Saturday, 8 February 2014

Sculpture: 'Spending their lives in wickedness...'

Boucher, 'Pygmalion and Galatea'
Last night I could have hugged the lecturer; anyone discussing my all time favourite book of stories is entitled to be worshipped and idolised, as far as I am concerned. An avid reader of Ovid and his Metamorphoses, I was overjoyed when Dr Dent said that the lecture was going to use Pygmalion as structure upon which to hang some sculptural issues regarding idolatry. Everyone knows the story of Pygmalion:

Pygmalion had seen them, spending their lives in wickedness, and, offended by the failings that nature gave the female heart, he lived as a bachelor, without a wife or partner for his bed. But, with wonderful skill, he carved a figure, brilliantly, out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation. The features are those of a real girl, who, you might think, lived, and wished to move, if modesty did not forbid it. Indeed, art hides his art. He marvels: and passion, for this bodily image, consumes his heart. Often, he runs his hands over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting it to be ivory. He kisses it and thinks his kisses are returned; and speaks to it; and holds it, and imagines that his fingers press into the limbs, and is afraid lest bruises appear from the pressure. Now he addresses it with compliments, now brings it gifts that please girls, shells and polished pebbles, little birds, and many-coloured flowers, lilies and tinted beads, and the Heliades’s amber tears, that drip from the trees. He dresses the body, also, in clothing; places rings on the fingers; places a long necklace round its neck; pearls hang from the ears, and cinctures round the breasts. All are fitting: but it appears no less lovely, naked. He arranges the statue on a bed on which cloths dyed with Tyrian murex are spread, and calls it his bedfellow, and rests its neck against soft down, as if it could feel.

The day of Venus’s festival came, celebrated throughout Cyprus, and heifers, their curved horns gilded, fell, to the blow on their snowy neck. The incense was smoking, when Pygmalion, having made his offering, stood by the altar, and said, shyly: “If you can grant all things, you gods, I wish as a bride to have...” and not daring to say “the girl of ivory” he said “one like my ivory girl.” Golden Venus, for she herself was present at the festival, knew what the prayer meant, and as a sign of the gods’ fondness for him, the flame flared three times, and shook its crown in the air. When he returned, he sought out the image of his girl, and leaning over the couch, kissed her. She felt warm: he pressed his lips to her again, and also touched her breast with his hand. The ivory yielded to his touch, and lost its hardness, altering under his fingers, as the bees’ wax of Hymettus softens in the sun, and is moulded, under the thumb, into many forms, made usable by use. The lover is stupefied, and joyful, but uncertain, and afraid he is wrong, reaffirms the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again.

It was flesh! The pulse throbbed under his thumb. Then the hero, of Paphos, was indeed overfull of words with which to thank Venus, and still pressed his mouth against a mouth that was not merely a likeness. The girl felt the kisses he gave, blushed, and, raising her bashful eyes to the light, saw both her lover and the sky. The goddess attended the marriage that she had brought about, and when the moon’s horns had nine times met at the full, the woman bore a son, Paphos, from whom the island takes its name.’

The course of their love has inspired many retellings, but it is a perfect story to demonstrate the transformational power of sculpture. And above all, the dangerous allure of something lifelike, yet not; are they gods or idols?

His first example, the c19th Tinted Venus shocked contemporary viewers because of its lifelike colour, 'a naked impudent woman...with vulgarity to destroy all alluring power and every sign of the goddess'. Colour was clearly big problem for people accustomed to the classical chaste white marble. It seems almost indecent/pornographic, anticipating a possible danger of becoming incorrectly involved with a statue. Are we more sophisticated now? Modern painted bronze can be spectacularly lifelike. Do we feel less uncomfortable about changing canonical material to portray 'average' material like these normal Americans. So what prompted the c19th recoil from colour?Was that a peculiar reaction?

It goes straight to the heart of the power of sculpture. It's surface can be articulated through colour, inlay, carving, movement, and real clothes and jewels. The story of Pygmalion demonstrates that this behaviour is not unusual in sculpture's long history. Pygmalion tips over the edge of obsession when he falls in love with the created object. What is it about sculpture which triggers such idolatry? When the transformed girl blushes, her ivory skin takes on colour. It is the sign of her coming to life, e.g., Gibson tinted Venus with a crucial blush. We begin to see that polychrome is normal right from the start. The earliest figurines have traces of colour; the Willendorf 'Venus' has red ochre painted on. The stunning Cycladic marbles were painted. Palettes been found with paint on them.

And many of the white marble classical statues have painted in eyes and eye lashes. All this bring the the object closer to the thing they represent. We are so used to seeing white marble that it can come as an aesthetic shock to find out they were originally painted. The acropolis museum has a little game where you can paint your own Kora.

Back to Pygmalion and his statue of ivory, a material associated with flesh. If she becomes real through colour, what about the surface? This early torso of a kouros shows an unsophisticated drawing or scratching of the internal structure of body, linear details. As time goes on, sculptors were able to articulate a 3D multilayered surface. The Kritios boy has depth, skin, muscle and ribs, multiple layers; a believable body of bronze. Warrior A includes veins in his forearm, artfully placed to suggest life beneath the surface. It's not just layers beneath the surface, but also layers of clothing to imagine the warm soft erotic body beneath, eg the fabric on the Motya youth.

The key part of the story of Pygmalion is movement. How do you show it in heavy material? The static pre classical sculpture was entombed in marble but over time, sculptors bravely freed up hands and feet. The danger of unsupported marble is fragility and they increasingly pushed the boundaries. Finally linking the merest finger tips to thighs. Was this patron led? Examples of Nike demonstrate the possibilities of marble dramatic movement. Draperies as support and plausible motion. But bronze was always pushing boundaries, acrobatically. 

In the dramatically mobile bronze Tyrannicide group, movement accelerates. Which came first; the collector or game changing bronze casting innovations. Hand in hand ... Early bronzes had a slightly immobile marble block feel. However the possibilities of motion through space were realised very quickly. Myron's Diskobolos is caught in the action. The recent star of the Bronze show, the Dancing Satyr combined all elements of movement, drama and lightness. It wasn't just about the dramatic movement but the potential, which they achieved through relaxed controposto poses, resting yet could move at any time. 

The skill of these classical sculptors was recognised: Euripides in eurystheus satyrikos said, 'Clever chap that one' about the ability of Daidalos to create statues that 'move'. It is interesting that these writers thought that sculptures could run away and escape (Plato meno). Or 'get to the limit of live men; he has made this statues walk. (De incredibilibus palaiphatos). There is a wonderful obsession with the creation of life, testing and transforming, a philosophy to be revisited in the renaissance. 

I was ambivalent about Dr Dent's next section. Is the ice age Marionette, a puppet like figure, with joints, probably dressed, a sculpture? Should articulated dolls be included? An ivory Venus doll belonging to Crepereia was a ritual figurine for young woman. Though engaged, she died before she was married, so was this the reason it was buried with her? It is a beautiful doll, again designed to be dressed.

But is this sculpture? There is no doubt that the c15th crucifixion figures are. Articulated, with hinged arms, real hair, jointed legs, wrists. On of the best examples 'miracle man' is movable and illusionistically 'real'; his joints are covered with canvas to hide the join. Chambers could be filled with blood, enabling the theatrical recreation of a historical event. The best example is the Cristo de Burgos who is softened with lambs wool and then covered with skinlike calf skin. Fully movable, wired to move from a distance it is very theatrical. But sculptural? No different from modern multimedia efforts, experimenting with material, more of an automaton?

Dressing sculpture has been mentioned and Pygmalion adorned his lady with rings, beads, pearls. This decoration continues today in contemporary art with 'hipsters in stone' and yarn bombing. Dressing religious sculpture is very important and some Virgins are designed to be seen with real clothes. Remove these and nothing but a framework remains. They are sculptural and powerful only with clothes. Fabric, especially when threaded with gold/silver was such a valuable commodity that people left their best clothes to dress church statues. 

The thread of Pygmalion Ovid describes the sequence of wooing which is reminiscent of his Art of Love. Gifts, clothing, playing music; is it a ritual wooing? There is a certain uncomfortable ambiguity in this when you realise that the obsession with the object isn't real. In the Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos there was a celebrated statue, where a man fell in love, broke in and spent the night with her, 'leaving his shame' on her marble buttocks.

This is a highly intimate ritualistic adulation of Venus taken to extreme form, and tips us into idolatry. Precisely what the 'establishment' abhors therefore it can order the ideological destruction of sculpture; iconoclasm ensures that this behaviour ceases. It is too close, too uncomfortable when people fall in love with the made thing and not the idea it represents. 

Alternatively it can be embraced and treated as if it is the thing itself. You can destroy it by exorcising it, taking action against the object to neutralise power. You can strip away 3D and only have 2D eg as in Byzantium. Or strip away the colour, like the wooden altar piece of the holy blood - a shift from full polychrome to naked wood. Or destroy it all like they did in the Henrician Reformation so there is no confusion.... 

Sculpture is perfect for the idolater.

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