The ‘Presidents’ Club’ as an anachronistic community

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).

Andy Thomas, The Presidents' Club
Andy Thomas, The Presidents’ Club

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.

The Family of Henry VIII, group portrait
Attributed to Lucas De Heere (1534-84), The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession, 1572, National Museum Cardiff.

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.

The Hervey Conversation Piece, by William Hogarth (1697-1764), Ickworth House, Suffolk.
The Hervey Conversation Piece, by William Hogarth (1697-1764), Ickworth House, Suffolk.

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.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, artwork by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, 1967
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, artwork by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, 1967

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.

 

Project news – Dr Mathura Umachandran

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.

Dr Mathura Umachandran

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.

 

Job opportunity: postdoctoral research assistant

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.

 

 

Welcome to Anachronism and Antiquity: Configuring Temporalities in Ancient Literature and Scholarship

Our Florida team has prepared a poster for our project conference which takes place at the end of this week.

Full details of paper titles and the running order is now on our Events page.

Anachronism and Antiquity poster

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.’