Monday, April 16, 2012

Macron helping us to see the Pillar Idol

How odd that Ernest Gombrich in Art and Illusion should feel that this is still "conceptual" art!  Op. cit., Part II, Ch. IV, p. 131.  He is discussing the Judgment of Paris cup in Berlin, and he is puzzled by the "almost pictographic clarity of form that Greek art inherited from Egypt".  I was shocked a half century ago by the paragraph from which this comes, though generally I am very comfortable in being brought to see as Gombrich did.

For reference, from a later reduced photocopy of the excellent 19th-century drawings for the Wiener Vorlegeblätter, here are both sides of Berlin cat. no. F2290. The Munich collection is more often reproduced, but for this cup (which Jane Harrison, who seldom remarked on the beauty of her visual documents, thought perhaps the loveliest of Greek vases), if you have Pfuhl's Malerei und Zeichnung der Griechen, or any of a number of other books, side B with only dancing maenads is illustrated there.  Frickenhaus did illustrate both sides

From my old teaching files (scanned from a slide taken from an unnamed source).  Side A of the cup Furtwängler cat. no. 2290.  The other side, with only dancing maenads, is reproduced in many books.

(1) First, what the drawings of the pillar idol represents: what sort of support, what sort of mask, what sort of garments.  Macron, uniquely, shows it almost obliquely, i.e., in 3/4 view, except for the profile mask, itself exceptional.  Though we have several Dionysos masks, life-size or larger, of stone or terracotta, it is not certain that any of them MUST have been used for a pillar idol; of course, they would have been colored, with dark hair and eyes and a red mouth.  Either the mask was formed with the beginnings of shoulders and chest, or a cross-bar or broadening of the main support has to have held the garments, which consist of a full linen chiton, the standard undergarment for both sexes, and a glorious himation, with border patterns and leaping dolphins either woven in or embroidered on the wool (paint is not to be excluded, but such a rich garment will have been expected to last for many a year).  I imagine that the ivy crown on Dionysos's head is living ivy, but it could have been gilded metal, of course.  Stuck in behind the shoulders are other branches, plainly from living plants, on which pierced bread is supported.  I do not think this bread is so flat as pita or a tortilla, but I can't help thinking of the Easter braided loaves, of leavened egg dough and with red-dyed eggs embedded, or the unbaked as well as unleavened disc of soul food brought to the cemetery on All Souls' Day (the latter, of course, made of whole grain soaked in honey, would break under their own weight, if used in the manner seen here; I only meant that in current practice analogous special loaves are prepared).  I don't know what the bread means, but it is shown frontally, i.e., full circle, on either side of the frontal mask on a number of the "Lenäeenvasen".  The old, old drawings of Macron's kylix are not prevented by curvature of the profile of the kylix from showing the straight, utterly unatomical, wooden post both under the lower edge of the chiton and above the head, and, the more important in a draftsman like Macron, there is no hint of real shoulders (let alone arms) or real bodily mass inside the garments: only the mask is really anthropoid.  Iconographically, Macron's pillar idol is canonical (though this kylix does not show the table with stamnoi on it that the pictures on actual stamnoi show), but to me, after a lifetime with Greek vases, it fairly proclaims that he is showing the sort of thing that a particular group of women would themselves have rigged up, particularly in the bread stuck through by the branches.  So how like a herm?  The herm exhibits at least one body part, the genitals, and it has something like stubs where arms belong,  and it is not clothed, especially not richly and heavily clothed (though, much, much later one thinks of the herm in winter shivering in no more than a chlamys on coins of Bithynian Nikomedia):

27 07 07  Æ18  3.79g  axis about 6h.  Bithynia, Nikomedia.  Antoninus Pius.  Herm, humanized and protected from cold(?) given the upper body of Hermes and wrapped in his chlamys.  This comes with three reverse dies, RG 66, 67, and 68.  This is the plain one, 66 (MÊTROPOLE | NEIKKO{MÊDEI); 67 has the kerykeion propped against the herm, and 68 has the prow of a ship.  A charming conceit that I'd like to know more about.

(2) Now we can move on to the second question, that of conceptual representation, taking care to distinguish 'conceptual' from 'conventional'.  In rendering the parallel folds of the pillar idol's himation and in rendering the naturally crinkled thin linen of the women's chitons, almost like a seersucker, Macron relied on conventions gradually introduced and perfected in the generations of Exekias and of the red-figure Pioneers (of the last quarter of the 6th century BCE), though he took them to the breaking point, much more so than other vase-painters of the 480s.  Also, whenever possible, he draws the legs fully inside the drapery, and in the maenad at right in the cropped detail photograph it is downright necessary, since she is running to the left and turning in her torso to turn her head facing to our right, and the action of her legs, obviously based on observations from life, is new (I think, unexampled), and could not be guessed by the viewer from the contours of the blousy chiton alone.  I mention this first, because it makes the contrast to the straight falls of inert cloth on the pillar idol all the more striking.  That choice was neither conventional nor conceptual; he was showing us (and abandoning the purely frontal view, which is a cheap way of showing how wooden this temporary icon was) some women's  own festival Dionysos figure.  In the 19th-century line drawing we cannot see where he used diluted glaze-paint where the linen chiton ballooned so much that in outdoor sunlight it would become almost transparent.  Not fully convincing, you say?  Macron (and, may I say, the Brygos Painter, too, in his own way) would risk showing what he observed alive, what interested him visually, in any way that he could.  We must not for a moment forget the medium and the curved surface he was using and that every step that the best vase-painters of this generation took was unprecedented.  Yes, of course, there are sone stress folds in the statues of the dynasty of Akkad, really arresting intellectual innovations on the sculptor's part, on the nearly life-size headless statue from Susa of the king Manishtusu in the Louvre, and in Dynasty XVIII Theban tomb paintings there are some breathtaking experiments in representing what one sees.  But these breakthroughs are heartbreaking, too, since in both places they yield to conventional rendering, in Neo-Sumerian Mesopotamia and in the Ramessid dynasties in Egypt, and none of these earlier experiments, of course, was accessible to Greek artists.  It was as if they had never been.  But just in the generation of Macron and the Brygos Painter, not forgetting that there was painting on perishable wood panels that we can never recover (and we must not presume that Etruscan work, let alone tombs, can stand in for Greek easel painting, nor indeed any tomb paintings or votive panels), but fully evidenced on the best vases some of whose painters may not have been confined to the potters' quarters, we are entering the age of just the kind of art that concerned Gombrich (and in his own, quite different, way Deonna, who called it le miracle grec): it is what we call Western Art, though it has always had to struggle.  It is more than simple eidetic rendering of what you see.  It is the artistic side of the science of optics.  It is art grounded in the empirical, but art that realized, as if in the intelligence of its midwives (so to speak), that to look natural and 'real' to everyman it had to be visual experience mastered by the artists and reconstituted in intelligible forms.  Phidian drapery and anatomy in the Parthenon pediments (I don't know whom H. W. Janson was remembering when he called it the expression of the pure poetry of Being, but it pretty surely was German).  It is NOT naturalistic.  A wordsmith like Buffon, asserting that Style is the Man Himself, and insisting that of course he didn't mean the visual arts that are purely imitations of what one sees, unwittingly confessed to being style-blind!  But he was right about Style.  Our experience of seeing and moving in space, like our experience of seeing others, both to create portraits and to make crowd scenes and landscapes, or to show the loveliness of drapery responding to the body that wears it, all these things need to be understood visually and made (literally) memorable and meaningful, that is to be expressive of our own minds as artists and so far as possible accessible to other human minds, is obviously related to the way that our visual minds, by the work of our brains, create memories both true to experience, in one sane sense or another, that are coherent (that cohere in those little grey cells of ours), satisfying and helpful to our mental life in enabling us to tie together the everyday and the seemingly transcendent.  What about photography?  It was when it realized its own possibilities that it became able to do what the other visual arts do, not before (except here and there among the geniuses of 19th-century photography).  Unless it does that, it is just illustrations for some catalogue.
This is not the place to discuss Egon Schiele's women, which I've known for nearly a half century.  I want to keep this as short as I can, but Macron is remarkable, too, in his rendering of women.  Not only do half of them (and sometimes on other vases, too) show the whole body in the drapery.  That body is feminine in structure and contour at a date when others just put female breasts on a boy's body (not having equal access to naked girls); Macron likes the female body.  At a date when they had just learned not to make breasts like halves of lemons, Macron in the flute player at left in our detail shows the slack shape of moist chiton cloth and through the opening shows the beginning of the side of the breast.  That may be unique.  Macron does not have the Brygos Painter's grasp of structure, but his interest in the sensuous properties of the life that he observes is very rare.  I mean, there are huge personal differences among the masters of any period, in any medium; think how different Berg and Webern were.  By the way, that altar (again, not strong in its structure) is notable for showing its miniature painted pediment.  Also, I'd better add that thyrsoi are hollow fennel stalks with dried leaves attached to the top.  Euripides describes their rattling.
Monday, 16 April.  Have untangled one of the longest sentences (they permit writing a Post rather than a book-chapter).  I mentioned in the preceding having acquired Kandel's Age of Insight.  I still have about 150 pages of Kandel to read so cannot be sure that knowing from scans what really goes on in the brain contributes to understanding how memory and creativity work, but I am relying on what I learned from Antonio Damasio in rereading some chapters of Gombrich's Art & Illusion, in the latest of the revised editions.  Gombrich was deeply interested in personal and traditional Style.  If, when I have finished Age of Insight, I have discovered that Kandel has new knowledge, or not, of the biolognical relationship of memory and style, I'll write a Teegee Essay on that; Opera Nobilia is for the artists, and the 19th century was right in valuing the best painted vases as ranking with work that later centuries did on paper or canvas.

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