Museum visit: Fantastic Creatures from the British Museum
February 14, 2012 3 Comments
The last weekend I was at the exhibition “Fantastic Creatures from the British Museum” at the Hong Kong Museum of Art (20 January – 11 April 2012). I was sailing through it as our 1.5 year old was in a foul mood, just recovering from a cold this week. And HK Museum staff were not amused when he started crying.
What was remarkable (you couldn’t take pictures for some reason, so not many shared pictures here) was the collection of imagined and hybrid creatures, many of them would be terrifying if you imagined them as a child. I have always been fascinated by the depiction of fears personified as monsters. And how devious are the ones like mermaids and like Scylla below, who come along in such semi-pleasant form.
I’ll keep this as an idea for the Bas-relief project of Sculpture I.
The piece above is a flat back terracotta plaque. Acc. to the British Museum description these plaques were typically pierced to attach them to other objects, maybe chests or coffins. These low relief plaques were a speciality of the Greek island of Mílos. (There might have been a factory on Mílos at the time, given that I found another piece below which is very similar and has survived for 2500 years too!)
If I am facing 2 bad options that I have to choose from I usually say, that it’s a choice between plague and cholera, which is essentially a translation from an idiom from my native German, I believe in English you have the choice ”between Scylla and Charybdis” – a sea monster that devours you alive and a whirlpool that swallows your ship. Seems like a bummer choice too.
So the plaque above shows the said Scylla, a sea monster that devours men, with a rather pretty woman’s upper body and a snake’s/dragon’s/fish’s tail, 2 dogs leaping out of her waist. The wiki entry says she was described as having 4-6 dogs surrounding her waist. The woman’s body is not really consistent with the horrid sea monster description of some stories. Ovid’s narration tells the story of Scylla as one of a beautiful maiden, who flees from Glaucus, who is in love with her. The latter turns to Circe for help to win Scylla’s love, but Circe gets jealous over the whole thing and turns Scylla into a monster.
Following this story, it could be that Scylla is represented here as her past (beautiful maid) and her present (monster) at the same time. I like this idea. Obviously many artists and craftsmen in Greece at the time liked it too, as there are many representations of Scylla found on pottery, reliefs etc. Similar fantastic creatures in appearance are mermaids, who are a recurrent myth in many other cultures.
I wonder if the 2nd plaque above was from the same “factory” since it certainly has the same design, with only minor changes in the execution – e.g. the tail holes to hang up the plaque, the 2nd one has stylised hair.
I recently have been amazed at how moulds were used successfully already thousands of years ago. People were looking for ways to abbreviate lengthy repetitive work ever since a couple of brain cells worked together. Ingenious. So I bet these Scylla plaques were press moulded into shapes – maybe fired terracotta or plaster moulds?
The above Skylla appears to be more sculptural than a low reliefs. I couldn’t find a picture of it from a different angle, so I am not sure if it’s a full sculpture, a very vivid relief or potentially a corner element. She has a tail on each side in what looks like a 90 degree angle. Initially I wondered how she was identified as Scylla and not a mermaid. But if you look closely you can see the dogs heads coming from her waist.
Very vivid and modern – impressionist – as her shapes are indicated in a broad way, like washed over – maybe this is just the effect of 2200 years of existence. But she looks perfect like this, and gives the mind some freedom to complete the depiction.