Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

Celebrating Hellenistic Sculpture: A Victory Restored

How do you feel about restoring ancient art? There was a time when it was common museum/curatorial practice to actually restore parts of an object back onto itself. In other words, if a statue was missing an arm, a common restoration method would have been to glue on a new one. This is no longer considered best practice. Now, art objects are being restored using highly developed chemical conservation sciences and cleaning methods. Currently, one of the most famous marble sculptures of ancient Greece is undergoing conservation, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, or, Nike of Samothrace.

Click image to enlarge. Unknown Greek sculptor, Nike of Samothrace, or Winged Victory of Samothrace, c. 190 BC, Parian marble, 18 ft 3 in with pedestal, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Click image to enlarge. Unknown Greek sculptor, Nike of Samothrace, or Winged Victory of Samothrace, c. 190 BC, Parian marble, 18 ft 3 in with pedestal, 8 ft 1 in statue only, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The Musée du LouvreEurope’s most massive art museum, houses this iconic sculpture of Nike, the Greek winged goddess of Victory (the Greek word Νίκη translates to “victory”) whose Roman equivalent was called Victoria. The Louvre’s website gives updates of the conservation process and a slideshow of images showing the complicated science and engineering behind it. Scaffolding has been erected surrounding the statue and pedestal for the conservators to carefully inspect every millimeter of the statue’s surface. The conservation process will reportedly run until September of this year, at which point the Nike of Samothrace will be revealed in her new squeaky clean and shimmering state, ready to oversee the throngs of Louvre visitors ascending the Daru staircase.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, detail of scale.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, view of scale.

Just a little FYI, the Nike, created in white Parian marble by an unknown Greek sculptor in the 2nd century, about 200-190 BC, was discovered on the Greek island Samothrace in 1863 by French archaeologists. Excavations indicate that she was placed in a niche in a Samothrace temple complex to commemorate a victorious battle, probably at sea. The Nike stands as one of the most beautiful depictions of drama and motion in marble in the history of art. And despite her beauty, Nike is missing quite a few limbs and features. So how, without arms, feet, or a head, does she remain so stunning? It has a little to do with her fabulous bod, a little to do with her impressive wingspan, and almost everything to do with her drapery.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, view of front.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, view of front.

Let us go back to her fabulous bod. It’s hard not to be envious of such a gorgeous figure with its perfect collar bone and cleavage, sleek abdomen (damn near a six pack) and spectacular legs that could make the likes of Tina Turner green with envy. But then again, Nike has no arms, feet, or head, so never mind. And oh yeah, she’s not even a real person, she’s just a statue. Yet if you are going on the ideal physical specimen of feminine beauty, this, in my opinion, is it, even with the missing parts (so to Hell with the Venus de Milo). Just as Michelangelo’s David is, in my opinion, the ideal physical specimen of male beauty.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, detail of abdomen and legs.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, detail of abdomen and legs.

Let us go back to her impressive wingspan. Nike’s wings are spread to their complete height, stretched up and back as if she is about to flap them down and launch herself into the air. Each feather is rendered in intricate detail, their textures pointing in patterned directions indicating how they must keep her airborne. With the spectacle of these majestic wings, we barely notice that Nike has no arms or head. It is an afterthought, and then it doesn’t even matter; it’s as though her arms were actually replaced by wings. In the realm of gods and goddesses, a massive wingspan seems more impressive than arms anyway, which are mere human necessities.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, detail of upper torso and wings.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, detail of upper torso and wings.

Let us go back to her drapery. It is easily the most virtuoso element of this sculpture. The billowing folds of Nike’s drapery are sculpted in deep creases. They undulate in a motion so fluid that one forgets they are looking at reworked marble. The pedestal upon which the statue stands, shaped like the prow of a ship, gives the impression the goddess is standing at this high point (18 feet 3 inches), her sleek legs firmly planted, facing the wind that flows through her garments. The wind presses her drapery against her, outlining every contour of her perfect body. It sends folds of cloth in between her legs, ruffles it around her hips, and sends a loose strand waving behind her like a flag blown horizontal by a strong breeze.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, view of right side.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, view of right side.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, view of left side.

Click image to enlarge. Nike of Samothrace, view of left side.

The motion of Nike’s drapery practically single-handedly inspired a whole art movement in early 2oth Century Italy called Futurism, or Futurismo. A somewhat elitist group in the avant-garde with a manifesto in tow, the Futurists told the world that art should portray dramatic movement, chaos, and speed. The Futurists were hell-bent on ignoring the past, a concept that was contradicted when one of the founding members, Umberto Boccioni, created a bronze sculpture titled Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. This abstract statue is practically a modern replica of the Nike of Samothrace, minus the wings. But despite their minor douchebaggery the Futurists do have a lasting legacy, so we might have to return to them sometime in the future, pun intended.

Click image to enlarge. Umberto Boccioni (Italian), Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, bronze, 111.2 x 88.5 x 40 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Click image to enlarge. Umberto Boccioni (Italian), Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, bronze, 111.2 x 88.5 x 40 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

For more background on the Nike of Samothrace, better detailed pictures, and the curator’s brief bibliography, click here.

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One comment on “Celebrating Hellenistic Sculpture: A Victory Restored

  1. Hillary
    January 30, 2014

    Your vivid description brings Nike to life and gave me a greater appreciation for her beauty. I would love to learn more about the shift from reconstruction/restoration to conservation–probably some good stories there? Botched job? Evolving technologies and techniques?

    Like

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