Friday, November 9, 2012

Evelyn B. Harrison (1920–2012)

Paris, Louvre.  The Athena from Velletri.  
Last Saturday, November 3, the opera nobilia, especially those of Pheidias and his circle, lost one of their great protagonists.  The American School of Classical Studies promptly notified its members and alumni.
The classical word protagonist originally designated the principal interpreter of a dramatic role, who gave life and breath to it.  There have been a number of very important art historians within my own lifetime, and I would not consider naming any one of them the very greatest; for one thing, there are so many kinds of history of art, with different purposes.   Professor Harrison, however, repeatedly made one see these ancient statues, most of them indeed studio copies, anew.  I came to realize how closely and profoundly she knew them.  Besides, it was never that specious "bringing to life" that teachers may try to achieve in order to arouse interest in assorted pupils.  She wrote only what had passed the most rigorous intellectual and aesthetic tests in the course of her research.  It was never fantasy.  Even the much abused Medusa Rondanini is seen anew, seriously, and unforgettably.
On reflection, the most real tribute that I can pay to her work is to ask you all to read the three-part article "Alkamenes Scuptures for the Hephaisteion" (American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 81, nos. 2, 3, and 4, 1977, Part I, pp. 157–178, "The Cult Statues"; Part II, pp. 205–287, "The Base"; Part III, pp. 411–426, "Iconography and Styles").  This is no minor assignment; I think that I had in twenty years only three or four students who actually read it, so as to get beyond saying that they thought that she was 'right' or 'wrong'.  This is because, fully considered, the Alkamenes study is practically a complete education.  What can we make of those Copies?  What can we make of those Sources, some of which are no more real than the ill-famed Historia Augusta?  How can we take into account all sorts of archaeological evidence and discriminate between the worthwhile and the misleading?  How can we get at the great sculptors who are both richly attested to and ill served by writers many of whom wrote for uncritical readers more interested in anecdotes than in art?
Harrison was always both daring and extraordinary careful.
I make this demanding recommendation because both the student who gives it its due and the professor, Miss Harrison, who wrote such studies deserve it.
Here are a couple of details of the head of the Velletri statue and a snapshot of the fragment of a copy of the Base, both from the Louvre in Paris, the great museum that, I think, cares most of all for students.

Note that the upper part is restoration!
You can zoom the images by clicking on them.
I would only add that Evelyn Harrison was among the kindest and most generous in a profession where in my experience almost everyone is kind and helpful.