The renowned classicist delivers another tantalizing morsel of analysis, this time on “art, and our reactions to it, over thousands of years and across thousands of miles.”
In this “inevitably and unashamedly selective book,” Beard (Classics/Cambridge Univ.; Women & Power: A Manifesto, 2017, etc.) reviews the very purpose of art: who made it, who viewed it, and how we see it. From 3,000-year-old Olmec heads through the iconoclasts and Christian and Islamic portrayals of God, she traces historic conflicts over images of man and gods. The Egyptian memorial of a young woman named Phrasikleia (circa 550 B.C.E.) engages viewers in the way that future Greek and Roman statues would. But there are also images “not designed to be seen at all”—e.g. the terra-cotta warrior complex of China’s first emperor, which “adds up to the biggest tableau of sculpture made anywhere on our planet, ever.” The power of those portrayed, like Ramesses II, is achieved by their outsized presence, but to illustrate a central point, the author notes that images of power are only as strong as viewers allow. Throughout the book, the wealth of illustrations clearly reflects Beard’s analyses. In the 18th century, art historian and archaeologist J.J. Winckelmann argued that “you could trace the rise and fall of civilization through the rise and fall of the representation of the human body.” Winckelmann set the standard to judge other cultures in his assessment of the ultimate symbol of classical style, the Apollo Belvedere. But Beard’s ideas about the images of gods are even more fascinating, especially with regard to the Ajanta Cave drawings in India, which force viewers to actively interpret their complexity, searching for truth and faith in the darkness. Even more thought-provoking is the Islamic use of calligraphy, more symbolic than practical, bridging the gap between art and the written word.
Yet another triumph for Beard: a joy to read, too short for certain, packed with lessons quickly absorbed.