Monday, 14 October 2013

The look in their eyes

Bronze statues from the Villa of the Papyri
Archaeological Museum of Naples
According to my personal taste, one of the most beautiful artefacts on display at the British Museum's exhibition was the bronze statue of the dancer from the Villa of the Papyri. The statue is part of a group, but even on its own is a remarkable piece.
When I was looking at it, I overheard the second conversation I want to share here. One of the two persons involved commented, pointing at the dancer, how much she liked “the new kind of statues” because, unlike “the old ones”, they had their eyes painted.
I found this dialogue (that I'm considering representative of a common opinion that I've heard several times in different circumstances) quite relevant from the reception point of view for two reasons:
1) It looks like the idea that ancient statues were monochrome and with blank eyes is still very common. It doesn’t matter how many books, tv documentaries and journals have tried to show otherwise in the last years. This misconception is strong and still make us implicitly reject any other image of the Past. I can see that, compared to the majority of the ancient statues (especially marble ones), having human-like eyes makes the Group of the Dancers (and other statues from the Villa of the Papyri) fascinating for their being an exception. But they are an archaeological exception (few statues with eyes can be seen today), not an historical exception (few statues with eyes could be seen in the past).

As a member of the public myself, I remember to have thought, the first time I saw the statues in the museum of Naples, that I loved the contrast between the almost-black colour of the statue and the whiteness of the eyes. I found it magnetic. So much so that I was (irrationally) a bit disappointed in discovering that, as it happens quite often, the bronze statues used to be painted. In the eyes of my XXI century aesthetic sensibility, a “whole black” would have been much more elegant, wouldn’t it?

The statue of the dancer displayed
at the British Museum exhibition
Obviously I’m not judging the competence of the persons in the museum. I think that one of the goals of a museum is to attract people that are not expert in the fields. The many they menage to reach, the more successful is an exhibition, in my opinion. What I want to remark is how an inaccurate image of the past can be much stronger and more permanent than a non-visual accurate information

2) The dialogue implied that there is a linear progression is art that goes from less good to better but also from less realistic to more realistic (the statues with the eyes that are better than the others as they are more "realistic" were assumed to be more recent than the one with blank eyes). So, in a way, not only a more recent piece of art is supposed to be intrinsically better that an older one, but it is also assumed that this progression towards perfection overlaps entirely with the pursue of realism. It sounds like ancient painters were just not too good at drawing; as if they were not able to paint something with the same idea of proportion, perspective or lighting that we consider “right”.

This idea of art, that has probably been slowly challenged by movements such as fauvism, impressionism and cubism, was still dominant at the time of the first excavation in Pompeii and Herculaneum. This is exactly why many frescoes that were judged “not artistically worthy” because distant from the common idea of what a painting should look like, have been destroyed without many regrets.
This is also the same feeling beyond the disappointment experienced by many of the artists and art lovers that visited Pompeii in the XVIII and XIX century. But will talk more about that later. 

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