Art

The Sensuality of Ancient Art in the Round

In antiquity and in the Renaissance there was an inherent sensuality to being able to visually consume a sculpture from every angle.

The back of a polychromatic portrait of the Emperor Antoninus Pius sculpted from Parian marble (Rome, 138-150 CE); the ancient sculptor applied a “running drill” to shape the delicate locks of his hair — a detail difficult to explore without walking behind the bust, on view at the Bowdoin College Art Museum (all images by Sarah E. Bond for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted).

A new exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art on until October aims at seeing ancient art from untraditional angles and all sides. In the process, the exhibition subtly underscores and then critiques the consequences of the display choices made by museum curators. In the Round: Ancient Art from All Sides was curated by James Higginbotham, Associate Professor of Classics and Curator for the Ancient Collection at the museum. As the show’s signage notes, “in the round” is a phrase usually used to refer to free-standing sculpture. The first-century Roman magistrate and natural historian Pliny the Elder noted that the famed Attic sculptor Praxiteles (395–330 BCE) had his Venus (also known as the Aphrodite of Knidos) displayed so that it could be admired in full view: “The little temple in which it is placed is open on all sides, so that the beauties of the statue admit of being seen from every point of view; an arrangement which was favored by the goddess herself, it is generally believed.”

Mummy portrait of a lady made of stucco and glass, painted and gilded jewelry with remains of polychrome (Romano-Egyptian, 100–150 CE) now at the Bowdoin College Art Museum

In antiquity and in the Renaissance there was an inherent sensuality to being able to visually consume a sculpture from every angle. Pliny’s remarks on the divine viewing of sculpture in the round would inspire later sculptors such as Michelangelo. His Bacchus statue (1496–7) was meant to be viewed by visitors from every side, rather than fit into a niche or against a wall. Cardinal Raffaele Riario commissioned but then ultimately rejected the rather erotic statue, and thus it was placed in the garden of a banker named Jacopo Galli. As art historian Robert Maniura has pointed to in his book, Presence: The Inherence of the Prototype Within Images and Other Objects, there is a visceral “presence” within art in the round that served to encourage human interaction and emotional connection with statues. Michelangelo appeared to imitate Praxiteles’ desire to have sculpture evoke touch through sight.

Front view of mummy portrait of a lady made of stucco and glass, painted and gilded jewelry with remains of polychrome (Romano-Egyptian, 100–150 CE) now at the Bowdoin College Art Museum

In the Round models Praxiteles’ encouragement of emotion by displaying the exhibition’s sculpture, ceramics, and busts with plenty of space provided to walk around them and inspect closely — without actually touching. Many smaller objects such as figurines and coins are displayed in clear cases upon a podium, which means visitors can circumnavigate as they wish and point out small details, such as lines indicating the figurines were made from two molds. Viewers see perfection and imperfection in equal measure; new details draw the eye. The delicately drilled hairstyles upon sculpture or the symmetrical braids on a plaster mummy mask become the new focus, rather than the piercing eyes or cleft in a chin.

Roman torso of a male figure (Roman Greece, 1st century CE) likely modeled after an earlier statue made by the Greek sculptor Polykleitos (5th century BCE) who believed in bodily perfection through numerical balance, on view In the Round at the Bowdoin College Art Museum.

Although the exhibition only consists of around two dozen objects, it is potent. The display and label for the museum’s famed black-figure oinochoe by the “Sappho Painter” (500–475 BCE) points out its use within funerals and the common use of a whole ceramic to tell a narrative. The wine jug supplies a rare depiction of the deceased being lowered into an ancient sarcophagus. Moreover, a statuette of Aphrodite modeled on the famed one sculpted by Praxiteles demonstrates what happens when art isn’t intended to be viewed in the round. The figurine was made in the 2nd century BCE at Alexandria in Egypt, and because it was made to fit into a niche, the sculptor only focused on finishing those frontal features visible to the viewer. Unfinished marble is a common occurrence in sarcophagi meant to be placed against a wall as well. Why put too much effort into something that will never receive the human gaze?

Statuette of Aphrodite from Alexandria in Egypt (Egypt, 2nd century BCE) the backside of the statuette is flat and unfinished due to its being placed within a niche and hidden from view, shown at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (image by Sarah E. Bond for Hyperallergic)

Appreciation for appreciating the back of ancient artwork has been somewhat of a personal obsession in the past year. Last summer, I encouraged art historians, museum visitors, and classicists on Twitter to begin to interact with ancient art in museums from the reverse by using the #reversenotobverse hashtag on Twitter. The terminology came from the field of numismatics, wherein the front of a coin is called the obverse and the back is the reverse. As twitterstorians often do: They took the challenge to heart. And really got … behind the movement.

Presenting sculpture in the round can indeed make viewers wonder about how closely their anatomy mirrors our own. In James Joyce’s Ulysses’ (1922) Laestrygonians episode (Episode 8), the protagonist of the tome, Bloom, is curious to know whether the plaster cast sculptures of Greek goddesses in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin have anuses. This compels him to do some rather creepy wandering around the backside of these statues in a visit to the museum. Later, in the National Library, Buck Mulligan notes Bloom’s sculptural leering, and cites the enticing “Venus Kallipyge,” (known as the Ἀφροδίτη Καλλίπυγος, which translates from the Greek to “Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks”). Today this Aphrodite sculpture resides in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (MANN). I would be remiss if I didn’t note that seeing sculpture in the round does often mean gazing at perfectly sculpted asses.

For those who cannot make it to Maine, there is an online exhibition of the pieces which, like all images in Bowdoin’s online collection, are open access and in the public domain for reuse. In addition to shows like this one, which underscore how and not just why we look at art, we should perhaps also be looking to the digital landscape to allow us to see art in the round in new ways. The digital medium can conjure a modicum of the museum experience for those who cannot afford to see these works in person. Three-dimensional modeling can allow for a more visceral human connection with sculpture than static images posted alone online. Annotated models in particular allow viewers to simulate a museum experience online by exploring an object’s top, bottom, and all around — and permits viewers to disregard any limiting display choices altogether. Platforms like Sketchfab and professional museum 3D modelers like Daniel Pett let people view objects in every angle possible — including the various iterations of the Aphrodite of Knidos imitated throughout antiquity. I think Praxiteles would agree that whether digital or analog, emotional and sometimes sensual connections to art can be fostered and facilitated by embracing a panoramic display.

In the Round: Ancient Art from All Sides runs until October 13, within the Rotunda of the Bowdoin College Art Museum (245 Maine Street, Brunswick, ME). It was curated by James Higginbotham.

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