course have a very long history; here we are concerned with an invention of Greek art, and what will become, afterwards, a principal concern of artists up through the 19th century as both ideal and norm, with, after that, an even more interesting career as artists confront these two Greek creations, the heroic male nude, which after the Knidian Aphrodite no longer rules the roost, and the female nude, which from now on will help to define notions of beauty, with so many female nudes continually deriving their form and shape, and their meaning, from this particular work.

Aphrodite herself is, here in this statue, we know, really beautiful, a beauty we can not only recognize but feel and respond to - erotically, architectonically, spiritually, if you wish. The story of Cupid and Psyche, from the Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius, sounds so much like a myth but is really more like a folktale or some such. I don't actually make much of the distinctions between myths and folk and fairy tales, but I do think we deserve to teach ourselves that there is a difference, and what it is, even if, in the end, myth is basically story, expressed, among other ways, in folktales, but also in movies, for example.

In any case, some of my students often rebel or stand in mute incomprehension at the very notion that beauty could be a problem for anyone, as it is for Psyche, and as it will be later for Belle in Beauty and the Beast, which is a story cognate with Cupid and Psyche. Problems pop stars have these students would welcome, it appears. Other students seem already to have rejected any notion of beauty, and to find almost repulsive the norms for beauty that are conveyed in popular culture and elsewhere. These norms, of course, trace back to the Aphrodite of Knidos.

In that story, Psyche's problem is that her beauty so annoys Venus - its that jealousy motif we know from the Queen or Wicked Witch in Snow White. that she must be sacrificed - the whole town pitches in to pitch her off a cliff, only Cupid has her snatched away by Zephyr, the west wind, and wafted gently to a beautiful private residence where, as in Beauty and the Beast, she is fed and cared for by invisible servants and caretakers. But that's for another time.

The Knidian Aphrodite, Praxiteles

The Aphrodite of Knidos, Praxiteles, c. 340 - 330 BCE

She is the most celebrated piece of sculpture in the Classical world. The work was said to have been controversial - she is the first nude goddess in sculpture - and was rejected by its original commission; the town of Knidos gratefully accepted it. She became a celebrated tourist attraction - as usual, the original is missing - and was the most widely copied work at the time. Most of the copies are weak, though some of the torsos and heads are vivid, memorable, and might give us some sense of the power of the original.

If we had the original, we might dispel the gossip about a stain found on one of her thighs - said to be semen from an over-active young man. A wonderful description of her comes to us from one of her many admirers, who got the guard to let them through the gate so they could admire her bottom. You can read it in the Dialogue Comparing Male and Female Love, attributed to Lucian of Samosata. Here is part of it:

13. ...The goddess stands in the center; her statue made of marble from Paros. Her lips are slightly parted by a lofty smile. Nothing hides her beauty, which is entirely exposed, other than a furtive hand veiling her modesty. The art of the sculptor has succeeded so well that it seems the marble has shed its hardness to mold the grace of her limbs. Charícles, dazed by this spectacle, impulsively burst out, "Lucky Mars, to be chained by such a goddess!" He rushed forward as he spoke, lips pursed, neck stretched to give her a kiss. Callicratídas watched the display in silence. The temple has a second entrance for those who wish to contemplate the goddess from behind, for none of her parts should escape admiration. It is easy in that fashion to gaze upon her hind beauty.
14. Wanting to see the goddess entire we approached this gate. Upon being let in by the woman who kept the keys, we were overwhelmed by her abundant beauty. As soon as the Athenian, who had so far been indifferent, glimpsed this side of the goddess, which reminded him of boys, he exclaimed with even greater enthusiasm than that of Charícles, "By Hercules, what a harmonious back. What rounded thighs, begging to be caressed with both hands! How well the lines of her cheeks flow, neither too skinny, showing the bones, nor so voluminous as to droop! How inexpressible the tenderness of that smile pressed into her dimpled loins! How precise that line running from thigh, to leg, to foot! (Lucian of Samosata, Erotes, translated by Andrew Kallimachos on the Diotima site)

Aphrodite is taking a bath, said to be a ritual bath, which an entry in Wikipedia identifies as restoring her virginity; this is not an aspect of her myth I am familiar with, and seems unlikely. Hera does bathe to restore her virginity, but the Aphrodite I know (and love) has very little use for virginity. The mikvah of Jewish tradition is the ritual bath. Robert Alter's note says that David lies with Bathsheba "she having just cleansed herself of her impurity. The reference is to the ritually required bath after the end of menstruation. This explains Bathsheba's bathing on the roof and also makes it clear that she could not be pregnant by her husband"(The David Story, 251). I don't know even if Aphrodite menstruates. It is enough to know - to see - that she is taking a bath, and just discarding, or picking up, her garment. Woodford calls the bath an "everyday" sort of occasion, which I think is good.

Aphrodite's pose is celebrated and, as I said, widely copied. She has been called the Venus pudica, the bashful Aphrodite, for apparently trying to shield her genitals. Other copies of the pose have her shielding her breasts as well. It has also been noticed that she does a rather poor job of hiding herself, and may - she is, remember, Aphrodite - be pointing them out to us. In some copies her shielding hand is broken off, which we much prefer to those copies with awkward restorations. Likely enough, the best interpretation is that she is both hiding her charms, or pretending to, and displaying them, or pretending to. Her forbears in goddesses of the Ancient Near East (Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte) would definitively have been displaying themselves; their cults involved what we refer to as ritual prostitution.

Incidentally, the name Venus pudica gave rise to the waggish venus impudica, the name given to one of the charming female statuettes of the Paleolithic, and, hence, to our calling them all, misleadingly, I think, Venus figures.

She is the goddess of sex, and in particular its physical attractions and pleasures, all of which associate with beauty and love. Classically (in every sense of the term) there are two goddesses, or one with two very different aspects - the heavenly, spiritual, refined goddess of love and the earthly (and earthy) goddess of sex and sexual pleasure. She is, of course, no gentle goddess. Though she dearly loves her son Aeneas, she lets him fall from her arms when she is scratched by Diomedes in Book 5 of the Iliad. With her son Eros (Cupid) she wreaks havoc among both gods (witness the rape of Persephone) and men. As the recipient of the golden apple in the story of the judgment of Paris, she is the root cause of the Trojan War.

Let's turn back to look again at this sculpture, where the contrapposto pose is adapted to the female form. Here is Susan Woodford to help us look:
Praxiteles’ masterpiece demonstrated that sensuousness as well as equilibrium can be conveyed by applying contrapposto to the female form. Aphrodite rests her weight on her right leg, raising the hip on that side; her right shoulder is lowered as she holds her hand modestly in front of her genitals. That side of her torso is contracted, while the other side is extended. The incline of her shoulders (downward to our left) contrasts with the incline of her hips (downward to our right) to produce a rhythm that is both organically alive and dynamically balanced. The weight-bearing foot is slightly in advance of the other; the knees are pressed together so that the swelling mass of thighs and hips expands gracefully from the narrow base. The formal arrangement that had originally been devised for an athletic male has been brilliantly modified to become a vehicle to reveal the newly discovered charm of the feminine form.

Aphrodite looks sharply to her left, as if suddenly disturbed. Her nudity is explained by the fact that she is preparing to bathe. She holds her clothing to one side; it falls over the hydria containing the water she needs. The limp, inert drapery and the rigid water-jar contrast with the soft, living body of the goddess. The statue has been carefully worked out in terms of contrasts and composition, The hydria and the drapery provided the supports that were required for sculpture in marble, but an artist as skilful as Praxitiles would probably have found a way of doing without the strut at the hip which the copyist found necessary. (Susan Woodford, An Introduction to Greek Art, 154)

From Woodford helping us through the scene, we may apprehend the piece something as we saw the Doryphoros; I am not saying that if he were female, he would be she, but there does remain from him to her the articulation of a system, based on geometry, whereby what is rendered as naturalistic is also composed as if emerging from the timeless world of abstract forms and symmetries.

The goddess Aphrodite is best understood, I think, or perhaps I should say best apprehended, through the poetry of Sappho. Here is a rendition of one of my favorites

Come, Goddess,
Come from Crete
Come to your grove
Where I await
Where sweet apples
In the trees await
And where the altar
Smokes with frankincense
To praise you.

A rippling babble
Of cold spring water
Echoes through the apple orchard.
And everything is roses
And shadows in the leaves,
And mazy sleep
Comes down with evening,
All among these flowers
Where horses are grazing.

Come, Goddess,
Pour the nectar
To our feast
In burnished cups.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Apollo Sauroktonos, Praxiteles

Apollo Sauroktonos, Lizard-slayer, Praxiteles, c. 350 - 275

In the myth, of course, Apollo, has many attributes, including several combinations of opposites and contrasts: sickness and healing, life and death, masculinity and femininity. I think this piece - another iteration of the myth - draws on contrasts of that sort.

Apollo is the god of plagues, that Sminthian "mouse god" the priest Chryses prays to at the opening of the Iliad, here in Christopher Logue's bracing rendition from War Music:

Fearful as the toad in a python's mouth,
The priest, as if the world was empty, walked away
Beside the sea, then hung his head and prayed
Wet-cassocked in the foam:

Whose reach makes distance myth,
In whose abundant warmth
The vocal headlands of Cape Tollomon bask,
As all my life I dressed your leafy shrine
And have, with daily holocausts,
Honoured your timeless might,
Vouchsafe me this:
For every hair upon my daughter's head
Let three Greeks die (War Music, Christopher Logue, 9-10).

It seems that Apollo's association with the plague, and with the mice that bring the plague, led to his later association with healing. He is also the god of music - because of the hymns sung to him as prayers for healing. Only in later centuries will Apollo become a sun god, who is known to the Greeks as Helios.

Apollo, of course, is a major figural subject in art. He is the patron god of the arts for the Greeks - the chorus leader, as it were, of the Muses - the goddesses who preside over the creative and poetic arts of music, dance, writing, and the like.

Apollo is the god one associates with the kouroi figures - they have traditionally been called "Apollos." He the god by which Pheidias himself seems to have established his style in the West pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, with an austere, commanding, otherwordly presence. The Pheidian Apollo is described by Lord Clark:

One great image of Apollo from the beginning of the classic period has survived in the original: he who rises above the struggle, in the west pediment of the temple of Olympia, and, with a gesture of sovereign authority, reproves the bestial fury of the centaurs. Nowhere else, perhaps, is the early Greek ideal so perfectly embodied: calm, pitiless, and supremely confident in the power of physical beauty. (The Nude, 74).

Clearly, the Praxitelean Apollo is quite different. We are reminded here that Apollo is also the god of really good looking young men in a culture in which women are virtually absent from the public sphere, and in which there appears to have been no sanction on certain forms of homosexual behavior. Apollo has been identified with several boy lovers - Hyacinth, Zephyr, Cyparissus - each of whom faces an early death. He seems to play the part of the teacher - erastes - in the pederastic pedagogy and philosophy of the Classical world, the older male who seduces, or at least tries to seduce, a young boy, thereby making himself responsible for the boy's education. At the same time, it seems to me, because Apollo is always beardless, he may also represent the eromenos, the beloved in this relationship, who is always depicted beardless in the iconography.

Apollo is also the god most associated with athletes, a common theme in Greek sculpture, and one which associates with the concept of arete, of excellence - excellence in anything or of anything, of doing and looking your best, and of winning competitions. Apollo acquires this attribute - winning competitions - when he defeats the cthonic beast, the Python, after which he becomes god of prophecy.

Apollo then, is a monster-slayer, and if he were a mortal he would have heroic characteristics, but of course he's a god, so he can't. Praxitiles here, as Ovid later, is having a little fun with the god, who is an awfully young adolescent, is delicate, graceful, curvy, feminine, or maybe girlish - and the python is just a lizard the boy is having some fun with. The original was bronze and is, of course, lost, so we have to imagine the play of light on the surfaces, and the languid tension of the pose.

If we consider how consciousness is being explored - not a bad topic for Greek art - I think we find a sort of absent-minded youth idly observing and poking his stick at a lizard poised on the trunk of a tree. The youth is entirely unaware of being observed, yet the pose does suggest, I think, the opposite.

Centuiries later, Ovid mocks Apollo by having him defeat the terrible Python only to be bested by Cupid, hence falling hopelessly in love with the scornful Daphne. This myth plays with the lover/beloved modality

...[G]reat Python, covering so great an area of the mountain slopes, a snake not known before, a terror to the new race of men. The archer god, with lethal shafts that he had only used before on fleeing red deer and roe deer, with a thousand arrows, almost emptying his quiver, destroyed the creature, the venom running out from its black wounds. Then he founded the sacred Pythian games, celebrated by contests, named from the serpent he had conquered. There the young winners in boxing, in foot and chariot racing, were honoured with oak wreaths. There was no laurel as yet, so Phoebus crowned his temples, his handsome curling hair, with leaves of any tree.

Phoebus’s first love was Daphne, daughter of Peneus, and not through chance but because of Cupid’s fierce anger. Recently the Delian god, exulting at his victory over the serpent, had seen him bending his tightly strung bow and said ‘Impudent boy, what are you doing with a man’s weapons? That one is suited to my shoulders, since I can hit wild beasts of a certainty, and wound my enemies, and not long ago destroyed with countless arrows the swollen Python that covered many acres with its plague-ridden belly. You should be intent on stirring the concealed fires of love with your burning brand, not laying claim to my glories!’ Venus’s son replied ‘You may hit every other thing Phoebus, but my bow will strike you: to the degree that all living creatures are less than gods, by that degree is your glory less than mine.’ He spoke, and striking the air fiercely with beating wings, he landed on the shady peak of Parnassus, and took two arrows with opposite effects from his full quiver: one kindles love, the other dispels it. The one that kindles is golden with a sharp glistening point, the one that dispels is blunt with lead beneath its shaft. With the second he transfixed Peneus’s daughter, but with the first he wounded Apollo piercing him to the marrow of his bones.
Now the one loved, and the other fled from love’s name, taking delight in the depths of the woods, and the skins of the wild beasts she caught, emulating virgin Phoebe, a careless ribbon holding back her hair. Many courted her, but she, averse to being wooed, free from men and unable to endure them, roamed the pathless woods, careless of Hymen or Amor, or whatever marriage might be. Her father often said ‘Girl you owe me a son-in-law’, and again often ‘Daughter, you owe me grandsons.’ But, hating the wedding torch as if it smacked of crime she would blush red with shame all over her beautiful face, and clinging to her father’s neck with coaxing arms, she would say ‘ Dearest father, let me be a virgin for ever! Diana’s father granted it to her.’ He yields to that plea, but your beauty itself, Daphne, prevents your wish, and your loveliness opposes your prayer. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk. 1, trans. A. S. Kline)

The god of competing loses the competition. In the end (read the whole thing!) Apollo loses the girl but acquires the laurel leaves from which to construct the wreath to bestow on winners. Also, a goodly number of great works of art depict the startling ending.

Hermes and Dionysos, Praxiteles

Hermes and Dionysos, copy ? or original ? by Praxiteles, 343 BCE

With Praxiteles it becomes possible (for me) to look back at some of the other sculptors who preceded him. I think this is because it seems, and not just to me, that his work is a deliberate counter to that of Polykleitos, for example. Kenneth D. S. Lapatin's good, long, review article is worth reading. In any case, let's review.

Myron is the 5th Century sculptor responsible for the Diskobolos, whose rhythms and symmetries continue to delight.

Pheidias is the 5th century sculptor responsible for the sculptural program of the Parthenon and for the now lost huge chryselephantine Athena that graced its interior. We can therefore assume that from him, directly or indirectly, come the statues of the Parthenon: pediment, frieze, metopes. He certainly did not create all of them, but his guiding hand must have been at work somehow.

Polykleitos is the 5th century theoretician/sculptor whose Doryphoros and Diadoumenos exhibit profoundly geometrical design within the framework of living, breathing, and practically moving bodies.

Skopas is the 4th century artist whose style is evident in the Dresden Maenad and the Mausoleum frieze.

(Before we come to Praxiteles let me just remind myself that Lysippos, who comes next, as it were, will help inaugurate the next great age of Greek art, the Hellenistic, which merges, in some ways imperceptibly, with the Roman, and it is Roman appropriation of Greek art which so excites the Renaissance.)

Now,we may turn back to the Hermes and Dionysos before us. In contrast with the foursquare, stolid figures of Polykleitos, these figures are gracefully sensuous and, perhaps, somewhat more self-aware. Praxiteles used marble as well as bronze.

A characteristic of his style is the celebrated ‘Praxitelean curve’ which gives an air of supple languor to the pose. Another is the oval shape of the head, with a dreamy indefinite look in the eyes. Gentleness, humanism, and the direct appeal of physical beauty are Praxiteles’ specialty, combined with a peerless mastery of technique... The surface modelling is unusually sensitive, the youthful athletic physique admirably natural, the fine head lovely in its delicacy yet not unmanly. The drapery of the cloak thrown over the supporting tree stump is an unsurpassed triumph of effective handling of that complex and challenging problem.
(Schoder, #57).

Hermes is the messenger god, the god of boundaries, and a trickster. Here, he is on his journey transporting the baby Dionysos away from the wrath of Hera to some nymphs who will rear him. Reminds me of the celebrated subject from Christian art of the rest that Mary and Joseph take with the infant Jesus on their trip to Egypt.

With the arm broken off, it is impossible to tell if the sculptor included the motif of a bunch of grapes - Hermes would be playing with the infant, a touching scene and quite new to the art of the period - and the grapes would foreshadow the infant god's later predilections. Nobody knows; for me - and, again, I am not alone - he's holding the grapes. What else would his arm be doing? There is a slight smile on his lips with comports with a young man having fun with a kid.

He does not seem to be looking the kid in the eye. Maybe that has to do with their being gods, I don't know, but it does give a dreamy quality to the piece. I have read that this Hermes appears to be sad when seen from the left, happy from the right, and calm from the front. Whether true or not, this piece does disturb notions of perfect symmetry. Statues in the late Classical period are often formed, like this one, with supports. I doubt if the original would have had that unsightly strut between the column upon which the baby sits and Hermes, but certainly the standing character leans into and upon that column for support. We see similar supports in other pieces by Praxitiles.

Maillol, who knew a thing or two about sculpture, disliked this piece. "C'est pompier, c'est affreux, c'est sculpté du savon de Marseille!" This translates, roughly, as "It's overblown trash, its frightful, like it's made of soap!"

Lord Clark, however, sees this piece as a

...the climax of that passion for physical beauty first apparent in the Kritios youth, which had been arrested by the schematic austerity of Polykleitos and by Pheidias’ belief in the rectangular majesty of Apollo. We know how easily beauty of this kind can be exploited till it dwindles into prettiness. With Praxiteles, however, it was not an instrument, but a mode of being. Like Correggio, he was incapable of setting up an abrupt or uneasy relationship. Every form glides into the next with that smoothness which... has become part of the popular concept of beauty (The Nude, 77).
He goes on to point out:
The Hermes of Praxiteles represents the last triumph of the Greek idea of wholeness; physical beauty is one with strength, grace, gentleness, and benevolence. For the rest of its course we witness, in antique art, the fragmentation of the perfect man, and the human body becomes either very forceful or very muscular or merely animal (The Nude, 79).
Perhaps it is for this I felt the need to remind myself above concerning Lysippos.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Amazon Frieze, Mausoleum of Halicarnasus

Amazonomachy, Frieze, Mausoleum of Halicarnasus, mid 4th C BCE

In the Province of Caria, in southwest Asia Minor, there lived, and then died, a man named Mausolos, satrap of the Persian king. His widow, Artemesia, summoned the great artists of the day - including Skopas - to design his tomb for Halicarnasus, which is the birthplace of the first historian, Herodotus. It was such a grand enterprise, the Mausoleum was recognized as one of the seven wonders of the world. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is a ruin now, but its frieze and other artifacts can be seen at the good old BM.

Lord Clark calls this the "heroic diagonal," pointing out that it is used throughout Greek art and later to convey a sense of energy. The contrast between the swirling lines of the cloaks and the rigid diagonals builds interest in the composition. He also points to the flying cloaks, which similarly - and perhaps even more effectively - convey the sense of speed and action. This will remain a feature of art in the west up through Superman. In fact, the reason super heroes have capes is so that we can get a sense of their power and energy as they swirl around them, just as here.

The story being depicted in this frieze is a common one during this period: the Greeks portray themselves doing battle with the fierce Amazons, a race, or tribe, of wild women. This joined with the Centauromachy, the battle with the Centaurs, and the Gigantomachy, the battle with the Giants or Titans, as a way for the Greeks - Athenians, mostly - to think about themselves in league against the forces of darkness. Our contemporary vision of Amazons is likely to be far more positive than anything the Greeks conceived. For the Greeks, Amazons represented a perversion of the norm. They cut off their right breasts - in order to fight more effectively - keeping the left to nurse children. To beat the Amazons in battle was similar to beating the gross, uncivilized monsters, the Centaurs or the Giants. We, the civilized Athenians, this says, compose representations of people just like us conquering some pretty loathsome and fearsome monstrosities.

Maenad, Skopas

Maenad, Skopas, 4th C

This is one of those pieces that can sweep you up - as she is being swept up. A maenad is a following of the god Dionysos, known as Bacchus to the Romans; he is the god of wine and drunkenness, of ecstasy, as we see here, which literally means "out of the body." In their search to explore and represent human consciousness, artists like Skopas bring us to the edge of experience; she is in drunken stupor, an orgiastic trance. For her, time and space have altered, or gone completely missing, vanished with whatever happened to her consciousness.

What we have here, then, portrays both an intensely energetic female body and - at the same time - that very sense of ecstasy which takes us out of our bodies. The maenads of the myths dance and make noises and carry on in the forest at night, wearing leopard skins and draping themselves with snakes, tearing wild animals - and the occasional man - to pieces. Cruel Pentheus gets his head torn off by his maenad mother, Agave.

Lord Clark:

“Skopas’ figure was recognized in its own time as communicating with unusual intensity, the sculptor’s mastery of violence. ‘Who carved this bacchante?’ asks an epigram in the Anthology. ‘Skopas. Who filled her with this wild delirium, Bacchus or Skopas? Skopas.’ This is just. The passionate energy the Dresden Maenad still radiates from her battered surface is the result of a highly developed skill. Her body has been given a double twist, ot which her thrown-back head adds a third; and her drapery is so artfully devised that one side, being relatively austere, enhances the sensuous shock of the other. Her naked flank combines the luxury of Hindu sculpture with the plastic vigor of a Donatello; and yet the whole is kept within the bounds of classic form. Her ecstasy has the ferocious single-mindedness of the possessed, compared to which the bacchantes of Titian are enjoying a romantic diversion. They are the highest product of decorative art; she is still part of that antique religion of sensuality from which, in the end, the nude derives its authority and momentum” (Clark, 363, 5).

The poem from the Greek Anthology quoted by Clark is wonderful; I wouldn't be surprised to learn it had been composed by Skopas himself. This piece is a proud achievement, which the epigram makes clear by having Skopas best a god. This is not, generally, a wise thing to do, as witnesseth Marsyas, a faun - another follower of Dionysos and frequently associated with maenads - who has an unfortunate run-in with Apollo.

"Antique religion of sensuality..."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Auxerre Goddess

The Auxerre Goddess, 650-625 BCE

I needed to get over the strict formality of the wigs of the Daedalic conventions - which are really easy to spot - perhaps they were too Eastern (Orientalizing), or Egyptian, for my tastes, but I have learned to love them; I think it was the Auxerre goddess who taught me. She comes from a limestone workshop in Crete; as you might imagine, limestone is a lot easier to carve than marble - but, being softer, abrades easily. At some point, obviously, she made the pleasant voyage north by the Rhone or the Via Agrippa perhaps to the Gallo-Roman community where she was retrieved over a thousand years later.

She was found in the lovely French village of Auxerre, a place worth the detour, even if the piece has long since been taken up by the Louvre. In fact, she was found in the storage vault of the museum of that little Burgundian village, where Chablis comes from, in the early part of the 20th century. I can imagine the chagrin of the local officials when the Louvre curator who found her there in the back room of the museum, packed her up again, and shipped her off to the Louvre-where she in fact belongs.

The hand is too big, see? It is a gesture - the hand or hands to the breast - found widely all over the Ancient Near East and beyond and extends back throughout the Neolithic. It is especially associated with what are called "Mother Goddesses." Often the hand is extended - presumably this would be the case in votive offerings - to greet the god with some gift. It may be that the closed gesture signifies this is a goddess rather than an actual votive.

But the large hand is a puzzle. I think if the sculptor had been used to making a votive, with extended hand, he might have felt a larger hand would do the job better. But, why enlarge the hand to the breast? It exaggerates not only the hand, but the gesture, calling attention to itself as an expression.

The style, a variant of the Archaic style, is known as Orientalizing because of the features which derive from outside of Greece, mostly from back East, as they say.

In any case, she's a charmer, with those patterned locks and that huge right hand she holds, in that characteristic gesture, up to herself. Like similar Daedalic figures, she is best apprehended in full frontal gaze, but she has a graceful back as well. Her gown is etched with patterning, and was originally painted.

There is clear evidence that the Greeks were learning from the Egyptians about stone carving. A comparison is interesting. The Greek work here is still more primitive than the Egyptian, whose female figure is made visible with legs and hips pressing against the fabric of the skirt. Both emerge from stone blocks which have not lost their cubic character, and both have stylized, wig-like hair. Our kore, however, is, unlike Egyptian statuary, completely freestanding. Her arms are separated from her body, so that we can see, and even appreciate the shapes of the space through.

She presents a fine example of the "archaic smile," typical of sculptures from this period of both men and women. William Harris, writing about Sappho, one of the greatest poets in the world, has this to say about the archaic smile:

If you go to a museum and stand before a statue with the Archaic Smile, you can stare at it for several minutes without moving your eyes, until the face becomes normalized and familiar. Then eventually your eyes will blink, and you will see in a flash the statue smiling back at you. I have done this many times to test it out, and it the imaginative animation of the archaic smile really does take place. But it works, then the question arises, why did the sculptural "smile" disappear in later Greek sculpture? I suspect it was may have been overused and became an automatic feature of ordinary temple stonework. Or it may have scared children and some believers who feared a moving stone face. But it disappeared over one generation, and that sudden a vanishing cannot have been an sculptural accident
I am not certain. I am as willing to believe that the archaic smile derives from sculptors finding a ready way to give a face a mouth. Because it was easy, and because this is traditional art, they kept doing it. I do like the smile, though, and I enjoy Harris's way with it.

Another manifestation of the archaic smile is the superb book of poems by A.E. Stallings.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Priam Head

The Priam Head, East Pediment, Temple to Asclepius, Epidaurus, perhaps by Hectoridas

This is a fragment from a representation of the sack of Troy, one of those earth-shattering myths for which Homer in the Iliad provides essential background, then going on in the Odyssey to trace some of the personal and political consequences for Odysseus, his family, his crew, his kingdom. This bust, then, portrays the immense and intense physical and mental pain and anguish of King Priam, whom we got to know pretty well in the Iliad through a few of his interactions with his wife Hecuba, his heroic but doomed son Hector, his beautiful, but remorseful, dangerous, daughter-in-law Helen.

Here he is dead, just as we knew he would be, as we know by now Achilles already is. But Priam has just died, and his death was sudden, violent, and very painful and shocking indeed. All of this comes out here, so that - as before - the Greek sculptor has chosen to portray a moment - whether occurring just before or just after - of a death. As in other works - the reach of the Artemision Zeus, the poised tension of the Discobolos, the step of the Doryphoros - a precise moment in consciousness is captured in a way deeply suggestive of both time and story. We see it, I think, and are taken aback. In part, this must result from everybody knowing Priam from their Homer; they would also recognize the human, their own father, perhaps, or even themselves.

To the extent that we see ourselves in a work such as this, we can think of it as (like) a mirror.

Generally, when we read Homer we don't need pictures - he's too accomplished a storyteller for that. Still, the dramatic characters and their overwhelming presence in the narrative will pose a challenge for some artists. This head is an absolutely brilliant success, Homeric in achievement.

It occurs to me - have I said this elsewhere? - that I am in the business here of oohing and ahhing about a few of the standard greatest hits of Greek art. I respond to so much of Greek art this way because that is the way I feel about them. My intention is to get students to look with me - when I'm not there in the classroom, for example - but just because I like something nobody else has to like it, because liking it isn't the point. I can't - and wouldn't - grade people on how much they like or dislike some text we are considering. I do wish them to know it better than they did when they started out; and that is because that somehow, like some other teachers in the humanities, I think that once you get a handle on the development of the arts in Ancient Greece, you can go just about anywhere - backwards, forwards, to the left or the right.

And the point is only peripherally to read me in any case. Read the experts, whom I try to quote liberally, and, above all, read the texts - the images - themselves. Best of all, go where you can find them and see them for yourself.

Here are two of my favorite students - I'm pretty sure I have said this before - responding to studying for one of my final exams on this material on Greek art:

1. "I dreamed about all of the characters."
2. "I slept with all of them."

Anyway... this head. Here is Pollitt:

In his final moment Priam’s eyes are dilated and asymmetrical, his brows are knit in undulating lines, his forehead wrinkled, his mouth apparently partly open, and his hair is expressionistically depicted in centrifugal radiating lines which convey a sense of hysteria. Pathos eclipses ethos in this face which projects a moment of unqualified pain and is the ancestor to a long line of agonized faces in fourth-century and Hellenistic art (Politt, 144-5)

Pathos and ethos, two good Greek words. The first refers to Priam's suffering, to what he has to endure - and, of course, to its representation by the artist; the second, ethos, refers to the character of the man, as we know him to be, and - which was suggested above - as Homer represented him to us in the Iliad.

In rhetorical studies stemming from the Aristotle - as most do - we are taught that in order to be persuasive we must employ something of our character - ethos - to move in some way the emotions of the audience - pathos - and to present an appeal to reason - logos - using deductive or inductive arguments. I don't want to take this too far, though I do think anyone who reacts to this head will find it rhetorical.

In fact, as Pollitt explains, ethos and pathos describe how the Greeks identified basic features of being human:

Ancient Greek psychology recognized two forces at the root of human emotional expression—ethos, a man’s ‘character’ as formed by inheritance, habit, and self-discipline, and pathos, his spontaneous reaction to experiences in the external world. (Pollitt, 43).

It is fitting, as Pollitt points out, that this superb expression of pain and suffering be found at the Temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

In Act 2 scene 2, Hamlet tries to remember a speech from a play he saw on this theme:

HAMLET: ... One speech in it I
chiefly loved: 'twas Aeneas' tale to Dido; and
thereabout of it especially, where he speaks of
Priam's slaughter: if it live in your memory, begin
at this line: let me see, let me see--
'The rugged Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast,'--
it is not so:--it begins with Pyrrhus:--
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars's armour forged for proof eterne
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod 'take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!'

LORD POLONIUS This is too long.

Stele of Hegeso

The Stele of Hegeso, c. 420 BCE

This grave marker commemorates the domestic life of Hegeso, a wealthy woman - wealthy enough in life to have one of her servants hold her jewelry box for her to select something, and in death for someone to pay for this touching, and rewarding, stele. As on the Parthenon frieze and elsewhere, the drapery falls gracefully from the bodies of the two women, and although they are not engaged in any dramatic action, their attention to the little task at hand, and their awareness of one another, is well conceived. The artist engages us by representing the rapt attention of his subjects, so that we become involved in their consciousness. Hegeso's pose suggests to some that she is weary, or regretful - she may be saying farewell to worldly goods - or lost in thought. The stele conveys the abstract quality of her consciousness.

True enough. But I equally prefer finding here a quasi-portrait of the woman - now dead - when she was alive. I think that other-worldliness of her gaze comports well with that interpretation. Selecting jewelry, presumably for some occasion, we are reminded, is not a trivial matter. It is what we do, and it is the kind of thing we pay attention to, when we are alive. The delicacy of gesture, particularly in Hegeso's hand, is memorable (one of the characters refers to it when describing a person in Proust's Within a Budding Grove), and, surely, memorability is the point - its a grave marker, and she is both dead and, if not alive, represented in a lively state of consciousness.

Both of the figures are turned slightly towards the audience - in 3/4 profile - and both of their heads incline towards the center of the composition, where Hegeso's hand creates the center. The sweep of their arms forms a satisfying frame to the upper half of the piece, echoed in the sweep of the chair's legs. They are framed by two simple pilasters and a pediment. ornamented with what would be acroteria in an actual temple. The serving woman's body gently pushes the boundaries of the frame.

Their frame is called an aedicule, or an aedicula. Although the term is usually reserved for similar recesses in a wall, I have found this to be an extremely useful term to identify the common design in which two columns - pilasters, most likely - which support an entablature, frame a vertical rectangular space.

I am especially fond of aedicules and of aediculated designs, and they are ubiquitous in both Classical and Western art.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Venus Genetrix

The Venus Genetrix, Roman copy of 5th century original

How hard, or soft, is marble?

The Venus Genetrix is the name given by Julius Caesar to the god he presumed was his ancestor, Venus, who is, of course, the Roman version of Aphrodite. It is probably not the correct name to use for the fifth century sculpture - presumably from the school of Pheidias - of which this is a Roman copy.

Lord Clark points out that while the beauty of the Nike reaching for her sandal - which might be a work of the same artist as here - is incidental, beauty means everything to this sculpture.

Perhaps this was the first Aphrodite, in the sense that the beauty that arouses physical passion was celebrated and given a religious status. ...the subtlest rhythms of the female body are noted with an eager delicacy unsurpassed by Correggio or Clodion. The folds of her drapery flow round the body, but are drawn tight over the breasts and belly, so that the modeling, traversed by one vagrant line, makes its full effect” (Clark, 123).

We have seen these lines before, in the Parthenon pediments, on the parapet of the Temple to Athene Nike, and elsewhere. Here is the quintessence of the rendering of illusionary transparency, where raised ridges substitute for the normally incised channels of the modeling line by which the underlying anatomy of the voluptuous female form is created, revealed, and concealed, by the apparent presence of diaphanous drapery. These lines race around and over the body making elegant filigrees that seem to swoop and swirl with intent.

The discovery of the female nude makes us think. Greek artists have been at work exploring dimensions of human consciousness. They sculpt a number of basic subjects - myths and legends of gods and heroes, athletes and athletic prowess, military victories, offerings to the gods, commemorations of the dead and dying. From the Archaic period (starting around the 8th century BCE) the pieces are highly patterned, and in the next couple of centuries show increasing interest in anatomical details - principally in the male nude kouroi figures. By the Classical era artists are creating figures who seem to come alive, who have a spring in their step, or at least an engaging and rhythmically dynamic stance, so that we notice them more as if they were alive, or intended to represent life, and as if they were moving, or about to move.

Our sculptors have also become fascinated with the sometimes intricate patterns of a dress - in the korai figures of clothed females from the Archaic period - and also in the patterns fabric makes when it drapes the body of a woman reclining, or reaching for her ankle. The anatomy here is modeled not as such but as it becomes revealed. By sculpting clothing in this way, artists find ways to represent qualities of lightness and transparency - the very opposite of the marble or bronze they employ - and to evoke both sensual and temporal feelings in the viewer. These are not just spatial works, but temporal.

I read somewhere - where? Diane Ackerman, perhaps? - that the sense of sight can be thought of as an extension of the sense of touch; we extend our sense of touch spatially, and this doubling up of the senses provides confirmation and the kind of assurances we can only receive from our senses. It is in this context that I see figures such as the Flying Nike of Paionios, the Nike Adjusting Her Sandal, the Wounded Niobid, the Esquiline Venus, the Munich statuette, the Venus Genetrix...

The sensory qualities that get enhanced in our experience of a work like this are rendered somewhat more palpable by the aforementioned sense of time passing which a work like this - and so many from the Classical period onwards - conveys, even in the very subtle modulations of light and shadow that recur among the sinuous folds of the garment.