September 2014

Arts & Letters

Against nature?

By Bill Henson

The discobolus from the Roman emperor Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece’ at Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria

The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece (until 9 November) contains some of the greatest pieces of classical sculpture from the British Museum. The weight of these works is balanced perfectly within the beautifully lit, elegant spaces of the Bendigo Art Gallery’s new wing.

The subtle lighting and placement of work lend a much-needed formality – a seriousness – that must be emphasised. Ours is an age in which too much energy is squandered on over-designed and garish displays, usually in a misguided attempt to make viewers feel comfortable.

The exhibition includes more than a hundred objects, spanning nearly 3000 years. The earliest, a Cycladic figurine, dates from 2600 to 2400 BC, while the most recent, a group of diminutive Roman bronze figures, dates from the first to the third century AD.

When images and objects greet us across great distances, as these do, the profound empathy they engender can come as a shock. Of course, it is really just a shock of recognition. We see ourselves, standing there before us. Great art reinforces this deep sense of continuity, of being inside culture and of our culture being inside nature.

The larger sculptural pieces such as the Dionysos with a personification of the vine – a Roman copy from around 150 AD – offer a tremendous sense of self-possession. Whether inscribed in Plato’s Socratic dialogues or cut into Pentelic or Parian marble by the Greek sculptors, this self-possession is a signature of what we should value highly in both the art of the past and that of our own time.

Cut into marble – imagine making something like the Discobolus, the discus thrower ready to release his throw. Its agelessness evokes an isolated jotting in one of Elias Canetti’s daybooks: “virtuosity – the last refuge of art!”

Looking at these bodies in this age of the internet and globalised social media, it strikes me that we seem to be in the grip of some primitive fear. It’s as if, in a return to some primordial superstition, we’ve become obsessed with the belief that someone in possession of our image might take control of us and, using it for nefarious purposes, compromise our autonomy and harm us.

This willingness to accept the totemic dimension of our image and its connection to another being, whether known or more likely unknown to us, has appeared in many cultures around the world at some point in history. It strikes me that for this psychological hijacking to take place, one has to forfeit a belief in that old inscription in the pronaos of the temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself.” In the absence of conviction – when everything is as good or as useless as everything else – and when anything goes, much as we see in a great deal of popular culture and, more disgracefully, in much contemporary visual art, the maxim is a potent reminder of what great art should do.

The bankruptcy of much contemporary art is due in some measure to the fact that we have forgotten ourselves and we have forgotten that meaning comes from feeling – not the other way around. It is towards this arrogance that the Delphic maxim was aimed.

Just how have we as a society come to view most visual representations of the human form from such a base political perspective? It is a tragedy that suspicion and derision rather than awe and fascination have become the more likely response of the public imagination to the naked human form – to what Nietzsche called “a great intelligence”. It is a sign of low self-esteem. We’re ashamed, having swapped a grand view of ourselves for a prurient one.

However, where there is art there is hope. When we look closely at this exhibition’s remarkable objects, simultaneously totemic and self-contained, we are enjoined to look into ourselves, to reflect on the truth of our own lives and consider what values we hold most dear. The great gift of art is always to heighten our sense of the priority of individual experience.

The timeless lessons these works contain are not hidden from us. They are right before our eyes, suspended in space just as we are – there for us to respond to with our whole bodies if we just give ourselves the chance.

A heightened sense of mortality – not morbidity, but rather that feeling of being more alive, that rush of emotion that overtakes reason in the experience of a great concert or in the presence of some incredible piece of sculpture – this is what we long for. We want to be distracted, to be taken away to another place that is always, in the end, the place we came from. “Philosophy is really homesickness”, as Novalis, the German Romantic, put it. This longing to return to that lost domain (longing has always been stronger than love) – to our past, our childhood – is a fundamental part of what this exhibition offers, for it is a return to the cradle of Western thought.

These marble and bronze fragments continue to live inside us: indeed, they out-stare history. I can think of no better example in words for the enduring message of the works in this exhibition – beautifully and powerfully expressed – than ‘The God Abandons Antony’ by the 20th-century Alexandrian classicist poet CP Cavafy:

When suddenly there is heard at midnight
A company passing invisible
With wonderful music, with voices, –
Your fortune giving way now, your works
Which have failed, the plans of a lifetime
All turned illusions, do not mourn uselessly.
As one prepared long since, courageously,
Say farewell to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all do not be tricked, never say it was
All a dream, and that your hearing was deceived;
Do not stoop to such vain hopes as these.
As one prepared long since, courageously,
As becomes one worthy as you were of such a city,
Firmly draw near the window,
And listen with emotion, but not
With the complainings and entreaties of cowards,
Listen, your last enjoyment, to the sounds,
The wonderful instruments of the mystic company,
And say farewell, farewell to Alexandria you are losing.

Bill Henson

Bill Henson is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists. He lives in Melbourne.

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