Tuesday, May 29, 2007

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.