The Real Perseus
A tourist in Florence turned the corner of the Stada dei Florentini and saw the Perseus. “That´s it!” he said aloud. “And it´s not half-bad.”
Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini (1545-1554) in the Piazza dei Signoria, Florence, Italy (CC BY-SA 4.0 photo by Denise Zavala)
He had read Benvenuto Cellini´s autobiography and knew all about the famous statue. Cellini had cast it himself and at the last moment everything had gone wrong. The house caught fire and there wasn´t enough liquid bronze to fill the mold. Cellini collapsed from exhaustion—it looked like all was lost, months of work, his reputation. Then in a dream or a hallucination he was instructed what to do and he jumped up from bed and acted just in time to save the statue. Now here it was—the real Perseus—and it was wonderful—not only because of the exciting story, but because it was actually impressive as sculpture.
Florence, A View of the Piazza della Signoria with the Loggia dei Lanzi at Left by Ippolito Caffi, oil on canvas, 40 by 48.9 cm. (Wikipedia public domain photo)
The tourist sat down at a table in the piazza to admire the statue and ordered a drink.
Then he tried a little experiment. He tried to see the statue as though he knew nothing about it. “Would I STILL have thought it was good?” he wondered.
And he had to admit that, while it was a very pleasant surprise that the statue was beautiful, it could have been ugly and wouldn´t have mattered to him. In fact, the ugliness would only have made the Perseus more lovable. What he really wanted to see was Cellini´s ghost.
Is it possible to make an impartial judgment on the artistic merits of the Perseus after reading the Autobiography? Can you analyze the shapes without remembering the swaggering artist himself, his own praise of his work, or the stormy circumstances of its creation? Of course the psychologist wants to see in the statue all that he knows about the man, which, in the case of Cellini, is considerable. And he will find it there.
But what does that have to do with ART? Shouldn´t a statue be beautiful only as a shape—without a story or an explanation?
The fact is, most great statues have a story about them. There may be a lively anecdote about the sculptor and about the creation of the figure as in the case of the Perseus. But nearly ALL of them before our time were ILLUSTRATIONS of a story—gods mainly or people out of a myth or the Bible. You can think about old Benvenuto or you can switch to the Perseus story itself and look at his statue THAT way: see how Perseus drops his eyes so as not to see the Medusa, whose look turns you to stone.
Meanwhile the statue can please you as art.
It isn´t that a story adds something to the statue. That´s backwards. It´s that the statue CAME FROM the story. The artist was ordered to do a David or a Neptune, knew the story, and represented the David or the Neptune in stone as he imagined him. The statue was a success if you could see the hero of the story IN it. A statue that “was of “ nobody, that didn´t claim to be any of the heroes of any story, didn´t exist.
Rembrandt’s Bathsheba with a letter from King David (Wikipedia public domain photo) Louvre, Paris
Take the “nude”. There wasn´t such a thing in the old days—just any naked woman. She was always “Susanna being spied on by the old lechers” or “Venus at bathtime” or “Leda ‘dealing with’ the Swan”.
A statue is very much helped by a story or some context. Our eyes may have great fun sliding and playing on the beautiful forms of a figure, but our minds appreciate a direction too.
Not Just Any General
This great equestrian statue of Martínez Campos in the Retiro Park of Madrid, Spain, does well on its own with no story.
The General stands high on a rock in a little glade. It isn’t the General who is the real protagonist of the monument, but his horse. It brings him to the top of the rock in one last breath, squirming with exhaustion after the climb. They have been riding hard and long. The sturdy, brave, general, however, sits upright and serene in his saddle, no doubt thirsty and hungry and exhausted too. It is probably a good portrait, though it is his clothes, his coat with the sleeves hanging, his boots and his breeches, that make you look again and again.
No one modelled better than Mariano Benlliure—everywhere he tells you to look at details and delight with him in them.
How is this equestrian statue different from all the other ones in parks everywhere? The exhausted horse. The way the horse stands on that rock with its back legs still climbing. And the novelty of the pose, of the idea of contrasting horse and rider.
Monument to General Martínez Campos de Mariano Benlliure (photo appeared in the ABC Spanish newspaper here)
Few English and American tourists know who the General was. Yet tell them that he is the brave officer Winston Churchill describes in My Early Life and they will look a second time at the statue. The young Winston went to Cuba as a reporter during the Spanish American War and rode with Martínez Campos on campaign. He says the General stood tall in his saddle while the bullets flew around them. Churchill wanted to get behind a tree.
I have always felt a work of art should stand on it’s own. A masterpiece should be timeless, and be a great work regardless of the author.
When someone tells me a work is a masterpiece, I often hear this about Picasso’s pieces, I wonder if it would be considered so if painted by someone else.
An experiment I would like to try is to take a work by Picasso, change the signature to Sever Tisthammer, a dairy farmer from Michigan, and ask the experts if this was a masterpiece.
A reverse scenario would be to take the drawing of a 5 year old and have Picasso sign it and claim it as his own. Then ask the experts if this is the work of a master.
Bill, you’ve mentioned Tisthammer before. Is that a real painter? I really doubt that he can equal Picasso. To me, Picasso is one of those artists who lose a lot in absence. I remember him as an artist without a subject. He doodles all the time so as not to bore himself. He’s vapid. He isn’t much of a colorist either. But then every time I see one of his works in an exhibition somewhere, I marvel. “He really IS good!” I catch myself saying. Show me a better artist of the last century, one with that kind of authority in his line, that kind of personality in even the smallest squiggle.
And as for the five-year-old, that’s too young. Not even Picasso had become himself before about 18 or 20. Sure the experts could tell—you too, you old amateur (isn’t it about time you became one of those experts? Who’s an expert?). You should have taken Jaspers John or Motherwell or somebody to make your point.