Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Other Side

By Charles Kessler

I've been paying attention to the backs of sculptures since my “Day at the Met” post last month. I’m especially fascinated with the backs that are beautifully finished even though the work was intended to be seen from the front, or primarily from the front — work made for niches, alcoves, or shelves, or made to be placed against a wall.

I suspect what might be going on is the artist was dealing with objects believed to be magical or holy or have some other power beyond ordinary objects. As a result, special care must be taken in the making (and possession) of them. Of course all art is experienced as different from ordinary objects, even Duchamp's Readymades. But this work was believed to be so important, so special that even the back had to be given proper respect. They may be simpler and more abstract than the fronts, but they are often more powerful because of it.

Here are my favorites, in chronological order, taken from the Met’s excellent website. Accession numbers are included in the captions to make it easy to find more information about the work. Just type the number into the Met's search window.

Baby figure, 12th - 9th century B.C., Mexico, Olmec, ceramic, cinnabar, red ocher, 13 ⅜ x 12 ½ x 5 ¾ inches (1979.206.1134).

Ritual figure, Late Period or early Ptolemaic, 380 - 246 B.C., Egypt, wood, 8 ¼ inches high (2003.154).

Dionysos leaning on a female figure, Roman, 27 B.C. - A.D. 68, marble, 82 ¾ inches high (1990.247).

Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, Seated in Royal Ease, Angkor period, Cambodia or Thailand, 10th - 11th century, bronze with silver inlay (1992.336).
Virgin and Child in Majestry, Reliquary, c.1150-1200, walnut with paint, gesso and linen,  31 5/16 x 12 ½ x 11 ½ inches (16.32.194).

Saint Margaret of Antioch, c.1475, alabaster, 15 ⅜ x 9 ⅝ x 6 9/16 inches (2000,641).

Prestige Stool, Female Caryatid, Buli Master, ca. 1810-1870, wood and metal studs, 24 inches high (1979.290).


Carl Belz said...

Wow! Super stuff, a real kick to look at and think about.

Charles Kessler said...

YES! I'm just so moved by the care artists took.