Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mostly Myrinas

Only a few of the Types can be introduced here
The best general introduction known to me, in English, is still R. A. Higgins, Greek Terracottas, Methuen, 1967 (with a later PB, not nearly so nice).
Similarly, to acquaint oneself with the extraordinary range of Hellenistic sculpture, I think that one of the revised editions of Margarete Bieber's The Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age, Columbia U. Press, revised edition, 1961, is still indispensable.
Of course, there are all the excavation reports of sites where figurines are found, and all the catalogues of museums that have many of them, but one must start somewhere.  Best, look for terracottas in every museum you visit, and in half a lifetime you will have seen many.
To photograph in color, for teaching, apart from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, which is subject to earthquakes, etc., which may close the upper floor, Paris and Berlin supplied the best light and most generous permissions.
On line, unhappily, there is more repetition than wealth.

I'll post more on miniature sculpture later.  Here, concentrating on the Louvre's Myrinas (that is, made at Myrina, in ancient Mysia), I want to emphasize the color that is preserved on many of them. For they were found in tombs, which is the safest place for a terracotta with water-soluble paint.  What they mean in those tombs attracts all the most fascinated minds.
I'll try to say a few words on each as we go along.

Eros making his rounds on a wintry night, thus clad; on his outstretched left hand he holds a cylindrical object, which seems too tall in its proportions for a cosmetics container and is probably a lantern (an open lamp would blow out as he flew)  that a few strokes of paint  could identify as such.  These 2nd c. BCE Myrinas, especially those from this workshop, have powerful,  truly aquiline wings (compare the Victory of Samothrace) and wonderfully observed anatomy in the legs.  Though little flitting erotes may be shown as babies, the god himself, Eros, is adolescent (appropriately for the urgent and sweet love that it is his mission to deliver).


Aphrodite, risen from the sea (even if the etymology, from 'foan', is untrue), is given a seashell to ride in; the cloth  shown behind her probably was held by erotes (spirits of eros) since aurae (breezes) would be too large in this composition.  The age-old color code for the sexes in art, red-brown or tan for males, white for females, is only one reason for coating the varied colors of regional clay with white engobe.  Here Aphrodite, pearly white, also is set off by the natural red interior of the seashell.  The modeling of the nude is as fine as in any metal or stone.


Showing a lovely woman crouching, after the bath, makes a wonderful Type for Aphrodite,  as indeed is probably intended here: on red-figure vases like that by the Marsyas Painter in the 4th century BC, it is she who is shown crouching, painted white with added clay engobe, surrounded by attendants.  The famous Bithynian statue, known in fine copies from all over the Greco-Roman world, also occurs on Bithynian coins, notably on one minted for Hadrian's empress, Sabina (so the literary documents are probably right) need not have been the unique model for this lovely figurine.  For an artist this complex, folded composition is perfect, fulfilling even the 'rollable downhill' aesthetic of Henry Moore and his followers.  This statuette, though, has damp hair simply tied up and may be thought of as a perfectly human courtesan (like those that Edgar Degas, for the same purely artistic reasons, liked to show in, or just out of, the bath).


For the most part this statuette of Aphrodite Anadyomene, as we call this motif, for her 'rising from the sea' was certainly not new to Sandro Botticelli, preserves only the white coating, but there are sufficient traces to testify to color.  The Anadyomene may be reclining on a seashell, or standing on it, or as an example of the crouching pose, but with her long hair run through her fingers—anadyomene in any case.  Higgins points out that in the best Hellenistic workshops, there were dozens of heads , arms, hairdos, garments in molds that they could and did deftly combine to create variant Nikae and Aphrodites and Erotes.  We must always remember that there were at least as many paintings of all the poses and sculptures and minor arts (gemstones, emblemata for wealthy tableware, earrings, cameos, etc.).  We are dealing with highly professional artisanship, all the higher forms of commercial art that we assume are especially our own.  You could buy what you liked and could afford, and the best terracottas were not at all despicable.


After emphasizing the extreme variability enabled by recombination of piece molds, we must return to the equal fact that one could buy what one wanted: if you knew and appreciated what the lovely Aphrodite of c. 400 BCE looked like, you might also appreciate that a fine freehand foot-tall copy from a center such as Myrina was truer than little marbles executed with running drill (and, yes, themselves painted, though the color does not stick so well to stone).
In various media, big museums like Athens and the Louvre have drawers full of Aphrodite Genetrix, most of them at a reduced scale.  Mme. Semni Karouzou, as I recall, wrote an article on the Athens ones.  It is not to be proven, but if the epithet "Genetrix" (N.B., Latin, not Greek) does allude to Venus as the mother the Julio-Claudian line, it may have been at the time of Myrina's best one, dated early in the 1st c. CE that the small copies multiplied.  Yet it is once again Hadrian's Sabina that has this type labeled Genetrix on her denarii.  Of course, Rome had a temple for Venus Genetrix, but we do not know what type of Aphrodite statue stood in it.  The figurine that has its back to us in this photo is somewhat freer in its expression and proportions, and doubtless it sold well, too.


Eros (left) is shown here nude,  Nike wears  a peplos that opens to reveal her leg.  Nike flying (at least since the famous one at Olympia, by Paionios of Mende, c. 425 BCE) shows the forward leg either bared by the wind or as clothed in "wet drapery".  Berlin has a pair of Eros whose bodies are from the same mold, from House 29 West at Priene (not the one shown above).  Terracotta figurines from building excavation usually retain minimal color, if any.  At Boston and especially in the Louvre there are Nikai and Erotes numerous enough to permit study of the same molds (or molds made from the same matrices).  The smaller figure in the 'Phrygian' cap, wearing leggings but with an upper garment revealing his sex is sometimes labeled Attis, sometimes Hermaphrodite.  


One of the loveliest Eros figurines in the Louvre has one of the nicest Myrina face molds.  It does preserve enough of the red-brown (for male) paint to guarantee its original paint.  This is in the same wall case as the Eros at Night (top of this page), where I could not get a less reddish color balance with my early digital camera, but the masterly modeling of the torso and preserved leg can be appreciated.  Many lifesize statues of this High Hellenistic period have less masterly anatomy and twisting motion.


From my old, grayscale, grainy 1980s images, when a much larger number of Myrinas were exhibited for study, here is one of the erotes with a very similar torso but with his right leg forward.  I used to wonder at the unity of style with many distinctions in pose and garments (or none) every time I came to Paris.
Again, resorting to the older photos, here is one of the nikai  go with the foregoing erotes.  Notice that the feminine figures have less muscular thighs and rib cages.  One is reminded of Netherlands dance companies where the male and female dancers are distinguishable in the same way!  Is this frivolous art?  Perhaps so for many of its purchasers.  It is subtler and in many ways stronger than most of the Tritons and Satyrs in marble.

Turning to the human subject matter that most people think of as "Tanagra" (though many of them are later than Attic and Boeotian Tanagras) and the exquisite lady playing the ancient equivalent of a koto or a ukelele looks to me very like a Myrina (the Louvre does have a good representation of other centers).  The mastery of the relaxed turning posture, with the face expressing social interaction and the full, silken drapery could not be finer if it were in gold or parcel-gilt silver.  Compare the Baker Dancer in the Metropolitan Museum, NY, in most of the textbooks.  Is this not even lovelier?  Is she a Muse (since she is seated on rocks)?  In a world where earthly young women whose musical abilities were lauded as surpassing the muses, I don't think we would be expected to decide.

The effect of a silk himation over a garment of heavier cloth, with the main folds showing through the silk, striking enough in marble (including one statue from Priene) or metal (as in the breonze Baker Dancier), is even more delightful in this painted terracotta, where the color showing so as to suggest very thin, gossamer silk.  The fold of the veil over the brow and the leaf-shaped fan (not to mention the drapery formula, famous from the Herculaneum Women statues and from a late 4th c. BCE funerary statue from Athens itself) are thought of as Tanagran.  When we speak of color in sculpture, we often mean that it is gaudy.  High Hellenistic art is not gaudy; it depends on how it's done, how essential it is.  True, the values of painting and of sculpture merge here.  GĂ©rome, creating his statue of "Tanagra", belonged to the generation when color preserved on many of the figurines.

Back in Berlin, on two exceptional figurines,  no. 8 nearer us preserving much of the white underpainting,  no.7, with the woman holding a baby showing the red clay, at first glance look simply human, but the woman with a baby, though doubtless based on studies of real women, might just as well be regarded as a Nymph.  Let no one suppose that Elizabethan poets, or even the generation of Catullus, invented these conceits.

So what is the meaning of these figurines, found in sanctuaries as votives, in houses perhaps simply as bric-a-brac, in tombs as offerings to the deceased?  
Just the other day I heard, in a Radio forum, someone that may have been reading Homo Necans arguing that the Parthenon frieze was not a representation of a civic festival but something more spiritual (???).  The question of the figurines' meaning seems to me to demand a broader perspective.  Just as the hosts of winged Nikai are not commemorations of military victories, as the Victory of Samothrace alighting on the prow of a ship must be, nor angels, though certainly greeting card angels are themselves vague—and our winged Myrina nikai, if I am right in thinking of wingedness as signifying asomatoi (unbodily characters), as are also the swarms of erotes—as funerary gifts  placed in tombs simply gifts of those who commemorate and mourn the loss of carnal joys with the death of the flesh.  A baby might be given a rattle or a toy cart or a pet animal.  Perfumes and unguents were fit for both men and women, and enjoyment of Psyche's  Eros, the son and agent of his mother Aphrodite.  As for the lovely ladies, even when nominally muses or nymphs, they seem to me to embody the evolved social life of the cities in whose cemeteries they are found.  Sometimes, considering the figurines found in houses, I think of all those St. Joseph altars on which my artistically naive friends and neighbors pile all their favorite dolls and gewgaws and ribbons as well as a votive candle.  What do those mean, exactly?  Exactly?  Their pleasure in adorning something for that saint.  The embellishment of reverence.  And what about all the teddy bears and the like brought and left for Princess Diana and, for that matter, all those who died at the World Trade Center?  How would we analyse and define all the sentiments, and group action, of these things?  The coroplasts provided the full range of what was demanded, what pleased, what sold.  The art historian is interested in how he surpassed the requirements of piety.
That is what I think, but I may need to read, or read again, the authors of antiquity.









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