Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.14
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso. New Directions in Classics 2. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012. Pp. 288. ISBN 9781848859036. £18.99.
Reviewed by Emmanouil Kalkanis, Thessaloniki (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[I apologize to the author and the publisher for the lateness of this review.]
This fascinating, challenging, and enlightening book is an excellent addition to the New Directions in Classics series. The approach is one of thorough scholarship and attention to detail, which makes this volume useful for a wide readership, both within academia and outside. Before examining the book more closely, it may help to know two things that this project does not do (neither of which is a flaw). It does not study the wide range of Greek sculpture that has been unearthed since the time of Winckelmann; neither does it consider all those modern artists who came into direct contact with ancient Greek art through their work. Instead, it argues that Greek sculpture and modern art have not been on separate paths since the late eighteenth century, when Winckelmann introduced the modern discipline of art history. Since then, artists such as Rodin, Leighton and Picasso have been in constant dialogue with ancient sculptures. Prettejohn’s book admirably meets the challenge of demonstrating the importance of this dialogue. Her stimulating work will persuade readers to rethink not only the visual and textual representations of ancient sculpture within the modern history of Western art, but also the extent to which “a modern reception of an ancient sculpture may be deliberate and intentional on the part of the modern artist, student, or scholar” (36–37).
Although antiquarianism and cultural history have pervaded many facets of previous scholarship, the study of the artistic and textual interpretation of ancient Greek art has only lately been very productive in considering the extent to which the perception of the latter was materially reframed and aesthetically reconstructed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists and writers. Prettejohn’s volume comes as a timely and eloquent support for such endeavour. How can more recent sculpture inform our understanding of the way ancient art was re-imagined, re-created, and re-interpreted? And how can such reception lead us to new or renewed readings of antiquity itself? Approaching these questions critically, the author examines the transformative principles—in form, style, and conception—that governed the artistic and textual approach to some of the most prized ancient monuments from Winckelmann onwards. Thus, in presenting the ways in which artists and scholars re-construct and re-visualise material culture, her aim is not just to evaluate the extent to which modernism has—if at all—been liberated from its classical inheritance, but also to rediscover, as far as possible, a modern way of seeing, receiving and appreciating ancient Greek art.
In the introduction Prettejohn clearly defines the scope of her study: first, to consider the art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries [i.e. sculpture and painting] as a specifically modern art in light of the “presuppositions about ancient art [i.e. sculpture] that enable the distinctions between ancient and modern to be made”; and second, to show that in order to understand “what constitutes ancient art in any historically specific situation (including, of course, our own), we shall need to explore the modern conditions under which the study of antiquity has taken place” (2). She thus uses Winckelmann’s famous Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums to show that “modern art-historical studies and the making of modern art may appear to be founded on incompatible principles: the one on the centrality of ancient art, the other on its utter repudiation” (1). Along the way, Prettejohn presents evidence to support the claim that the history of ancient art as it is taught today is based on the archaeological discoveries that occurred after Winckelmann. Especially among sculptures, the most celebrated archaeological ‘objects’ of the last two centuries were not available for study before his time — the star exhibits of his Geschichte were sculptures that had been known long before his era such as the Laocoon (1506), the Belvedere Torso (1432–35), or the Farnese Hercules (1556). Prettejohn then asks the all-important question: does modernism thus actually derive its raison d’être from a radical break with the classical tradition? To investigate this claim, and, therefore, the degree of classical reference in modern art, Prettejohn examines how some of Winckelmann’s own descriptions seem to dematerialize the sculptures he chose to study (7–27). Finally, and after a brief mentioning of reception methods within art history—such as a succinct reading of Winckelmann through the intermediary of Walter Pater’s essay of 1867 that also reads Winckelmann through others—she attempts to persuade readers that “it does not follow that the modern reception has nothing to tell us about the ancient sculpture ‘itself’, and only reveals modern attitudes towards it” (37). That is how Prettejohn makes her way into the ‘singular’ points of contact between ancient sculptures and modern interpretations.
Chapter 1 looks at the ‘newly’ discovered Greek originals that came to replace the works that Winckelmann himself studied and glorified in his influential writings. Thus, while neoclassicism in art and fashion began to wane, a new range of ancient ‘masterpieces’ took centre stage; these were in harmony with the new ‘romantic’ sensibilities of the nineteenth century. Prettejohn takes us from the Elgin Marbles to the sculptures from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, as they became “exemplary objects” for educational, artistic, and institutional value, and thus “for measuring the value of other objects” (39). It was due to these monuments that the notion of the self-contained and autonomous work of art—which had been established over the previous three centuries—was to change fundamentally. As Prettejohn puts it, by bending the marbles to modern purposes, they “lost their antiquity” and, in a sense, “they have become sculpture”. Thus, display practices have actually changed not only the extent to which ancient history is constructed, but also the degree of our knowledge about what ancient art really is (41). Prettejohn considers how in Hegel’s Aesthetics, the Elgin Marbles are particularly valued in their fragmentary and fractured condition, “perhaps the greatest sticking-point in their reception” (48) and one that is strangely at odds with the so-called classical ideal. By presenting three options for studying the Venus de Milo, Prettejohn also shows how that particular marble statue played a crucial role in the cultural and artistic debates of the modern era, and how quickly it became established as one of the most famous European antiquities (73–95). Drawings of the Venus and a wide range of interpretations from a spectrum of nineteenth-century artists within a few decades of the statue’s discovery point not only to the continuing fascination for the antique in the modern world, but also for the female figure, characteristic of the late nineteenth-century vanguard of art (85). It is through such receptions that these three monuments “cannot be excluded from a history of modern art”, but instead, they “become part of the myriad contemporary contexts” that unfold from then onwards (97).
Having first set her stage with a brief but lucid description of the ‘paradigm change’ that occurred after the dramatic appearance of actual Greek sculptures, Prettejohn moves on to the increasing emphasis on the artist’s individual style, a notion that is now receiving scholarly attention for the first time since Winckelmann. Hence, chapter 2 turns to that critical moment at which “the artist becomes capable of animating his productions with his own spirit, so that they transcend the stiffness of their inert material” (108). Starting with Hegel’s conception of the free and self-conscious artist, Prettejohn argues that this growing interest in autonomous individuals should not be seen separately from an increasing awareness of personal style in contemporary artistic production. Her analysis of stylistic differences between some of the greatest Greek artists is the most impressive part of this section, including comparisons of individual characteristics such as the “risky eroticism” (121) of Praxiteles’ style or the “avant-garde” (115–116) style of Lysippos. While these developments gave a new focus to the study of ancient sculpture, scholars also began to distinguish the distinct style of sculptors famed in ancient texts. Auguste Rodin’s creative freedom, and Frederic Leighton’s elegant lines recreate, in a sense, the lost bronze masterpieces and, therefore, are excellent examples with which to shed different light on ancient sculptural personal styles and the cult of the artist as celebrity. Finally, we see an interesting resemblance between Leighton’s "Daedalus and Icarus” and the Hermes of Praxiteles unearthed years after Leighton’s work was exhibited in the Royal Academy. Why should then “a Roman interpretation, in marble, of a Greek bronze be any more relevant to the study of Greek art than a painting by Leighton…?” (169).
Moving forward chronologically, Prettejohn in chapter 3 considers a more powerful modernist break, the ‘classical revival’ within twentieth-century modernism that allowed Cubist artists in France, Futurist artists in Italy, and Expressionist artists in Germany to return at intervals to classical models. However, important questions arise: did an excessive regard for a false—or at least misleading—ideal of Greek sculpture act as an impediment to artistic freedom in the early twentieth century, as the artist and critic R. H. Wilenski would argue in his violent attacks on ancient Greek art? To illustrate this point, Prettejohn opens the chapter with the inclusion of some interesting sections from Wilenski’s radio discussion (BBC) with the leading classical archaeologist of the early 1930s, Professor Bernard Ashmole. Prettejohn’s debate—with a particular emphasis on Picasso—on whether modernist movements succeeded in rejecting ‘classical’ exemplars and style is particularly effective. Given the diverse nature of these choices as a reconstructive and de-contextualized process of appropriating or ‘quoting’ ancient art, one may ask how ancient sculpture connects to the artists’ particular preferences. In other words, how did such preferences guide the ways in which various artists presented a direct or indirect aesthetic perception, connection, and responsiveness to the past? The book ends with the dramatic change to the picture of the development of Greek sculpture; earlier phases could finally be illustrated with better examples than fifth- and fourth-century classical monuments. As Prettejohn shows, twentieth-century archaeological discoveries of archaic figures (called kouroi and korai) had augmented the canon, as their ‘simplicity’ and ‘beauty of form’ could be considered to have the same aesthetic value as those of the classical period.
In summary, The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture offers a thought-provoking look at the modernist transformation of the classical ideal and the extent to which the modernists failed to make ancient sculpture irrelevant. Its emphasis on the responses to ancient sculpture and how the intersection of ancient and modern stretches the boundaries of current thinking are enhanced by rich citation of the work of those writers (Walter Pater, G.W.F. Hegel, George F. Watts, and T.E. Hulme among others) who set new agendas and have worked at the frontiers of the subject. However, the range of issues and contexts related to the various ways in which Greek art was aesthetically valued and received by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artists and writers cannot be exhausted within the limited space of a book. The extent to which the visual vocabulary associated with ancient sculpture intersects with and produces distinctive attitudes towards the early modern language of aesthetics could provide an important topic for further work. Prettejohn’s overall methodological preferences and model of ‘reception’ also need to be further developed into a more nuanced, interpretative approach towards the complex and sometimes obscure reciprocity between ancient sculptures and their modern receptions. Besides, ancient monuments can be part of “myriad” (97) contemporary contexts that may cause exaggerated responses to ancient sculpture. Due to these responses—and regardless of whether a scholar’s concern lies either with the object as a work of art, or with its relations with the society that produced it—these contexts should be studied and, therefore, understood from a variety of perspectives. Whether one agrees or disagrees, it is thanks to these perspectives that Prettejohn’s book stands as a very welcome and thoughtful contribution.
The design and layout of the volume are both satisfactory, although, in some instances, the dense language may be difficult for non-English-speaking readers. That most of the images do not closely correspond with the text should be considered an inevitable fact of such a wide-ranging study. Apart from these issues, Prettejohn weaves together literary criticism, archaeology, art history, object biography and reception theory in an interdisciplinary approach to the study of ancient and modern art that overcomes previous conceptual barriers of increasing academic specialization. The result shows how the interpretation of Greek sculpture has been powerfully reinforced by modern artistic and textual receptions. As an iconographic study and an exploration of visual culture, this book fully engages with the fascinating historical link between the study of ancient art and the practice of modern art. Its scholarship is creative, the questions asked are original, and the evidence is interpreted in the light of the intriguing changes that objects from the past have undergone. The book should take its place not only as a valuable resource for anyone who works on the interaction and manifold interconnections between the study of Greek sculpture and the production of modern art, but also as a seminal study in Reception Studies, one that will re-orient the way in which we understand why the art of the past continues to have power for present-day observers.