March 30, 2012

The Parthenon Marbles as works of sculpture

Posted at 7:45 am in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles have become famous for being famous – often, this means that people forget their significance as works of sculpture in their own right.

The Epoch Times

The Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum
By Michael Paraskos Created: January 17, 2012 Last Updated: January 18, 2012

The Parthenon Marbles are one of the great treasures of the British Museum. Taken from the Parthenon in Athens by Thomas Bruce in the first decade of the 19th century, these wonderful sculptures have been a bone of contention between Britain and Greece ever since.

For my part I am not worked up about the Marbles being sent home. But I am also not indifferent to them, and go to see them a couple of times each year. That probably makes me a more frequent visitor to the Marbles than almost all the Britons who insist they stay in London, or Greeks who demand they go home. In fact my stock reply to people who ask what I think should happen to the Marbles is they should be sent to Shanghai or Tokyo as almost all the visitors I encounter in the gallery are not British or Greek, but East Asian.

The Marbles themselves never disappoint. Aside from the vitality of the carved reliefs that form the frieze, the pedimental sculptures are astonishing despite their battered state. They are the starting point of western culture, and should be celebrated for that. Of course there is a lot of meandering history that separates the civilization of the ancient Greeks from our own culture. But there is also a common thread that ties us together. So to revisit what is probably the greatest surviving work of art from the ancient world is to return to the source from which we sprang.

Despite this common thread the Marbles still manage to throw up some real surprises. For example, round the back of the pedimental sculptures the figures are fully carved even where the artists thought no human eye would ever see. From the flowing folds of cloth of the figure of Iris, to the perfectly formed buttocks of Dionysos, and even the back of a wooden chair on which one of the goddesses is seated, all is perfectly carved, yet none was made for human sight.

In a mediaeval cathedral we would probably be told the sculptures were made that way because the artist believed the omniscient God would see these hidden parts. That argument never really rings true, and is even less convincing with the ancient Greeks who did not think their gods were omniscient. Instead a sculpted figure was the god. That meant each sculpture was assumed to have an independent existence as a god, just as you and I each have independent existences as people.

So in the same way my arm or leg does not exist just so you can see it, or become irrelevant if you cannot see it, so the backs of the pedimental gods on the Parthenon do not exist just so people can see them. They exist because they have to exist, and the point of view of the viewer of these art works is deemed irrelevant.

That is probably a difficult concept to understand today. We are often told our opinion on art matters. Museums will even ask visitors what they think of displays without questioning whether that visitor has an opinion worth hearing. So how can we understand a culture in which all viewers were so unimportant a sculptor would not even bother to think whether part of a sculpture would be viewed? But in failing to understand that perhaps we also fail to understand something fundamental about the nature of art itself. That it exists because it has to exist, and not for our amusement or even our benefit.

Michael Paraskos is a writer living in London.

The Parthenon Marbles as works of sculpture, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)

Possibly related articles

Tags: , , ,

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away