BMCR 2005.03.09

Reception of Classical Art. An Introduction. Studies in Classical Archaeology, III. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1295

, Reception of Classical Art. An Introduction. Studies in Classical Archaeology, III. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1295. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2004. 89; figs. 159. £28.00 (pb).

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

This compilation of essays, deriving from a series of lectures delivered in Oxford on the reception of classical art, is meant to provide an introduction to the subject. The stimulus for the publication was the desire to produce a book to accompany the astonishingly recent establishment of an undergraduate degree in the History of Art at Oxford — in October 2004. As an introduction to the reception of classical art, the editor and authors have made a rather idiosyncratic choice of topics to discuss. Donna Kurtz calls this choice “serendipity,” and explains that “the book is intentionally Oxford-centric.” One of the underlying themes of the book is classical art as experienced over time at Oxford University. Another is the reception of classical art in different media (i.e. medals, gems, maiolica), but little attention has been paid to other ceramic types, or to architecture, except as reflected in a specific building, the Sackler Library, in Oxford. A chapter on nudity in art, while interesting in itself, does not follow the form of the other chapters. The title, then, is a bit misleading, and parts of the book, said to be for “internal use,” would not necessarily serve well as an introduction to the subject unless one is specifically interested in a somewhat parochial point of view. On the other hand, some of the chapters are broad, and will serve a much wider audience.

The present collection of essays is a less ambitious book than an earlier massive study by Donna Kurtz: The Reception of Classical Art in Britain: An Oxford Story of Plaster Casts from the Antique (Oxford 2000). While that book claimed to be about plaster casts, it in fact dealt with some of the same issues as the new book; however, the variety of authors and approaches here is refreshing.

Donna Kurtz’s opening chapter deals with the study of art at Oxford before 1955, and is full of minute details about nearly every step and personality involved in the field since the Renaissance. One learns in this chapter about C.R. Cockerell’s University Galleries that later became the Ashmolean Museum, about the conflicting interests of John Ruskin and Charles Newton, and about the relationship of German scholarship to the spread of the study of classical archaeology in Britain. Especially interesting is the section on how Aby Warburg’s library was transferred from Nazi Germany to the Courtauld in London, rather than to Oxford. The chapter concludes with lists of distinguished professors, including the Slade Professors of Fine Arts (starting with Ruskin, and listing such luminaries as Arthur M. Hind, Kenneth Clark, Ernst Gombrich, John Pope-Hennessy, John Summerson, Meyer Schapiro, and Nikolaus Pevsner, just to name a few), the Lincoln Professors of Classical Archaeology; Professors of European Archaeology, of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire; and of the History of Art.

Kurtz’s second chapter is a more general introduction to the reception of classical art. She first shows how the whole idea of “reception” has developed since the 1960s and sets out the importance of the time and place of the observer (or, in the case of literature, the reader). She shows the connections between antique sculpture and gems and medieval copies such as the Bamburg Rider that was modeled on the bronze Marcus Aurelius, and in this way she leads into the later chapters of the book. On the other hand, she probably tries to cover too much, for in the 7 pages of her chapter, she leaps from topic to topic, thus making the flow difficult to follow. On one page (35) she mentions or discusses Pheidias, Praxiteles, Alberti’s treatises, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lucian, Homer, Apelles’ Calumny, Botticelli, Raphael, and Rubens, as well as the Laocoon, Dying Seneca, and the Pantheon. One feels a little breathless trying to keep up.

John Boardman surveys nudity in art. “Reception” here begins with Roman views of Greek art, and continues until the present day. His choice of figures is both relevant and amusing (as, for instance, his final example, which is a plaster statue being made from the body of Kate Moss). The exploration of the development of the Greek nude and its spin-offs provides a lively account, quite different from earlier studies of this subject such as the one by Kenneth Clark.

Henry Kim’s piece is a survey of the history and highlights of the commemorative medal. Although he uses examples mostly from the Ashmolean, the picture is far broader than the Oxford scene because these medals are not unique. His introduction explains the relationship of medals to coins and shows how different they are in function. Giving an overview of the greatest medalists, he works his way from engravers in the Renaissance to those working in the 18th and 19th centuries and discusses Napoleon as a patron of this particular form of art.

Kate Nichols discusses tin glazed pottery of the 16th century in Italy, and specifically those pieces with stories painted on them. Although the forms of the pottery and of the painting are often “unclassical,” the subject matter is typically inspired by classical models and by history or mythology of the Greeks and Romans. Ovid was one of the chief sources, but other authors too were imitated in paintings on maiolica. Sometimes the literary text provided the artist with his story, but often it was woodcuts or other prints that served as the model. Nichols shows how looking at decorative arts sheds light on the taste for antiquity of later periods.

Gertrud Seidman, in her chapter on Neoclassical gems, describes the scene in Rome when those on the Grand Tour eagerly bought not only originals but also copies of ancient gems. Her explanation of fakes and forgeries is fascinating, as is her description of the Polish Prince Poniatowski, who deliberately tried to pass off his modern gems as ancient ones. This reader would have liked to see her take the gems one step further, showing how ceramic copies of the gems were made by such major figures as James Tassie and Josiah Wedgwood. However, as an introduction to the study of neoclassical gems, this is an excellent piece.

Finally, the chapter on the Sackler Library, written by Robert Adam, is again Oxford-centric. While he makes interesting comparisons between this new building and the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, he also discusses buildings in Oxford which many readers will not know; and, as they are not illustrated, he quickly loses those who are not familiar with that city. On the other hand, his theoretical approach to eclectic architecture is in keeping with the theme of this collection of essays. He tries to show how Modernism and tradition are quite different. The Sackler Library (well illustrated here) “draws from the history of classicism. It is (in a descriptive rather than pejorative sense) a pastiche.” As the architect of the building, he shows how the borrowings from not only classical antiquity but also many sources in the intervening millennia make the library a meaningful compilation, worthy of tradition. His analogies to language as an underlying unifier help the reader to see how he is discussing the commonalities in architecture.

As for the presentation: unfortunately, Kurtz’s two chapters are riddled with errors, ranging from typographical slips (Herkales, Mailolica, Tirbuna, messanger, Enrst [Gombrich], Plotemy, just to name a few) to errors of content that can be confusing. One, for instance, is the caption to her figure 24, where she explains that the Apollo Belvedere’s right hand and left arm were restored, but claims that the plaster cast in the Ashmolean shows the figure without these restorations. A quick glance at the photo shows that the restored right hand is indeed attached to the plaster cast.

Many of the objects illustrated here are “old chestnuts,” but some of the images are unusual. Two pairs of color photos show interesting comparisons between portraits of the Earl and Countess of Arundel and the Ashmolean sculpture and Renaissance galleries, respectively. Overall, the photographs are of wildly varying quality: some are good, but others are mediocre, or even border on the indecipherable. The bibliographies that accompany these essays are heavily slanted toward British publications, and some essential books and articles published in North America have been ignored.

Nonetheless, despite sloppy proofreading in a couple of essays, and an admittedly haphazard approach to the subject, this collection presents information and analyses that will be of use not only to those who are interested in the scene at Oxford but also to anyone wishing to read an overview of the reception of classical art in a number of specific media.

The chapters are as follows: 1. The study of art at Oxford before 1955 (Donna Kurtz); 2. An introduction to the reception of classical art (Kurtz); 3. Nudity in art (John Boardman); 4. Commemorating the present through the past: medals and the reception of antiquity (Henry Kim); 5. Renaissance istoriato maiolica (Kate Nichols); 6. The reception of classical art — neoclassical gems (Gertrud Seidmann); and 7. The Sackler Library: ancient and modern (Robert Adam).