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Sunday, February 01, 2004

Arts & Letters

The Beauty in the Beast

The Centaur’s Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, October 11, 2003 -January 18, 2004 and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, February 22-May 16.

The Centaur’s Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art seems inevitable and deceptively obvious, like pointing out the importance of clouds in French impressionist landscape or the table laden with food in images of the Last Supper. That is, the exhibition explores a subject so familiar that it is easily overlooked, yet one so wide-reaching and important in its implications that any viewer might experience a sense of déjà vu upon approaching it. Of course, one must have seen an exhibition like this in New York, or Boston, or somewhere….

Centaurs, satyrs, gorgons, and other human-animal combinations were pervasive in ancient Greek art, so much so that it is difficult to imagine a room of Greek vases without these creatures dancing and leering across their glazed surfaces. Many of contemporary popular culture’s human-animal hybrids — Batman, Spiderman, Catwoman, and so forth — derive from classical iconography and, more distantly, from the same reservoir of Middle Eastern prototypes that spawned the ancient Greek creatures. Sirens, who in their earliest manifestations sang souls on their way to the underworld, are perhaps the distant relatives of those angels who guarded the Garden of Eden’s gates and, looking to the future, of the self-evolved and immortal post-humans of recent speculative theory. The iconography of the cloven-hoofed Satan, it could be argued, derives from images of Pan. And so forth, and so on.

The human-animal hybrid is an adaptive creature like any other; and it shifted with changes in ethos or world-view. The centaur was originally depicted as male and, in early times, brutal; later, as belief declined and mythology was absorbed into art and popular entertainment, the female centaur appeared, nursing an infant centaur. Satyrs also gradually acquired families. Certain aspects of the human-animal, however, remained consistent across time. The creature was always part-human and part-animal or -insect (and not a sci-fi alien with a few anthropomorphic characteristics); it also possessed strengths and appetites that, whether unleashed for good or bad, often led to friction or outright conflict with humans. Centaurs drank too much and attacked their hosts, and satyrs became aroused (or, more aroused than usual) and harassed each other and everyone around them (indeed, the exhibition includes an amusing pottery fragment of three satyrs in anarchic group sex). The Gorgon petrified anyone who returned its gaze, an apt metaphor for the socially paralyzing effects of whatever is seen, at any given time, as monstrous, freakish, or ugly.

In short, the human-animal is an archetype of Otherness, be it racial, psychological, economic, metaphysical, epistemological, or all of these at once. Thus, the centaur can be interpreted as the barbarian, or as the self released from emotional restraints, as a representative of an underclass, as the alienated loner or troublemaker, or as the divided self. It can be also seen as a symbol of dialectical opposition and change, much like the sexual encounter of Leda and the swan, which so fascinated William Butler Yeats that he spun a dialectical theory of history in his poem based on this mythological moment. The irony in the human-animal’s Otherness derives, however, from simultaneous belonging, the joining of various oppositions or polarities: human-animal, civilized-barbaric, repressed-libidinous. The term used in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition is “composite.” This isn’t very sexy — composite sounds like a mineral amalgam or a kind of technology mutual fund — but the term is useful because it points, if abstractly, to a certain thread in ancient Greek mythology. The mythic world was rampant with ruthless, spur-of-the-moment, cross-species rape: disguised gods, usually Zeus, descended as bulls, swans, or golden rain to mate with irresistible women. Other composites, those wholly human, combined genders or existential states: male-female (Tiresias), holy-polluted (blind Oedipus), and alive-and-dead (Persephone). The categories and examples proliferate, suggesting that a reassessment is in order.

To this end, The Centaur’s Smile poses a few broad questions: who or what were the human-animals, what were their origins, and what did they represent? It’s not possible to find definitive answers to these questions in the fragments the ancient world has bequeathed us, but the survey at Princeton (and soon at Houston) offers some intriguing suggestions. Sorting human-animal types along gender lines, as the exhibition guides and catalogue have us do, produces interesting results. Sphinxes, gorgons, and sirens were female. Bull forms (the Minotaur and Acheloos), goat forms (Pan, the satyrs), centaurs (until late in their history), and fish or serpent-men (Nereus, Triton, Typhon) were male. The female composites posed danger through the ways in which they communicated: they destroyed their victims with a look, a question, or a song. Males ate, or raped, or crushed their victims to death. The phallic serpent-composites were slippery, hard to pin down, and given to changing their appearance, which might be one metaphorical way of describing male deny-or-rationalize behavior when confronted by a woman’s hard looks and pointed questions. The Gorgon, consistent with this, quite literally “fixed” the appearance of others, turning them into stone. In other words, the animal part of the composite gives an external form to certain anxieties, fears, or resentments held by the respective opposite sex.

The composite can also be understood as a reflection of the interaction of cultures in the Mediterranean. Sphinxes and sirens resemble Near Eastern guardians of the dead, and man-bull figures are similar to those Near Eastern gods who served as palace guardians to ward off disruptive forces of nature. When the composites appear in ancient Greek culture, however, they become darker and fiercer, as if the forces they guarded against had been absorbed into them. A human-headed limestone bull from Mesopotamia looks like a hippie rock-guitarist in the hands of a manic hair stylist; his lips are full, his beard falls in long waves, and his enormous eyes may be placid, but they’ve seen too much — for the creature has been through too much — to be completely mellow. Among the ancient Greeks, this composite becomes the Minotaur, an archetype of death, confusion, and fear. Similarly, the amusing Bes, the pot-bellied Egyptian guardian of women in childbirth, is stripped of all but his curly hair and grimace when he becomes the Greek Gorgon, who is not amusing at all. The sphinx, a god or genie (a supernatural being one order below the gods), retains certain aspects of what might have been its apotropaic role, but in Greek stories this fierce protector no longer shields anyone from evil, but, instead, kills and devours members of the civilized community. The Sphinx is a test for Oedipus — he must defeat her in order to save the city that, unbeknown to him, is his birthright to rule — and, despite her savagery, the Sphinx remains a liminal figure, a misunderstood guardian, like so many in folklore and literature, confronting a point of no return. For Oedipus is entangled within the weird trappings of moral, legal, and (because of his incestuous marriage to his mother) biological estrangement from the community.

Of course, it is necessary to qualify carefully any claim of descent or influence from one mythical tradition to another. Not enough is known about how composite prototypes traveled across cultures, or how they developed within ancient Greek cultures. Still, it does appear that the Greek figures, however arrived at, tend to stress the monstrous over the magical, the troublesome and threatening over the protective and helpful.

Then again, even this statement must be qualified. Of centaurs, images of the centauromachies predominate in this exhibit, but there are also representations of peaceable, even friendly, and wise centaurs. The centaur Chiron, teacher of many Greek heroes (including Jason and Achilles), is the best known of these benign figures. The exhibition also includes a lovely Attic vase-painting of Chiron’s marriage to the nymph Chariclo: an unusual departure from images of centaurs ravishing women. An early Greek bronze (late sixth century BCE), modeled in blocky rectangles for the body and a broad ovoid for the head, extends its right hand in greeting; the figure may be Chiron, or it might be one of the docents chatting in the gallery.

Fewer satyr images depart from type, but there are surprises. A terracotta statuette of a satyr riding a mule (fifth century BCE) might be a reference to the cult of Dionysus, as suggested in the catalogue, but the oversized head and beard, and the simple rendering of the body, give it a placid, peasant-like appearance. A bronze statuette from the same period has all the markings of a satyr — cloven hoofs, pointed ears, large beard — except for the phallus, which, for once, is at rest. But its squatting pose and the lovely play of circular shapes in its face (the wide-open eyes and rounded eyebrows in particular) give it the alert gentleness one will sometimes, not often, encounter in a goat.

And each of the several statuettes of sirens is intriguing. The clumsiest, and most charming, figure (bronze, ca. 750-700 BCE) balances a long neck and large, quizzical head on an improbably small, pigeon-like body. A later ceramic figure (ca. 575 BCE), from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, swells to a ball beneath its naturalistic head; it has a matronly, gravity-bound doughtiness, which inspires one to think that she dispensed lots of gossip to her guests before killing them and kept a crystal bowl of hard candy by the door for her grandchildren. Objects from the Near East — cylinder seals, relief sculpture, statuettes, domestic items — placed the Greek composites in a long historical context. An Assyrian figure (seventh century to ninth century BCE) depicts a genie wearing a fish costume, suggesting ritual origins of certain human-animals. Most of these early objects cast a teasing glance at a belief system whose embrace of glamour, beauty, and sacrificial austerity one can only, from this distance, vaguely imagine.

The classical Greeks did not invent fluid identity, but they may have enjoyed and respected it more than most in Western culture. Scholarship gradually complicates, and perhaps matures, romanticized ideas of Athenian democracy’s interplay of voices and roles, Greek sexual culture’s celebration of behaviors that were (until recently) circumscribed in modern society, and Greek mythology’s penchant for a direct engagement between gods and humans. The Centaur’s Smile reminds one of the remarkable complexity and sophistication of another era and place, where human and animal were conjoined.

Christopher Moylan is a poet and associate professor of English at New York Institute of Technology; he also writes art criticism for a number of print and online publications.
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