From Issus to Lepanto: battle scenes and temporality in the history of art

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.

Altdorfer's Alexanderschlacht
Schlacht bei Issus, or the Alexanderschlacht, by Albrecht Altdorfer (1529). Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

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.

Aegina temple pediment
Panoramic view of the current display of the West pediment of the temple at Aegina, Munich Glyptothek. Picture credit: Vitold Muratov.

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.

Wounded warrior
Wounded warrior, from the Aeginetan west pediment, c. 500-490 BCE. Munich Glyptothek.

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.

Cy Twombly's Lepanto (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich
Cy Twombly’s Lepanto (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich

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.

Twombly Lepanto II
Cy Twombly, Lepanto II (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich.

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.

References

  • Hegel, G.W.F. (1975) [1835] Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Koselleck, R. (1985) [1979], 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) [2005], Glyptothek, Munich: masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture, trans. R. Batstone (Munich: C.H. Beck).

 

 

 

An anachronic conversation: Cy Twombly and classical art

Cy Twombly’s allusive use of the classical past in his art is a familiar theme of his work, seen in projects such as his Fifty Days at Iliam sequence, recently exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in Paris as part of a major retrospective. But how might placing his work alongside objects and images from classical antiquity illuminate this practice? One might expect such an exhibition to demonstrate the gulf between ancient and contemporary art, but as the show’s title suggests, a dialogue may be possible.

Divine Dialogues: Cy Twombly and Greek Antiquity, currently on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, aims to explore Twombly’s work, and to introduce it to a wider Greek audience. The small exhibition takes a careful selection of paintings and sculptures and sets them alongside ancient representations of the divine figures named in the works: Pan, Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysus, Orpheus and Aristaeus, and Nike. The curator’s aim is to introduce Twombly’s art with its ‘minimalist multi-level symbolism’ (as the curator, Prof. Nicholaos Stampolidis, describes it) by setting it in conversation with ancient representations of the same figures and their mythology.

Cy Twombly's Venus (1975) in Athens
Cy Twombly’s Venus (1975) on display with Anadyomene (1981) and a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite. Photo Paris Tavitian, © Museum of Cycladic Art.

Some of the pairings are quite obvious matchings of subject between ancient and modern; a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite, and a vase painting of her birth, face Twombly’s 1979 series Aphrodite Anadyomene. Twombly’s resin cast of pan pipes, scarcely distinguishable from an ancient dedication, clearly belongs to the god whose statue is displayed nearby. One can see the force of ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s description of Twombly’s sculpture as ‘more archaic than archaizing’.

Other ancient statues of gods stand near Twombly’s paintings that catalogue the divine epithets and cult names applied to them, giving the contemporary painting a religious force. In some of his works, Twombly includes representative symbols from which ancient divinities can be recognised; Nike is represented by a delta-shaped wing, in works from 1980 and 1984, while a Dionysiac phallus in Dionysus, from 1975, echoes the form of an ancient grotesque statuette displayed alongside it.

In some cases, the allusion is indirect. The 1975 work, from a show itself titled Allusions, drew on contemporary sources such as Venetian graffiti, as well as classical antecedents. Aristaeus mourning the loss of his bees references a neo-classical sculpture of the name rather than Virgil’s text, and Twombly appears to delight in the phrase as much as he illustrates its sadness. It’s hard to connect these sombre works to the black-figure vase painting of a winged figure holding tools in each hand.

The centre of the exhibition is not, however, a work by Twombly, but one by Kleitias, a Greek vase painter from the sixth century BCE. The François Vase, visiting Greece from the Museo Archeologico in Florence, is set slightly apart from Twombly’s work, and without an explicit counterpart from him.

The Francois Vase
The François Vase, in its usual setting in Florence. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze, 4209.

But looking closely at the vase, with its rows of tiny, detailed mythological scenes, one sees that each figure is carefully named. From this perspective, Twombly’s practice of writing names and epithets on his canvases, to identify the figures whose myths he evokes, may become an echo of the ancient painter’s practice, a ‘semiotics’ shared across the centuries that separate them. The ancient vase, it seems, is responding to the contemporary display as a whole, and perhaps raising some questions about it. Can one appreciate or understand Twombly’s paintings, or the François vase’s mythological scenes, without reading their textual components? Or does Twombly’s ‘strange language of scribbles’, as the curators describe it, circumscribe the interpretation of his art?

Seeing Homer

Rubens’ The Death of Hector is a scene from the Iliad replete with un-Homeric details. The armour and red cloaks recall Roman soldiers. Putti are common in Renaissance paintings but not in ancient Greek representations of the Trojan war. For viewers familiar with the Iliad, the putti’s role as spectators is jarringly different from the poem’s presentation of the gods, and Hector’s family, watching the battle (recalled in the painting by the onlookers on the walls). And yet these ‘anachronisms’ are not mistakes, as it would be to say that Rubens lived and worked in fifth century BC Greece. Showing Achilles and Hector in the dress of a later age creates a tradition of heroism in which they act as exemplars, while the putti remind viewers that they necessarily see the painting through modern eyes.

rubens-achilles
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The Death of Hector, Musée Des Beaux Arts, Pau, c. 1630-35

This capacity of ‘anachronistic’ phenomena to be more than simply redundant or out of place prompts Jacques Rancière to push aside the pejorative ‘anachronism’ in favour of ‘anachrony’. He uses this term to refer to ‘a word, an event, or a signifying sequence that has left “its” time’. He locates the power of anachronies in their ‘capacity to define completely original points of orientation’, from which we might see the world, and our temporal experience of it, in unexpected and revealing ways. Such reorientations emerge in many creative engagements with Homer and other ancient writers, and they play a particularly important role in Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a poem that fragments the Iliad into similes and casualty lists. Hers is a poetics that acknowledges its difference from Homer – she aims to convey the poem’s ‘atmosphere, not its story’. Yet by reaching towards the Iliad’s ‘bright, unbearable reality’, she also transplants readers into a frightening, alien world, using the words of the Greek text ‘as openings to see what Homer was looking at’.

This balancing of dependence and departure is especially pronounced in her renderings of the Iliad’s narratives, which she terms ‘paraphrases’ and which often fold complex scenes out of a few sparse hints. Homer’s characterization of Abarbarea as ‘a nymph of the springs’ (νύμφη / νηῒς Ἀβαρβαρέη, Il. 6.21–2) becomes

There was a blue pool who loved her loneliness
Lay on her stones clear-eyed staring at trees
Her name was Abarbarea …

Oswald cleaves closely to ‘what Homer was looking at’ by accentuating the nymph’s strange dual identity as woman and water. We first meet Abarbarea as ‘a blue pool’, while a few lines later her lover ‘jumped … into her arms’. We can see in her ‘clear-eyed staring’ both a fully anthropomorphic gaze and the pool’s water reflecting the trees. Yet ‘loved her loneliness’ is an un-Homeric notion; isolation tends to be associated with despondency or suffering in the Iliad, as when Achilles stares out to sea after his quarrel with Agamemnon, and there is no word in Homer that corresponds precisely to ‘loneliness’. Similarly, no Homeric character manifests the contemplative absorption evoked by ‘staring at trees’. Like Rancière’s ‘anachronies’, these phrases open up a new ‘orientation’ by making us imagine Abarbarea’s experience of her world.

In other passages, Oswald uses vocabulary and ideas that are even more obviously ‘anachronic’, in the sense of not belonging to Homer’s world. Isos and Antiphos ‘came home as proud as astronauts’ before riding out to their deaths, while Hector

… used to nip home defended by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running.

In a rendering of a simile, ‘tribes of summer bees’ are ‘A billion factory women flying to their flower work’. The astronauts, the running motorbike, and the factory show the poet’s workings, tracing imaginative equivalences through which the Iliad becomes freshly meaningful. Hovering between the modern and the ancient, lines like these lay bare the untimeliness of our engagement with Homer. They create a ‘time’ untethered either to that of the Iliad or the experiences of the modern reader, while also intimating that we as readers can never quite be at home in it.

twombly-shield
Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011), Fifty Days at Iliam: Shield of Achilles, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1978

Distance from Homer is also at issue in Cy Twombly’s series Fifty Days at Iliam. Representative of its attempt to reprogramme our sense of what it might be to ‘see’ the Iliad is ‘Achilles’ Shield’, in which the refusal of canonical representational conventions is the more provocative for being directed at the foundational ecphrasis of ancient literature. Whereas Homer represents the shield as an ordered series of pictures encompassing a range of social, political, and military activities, Twombly sets a title alongside swirling, apparently amorphous brushstrokes. Homer’s highly structured opposition between scenes of war and peace is replaced by contrasting colours. The painting invites us towards a ‘point of orientation’ in which something is represented to us, while also encouraging us to find between the marks on the canvas and the ‘shield’ of the title correspondences formally different from those that paintings such as Rubens’ establish with their subjects. The position of the ‘shield’ to one side of canvas creates an impression of movement, and we might see the blur of lines as enacting the impression the shield makes on its viewers within the story: at the beginning of Iliad 19, for instance, Achilles’ soldiers are seized by fear at the sight of the shield, and cannot bear to look at it.

Rubens, Oswald, and Twombly create new means of encountering the stories the Iliad tells, but they also evoke a ‘bright, unbearable reality’ that emerges from (their readings of) the poem, and yet is separate from it. Their ‘anachronic’ realizations of this domain remind us that the Iliad itself is not entirely ‘of its time’. The very clarity with which the Iliad projects its world ensures not only that that world can be encountered as an endlessly compelling imaginative resource, but that it can be apprehended as a ‘reality’ in relation to which the poem itself is epigonal.

  • Oswald, A. (2012) Memorial: an excavation of the Iliad (London: Faber).