Part 3: “Dionysos: The Bold and the Beautiful” by Katerina Volioti

In the previous part, I outlined that a pre-occupation with rigid stylistic categories might hinder creative thinking. In this part, I explore the possibility of a bold and beautiful combination of images and stories from different timeframes, cultures and geographical locations.


A striking and recurrent theme of Classical Mythology is the propensity of mythical actors to transform themselves. The quintessential god of transformations is, of course, Dionysos, the god whose many roles include that of god of wine. In one peculiar incident known from ancient texts and art, Dionysos sails away while pirates turn into dolphins and the mast of his ship into a vine. Transformations are characterised by swift and continuous action. Indeed, in the book Dionysos, the Merry God[1] (my translation) by Filippos Mandilaras (author) and Natalia Kapatsoulia (illustrator) from 2013, Dionysos’ life is characterised by incessant movement, including travel to and from distant lands.

Recent museum exhibitions about polychromy – the colours, patterns and metal attachments that adorned the sculptures in Antiquity – have helped us to revise the story of Classical art and to move away from Winckelmann’s ideas about Classical beauty, especially the simplicity and purity associated with white marble.[2] For children and adult learners polychromy offers multiple opportunities for creative thinking. Polychromous statues are aligned more with the art and consumer goods of western societies, as is also implied in the recent thought-provoking exhibition The Classical Now.[3] Reconstructions of painted statues, with their kitsch and quasi-plastic looks, negate idealisation and hierarchies of value. Learners are also prompted to think about different colour combinations in educational museum activities.[4]

More remarkably perhaps, when statues’ colour palettes and patterns mismatch in a bold way, polychromy creates a new aesthetic principle. The idea of a mismatch or blend, moreover, may allow for the marrying of the styles of the Classical world with incongruent elements from cultural assemblages in far-away places. The lithographs and etchings of New Zealand artist Marian Maguire, for example, exhibit a fine blending of ancient Greek culture with that of colonial New Zealand.[5] Earlier this summer Maguire exhibited works that show Greek goddesses.[6] The style of these works is reminiscent of Greek vase painting. Their meaning, however, reflects (post)modern concerns about the established status quo. Athena, for example, looks as if she is fed up with her militaristic role that supports imperialism. She wants to remove her armour and walk away from her role:[7]

MM1703.jpg
Figure 10: Athena tires of her shield and spear by Marian Maguire. Lithograph on Velin Arches 250g paper from the 2017 series Goddesses. Courtesy of Marian Maguire

It was during this year’s OMC workshops in Warsaw that I was prompted further to combine images of Classical artefacts with contemporary material culture from outside the Classical world. I was inspired by Divine Che Neba’s presentation about people-object interactions in today’s Cameroon. Professor Che Neba’s slides included photographs of: traditional mud huts with cone-shaped thatched roofs (Fig. 11); and wooden and beaded souvenirs, most of them bearing eye-catching colours, such as bright yellow, red orange and deep blue (Fig. 12). The strong colour contrasts reminded me of polychromy in Greek sculpture:

Figure 11 Traditional Cameroonian houses.jpg
Figure 11: Traditional Cameroonian houses. Photograph: Divine Che Neba
Figure 12 Traditional Cameroonian artefacts.jpg
Figure 12: Traditional Cameroonian artefacts. Photograph: Divine Che Neba

I produced a sketch drawing that blended (mis)matching artefacts from Greek and Cameroonian cultures:

Figure 13 Greco-Cameroonian Art.jpg
Figure 13: Graeco-Cameroonian Art. Sketch drawing by Katerina Volioti

I copied images from Professor Che Neba’s slides and from illustrations of Greek archaeological finds in two guide books for adult learners by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Pots and Pans of Classical Athens by Brian A. Sparkes and Lucy Talcott  (1959, Fig. 14);[8] and Amphoras and the Ancient Wine Trade by Virginia R. Grace (1979, Fig. 15):[9]

9780876616017
Figure 14: Pots and Pans of Classical Athens, American School of Classical Studies, Athens
9780876616192
Figure 15: Amphoras and the Ancient Wine Trade, American School of Classical Studies, Athens

My drawing presents a collage of disparate entities in terms of style, size, materials, and, of course, provenances. To some extent, Cameroonian and Greek material culture seem to be blending into one another, potentially calling for a combination of their respective mythologies. Such a combination is possible as an intellectual exercise because of mythical actors’ transformative powers and capacity to travel long distances. If children find ancient (and modern) myths fascinating, it is precisely because mythical characters can find a way to use Chian transport amphorae in a Cameroonian mud hut.

Epilogue

I close this reflective blog posting with a call for illustrated children’s books to embrace also the creative blending of material cultures and of mythical stories from different parts of the world. The art history and archaeology of museum exhibits could be a starting point for producing new (artistic) designs that, like mythical actors, step out of time and space and challenge the very essence of stylistic unity. If we teach the Classical world in a way that encourages a sense of innovation, then we may shape the founders of tomorrow’s start-ups with products that will change the world. More crucially, children will learn from a young age to think outside the box and embrace the bold and the beautiful in a way that breaks down the boundaries between the present and the past, the real and the imaginary and, surely, Greek and Cameroonian material culture.

Prepared by

Katerina Volioti

Katerina Volioti October 2018.jpg

Katerina is currently teaching modules on Classical art and archaeology at the University of Roehampton.

Elaborated by Dorota Bazylczyk


Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Susan Deacy,[10] Michael Loy,[11] Katarzyna Marciniak,[12] and Amy C. Smith[13] for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this blog posting. For images, I would like to thank Divine Che Neba, Eirini Dermitzaki, Marian Maguire, Anja Slawisch, Carol Stein, and Peter Stewart. All URLs are correct as at 21 August 2018.


Bibliography:

[1] – https://www.epbooks.gr/product/100537/dionysos,-the-cheerful-god and http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/myth-survey/item/154

[2] – See, for example, https://www.classics.cam.ac.uk/museum/collections/peplos-kore

[3] – https://www.kcl.ac.uk/Cultural/-/Projects/The-Classical-Now.aspx

[4] – See, for example, http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en/content/archaic-colors-1

[5] – https://www.marianmaguire.com/

[6] – https://www.pggallery192.co.nz/new_work/marian-maguire-goddesses-22-may-15-june-2018/

[7] – https://www.pggallery192.co.nz/products-page/marian-maguire/athena-tires-of-her-shield-and-spear/

[8] – http://www.ascsa.edu.gr/index.php/publications/book/?i=9780876616017

[9] – http://www.ascsa.edu.gr/index.php/publications/book/?i=9780876616192

[10] – http://myth-autism.blogspot.com/?view=classic&m=1

[11] – https://profiles.ahrcdtp.csah.cam.ac.uk/directory/michael-loy

[12] – https://uw.academia.edu/KatarzynaMarciniak

[13] – https://www.reading.ac.uk/classics/about/staff/a-c-smith.aspx

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