Friday, August 24, 2007

Praxiteles between history and myth

Source: Athens News

Following its Louvre debut, the 4th century BC sculptor's exhibitionreaches the National Archaeological Museum in its more compressed version


THE GREATEST sculptor of 4th century BC Attica, Praxiteles was the first to capture the female figure in the nude: a full-scale representation of Aphrodite (the so-called Cnidian statue type) modelled after Thespian courtesan Phryne. Another of his breakthroughs was that he liberated Greek sculpture from the grandiose and imposing touch of Pheidias by humanising his subjects - mostly of divine descent - in order to reflect his fascination with life and by working the fine Parian marble to a smooth, silky effect even when it came to the depiction of demonic figures such as satyrs.

A grand exhibition at the Louvre Museum in March traced Praxiteles' myth and history through the display of mainly Roman copies given that a very small number of sculptures have been identified by researchers as Praxiteles' own or as the originals of his workshop.

Though more compressed due to practical reasons, the Greek version of the Louvre show - running at the National Archaeological Museum through to October 31 - features 79 works from prestigious museums abroad, such as the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Vatican and Capitolium museums in Rome, as well as the archaeological museums of Ancient Agora, Corinth, Vravrona, Thebes, Rhodes and Corfu.

"The main difference is that Praxiteles [the Greek version] does not feature certain works which were shown in the Louvre but has been enriched with some more exhibits," National Archaeological Museum director Nikolaos Kaltsas told the Athens News.

In addition, the Athens show has been designed to include Praxiteles' family: his father Cephisodotus the Elder and his two sons Cephisodotus the Younger and Timarchus. This dynasty of sculptors "remained active in Athens and around Greece for a period of 130 years from the end of the 5th century BC to the first quarter of the 3rd century BC", said Kaltsas.

Items on display have been arranged at the museum's four temporary exhibition halls to facilitate the viewer's transition from works which are most certainly associated to Praxiteles to the lesser, and eventually the least, certain ones.

Original works on display

Numismatic evidence - examples of which are displayed first - points to Praxiteles' practice of attributing human features to the Olympian gods. Aphrodite, Eros and Dionysus, in particular, were treated by the sculptor as symbols of the joy of life, with Aphrodite shedding her garments and Dionysus assuming the expression of a carefree, smiling youth.

A silver tetradrachm from Athens shows an owl on an amphora next to a bow-holding Apollo Lykeios. Apparently, a large number of statues made in Praxiteles' workshop were depicted on the reverse side of coins, which were issued by many Greek cities.

"Among the original works on display," said Kaltsas," are the statue bases that bear the signature of Praxiteles [Praxiteles made] and those of his father and sons, as well as three marble relief slabs [one depicting the music contest between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas, the rest representing the Three Muses] found in Mantineia, Arcadia."

Based on the writings of travel-writer Pausanias, who visited Mantineia in the 2nd century AD, most scholars agree that the three slabs together with a fourth one, which is now lost, formed the revetment of a base for the statues of Leto, Apollo and Artemis in the temple of Leto. One of the signed statue bases was discovered during excavation work for the Athens Metro and is the most recent piece associated to Praxiteles.

Among the few highlights which have been attributed to Praxiteles' circle, the much-publicised bronze statue of the Marathon Boy (found by a fisherman in the Marathon Sea) never made it to the Louvre, despite high demand as it had been characterised as 'immovable'. Affixed to its base, the statue, whose feet have partly been restored, has not ventured out of the National Archaeological Museum for decades now.

"Had it been in another museum, the Marathon Boy would not have joined the Athens show," said Kaltsas. "We were very cautious as we transferred it together with its base from one museum hall to another."

An ivory statuette of Apollo Lykeios from the Ancient Agora consisting of over 200 fragments was another risky transfer, Kaltsas noted. "It was not possible for the piece to be packaged, even more so to travel. We carried it by hand a day before the show's opening."

The Marathon Boy was not the only point of controversy between the National Archaeological Museum and the Louvre. An original bronze sculpture of Apollo Sauroktonos (translates to "The Lizard Slayer"), owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art in the US, never made it to the Louvre - or Athens - following Greece's demand to have it excluded from the show as the work's provenance and legal ownership were strongly disputed.

The Cleveland Museum of Art claims that it legally acquired the sculpture - since 1935 in the possession of German collector Ernst-Ulrich Walter - from the private collection of Lebanese brothers Hicham and Ali Aboutaam. But Italian authorities combating the looting of antiquities advocate that Polaroid pictures prove that the work was retrieved by fishermen from the Ionian Sea in the early 1990s.

If not for the world-famous marble group of Hermes with the Infant Dionysus - discovered in ancient Olympia in 1877, permanently exhibited at the Olympia Archaeological Museum and represented at Praxiteles' Athens show by a plaster cast (the only modern copy on display) - just one more sculpture, the marble head of Artemis Brauronia, is beyond any doubt attributed to Praxiteles.

The head together with one marble slab from Mantineia, two statue bases bearing Praxiteles' signature, the base of a triangular marble tripod in relief and an Aphrodite head were among the works that travelled to the Louvre prior to their Athens display.

Roman copies and statue types

At the National Archaeological Museum exhibition, originals give way to a large section of Roman copies. "In the Roman times, there was a tendency to copy classical masterpieces - not only by Praxiteles but also by Pheidias and Polykleitos - which would then serve as decoration in Roman villas," Kaltsas pointed out.

This copying fever is best illustrated through the Cnidian Aphrodite, among Praxiteles' best-known sculptures, which was painted by Praxiteles' favourite painter Nicias. "Some 300 copies of the original exist. Not all the copies follow the original's dimensions as some of them are a product of microsculpture," said Kaltsas.

For educational purposes copies have been arranged according to statue type. Apart from the Cnidian Aphrodite and the Aphrodite of Arles (one of the Arles heads bears a cross on its forehead as a result of the spread of Christianity), which have been named after their place of origin, there are copies of Centocelle Eros with the nude god holding a bow and arrow; Apollo the Lizard Slayer, the god getting ready to strike a lizard against the trunk of a tree; a variation of the Artemis of Braurona under the name Dresden Artemis; Apollo Lykeios, a statue type that was very popular in Hellenistic and Roman times; the Wine-Pouring Satyr depicted with pointed ears and an ivy wreath; and Dionysus Sardanapalus, the Greek transcription of the name of the legendary king of Assyria.

Though scientific discourse regarding the statue types varies, some common ground has been reached. "The Cnidian Aphrodite and Apollo Sauroktonos are clearly attributed to Praxiteles. It is the ancient sources that point to this identification," said Kaltsas. "Very few doubts have been raised with regard to the Aphrodite of Arles, Eros Centocelle and the Reclining and Wine-Pouring Satyrs, and these are feeble. Some researchers have noted Praxitelean influences in the Artemis of Dresden and the Apollo Lykeios. The association becomes weaker when it comes to the Dionysus Sardanapalus and the Large and Small Herakleion Women."

A comparative study of the statue types on display at the National Archaeological Museum allows the viewer to draw some conclusions regarding what are considered to be the hallmarks of Praxiteles' art and - for the most inquisitive - 4th century BC sculpture: youthful, life-asserting subjects of perfect proportions, the loose S-shaped outline of the body, the use of a tree, stelae or drapery for supporting purposes.

The colossal head of Artemis Brauronia - much like the Aberdeen Head believed to represent Hermes, Heracles or another hero and not considered by scholars as an original of Praxiteles - does not follow the sculptor's style. Artemis Brauronia, the goddess of bulls, was among the earliest finds from the Acropolis excavations discovered in 1839 in the area of the sanctuary of Athena Hygeia.

"When it came to sculpting a cult work, Praxiteles would often modify his style," said Kaltsas. "Unlike the youthful depiction of Aphrodite, the goddess of bulls had to be rendered in an austere fashion."

Originally thought to depict Dionysus, the work was identified as Praxiteles' own by professor of archaeology Georgios Despinis in 1994.

* The Praxiteles exhibition is on at the National Archaeological Museum (44 Patission St, tel 210-821-7717) through to October 31. Open: Monday 1-8.30pm; Tuesday-Sunday 8am-7.30pm; national holidays 8.30am-3pm. Admission at 7 euros (students 3 euros)

* The exhibition's accompanying catalogue (in Greek only) is available at the museum at 45 euros

1 comment:

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