The return of the gods
My gig on Friday night was at Tate Britain, The first Friday of every month the gallery hosts a “Late at Tate” night. It’s a marvellous mixture of a regular evening out and a bit of gallery gawping – a combination of music, drinking, eating, acts, art and lectures. Apart from the food and drink, it’s all free. A sort of May Ball for grown-ups, but a lot cheaper.
I came in on the lecturing side. The Tate has just opened a new show of neo-classical sculpture, called “The Return of the Gods” – full of classically inspired themes in eighteenth and nineteenth-century sculpture, from Thetis dipping the baby Achilles in the Styx to Pandora wistfully wondering whether to open the box. My job was to talk to punters about just four pieces for ten minutes spread throughout the evening.
Highlight of the show, but not for me (I actually think it’s a bit irritating), is Canova’s Three Graces. I decided to talk about some of the less well known pieces. The aim was to explain why what may look like slightly insipid white marble, recreating some serenely voluptuous male and female flesh, is actually a lot cleverer and a lot more intellectually engaged with the Greco-Roman sources on which it is based than most people ever imagine.
I’m hugely keen on the sculptor John Gibson, who has several pieces in the show. Not, sadly, his Tinted Venus (on the right), a brilliant confection of the Aphrodite of Cnidos and the biblical Eve (the bright gold apple does double duty, as both the prize awarded by Paris to Aphrodite, and Eve’s fruit).
But an unexpected star on Friday was Johan Tobias Sergel’s, Diomedes.
It’s a sculpture of the Greek hero Diomedes, with the old Trojan statue called the Palladium. That is to say, it’s a Trojan War theme: Odysseus and Diomedes, tipped off that Troy is being protected by the old statue of Pallas creep into the city to steal it – so preparing the way for the Greek victory.
Under Diomedes’ arm is the Palladium itself. It’s always good fun when sculptors make sculptures of sculptures, but here there’s a double joke. Because one version of the ancient myth was that Diomedes and Odysseus hadn’t got the real Palladium at all – that went to Aeneas, who took it off to Rome where it ended up in the Temple of Vesta. They got a replica. So what is under Diomedes’ arm is actually a statue of a replica of a statue.
There’s another clever reference too. Diomedes is turning his head, slightly suspiciously. This points to another bit of the story: that on the way back to the Greek camp, mean Odysseus thought he would kill Diomedes and claim all the credit of getting the Palladium himself. But Diomedes just caught sight of his sword blade in time. Just what is happening here.
Another great piece is Gibson’s Narcissus (on the right). Narcissus’ self-obsessed gaze is always an artists’ favourite – prompting all kinds of questions about our own gaze at works of art. Are we just looking at ourselves when we go to a gallery. Here Gibson tries to answer that question: his Narcissus, he said, was not the self obsessed creation of Ovid, but the Narcissus of Pausanias – who had actually fallen in love with his twin sister and that’s what he thought he saw in the pool.
Anyway, after my performances, I went to the next event. It was a very punchy “body language” analysis by Judi James of those visitors who had been captured on camera in front of the statues earlier in the evening. (“I think these two are trying to outdo the sculptures..”, “They’re just pretending to be intimate..”) It was all the Desmond Morris alpha-male clichés, but hugely successful and hugely funny. Especially when the victims were in the audience to speak for themselves.