Archive for May 23rd, 2014

UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture

For this exercise I have chosen to annotate Discobolus, one of the classical sculptures suggested in the OCA course notes. There simply isn’t a suitable work available for me to view directly. This work has advantages including: one version is held at the British Museum (I can include images under their terms of use); lots of information is available on line; it is a familiar form that has been reused and adapted. The great disadvantage of course is trying to respond to a sculpture reduced to photographic images.

The Townley Discobolus © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Townley Discobolus
One of several Roman copies made of a lost bronze original made in the 5th century BC by the sculptor Myron.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=396999&objectId=8760&partId=1


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The original bronze statue by Myron c. 450 B.C.E. has been lost, but there are a number of Roman copies. The one above is the Townley Discobolus, held at the British Museum. Note that the head has been restored incorrectly, and should be looking back at the throwing arm.

The Lancelotti Discobolus (I think this is also known as the Discobolus Palombara) is at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, as is the less complete Discobolus from Castel Porziano (see http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en/national-roman-museum-palazzo-massimo-alle-terme/sculptures/discobolus-discus-thrower, or a video which shows the two versions side by side at http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/myrons-discobolus.html).

The Discobolus shows a male athlete poised in the act of throwing a discus. The athletic body spirals around, caught in that brief moment before the release of energy. I believe the statue is around life-size, and the work is fully three-dimensional, to be viewed from all sides.

discobolus_curveFocusing on the Townley version, since those are the best quality photographs I found, one can see multiple curves from every viewing direction. The overall impression remains one of perfect, effortless balance.

The Townley Discobolus was brought to London soon after it was excavated, and displayed in Townley’s home. It’s shown below in a drawing by William Chambers, the Discobolus taking pride of place in Townley’s collection.

Townley opened his home and collection to visitors, displaying his own connoisseurship and his philanthropy in educating the public and improving their taste. In the drawing a young woman can be seen sketching – life drawing of male nudes would not have been possible for her.

To me this feels as if I am seeing the machinery behind “The Canon of Western Art” in action. A wealthy man collects art, exhibits and promotes it, and it becomes Great Art. I’m reminded of Charles Saatchi and the Young British Artists.

In the case of the Townley Discobolus it doesn’t seem to matter too much that it started as a copy of an older work, that various parts have been restored or entirely substituted (the head and a hand are now regarded as not original), and the surface cleaned with acid, sand and brush. “This is an interesting example of a forgery being given legitimacy by academic experts, and itself becoming an admired prototype” according to Jones (1990). The Discobolus is such an iconic part of the Canon that Chinese sculptor Sui Jianguo has produced multiple versions, all clad in a Mao suit (see http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2012/sui_jianguos_discus_thrower.aspx and the page of 1997 works on Sui’s website http://www.suijianguo.com/). Sui combines ideology of Western art and the socialist theory of his own culture. He includes both in finding his own, modern way.

Is the Discobolus such a perfect, beautiful, inspiring, fascinating work that it transcends issues such as originality or authenticity? Once again I am held at a distance, unable to experience the work directly. One could say it’s almost too effortless. A closeup of the toes suggest they are gripping, but otherwise the figure seems curiously static, made even more so by the perfect, expressionless face. This could well be related to relying on photographs, which tend to flatten and deaden, but the figure appears posed rather than about to burst into action. There are similarities in body position to Bernini’s David (1623 – 24; http://www.galleriaborghese.it/borghese/en/edavid.htm), but that is a much more active and emotionally-engaged figure. I would suggest even Michelangelo’s David (1501 – 1504); http://www.accademia.org/explore-museum/artworks/michelangelos-david/?gclid=CLjH3dTtoL4CFUFwvAodCgoAVQ), while in an apparently more relaxed pose, is more clearly about to launch into action.

Paul Landowski David combattant bronze, cire perdu (lost wax)

Paul Landowski
David combattant
bronze, cire perdu (lost wax)
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/SO1.1961/

landowski_01landowski_02landowski_03landowski_04
For a David actually in action – and in a pose that can be linked to Bernini’s – I am very fond of the bronze by Landowski in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is a younger David, fully committed, flinging himself down a slope, arms and slingshot at full stretch. You can see his abdomen as he sucks in air, his focus as he looks up at the giant.

Rather than a gangling boy, the Discobolus shows a young man in his prime – or rather a amalgamation of all the best parts of innumerable young men, creating a flawless form devoid of individuality. That also tests modern sensibilities. Many people struggle with body image, the desire for perfection, to meet the standards of modern media airbrushed photographs or gaunt strutting models. An interesting modern twist on this perfection is given by Quim Abella. This digital artist has taken classics including Discobolus, and repeated them in a huge variety of equally “perfect” forms – see http://www.quim-abella.com/index.php/ct-menu-item-7/ct-menu-item-9/ct-menu-item-13. Abella presents both genders, a variety of body shapes, sizes and colours, in the classic pose – but offers more a widening of “perfect” rather than a challenge of the concept itself.

The Discobolus also fits well with the “bronzed Aussie” ideal – see for example Discus thrower by Max Dupain (c. printed 1939) in the National Gallery of Victoria http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/74489). I’ve written before about versions of Australian identity, when visiting the National Portrait Gallery (11-Apr-2014).

Selection of a particular perfect type can be the flip side of exclusion. The Discobolus Palombara was bought by Hitler from the Italian state in 1938, and the link to eugenics and the desire for a “pure” race seems straightforward.

huberA similar link is drawn by Sasha Huber in her work Louis Who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz (2010), currently on display at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of the 19th Biennale of Sydney. There is a film of Huber riding a horse in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro to Praça Agassiz, a public square, where she hung up a banner and read the text to locals gathering around. A translation of part of the text: “Scientist, naturalist, glaciologist, influential racist, pioneering thinker of apartheid, proposed racial segregation in the US” (from Huber’s website, http://www.sashahuber.com/index.php?cat=28&lang=fi&mstr=4). Unfortunately I chose a poor moment for my photo, but you can see the banner beside the screen, and on the other side a plinth with a copy of the book (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today. Agassiz was a nineteenth century natural scientist who traveled in Brazil in 1865-66 taking numerous anthropological style photographs, all “proving” the indigenous peoples’ inferiority to the white race. I’ve seen many similar photographs taken in Australia, possibly taken with similar intent. In the book I found reference to Huber’s “unique interdisciplinary pursuit of the origins of racist assumptions and ponders on the influence of racist representations in the formation of visual culture and media” (Machado and Huber, 2010, p. 170), and nearby a photograph of the Belvedere Apollo (http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/MPCs/MPCs_Sala02_01.html). The idea of a perfect form seems so often to lead to regarding others as lesser.

gallery_sa_05Of course such a link is not inevitable. Last year I wrote about the juxtaposition of works at the Art Gallery of South Australia (see 5-May-2013). Buck with cigar by Marc Quinn (2009) faces the Bowmore Artemis (c. 180 AD). A modern beauty stands with confidence and pride in harmony with classical beauty. However it still seems to me a brave choice, a very modern choice, a challenging choice, to show such works together.

References

Huber, S. and Machada, M. (2010) (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science, Yesterday and Today São Paulo: Capacete Entretenimentos

Jones, M., Craddock, P., Barker, N. (1990) Fake? The Art of Deception, London: BMP. Quoted on the British Museum website [online]. Available from http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=396999&objectId=8760&partId=1 (Accessed 18-May-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p3-Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
Project three: The human figure
Exercise: Annotate a classical sculpture


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