Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Parthenon Sculptures - East Pediment

The Three Fates, or Three Goddesses, East Pediment Sculptures, The Parthenon

They may be the three Fates - the Moirae, Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos - but it seems unlikely that those grim sisters, spinning, measuring, and cutting the threads of life, would ever convey such a buoyant, engaging spirit; they must be three gods: Hestia, of the hearth, the motherly Dione, and her daughter Aphrodite. The reclining figure is an especially fine response to the somewhat cramped conditions created by the pediment frame.

They are grand women - large, graceful, beautiful. They are arranged informally, as if chatting, Aphrodite leaning on her mother's lap. Perhaps this is the scene, described so cunningly by Homer, when Aphrodite gets her little scratch tended to by her mother.

Aphrodite screamed aloud, and let her son fall, but Phoebus Apollo caught him in his arms, and hid him in a cloud of darkness, lest some Danaan should drive a spear into his breast and kill him; and Diomedes shouted out as he left her, "Daughter of Zeus, leave war and battle alone, can you not be contented with beguiling silly women? If you meddle with fighting you will get what will make you shudder at the very name of war." The goddess went dazed and discomfited away, and Iris, fleet as the wind, drew her from the throng, in pain and with her fair skin all besmirched.
...Aphrodite flung herself on to the lap of her mother Dione, who threw her arms about her and caressed her, saying, "Which of the heavenly beings has been treating you in this way, as though you had been doing something wrong in the face of day?" And laughter-loving Aphrodite answered, "Proud Diomedes, the son of Tydeus, wounded me because I was bearing my dear son Aeneas, whom I love best of all humankind, out of the fight. The war is no longer one between Trojans and Achaeans, for the Danaans have now taken to fighting with the immortals." "Bear it, my child," replied Dione, "and make the best of it. We dwellers in Olympus have to put up with much at the hands of men, and we lay much suffering on one another... (The Iliad, Book 5)

I like to think of these grand goddesses sitting around complaining about how tough their lives are, thanks to mortals.

I find their knees are especially scintillating; see how Hestia, to our left, though sitting, arranges her limbs in quasi-contrapposto fashion, with one leg supporting weight and the other relaxed. All of their limbs are modeled with a superb sense of patterning. The pairs of legs are now revealed, unlike sculpture from the Archaic period. Here the two legs - thighs, knees, ankles and feet - parallel one another, making intriguing echoes. How interesting it becomes to compare one leg with another. What's more, each of these three pairs of legs is conceived as part of an entire design in which three basic patterns of leg placement- seated, folded, and reclining - are explored. Even more striking, of course, is the drapery, and the effects created by those deep, swirling folds in the gowns. These effects are the result of light and shadow as they play out along the sinuous design, giving this group of characters energy and movement which belie their seated or reclining indolence.

The enhanced role of light and shadow in our apprehension of these sculptures somehow makes our viewing of them more - I think - of a personal experience which we feel as individuals. There has to be, in any case, some way of describing the difference between how we react to sculptures from the Classical period such as these and to what came before, in what we call the Archaic. We know the artists knew their art history - as then conceived; they knew their predecessors, sometimes personally, always through their works.

Drapery effects here as elsewhere model the body beneath, so that what conceals also reveals, and the entire effect is captivatingly beautiful. How garments fall and fold themselves over the feminine form has for some time been a keen interest of these artists, working on the kore figure; now an increased boldness arranges the drapery about much more languid and personable characters. Elsewhere, as in the Parthenon frieze, the sculpture of the Classical period can take on abstract qualities. The qualities here are almost exclusively organic, not geometrical. The expressiveness is all, or practically all, and the sense of abundant and glorious femininity is apparent throughout.

These drapery effects are given the generic term "wet drapery," though often we will see the same sort of thing representing a windswept look that conveys force and speed. Here, of course, no wind or water is called for. In their absence, it is as if the engaging force of their conversation were being represented. It seems to call us in. Although I like to think of the artist having a bit of fun with the gods, as above in Homer, I can't help but feel that this artist is involved with the fact of a group of women sitting and talking at home. These drapery effects are nothing if not rhetorical; in the sweep and flow of their garments we may be following the emphases and meanders of talk among women.