Thursday, May 11, 2017

Zeuxis' centauress

An excerpt from Tummers, J.C. (2009):

There was already disagreement on the matter back in antiquity. On the one hand, craftsmanship was considered very important – witness an anecdote about the ancient painter Zeuxis, to which both the art theorists Franciscus Junius and Samuel van Hoogstraten refer. According to the ancient writer Lucian, Zeuxis had painted a picture of a female centaur suckling two baby centaurs, which he thought would be greatly praised for its craftsmanship such as the connection between the human skin of the upper part of the centaurs’ bodies and their furry lower bodies and legs. However, when Zeuxis displayed the work to a general audience:

'All of them praised most … the unusual aspect of the subject, and the novelty of its ‘message’, which was unknown to earlier artists. Thus when Zeuxis realized that the curiosity of the painting rather than his technique was capturing their attention and was putting the refinement of the work to one side, he said to his pupil: ‘Micion, cover it up and take it back home. These people are praising the raw mud of our art, but as for the lighting, how well it looks and how carefully done, they have nothing to say. The novelty of the subject surpasses the discipline of the execution’.

Zeuxis apparently did not agree with the preferences of his audience, and both Junius and Samuel van Hoogstraten use his comment about the audience focusing on the ‘mud of the art’ (droesem van de kunst) to stress the importance of knowing what aspects to praise in a painting.

I really really wish that particular picture had survived to this day, but alas it's lost like most ancient Greek-Roman paintings.

The anecdote is interesting though, whether real or fictional. Anthropomorphic beings feature often in Greek-Roman mythology and there are several instances of nonhuman creatures fostering and nursing heroes and even gods: in some version of the Greek cosmogony myth Zeus himself had been nursed for a period by the goat Amalthea. So the idea had to be quite familiar to the ancient Greek public and the nursing of Zeus had certainly been a recurring subject of art. Why were they so surprised by the subject of Zeuxis' artwork then?

The fact is the centauress was not nursing a human or a god, but her own children. This was quite the conceptual leap from the "mainstream" myth which played upon the contrasting natures of the foster mother and the infant and was ultimately focused on the human(like) nature of the latter. But it was also a conceptual leap from the typical epic depictions of mythical creatures. Those centaurs were engaged in a very mundane activity which didn't have any obvious reference to mythology.

I can imagine how puzzled the audience had to be, and it is not surprising at all that the skillful execution was overshadowed by discussion of the subject matter. Why did he choose that over the top subject? What was the point, the meaning of it? Cryptic symbolism or a mere gimmick? Did it have any artistic value at all?

Those are pretty much the same questions that furry art faces today when exposed to outsiders, and in fact a painting like that could very well be furry art created nowadays. The appeal is obvious to us furries. The intimacy and daily life of almost-human creatures is what furry is all about.

It sounds like Zeuxis' goals with that painting were exactly the same of many realist furry artists, down to the desire of being appreciated for skillful handling of anatomical difficulties... and the audience didn't understand his goals and focused on all the wrong things, just like it often happens with furry art.

The subject of nursing centaurs still appeared here and there in Western art, but it certainly wasn't as remarkable as it had been in a culture which had centaurs as part of its religious canon - or as it would be much later in the eyes of furry fans.

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