Friday, May 25, 2007

Maenad, Skopas

Maenad, Skopas, 4th C

This is one of those pieces that can sweep you up - as she is being swept up. A maenad is a following of the god Dionysos, known as Bacchus to the Romans; he is the god of wine and drunkenness, of ecstasy, as we see here, which literally means "out of the body." In their search to explore and represent human consciousness, artists like Skopas bring us to the edge of experience; she is in drunken stupor, an orgiastic trance. For her, time and space have altered, or gone completely missing, vanished with whatever happened to her consciousness.

What we have here, then, portrays both an intensely energetic female body and - at the same time - that very sense of ecstasy which takes us out of our bodies. The maenads of the myths dance and make noises and carry on in the forest at night, wearing leopard skins and draping themselves with snakes, tearing wild animals - and the occasional man - to pieces. Cruel Pentheus gets his head torn off by his maenad mother, Agave.

Lord Clark:

“Skopas’ figure was recognized in its own time as communicating with unusual intensity, the sculptor’s mastery of violence. ‘Who carved this bacchante?’ asks an epigram in the Anthology. ‘Skopas. Who filled her with this wild delirium, Bacchus or Skopas? Skopas.’ This is just. The passionate energy the Dresden Maenad still radiates from her battered surface is the result of a highly developed skill. Her body has been given a double twist, ot which her thrown-back head adds a third; and her drapery is so artfully devised that one side, being relatively austere, enhances the sensuous shock of the other. Her naked flank combines the luxury of Hindu sculpture with the plastic vigor of a Donatello; and yet the whole is kept within the bounds of classic form. Her ecstasy has the ferocious single-mindedness of the possessed, compared to which the bacchantes of Titian are enjoying a romantic diversion. They are the highest product of decorative art; she is still part of that antique religion of sensuality from which, in the end, the nude derives its authority and momentum” (Clark, 363, 5).

The poem from the Greek Anthology quoted by Clark is wonderful; I wouldn't be surprised to learn it had been composed by Skopas himself. This piece is a proud achievement, which the epigram makes clear by having Skopas best a god. This is not, generally, a wise thing to do, as witnesseth Marsyas, a faun - another follower of Dionysos and frequently associated with maenads - who has an unfortunate run-in with Apollo.

"Antique religion of sensuality..."