Tender Brute

As mentioned before I am posting a short critique of two works of art, an assignment from a survey course I am taking, specifically dealing with art of the ancient (western)world. Beware of typos, it is still a draft.


Myron, 480-440 B.C.

Minotaur Bust 

National Archeological Museum of Athens

90 copy

Michael Ayrton

plate from a series of ten, Minotaur, plate IX Revealed

The Minotaur:

A Critical Comparison Between Myron’s Minotaur Bust and Michael Ayrton’s Revealed

In discussing two works from disparate cultures many factors need to be considered, many of which are the guidelines for this paper: theme, aesthetic appeal, cultural significance and composition. But what I find of greatest interest is the psychological and philosophical significance of each of these works.  I can think of few creatures that have inspired so many important artists as has the Minotaur.  William Blake when illuminating Dante’s Divine Comedy evoked the monster to great affect; the Surrealists Remedio Varo and Leonora Carrington both played upon the theme- in their cases, fashioning a Minotauress;  and of course Picasso who famously returned to the theme time and again, integrating themes of sexuality, aggression and humanity. But my desire is to explore two works, one attributed to the 5th century Greek sculptor Myron, a torso fragment and the other, an etching from a series of eleven, entitled Minotaur (1971), with an emphasis on plate IX, Revealed, by the  20th century British artist Michael Ayrton.

As the myth of the Minotaur is an ancient one it might be best to start with the 5th century marble sculpture.  Myron, working between 480-440 B.C. is best known for his monumental Discobolus; he was in fact well regarded for his depictions of athletes and rather surprisingly to me, animals.  Pliny sights in his Natural History a particularly renown heifer. It should perhaps then not come as much of a surprise that the Minotaur Bust is such a visual success. Initially believed to be part of a fountain composition animating the Theseus/Minotaur narrative, this fragment now resides in the National Archeological Museum of Athens. It is notable that this artist who was able to imbue his human figures with such grace and power , could also give such elegance to what in essence is a monstrous beast.  Working his Classical magic Myron has the cold marble yield in such a way that this monster is as lilting and as sensuous as any Apollo. The creature’s twisted posture (or what is left of it) belies a sentient being, wounded, lost, broken. This  creature does not lack vitality or power but he does seem cowed, conquered, not at all the blood thirsty fiend of the Labyrinth. In fact fresh water streamed from his lips not the blood of virgins.  Myron is masterful in crafting a work that depicts no simple monster but in fact expresses the humanity of the unfortunate beast. If Myron deified his athletes he humanized our nightmares.

As mentioned the Minotaur of ancient myth is a fearsome thing, a brutish killing machine lurking in murky corners ready to pounce. But contrary to this savage imagination are the tender inclinations of artists like Myron and Myron’s spiritual/aesthetic heir Ayrton who also yearns to depict the monster empathetically, imbuing this ferocious hybrid with poignant pathos.

Michael Ayrton, English born (1921-1975) best known as a Neo-Romantic in the British tradition, was a gifted painter, a robust sculptor (trained by Henry Moore) and a  meticulous printmaker. He was also by many contemporary accounts difficult, described as insufferable by some. Struck early at 11 with a near crippling bone disease, Ayrton had a noticeable life-long limp.  Managing a physical disability and an irritable temperament, Ayrton ruffled a few feathers (the actor John Gielgud made note of his “savage resentment”). How his isolation, his disability and his surly demeanor  affected his work is up to conjecture but a brief examination of his work, most notably the colossal bronzes, one can reasonably assume  personal psychological significance. For in his depiction of the Minotaur (in both bronze and engravings) Ayrton twists the monster’s  body in painful and unnatural poses, revealing robust musculature yet a back broken and mangled, bones protruding through stretched flesh,  from his hairy face, limpid eyes look up in grief.  His Minotaur series, particularly plate XI reveals a terrible, visceral self loathing. For it is in this image his mother, Pasiphae reveals his true nature by holding up a mirror reflecting his monstrous visage. It is a difficult image, one that has brought me to near tears at times ( as has the whole series); Pasiphae seems intent upon breaking his spirit, he in turn is indeed broken. What is the significance of this composition? One in which a mother, that in tradition is supposed to be a nurturing being,  is now revealing herself to be the truer monster.  Ayrton’s Minotaur,  like Myron’s, is a broken figure, he may harbor base instincts and desires but as in the best humanist tradition he also harbors a spark of the divine.  His soul transcends the heavy lumbering ungainliness of his form revealing a warmth and tenderness difficult to discern in his royal mother.  Both of these depictions, one from the 5th c. and one from the 20th depict not monsters, but in the humanist tradition, they reflect something more complicated, they reflect ourselves.

minotaur from YSL estateMinotaur Torso from the (former?) estate of Yves Saint Laurent.

I could not find a link to all ten plates so instead I have relied upon an exhibition  catalog, and rather lamely photographed each teeny images. Pardon the quality but it gives you a gist of the emotional quality of the series.


I , As Embryo


 II ,Consecrated


III, As Calf


IV, As Yearling


V, Rising


VI, Risen


VII,Full Grown


VIII, Pent


IX, Revealed


X, Alone

In closing his mentor Henry Moore perhaps described Ayrton work best “…a fascinating side-alley;not mainstream, but a significant eccentric.”

That is an epithet I could live with (so to speak).

Piggyback @ the Getty Villa

David and I went to the Getty Villa this Independence Day weekend, as always it was wonderful, overwhelming and inspiring. This trip was extra special as I am taking a survey course on the art of the ancient world-the Greco-Romans being of particular emphasis. I was instructed by my professor to write a short review on one piece I found of interest- easier said than done, picking one piece amidst the splendor offered.

The following is my draft:


Statuette of a Boy Riding Piggyback

Greek, Boeotia, about 500 – 475 B.C.
Terracotta and pigment
6 x 2 1/16 x 1 11/16 in.


The Getty Villa in Malibu is a treasure trove of delights from the ancient world, a vast collection that is a testament to the magnificence of the Greco-Roman world ( and J.Paul Getty’s fortune).  A visitor might be excused for feeling daunted and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of this collection.  One encounters incredible works, golden vessels, ethereal  bronze athletes and chaste marble goddesses but for this review I am going to focus on a small, seemingly insignificant statuette. This work, modeled by hand, in the humble medium of terra-cotta depicts a simple scene of a mother and child at play.

According to the Getty website, the Statuette of a Boy Riding Piggyback is  only 6” high,  it is Greek and  it is from Boeotia around 500-475B.C.  Apparently, as per the site,  such playful genre scenes were popular in this region. The somewhat clumsy modeling confirms what the Getty scholars assert, that the figure was hand sculpted. That in fact is the statuette’s  fundamental charm, the presence of its makers touch. That the  piece also has significant traces of the original paint, applied post firing, only adds to its visual appeal.

In no way is this diminutive tchotchke a significant work of art ; in fact it might be  best understood as a plaything recovered from society long since passed.  Yet it survived in spite of all the odds, a little pinch of hardened clay with some chalky paint tenaciously clinging to its surface. That miracle alone would be sufficient grounds for admiration, but what I found most impressive was how this ancient trifle still amused across the span of time.  It did not go unnoticed as I stooped to better observe the statuette that the families milling about were engaged in the same silly games; fathers trying to distract their bored offspring with a birds eye view by means of the same piggyback vantage point depicted in the Boeotian statuette.
The ability to capture the everyday, the humanity that we  share be it  500 B.C. or 2013 A.D., that is the Greek gift.  The Greek legacy feels fundamentally alive,  be it the witty repartee found in Plato’s Symposium, the pathos of Euripides’ Medea or the mundane moments of quiet fun between a mother and her boy ; the Greeks grasped these concepts and  fashioned them into time capsules that delight and startle us to this day with their freshness and their relevance.  The Egyptians built monuments that blow us away, the Hebrews inspired much of our religious traditions, the Romans set for us an example in creating an absolute empire,  but the Greeks remind us how to be human.  To recognize our foibles and strengths, our fortunes and our sorrows, how to live through them and if we are wise enough, to leave a testament of the very brief time we have.  The Greeks accomplished immortality in the most basic of mediums, a little ball of clay.

The trip offered many delights, the following is a slide show. 



85.AD.105: Head of Hades










A lovely day, until next time,

take care,