POLYKLEITOS AND HIS CANON
The Greek 5th Century sculptor Polykleitos is considered, alongside Pheidias, Praxiteles and Myron, to be one of the greatest and most influential bronze sculptors of the High Classical Period. Coming from Argos in the Peloponnesus, his artistic career flourished circa 450-420 B.C., and he founded a workshop in Olympia that was to last for three generations. He is most famous for producing a canon which set out the precise geometry and standards of proportion needed to create the perfect male nude, and to achieve within the statue symmetria (commensurability), the perfect symmetry of all parts of the statue to one another and to the whole. The master of the mortal rather than the deity, his canon achieved a male body 'powerfully muscled, proportioned with meticulous exactitude, composed around precisely calculated cross-relationships between weight-bearing and free, tense and relaxed, flexed and straight, and finished with painstaking care, it emerges as a paradigm of measured humanity' (A. Stewart, Greek Sculpture, Vol 1, Yale, 1990, p. 14). Considered to be his first male nude and embodiment of the Canon, the Doryphoros, or spear-bearer, stands contropposto with a spear resting on his left shoulder. Made in bronze and attributed to him by the ancient writers Cicero and Pausanias, modern scholars know this work through later Roman copies.
The more naturalistic sculptural quality of the High Classical Period had evolved from the rigid Kouros type of the Archaic period, abandoned in c. 480 in the pursuit of a more flexible, universal bodily form. In the earliest Greek art the male figure was replicated nude while the female was almost always covered. This parallels with life in Classical Greece – the Greek male was comfortable with, even proud of, his nudity and often seen naked in all-male public arenas – exercising, bathing and undertaking various sporting and athletic pursuits with his peers. The Greek body beautiful continued with the education of the youth of the polis (city state) in the gymnasium, where they undertook physical training including dancing, and the palaistra (wrestling school). The word gymnasium in fact comes from the word gymnos meaning “naked”. The human body was held in high esteem and there was deemed to be a strong link between a unified beautiful body and an unsullied mind: a perfect form, inner and outer, striving for the greater good of the Greek polis. To the Greeks the nude body came to represent civilization, in opposition to their barbarian neighbours. The sculptors of the Classical Period took on and cultivated an idealised male form for athletes, heroes and anthropomorphic deities in their art.
THE LEGACY OF GREECE
The original masterworks of Polykleitos and his contemporaries have long been lost – the value of their bronze being too precious in later antiquity to escape being melted down. The Doryphoros and several others of Polykleitos’s works are now recognized in surviving Roman copies. By the early Imperial period the Romans had developed a love of all things Greek in art and culture, and the fame and skill of the Greek sculptors was not lost on the Roman elite – hence Pliny in his Natural History writes of Polykleitos, Pheidias and Lysippos and lists their major achievements. As D. E. E. Kleiner explains 'They were introduced to Greek art...by the abundant display of plundered Greek masterworks in Roman triumphal processions. After the supply of originals dwindled, whole schools of copyists began turning out near replicas and new variations to fulfil the demands of a seemingly insatiable Roman audience' (Roman Sculpture, Yale, 1992, p. 4). Besides their popularity as decoration in the homes of the Roman nobiles (aristocracy), theatres, bath complexes and public spaces throughout the Empire were ornamented with niches filled with marble and bronze sculpture. Works produced included exact copies of the Greek original or pieces with slight alterations and variations to suit the tastes of the client. Although the Classical Greek sculptors were held in high regard, later contemporary Roman copyists, whether native Italians or artists from Greece and Asia Minor, were mostly unnamed and certainly held no status in society.
With right arm raised and left arm held slightly in front, the pose of this impressive athletic torso recalls that of the 'oil pourer' traditionally associated with Polykleitos and his followers. From the raised right hand the athlete is shown in quiet repose, pouring oil from a vessel into a bowl held across his abdomen in his lowered left hand. For a closely related example see the marble figure in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Skulpturensammlung, Dresden, (inv. no. Hm 67) in H. Beck et al., Polyklet: Der Bildhauer der griechischen Klassik, Mainz, 1990, pp. 619-620, no. 146. For another variant, the right arm not so highly raised now at Petworth House, England, cf. J. Boardman, Greek Sculpture, The Classical Period, London, 1985, fig. 231. The classical canon of contrapposto stance and subtle twist to the body are masterfully rendered in the torso above to produce a tour de force of Roman Imperial sculpture.
THE YVES SAINT LAURENT COLLECTION
Talking about his collecting taste for an interview in Architectural Digest in 1976, Yves Saint Laurent said 'all these things shimmer across the centuries'. He was walking through his Left Bank apartment, designed by Jean-Michel Frank in the 1920s, surrounded by an eclectic mix of opulent Second Empire decor, Art Deco furniture, seventeenth and eighteenth century Italian bronzes, Thai Buddhas, and works by artists such as Warhol, Leger, Picasso and Modigliani to name but a few. Saint Laurent had met Pierre Bergé in 1958, when not only a fashion empire but a collecting empire had been born. As Bergé said in the introduction to the Yves Saint Laurent sale held at Christie’s in 2009, 'The collection being auctioned…was assembled over the last fifty years by two men with a passion for art and culture, determined to bring together the finest paintings, objects, and furniture without bias or prejudice whilst remaining true to their tastes and, above all, their ideal'. On the decision to sell after Saint Laurent’s death in 2008 he explains 'And so goes the life of works of art: they pass from hand to hand, from house to house, from one continent to another. That is their destiny. Their only purpose is to be admired and loved'. This torso, placed so prominently within their apartment to be admired by all, was undoubtedly a favoured piece within their collection - the genius of the Greek sculptor, emulated for the enjoyment of the Romans and resonating down the millennia to influence and inspire sculptors and audiences today.