Saturday, June 02, 2007

Dancing Faun & Barberini Faun

The Barberini Faun, 200 BCE

Dancing Faun, Pompeii

Emotionality is big in the Hellenistic age, as is excess. We are a long way from what might be regarded as the stoical, almost grim severity of the Classical era. Two very different states of consciousness are presented in these two masterpieces of Hellenistic art. The Barberini Faun is sleeping one off, dead to the world; the Dancing Faun, by contrast, conveys joy, pure and simple.

The faun is a woodland creature, likely as not a follower, like Maenads and satyrs, of Dionysos. They are, hence, associated with wildness, and not just of the wilderness variety.

The Dancing Faun is a justly celebrated piece, found at Pompeii, possibly a copy of a 3rd century BCE Greek original. After Praxiteles and, especially, Lysippos, sculptors began finding ways of presenting their work from any and every angle, and of extending the space created by the work outwards towards the viewer. Sculpted characters like this faun could by their gestures establish a more dynamic relationship with the space around them, and so, too, with whoever inhabits that space. We are a long way from the strict frontality of Archaic and early Classical work, where the pieces practically position the viewers in front of them and say, Hold still! For this piece, we can not fully comprehend it without moving around.

The Maenad of Skopas seems completely ecstatic, in the literal sense of being out of her body. This faun seems not so much out of his body as completely and fully within it. It might be a dance step, but seems more probably a spontaneous, finger-snapping leap of pure, infectious pleasure.

Perhaps the Barberini Faun was dancing like that last night, but now he has unguardedly fallen into a sodden state. Richard Brilliant says that the piece "seems to present that moment of physical and psychic transformation when the bonds of wakefulness are finally loosened at the entrance of sleep” (Arts of the Ancient Greeks, 345).

Clearly a work of homoerotic art, it is possible that the emperor Hadrian - a connoisseur of both art and boys - placed the Barberini Faun in his Mausoleum in remembrance of his beautiful young lover Antinous, who had drowned. It is, in any case, both sensual and amusing at the same time.