Old is New: Classical Reception and Temporalities in Art 1800-Today

Nicole Cochrane, University of Hull, N.Cochrane@hull.ac.uk, @tinyhistorian

Melissa Gustin, University of York, melissa.gustin@york.ac.uk, @Hosmeriana

If antique art, and modern work modelled after the antique, is often understood (problematically) as ‘timeless,’ ‘universal,’ or ‘classic,’ how does this shape or shift an understanding or experience of modern art (1800-today) made in relation to antiquity? Recognising this in primarily Western art and scholarship invites us to challenge perceptions, depictions, and interpretations of time and temporalities in classically informed or classicing art. Drawing especially on the critical frameworks of continuity, change, and temporality from Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas to Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood’s Anachronic Renaissance, this panel seeks to address critical questions around how ‘classicism’ shapes the temporality of art making, art writing, art viewing, and art collecting across periods. How can artists and scholars speak to contemporaneity and historicity, either in the Western canon or in the increasingly global and instantaneous digital worlds, where temporal and geographical distances can be collapsed through databases even as physical access is delayed or restricted? Are classically informed art objects old-fashioned, anachronic or anachronistic, backward looking and reactionary, or does the modern age flatten the perception of time and timeliness that makes the old new again and again?

This session invites papers on art (and its makers, display, and commodification) after 1800 that engages with classical material and temporalities, broadly conceived. We are especially keen to include work on non-canonical objects and artists from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and from global perspectives, contemporary work which plays with historicity, temporality, and intermediality, display (especially artists speaking about their own practice), displacement (physical and chronological), and popular media beyond the museum or fine arts collection.

Speakers & Abstracts

Reclaiming Antiquity in Post-Crisis Greek Culture: An Artist’s Perspective

Bill Balaskas (Kingston University)

In 2010, at the height of the Eurozone crisis, the German tabloid Bild – along with other media outlets and European politicians – suggested that Greece should sell some of its antiquities or even the Parthenon to pay back its debts. Yet, at the same time, the trauma induced by the crisis on the Greek social body and its collective imaginary was rapidly fuelling a visual return to antiquity. This reaction adopted two distinct forms: firstly, a “reclamation” of antiquity’s symbols – especially by the extreme right – as a means to advocate a new type of monocultural purity, ascendancy, and “resistance”; and, secondly, a more self-reflective use of classical imagery by artists who aimed at putting forward an alternative reading of the country’s present and future. This paper will explore the dual direction of Greece’s recent re-engagement with antiquity and its signifiers. More specifically, the paper will theorise the post-crisis revival of antiquity within Greek visual culture as a way of addressing the long-standing fragmentation of Greek identity. This can be traced back to the country’s binary role: on the one hand, as the widely acknowledged cradle of European civilisation; and, on the other hand, as an ex-Ottoman, Balkan country, often functioning merely as Europe’s gateway to the East. The paper will adopt as starting points three works by the Greek London-based artist Bill Balaskas, in which classically informed objects and designs have a protagonist role: Parthenon Rising (2010); Architecture of Good and Evil (2012); and Culture (2013).

Expanded Interiors Re-Staged: from Herculaneum and Pompeii to the North-East of England

Catrin Huber (University of Newcastle)

I would like to propose an abstract on my Expanded Interiors project (2017-19) and its re-staging at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle (2021). Expanded Interiors brought site-responsive contemporary art to Roman houses at Herculaneum and Pompeii. It allowed me to develop three contemporary art installations in close dialogue with Roman wall decorations, Roman artefacts, and two Roman houses.

 Re-staging these installations in a contemporary art gallery rather than at Roman archaeological sites enabled me to propose fresh meanings (e.g. colliding of different times), and to more fully incorporate the research process (e.g. quotes from a fictional woman Roman wall painter were used to guide visitors through the exhibition). It was an exciting opportunity to reflect and expand upon the original project, and I was able to ask new questions (e.g. how do we mourn our dead?), and to embrace new contexts (e.g. the exhibition incorporated Kurt Schwitters’ dislocated Merzbarn wall). Time played a crucial element in the exhibition’s conception, as the work was anchored in a force-field of different temporal reference points. These included notions of time within the work and how it is experienced, a new relationship for the exhibition when forged to the Georgian architecture of the Hatton (different classical receptions colliding), and a juxtaposition of physical and digital real-time environments. Additionally, the exhibition incorporated a fictional discussion between three historical artists from different centuries. 

Negative Hallucinations: Combatting the False Narratives of the White Classical Body in Contemporary Artistic Practice

Hardeep Singh Dhindsa (King’s College London)

In Chromophobia, David Batchelor uses the psychoanalytical term negative hallucination in relation to the colourless visions of ancient Greece: ‘it is one thing not to know that Greek statues were once brilliantly painted; it is another thing not to see colour when it is still there.’ Much work has been done in recent years on fighting against this denial and as well as on prominent online platforms, (re)coloured classical sculptures now exist in the flesh through exhibitions like Gods in Colour.

My work as an illustrator centres around the question of colour in classical art, but instead of traditional recolourings I embrace the objective ludicrousness of the white sculpture. Is there anything natural about white marble? If we’ve been conditioned to think there is, how can we break through that? My interests do not lie in correcting mistakes or lies through a direct attack on whiteness, instead I highlight its unstable nature by over-saturating sculptures in colours that are as outrageous as they are impossible. In this paper I address the relationship between colour and sculpture, while attempting to convey the inherent unnaturalness of a white sculpture. I will so by considering how whiteness as a neutral canvas operates in art and its relationship to Classics and ‘Western Civilization’, followed by a discussion of my own art to question how we might approach white sculptures through a critical lens. It is my hope to offer a new perspective on whiteness in art to complement our increasing awareness of ancient polychromy.

Haunted by Dionysus: Leonardo da Vinci’s Transfeminine Figures

Frankie Dytor (University of Cambridge)

This paper proposes to look at the trans times of antique afterlife. It shows how the idea of antiquity provided a powerful model for reconfiguring normative sex in nineteenth-century aesthetic writing. Whilst the concept of ‘afterlife’ has traditionally been attributed to the work of Aby Warburg, it is also clear that the ‘haunting’ of antiquity was an idea in fraught discussion in French and British circles for several decades prior to the coining of ‘Nachleben’ at the end of the nineteenth century. Across these writings was the common presumption that the forms of antiquity re-emerged with vital force in the artwork of the Italian Renaissance. This paper looks at one instance of this afterlife: the apparent reappearance of Dionysus in the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s painting of Saint John excited increasing attention in the 1860s for its depiction of indeterminate sex. Hippolyte Taine wondered ‘is it even a man? It is a woman’, whilst Charles Clément stated unambiguously that the figure was a woman. Walter Pater, who drew much of his information from Clément, explained this feminine aspect by pointing to the figure’s likeness to Dionysus. This paper attempts to piece together such transfeminine equivocations between Dionysus and Leonardo’s St John in aesthetic writing on the Italian Renaissance. By considering Dionysus, Pater’s ‘woman-like god’, as a cipher for trans femininity, a new model of classical reception is explored, situating a concern with antique afterlife within a Victorian trans imaginary.

The Cyborg-Satyr: Futurity, Hybridity, and Classical Reception

Savannah Sather Marquardt (Yale University)

On the cover of the albumKiCki i (2020), experimental musician Arca totters on matte black prosthetic limbs that extend her legs into goat-like hooves. Part human, part animal, part machine -- the creature depicted must be some new kind of cyborg-satyr. In this portrait by Barcelona-based photographer Carlota Guerrero, the hybrid that japed masculinity in classical antiquity now appears as the futuristic body of Arca, the stage name of Venezualan trans woman Alejandra G hersi. How do we make sense of the simultaneous invention and re-creation of the satyr as a theatrically performed socio-sexual identity?

As Brook Holmes acknowledges in her introduction to LiquidAntiquiry, Greco-Roman compound creatures challenge the idea of the "classical" body, both in antiquity and in its long history of reception (Holmes 2017). Guerrero's photographs offer the opportunity to examine the consequences of this tempestuous relation with classical aesthetics for their reception. This paper examines how seemingly contradictory modes of classical reception in Guerrero's body of work construct paradoxical temporal relationships with Greco-Roman antiquity. It compares the collaborative portraits of Arca with other instances of classical reception in Guerrero's work such as Las Tres Gracias (2020) to tease out the Arca portraits' uncompromisingly future-focused mode of classical reception. Guerrero and Arca use compound creatures from classical art and myth to picture "the future we hope for" rather than to reflect on the distant past. The cyborg-sa tyr is not (or rather, is not only) a creature from classical antiquity. She is a prophet of trans-futurit y, a denizen of what waits just over the temporal horizon, where what is "classical" and what is "past" have not yet been determined.

Temporality Laid Bare: Young Spartans Exercising around Montmartre

Ovidiu Prejmeream (Université de Fribourg)

The initial version of Degas’ famous artwork (created around 1860) shows Antiquity was far more present in his thoughts than when depicting the one at the Fogg (dated about two years later) or the ‘final’ London one (supposed to be exhibited at the 1880 Impressionist Exhibition, but eventually not shown), in the two later versions the architecture centering the canvas present in the Chicago variant simply disappearing. Such a vanishing act only augmented the tension between the masculine ‘half’ of the painting and the feminine one, as a seemingly unbridgeable gap emerges where the atemporal building once stood.

Thus if the work offers us an insight into young Degas’ relationship with tradition, it also reveals his restless psyche –as the composition’s alternate title Young Spartan Girls Provoking the Boys spells out-, the counterpointing between the relaxed conversation involving members of both sexes from the background and the far livelier one in the foreground marking a sharp generational shift. Degas’ own commentary ‘jeunes filles et jeunes garçons luttant dans le Plataniste, sous les yeux de Lycurgue vieux à côte des mères’, further emphasizes his desire to juxtapose archetypal perenniality with newness. As Paul Lemoisne’s famously remarked, the youths from the Nationally Gallery version remind us more of ‘les gamins de Montmartre’ than of ancient Spartans.

Starting from Horace’s ‘Exegi monumentum aere perennius’ dictum and using Degas’ Young Spartans as a focusing lens our paper will aim to show that an artistic idea cannot ‘age’ – it just withstands the test of time.



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