Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Praxiteles et tutti quanti

Praxiteles! Dear friendly reader, I know the name Praxiteles is bringing tears of aesthetic fulfillment to your eyes, while a frisson of excitement is tingling your spine. [There was a time] when Praxiteles was synonymous with pure beauty, in less sophisticated eras when the concept of beauty wasn’t even in dispute, before Kant and Burke presumably. Well. Praxiteles = Pure Beauty might have been the case up to the 1920s, but since then modernity and postmodernity and post-post-modernity or is it hypermodernity? Well, all these highbrow concepts have bulldozed classical masters out of art education.
It is a bit annoying sometimes, if only because not too many male nudes have seen the light of the day since the heyday of Greek Art. They were not 100% anatomically correct, for sure, unless the central element of the Greek male body was under-developped in this faraway era, but these bodies!
There was much to chose for all tastes: hunky, sometimes even bulbous (Polyklet) bodies, homoerotic feelings (see Praxiteles’ Apollo Sauroktonos), tall and lanky frames, graciously perverse teenage incarnations, and always the most magnificent pieces of male ass on the planet.
The female sculptures were beautiful too, but I am more male-oriented so there it is. BTW, I am more an Archaic Sculpture fiend than a Classical one, but I wasn’t going to forgo the one-in-10-years show of Greek Art on a mere technicality.
Before continue with the Praxiteles show, dear erudite reader I’d like to remind you of a neglectible part of art history trivia: that Greek sculpture wasn’t whitewashed but in fact painted in bright colors. It is a bit hard to imagine nowadays, but that monochromatic marble-ish hue that so influenced modernity wasn’t present. Just so you know.

Anyway, off we went to see the Praxitele Louvre show, my friend Alexis, Nadia and their soon to be born offspring Max. First impression: the walls are totally black, the lighting is very dramatic [dramatic lighting shouts “masterpieces” in museum parlance] and the didactics are, well, very didactical. The curators lost no time in reminding us that there are no known remaining Praxiteles originals today, and indeed they did a great job of debunking specious attributions, as with the magnificent bronze sculpture that illustrates this post.
I like when curators are so scholarly and are not trying to jump on the Attributionist bandwagon, unlike the Fra Angelico show at the Met last year where many “new” Fra Angelico surfaced with very little evidence to support the claims.
I also had fun with the didactics, some of them showing off pure intellectual masturbation, such as the longish one explaining the difference between the adjective “Praxitelian” and the curator’s neologism, “Praxitelizing”. I’m sure they had lots of fun doing it.

What is absolutely striking with this exhibition is the fact that it has been organized at all: to measure it in contemporary art terms, suffice to say that a retrospective of say, Matta-Clark or Smithson where all the works would have been posthumous copies, reconstitutions, editions [showing variance between interpretations] and restitutions would raise quite a stir. The guardians of the Temple would cry foul and demand that the work of The Master remains intact in its purity. To do so the only way to have access to it would be through documents, historical records, photographs and so forth.
Contemporary Art historians, curators, conservators have been struggling with many issues of presentation and conservation that have already been dealt with in other fields.

True, none of the Praxiteles works displayed at the Louvre are “authentic”, save for a pedestal with his name/signature as an inscription. Nevertheless his fame as a sculptor, recorded in many classical texts (Lucian comes to mind) has lead generations of antiquarians, artists and later historians to seek out whatever could give even a faint echo of the originals. Thus, exhumed statues were compared with written sources, and variations recorded against antique descriptions. So when the audience comes into the Louvre exhibition, what there is to see is merely an idea of the artist output. Regardless of the artworks status the result is beautiful (there you are! I said it) in the sense that some of the copies are very good, the curators did a god job of explaining the pioneering aspects of Praxiteles’ career (invention of the contrapposto, first Female nude, etc.) without dumbing down their approach.

The most interesting result for me is the way the exhibition delivered a lesson in art history: I’ve argued elsewhere that art history is an intellectual construct, a narrative based on facts that more often than not results in myths in interpretation. In that case the facts (copies) are at least once removed from their source (originals) and the interpretation (the construct of Praxiteles as an original artist) is open to acceptance (this exhibition/demonstration gives us a clear enough idea of what his art must have been like) rather than dismissal (should art history forget about the concept Praxiteles because it is now only a mere concept and not a real artist whose works are certified authentic?)
I love the idea that we got the idea through non-originals artworks. Are they less legit? Not as documents, and many are very moving in their own right.
Clearly, without these copies and posthumous interpretations the fame of Praxiteles would have forever disappeared. If not for the craze Roman collectors started nearly 2,000 years ago, copies/interpretations would have never seen the light of the day, and Pouf! Here goes the most famous Antique artist ever.
Some food for thoughts, you Gonzalez-Torres, Smithson, Matta-Clark and Bas Jan Ader ferocious Guardians of the Temple.

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