January 23, 2024

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

This fall, Professor La Follette challenged students in AH 100, the first semester Gen ED survey of the History of Art, with a card game. Working in teams from a physical card deck of class monuments, students got to take on the role of museum curators. Each team proposed an exhibition of five examples of art or architecture developed around a common theme. The winning entry was this one: "A Shift in Focus: Idealism to Realism" by students Abby Robinson, Krystal Otis, Liana Rice, Nina Vo, and Andrea Sanchez. Congratulations! 

View the winning presentation below through Flickr

AH100 Winning Presentation (Fall 2023)

Presentation transcript:

“A Shift in Focus: Idealism to Realism” features sculptures that highlight the transition in sculpting style to act as a timeline capturing the movement from theocentricism to anthropocentrism. Within this curated presentation, viewers will witness the transformative journey through these sculptures, each piece representing a step in the change from theocentricism to anthropocentrism. The five selected works in this exhibition origin from different cultures and are presented in a chronological order to explore this shift in style and interest.

We begin our exploration in Ancient Mesopotamia, where the Votive Statuettes of Tell Asmar are believed to be sculpted c. 2900 BCE in modern day Iraq. Their bodies, which range from 9 to 28 inches in height, are carved from gypsum, alabaster, and limestone. Meanwhile, their oversized eyes are white shell, black limestone, and, in one instance, lapis lazuli. At their feet, the base of each figure is inscribed with an identity—for example, One Who Offers Prayers—or, in the case of the largest statuette, a pictorial representation of the Sumerian gods. Looking closely at this carving, we can see a lion-headed eagle clutching two animals in its claws. This is Anzû, the bird god of Ancient Mesopotamia, who is closely associated with Abu, the Sumerian god of vegetation. The vines surrounding Anzû, as well as the sculpture’s physical context beside a temple alter, are further indications that this figure is a representation of Abu. As for theocentricism, within the Abu statuette, consider its scale in relation to those around it. Whereas most of the votives are small, humble, and personalized by temple-goers, this figure looms over the others in a position of power and authority. It is also geometrically-solid, as it can be broken down into basic shapes, such as a square chest atop triangular legs. This has the additional benefit of distinguishing Abu as an abstract being rather than a reflection of the human form. Overall, these sculpture elements emphasize not only the status of the Abu figure over the other votive statuettes, but also the divine power of Sumerian deities over humans in general as well. 

About 1500 years after the Sumerian votive statues, we arrive at the mask of Tutankhamun, from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, c. 1320 BCE. King Tutankhamun’s tomb and inner coffin is telling of the extravagance that surrounded the pharaoh in life and in death. The mask is made of gold, glass paste, semi-precious stones, and lapis lazuli. Very similar to the gods, as they were said to have skin of gold and hair of lapis lazuli. Symbols of the vulture for Upper Egypt, and the cobra for Lower Egypt, can be seen atop the striped headdress. In addition, an elongated beard which further exaggerates the king’s supernatural characteristics. On each shoulder is the head of a falcon, their wings draping down and connecting around the chest. Collectively, these elements emphasize King Tutankhamun’s divine rulership over all of Egypt. While it is debated whether the mask was originally made for King Tutankhamun, there was no luxury spared in its dedication to the boy king. Pharaohs lived and died like gods. King Tutankhamun’s mask is an abstract representation of his human form, idealized in its otherworldly embellishments, however, it also represents how man and god could be one in the same, but only by divine appointment. 

We continue our journey to 350 BCE with Aphrodite of Knidos, the Roman copy after the original by Praxiteles. This piece was monumental in the Greek world as it was the first—or very close to the first—female nude created. The original would have been made in marble. Praxiteles was commissioned to sculpt a free-standing statue of Aphrodite, and he created two: one was nude, and one was clothed. The person who had commissioned this preferred the clothed statue of Aphrodite, and that’s how the Knididans [sic] obtained the nude Aphrodite and they constructed a shrine for her in Knidos. She stands with her garments in one hand and bares most of her weight on the other. Like Spear-bearer, it is another example of contrapposto, the balance of opposites. The Aphrodite of Knidos stands looking away from the viewer as she is about to bathe and as if someone has just interrupted her. Praxiteles was able to shift the representation of human emotion to evoke human emotion from the viewer; the viewers are the ones who should be embarrassed. The statue is overall realistic; the only unrealistic characteristic is that she stands at 6 foot 8 inches. This statue of Aphrodite not only stands as a masterpiece on its own, but serves as symbolic marker of the evolution of sculptural style by exploring the transition from theocentricism to anthropocentrism. It represents a departure from the traditional, more abstract representation of the divine, and of gods, to a more human form. 

130 years after the Aphrodite of Knidos, we come to observe an exemplar of the celebration of the human form and their virtue. The statue of the Gallic Chieftain Killing His Wife and Himself was sculpted in 220 BCE during the Hellenistic period. This statue portrays a chieftain holding his already dead wife by her left arm to prevent her from collapsing. In contrast to her lifeless body, the man appears with a dynamic posture, his right leg stretched to the back, his arm thrusting a sword onto his chest, while he was looking up at an unseen enemy. The sculpture was naturalistic, with a very high amount of anatomical realism, showing through the bulging muscles of the chieftain’s body and the nervous apprehension on his face. Additionally, his extremely dynamic pose forces the viewer to walk around the sculpture and engage with it from different points of view. That combination created a realistic and highly-emotional scene, celebrating the deed that was perceived as honorable of a man who prefers death over capture. 

Centuries after the statue of the Gallic Chieftain, we finally arrive at David, a life-sized bronze statue created by Donatello around 1440-1460 CE. This statue showcases the hero David standing triumphantly on top of Goliath’s head solidifying his victory over the gigantic opponent. He bears no clothing except a hat and boots while also balancing on Goliath’s head with a sword in his hand. He stands very daintily and is depicted as an androgynous, contrasting the idea of the classical Roman hero that stands with his head high with a strong form. It is also important to consider that depicting David as nude was a purposeful choice by Donatello as if to tell the underdog story of the assumed weak man defeating an unlikely foe. The statue is supposed to represent how the Florentine people overcame the rule of Milan with David being the Florentines and Goliath being the Duke of Milan. This statue solidifies the people of Florence as though chosen by God to come out as victorious. David, however, was originally located in the Medici palace only for the Medici family to see. But, as this family as defeated and removed from the city of Florence, the people of the city claimed this piece of art as their own. This gives the statue another story of resistance. The statue overall represents the triumphant nature of man as this statue is a symbol of the history of multiple victories won by ordinary civilians. 

Formal analyses and historical contexts considered, the way in which viewers are guided through the exhibit is also important. Starting with the votive statuettes and ending with David, the installation overs viewers an opportunity to interact with the timeline. Each work is arranged from left to right in chronological order and as viewers step into each time period they can examine the work in its cultural context, and compare and contrast the idealistic or humanistic qualities of each piece, thus conceptualizing the intent behind each stylistic difference. 

Reinforced by a timeline that highlights a historical shift from theocentricism to anthropocentrism, “A Shift in Focus: Idealism to Realism” is not only a cultural and visual study, but it offers a lived experience. While engaged in the timeline, viewers become intimately involved in the transformation of sculpture, and can actively witness a shift from the worship of divine figures to an invigorated focus on celebrating the human form.