Monday, June 04, 2007

The Laocoon Group


The discovery in Rome of this well-known tour-de-force in 1506 confirmed for the Renaissance artists and scholars who flocked to see it what extraordinary achievements had been made by artists from the Classical world. By then, of course, confirmation was hardly needed, but its obvious power struck a chord. It is a compelling masterpiece that exemplifies the passionate glories of art in the Hellenistic period. Titian adopted the motif for one of his own many masterpieces, showing a follower of Bacchus (Dionysos) enrobed with snakes (which were, in any case, associated with that god).

The story is from the Trojan war and tells of the Trojan priest, Laocoon, who learns of the Greek's planned trick with the horse but is prevented by the gods from telling the Trojans what he has learned. Poseidon sends these snaky monsters to devour him and his sons so that the message never gets delivered.

Whatever you find to say about this work is likely to apply to your outlook on Hellenistic art generally. Although it is an acknowledged masterpiece, many people find it excessively emotional and sensational, so that rather than moving and inspiring the viewer we are made to cluck our tongues and shake our heads. Its frontality annoys people who seem to think that such an elaborately conceived work - such a virtuoso performance - ought to make more demands on our involvement with it. It does seem as much like a relief as a sculpture in the round, and when you think about it, the characters do seem posed. So, the argument seems to be, Why isn't it any better than it is?

Here is Winckelmann, the 19th century critic and theorist, with a more positive approach:

Such a soul is depicted in Laocoon’s face—and not only in his face—under the most violent suffering. The pain is revealed in every muscle and sinew of his body, and one can almost feel it oneself in the painful contraction of the abdomen without looking at the face or other parts of the body at all. However this pain expresses itself without any sign of rage either in his face or in his posture. He does not raise his voice in a terrible scream, which Virgil describes his Laocoon as doing (Aeneid I.222); the way in which his mouth is open does not permit it... The pain of body and the nobility of soul are distributed and weighed out, as it were, over the entire figure with equal intensity. Laocoon suffers...; his anguish pierces our very soul, but at the same time we wish that we were able to endure our suffering as well as this great man does... J. J. Winckelmann, Von der Nachahmung der grieschishen Werke in der Maleri und Bildhauerkunst, 1755, p. 21, (transl. E. A. McCormick) [in Brilliant, 359].
On this criterion, I find the Hanging Marsyas a much more effective piece of rhetoric - and it is far more than rhetoric, of course. However, although I find the arguments against this piece interesting, both because I tend to agree with them and because they help me to see it better, I think its conception is truly remarkable and its power is unqualified.

When I consider this work I am not made to contemplate consciousness as such, only the expression of pain and horror. The point here, for me, is that for centuries Greek artists have been exploring aspects of our conscious lives by representing vivid moments at the margins, near death, at critical points of pain and endurance, with ecstatic and erotic moments that seem to reach into us for implications and associations. This work does not do that for me. This work is one of sheer horror. It leaves by the wayside or crowds out any intellectual or religious dimensions, not (I think) for any reason other than the overwhelming nature of the experience.

What this means, then, is that not only are the geometric harmonies implied by Classical Greek art gone, but also the intellectually sustaining presence of mental exploration. This puts the Laocoon into another category of art - not, for me, a lesser one, but a different one. Hellenistic art similarly will often portray nudes more as erotic devices than for any other purpose, which critics find to be jejune or superficial. And often they are.

But when power like this is evoked from stone, I am content to appreciate and admire.

Here is a passage from a recent discussion of art by Denis Young:

...when the editor of the journal Modern Painters, the late Peter Fuller, referring to the classical sculpture of Laocoön and his sons being strangled by serpents, asked historian Grizelda Pollock, "How do we know that Laocoön is supposed to be in pain?" and she replied, "Because we have studied the mode of production prevailing in Greece at the time, and the signifying practice to which it gave rise." "But," said Fuller, "Laocoön is being strangled by a sea monster!" and her response was, "Yes, but just by looking at the sculpture we have no way of knowing he is not enjoying it." Fuller seemed to think that she had thereby reduced her case to absurdity, but many think that she had not. Psychology has shown that although visual forms may be "expressive," it helps to have cues to tell us what they are expressive of (tears of joy, or of sorrow?). I am reminded of an experience I had years ago when, glancing at a muted television, I saw a crowd of obviously Arabic people waving white scarves and dancing in what appeared to be a jubilant parade -- then I turned up the sound and learnt that they were people from the village where President Sadat of Egypt had been born, who were mourning his assassination in a fashion customary to Egypt.
Maybe I am missing something - am I missing something? - but it seems to me that however critical it is to understand modes of production and signifying practices in particular cultures - since these are things audiences learn without being taught and will understand implicitly, so that if we ignore such things in our approach to art we are likely to make significant errors of judgment and understanding - there are some things, like being devoured by snaky monsters, which we are all likely to perceive without too much mediation, and that the artist or artists of the Laocoon group got this. In fact, even if he did not get anything else right, he got this right.

I am here reminded both of the Kuleshov film editing experiments - in which audiences judged identical shots of faces quite differently when juxtaposed with different things they were presumably encountering (the same face would look hungry before a plate of food and sad before a dead person, etc.) - and Darwin's study of facial expressions, enhanced by the work of Paul Ekman and others - which show various universal expressions of emotions. I am not inclined to pursue this here.