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.