Saturday, May 26, 2007

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.