Θεοί και θηρία

Something that I fought for for ages in my art since about 2014 has been the narrative power of the body. Through the study of anatomy, literature, and Ancient Greek art (mainly looking, but you’d be surprised at what that alone can do), I have been able to understand this code embedded through lots of Ancient Greek art and beyond. I think this exploration and obsession stemmed from me being utterly in love with language learning, so whenever I sense a pattern that remotely resembles a sign of language, I hop on the train and never get off.

This trip to Athens was great because it essentially proved my hypothesis of the body as language in art. The Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry mentions this a bit in his written work “Περί ἀγαλμάτων” (Peri Agalmaton, On Sculptures) of which we only have fragments. He states that the seated pose portrayed a steadfastness of power. So with this in mind I decided to apply this reading to literally every ancient sculpture I saw at the MET and in the cast collection at the New York Academy of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (which has a FABULOUS cast collection btw). From this I started to ask myself many questions regarding the pose: Why is the person standing?, Why is this figure reclining a little more than this other sculpture?, What could the raised hand mean? And what about the bent knee?

For a long time I thought these questions only applied to sculptural work. I later realized this applied to nearly every representation of a deity or beast or character in Greek mythology and it was amazing for me to see the similarity of poses through time. Some of these poses are used still today! Greek mythology is vary complex and there are so many stories, so what I really enjoy is how these complexities can be reduced and channeled through a singular pose. I want to share a couple of my favorite pose archetypes in this post.


Ah, yes, let us start with Athena, the namesake of Athens, the virgin goddess who was born without a mother. She is said to have been born straight out of Zeus’ head when he had a headache and Hephaestus cut open his head with an axe. Gruesome. But the keyword in Athena’s birth story is straight. For our purposes this has a double meaning: one referring to the sudden outburst, and the second referring to her stance (erect, upright). She emerged from Zeus’ head fully armed ready to fight. With this story in mind, I noticed that many fully-clothed/armed, standing (not contrapposto) females were representing Athena. In vase paintings and mosaics she is very easy to recognize because most of the time we can see her other attributes: the aegis (breastplate with snakes and a Gorgon), her shield, a staff or an owl.

Red-figure vase painting of Athena holding a spear and her helmet while wearing her aegis and a little owl flying near. (https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K8.6.html)

In the case of sculptures, of which we probably have fragments, this recognition isn’t as easily, unless you just read the plaque. But we want to transcend the plaque. It’s more fun. I haven’t myself seen many sculptures of Athena except for at the Vatican Museums, but I did see a beautiful BEAUTIFUL fragment of Athena at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. In this fragment, pictured at the beginning of this post, all we see is a part of feet and what seems to be a part of a dress. I saw this sculpture from across the room and within seconds I figured it was either an Amazonian woman or Athena. Turns out it was Athena. But in other sculptures of Athena I have seen her with her helmet and aegis. Those are the most important. If she is not standing fully erect with her two feet flat on the groundplane, she is probably attacking someone…and winning. Even the attacking pose seems to be quite common amongst the gods. It kind of looks like a spear-thrower pose.

Beasts in submission

I have this assumption that the Greek vase painters were very aware of the groundplane in their compositions, and that they used this groundplane very effectively. If there was an assembly of the gods, they were scattered throughout the body of the vase as if they were in the clouds, or in other words, not occupying the realm of the mortals on the earth. If the gods were in transit, some of them had chariots, and some flew, like Hermes. I particularly started to notice the groundplane used as a positive element was when I saw depictions of the Minotaur in submission. In these vase paintings, and boy are there many, the groundplane doesn’t act as a simple abstract background to be ignored. Oh no no. We all know the basic story, if not it can be found here, but essentially Theseus wins the battle.

But if you think about it, fighting a half-bull half-human creature doesn’t seem like an easy task. I often think about how this scene of Theseus fighting the Minotaur would look in contemporary cinema: lots of action shots, panning back and forth between Theseus and the beast, both grunting and struggling. I feel the Greeks also portrayed this struggle in a very smart and minimal way. The knee. It’s all about the bent knee, folks. Theseus, grabbing the Minotaur by the horns, seems to be twisting his head and thus his torso–which looks painful–while also pushing him to the ground, what I assume to be a sign of the Minotaur’s defeat. BUT WAIT. THE KNEE. The knee is every so slightly above the groundplane which is clearly established. Will the Minotaur suddenly launch itself back up and stab Theseus with his horns? I DON’T KNOW. AND I CANNOT HANDLE THE SUSPENSE.

That is what I read from this.

If we look back at the image from the beginning of this post, we can see that this female fragment in a standing pose is fighting someone. We can tell that the opponent is some sort of beast or creature because, just like in the black-figure vase painting of Theseus and the Minotaur, the bent knee is very close to the groundplane. If we assume that this female fragment represents a goddess, it has the potential to be Artemis or Athena, since both of them often fight. I later came to realize that Artemis usually doesn’t fight in close-contact battles since she has her bow and arrow, so Athena it is. (I also feel like Artemis doesn’t wear a long garment like Athena does).

After thinking all of this within seconds of seeing this fragment from across the room, I finally went up to read the plaque to test myself and my speculation about the narrative. This is what it read:

Lower part of a statue group of Athena and a Giant. Pentelic marble. Found in in Lavrion. The goddess was shown moving to [the] right and attacking the kneeling Giant, possibly Engelados. Work of the 1st century AD., copying a prototype of the second quarter of the 5th century BC.

Needless to say I was very happy about how spot on my immediate reading was when I saw this fragment. When I was in the Cycladic museum, I read a blurb in the museum about realism and symbolism in Ancient Greek vase-painting. It stated that the use of symbolism was imperative in vase-painting because the painters rarely depicted individualistic features, and that by the 6th century BC, an entire visual code had been created depicting every figure in mythology so painters could depict complex scenes. I often think that this use of symbolism goes beyond objects that these figures carry, and are embedded in the body itself. 

There are many figures in mythology all with their own code and I’d like to dive into this a bit more. This will be the first of several posts titled “Gods and…”. Stay on the lookout for my next post because I’m going to be talking about effeminacy!

Η Αθήνα, μια μητρόπολη

This past month I have been a literal sponge soaking up all the culture, language, food, and art in the beautiful city of Athens (yes, hi from Athens sorry I have been MIA). I don’t even know where to begin! Well…to start things off, I am here for another residency called Athena Standards Residency, and I must say this entire month-long experience has been a blast. This residency really is about community building and fostering great relationships as much as it is about creating work in the studio. And I thankfully had the opportunity to leave Athens a couple of times to travel to 2 islands and twice to the ancient theatre of Epidaurus!

While in Athens, I visited the Acropolis because obviously and I heard a tour guide explain the etymology of the word “metropolis”. It comes from the Greek words “mother”, μητέρα (mitera), and “city”, πόλις (polis). Once I heard this explanation, all I could think about was the symbolic mother-and-child relationship and what that meant for me being in this city with the art that I make. Athens, for me, is a mother-city–it gave birth to all of my artistic inspirations and this entire month it has nurtured me. It has been absolutely extraordinary to come to this country to listen to the language and see that the art continues to exist in situ within a contemporary setting.

And that is essentially what fascinated me this month. One of the founders of this residency asked me why I wanted to be in Athens and whether it was because I loved Ancient Greece so much to the point where I may have had a preconceived notion about this city. Let’s just say that he was glad to hear that I didn’t think that the city was covered in marble (almost true actually), or people spoke Ancient Greek in the streets…it’s 2019. This time is contemporary, and so what I really wanted to see was how this ancient culture manifests itself in today’s Athenian society, or whether the ancient history and culture are no longer relevant in Athens. The questions I often asked myself before coming to Greece were: “Do Greeks today still like Ancient Greek theatre?”, “Are Greeks still moved by their ancient history?”, “Do contemporary Greek artists still reference Ancient Greek art?”, “Is there a good amount of contemporary Greek artists who work in realism?”, “Does the landscape of Greece play a part in the Greek mindset?”

The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. © Darryl Smith.

Though I am nowhere near being an expert, after being here for a month, I think the answer may be yes to everything. Within a couple days of being in Athens I was told about the Theater Festival held at various ancient theaters in and around Athens, with the main theatre being in Epidaurus, a town about 2 hours by car from Athens. I saw two beautiful tragedies by my favorite playwright Euripides, The Suppliants and Iphigeneia in Aulis, and it felt like going to the movies but more dramatic because the play started at sundown. And then talking to Greeks about their favorite islands was also another magical experience because each person had their own favorite island. Paros, Mykonos, Patmos, Antiparos, no matter who I talked to, I always got a different answer. One Greek artist told me that each island is like a tiny world with the chora being the center.

Temple of Isis in the Archaeological Site on Delos. © Darryl Smith.

One island I went to was Delos, an uninhabited island, where there is a famous archaeological site that pretty much takes up the entire island. Delos, in mythology, is the birthplace of Artemis and her twin brother Apollo, so seeing these temples, and sculptures, and just existing in time on that island was a truly inspirational experience. Delos was particularly interesting because there was, for the first time, a contemporary sculptor, Antony Gormley, who exhibited works within the archaeological site. This exhibition called SIGHT was extremely influential on my own philosophy and artwork. I was talking to one of the guards on the island, half in English and half in Greek, about the fact that I was excited to see these two exhibitions exist together in the same space. The guard, then, started to talk to me about both the mythological and historical importance of Delos while also giving his own personal and spiritual connection to the island (he was actually the second person to tell me his spiritual connection to the island).

  • Dionysos riding a panther, AKA my absolute favorite mosaic EVER that I stumbled upon on Delos. © Darryl Smith.

  • Antony Gormley’s sculpture on Delos. © Darryl Smith.

Every little moment in this city really exemplified the fact that so many cultures and worlds coexist in Athens. Assisi was, more or less, similar in the fact that the common piazza was right above the ancient Roman forum of Asisium, but Athens was a huge extreme. Unlike the layout of Assisi, the contemporary city of Athens, from what I have seen, does not seem to be built on top of the ancient city of Athens. In other words, the ancient city, the Byzantine empire, and the metropolitan hustle-and-bustle of Athens have found their home in the same area. An example (and there are many) of this is when I went to the ancient cemetery in Kerameikos, there was a church right outside of the site which also overlooked a busy street with cars and large, modern buildings. Or taking the metro that goes through the ancient Athenian agora which is right by the Monastiraki flea market.

And I can’t forget about the art. THE ART! Wow. The contemporary art in this city has a special place in my heart. I have never felt a strong connection to an artistic hub such as the one I found in Athens. Whether the work was completely figurative or completely abstract, there is a certain energy here in the arts that I definitely connect with. I appreciate that I didn’t need paragraphs of text to aid me or persuade me to feel a certain way about any work of art I have seen in the galleries or streets around the city. The feelings were very raw, very human, and also touched on other deeper psychological concerns regarding time, life and death, subjectivity and objectivity, and beauty. I feel I got a good taste of the art scene here and I definitely want to interact and be a part of it in any way I can! Check out the gallery of images at the end of this post!

One of the studies I made during the Athena Standards Residency. Study for the drawing “Σαρπηδών” (Sarpedon), part of the ongoing series based off of red-figure vase paintings, silverpoint and gouache on paper, 2019. © Darryl Smith.

An old professor of mine once told me, after looking at the white spaces in my drawings, that my figures would probably be situated best in the landscape of ancient Roman ruins. I feel like Athens is the proper place for my figures. The word “ruins” for me implies a land that is barren. But here in Athens, every part of the land is still very much alive. Το ξέρω πως θα γυρίσω στην Αθήνα σύντομα!