Category Archives: Sculpture

MUSEO ARCHEOLOGICO NAZIONALE DI NAPOLI

Piazza Museo 19, Napoli 80135

Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, uno dei primi costituiti in Europa, può vantare il più ricco e pregevole patrimonio di opere d’arte e manufatti archeologici in Italia.

EXTREME HELLENISM: THE PERGAMON ALTAR

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Pergamon was one of the many kingdoms carved out of the eastern parts of Alexander the Great’s empire. By the year 200 B.C., the Attalid Kings had transformed Pergamon into a major outpost of Hellenic culture and religion, symbolized by the city’s acropolis, on which stood temples and the second largest library of the classical world. In the years 165 – 155 BC, the Pergamenes raised the final structure on the acropolis, a colossal altar, dedicated to Zeus.

In emulation of the Athenian Parthenon, the Pergamon altar was decorated with a narrative frieze. Designed by the sculptor Phyromachus, and executed by a large workshop of marble carvers, the frieze depicts the Gigantomachy, a subject frequently used by the Greeks to distinguish their enlightened civilization from the depravity and barbarism of everyone else (iIn the case of Pergamon, the mythic narrative served to commemorate recent military victories over the Macedonians and Celts). At 113m long, the Gigantomachy frieze is the second longest sculptural program executed in the classical period (the Parthenon frieze is 160m long). Although the Parthenon and Pergamon friezes share a common medium and approximate length, the latter departs from the model of the former in almost every other way.

The Parthenon frieze is carved in low relief. Its placement high above the ground, ensuring that the idealized civic ritual it depicts would be viewed from a dignified distance. At Pergamon, all of that is inverted: the frieze is carved in extemely high relief, with certain figures approaching sculpture in the round. Its over 100 scenes wrap around the lowest part of the altar’s base, sometimes spilling over on to the actual architecture, involving and immersing the viewer in epic mayhem. The drama of the battle is amplified by the over-life sized figures, whose bodies are splayed out wherever possible and by the churning, multi-layered compositions. The sense of turbulent motion pervading the frieze is primarily caused by the the deeply cut drapery folds of the goddesses garments that cling to their bodies as they rush into battle. The entire frieze is soaked in histrionic emotionality, a hallmark of Hellenistic art.

At the height of the classical period, sculptural representations of violence, like the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs of the Parthenon metopes (above), were over-laid with sense of decorum and restraint. At Pergamon, the gods charge in and brawl with the giants, dealing out all manner of graphically depicted punishment. The goddesses are particularly athletic and ferocious. Phoebe uses lit torches as spears; Aphrodite kicks a giant in the head; Nyx hurls an urn filled lining snakes at the fallen giant, the Fates and the Furies jump into the scrum and drag giants away by the hair. The Parthenon iconography informs potential enemies that, Athenian reason and civilization will always prevail. On the outskirts of the Greek world in a time of political uncertainty, the Pergamon frieze grandly and bluntly warns of the annihilation awaiting anyone who threatens the city.

The great altar of Pergamon was excavated, with the approval of the Ottoman sultan, in the late 19th century by German archaeologists. It was then reconstructed and installed in the Berlin museum that bears its name. The Turkish government has requested the altar be returned to Pergamon, despite the fact that, unlike the Elgin marbles, its removal to Germany was perfectly legal. Having just spent millions of euros reinstalling the altar, it is not clear if the German government will buckle under pressure as quickly as did the British Museum trustees.

1988: Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons (American, b. 1955) organizes his artistic production in series defined by abstract themes—The New, Equilibrium, Celebration, Easy Fun, Antiquity, each one having the aura of a new dispensation. The component works in each grouping are fashioned by a team of artists and manufacturers using the same materials, which gives the series a high degree of visual coherence. At the level of subject matter the groupings seem less crisp—almost all of Jeff Koons works are engaged with the new, the banal, the celebratory—and many works could be reassigned to a different series without any conceptual damage.

The Banality series was first exhibited not in a gallery, but at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1988. The series is introduced by an outsized Hummel-style bisque group of two angels and a boy in modern dress, leading a pig, entitled Ushering in Banality (Koons commented that he thought of himself as the boy in back pushing the pig). The banality (which is both an era and a condition), that ensues is tremendous. Among the large-scale, polychromed and gilded, precision-made cast-porcelain figures are representations of a pure white Michael Jackson holding his pet chimp, Bubbles, a semi-nude woman embracing the Pink Panther and Leonardo’s shiny, leering John the Baptist. Sickeningly cute bears abound. One hardly knows how to react to this high-key spectacle of finely-wrought bad taste.

Koons brilliantly combines fine materials worked by highly-skilled mastercraftsmen and artists with cutesy, saccharine kitsch and soft porn subjects to create objects that are highly seductive and highly repellent in equal portions (equilibrium being a central epistemological construct in Koons’ work). One feels embarrassed to look at the Banality works too closely, yet ineluctably drawn to do so. Koons frontloads his subjects with potentially incendiary topics—racism, beastiality, sanctity, cultural decline, self-degradation and delusion, but holds them all in perfect suspension. It is impossible to decide if works like Michael Jackson and Bubbles are intended as sincere tributes, examples of catastrophic bad taste to be derided, or critiques of the culture that produces and consumes the imagery from which the work is derived. At the same time, one feels the need to try to sort these issues out because nothing less than the state of western culture is at stake. Extracting all that out of a reproduction of a gift-shop teddy bear is no mean feat.

Unlike conceptual art, these highly-intellectual issues are expressed purely in visual terms that require no specialized knowledge or priestly cast to decipher them. For Duchamp, the demi-urge who instigated Koons’ career, art was either conceptual or merely “retinal,” an instance of intellection or something just to look at, substance or decoration. Koons squared that circle, framing philosophically-inclined, aesthetic and moral content in gorgeously-realized, oppulently-appointed terms (Koon’s monumental, expensive and entertaining balloon-animal sculptures showed well at Versailles). This is all done with a lightness of touch and without any of the pretention and preening (although just as much self-promotion) of other top-drawer ’80s artists – and – Koons, the artist who stirred some of the most acrimonious re-hashings of the middle-brow is-it-art debate, has incredibly enough become a popular favorite of the masses whose tastes motivated the his work in the first place.

After an unexpected hiatus, The Higher Inquiètude is back.

ANTOINE ÉTEX


Rodin dominates the little that is said anymore about 19th-century French sculpture, but behind the Gates of Hell lurk other sculptors, some as successful and more admired in their time, and who participated in the creation of the major public monuments of Paris.

After seeing the young Antoine Étex’s figure of the Death of Hyacinthe at the Salon of 1833, Adolphe Theirs, at the time the minister of public works, chose Étex to sculpt two of the monumental high-relief groups for the façades of the Arc de Triomphe, the colossal victory arch left unfinished by Napoléon, upon which work had resumed after a 20 year hiatus.

A student of Joseph Pradier, Étex learned his trade during the late, sentimental phase of Neo-classicism. He was not a prodigy and failed to win the Rome Prize. His early reputation was based on his facility for carving single figures and small groups in marble, often arranged in languid to limp poses and composed of soft curves. The scepter held by Blanche de Castile serves as an index of the degree to which the curves of the figure and drapery deviate from a straight line.

Étex’s soft, flowing style was well-suited to the lugubrious and tragic subjects in vogue at the time, like the Hyacinthe, its pendant, the Damalis, and the leaden (in both senses) Cain and His Cursed Race. His memorial and funerary monuments are equally fluid and flaccid. The recumbent bronze tomb effigy of Géricault appears to have been poured on to the sarcophagus and pooled there, while the melodramatic, nevertheless impressive, veiled mourner of the Raspail tomb flows from the grate above like a glacier.

The Arc de Triomphe, however, called for semi-allegorical, political subject matter, narrated in multi-figure scenes of gigantic proportions, assembling figures from pre-carved pieces and working with limestone which, unlike marble, was not suited to fine details and surface effects. Apart from adapting to these material constraints, Étex was obliged to harmonize his work with the two completed façades, one of which was the highly-praised Départ de 1792 by François Rude. To put it simply, the commission drew on none of Étex’s strengths and required him to change his entire approach to sculpture.

To his credit, he succeeded in doing so. The resultant summary, planar, and angular style manipulated light and shadow to improve legibility from a distance and from the ground. He wisely did not attempt to match the histrionics of Rude, favoring a more stalwart mood. An army of assistants were entrusted with the carving the simplified forms from a forgiving stone that required no finishing by the master. Building the group from multiple blocks allowed for the simultaneous carving of multiple parts, which accelerated the project’s pace.

The Arc de Triomphe was as high profile a commission as one could imagine and the style of its sculptural reliefs was widely disseminated through prints and photographs, and Étex’s effective and economical approach to official public monuments was taken up across Europe and America and practiced through the 1930s, whereas Rodin’s influence was mainly visible inside museums.

IN LIVING COLOR: Greco-Roman Polychrome Sculpture and Architecture

Unadulterated whiteness is an essential component of Winkelmann’s interpretation of classical statuary and the search for the flawless, snow-white marbles by Neo-classical sculptors indicates that artists who measured the success of their work by the degree to which it adhered to classical conceptions of beauty felt that anything other than a clean, monochrome finish was an unthinkable violation of <i>le goût grec</i>. The restrained good taste of this late 18th-century conception of antiquity is compelling and still very much with us.

It is also completely wrong. In the early 19th century, a preponderance of irrefutable, archeological evidence forced Europeans artists, critics and collectors to accept the disturbing proposition that ancient sculpture and architecture was not only painted, it was polychromed in garish, high-key, saturated colors.

Ancient texts about art production had alluded to sculptors “painting figures,” leading some scholars to suspect that ancient sculpture was painted, but the conclusive evidence for polychromy was discovered by French architect and archaeologist Jacques-Ignace Hittorff, while he was excavating the archaic temple precincts in Agrigento, Segesta and Selinunte. Archaic Greek art had been largely ignored in the early modern period, when the taste for classical and Hellenistic art prevailed. Methodical digging at the sites in southern Italy, Sicily and, later, the Athenian Acropolis itself, unearthed fragments of kouroi and kore statues, and deposed stones from Doric temples that retained traces of polychromy.
While working in Paris in the late 1820s, German architect Gottfried Semper became aware of Hittorff’s controversial theory, and after returning to Germany to assume the seat of Professor of Architecture in Dresden, he published his Vorläufige Bemerkungen (1834), wherein he argued that Archaic Greek architecture was polychromed so that it would visually accord with the quality of light he observed in the Mediterranean.
Hittorff promulgated an even more noxious threat to the Neo-classical model in his monumental study, La Restitution du temple d’Empédocle à Sélinonte, ou l’architecture polychrôme chez les Grecs (1851), where he fully proved that archaic art was polychromed, providing 30 colored plates in support of his work, thus putting the evidence before the general public for the first time, and he speculated that his theory could be extended to the classical period, a hypothesis that later generations or archaeologists subsequently confirmed to be true.

Over the last 100 years, the application of modern scientific technologies to the polychromy question has yielded a wealth of detailed information proving the near universal use of fill or partial polychromy in ancient sculpture, all of which Hittorff and Semper surmised merely by looking and thinking. Microscopic traces of colored paint have been found on masterpieces of greco-roman sculpture, such as the Augustus of Primaporta, that have been known and on view for centuries.
These discoveries led to the collaborative exhibition of polychrome reconstructions of well-known sculptures, called Bunte Götter (The Gods in Color),which traveled to 13 cities between 2003 and 2010. The initial encounter with the show’s loud, garish, even lurid, color-corrected figures was shocking, even visceral. The art of the Greeks, who invented philosophy, politics, aesthetics, history and logic, has, according to the restorers and curators more in common visually with the Simpsons and Pokémon than it does with Wedgewood. The familiar characters from AH101 all look like they just got back from Burning Man. The Chios Kore shared a wardrobe with Stevie Nicks and the Peplos Kore, previously assumed to be a sensibly-dressed maiden who wore flats, made the scene in Miami and Ibiza wrapped in a high-key, patterned yellow beach towel. H.W. Janson said that the deified Augustus was clad in body armor, when, in reality, he wears a skintight, Dolce & Gabbana spandex t-shirt with magenta and azure highlights. Janson didn’t mention the lipstick. When compared to the MDMA-induced Trojan archer or Cheshire Lion, Jeff Koons’ white sculptures look, well, Neo-classical.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART XI: Sainte-Foi de Conques

The reliquary statue of Ste Foi, preserved at the saint’s pilgrimage church in Conques, assumed its present form in the 10th century. The relic of the saint, who was martyred in the 3rd century—the back piece of her skull—had been placed in a the head of a gilded, late-antique imperial portrait bust at an earlier date. Housing the relics of a Christian, female saint martyred by an emperor in a portrait bust of a pagan, male emperor posed no problems for the custodians of the shrine—the gold leaf and the represented body part made it an appropriate vessel for the spiritually-radiant skull relic. In the 10th century a body made of hollow wood covered with gold leaf was added to the head, and the figure was set in a throne. The value and reflectivity of gold, along with the throne is meant to give the viewer an idea of glory emanating from the saint, who now resides in heaven.

The reliquary is also encrusted with uncut gems, pearls and antique cameos. Many of these were “gifts” to the saint from pilgrims who had been assisted or protected by her. According to The Book of Sainte-Foy, a collection of accounts of miracles performed by the saint, she regularly made appearances in dreams, giving instructions about the kinds of gifts and honorifics she wanted in an exchange for her assistance. And being a saint, she had then powers to get what she wanted: when one noblewoman ignored the saint’s request for a ring she had worn to the shrine,it went missing, and was later discovered on the finger of the reliquary statue. The precious stones not only record pious donations made by pilgrims in thanks for the saint’s intervention, the are symbolic representations of the light and colors of the Heavenly Jerusalem, as described in the Book of Revelation, where the saint’s soul resides, awaiting for the Last Judgment, when the soul will be reunited with his or her bodily remains left on earth.

Not only did Sainte-Foy leave the church at Conques to visit people at night, her reliquary statue was carried to the sites of conflict involving the church, as was the case when the statue was placed in a field of contested ownership for left there to several days to mark the land, not as church property but as her’s and anyone who challenged that would have to face her displeasure. Such disputes always went in the saint’s favor.

The cult of Sainte-Foy, which was focused on the reliquary statue, rapidly became a pilgrimage site, one many on one of the three pilgrimage roads that traversed France aabd ended at Santiago de Compostela. The ecclesiastical hierarchy was always anxious about popular shrines and cults, and in 1002, the Bishop of Chartres sent a representative, Bernard of Chartres, to investigate the rumors of idolatry—the worshipping of false images—taking place at the saint’s shrine. When he arrived at Conques. Bernard was at first horrified to see crowds of pilgrims praying to a golden statue, but after spending several weeks at the shrine, he came to see the acts of the pilgrims the saint as sincerely directed to the saint, and not to an inanimate object. After all, she was physically present inside the reliquary, so addressing it was perfectly orthodox.

Given the their relationship to the cult of the saints, “popular” religion, and pilgrimage, reliquaries, be they statues, busts or body parts, are often discussed more in historical and anthropological, rather than in art historical terms. To do so, however, would be to overlook a development of real significance. Statues like Ste Foi and the Golden Virgin of Essen, also a 10th-century reliquary are the first examples of free-standing sculpture in the round to be produced in western Europe since the collapse of the Western Empire 500 years earlier. If figural, three-dimensional sculpture disappeared due to a decline in skill in the Dark Ages, and a Christian abhorrence of paganism and/or asceticism towards the body in general, then the fact that it resurfaces in the particular context of relics—body parts of the holy dead—suggests that the cult of relics legitimated or recuperated the representation of the body enough to allow for the creation of stylized, anti-naturalistic but nevertheless three-dimensional works that interact, so the documents tell us, with humans in embodied ways. One will have to wait until the late Gothic period for the invention of the individual and the self to bring sculptural portraiture of real persons back to life.

THE CANON OF POLYKLEITOS

Polykleitos of Argos (fl. c. 440 BC) sought to represent in his statuary the ideal proportions of the human figure, and to this end, he developed a set of aesthetic principles and guidelines codifying these proportions that was known as the kanon or “rule.” In formulating this canon, Polykleitos devised a system based on a simple mathematical formula which divided the human body into measured parts that were all proportionally related. These conventions reflect the earlier teachings of Pythagoras, who believed […] that underlying proportions could be found in all of nature, determining the form of the cosmos as well as of things on earth, and that beauty resided in harmonious numerical ratios.

Though we do not know the exact details of Polykleitos’s formula, because he chose to expound the canon by sculptural rather then discursive means. Although one would expect the free-standing image of the spear-bearer to have been commissioned for a memorial to a deceased warrior, the Doryphoros was not intended to refer to any specific individual , but rather to an idealized composite of all individuals. The Doryphoros is the perfect expression of what the Greeks called symmetria. In art of the High Classical period (ca. 450–400 BC), symmetria not only encompassed a sense of proportion and balance, but was also an exercise in contrasts. The body of the Doryphoros, for example, stands in what is termed contrapposto, meaning that his weight rests on his right leg, freeing his left to bend. In the process, the right hip shifts up and the left down; the left shoulder raises and the right drops. His body is brought into a state of equilibrium through this counter-balancing act.

Although the Doryphoros represents a warrior poised for battle, he does not don a suit of armor or any other protective gear. In fact, were it not for the actual spear that that statue originally held, it would have been difficult to identify him as such. A hallmark of classical Greek sculpture, male nudity or nakedness was understood as a marker of civilization that separated the Greeks from their “barbarian” neighbors.

The Doryphoros was originally executed in bronze, the tensile strength of which allowed for a greater freedom of motion in the statue. The weight of the stone requires the marble copies to have ungainly supports props which diminish the effect intended by Polykleitos.