Praxiteles in Paris
Just three days before leaving for the Getty I took myself to Paris to see a new exhibition at the Louvre on the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. Not just myself, actually –this was a day trip we organised for our third-year Classics students at Newnham. You can just about squeeze seven Parisian hours in, if you leave London at 9.00 and take the last Eurostar back in the evening.
The idea is that it’s fun and bonding, a reward for hard work and ‘good behaviour’, plus a kick start to their revision for the final exams. Praxiteles is spot-on relevant to most of them. Some are taking our paper on the Classical Body in art. He’s a key figure in that, partly because it’s generally thought that he was the Greek sculptor who in the fourth century BC produced the first female nudes (his ‘Aphrodite of Cnidos’ usually takes the prize for being the very first).
Others are doing a paper on Sexual Ethics, and he comes in there too – largely because of stories the ancients told about this particular Aphrodite. One of the most extraordinary of all passages of Greek literature is found in a work (“Erotes” or “Loves”) by Lucian, the second century AD essayist. It is discussion between a couple of men, around this very statue, on the topic of whether the love of girls or of boys is preferable. Or to put it another way, do you admire the front or the back of the Aphrodite? In the course of the discussion one of them tells the story of a poor young boy of Cnidos who fell in love with the statue of the goddess, got himself locked into her temple and made love to her, leaving a tell-tale stain on the marble on the front of her thigh (and front is crucial to the argument, of course).
Praxiteles is in principle, then, a great subject for an exhibition. The only trouble is that with the exception of a statue of Hermes at Olympia (and there’s a question mark over even that) no certain original work of his survives.
So how do you make an exhibition?
The Louvre curators have actually done very well. They haven’t got the Olympia Hermes, but they have got a few pieces that have been claimed to be Praxiteles and probably aren’t (like a wonderful head from Petworth House, which I’d still like to think had a sporting chance of being the real thing).
What they really focus on though are the various versions of Praxiteles’ famous pieces that were produced throughout antiquity – some no doubt relatively close copies, some variations on a theme. So they have gathered together a better clutch of Roman ‘Aphrodites of Cnidos’ than I’ve ever seen before. This did cause one of my colleagues who has also seen the show to remark that it felt a bit like a garden centre (the kind that has loads of plastic statuary lined up). But for the students it was a great opportunity to see the differences in at first sight very similar pieces. It really does matter, for example, exactly where Aphrodite is putting her hand. Is she pointing to or covering up her genitals?
They also explore the whole idea of the ‘Praxitelean style’ (lithe, languorous, twisting turning) as it has been reworked from antiquity to the present day. This gives them the excuse for displaying what is in some ways the star of the show – this wonderful bronze dancing satyr found in 1997 in “international waters” between Sicily and Africa. Made some time between the fourth century BC and . . . well the second century AD (dating bronze sculptures is very hard indeed), it’s absolutely stunning and brilliantly displayed. I hope it will be making an appearance in some of the students exam answers.
Praxitèle runs till the summer and is really worth a visit. You can book tickets on-line which lets you go into the museum by the little entrance in the Passage Richelieu, off the rue de Rivoli – and so avoid the queues of Da Vinci Code fans and others entering via the main pyramid entrance.