Friday, February 20, 2009

ASCSA Art 1: Dinner Table Art in Loring by Piet de Jong

It is a generally held belief that art is used by people and groups to define themselves. After all, what you’ve got hanging on your walls says a lot about you. From the wall-paintings of the Romans to the posters plastered on freshman dorm-room walls, art is often meant to convey something about its owner, to ooze class, taste, hippness or to be cutting edge. So what, I wondered, does the art of the American School say?

Today begins my new feature on the Art of the American School. I’ll try to post on this topic as regularly as I can, but I won’t pretend that I won’t get side-tracked by other things as well. Especially as we get to the end of the semester and I have four more reports to research (Jane Harrison! Plato’s Academy! Underwater archaeology! Aphrodisias!), I’m running out of time, with a quickness.

Mostly I’ll be addressing the paintings/prints hung on the walls of the Blegen Library and Loring Hall. As I’ve wandered about I have mentally categorized this art into four groups:

1) Portraits – mostly of American School celebrities
2) Landscapes of Greece – showing either idyllic scenes with traditional Greek stuff or
depicting ruins
3) Replicas of ancient works – enlarged versions of ancient artifacts, such as pottery, mosaics, etc.
4) Items of Erudition – stuff that you put on your office wall to show your smartness, like Ye Olde Maps, Renaissance-looking philosophers, engravings of personifications, etc.

I wanted to start with a room that I sit in everyday, Loring Hall’s dining room.

A series of watercolors hang on all four walls, by Piet de Jong.
Piet de Jong, Porch of the Parthenon

By whom, you ask? Piet de Jong, the most influential artist working for the American School (and British School) in the 20th century. Hmmm, that still may not be overly helpful. If any of you have been to Knossos on Crete, then you are well-versed in his work, as he reconstructed the wall-paintings there. And of course, if you have ever studied Mycenaean Greece, then you will have seen his most famous reconstruction of all:
Reconstruction of the megaron at Pylos.

He actually did a whole array of work, from caricatures to site plans, to pottery sketches, to beautiful illustrations of ancient artifacts (see Papadopoulos 2007; Hood 1998, Faces of archaeology in Greece). I’ve been staring at his landscapes while I eat dinner for a while now, but to me, they were rather vague pictures of trees and rocks from the 1920s and that was all. But yesterday we went to the South Slope of the Acropolis, and when I came back and looked at his paintings again, I was in for shock.

You see, while we were walking towards the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, I stopped and looked up at this really amazing image of the Parthenon, one corner of the building just barely peeking out at us. I remarked on it to Margie, and she was impressed by the very blueness of the sky. Thirty minutes later, just about to eat lunch, I realized that Piet de Jong had stood in that very exact spot in the late 1920s and had also recognized what a fantastic picture it might be:
The very tippy edge of the parthenon above the Stoa of Eumenes. Piet de Jong.

I’d looked at that picture, close up, on several occasions, and never realized what it was until I came back from standing in the same place as the artist.

Then there was the matter of the Theatre of Dionysos. Just above the theatre a guy named Thrasyllos built a gigantic monument in the bedrock of the Acropolis. He cut into a cave already present on the slope, added some statues, and threw in some enormous columns. The monument is currently being restored, but it played a big part in our morning escapade. And lo! Piet de Jong painted it not once, but twice, from two different directions.

His watercolors, I admit, are not my favorites; I like a lot of his other work far better and may address some of it here in the future. But it’s nice to know that the paintings on the wall, hung from fishing line, are those of an archaeologist at the School. It’s even better to see the angles and views of the sites we’re seeing every day, there in watercolors. It’s also slightly creepy, for some reason that I haven’t quite figured out. At least I’ll now always have some strange obsessive fascination with that one view of the Parthenon, sticking its head up over the Stoa's broken arches.

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