BMCR 2005.01.02

Modes of Viewing in Hellenistic Poetry and Art

, Modes of viewing in Hellenistic poetry and art. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xiv, 223 pages).. ISBN 9780299194536. $39.95.

When I began to investigate the world of Hellenistic poetry in graduate school, I eventually turned to Apollonius’ Argonautica. While working on the description of Jason’s cloak in Book 1, I was especially struck by the image of Aphrodite looking at her reflection in Ares’ shield. At that very time, there happened to be an exposition of the finds discovered at Vergina in San Francisco, which included a cameo bearing a portrait of Aphrodite looking at her reflection in a shield. I have been intrigued by the intersection between Hellenistic poetry and art ever since. While other scholars have offered book-length studies on this topic, such as Webster’s Hellenistic Poetry and Art, Onian’s Art and Thought in the Hellenistic World, and Fowler’s The Hellenistic Aesthetic, what distinguishes Zanker’s contribution is his close, and in particular intertextual, reading of Hellenistic poetry as a constructive parallel for viewing contemporary art.

In the first chapter, “Aims, Approaches, and Samples,” Zanker discusses how the exploration of literary “ekphraseis” can benefit our understanding of artistic representations. (1) They provide a verbal response to viewing that the monuments are incapable of giving us; (2) Greek rhetorical teachers regarded such passages as means of teaching students how to view art; (3) like the monuments, these descriptions require the reader to supplement unexpressed details; and (4) they expose contemporary admiration for illusionism in the visual arts. What follows is a detailed analysis of the description of the goatherd’s cup in Theocritus’ first Idyll as an example of how to understand the Hellenistic manner of viewing. In short, Zanker demonstrates how the viewer is required to fill in the blanks in order to understand the meaning of the individual scenes. “(N)arrative can be, and is meant to be, extrapolated from the visual clues, in a manner wholly consonant with what we know of the actual representational art of the period” (p. 13). Zanker adds that in the Theocritean passage we encounter an essential feature of Hellenistic art and verse, a topic he will return to later: “the depiction of lowly objects and people placed by allusion in a grand form and tradition — those of epic, to be precise” (p. 14-15).

The next three chapters examine the process whereby poets and artists “created modes of viewing in order to involve viewers and readers visually and spatially” (p. 27). In Chapter 2, “Full Presentation of the Image,” Zanker explores how audiences are brought into the picture. He identifies a number of attributes that achieve this effect. For instance, backgrounds are articulated in such a way as to invite the viewer/reader into the scene (e.g., the Giant’s knee on the Pergamene Altar and the elaborate backdrop to Theocritus’ Idyll 22); audience cooperation is piqued by the need to perform an act of supplementation, i.e., the application of one’s knowledge of myth to complete the scene (e.g., the “White” Marsyas in the Uffizi asks the viewer to conjure up the presence of Apollo; the occasion of Idyll 25 has to be implied by the reader, about which more below); and audiences are integrated into scenes by becoming part of the action (e.g., our discomfort at coming upon a naked Aphrodite, such as the Cnidia, or our inclusion among the celebrants of Callimachus’ mimetic hymns).

The chapter contains a number of other observations that attest to the shared goals of poets and artists, such as interest in representations in the round, fascination with optical effects, and a desire to underscore the ethos of his human subjects. As evidence of these, Zanker offers Praxiteles’ Cnidian Aphrodite, which during the Hellenistic period was moved from a rectangular to a circular shrine so that it could be viewed from all sides; depictions of reflections, as in the Alexander Mosaic or Capua Aphrodite; and the busts of artists and thinkers which are designed to hint at the psychology of the individual. Zanker successfully employs the Greek rhetorical tradition and its focus on “enargeia,” as well as the new Posidippus papyrus that attests to this quality, in support of his readings.

In the next chapter, “Reader or Viewer Supplementation,” Zanker expands on the idea of audience participation in both literary and artistic representations. In sum, he describes how artists integrate readers or viewers by inviting them to participate in and flesh out the details; this is achieved by way of abbreviated but suggestive depictions and narratives. For instance, both Callimachus’ rendition of Heracles’ killing of the Nemean Lion in the Victoria Berenices and the Telephus frieze with its discrete scenes accentuate selected moments that stand for the entire story. What is more, Zanker states, poetry appears to have developed this approach to narrative before art. A case in point is Idyll 25. Here the portrayal of the pastoral landscape all but narrates the story of Heracles’ cleaning of the Augean stables by alluding to the event and suggesting the immensity of the project. Among the plastic arts, such as the Farnese Heracles, what is novel is the degree to which they underscore and focus on the psychological aspects of “off-stage” moments that comment on the actual climactic events that everyone is familiar with. Hellenistic poets and artists, Zanker argues, prompt their audiences to decode visual signs in their encounters with their works.

“Reader or Viewer Integration” forms the theme of the following very interesting chapter. Zanker expands on the theme of audience inclusion. He begins with the “Boy with a Goose” statue from the Vatican, a piece that finds a remarkable parallel in Herodas’ fourth Mimiamb. As the young child (ca. eighteen months old) reaches upward with his right hand, signaling a desire to be picked up, he balances himself on his left hand, pressing down on his pet goose. As Cynno in the poem states, “By the Fates, how the little boy is squashing the goose! If it weren’t stone in front of our feet, you’d say the statue will speak” (p. 103). Herodas’ mime provides an important clue for how we are to reconstruct a viewing of the statue in its original context, as Zanker shows. The work was most likely set on the ground or on a low base (“in front of our feet”) so that it would reach up to the viewers and draw them into the composition. The same can be said for the Terme Boxer, whose upward gaze suggests the intended viewer’s position vis a vis the statue, and the various nude Aphrodite statues whose coquettish attempts to hide their private parts imply that we have caught them off-guard.

Zanker includes in his discussion a number of epigrams that describe works of art in such a way that they are clearly meant to encourage readers to feel as if they are in the presence of the celebrated item. What I find particularly compelling is his discussion of Callimachus’ mimetic hymns that similarly treat the reader as one of the participants. And in fact, Zanker goes further by stating that the literary “evocation of a religious moment in no way precludes a religious purpose or effect” (p. 116), thus bucking the prevalent notion that these poems are strictly literary, a position that I too have long held. As part of his argument, Zanker cites the various special effects that were employed at temples to astound worshipers as a parallel to the self-opening doors at the beginning of Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo. While reflecting on his point, I recalled the popular holograph of Jesus on sale at Vatican religious stores; as you walk past this representation of Jesus on the cross, his eyes open and close. The comparison suggests at least two possible audiences for such special effects in literature and at religious sites: the pious who, though knowing that the effects are contrived, nonetheless buy into the images as a way of engaging emotional responses to sincere beliefs, and those with a taste for the unusual. Similarly, the statue group celebrating the Attalid defeat of the Gauls, which, Zanker argues, would have created in its original audience the sense of being present at this critical moment, might be said to parallel religious dioramas such as that of Joseph Smith receiving his first vision, which I saw years ago at the Mormon Visitor’s Center in Salt Lake City.

In the next chapter, “An Eye for the New (Poetic Genres, Iconographical Traditions),” Zanker takes on the topic of “genre-crossing,” the practice whereby Hellenistic artists and poets portray low subjects in high media and ascribe divine status to human beings. Here too I find the comparisons instructive. For instance, the severe hair style of the well-known Spinario, featured on the book’s jacket, alludes to classical statues of the ephebe, and yet the subject, a young boy of no apparent social status pulling a thorn from his foot, is quotidian. Zanker finds a similar disconnect in the Venus de Milo: “(t)he fusion of her realistic body and idealized head, adorned with hair in the simple Classical style” (p. 136). The lowly herdsmen of Theocritus’ Idylls, whose activities, such as pulling a thorn from a foot, are at odds with the traditional subjects of hexametric verse, provide an apt literary analogue. Zanker ascribes this new interest in daily life not to the collapse of the polis and retreat into private life, as is commonly held, but to a “positive value placed on private, individual fulfillment in the home and within the family” (p. 127) and the means to afford the kinds of conspicuous consumption we find evidence of among the ancient texts and artifacts. The blurring of human and divine status can be found both in the mixing of hymns and encomia (the former previously restricted to gods and the latter acceptable for mortals), as seen in Callimachus’ and Theocritus’ poetry in honor of the Ptolemies, as well as in contemporary statuary and coins.

“Viewing Pleasure and Pain” provides the topic of the sixth and final chapter. The focus of the first part of the chapter is Aphrodite. The history of Aphrodite statuary, from the East Pediment of the Parthenon to the late Hellenistic era, reveals not only an interest in creating ever more provocative poses, but also, Zanker suggests, shows how Hellenistic artists managed to underscore the goddess’ frivolity together with her dangerous power. Both sides of the divinity find parallel in Apollonius’ Aphrodite (her apparent powerlessness before her son as contrasted with her importance for the success of the expedition as predicted by Phineus) and Theocritus’ first Idyll (she appears smiling but at the same time is responsible for Daphnis’ death), although I would point out that the combination of Aphrodite’s seeming frivolity and frightening power is very much present in the famous Homeric hymn to that goddess. With regard to the second theme of the chapter, pain, Zanker points to the Suicidal Gaul group and identifies the “evocation of pathos in a heroic context” (p. 154) as an innovation in victory monuments. His analysis of the Drunken Old Woman is particularly helpful when it comes to looking at Callimachus’ Hecale. While the woman herself has extremely wrinkled skin and a toothless smile, her earrings, rings, headcloth, coiffure, and tunic reveal that she was a successful hetaira in the past. This same contrast between a wealthy past and pathetic present can be found in the Hecale, whose titular character, similar to the Drunken Old Woman, was once wealthy but now lives a life of poverty. What characterizes these and other representations of human suffering in art and poetry, Zanker offers, is the degree of realism that is unprecedented in earlier works and owes much to contemporary scientific knowledge.

Modes of Viewing in Hellenistic Poetry and Art is fully successful in achieving its goal of asking the sister arts to comment on each other, and I find that my appreciation of each has been enhanced considerably. I was especially impressed by the fact that Zanker allows the literary and sculptural works to speak for themselves; that is, at no time does he appear to have an agenda other than observing possible intersections between the various pieces discussed and he is at all times forthcoming with what we know and do not know about the dates of the these works. Zanker’s book has allowed me to view Hellenistic poetry and art from a new and enlightening angle and encourages further reflection on the interconnections between the literary and plastic arts and what they tell us about the artists and their times.