Monday, April 13, 2009

From Bones to Flesh: Parthenon and the Hudson School

John Ruskin had been raised on the bread and butter of classical antiquity and Winckelmann's ideal nudes. Like many Victorians, his introduction to the human body was through classical statues. Although male statues often contain suggestions of pubic hair, female statues do not. When Ruskin first laid eyes on his wife (according to his biographer) he was shocked to see pubic hair on the real female form. He was so repulsed by this physicality that he never consummated his marriage, leading to an annulment. For most of the 19th century, classical art and architecture presented an ideal of structural purity. From about 1820 to 1850, the Greek Revival style celebrated this great purity of classical forms. Nicholas Biddle was only the second documented American to divert the Italian Grand Tour towards Greece. His first impressions survive in his 1806 journals edited by R. A. McNeal (University Park, 1993). The revelatory character of pure tectonic form lead to the Second Bank of the United States (1816). As bank president, Biddle commissioned William Strickland to design this Philadelphian Parthenon, based strictly on Stuart & Revett's drawings in The Antiquities of Athens (London, 1762). The classical purity of the commission rejects the Roman impurity of the First Bank building (1791) located around the corner. In my mind, the Second Bank best illustrates America's early love affair with a pure, white, pristine national prototype. Like Ruskin's ideal beauty, the 1816 building lacks pubic hair.

This weekend, I realized that this is only the first half of the American relationship with the Parthenon. During the second half of the 19th century, the Parthenon becomes fleshy.

The New Britain Museum of American Art is currently hosting seven "Hudson River Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art" (through Sept. 2010). And here, I got a chance to marvel Frederic Edwin Church's grand painting, The Parthenon. Church had traveled to Greece in 1869. He called the Parthenon "... certainly the culmination of genius of man in architecture," and in 1871 started to paint it. The Parthenon was widely celebrated and included in many shows, including the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle. Church was a native of Hartford, making it especially enjoyable to see his work in Connecticut. Included in the show is also his West Rock, New Haven, of 1849.

What shocked me about Church's Parthenon is a monumental change in America's relationship to the classical original. Upon close inspection, Church's Parthenon is not clean and idealized but red hot and bothered. The tonality of the painting animates the tectonic bones with a pink luscious flesh. Church's Parthenon wears a luminous skin. The inclusion of human figures and human sculpture, plus the staging of slits and openings turns all attention to the surface of flesh. The painting also reminds me of two Acropolis paintings of contemporary date by Vikentios Lanza (1860) and Raffaello Ceccoli (c. 1845-1850), both in the National Gallery of Greece (cf., National Gallery, Alexandros Soutzos Museum: Four Centuries of Greek Painting, Athens, 2000, pp. 74-77)

So, I sat down with the painting and wrote down some thoughts on my notebook. Without trying to polish them up, or do any further readings on the luminosity of the Hudson River School, I share my first impressions below. One can zoom through the painting on the Metropolitan Museum's web site here. I have included some of my own details.

Two erect Doric columns (one blending into the frame) introduce the viewer into the dialectics of the Doric forms. The columns belong to the Propylaia through which the visitor must pass. Between the two columns, the statue of a kore stands in the distance; we notice her drapery. The only figure populating the sacred stone is a Greek man wearing the traditional foustanela skirt. The foustanela replicates the folds of the kore's clothes and the folds of the columns' fluting. Strange perspective: our horizon seems to be aligned with the temple's stylobate, also in line with the kore, but perched about 3/4 up the height of the Propylaia. One of the two Propylaia capitals catches the light (as does the kore), a key to the Parthenon's brightly illuminated facade in the distance--the temple rises above a diagonal line of shade. The mustached male figure, however, is seen from above. He shrinks both by our elevated perspective and in contrast to the colossal architectural blocks on which he leans. Although diminished in size and by his location in the shade, he captures our attention through his bright red vest, hat (fez), girdle and shoes. The tiny human pops into space. His orientally clothed red figure provides a signature for the red wash that bleeds vertically over the Parthenon columns. Church's tonality turns the monument from architectural bones to architectural flesh. It's a vibrant animated body, the color of blood-infused red cheeks. At the lower left, a third erect fluted column completes the foreground composition. Paradoxically, this fragment stands on a brick wall (hence post-classical), suggesting some stratigraphic inversion. Like the columns on the right, this, too, is located in the dark. Right behind it, half hidden, an architectural relief pops out, depicting a billowing fabric pinned by a central pin. The other fleshy elements are, of course, the highlighted pink metopes and the single surviving pedimental sculpture. The joined bodies of
Kekrops and his daughter balance a patch of infill at center right (more evidence of post-classical restorations). Finally, a sleeping dark voluminous mass, the mountain behind, completes our fleshy journey. The painter's identity is inscribed on a fallen block at the bottom left, "F.E. CHURCH 1871." Figuratively, the painter could also be impersonated by the male figure in red. James Stuart, after all, had inserted himself in The Antiquities of Athens, dressed up as an oriental man. We cannot fail to see two additional (non-fleshy) colors that balance the overwhelming red. The bright blue sky hovers above and through the mass of the temple. Then, there are bright green patches of grass, which situate the painting to verdant spring (and not the scorching heat of summer)


Jan Blencowe said...

Thanks so much for sharing your impressions of Church's wonderful painting. I too had the pleasure of visiting it at the New Britain Museum a few weeks ago, it is a joy to behold. The warmth of the glowing color is quite captivating and the details delightful.

Nauplion said...

A splendid viewing, thanks.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States