Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast, bringing you the chart-topping hits from the ancient art billboard three years running now. Every month or so the Art Institute of Chicago publishes a neat little self-guide that draws connections between different works of art in the collection. You can download it or pick it up at the museum, or just keep it on your smartphone while you go around browsing the artwork. In keeping with the Halloween season, the October 2009 self-guide is called “Off with Their Heads,” inspired, as it says, “by the playfully disembodied human heads that practitioners of Victorian photocollage whimsically grafted on to animal bodies or morphed into household objects…[T]his guide reveals the bounty of beheadings in the collection, from the ghoulish to the gorgeous.”
One humorous disembodiment is a page from the Madame B Album of the 1870’s where little portrait photos of Madame B’s family were cut out and pasted onto the tail feathers of a watercolor turkey. And then the rather grisly Head of Guillotined Man by Théodore Géricault from 1818 to 1819. Supposedly Géricault kept this severed head of a thief in his studio for two weeks! On the flip side, some headless bodies include the provocative, yet disturbing 1988 sculpture of a Woman in a Tub by Jeff Koons. You can only wonder what’s at the other end of that snorkel poking out of the water. And then we come to a Roman period Statue of a Seated Woman.
The Art Institute self-guide reveals that this 2nd century marble sculpture didn’t lose its head as an accident. You can tell from the deep cavity in the neck that the head was carved separately and then attached to the torso. It was common among Roman statuary to make the head removable and interchangeable, especially with imperial statuary. In our current economic climate we can appreciate that marble was expensive. So instead of throwing away the whole statue of someone after they passed away, it made more sense simply to remove the distinctly identifiable portrait head and replace that with the head of the new emperor or whoever has just inherited the work of art, because the clothing that they wore, or in the case of the emperor, the military regalia, didn’t considerably change enough to warrant the cost of a whole new body.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the arms too were separately carved and attached with dowels, like little rods. See the holes carved into the shoulders of the woman? Dowels could be made from wood or metal and a simple analysis could tell you in the case here, but the reason for separately carved arms wasn’t so they could be interchangeable. Wipe those images of Mr. Potato Head from your mind. No, it served the very practical function of permitting them to bend a little bit. Marble along with any kind of stone has a very low tensile strength, meaning it’ll break before it bends. Wood and metal have a far greater ability to bend, so it was wise to insert dowels at points of precarious joints, like where an outstretched arm meets the shoulder. Without the dowels, the arms would have long since snapped off and would be forever lost … um … well.
Moving right along, the elaborate drapery is befitting of a goddess, perhaps Juno, the Roman Hera, or perhaps a wealthy patrician matron casting herself in the light of a goddess. As the self-guide suggests, perhaps one of the imperial wives: Faustina the Elder or her daughter Faustina II, both elevated to goddesses posthumously. Whomever the original subject may have been, it’s thought that the artist was likely looking back to the grand sculptural legacy of the Periklean Acropolis. We examined the Parthenon frieze ad nauseam in episodes 10, 11, and 12. Nearby the Parthenon, jutting out on a precipice of the Acropolis is the diminutive Temple of Athena Niké, that is Athena in the guise of Nike, goddess of victory. The Nike temple of 410 BC was once adorned with richly carved depictions of the goddess striking various poses, like the exquisite and thankfully surviving example of Nike fastening her sandals in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, or some might say unfastening her sandals as she prepares to enter a sacred space. You see how deeply carved the folds of her drapery are? There’s this almost unnatural suspension of gravity and physics. She’s definitely having a massively bad static cling day. In these figures of Nike, the desperately realistic and idealized images from the High Classical Greek era are beginning to give way to the more exaggerated and outlandishly baroque style of the later Hellenistic period. Her robe becomes almost liquid as is pours and cascades down her frame revealing the not so subtle contours of her nude physique underneath.
We see a strong stylistic influence taking place on a somewhat more prudish Roman level in the figure from the Art Institute. The drapery spilling over her leg also has this rather liquid appearance to it, like some ancient Roman wet toga contest effectively revealing her leg beneath. Her undergarment produces a sort of tidy meander at the ground level similar to the earlier Nike. Note also the belt clenching her waist and bunching the fabric. We also see a similar tight cinching of the waist on other fragmentary Nikes from the Temple of Athena Niké as well as a similar horizontal billowing of an especially large fold of drapery. The many stylistic similarities in the rendering of drapery strongly suggest that the Roman era artist of the Art Institute’s 2nd century AD Statue of a Seated Woman was indeed likely receiving strong inspiration from that pinnacle of Greek artistic achievement, the 5th century BC Athenian Acropolis.
It’s not entirely surprising that a 2nd century Roman artist would receive inspiration from the Ancient Greek sculptural tradition of six centuries earlier. Many of the artist in the Roman Empire were in fact Greek slaves. The size and scope of the Roman slave force was phenomenal. The HBO series Rome gives you some sense of the proliferation of slavery. Many of the highly skilled laborers in the Roman Empire were slaves, including artists, accountants, physicians, secretaries, tutors for Rome’s privileged children, and, get this, corporate management! So, it’s quite likely that our Roman era artist here would have received his artistic training in Greece, with many Classical and Hellenistic prototypes, including the Acropolis sculptures, serving as models.
This Statue of a Seated Woman isn’t the only beheaded beauty in the Art Institute’s Roman art collection. Here’s a lovely lady contemporary to the seated woman. This is a 2nd century copy of one of the most notable statues from the Hellenistic world, the famed Aphrodite of Knidos by the 4th century BC Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. The Aphrodite of Knidos was the nude that ushered in the era of Greek nudes. This is one of countless copies of the Praxitelean Aphrodite produced during the Roman era, which demonstrates the feverish popularity of the original work. The Aphrodite of Knidos deserves much more attention than what we’re able to cover in the short span of this episode, so we’ll just have to defer our satisfaction until next time when we’ll take a close detailed look at the fantastic history, legacy, and artistry of the Aphrodite of Knidos.
In the mean time, download “Off with Their Heads,” the October self-guide to the Art Institute of Chicago. If you follow me on Twitter at lucaslivingston, you’ll already have the link — check out tinyurl.com/aicselfguide. Also, try to visit the special exhibition “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage” at the Art Institute on view through January 3, 2010. You’ll find a nice little interview with the curator Liz Siegel in the October episode of the museum’s podcast Musecast. Thanks to everyone who’s sending the feedback and questions. You can contact me at email@example.com. You can also leave comments at the website, on YouTune, and on iTunes. You’ll find the feedback form at ancientartpodcast.org, plus the nice little survey that helps me get to know more about you all and your interests. Happy Halloween and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.
©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org
2. Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault (French, 1791-1824). Head of a Guillotined Man, 1818/19. The Art Institute of Chicago. Through prior gift of William Wood Prince; L. L. and A. S. Coburn Endowment; Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1992.628.
3. Jeff Koons (American, born 1955). Woman in a Tub, 1988. Porcelain. The Art Institute of Chicago. Collection Stefan T. Edlis Trust, partial and promised gift to the Art Institute of Chicago, 2005.472.
19. Galleries of Roman art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.
20. Statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos, 2nd century A.D. Roman copy of a fourth century B.C. Greek original by Praxiteles. The Art Institute of Chicago, Katherine K. Adler Endowment, 1981.11. Photo by Lucas Livingston, 23 Oct 2009.