Sunday, March 20, 2011

Greek and Roman Room at The Met

I was in the Greek and Roman room for a few hours, when an observation crept up on me. It occurred to me that Greek sculpture, in large part, does not reveal the figures doing much at all. They are typically sitting or standing, but they are not engaged in some great and terrible struggle that is written on their face or body. Sometimes they might be ready to throw a lightening bolt or a discus, but even at that they show no great conviction. At a deeper level, the figures seem disconnected from what little action they are engaged in. It's as if their action is only nominal, and is only present because you have to show figures doing something... anything. I suppose you could sculpt the figure as asleep, or in a coma... but generally they are awake and "nominally" doing something. In fact, a sculpture of a dead figure would be more physically engaged in it's dead-ness than classical figures are in their aliveness.

Now, before you think I am being flippant and sarcastic, I should say that I actually like this quality very much. I describe it above in a flippant way, but only to make the point clear. It is so subtle a quality that I had to just blurt it out like that. I know that classical sculpture is differentiated from later renaissance sculpture by the point in the action in which the figure is depicted, where the classical sculpture shows a moment of calm before the action. In part, my observation is a recognition of this.

I like this quality of disconnection, because I really don't care what the figures are doing. I can contrast this with the sculptures in the European sculpture room, where the figures are very much more involved in an obvious physical or emotional action. I'm thinking of Ugolino and His Sons, which is all gnashing teeth and twisting flesh. As a side note, I should say that I think this sculpture is tremendous. The last time I was at the Met, I spent some time circling this sculpture, soaking in it's in-the-round-ness complexity. Not only is it amazing to me that someone could sculpt such a complexity from marble, but that despite it's compositional complexity and monumental scale, the separate figures embody a lightness and aliveness.

But compared to the classical disconnection, Ugolino and His Sons is all connection to the narrative underlying the composition. It reminds me of the observation I was making about the N.C. Wyeth's oil paintings… that despite the skill of his draftsmanship and paint handling, that the paintings are all geared to focusing you on a single narrative element contained in them. This would seem to be the goal of an illustration. This focus gives meaning to everything in the painting. But the moment you become aware of the unifying focus of the illustration, the interest in the various parts dwindles away (to me at least). This is the weakness of illustration, that it is all means to and end. The formal elements are means to a narrative or didactic end. Also, it seems that the more illustrative an artwork is, the more the "end" is literally contained "in" the image, often..literally… to a single point of reference.

Again, I'm thinking of N.C. Wyeth's Treasure Island paintings, where entire paintings lead you to such things as… the menacing eye of Blackbeard the Pirate as he kicks a door in, or into similar daring visual moments in other paintings. The paintings reduce everything down to that one thing, and it's "in the painting", and it's exemplified by a single visual moment (the menacing eye).

Such effective illustrations seem to be evidence of excellent compositional skills. To lead the eye from one thing to the next such that one is led to the "menacing eye", and to have that single element be the top of a hierarchy of means to end… is no small feat. Perhaps it is the hallmark of a great illustrator. And some such ability is required in non-illustration art it seems, or else the eye will just wander in a meaningless way… or wander off the borders of the page… or just lose interest. But should an artwork… to avoid the all-inclusive-focus of illustration… engage in a lack of focus?

This all smacks of a false alternative. The end to which the formal elements are the means does not have to be contained in the work, and does not have to reduce to a single point of focus. If the goal of compositional study is to lead one to a simplified illustrators perspective, than the study of composition has to reconsidered. The purpose of art is not to beat one over the head with a hierarchy of visual references, and to be led thereby to some single conclusive resting place.

I don't mean to say that Ugolino and His Sons are beating me over the head with an illustrative point… but it is a more obvious work than the classical sculpture. The Brookgreen Garden variety of 19th century American sculpture is likewise more obvious in nature, as it seems the sculptors have themed their work around various idyllic nature themes; i.e., luxuriating nymphs, the innocence of childhood, or feminine sexual innocence, etc. These works all seem very mannered and stylized in a way that classical sculpture is not.

I could add too, that depictions of nudity in non Greek sculpture are subject to the force of Christian morality… to the naked vs. nude dichotomy, such that depictions of nudity must involve a stylization process in order to lift the body out from its christian status as naked and sinful… and elevate it to the artistic level of nude. The various means of doing this all enforce an 'a priori' focus on the subject… a kind of meta-composition. The sculpture is immediately one level removed simply by being made.

Perhaps it is unfair to insist that the various formal elements of an artwork exist for the sake of an overall unifying point of the artwork. Perhaps the formal elements should be considered out of context of the whole work, as ends in themselves. Considering that artists in the past worked on commissions where the subject matter and treatment were dictated to them, perhaps this is a truer way to view their art. This seems fair to the artist, but it is tough on the viewer, who wants have a unified view of things. I guess the truth is that to appreciate historical artwork, the viewer cannot insist on this unified quality, but might instead have to visually parse the object, and understand it that way.

So that is all well and good… and that is the way I try to deal with it, despite the critical tone I am using right now. The point here is not about saying this or that sculpture is good or bad, because frankly... I do not always trust my ability to discern sculptural qualities (beyond stating a preference). Rather, the point here is to express what I found unique and interesting about the classical sculpture I was looking at last Friday. Hopefully, all this critical prologue helps in that regard.

The classical work, as I said earlier… seems to be about nothing at all. The figures aren't really doing anything at all. Their so-called calm dissolves into disinterest and detachment. They do not embody a connection to any narrative action. This observation ties into another observation, which is the fact that the sculptural forms are so subtle. I am continually amazed at how the anatomical forms of the classical work… which don't even seem to be present at times… will suddenly reveal themselves with the slightest change of lighting, or if you move slowly around the work. They seem to emerge from out of a mist, to reveal themselves, and to disappear just as quickly.

I was walking slowly around a marble bust on Friday, and the forms of they eye socket and temple, which seemed to be missing at first glance… revealed themselves as I moved slightly to the side, and caught the light falling on them just-so. It literally took me back and made me catch my breath. This type of experience repeats itself all the time. Fragments of torsos look like hunks of smooth marble, until you consider them for a while, and their forms emerge if you are patient. All things are revealed if you give them a very long look. In fact, you are forced to take a long look… you are forced to slow down. Nothing is obvious.

I started thinking, "What is it that I looking at.. what is it that I am searching for… what are these sculptures about.. what are they revealing?" A simple answer I came to seems true enough… that these sculptures are simply depicting the human body. They are depicting it outside of an action, outside of a narrative, outside of any morality that forces a point of view on the viewer. I suppose that no art is literally transparent.. but if these classical sculptures must be said to embody some ideology… it is simply the ideology of idealizing the body, such that you don't need to drape it in anything but itself. In terms of art, that is as transparent a motive as one could have.

The utter simplicity and lack of pretense… lack of narrative… lack of overt morality… forces you to understand the figure NOT in terms of a literary or social context, but in terms of the body in itself. You are forced to understand the body QUA body. It is pure human body. We can say the sculptural forms are subtle, and have to be searched for and teased out by a discerning eye and revealing light. But the reason this seems strange is that later sculpture beats you over the head with body… with musculature. And the musculature of later sculpture is set in motion by figures engaged in actions that define them… or the narratives that define them. But the Greek sculpture defines the body in terms of itself. The figure is not mediated through external actions and events… it is… to repeat myself… the figure considered as such.

For a sculptural practice as sophisticated as Greeks had, to step out of its own way and let the art object so directly depict the abstract nature of it's subject, is quite a lesson to be learned. Elegance and simplicity are the hallmarks of nature and of clear thought, so I can hardly think art is exempted from considering that. When you go from viewing the classical sculptures to viewing other sculpture, the latter seem heavy handed and overly stylized at first. You have to readjust your perceptual consciousness to allow for the it.

So this realization of the figure-qua-figure came to me in an instant… and no doubt this instantaneous idea is really the unification of many observations and questions that have been floating around my mind. It was an entirely satisfying moment, and as the idea bloomed in my mind, I stood there and smiled and let out a chuckle… the kind of laugh you release spontaneously when you have a breakthrough thought that releases tension. The "AH HA" kind of laugh. If I could have spoken to the sculpture, I would have said… "You son of a bitch… I just figured you out".

No comments:

Post a Comment