Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.52

Milette Gaifman, Verity Platt, Michael Squire (ed.), The Embodied Object in Classical Antiquity. Art History.   Oxford; Boston:  Association for Art History, 2018.  Pp. 196 [397-591]; 119 p. of plates.  ISBN 01416790.  


Reviewed by Jesús Muñoz Morcillo, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) & Universidad de Salamanca (jesus.morcillo@kit.edu)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Embodied Object in Classical Antiquity is a special issue of the Journal of the Association for Art History (Vol. 41.3). It is the result of a conference organized by Jennifer Trimble at Stanford University in April 2015. The conference itself was one of a series of events called “The New Antiquity: Art + Archaeology Now” launched at the University of Chicago by Verity Platt, Richard Neer, and Jaś Elsner.

The book discusses artistic depictions of inanimate items that engage in human body experiences; it follows a new research approach in archaeology and visual studies with a focus on phenomenological hermeneutics; it employs different methods such as cognitive archaeology, Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), and material culture studies. As a whole, it is an interesting contribution to the so-called “sensory turn” in Classics. Some of the authors (e.g., Ruth Bielfeldt, Michael Squire, Elsner, and Platt) collaborated as editors in recent projects: Sight and the Ancient Senses (Squire) and The Frame in Classical Art (Platt and Squire). In these editorial projects, the approach to classical aesthetics was to some extent comparable to the contextual-based methods presented in the book under review. Here, the authors deserve particular praise for the work’s short but clear, theoretical frame, a selection of interrelated contributions, and a diachronic argument on the hermeneutic potential of analyzing ancient works of art as embodied objects.

Most papers concern the relation between human engagement and art objects within their original context. The “Introduction” presents the theoretical frame, the current state of research, a first case study, and a short overview of the edited articles. In opposition to the romantic contemplation of ancient art popularized by John Keats’ poem ”Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the authors introduce their materialistic vantage point: the embodied experience of a fifth-century BCE bronze hydria whose handle is shaped like a female figure. This figure holds two libation bowls whose function becomes evident when liquid is being poured from the hydria. After mentioning the articles of their co-authors, the editors argue that questions of embodiment are relevant across all cultures and periods.

Most of the case studies here included stem from religious or domestic contexts. Reflecting on Petronius’ Cena Trimalchionis, Ruth Bielfeldt discusses the significance of converting bronze statues into domestic tray- and light-bearers. Milette Gaifman deepens her phenomenological approach from the “Introduction” when she analyzes the handling and form of the libation bowl (phiále) and its change of meaning, depending on the material context. She stresses the intermediary character of the handle, following Georg Simmel’s Prinzip des Henkels and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of Kant’s párergon. The latter is also cited by other authors such as Richard Neer and Patrick R. Crowley. Neer deals with the question of transgressive embodiment processes. He focuses on sculptures and crafted objects that incorporate amber as a metaphor for fire, or even fire as part of the iconographic meaning process and functionality (e.g., horse frontlets with eyes of amber and ivory, or archaic marble lamps with head decoration) and thus embrace a “wonderful” dimension. Verity Platt analyzes the epistemological significance of unfinished paintings (imperfectae tabulae) described in Pliny’s Natural History as revealing a discourse of the unfinished as a visualization of “corporeal connections” between the artist and his work. From a diachronic perspective, she quotes Walter Benjamin’s thesis of the “work as the dead-mask of its conception,” comparing ancient with modern seemingly unfinished works of art such as Albrecht Dürer’s “Salvador mundi,” Michelangelo’s sculpture of St. Matthew, or the “sketchy” finish of Venetian painters such as Titian in his late period. In contrast to Pliny’s assumptions of incompletion as a symptom of the artist’s death, those painters tended to have a pedagogical intent. Platt is the only author to give an explicit, albeit rather short, account of ecphrasis (p. 503). From the Greek Anthology, she mentions ecphrastic poems on Aphrodite that evoke “the tension between presence and absence.” Other authors such as Neer also quote ecphrastic texts, but the book does not follow a systematic approach in this regard.

No fewer than three papers concern the embodied object in funerary contexts. 1 Michael Squire focuses on the ambiguity of Greek gravestones (funerarystélai) from the fifth and late fourth centuries BCE. He analyzes them as bearers of ontological questions and mediators between the disembodied dead and the sensory body. Jaś Elsner and Patrick R. Crowley concentrate on embodiment phenomena related to Roman and Early Christian sarcophagi, respectively. Elsner’s main interest concerns the finished and unfinished portraits of the three-dimensional reclining statues carved on the lid of the sarcophagus and their relation to the reliefs on the box. His article includes interesting connections to Verity Platt’s text on unfinished art (see pp. 561-563). Finally, following an iconological approach, Crowley decodes the visual and literary sources for the recurring iconography of “Doubting Thomas.”

The book may be divided into three sections: the introductory explanation of the theoretical frame, four case studies concerning the religious and societal implications of embodied art as well as the limits of this phenomenon, and three case studies that deal with the idea of embodiment in relation to bodily absence, revealing the ambiguities of funerary art. Throughout the book, connections between the articles give rise to a critical dialogue that may lead to new knowledge and research ideas.

For example, the frequent use of terms such as “entanglement” and “embodied object” throughout the book suggests that the theoretical frame is primarily indebted to the ANT and phenomenological embodiment theories 2. The editors also note that their own embodied concept is based on Bruno Latour’s Resembling the Social, an Introduction to Actor-Network- Theory. They seek to put the ANT, recent studies in cognitive archaeology, and material culture studies “into conversation with a longer tradition of phenomenological approaches to the visual arts grounded in the work of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Martin Heidegger” (p. 405). It is, however, Ruth Bielfeldt’s detailed theoretical frame that describes Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s embodiment concept as an “event experienced by and through our living bodies“ (p. 422). Bielfeldt’s discussion is informed by the idea that the human body is its own, first embodied object (Merleau-Ponty) and that external objects are part of bodily sensations (Husserl). She also introduces the contingency of the physical body (Körper) in opposition to the transcendental body (Leib) so that our own human body experiences every example in art as a historical, not as a transcendental, entity. With this theoretical description of the embodied object, the author describes the “embodied history” of anthropomorphic tools as if they were slaves, beginning with Homer’s first mention of servants as automata. From this point of departure, Bielfeldt centers on three interrelated “pieces of evidence”: a literary passage from Cena Trimalchionis, a wall painting from Pompeii, and a group of bronze anthropomorphic lampstands, also from Pompeii. The literary passage is a source for understanding the multi-layered embodied meanings of Roman material culture in terms of the object-human relationship, i.e., the intimacy with the object: “[b]y physically embodying himself in his candelabrus [sic], Trimalchio opposes his social objectification” (p. 428).

Despite differences between the general theoretical frame of the introduction and the concrete references to Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in Bielfeldt’s case study, the book contains a central argument. All the authors understand the “embodied object” as the relationship between bodies, things, and the environment. In doing so, they abandon outdated notions of primitive expression in ancient art.

The book is a significant contribution to current scholarship in art history and archaeology. The consistent treatment of the idea of embodiment—contrasting art with aesthetics and with philosophical and political observations—is of special value for further research. Equally innovative is the use of photomontage and visual reconstructions as knowledge-instruments that present works of art as embodied objects in what we think was their original context and purpose. On the other hand, the case studies limit themselves to objects that function within a religious or domestic context. The analysis of art in the public sphere—such as monuments, public buildings, or large works of art (e.g., triumphal arches, temples, or obelisks)—from the vantage point of embodiment theories remains to a great extent a desideratum of research. A shortcoming of the book seems to be the lack of reflection on ancient materialism. Atomistic and Epicurean positions in particular are overlooked, although those positions were present in ancient intellectual circles and produced new conceptions of beauty and pictorial agency as an embodied experience of art. 3 Indeed, many references to the Stoa in the book can be understood as ideas with Epicurean origin. For example, Platt’s analysis of týpos as a non-Platonic tradition of image making does not need to go back to a Stoic model of perception at all, but rather to an Epicurean one. Indeed, in the Letter to Herodotus Epicurus defines týposas a mental model (§ 35) and as a physical impression (§ 49).

In general, it would also be very useful to extend the theoretical approach of embodiment to other ontological conceptions, such as Aby Warburg’s idea of Bilderfahrzeuge (“vehicles of images”) or Bredekamp’s Bildakt theory on imagines agentes. John Dewey’s emphasis on sensory exchange between beholder and the environment as the basis of aesthetic experience would have been helpful for this book as well. Some of its case studies would have benefited from a more specific theoretical frame making it possible to overcome the historical contingencies of bodily experience and allowing works of art to answer many other questions beyond their original context. Similarly, the explanation of works of art in their original context on the basis of literary sources could also take into consideration the ecphrastic tradition with its rhetorical peculiarities. This approach would have granted, for instance, more consistency to Richard Neer’s interpretation of the Homeric formula thaũma idésthai for describing crafted objects.

The book was produced with care. While there are no significant typos, it should be pointed out that most Greek terms are transcribed without any diacritic marks and without indicating long vowels. This is unusual for classical philologists and could produce some terminological confusions.

Despite these points, The Embodied Object in Classical Antiquity is undoubtedly a valuable piece of scholarship. Specialists in the fields addressed by these essays will find inspiration in many of them. Finally, the volume as a whole makes an essential contribution to our understanding of embodiment as an essential part of art experience in ancient times.

Authors and titles

Milette Gaifman Verity Platt, “Introduction: From Grecian Urn to Embodied Object”
Ruth Bielfeldt, “Candelabrus and Trimalchio: Embodied Histories of Roman Lampstands and their Slaves”
Milette Gaifman, “The Greek Libation Bowl as Embodied Object”
Richard Neer, “Amber, Oil and Fire: Greek Sculpture beyond Bodies”
Verity Platt, “Orphaned Objects: The Phenomenology of the Incomplete in Pliny's Natural History
Michael Squire, “Embodying the Dead on Classical Attic Grave-Stelai”
Jaś Elsner, “The Embodied Object: Recensions of the Dead on Roman Sarcophagi”
Patrick R. Crowley, “Doubting Thomas and the Matter of Embodiment on Early Christian Sarcophagi”


Notes:


1.   See also the section Embodiments of the Immaterial by Gaifman commenting on libation bowls as gifts to the dead (p. 460).
2.   The term “entanglement” is borrowed from Ian Hodder’s Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things (2012).
3.   The absence of a materialistic or an atomistic aesthetical approach in the volume is notable even if the editors briefly refer to Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things or to Stephen Greenblatt’s bestseller The Swerve in a general sense. Regarding Greek materialism and the agency of images beyond antiquity, see Bredekamp’s Der Bildakt (2015), especially pp. 30-32, 321-324.

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