Morten Straede
Between Scylla and Charybdis

Concerning the artist’s perception of Antiquity.


First of all I’d like to thank Thorvaldsen’s Museum for inviting me to this seminar on the artist’s perception of Antiquity. As a sculptor, and therefor a practitioner, the subject leaves me, in this learned company, slightly tongue-tied and on foreign ground regarding the discourse in witch it is communicated. My survival tactics will therefor be to confine myself to my own field, sculpturing. The essence of the work has always has been to create experience and understanding in a physical form. I hope that my thoughts are intelligible, even though I have no representations of artworks to accompany them. Furthermore I have ventured to broaden the term “Antiquity” and regard it as an expression of our historical understanding in all its different aspects. A battle regarding the relation memory and oblivion is fought in contemporary art, and this has many repercussions. I’ll avoid that discussion, which in effect is endless, and will just clarify the situation by posing two questions: 1) Is it necessarily old-fashioned in artistic expression to use the profession’s history, and the facets it may induce? And 2) Is a conscious dismissal of the great historical legacy necessarily the same as artistic strength and modern radicalism? Originating way back in early modernism, this debate is still today conveyed in art work, and can quite well be extended to contain the society that surrounds and includes us. Bearing this in mind I would like to say a few words.



One of the operative things to be aware of when talking about the artist’s perception of -, rediscovery of - or use of Antiquity, is that we constantly are in search of something new. Most artists regard something new and not seen before as a more significant and adequate expression of their time, than something already accomplished. The sculptor’s fundamental relationship to history has always pointed forward, as he/ she advances towards new works in an attempt to keep up with the surrounding times. It is quite certain that only a small number of artists approach Antiquity from a philosophical, art historical or archaeological point of view. The sculptor has no interest in understanding every detail of the past, as no connection exists between the artist’s objective knowledge of a certain epoch, and current artworks that are the outcome of this knowledge. As artists our interest in art from previous eras is far more pragmatic, and I believe that this approach covers artists from various historical periods.

The artist will ask; Are these artworks useful in present productions of art? Can they be revived? In other words: Are the artworks artistically and structurally adequate to be vital in a contemporary context. And do they expose new aspects of a current topic. It seems to me that the answer lies in the structure, in the exclusive sculptural skills and designs and the interaction between the two. Or said in the severest way possible. The structurally strongest works are the most vigorous. It is works that possess such a profound artistic logic that they are capable of being used as examples for subsequent colleagues, without loosing their artistic strength and expression.


To clarify my point of view I would like to read a passage for you. It concerns the English artist B. R. Haydon’s report of his first encounter with the Elgin Marbles in the summer of 1808.


We drove down Park Lane and after crossing the lobby and an open yard, we entered a damp, dirty room where the Marbles lay directly before us. The first thing that caught my eye was the wrist of one of the figures in a group of women. Here I clearly saw - though in female form - the radius and the ulna. I was astounded, as I had never before seen them displayed in any female wrist from Antiquity. My eyes wandered up towards the elbow and I saw the outer condyle as vividly as in life. I could see that the arm was in a resting position, and that the softer parts were quite relaxed. The combination of the natural and art, that I always found missing in higher art forms, was laughing right in my face. My heart beat wildly! And even if I hadn’t seen anymore it was enough to keep me to the natural for the rest of my life. But when I turned to Theseus, I saw, that every shape corresponded with his movement and position. I saw how the two parts of his back were completely different, as one reached from the shoulder blade, that was being pushed forward, and the other part was pressed together because the shoulder blade was pushed towards the spine, so that he sat resting on his elbow. His belly was flat, because this sitting position made the intestines sink into the pelvis. And as I turned to face Ulysses I saw his belly was bulging out, as he was lying on his side. And in the battle scene I saw a flexed muscle in an armpit, in the place where the arm was stretched, but the same muscle could not be seen in the other, as it was relaxed. Here I experienced the most heroic art forms combined with all the significant details of real life. These sculptures were created for infinity.


B. R. Haydon

Autobiography and Journals 1847


It is not the delivery of a specific Antique thought in an Antique sculpture that attracts the artist’s attention. The sculptures do not expose any immediate understanding of Antiquity. He is aware of the myths that form the basis of the two works of art; he recognises Theseus and Ulysses at once, but establishes no association between the subject and the artistic achievement. There is no interpretation of the contents. Or rather his interpretation of the contents doesn’t consider the Antique topics and how they are expressed in the sculptures. The interpretation takes places between the Antique sculptures and the artist’s own most pressing current venture. As far I can tell, this is a conscious choice. We are in 1808, classicism and possibly the dawning romanticism called upon truth to nature and the unaffected, and surprisingly this is what he observed in the sculptures. Theseus and Ulysses are interesting as bodies and not as mythological characters. It is the position of the arms and the tone of the muscles that becomes significant. The figures grant the natural aspect a greater status, than a bare and simple human would. Aided by the sculptures the natural aspect becomes something perpetual. The newest fad has therefore always existed, and must therefore be true and preferred. It isn’t surprising that the artist ends up assigning the sculptures an eternal status - Or is it the budding middle class that receives an eternal status, with a little help from the sculptures?


Ancient art has been utilised, in different ways, through the years by artists with various aims. I’m sure that this seminar will discuss many of the different artistic strategies, history has had to offer.

I believe that Antiquity has been the basis for numerous social models and utopias. It has been declared unattainable regarding artistic quality and been titled “the golden age of mankind” (Since then we’ve gone down hill.) By moving the vanishing point of consciousness from God in heaven to mankind itself, Antiquity has been used as an escape from the medieval attention to text and static understanding of the universe. It was utilised as a tool for an offensive middle-class, whose most prominent artists surround us here today, and later it became the picturesque backdrop for a restricted and fanciful petit-bourgeoisie. Even today Antiquity appears in works by different artist, each time used in a unique way in relation to the artist’s own purpose. And each time it has been able to deliver images, space, capability, and context. In other words we are dealing with a very versatile subject. The artwork of Antiquity (an Antiquity that spans over several hundred years) is on the one hand static because the works remain the same over centuries. They can be seen time and time again in museums. They can be placed and lit in different ways, but the artwork and its structural and designed composites remain the same. On the other hand we can observe the way in which the artworks have been utilised alternates radically in pace with the ebbs and flows of society.


There is no doubt that Antiquity has been used to give the artworks a perspective. Antiquity provides a space for the artworks, so large that the individual artwork can divulge its particular interpretation of the world. Notably without being lost in the darkness of obscurity. Because Antiquity has often provided an intelligible link between the artwork and the public. So one can say that artists have used Antiquity as the basis for new interpretations of the world. That is to say, used as a starting point, whose contents the artist needed not be true to. But also, at the very moment newly gained artistic insights was to be adopted as carrying principals for social development or class, Antiquity has been used as a guideline, a safeguard against this renewal. Artists have had a very divided relationship to Antiquity over the years.



History is full of examples of how social change and changes in aesthetic foundations, in individuals as well as in society, walk hand in hand, and predicts (if one believes in the avant-garde) or manifests (if we use a broader concept of time) a new era. When looking at his/ her surrounding society in search for useful food for thought, in the hunt of a new picture, the artist also looks to his/ her own profession and its history, to locate aesthetic resources that correspond with the intellectual findings. This is how we have seen Antiquity used many times, or rather the many interpretations of Antiquity.


Illusions dispersed, after World War I, regarding immortal handed down art as a general reference point for visual art, and the idea of Antiquity as an active co-creator of artwork. One only needs to glance at sculptures by Rodin’s contemporaries to spot the clouded excesses to which the interpretations of Antique concepts of form, and Antique myths, had reached. Naturally there were exceptions that managed to make their way through the historic material. But I’m not sticking my neck out by claiming that art around World War I had become conscious of its own time. Old art forms that had been utilised in the alien cause of stability during the time before the break-through of modernism, had to be dismissed with an irritable gesture. Therefore, in order to become truly modern, art had to emancipate itself from all attachments to tradition and attempt to define a new canon that directly corresponded with the surrounding world. Early modernist’s preoccupation with the artificial elements of art, its language and formal structure, was to be replaced by an investigation of the substance of art. One doesn’t paint a picture, one works with colour. In regard to expression; form was replaced by attitude, this is often the case with new styles of art. (Just like the opposite also is true: attitude fossilises into form in a consolidating style of art.)


The various trends in art have always coexisted, and yet is it possible to divide the development into periods dictated by one style or another. Modern art has in the past decade placed its emphasis on disclosing one of the chief concepts of the avant-garde. That art is created in a dynamic, open range, where displacements reveal social circumstances in a kind of poetic excess. It goes without saying that in this kind of practise there is not much use for a perception of Antiquity. But artistic achievements fluctuate. Not long ago we observed a rediscovery of certain artistic categories, including, to a certain extent, thinking in categories. This was mainly due to the fact that the previous decade, the 1970’ies, had exhausted the imagination of visual art. The area of artistic creation and the individual’s imaginative powers had become too confined, socially orientated. The 1980’ies believed that if space could not be opened horizontally in correspondence with avant-garde “law”, maybe it could be opened in depth. The artistic endeavours became a result of this - and as undertakings of other decades extending into present time - it was a search for a way of making our entire history, including Antiquity, accessible at the same level of artistic creation, and thereby becoming an active part of culture. In opposition to the consumer-society’s dogma, inertia, complexity and depth became terms of the new “avant-garde”.


Lately we have seen artist all over Europe - for this has chiefly been a European phenomenon - draw upon history’s entire arsenal. In this era, where the resurrected liberalism should have made its mark, the grand history became a beneficial asset in gaining self-insight, to make a critical point of the latest use of Antiquity. I should mention that the use of European history was used to counteract an American dominance. Even though Antiquity has virtually disappeared from the surface in the production of visual art, it still has an esoteric fascination to the artist. Possibly as a last reminiscence of “infinite thinking” in the profession. Or as a declaration of Europe being the cradle of civilisation, and therefore also of great art.



The subject I have just touched upon is that modernism’s perception of Antiquity became almost synonymous with the old order. It has become a symbol of an extinct stability, and thereby highlights a modern dilemma; that art’s own history as a meaningful canon hasn’t been replaced by a canon created in an understanding of the world without illusions, as was sustained in early modernism. It was not replaced by an annulment of art in life either, as another diverted dogma from early modernism claims. Bluntly put, we are without a canon, without perspectives to separate good from bad. We are artists with great attention on our surroundings, and with hardly any tools. We also have a fully operational freedom that threatens to reduce visual art to events.

I find that Antiquity, I would rather call it “the long perspective”, points towards the most radical strategy in contemporary society, a strategy that builds on perpetuity, the fact that the artwork exists for a long period time. Seeing as styles and activities in the art world no longer can excite people - There are no more new styles that can infuriate people - but we are left with the perpetuity of artwork that creates the greatest provocation and consequence in society. As an artist it is common knowledge that any artistic measure in public life is acceptable, unless it is permanent measure. As an example I can mention a political plan for a city area that had a serious effect on the lives of the citizens, this couldn’t raise a fraction of the attention that a proposed statue on a city square could.

The other side of perpetuity - the long perspective - is the excellent democratic principal that each individual can form their own vision of matters by seeing things for themselves. This is made possible by securing the artworks a certain life span, by processing them within the art profession, like at this seminar, and more importantly - and specifically: that the works of art are there, and stay there.



Hopefully it has become evident that I see two opposing forces in the use and understanding of Antiquity among artists. On one side we find, throughout history, the use of Antiquity, in dialogue with knowledge and possibilities of a given age, has expanded the artistic scope of work. Collaborating with the innovative artistic awareness, that has been the artist’s motivation always. (Just as the history of the profession acts as a “Canon” measure that paves the way for understanding the achievements of the newest wave.)

On the other side a sense of conformism, guaranties of quality and so on, seems cemented to the use of Antiquity in visual art. Picture the short distance that separates two paintings by J. L. David; “The Oath of the Horatii” and “The Coronation of Napoleon” this will illustrate my point clearly. Only XXX years separate the two. So as an artist one is placed between Scylla and Charybdis (a phrase that proves Antiquity lives its own obscure life in language.) Its contemporaries clearly saw David’s picture “The Oath of the Horatii” as a “modern” painting. Together with other works it ushered in a new epoch, but concurrently held the seed for the fossilisation of the very same epoch. Success does not merely come from leaning back on “old art”. Because within the need for density, for communication with others and the craving for quality, lies the threat of popularisation, fossilisation and kitsch.


Finally I would like to read for you a quotation, that may sum my thoughts up in a brief form, and hopefully expand this contribution. It is a short poem by the American poet Ezra Pound, that seeks to combine the two perspectives that I have attempted to outline for you. Its full of political misjudgements, but with an immense artistic clarity and purpose. The poem contains much duality. By replacing the word “America” with “the modern society” the poem, the field is opened up in all its incurable vulnerability.


The poem goes:


The thought of what America

The thought of what America

The thought of what America would be like

If the classics had a wide circulation,

troubles my sleep



Morten Stræde 2003