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.