Touchstones in the History of Art
One of the defining characteristics of high art in the Western tradition is a constant recourse to canonical works of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. To make something derivative is not necessarily to be unoriginal or unimaginative, for artists have often believed that the foundation of ambitious new art is the selective imitation of earlier art by esteemed predecessors. In the mainstream of this tradition, from the 15th to the 18th century, Imitation (imitatio) was considered the precondition for any serious work of imaginative creation, whether in literature or visual art. This course has a double agenda: one is to develop repertory knowledge of the building blocks of figural composition in European and British art of the early modern and modern periods; the other is to examine the role of Imitation in the production of meaning within this highly self-referential tradition of art-making. The course is organized around a series of case studies, based on six ancient marble sculptures that became touchstones in the theory and practice of figural composition: the Laocoön sculpture group, the Farnese Hercules, the Belvedere Torso, the Medici Venus, the Dying Cleopatra (or Sleeping Ariadne) and the Apollo Belvedere. We will study the excavation, restoration and collection history of each work while considering how each one acquired its exemplary status. The reception of these statues in histories of art--and especially their reiterations and transformations in subsequent paintings, sculptures and prints--will provide the material for our study of Imitation and a number of related topics, such as the formation of canons of taste, the use of engravings and casts of ancient sculptures in drawing instruction, the development of public collections, the aesthetic appreciation of fragments, and the study and codification of human physiognomy. We will find that Imitation is usually respectful toward the models from which it derives power, even for highly competitive artists like Michelangelo, who reworked his ancient models almost (but not quite) beyond recognition. Other artists made their models stand out vividly, the better to establish the credentials of a new work (often in portraits of rulers as modern Apollos) or to invoke a time and place (as in elegiac mythologies), while other artists did so with subversive intent (as in parodies mocking famous antiquities).
Estimated cost of materials: $50 or more but less than $100. D. 3, 4