The art of synchronism

Since antiquity artists have made use of themes, formats, and styles from the ancient world, and responded to specific surviving works of art. The ancient world, its stories and its art, offer many possibilities for creative re-use and re-imagination as well as generating synchronisms and anachronisms, when elements from different periods or their associated styles are worked together. Looking at the way in which artists combine elements from past and present, and considering what they choose to emphasise, in representing the ancient world or bringing objects and ideas from it into the modern, may be one way to tell the story of anachronism.

The ancient and the contemporary

Over the last few weeks we have had a visiting undergraduate research assistant, Mycroft Zimmerman from Duke University, North Carolina, working with us on anachronism and synchronism in the visual arts, and these are two of the images and objects that he has found particularly striking in their conjunction of ancient and more recent worlds, and in their creators’ handling of temporality.

The nine heroes

hector
‘Hector’, from the Nine Heroes tapestry in the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 47.101.2d.

A group of tapestries from the southern Netherlands, and most likely made in the 1400s CE, now in the Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, depicts a collection of figures often dubbed the ‘Nine Heroes’ or ‘Nine Worthies’. These consist of three groups of three celebrated figures from the pagan, Jewish and Christian eras or worlds. This grouping was a favourite of mediaeval and Renaissance artists, with surviving examples in sculpture, print and tapestry. The heroes cross the boundaries of history and myth (pagan antiquity includes Hector and Julius Caesar, the Christian era King Arthur and Charlemagne), and artists typically depicted all in contemporary dress and with contemporary symbols of power and authority.

Mycroft writes: ‘Hector is clothed exquisitely in a cape and armor as a sign of military affiliation, implying valour by way of his war-time accomplishments. Additionally, he wears a crown, signaling virtue as a result of nobility. The objects in Hector’s environment on the tapestry, are also distinctly Medieval. He wields a sword in the style of a knight and clutches a shield emblazoned with a lion coat of arms. Moreover, Hector’s surroundings are exclusively comprised of iconography from the Middle Ages: flying buttresses support the framework, vaulted arches loom over him and his compatriots. Perhaps the only characteristic of this Hector that unites him with depictions of him from antiquity is his long, manly beard.’

De Chirico’s Ariadne

ariadne
De Chirico, Ariadne, 1913, 1996.403.10, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978) frequently used classical imagery in his work, often returning to the same objects, such as the statue of Sleeping Ariadne from the Vatican Collection. Here this statue is the focus of Ariadne, a painting from 1913 now in the Metropolitan Museum. The ancient statue is depicted with timeless elements, such as the arcade, shorn of architectural detail that would tie it to a specific period, but also more modern elements such as the steam train that crosses the background.

Mycroft writes: ‘If de Chirico had elected to include Ariadne as a living figure in the painting, he would lose the effect of contrasting ancient art and modern design directly. The statue stretches from the foreground to mid-ground of the work, and leads the viewer’s eyes up toward a steam engine, a tower, and a boat. The temporal incongruence of these objects is readily apparent. The gray tower, with its varied blend of period styles, becomes a tool to perpetuate metaphysical tension in the work rather than an effort to recreate any particular structure from any particular period.’