Waking the gods: how the classical world cast its spell over British art

Dod Procter’s painting of a girl on the brink of waking echoes an ancient statue of Ariadne – and is just one example of a postwar revival in classical imagery. Why did antique references mean so much to shellshocked Britain?

Of all the antique sculptures that were rediscovered in the Renaissance, and which infused and possessed the imaginations of later generations of artists, it is hard to think of one more powerful than the statue of the sleeping Ariadne in the Pio Clementino museum in the Vatican. Probably a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, it was acquired by Pope Julius II in 1512. He displayed it as part of an elaborate fountain installation, with water playing around the sleepily recumbent figure. At the time, that figure was identified not as the mythical heroine Ariadne, but as Cleopatra – partly because of the snaky bracelet that coils round one of her upper arms, thought to depict the queen’s asp. For Pope Julius, the sculpture had tremendous symbolic appeal: he was the conquering Roman, the heir of the Caesars, she was the subjugated Egyptian ruler. At the same time, through some intriguing act of intellectual slippage, she was, by virtue of her watery setting, a nymph in a grotto – erotic, sensual, hovering in some delicate reverie between sleep, death and wakefulness.

Sleeping Ariadne, Phrygian marble.
Sleeping Ariadne, Phrygian marble. Photograph: Musei Vaticani, Museo Pio-Clementino

The sculpture is not, at the moment, on public view. To see it now, one must apply for a pass and be conducted solemnly past the scarlet cords that separate the rush of visitors from the sala degli animali – a stone menagerie of harts, boars, bulls, wolves and foxes that look as if they have just been petrified by the imperious wand of a passing White Witch. Beyond the frozen animals, there opens up a long corridor of antique sculptures, over which Ariadne – as she is now known, after a scholarly reidentification in the late 18th century – presides from her niche at the end, flanked by the magnificent Barberini candelabra (said to have been excavated at Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli). She is thrillingly solid, enormous, a great weight of limbs encased in stony drapery, her left hand pillowing her cheek, her right thrown back over her head. This is Ariadne at the moment of waking on the shore of the island of Naxos, where she has been abandoned by Theseus after helping him to kill the Minotaur on Crete. When Ariadne sees Theseus’s ship sailing away towards the horizon, she will, after her first despair, rain down terrible curses on him, as well she might: she was very much the brains of the Minotaur-slaying operation, supplying the hero with a sword and a thread by which to find his way out of the labyrinth. Later, she will encounter the god Bacchus and his tipsy train of followers, and he will transform her into a beautiful constellation that will shine ever more out of the night sky.

The sculpture also blazes a trail through art history. You can see her traces everywhere: in the pose, most obviously, of innumerable naked Titian beauties (in the foreground of The Andrians, for example; and in his various Danaës, penetrated by Zeus as a shower of gold). There are echoes in Bernini’s extraordinary sculpture of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in the church of San Francesco a Ripa in Rome: the recumbent woman is writhing in pain, or pleasure. You can see a version of her (another, similar sculpture owned by the Medicis) in a beautiful tiny landscape by Velázquez. Nicolas Poussin made a little wax copy of her to keep in his studio. She’s in the elaborate landscaped gardens of Stourhead, Wiltshire, this time in the dark and ferny embrace of a real dripping grotto – as a nymph commissioned in the 18th century by the fabulously rich banker Henry Hoare from John Cheere. Giorgio de Chirico obsessed over her, almost certainly without ever having seen the original statue. He depicted the sculpture in a series of eight paintings produced in Paris between 1912 and 1913. His Ariadnes lie in near-deserted city squares whose porticoed buildings throw out sharp shadows against the evening light. They exhale melancholy and isolation.

Titian’s Danae, painted in 1544.
Titian’s Danae, painted in 1544. Photograph: Michael Crabtree/Reuters

Just over a decade later, another version of Ariadne made her appearance, this time painted by a female hand. Dod Procter, born Doris Margaret Shaw in 1890, grew up in Newlyn, Cornwall, where she studied at the art school established by Elizabeth and Stanhope Forbes, and later at Atelier Colarossi in Paris, where she absorbed the work of impressionist and post-impressionist painters. After the first world war she returned to Cornwall with her artist husband Ernest Procter, and in the 1920s worked on monumental paintings of solitary women.

Her Morning (1926) shows a woman, asleep and perhaps on the verge of waking, with her right arm thrown back over her head. George Eliot’s description of the Vatican Ariadne, in Middlemarch, might also serve to describe Procter’s subject: “She lies in the marble voluptuousness of her beauty, the drapery folding around her with a petal-like ease and tenderness.” Well, not marble: paint. But even so, the white sheets and nightgown that Procter has arranged around her model strongly recall the pale chilliness of antique sculpture. View the image in a certain way and you could almost feel that the stony solidity of those sheets was consuming the young woman, like some heroine from Ovid’s Metamorphoses being steadily transformed into a rocky outcrop. But despite the cool density of that cotton drapery, the figure is a sensuous being, fleshy and pink, and her left fingers – departing from the original pose – hover suggestively around her crotch, not unlike the exploring hand of Fragonard’s female subject in Reverie in the Frick Collection in New York. The sitter for Procter’s painting was Cissie Barnes, the 16-year-old daughter of a Newlyn fisherman, and there’s an ordinariness here: she’s very definitely not a mythical heroine, even if we’re being reminded of her Renaissance and classical forebears.

Portrait of Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton.
Portrait of Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton. Photograph: Tate

There are two versions of Procter’s painting. One belongs to the Tate, bought for the nation by the Daily Mail after it was voted “picture of the year” at the 1927 Royal Academy summer exhibition. A smaller version, Early Morning, owned by the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, will be on loan to Pallant House Gallery this autumn for its exhibition The Mythic Method. Its curator, Simon Martin, has excavated a seam of British art made between 1920 and 1950 that explores a kind of modernist classicism. His title comes from TS Eliot’s 1923 essay “Ulysses, Order and Myth”, in which the poet argued that James Joyce’s “mythical method”, his means of deploying Homer’s Odyssey, represented “a step toward making the modern world possible for art”; “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”.

Martin’s artists include painters such as Meredith Frampton, whose deliciously frosty portraits channel Ingres and Flemish painters such as Hans Memling as much as antique models. One would struggle, in fact, to see in such works – and those by artists such as William Roberts and Ithell Colquhoun – precise visual analogues to Joyce’s joyful prose. And yet Martin’s thesis is that these artists are engaged in a project that has some kind of parallel with Ulysses, insofar as they are also using myth, or classicism more generally, to give a shape to the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” of the postwar world. Their way of co-opting the classics is through clean lines and ordered compositions, in bathers and shepherds and broken antique columns; it is all rather far from the generosity, wit and bodily exuberance of Ulysses.

An art that is poised, monumental, static, cool: some of the works from the 1930s resemble what one might lazily think of as fascist art – but without the actual fascism. Under only slightly different political circumstances, some of this stuff could have been co-opted with ease towards far-right faux-heroics. On the other hand, one of the works in the exhibition is a series of studies by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant of elegantly classicising figures (flavoured strongly too with influences of Piero della Francesca). They were preparatory sketches for a mural in John Maynard Keynes’s rooms in King’s College, Cambridge.

Ernest Proctor’s The Day's End, 1927.
Ernest Proctor’s The Day’s End, 1927. Photograph: courtesy of Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Martin argues that classical compositions created a safe arena in which difficult, sometimes unspeakable, subjects could be tackled or at times defused – not just Procter’s vision of female sensuality, but the matter of the first world war and all the pain and chaos that went with it. He points to Francis Derwent Wood’s memorial to the Machine Gun Corps, a familiar sight to those passing Hyde Park Corner in London. There’s no hint of machine gunnery and all the filthy savagery that that must have involved, but rather a heroically naked youth, one leg bent, one hand on his hip, holding a sword by his side. Martin says that the sculptor was thinking of antique models such as the Hermes of Praxiteles, but the pose recalls Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze Perseus, holding aloft the bloody head of the gorgon Medusa. Derwent Wood, by contrast, sublimates any hint of violence.

All sorts of things are sublimated by artists shown in The Mythic Method. The painter Lancelot Glasson was another artist to use the Vatican Ariadne as a model; Martin argues that his painting Repose, of two naked girls languidly picnicking atop a cliff, takes an intriguing interest in bodily perfection, given that Glasson himself lost a leg in the war. is subjects in the 1920s and 30s were often nudes, or athletes, or both.

The second world war heralded another turn of the screw for the kind of art Martin has brought together. A classical world is also a world in ruins. An untitled 1939 canvas by Frank Runacres shows a kind of perverted version of Dürer’s famous print Melancholia. A brooding female figure sits in the centre of both works, but in his version, Runacres has collapsed statuary, columns, marble torsos and timber over her head in a chaotic heap. The blitz had not yet happened. When it did, the fluted columns of Wren churches would lie wrecked and broken and Henry Moore’s figures would huddle in the tube like the wraithlike denizens of Hades or wind their wool like implacable, terrifying Fates.

• The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-50 is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from 22 October to 19 February 2017.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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