Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review: Modernity of Ancient Sculpture

This book review that I wrote last year, transcribed below, was scheduled to be published in the final 2013 issue of Art Libraries Journal (vol. 38, no. 4), but for some reason I still haven't seen a copy of the journal issue (print copy lost in the mail? electronic not released yet?). In any case, word has it that it was actually published in that issue, so I thought I would share what I submitted here as well.


The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso by Elizabeth Prettejohn (London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012).

Reviewed by Roberto C. Ferrari, Columbia University

The long-standing ‘march-to-modernism’ approach seen in art history textbooks has begun to break down due to new approaches and interpretations that appreciate the art of the past for its own value and contribution to its own time period. Postmodernist discourse began to disrupt this ideology decades ago, but there has been a persistent block among modernists that in order to be ‘modern’ one had to overthrow the dominant art form of the past: classicism. That is, to be avant-garde one had to be anti-academic/anti-classical. In art museums, only very recently have exhibitions begun to challenge this notion. Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy,and Germany, 1918-1936 at the Guggenheim (2010-11), and Modern Antiquity: Picasso, de Chirico,L├ęger, and Picabia in the Presence of the Antique at the Getty (2011-12), are just two examples of such shows that offered refreshing views of twentieth-century art as embracing classicism as part of modernism. Elizabeth Prettejohn’s latest book The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso thus is timely in its publication. She cites these catalogs in her text, but she expands upon them in other ways, ultimately proposing that modernism and classicism are inextricably linked.

Focusing on the period 1750-1950, Prettejohn argues that the histories of antiquity and modernism not only were written parallel to one another during this period of time, but they also share methodologies and artistry. The basis for her study is ancient Greek sculpture, specifically its changing perception and appreciation over time: Roman copies (misidentified by Johann Joachim Winckelmann as Greek works); the Elgin Marbles; the Venus de’ Milo; Praxiteles’ Dionysus with the Infant Bacchus; and Archaic-style works pre-dating all of these. She discusses the discovery of these works and their reception by critics and artists. Readers expecting a iconographic analysis of the Apollo Belvedere and Aphrodite of Knidos repurposed in modern art, however, may be disappointed in this book. Unlike the aforementioned exhibition catalogs, Prettejohn’s primary interest is reception theory, not iconology. She does bring in examples of ways artists visually repurposed ancient sculptural imagery in their art, but her underlying interest is exploring why artists were aware of these classical works at a specific time and how their consideration of these works defined modern taste in art. Prettejohn argues that reception theory is critical to understanding the intersection between ancient and modern art, and in fact encourages the reader to see ancient sculptures themselves as modern because they first appeared (i.e. were excavated) during the formation of modernity.

As a specialist in nineteenth-century art, particularly of Britain (having published books and essays on Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Movement artists and critics), Prettejohn in this text seems most comfortable when writing about figures such as Frederic Leighton and Walter Pater, discussing how they saw and interpreted antiquity. For example, her comparative discussion of Rodin’s Age of Bronze, 1877-80, Adolf von Hildebrand’s Standing Youth, 1881-84, and Leighton’s Sluggard, 1886, is fascinating. She argues that they are modern reinterpretations of then-discovered works by Praxiteles, Polykleitos, and Lysippos. She shows that the physical characteristics of each modern work, from contrapposto to muscular attenuation, mirror the different styles from ancient art that classicists have described as evolutionary in their naturalistic development over two centuries. Then, in an interesting twist, she notes how these modern works were all made in a short period of time, leaving the reader to speculate whether the ancient works themselves should be seen as evolutionary. After all, little evidence survives to correctly attribute works to these ancient sculptors or to the dates assumed for their creation.

Arranged into an introduction and three lengthy essays, the book resembles in format the author’s earlier Beauty and Art, which surveyed art and aesthetics of the same period in time. In the introduction of Modernity, Prettejohn proposes her argument about the linking of antiquity and modernism to one another and their simultaneous interactive developments. Rightfully so, she begins her discussion with Winckelmann, demonstrating how his reception of ancient sculpture through texts and surviving examples inspired ekphrasis-like writing, teaching others how to appreciate ancient and modern art, and establishing the idea of an art historical canon. Her first chapter discusses the Elgin Marbles as the nineteenth-century’s first awareness of actual Greek marble statues, and discusses their critical reception by scholars such as G.W.F. Hegel. The chapter continues with the discovery of the Venus de’ Milo (image: left) about this time, which gives Prettejohn the opportunity to explore ways this statue has been analyzed and received by classicists, artists, and scholars over time. Chapter two focuses on the Romantic idea of the individual artist as it related to antiquity. With the discovery of more ancient statues during the 1800s, the historical placement of specific ancient sculptors and their works were secured. But here Prettejohn exposes the weaknesses in these attributions, often with biased nationalistic tendencies, and instead emphasizes the importance of the afterlife of these works rather than their inherent ancient histories. ‘Modernism’, the subject of chapter three, will appeal to scholars of twentieth-century art for its emphasis on ancient sculptures from the Archaic period and the parallel interest in primitivism seen in the work of Picasso, Modigliani, and others. Prettejohn focuses on the importance of carving over modeling as a modern ideology, but traces its connections with the rising interest in the stiff, geometric figures from ancient Greece that were carved directly from blocks of marble by unidentified artists’ hands. Prettejohn ends the chapter and book with an examination of works by Picasso that do not specifically draw on any one particular ancient statue but, in a democratized, modernist appreciation of antiquity, shows how Picasso ignored the classical canon but used multiple aspects of antiquity for inspiration.

Prettejohn’s book is part of the ‘New Directions in Classics’ series based at the Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition at the University of Bristol, where the author previously worked. The intent of this series is to move beyond traditional views of Greco-Roman culture and offer new methodological approaches and interpretations about antiquity. One might assume, then, that the intended reader for this text would be classical scholars. Indeed, much of Prettejohn’s text relates to archaeological discoveries and the scholarship that helped establish a framework for the study of classical sculpture itself. But the student and scholar of modern art will find the text useful as well, for Prettejohn frames ideas about nineteenth- and twentieth-century modern art as it was influenced by these discoveries from antiquity.

This text is appropriate for academic and museum libraries with researchers interested in expanding beyond traditional approaches to ancient and modern art, and is perhaps most useful for postgraduates, professors, and museum curators. It is not overpriced for an art book (£57.50 hardcover, £18.99 paperback), although all 51 illustrations are reproduced in black-and-white. This is not uncommon for sculpture books. Because Prettejohn’s focus is on methodology and not the aesthetic appreciation of these objects, black-and-white images do make sense, especially that they help keep the price of the book lower. Ultimately, the future success of this book rests in how it is received by scholars, mirroring Prettejohn’s own emphasis on reception theory for ancient sculptures. In reading it I found myself inspired by ways in which her ideas could be incorporated into art history seminars and used as the basis for small art exhibitions. Her numerous ideas about rethinking and merging antiquity and modernism certainly invite responses, and frequently the text reads like a dialogue with half the conversation waiting to be spoken. It will be fascinating to see how in fact her text may influence ideas about how aspects of antiquity and modernism are retaught or rethought. Indeed, if scholars are open to rethinking the development of the history of art itself, then this book will have accomplished its mission.

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