Hercules’ big club

The Royal Academy have paired Bill Viola‘s huge video installations with Michaelangelo‘s exquisite muscular Christs, serene Virgins and flailing horses.  Viola’s triptych of Man slowly surfacing through water is flanked by women, one splayed and crying giving birth, the other, his mother, insensate, dying.  This “deeply spiritual” portrayal of life’s journey seemed crudely gendered: man the artist, man the observer, man the not-bloody-get-on-and-do-something-useful, not even hold a hand or wipe a brow.  Michaelangelo’s drawings are remarkable. His tiny still images dwarf Viola’s great moving tableaux: the soft strokes of chalk building shapes in four dimensions.  Still, even placing them behind me, Viola’s intrusive art resulted in my having irreverent and ridiculous thoughts.  The great master draughtsman was on his own journey of self-discovery.  Mary cradle’s her son’s body but her face is calm, never touched by childbirth or mourning.  That itinerant rabbi is strangely ripped and, interestingly, beardless.  In drawing after drawing He rises straight up from the tomb, his body erect in the morning after the cold sleep of death.

I found myself outside the exhibition, drawing the 10 foot high cast of the marble from the courtyard of Palazzo Farnese in Rome.  My observation went to pot, my brain contradicting what I saw: I gifted him with head and genitals in proportion to his huge muscular body whereas on the statue both seemed ridiculously small.  He leans on his huge knobbly war club, which is hooded by a draped hide, bringing to my mind a woman’s inner lips.  What did the sculptor mean to show? It just made me laugh: are we men being trolled across the centuries by what appears a hilarious parody of male prowess?

Upstairs, I drew a cast of an ancient torso, shorn of limbs and head, which is placed in front of a drawing for a never completed painting of Thetis bringing the grieving Achilles his armour.  Once again, my eye failed me and I lost the sense of depth, such that the impressive sculpture and the hero’s whitened face appear to lean in conspiratorially.


17 responses to “Hercules’ big club

  1. It is ridiculous. I have thought before, looking at a particularly ripped figure, it must be exhausting carrying that muscle around. And how would they fit through doors. I’m assuming they are not the associations the sculptor had planned.

    • Yes, I can only imagine what it must be like to be ripped!

      As to the sculptor’s intentions, I think that is what I am getting at. So imagine, maybe your dad was a freedman, and he and then you have worked to build your fortune, amassing property and slaves. You have built yourself a swanky villa and you really want your visitors and neighbours to take you seriously as a man of culture but also to show you off as a man of importance, a big man. You commission a proper classical statue for your courtyard. How big, asks the sculpture, bigger than that, you say. How muscly? His muscles should have muscles, you reply. How endowed? Ok that’s a problem, suggest it, you say, but you know, don’t be crude. You unveil the statue of Hercules and his huge club and everyone is mightily impressed. If you suspect they are laughing at you behind their hands, you quell the thought.

      • My point is that the sculptor might easily have been making fun of his patron, giving him what he asked for but showing up his lack of taste. Whatever, I cannot believe it was meant to be taken seriously.

      • We might think the same about today’s status items. Unfortunately we know some people are in deadly earnest – creators included. As they say, there is no accounting for taste. Then mix in the power element and things can get pretty blown out of proportion. I’ve always found sculpture a tricky area.

  2. Not exactly. But I think that the RA has that cast there for the students to practice drawing.
    I think though that I’d contrast this classical male stuff with Schiele’s scrawny tortured selfies and Kathe Kollwitz’s iconic explorations, both of which moved me greatly.

  3. Heracles or Hercules was the patron saint – so to speak – of the ancient Cyno-Stoics, philosophers who carried staffs rather than hefty phallo-clubs but they were weapons for self defence mostly… and Heracles did use his club in his labours, and the hide you mention was in fact a lion’s skin (he fought with a lion.) He is the epitome of the virtuous man. Check out the choice of Heracles which is some tale told, I think, if my memory serves me well, by one, Prodicus, or was it Socrates???

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