Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Flying Nike of Paionios

The Flying Nike by Paionios of Mende, c. 420

How much does stone - marble, say - weigh? Roman copies of Greek bronze originals can come across as heavy in contrast to the bronzes we know of. During the High Classical period of Greek sculpture in the fifth century BCE artists began to recognize methods of making stone seem to weigh less, to weigh almost nothing at all. They were discovering how animated poses help to give a sense of life and energetic motion to stone, a considerable contrast with the still, formal, static poses of Archaic sculpture. The techniques and their effects are visible in this piece, and in a good many fine pieces of sculpture for the rest of the century.

This Flying Nike (Flying Victory) of Paionios graced the top of a tall pillar at Olympia. She is the goddess of victory come from above to commemorate a victory of the Messentians and Naupaktians over Sparta.

She was designed in the popular and beautiful Parian marble - which permits light to penetrate some depth into the surface of the material, and so reflect out of its crystalline interior. She was intended to be seen from below, and to look dramatically in action as she lands on the pillar buoyed by gusts of winds which billow her cloak (himation) about her, providing an expressive, though now largely absent, backdrop of energetic and sustaining motion, as if she was floating down on a sail, or even a parachute. The original was painted. The wind presses the fabric of her chiton up against her body; the physical sensation of the gusting wind sending the fabric coursing all over her body, caressing it even, is intense. The curves and contours of the female form here are nearly fully revealed. Both the woman and the carving appear as exquisite, refined, airy. The American dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan emulated such drapery effects in some of her dances, and the style became a somewhat tired way of evoking the Classical world.

Kenneth Clark shows how the carving is designed “to bring out rather than to conceal its rotundities.” He is reminded by her body of the early nudes of “Titian or Poussin,” and suggests that the “lack of rhythmic unity” may indicate that the form did not originate with Paionios. He speculates that we might simply have lost those draped nudes that would have demonstrated a more “confident structure.” (Clark, The Nude, 120-1). I have to train my eyes to see what he means – I am not myself professionally trained in art history, all my degrees are in comparative literature. To my eye, if there is something less rhythmically harmonized about her, that very freedom from constraints of form might give the piece some character of its own. Perhaps it anticipates some of the freer or more relaxed qualities of Hellenistic art, coming in a hundred years or so.

Susan Woodford looks at the piece by noting “the characteristic linear formal devices of the late 5th century BC—transparency, modeling lines and, most especially, sweeping motion lines.” (Woodford, 1984, 150). Here are the definitions of those terms from Janet Burnett Grossman’s Looking At Greek and Roman Sculpture in Stone: A Guide to Terms, Styles and Techniques, published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles:

Illusionary transparency creates an impression of a diaphanous fabric for the clothing of a sculpted figure. It was especially popular among sculptors working in the last thirty years of the fifth century B.C. In order to appear like gathered and transparent fabric a successful rendering of illusionary transparency depended on substituting raised ridges for the incised grooves of the modeling line technique to depict drapery. (28)

The modeling line was a method of carving the linear pattern of fabric folds; the incised grooves of the folds of the drapery model the forms of the body it covers... especially common in the drapery figures from the Parthenon Pediments (438/7 – 433/2 B.C.), and it remains important for most of the rest of the fifth century. (26-7)

Motion lines were added to the drapery of a figure to suggest movement. The vertical ridges and valleys of drapery folds swung backward and outward in long serpentine curves, which often ended in complex hemlines. (28)