Venus regains her sex appeal

Classical Art
November 22, 2002

Ruth Westgate enjoys a survey of classical art with Romans as postmodernists.

This volume in the Oxford History of Art series covers the Greco-Roman world in the Hellenistic era, from the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC to that of the Roman emperor Hadrian in AD138. Conventional surveys generally attempt to separate the products of these five centuries into "Greek art" and "Roman art". However, the basic premise of this book is that such a distinction is practically meaningless because the evidence from the period is so dominated by copies and pastiches of Greek art mass-produced for Roman patrons and by the accounts of Roman writers that we inevitably see it through the filter of Roman taste. This point gives the book a relevance far beyond the period that it nominally covers because it was this Roman admiration for Greek art and culture that guaranteed the place of classical Greece at the foundation of European culture and identity. The Romans adopted and adapted Greek artworks and styles to become the visual medium of their imperial rule. The book therefore deals with a key period - perhaps the key period - in the development of western art.

More specifically, art from this period has played a central role in the development of art in our own era. It was primarily Roman copies and imitations of Greek works, found in Italy, that inspired the classical revivals of the Renaissance and 18th century. Moreover, the desire to understand and categorise these finds gave birth to the modern discipline of art history in the 18th century, when J. J. Winckelmann wrote his Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums and devised the theory of artistic development from "archaic" beginnings to "classical" perfection, followed by "decadence" and decline, which still serves as the basic framework for the study of art.

Winckelmann treated the art of the Hellenistic period as derivative and decadent, an opinion followed by many of his more recent successors. It is often presented as a mere epilogue to the history of Greek art. But Mary Beard and John Henderson suggest translating Winckelmann's "imitation" as "postmodernism", and argue that we are particularly well placed to understand Hellenistic art on its own terms. It is the product of a surprisingly familiar world, drastically enlarged by the conquests of Alexander - which brought disparate cultures into close contact for the first time; riven by power-struggles in which both personal and corporate image were vital weapons; transformed by increased social mobility and individualism; fascinated by its heritage and avid for retro fashions.

The size and diversity of this world and its taste for copying and stylistic revival defy attempts to trace the history of its art chronologically. Beard and Henderson therefore take imitation itself as the thread to hold their account together, starting in Pompeii, where the inhabitants modelled their houses on Greek monumental architecture, decorated their rooms with imitations of Greek Old Masters, and populated their gardens with Greek-style statues. There is no better place to observe the fashion for Greek art that swept Italy in this period, the endless variations on Greek themes in painting and sculpture, and the subtle shifts of meaning produced by each modification of a composition or each new juxtaposition of works. From here, the discussion moves dizzyingly back and forth in place and time, from Tiberius's supposed pleasure grotto at Sperlonga, Nero's notorious Golden House and Hadrian's fantasy villa at Tivoli, via the treasure houses of Renaissance and later collectors, to the museums of London, Paris and Malibu.

Few studies of this period get to grips so explicitly with the complex layers of meaning created by the special place of Hellenistic art in Roman visual culture and beyond. Much modern scholarship is concerned primarily with reconstructing the appearance of the lost "originals" that lie behind the copies, an approach that all too often relies on piling speculation upon uncertainty. Instead of expending effort on the elusive and, in many cases, probably non-existent "originals", Beard and Henderson try to peel back the layers of meaning, considering what each work might have meant to the Roman patrons who had it copied, the Renaissance princes who rediscovered it and the 18th-century collectors who desired it. Those dying and defeated Gauls and giants made a loud political statement about the legitimacy and military prowess of the kings of Pergamon, but they also spoke eloquently to a Roman audience and to 19th-century Germans intent on carrying them off to Berlin.

Modern scholarship, preoccupied with the need to date, attribute, categorise and explain, imposes its own meanings, often ignoring or dismissing any evidence that fails to fit the picture. The spectacular sculpture groups from Sperlonga, for instance, are usually treated as a coherent ensemble, created as a single programme with a unified theme. But Beard and Henderson reveal the variety - in both subject and date - of the other sculptures found in the grotto, which rarely feature in standard texts. The Hellenistic world is conventionally credited with the invention of portraiture; but Beard and Henderson expose many of our identifications as mere guesswork, the product of a human urge to put names to faces and breathe life into the ranks of disembodied busts. They show, too, how often post-antique restoration has played a part in making (and unmaking) the works enthusiastically admired by connoisseurs and minutely studied by academics. So many cherished theories are demolished that the reader is in danger of feeling that he or she knows less by the end of the book than at the start - but this is no bad thing. Supposition all too easily becomes fact by virtue of frequent repetition, and it does us good to be reminded how our understanding often rests on little evidence.

The book is part of a series of introductory studies intended to bring the latest developments in art history to students and general readers. But it offers something new to the specialist reader too: fresh perspectives on well-known works, thought-provoking connections and wry observations. One of the authors' most successful tactics is to make their points visually, with telling juxtapositions of images, both ancient and modern, familiar and unfamiliar - the quantity of illustrations is impressive for such a slim and inexpensive book. In accordance with the emphasis on the importance of considering works of art in their context, an appendix provides plans and maps, a timeline stretching from 800BC to the present, and a bibliography covering the classical tradition as well as the Hellenistic period itself.

Classical art is an integral part of our visual environment, but its very familiarity can make it difficult to see beyond the cliches. Beard and Henderson have risen to the challenge of making us look again at the familiar, of putting the sex appeal back into cold stone Venuses, and helping us to pick up the resonances and read the language of power and imperialism that the Greeks and Romans bequeathed to the 21st century. Classical Art is illuminating, playful, provocative, and often (literally) iconoclastic.

Ruth Westgate is lecturer in ancient history and archaeology, Cardiff University.

Classical Art: From Greece to Rome

Author - Mary Beard and John Henderson
ISBN - 0 19 284237 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £10.99
Pages - 298

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