Newly installed in the White House in Washington DC is a group portrait depicting several of the Republican presidents of the USA in conversation with each other. According to the Guardian, a copy of the painting ‘The Republican Club’ by Andy Thomas is now hanging outside the Oval Office. (The Washington Post has the story of how the painting came to President Trump’s attention).
The use of portraiture to assert connections between individuals across time and space, and to say something about the relationships between them, has a long history in both fine art and more popular image-making. While the USA has its Mount Rushmore, a memorial on a huge scale to four past presidents, art history offers many further examples. Anachronism is often a feature of such pictures, given that their role is often to assert the continuity of the present with the past, and the flow of power from past to present.
Previously on our blog we’ve documented anachronistic group images, including the mediaeval favourites the Nine Heroes, and Raphael’s School of Athens. Of particular note is the fashion for anachronistic portrait groups in Tudor England; Lucas de Heere’s group of Tudor royals depicts Henry VIII with his children Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I as each was at the peak of their own power as a reigning monarch. It was probably painted in 1572 when of the three only Elizabeth survived: as reigning queen, she is accompanied in the portrait by mythological figures of Peace and Plenty, but in depicting the two siblings who preceded her to their father’s throne she reminds her subjects of her legitimate connection and claim to the throne. It was sent as a gift to her trusted minister Francis Walsingham.
A later monarch, William III of Orange, decorated a staircase at Hampton Court with images of himself defeating twelve Caesars, representing his Catholic opponents in mainland Europe; the anachronistic parallel adds to the grandeur of the scene, magnificently painted by Antonio Verrio (1636-1707), a specialist in such images.
Another form of group portrait is the conversation piece, popular in the eighteenth century as a way of depicting friends, especially those connected by shared political and intellectual interests and pursuits. William Hogarth’s Hervey Conversation Piece, painted 1738-40, shows a group of friends surrounding John Hervey, Lord Ickworth; the painting still hangs in his ancestral home in Suffolk. Such portraits united groups of friends who might in life rarely meet, connecting them in time and space.
Anachronistic assemblies also feature in more popular artistic contexts. Pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth produced the cover art for the Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); their work presents a montage of historical and contemporary personalities, including images of the band members in earlier years.
Anachronistic groups were also created in the ancient world. Group depictions of philosophers might assemble figures who were not contemporaries, or suggest that contemporary thinkers were linked to the Seven Sages of the past. Polybius reports that Roman families kept masks as portraits of family members, which were brought out for funeral processions, providing both a link to the past and a reminder of the power and influence wielded by leading families:
After the burial and all the usual ceremonies have been performed, they place the likeness of the deceased in the most conspicuous spot in his house, surmounted by a wooden canopy or shrine. This likeness consists of a mask made to represent the deceased with extraordinary fidelity both in shape and colour. These likenesses they display at public sacrifices adorned with much care. And when any illustrious member of the family dies, they carry these masks to the funeral, putting them on men whom they thought as like the originals as possible in height and other personal peculiarities. And these substitutes assume clothes according to the rank of the person represented: if he was a consul or praetor, a toga with purple stripes; if a censor, whole purple if he had also celebrated a triumph or performed any exploit of that kind, a toga embroidered with gold. These representatives also ride themselves in chariots, while the fasces and axes, and all the other customary insignia of the particular offices, lead the way, according to the dignity of the rank in the state enjoyed by the deceased in his lifetime; and on arriving at the Rostra they all take their seats on ivory chairs in their order. There could not easily be a more inspiring spectacle than this for a young man of noble ambitions and virtuous aspirations. (Polybius 6.53, translation Shuckburgh).
Other works by Andy Thomas show similar anachronistic groups of US presidents engaged in social activities such as playing poker and pool, perhaps paying tribute to the less serious side of the conversation piece tradition. In contrast, when the living former presidents of the USA are photographed together, it is often to send a serious message to their fellow citizens or to solicit their help for disaster relief or similar serious causes.
If only humans followed the simple life-styles and particularly the diet of their primitive ancestors, they would lead healthier lives. This is the claim of contemporary proponents of the ‘Paleo Diet’, whose adherents restrict themselves to the foods they believe were available to early human hunter-gatherers living in the distant past. They argue that humans who eat fruit and nuts gathered from plants as well as hunted meat are living more natural human lives than those who are over-nourished by modern foodstuffs produced using intensive agriculture. Yet their claims echo both ideas about eating in the distant primitive past held by the philosophers and poets of classical antiquity, and their practices echo the use by some groups of philosophers of exclusion and special diets as a means of fostering cohesion among their followers and establishing the identities of their sects.
The ‘mythologies’ of the modern ‘paleo diet’ have been criticised by evolutionary scientists, such as biologist Marlene Zuk in her Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us. Zuk, borrowing the term ‘paleofantasy’ from anthropologist Leslie Aiello, points out that privileging one point in the evolution of both humans and the things they eat makes little sense, and rests her argument, as with much criticism of this diet, on the science of evolution. Both humans and food-stuffs have evolved so significantly since the Stone Age that recreating the paleo-diet, outside the context of the subsistence life-style of indigenous peoples, is impossible, and research on the diet of indigenous peoples in the present day shows both a variety of food choices based on the local ecosystem, and also elements of agriculture and trading that add further choices.
However, the idea that the life-style of a primitive past ‘golden age’ resulted in a quality of human flourishing rendered unavailable by the decadence of the present itself has a long history within ancient thought, appearing from the earliest epics onward. Ancient accounts of the origins and early history of humans, such as Hesiod’s stories of early ‘golden’ humans living in harmony with the gods (Works and Days 109-20), and of the advent of animal sacrifice (Theogony 535-557), explore the food eaten in the distant past, often contrasting it with the present and drawing stern conclusions about the decadent life of the present. Visions of a simple life in which humans subsisted on gathered food are presented in many texts: Hesiod’s account presents an intermediate version in which the golden people enjoy both the spontaneous produce of the earth and of their flocks:
They had all good things; the grain-giving field bore crops of its own accord, much and unstinting, and they themselves, willing, mild-mannered, shared out the fruits of their labours together with many good things, wealthy in sheep, dear to the blessed gods. (Hesiod Works and Days 116-120, translation Glenn Most)
Where the ancient and modern imaginings of the paleo diet differ is in the proportion of meat that features; given that red meat was an infrequent element of the ancient Greek diet, there is no cultural pressure to imagine it being present in greater quantity in the imagined diet of the golden age. In some versions, the golden age diet is a vegetarian one, with the emphasis on gathering plentiful produce that has been produced without cultivation:
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
(Ovid Metamorphoses 1.106-111, in John Dryden’s translation)
The idea of a diet that predates agriculture and is based on nuts and fruits gathered without effort is central to ancient primitivism. Accounts of the Golden Age (sometimes identified as the ‘Age of Cronus/Kronos’ often linger on the food that it provided in abundance, as well as the simplicity and gentleness of life then, a tradition that Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas described, in their Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, as ‘soft primitivism’:
A god tended them, taking charge of them himself, just as now human beings, themselves a kind of living creature, but different and more divine, pasture other kinds of living creatures more lowly than themselves; and given that he was their shepherd, they had no political constitutions, nor acquired wives or children, for all of them came back to life from the earth, remembering nothing of the past; but while they lacked things of this sort, they had an abundance of fruits from trees and many other plants, not growing through cultivation but because the earth sent them up of its own accord. For the most part they would feed outdoors, naked and without bedding; for the blend of the seasons was without painful extremes, and they had soft beds from the abundant grass that sprung from the earth. What I describe then, Socrates, is the life of those who lived in the time of Kronos; as for this one, which they say is the time of Zeus, the present one, you are familiar with it from personal experience. (Plato Statesman 271e-272b, translation adapted from Rowe)
Indeed, for some philosophers the absence of meat from the diet was evidence of the harmonious life of the golden age. Such views were associated with the Pythagoreans, and (reported by sources including Ovid in Metamorphoses 15.75-98) and also with the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles:
And the altar did not reek of the unmixed blood of bulls, but this was the greatest abomination among men, to snatch out the life and eat the goodly limbs (Empedocles Fragment 128)
Health-based claims about the golden-age diet were made by some ancient writers. In some of these texts we can see the transition that Lovejoy and Boas discerned between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ primitivism, in which the golden age is rationalised as a time of peacefulness but nonetheless one in which life was simple and austere. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ vision of an early diet offers a healthy life based on simple grains as well as gathered fruits and nuts, but no luxury, even after his interlocutor Glaucon queries its plainness:
I was forgetting that they’ll obviously need salt, olives, cheese, boiled roots and vegetables of the sort they cook in the country… they’ll roast myrtle and acorns before the fire, drinking moderately. And so they’ll live in peace and good health… (Plato Republic 2.372b-d, translated Grube)
Glaucon, identified by Lovejoy and Boas as an ‘anti-primitivist’, swiftly complains that this diet is that of a ‘city for pigs’, in which human life is reduced to the animalistic satisfaction of appetites, and insists that Socrates revises his model to reflect ‘the cooked food and delicacies that people have now’. Socrates concedes some luxury and complexity, but suggests that it will be at the cost of the city’s health, ultimately leading it to war. The idea that luxury and its pursuit caused war between cities and unrest within them would go on to be a staple of Roman thought.
Other philosophers in a range of subsequent Socratic traditions thought that simplicity or austerity was desirable in itself. We learn about one, through a report by Porphyry, a third-century CE neo-Platonist philosopher, written by Dicaearchus, a fourth-century BCE philosopher associated with Aristotle’s Peripatetics. Porphyry, originally from Tyre but working in Italy, used these ideas in his vegetarian tract On Abstinence from Eating Animals:
Dicaearchus tells us of what sort the life of the Age of Cronus was: if it is to be taken as having really existed and not as an idle tale, when the too mythical parts of the story are eliminated it may by the use of reason be reduced to a natural sense. For all things then presumably grew spontaneously, since the men of that time themselves produced nothing, having invented neither agriculture nor any art. If was for this reason that they lived a life of leisure, without care or toil, and also – if the doctrine of the most eminent medical men is to be accepted – without disease… For they did not eat food too strong for their constitutions, but such food as their constitutions could absorb, nor did they exceed the limits of moderation, in consequence of having so much available; on the contrary, by reason of scarcity they often ate less than they needed. (Porphyry De Abstinentia 4.1.2, translated Lovejoy/Boas)
Visions of the ancient diet that identified its persistence among peoples the Greeks labelled barbarian sometimes emphasised hunting and the eating of meat. The Scythians, in Virgil’s account, hunt and eat deer (Georgics 3.367-75), although other authors present them as shepherds dependent on dairy produce.
Just like some versions of the modern paleo diet, some ancient attempts to return to an ancient diet emphasised the eating of meat. One early paleo diet text, Walter Voegtlin’s 1975 The Stone-Age Diet, exhorts readers:
Think for a moment of the Old Stone Age people, who, when hungry, slew a cave bear or a woolly rhinoceros, gorged on a half-dozen pounds of meat and fat and, only when hungry, returned to the hunt. Then 10,000 years ago, the New Stone Age folk added to the menu – when meat and fat was in short supply – a handful of wild wheat or barley which had been well-pounded between stones and baked on a hot rock. (The Stone-Age Diet, Walter L. Voegtlin, 1975)
This meat-based feasting can be seen in another episode in Odysseus’ self-reported story, in which Odysseus tells how he demonstrated his hunting skills and killed a deer which his companions then cooked and ate, escaping the threat of starvation (Od. 10.156-184). The Roman writer on agriculture Columella identifies hunted meat as a key part of the early Roman diet, supplemented by abundant produce (Columella On Agriculture l0.pr. 1; see Purcell 2003). Throughout antiquity, hunting remained a key site for the performance of elite masculinity.
The advent of meat in the human diet is explained in various ways in ancient accounts of human development, but is often explained as a move away from cannibalism. From Homer and Hesiod onward, rituals of sacrifice and cooking give the eating of meat a special status but also establish a range of practices to manage it. Another way in which philosophers could offer a simpler model of life was to reject these usual social practices associated with eating, as Diogenes the Cynic, the somewhat mythicised founder of Cynicism, was said to have done; Diogenes Laertius (writing several hundred years after the dates his namesake Cynic philosopher is thought to have lived) reports that as well as abandoning the use of plates and cups, Diogenes the Cynic tried to subsist on raw meat as a minimal simple diet that suited dogs, only to find that it made him ill (Diogenes Laertius 6.34). ‘Returning’ to a simple diet became a form of social critique.
The Cynic rejection of prepared food was explored and satirised by adherents to other philosophical sects. Those attempting such alternative practices were liable to face criticism either for the practices themselves or for half-hearted adherence to them. The Roman emperor Julian (writing much later, in the fourth century CE) criticises the Cynics of his day for lack of commitment to Diogenes’ ascetism: unlike Diogenes who tried eating raw meat, they add salt and other flavouring to their meat:
It is not really the eating of raw food that disgusts you, either in the case of bloodless animals or those that have blood. But perhaps there is this difference between you and Diogenes, that he thought that he ought to eat such food raw and in its natural state, whereas you think you must first prepare it with salt and many other things for the sake of pleasure, whereby you do violence to nature… (Julian Oration 6.191-193, translated Lovejoy/Boas)
Just as modern adherents to the paleo diet eat foods that are far removed from their natural state, the Cynics criticised by Julian aimed to emulate a simple life but were unable to eliminate all the trappings of the modern complex life, and luxuries such as seasoning.
The ancient simple diet was a theme to which philosophers and poets often returned, but more as a critique of the luxury of present-day diets than as the presentation of an achievable lifestyle goal. Perhaps it is only the conditions of modernity that enable the nostalgic desire for the human past to become a lifestyle choice for a limited few.
Bitar, A.R. (2018) Diet and the Disease of Civilization (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press)
Lovejoy, A.O. and Boas, G. (1997) , Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
Purcell, N. (2003) ‘The Way We Used to Eat: Diet, Community, and History at Rome’, American Journal of Philology, Vol. 124, No. 3, pp. 329-358.
Voegtlin, W. (1975) The Stone Age Diet (New York: Vantage)
Zuk, M. (2013) Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live (New York: Norton).
We start the new academic year with an addition to the Anachronism and Antiquity team. We’re very pleased to welcome Dr Mathura Umachandran as a postdoctoral research associate. We also send congratulations to our colleague Dr Tom Phillips, who has joined the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester as a lecturer in Classics.
Mathura Umachandran received her PhD from the Department of Classics at Princeton University in March 2018. Her dissertation, ‘Antiquity in Dark Times: Classical Reception in the Thought of Theodor Adorno and Erich Auerbach’, explored how both men developed positions and methods in articulating their alienation from the particular forms of philhellenism that had anchored German philology and philosophy. As a postdoctoral researcher for ‘Anachronism and Antiquity’, Mathura will continue to develop her interests in this particularly urgent moment of classical reception in the history of German thought. She will also contribute to the project’s activities for 2018-19, its final year, including a seminar series to be held in Oxford during Trinity Term 2019.
Mathura will investigate how Auerbach’s re-tooling of the concept Weltliteratur (World literature), as it was derived in the German Romantic tradition, is a complex attempt to develop a hermeneutic model for literature that was committed to historical difference without rendering Greek antiquity an aesthetic example. She will also continue her research on Adorno this year, laying the foundations for a monograph on the reception of antiquity in the thought of the first generation of the Frankfurt School. She will investigate whether Adorno’s most radical conceptual intervention into the philosophy of history, ‘negative dialectics’, can properly describe the place of antiquity in his thought, from which it would be possible to generate a new theoretical model of classical reception.
Mathura’s other academic interests include thinking about race at the interstices of the antiquity and the academy, classical reception in contemporary art, poetry and political discourse, and issues around social justice in education at all levels and venues.
Artistic depictions of historical events involve a certain amount of temporal flattening. In some cases, visual artists can select a critical moment in the unfolding of an event, in which a specific snapshot of that moment can stand in for the whole, just as a playwright or poet might select the most critical and decisive period to stage or describe. Important moments could also be selected for their exemplary value, with battle itself becoming a metaphor for broader patterns of change. A recent visit to Munich for a workshop on ancient and modern political thought, hosted by gave me the opportunity to visit the city’s Alte Pinakothek, where the impressive collection of early modern art includes a painting that has become emblematic of anachronism, Altdorfer’s Alexanderschlacht. But this turned out not to be the only work of art on display in Munich’s museum quarter to tackle the display of battle at epic scale, or to have been given a significant role in the construction of the history of art.
Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) painted the Alexanderschlacht in 1529, one of a series of paintings of battles commissioned by William IV of Bavaria. His depiction of the encounter between Darius and Alexander at the Battle of Issus, the decisive victory of the Macedonians over the Persians in 333 BC, has become the archetype of the anachronistic depiction of past events, partly for its compression of time in the depiction of battle. Several of its temporal devices have been identified as anachronisms in themselves, with the historiographer Reinhart Koselleck arguing that the depiction of the ancient forces in modern dress exemplifies a lack of understanding of the difference between past and present. The banners held by each side to note their casualty numbers suggest the complex temporality of the work; at the moment depicted there are already many warriors lying dead on the ground, but the battle continues and the dead have not yet been counted. The banners anticipate the end of the battle which is still taking place. The dramatic sky marks the battle as a cosmically significant encounter.
In our research into anachronism and antiquity, we’ve come to see Altdorfer’s work as a more complex and sophisticated engagement with the past than Koselleck’s interpretation suggests. Along with the other paintings of the Bavarian Historienzyklus, it shows a decisive moment in the history of an empire, with lessons for its viewers in the present facing the cultural and political challenges of their own times.
But Altdorfer is not the only example of complex temporality in the artistic depiction of battle. While his masterpiece represents one way in which single pictures could tell stories that contribute to a larger narrative, other depictions of historic or mythical battles, ancient and modern, can be seen nearby in Munich. The Munich Glyptothek contains sculptures from the pediments of the temple of Athena from Aegina, discovered in 1811 and acquired in 1812. The display of these sculptures was central to the design and construction of the Glypothek building, intended to showcase a developmental story of classical art. The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) wrote that the arrival of the Aeginetan sculptures expanded the knowledge of Greek art (as the even more controversially removed Parthenon sculptures had done in Britain); the expansion of knowledge, to him, justified the removal of these works from their context.
The west pediment shows a battle between Greek and Trojan heroes with the goddess Athena at the centre; fragmentary imagery on his shield suggests that the Greek hero is Ajax, associated with Aegina and an appropriate figure for this temple; on the east pediment, Heracles battles the Trojans. The original reconstruction of the west pediment had the opposing groups aiming at each other within the pediment, across the figure of Athena who appeared between them, as if the sculptural group represented a single episode in a battle. In a revised version, on display since the museum’s reopening after it was itself severely damaged in World War II, some of the figures aim outwards, confounding attempts to read the pediment as a single scene, and involving the onlooker in its action. The surviving parts of the sculpture appear in their fragmentary form, rather than as a complete work. (A painted cast of one of the more complete figures, Paris as an archer, suggests what the impact of the original polychrome presentation might have been, and some attachments such as Athena’s staff have been added.)
The sculptures themselves mark a significant moment in the development of classical Greek art, with the two pediments standing each side of a major stylistic shift. Those of the west pediment, dated to 500-490 BCE, mark the end of the severe archaic style, while those of the east pediment, from a few years later, have the distinctive features of the new classical style. Looking at these figures with their static expressions might evoke an anachronistic response in modern onlookers, unused to the conventions of representation in archaic art. The figure of the wounded soldier from the west pediment is particularly ‘strange’, as the museum’s catalogue notes, with his carefully posed body and apparent smile, typical of archaic sculpture. The warrior is pulling an arrow from his chest, an injury likely to be fatal, but his expression does not hint at the trauma of his immediate situation, while his hair remains unruffled. Hegel appears to have had a similar response to the Aiginetans. His lectures on aesthetics pronounced that ‘in the Aeginetan sculptures facial expressions and the posture are precisely what is relatively spiritless’ (Hegel 1975: 786), and that the faces are not a ‘true representation of nature’.
Nearby, the Museum Brandhorst houses another depiction of an epochal conflict, in the Lepanto cycle by Cy Twombly (1928-2011). Like the Aiginetan pediments, the desire to display this large work as a comprehensible whole influenced the design of a new museum building; the Lepanto canvases are displayed in a large oval gallery built for them. The cycle was commissioned for the 2001 Venice Biennale, which marked the chronological turning point between the millennia with a curated exhibition ‘The Plateau of Humankind’; the depiction of a Venetian naval encounter nods to the exhibition’s location. But the following year they made a first visit to Munich, where they were exhibited at the Alte Pinakothek.
Like Altdorfer’s paintings and the Aegina pediment, Twombly’s Lepanto paintings depict a conflict that has gained in cultural significance over time, in this case the 7 October 1571 battle between the Holy League forces of the Venetian and Spanish empires, and the Ottoman empire, fought near Nafpaktos (Lepanto was its Venetian name) in the Gulf of Corinth. Twombly created a series of canvases that suggest the opposition of conflicting forces and the progression of their encounter, rather than a single image. But as the texts for the current display note, Twombly depicts a ‘supratemporal conflict’ in which he does not take sides.
Twombly’s twelve canvases feature two distinctive colour schemes and orientations. Paintings I, IV, VIII and XII show a bird’s eye view of the battle, while the others offer a more conventional view, with intensifying colour suggesting a narrative of intensifying action, the turquoises of the sea contrasting with the reds and oranges of the burning boats.
Thematically, the battle of Lepanto was a significant turning point in the history of naval warfare, one of the last major conflicts to be fought between galleys powered by oar rather than sailing ships. Twombly emphasises the role of oars in the minimalist outlines of his boats; boats and barges with oars are a recurrent symbol in his later work, sometimes recalling Greek myth in suggesting the transition between life and death. Just as the casualty figures for the Battle of Issus were not known while it was being fought, neither the historical significance of this battle as a technological turning point nor its significance in the conflict between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire were apparent while it was being fought. Unlike the two earlier more explicitly figurative depictions of war, Twombly’s cycle need not be read historically, but purely aesthetically, as the contrast of colour and the variation of intensity.
Whatever the historical forces that led to these three depictions of battle all being displayed in the Museumsviertel of Munich, they offer the contemporary visitor the opportunity to survey the use of the past across different genres of art and from different societies, and to contemplate the stories that historians have used them to tell.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1975)  Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Koselleck, R. (1985) , Futures Past: on the semantics of historical time, trans. K. Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Prettejohn, E. (2012) The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek sculpture and modern art from Winckelmann to Picasso (London: I. B. Tauris).
Wünsche, R. (2007) , Glyptothek, Munich: masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture, trans. R. Batstone (Munich: C.H. Beck).
UPDATE: the deadline for applications for this post was August 6th, 2018.
Come and work with us! One of our postdoctoral research assistants is leaving the project to take up a permanent academic post, and so we have an opportunity for another postdoctoral scholar to join us for the final part of our project.
Research Assistant (Anachronism and Antiquity)
Faculty of Classics, Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, 66 St Giles’, Oxford
Grade 7: £31,604 – £38,833 pro rata per annum
The Faculty of Classics invites applications for a temporary Research Assistant to join an existing research team led by Professor Tim Rood on the Leverhulme-funded project Anachronism and Antiquity. The position is for 13 months (1 September 2018-30 September 2019).
Reporting to the Principal Investigator, Professor Rood, the appointee will research and write two articles for submission to peer-reviewed journals on topics relating to anachronism. Additional duties are detailed in the further particulars.
The successful candidate will have a relevant first degree and a doctorate, or equivalent research experience, in a relevant discipline; degree-level knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin and good knowledge of relevant modern languages; the ability to manage their own research and administrative activities; and the ability to work well in a team and collaborate with co-editors and colleagues.
The closing date for applications was 12.00 noon on Monday 6th August 2018.
Film offers a medium in which multiple temporalities can be accessed simultaneously. A new film by artist Tacita Dean, Antigone (2018), uses cinematographic effects and a double screen to explore multiple perspectives and times, from the classical past to an uncertain present, through a collage of images and reflections that recall both Sophoclean drama and American film.
Dean’s film, currently being shown in her ‘Landscape’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, grows from an autobiographical question. Antigone is the name her elder sister bears, and its mythical resonances intrigued the artist just as much as those of her own name. The story of Antigone, both sister and daughter to Oedipus, came to fascinate Dean, who also links herself to Oedipus through the shared experience of being lame. While a student she repeatedly inscribed their names, describing these acts in the exhibition catalogue as ‘perhaps in art school imitation of Cy Twombly, who seemed able, like none other, to awake his long-dead heroes by drawing their names’.
This practice continues, to feature in her landscape images, including those displayed in the exhibition, such as the narrative drawing BlindPan (2004) that tells the story of Oedipus as a storyboard for an unmade film.
As this earlier work shows, Dean had long planned to make a film about the character and story of Antigone. Its evocation of landscape and travel is realised in the film that she finally made, after many difficulties in realising her vision.
Dean’s control of elapsed time in the hour-long film is a reminder of the formulaic temporality of Greek tragedy, with the action of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex taking place in a single day. Passing time is represented in the film by the image of a solar eclipse progressing, which provides a time-line throughout; at the core of the film, its totality transforms the landscape. Dean drew on the solar eclipse that crossed the USA in August 2017. While Sophocles uses the conventions of tragedy, such as messenger speeches, to bring past and distant parts of the story on to the stage, Dean frames her depiction of Oedipus’ journey with visible sprocket holes to mark the film’s apparent past, and uses split images to provide multiple perspectives on its landscapes, from Bodmin Moor to the mud pools of Yellowstone national park. The natural imagery also invites questions about duration and stability; the temporary change to the usual order brought by the eclipse, and the impermanent features of the geysers and mud pools of the volcanic landscape.
Oedipus’ blindness is represented anachronistically by the solar-eclipse viewing glasses worn by actor Stephen Dillane when in character; we too see the light of the sun replaced by its eerie corona, the landscape falling into darkness. This sun is itself then reshaped as a foot cuts through the image, suggesting the fragmentation inherent in the retelling of myth through the image masking and editing techniques that Dean uses to compose her complex images.
A breakthrough in Dean’s development of the project came with her meeting with poet Anne Carson and her discovery of Carson’s poem TV Men: Antigone (Scripts I and II), which covered the same part of the myth that interested her, the period between Oedipus leaving Thebes and arriving at Colonus. This poem becomes integral to the film, in which Antigone herself is an ambiguous absence, with Oedipus wandering apparently alone in his blindness, and in which Carson is an informative presence, explaining the story to characters and viewers alike, mediating between the worlds as a chorus figure.
Dean’s Oedipus has forgotten his own story in his long journey, and has many questions to ask the sphinx-like Carson, with whom actor Stephen Dillane is in dialogue both in and out of character. Why has it taken him so long to reach his destiny at Colonus? The myth of the sphinx is reversed; Oedipus must interrogate the poet to understand his own story. Their discussions takes place across time, the character Oedipus at his campfire as he traverses the landscape, and Carson, Dean and Dillane indoors in the present. But that present itself negotiates the recent past: the three discuss the myth in a courtroom in another Thebes, in Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi, itself a symbolic location.
Dean draws on the resonance of this American Thebes’ name with that of Oedipus’ city. It also provides an American present, the small town of the American cinematographic imaginary, as well as hints of an American past that recall other exiles travelling in search of a resolution to their stories. The historical courtroom she films is linked with the story of Dred Scott, who had escaped from enslavement and whose failed legal pursuit of his freedom was a significant point on the road to the US Civil War. American history and geology, ancient Greek myth, and Dean and Carson’s own interpretations of them all contribute to a layering of time and space as the film overlays its characters and locations, using the double and split screen to draw the elements together.
Time is already a problem and a source of uncertainty within the narrative of Oedipus’ story, with puzzling gaps between the episodes within the myth that Sophocles chose to dramatise. Antigone’s presence and voice are also problematic; was Antigone even there in the story before Sophocles developed her character in his plays? Carson’s poem appears and re-appears within the film, and documents the erasure of Antigone’s voice and experience from her own story as it is compressed by editorial processes:
For sound-bite purposes we had to cut Antigone’s script from 42 seconds to 7: substantial changes of wording were involved but we felt we got her ‘take’ right.
The characters’ discussions, along with Carson’s text, foreground the processes of working on myth and question the idea that there is an original story to which retellings should adhere; Carson appeals to Theban versions of the story that predate Sophocles’ retellings. But is the version of Antigone produced by Carson’s ‘TV men’ any less valid as work on myth than that offered by Sophocles? Meanwhile, Dean’s film offers a final glimpse of Oedipus, with a comforting touch on his shoulder as Antigone’s hand emerges from the darkness.
Tacita Dean: Landscape is at the Royal Academy until August 12 2018.
Jonathan Griffin (2018), ‘Tacita Dean: “I don’t care about the long run. I care about now”’, Royal Academy magazine, Spring 2018.
Anne Carson (2000), Men in the Off Hours, London.
Tacita Dean (2018), ‘Antigone’, in Tacita Dean et al.Tacita Dean: Landscape, Portrait, Still Life, London.
‘Was Rabelais an atheist?’ That was the question that the Annales historian Lucien Febvre set out to interrogate in his 1942 monograph The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century. His response has become a classic expression of the dangers of applying later conceptions and terminology to earlier historical periods:
‘When dealing with sixteenth-century men and ideas, when dealing with modes of wishing, feeling, thinking, and believing that bear sixteenth-century arms, the problem is to determine what set of precautions to take and what rules to follow in order to avoid the worst of all sins, the sin that cannot be forgiven – anachronism.’
For Febvre, Rabelais exemplified the impossibility of atheism in his historical milieu.
Whatever the case with Rabelais’ (non-)atheism, many historians would be reluctant to rely on so firm a notion of what was historically possible within any given period. Periods, after all, are heuristic tools, and many different historical rhythms can be identified at any one time. We can helpfully pursue these thoughts here by looking at the shifting rhythms of exemplarity in the work of Rabelais himself.
Historians interested in conceptions of the past often present the Renaissance as a decisive turning-point. An increasing sensitivity to anachronism is thought to have led to the collapse of ancient modes of exemplarity based on the idea of an unchanging human nature. According to many accounts, the hold that exemplarity exercised on the early modern imagination proved to be self-defeating. When people actually attempted to put the theoretical model into practice by imitating the ancients (whether in literature, law, or military tactics), the outcome was a much stronger appreciation of their historical distance from antiquity.
A further weakening of the model of exemplarity arose from the profusion and complexity of ancient exempla. Collections of different exempla led to a more nuanced sense of their various historical contexts. They also revealed that some individuals were credited with conflicting character traits ‒ a particular problem given that metonymy was one of the dominant modes of exemplarity: if the very name of an ancient figure such as Alexander was shorthand for particular qualities, what to do when those qualities included drunkenness and lust as well as courage and daring?
The contrast between Christianity and paganism is seen as another important facet of the Renaissance crisis of exemplarity. Important reflections on this religious contrast are found in Rabelais’ comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel (published between 1532 and 1552) as well as in one of Rabelais’ inspirations, the writings of the Dutch humanist Erasmus. Rabelais presents a council scene in which the bad king Picrochole (‘Bitter bile’) is told by his rash advisers that if he pursues wars of aggression he will become ‘the most sprightly and knightly prince there ever has been since the death of Alexander of Macedonia’. Suggesting that he divide his army, the advisers then plot out step by step the conquests he should seek (they even start alluding to those conquests in the past tense, as if anticipating that they have already happened). At one point Picrochole suggests that he should rebuild the temple of Solomon once he has conquered Jerusalem, but his advisers tell him not to rush: ‘Do you know what Octavian Augustus used to say? Hasten slowly. It behoves you first to hold Asia Minor, Caria, Lycia, Cilicia, Lydia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Carrasia, Satalia …’
Thus far Rabelais’ scene seems to show the power of ancient models of military conquest. The allusion to Alexander is a hit at the imperial ambitions of the Hapsburg emperor Charles V. Charles promoted comparisons with Alexander and other ancient models: his device Plus ultra (‘More beyond’) showed two columns, standing for the Pillars of Hercules, which in antiquity were emblems of the limits of the world, but had now been superseded by Charles’ conquests in Mexico and Peru. Rabelais’ satire may also be expressed through imitation of a literary model, the speech in Herodotus (5.49) where Aristagoras of Miletus tries to persuade the Spartans to invade Asia Minor by listing the successive stages of the conquest (Rabelais had translated parts of Herodotus).
The Christian twist to the exemplary model comes after Picrochole’s predictable defeat. The Alexander allusion is recalled as the wise giant-king Grandgousier rebukes an envoy sent by Picrochole:
The time has passed for such conquering of kingdoms to the harm of our Christian brothers and neighbours. Such imitation of ancient heroes – Hercules, Alexander, Hannibal, Scipio, Caesar and so on – is contrary to the teaching of our Gospel, by which we are each commanded to guard, save, rule and manage his own realms and lands, and never aggressively to invade those of others. And what the Saracens and Barbarians once dubbed prowess we now call brigandage and evil-doing.
The sense of change is strengthened by the fact that even the non-Christians Saracens no longer approve of vainglorious dreams of conquest.
Rabelais’ account of Picrochole’s ambitions is a brilliant re-working of themes found in the moral and educational writings of Erasmus. The saying of Augustus to which Picrochole’s counsellors allude ‒ ‘hasten slowly’, festina lente ‒ is the subject of a long discussion in Erasmus’ Adages (a miscellany of discussions of ancient proverbs originally published in 1508); Rabelais seems to expose its dangerous malleability by putting it in the mouth of speakers themselves more intent on haste than caution. Besides the Adages, Rabelais was picking up Erasmus’ 1516 work Institutio Principis Christiani (The Education of a Christian Prince). Erasmus there warns that the ancient historians have to be read ‘forearmed and selectively’ rather than as storehouses of useful advice:
‘Both Herodotus and Xenophon were pagans and very often present the worst type of prince, even if they wrote history for the purpose of … portraying the image of an outstanding leader.’
Erasmus then turns his attention to the characters the historians depict: ‘when you hear of Xerxes, Cyrus, Darius, or Julius, do not let the prestige of a great name seize you: you are hearing of great and raging bandits.’ Rabelais’ re-working of Erasmus is the more pointed because Erasmus’ educational treatise had been dedicated to the young Charles V.
Reading Erasmus and Rabelais should caution us against constructing too strong an antithesis between classical antiquity and the Christian era. Erasmus openly acknowledges that his condemnation of ‘bandits’ is taken from the Stoic author Seneca (De Beneficiis 2.18.6). And Rabelais’ council scene includes an ‘old nobleman’ Echephron (‘Prudent’) who objects to the planned conquests with an argument that is lifted directly from the mouth of the counsellor Cineas in chapter 14 of Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus: when Pyrrhus/Picrochole, prompted to explain his final goal after all the toils of military conquest, replies that they will then rest at their ease, Cineas/Echephron asks why they do not take their rest straightaway without exposing themselves to danger first. There are also classical precedents for Grandgousier’s analysis of the change in the moral evaluation of aggressive warfare from ‘prowess’ to ‘brigandage’: Thucydides, for example, observes that brigandage was not disavowed by characters in the Homeric poems and was still in his own day honoured in remote parts of Greece that clung to the old ways (1.5).
Looking deeper into the rhetoric of exemplarity in the Renaissance unsettles, then, some of the over-simple polarities used in the construction of intellectual history. And as our project progresses, we will be using anachronism to unsettle scholarly complacency further as we explore the temporal schisms that lurk just below the surface of the ancient discourse of exemplarity.