Waldstein's Art of Pheidias

IT is rare that a book upon a subject so remote as archæology has an interest for any other than special students, and this is notably the case when, like Dr. Waldstein’s volume,1 it is substantially made up of monographs upon particular problems. These essays aim to define more closely the science ot archæology, to free it from other allied branches, and particularly from classical literature, and to unfold its methods ; and the body of the work consists of practical illustrations of the operation of one of these methods, namely, the comparative study of style. To illustrate from a better known region of investigation, this method is similar to that by which English literary students attempt to name the authorship of Elizabethan plays, or to tell in any single play what portion is by Shakespeare, what by Greene, or Peele, or Fletcher ; in applying it to the sculpture of the Greeks, both the technique and the spirit of the different schools must be discriminated and attended to. Dr. Waldstein’s most striking successes, as shown here, are his discovery of a Lapith head in the Louvre, and his exact ascription of it to a metope in the Elgin marbles, fortunately one of the best in the collection ; his identifying three terra-cotta plaques (of which the antiquity must be regarded as doubtful) as either " firststates,” or copies of the central portion of the Parthenon frieze; and his proof that the so-called Apollo of the Omphalos is an athlete, and probably after Pythagoras of Rhegium. But other conclusions and arguments throughout his work, though less in the seeming, are in reality quite as excellent illustrations of the justice and usefulness of his mode of approaching the very treacherour subject of the Greek monuments. To appreciate these labors, and perhaps to be interested in them at all, requires some previous knowledge of the Parthenon and the other lesser and more various remains in sculpture, vases, and coins; but if in any one’s culture Greek art stands, as Shakespeare does, one of the permanent and unchangeable elements, unremoved as a mountain height, though not always gazed upon or ascended, then these essays are as notable as any event that is prominent in a year’s intellectual life. To such readers, none too many, the volume is indispensable ; and to the others, with whom we are concerned, there are elements of interest in its pages, one or two of which will be alluded to, because Dr. Waldstein is much more than an archæologist, being in truth a thinker of penetration, grasp, and power. No one, however, who is not accustomed to deal with ideas as respectfully as with facts will find him a congenial companion even for the few minutes of this passing notice.

One does not read far before he is impressed with the extraordinary closeness with which Dr. Waldstein distinguishes the traits wherein Greek civilization differed from our own, and the justness with which he accents such of those differences as fall within his scope. Naturally he is most careful at the start to dwell upon the plastic nature of the Greeks, using the adjective in a German sense, foreign to our language, to indicate the mental habit of a reliance upon images in thought rather than upon verbal formulas, as we do in our more abstract culture. The distinction may be expressed in more general terms by saying that our culture as a people rests upon literature, on the printed word, while that of the Greeks based itself rather upon observation, on the thing seen. The divergence of intellectual mood thus induced between ancient and modern is profound, and affects the whole of thought life. In reflecting upon this classical trait, however, something is to be guarded against. It is well known that at the present time the illiterate, generally speaking, think in images, and that this power or habit of visualization, sometimes thought to be characteristic of the poet, be it observed, usually falls into disuse in proportion to the increase and continuity of exclusively literary culture in the individual, until the point is reached at which a man thinks without having a single image definitely projected upon the mind’s eye ; his mental processes are, in fact, as colorless and formless as algebraic calculations. Mr. Galton’s experiments in this matter are still fresh in our memories. Now it is not to be inferred that this was always the case, nor indeed that the intellect of highest development may not in the past, at least, have habitually thought in images, as the unlettered do to-day ; and in Greece it appears that the picture language of the mind, as one may call it, held a place more important than with us, and perhaps equivalent to our own idea language. The Greek, as every one knows, peopled the earth with presiding geniuses, of more or less exalted rank, from Oread and Naiad to the great Zeus of Olympus. These forms we call imaginary, and to our thought they are always tenuous ; the point to be remembered is that, when the Greek spoke of Athene, an image came before his mind, and one not hypothetical and consciously symbolical, like Liberty with her cap, but definite, real, and awful, like the statue on the pediment or in the temple. The Greek mind leant on these images as our mind does on the alphabet in all mental life ; hence the poetry and the art of the age had a certain ease and naturalness, an intimacy with the spirit of the race, not equaled in the work of later times, except possibly in Italy. Dr. Waldstein points out — and we believe he is the first to do so — that the most striking expression of this intellectual necessity, inherent in Greek culture, is the doctrine of Platonic ideas. To the moderns, however tolerant we may be, there seems always a childishness, a grotesque quality, when seen in relation to Plato’s splendid and rich endowment, in the continual insistence in his philosophy on the “ideas” of the table and the flute,— the table without any definite number of legs, the flute without any particular quality of sound ; and the case is not much helped, although one perceives, as Schopenhauer shows, that the doctrine is essentially accurate in truth, and wholly intelligible, since it is merely the modern statement of the subjectivity of time and space put conversely. Notwithstanding these admissions, our minds still find the Platonic ideas awkward to deal with. But that Plato, at the end of his abstrusest speculations, and at the threshold of one of the greatest generalizations of the human intellect, fell back upon the image-forming faculty, and insisted on particularizing the universal by means of a mystery or fiction of thought, is a crowning proof of the pervasiveness and inner mastery of the plastic spirit in the culture of his civilization.

This trait of the Greeks has been dwelt on, in the present instance, less for itself than for its bearing on the idealism of the art of Pheidias, of which the marbles of the Parthenon are the great examples. Of course Dr. Waldstein, who knows the value of this supreme achievement of the idealistic temperament in man, is himself an idealist, and when he has occasion to analyze the monuments treats at more or less length of the theory of idealism. He distinguishes at once the two kinds of physical representation, the portrait and the type, and affirms an analogous difference in representations of the spirit that animates the stone, the man as he is and the man as he ought to be. He observes, too, that the Greeks were fortunately supplied with subjects of sculpture in which both the physical and spiritual perfection of man were proper elements, and, indeed, requisite ; namely, the heroes and the gods. The higher life was the theme of their art in its greatest excellence, not as a possible but as an actual existence. This of itself was a valuable help to them, for centres of imagination were thus determined for them and given a certain external validity ; whereas among the moderns art is felt to be in its essence a mode of subjective creation, having no reality except in thought. The resulting sense of uncertainty, the weakened faith in such emanations of man’s brain, almost inevitable for the contemporary poet or artist, is one cause of the recoil of our imagination from the ideal, and of the attraction of realism for our writers, and perhaps of our content with a literature and art that will have fact for its province. “ Let us have facts,” is the cry; “ of truth — that is, the relation of facts — who can be certain ? Let us represent men as they are ; of men as they ought to be who has any observation ? ” And even within these limits of the new school it is said, furthermore, that attention is to be paid to the individual ; not to man as be is, but to this man, Tom, Dick, or Harry, as he is. The type is too general to be depicted, too far removed from actual seeing, too much an abstraction of the mind. It is plain that at the root of the difficulty felt by the realists who theorize in this way lies the conviction that the further the literary or any other representative art gets from the special fact, trait, or passion in its particular manifestation, the more vague, doubtful, pale, rubbed-out, — in a word, the more generalized,— it becomes, and hence loses sharpness, vigor, and illusiveness. One thinks that to represent a temperate man typically would be nowadays as tame as to describe an allegoric figure and name it Temperance. But with the Greek the case was clearly quite otherwise. There was no loss of individualization in the type, whether of physical or of spiritual perfection. This Theseus or that Hermes is ideal ; both are generalized from men, but they suffer no loss of vitality thereby. The idealism of Athens did not fade out in abstraction, but embodied the permanent elements of harmonious beauty in body and spirit, in forms “ more real than living man.” The habit of thinking in images, or with fixed associations of images, with general notions, was one reason for this success, undoubtedly ; but before we conclude that the literary and rationalizing culture of our day forbids us to hope for a similar blending of the type with individuality, let us remember that as with Pheidias, so with Shakespeare: Hamlet is at once the type and the man. The poet born cannot turn aside, on this hand, into science, as the realists do ; nor, on that hand, into philosophy, as the allegorists do. To him that ideal art alone is possible in which the two are united in the expression of permanent and universal truth through selected facts.

Nevertheless, it may be urged, the Greeks passed rapidly from the idealistic to the realistic stage. And in connection with this one observes the happiness with which Dr. Waldstein identifies the elements of likeness between the Greeks and the moderns, just as he opposes their differences to each other. The most admirable example of his skill in this is in one of the essays which are removed to the appendix, apparently only because they are not upon Pheidias. It is an inquiry into the æsthetical qualities of the Hermes of Praxiteles, and in the course of it he delineates the characteristics of the age of Praxiteles, and parallels them with the traits of the time just subsequent to the French Revolution. In doing this he incidentally describes the common spirit in Shelley, De Musset, and other representatives of an art, not of the noblest, but not of the worst either, of the interval after the great age, yet before the marked decadence. It may be said that the English never had an age of the Pheidian kind ; in European culture that is to be sought, if at all, in mediæval art. The Praxitelean age, however, was reproduced in essence in the first generation of our romantic period. Dr. Waldstein’s passage is too long to quote, and fewer words will not be sufficient to set the matter forth clearly. A certain pathos, felt in view both of the world and of one’s self, is perhaps its dominant quality, and with it goes a sophistication, a self-consciousness, a reflectiveness, a slight yet not complete abstraction of the spirit from the object before it, illustrated by the expression of the head of Hermes in relation to the infant Dionysus on his arm. It is the mood of one whose spontaneous joy has been disturbed forever by thought. In such work one sees that the objective character of art, as it was in Pheidias, is yielding to a new impulse; that the hold of the imagination on the divine and the eternal is slowly relaxing. At last, idealism went out in Greece, and, either in the shape of the portrait statues, or of such sculptures as those of Pergamon, realism came in to be the be-all and also the end-all of art.

Why was it, one asks, that the plastic nature of the Greeks did not preserve them, if the image-making faculty did in fact count so much in their development ? How did they come to lose the ideal forms that sprang to the mind of Pheidias when he thought of beauty and virtue ? One cannot say that idealism failed, for its triumph in the Parthenon marbles marks the highest point ever reached by the human imagination in embodying its vision. It died out, and one says in explanation that the attention given to technique at last led to a disregard of the idea; or that the mere ability to reproduce details exactly was a temptation to apply art to deceptive imitation of the seen instead of to an illusive expression of the unseen ; or that the age had lost the great ideas themselves, the perception of beauty and virtue, the belief in them and honor for them, and hence necessarily declined upon the things of this world, — that is, upon what is seen by the bodily eye rather than in the realm of thought and spiritual insight: and of these explanations perhaps one is as true as another, for they are all descriptions, from different standpoints, of what actually occurred. It is impossible, however, that in view of this history, and of the similar course in the development of mediæval painting, one should not ask himself whether the rise and defense of realism among us means that literature is to follow in the same track, and die, as sculpture and painting died, until a new age shall set the wheel turning again ; for if the history of the arts teaches anything, it is that the ages of idealism are the ages of power, and those of realism the premonition and stiffening of death.

The space at our disposal does not allow any longer examination of this or many other kindred matters, of intellectual or æsthetic concern, which are suggested by Dr. Waldstein’s pages. Most interesting, for example, is his discussion of the peculiarities of the Greeks which made polychromy in their sculpture, and the use of ivory and gold for their most prized works, endurable to their senses, highly refined as they unquestionably were, while to us it is most likely that such methods and materials would be at first, if not finally, distasteful.

There are other passages on equally general problems; but it is incumbent on us to warn the reader once more that the volume is primarily scientific and technical, and assumes a very considerable acquaintance with several departments of archæology and a cultivated interest in special problems, such as the composition of the pedimental groups and the names of the figures in them, or the subject of the centre of the Parthenon frieze.

  1. Essays on the Art of Pheidias. By CHARLES WALDSTEIN, M. A., Ph. D. Cambridge : University Press. New York: The Century Company. 1885.