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How to Teach Ancient Art in the Age of #MeToo

Contending with misogynist imagery in ancient art raises a multitude of questions that demand addressing today.

“Hades Abducting Persephone” (courtesy of Wiki Commons)

In a darkened college classroom, students are introduced to a projected image of a famous work of Greek art brimming with intense drama. The students scrutinize the ancient wall painting discovered in what may be the Tomb of Philip II of Macedon, conqueror of Greece and father of Alexander the Great. Although the details are faded, fragmented even, the terrified expressions on the faces of the young goddess, Persephone, and her female companion, withstand the painting’s age. Sadly, such expressions and the violence causing them are all too familiar to the squinting eyes of the students.

As Persephone’s scared, cowering companion looks on, Hades, a powerful senior Olympian god whose domain is the underworld, violently grabs Persephone by her breast and whisks her away in his chariot.

The drama of the scene is highlighted in textbooks, and presumably often classrooms, in formal terms with discussions of how the artist used rapid brushstrokes, brilliant washes of color, subtle shading, and skillfully rendered foreshortening. Students learn the subject is appropriate for a tomb since it deals with death but also highlights the promise of rebirth, yet in many textbook descriptions its content and context are virtually ignored.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, it is crucial to reassess the way we teach and write about art historically important works that portray violence against women – violence spanning millennia when viewed through the lens of art history – in order to reinvigorate the role played by art history in contemporary social movements. Although images of violence against women are not exclusive to ancient Greek art, the large number of artworks from ancient Greece depicting this violence, such as abduction (a metaphor for rape in ancient Greece), coupled with the perception of Greece as a paradigm of democracy in the West, suggests a reanalysis of Greek art is a good place to start.

“Hades Abducting Persephone”

The wall painting of the abduction of Persephone is frequently described in textbooks as a rare relic that gives insight into Greek painting techniques. While this painting is a masterful example of Greek wall painting and is important for scholars because it is one of the few that survives of the oft-lauded monumental painting tradition of Classical Greece, we must not forget the harrowing myth this work depicts, which is not recounted in any detail in most popular art history textbooks.

This artwork illustrates the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter” narrating Hades’s abduction of Persephone, daughter of Demeter. In the myth, Hades carries her away to the underworld to be his bride. Demeter then refused to allow grain to grow until a compromise was reached where Persephone spends 1/3 of the year in the underworld with Hades and the rest of the time on Mt. Olympus with her mother.

This myth is often read as an allegory for the changing of seasons in ancient Greece. Despite the horrific nature of Persephone’s circumstance, her rape or “abduction” is described in most art history textbooks as having positive ends, symbolizing rebirth, a promise of new life. In one art historical account, Zeus is credited with negotiating Persephone’s part-time release to be with her mother, while Demeter’s compelling act of protest through denial of agricultural prosperity for the Greeks goes unmentioned.

By relying on a purely formal reading of the artwork, without exposure to classical studies, students are not armed with the knowledge necessary for understanding the positive language of rebirth seemingly associated with violence against a young girl. In light of the prevalence of sexual assaults on college campuses it is imperative we assess the language describing these works. Might ignoring the content and context of such graphic works translate to normalizing the violence experienced by students who sit in the classrooms where these works are discussed? Ancient patriarchal structures can be internalized by students when social injustices of the past are not brought to the fore.

West Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia

“Temple of Zeus at Olympia” at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Greece (photo by Cynthia Colburn for Hyperallergic)

Another work is the fifth century BCE sculpture from the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia depicting a “Centauromachy” — a mythological battle between the Greek Lapiths and the centaurs. When the centaurs get drunk at the wedding of the Lapith king Perithoos to Hippodameia, they attempt to rape the bride and her attendants. The aggression against women is inescapable when viewing the artwork, as seen in the detail of the centaur king Eurytion violently groping Hippodameia’s breast. And still, descriptions of this work, as well as those of the same subject from the Parthenon in Athens, emphasize form, the graceful movement of the figures and the balanced composition. Also highlighted is the stoic, almost passive expression of the Lapiths in the face of adversity, which to the ancient Greeks represented civilized behavior in contrast to the more expressive and, therefore, barbaric, centaurs. We might ask ourselves what would be the consequences if the Lapith women reacted more expressively to this violence against them? The answer can often be found on the very same monument in sculptures of another popular mythological subject, the Greeks defeating a tribe of warrior women, the Amazons. The active and independent nature of the amazons is considered barbaric by the ancient Greeks who expect passivity from their women. Indeed the famed Athenian statesman Perikles said in a funeral oration that a goal for women is to not be talked about whether for good or evil. Such material is ripe for meaningful discussion, and shows the relevance of art history to today’s student.

Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife

“Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife” (courtesy of Wiki Commons)

The last example we will discuss is the third century BCE Hellenistic sculpture of a Gallic chieftain plunging a sword into his breast while he grabs the limp, lifeless arm of his dying wife whom he has just killed. Descriptions of the warrior husband’s powerful and muscular body standing in stark contrast to the lifeless body of his wife proliferate, and the idea that the artwork’s formal qualities can best be appreciated by walking around the work coalesce to comprise a spectacle frequently described as “heroic.” In the sculpture, the Gaul is presumably “saving” his wife from a life of slavery after Attalus I of Pergamon’s victory over the Gauls. The violence of the scene is rarely addressed, nor is a key question asked: Is death truly what this woman desired?

Although over two millennia have passed since the creation of these works, it is striking how relevant they are today: the rape of a young woman at the hands of a powerful, older man (“Hades Abducting Persephone”), the stoic, passive, even silent responses expected of survivors of sexual assault (“Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs”), and the physical abuse of women in marriages and intimate relationships where the notion that man knows best prevails (“Gaul Killing Himself and his Wife”). The #MeToo movement has given voice to countless survivors and requires us to ask what role can and should art history play in empowering students with the language to label and discuss sexual assault in an effort to eradicate violence against women.

Rather than obliterating these artworks from the art historical canon, which would stifle meaningful and essential discussion, we must give voice to the victims represented. Art history, when the tools of formal and contextual analysis are fully employed, is well-suited to amplify these voices, providing students with critical insight into social injustices of the past. Addressing the contexts of these works can be challenging in survey courses where depth is often sacrificed for breadth. However, given what’s at stake for our students and today’s social and political realities, it is time for art historians to reassess the goals of our courses, and the discipline more broadly.

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