Beginning in 323 BC and ending in roughly 30 BC, the Hellenistic age of Greece gave rise to some of the most captivating sculptures. Hellenistic sculpture is commonly revered as the epitome of human excellence. Reflecting the social and political tensions of the period, the art of this period focuses on the human experience and emotion. The compelling realism, expressive movement, and ornate details of these statues attest to their enduring legacy. The sculpture method originated in ancient Greece, where it was revolutionary for its multidimensional depiction of various subjects. These subjects were not always idealized deities, Olympians, or orators, leading to a more diverse array of subject matter. Above all else, the human form was privileged and depicted in total authenticity from all angles.
The tradition would later be copied by artists in the Roman empire, who were avid collectors of the sculptures. The sculptures also influenced Renaissance and Baroque artists. Though less frequently discussed, Hellenistic sculpture also influenced several modern artists. These artists explore interruptions and additions to Hellenistic statuary, emphasizing their enduring tradition throughout the centuries, as well as their social relevance to our world.
For example, Sacha Sosno (1937-2013) was renowned internationally for his reinterpretation of Hellenistic sculpture, most notably Venus de Milo (130-100 BC), originally discovered on the island of Milos in 1820. As previously stated, Hellenistic art differed from previous ancient art forms in that it was able to be observed from all angles. Sosno’s reimagination of Hellenistic sculpture focuses on the addition of empty space and added space to this multidimensionality. The French sculptor was particularly interested in absent voids and obstructive solids added to artworks, leading to his work being termed l’art d’oblitér, or the “art of obliteration.” Sosno’s Grande Venus (1984) features the torso of Venus de Milo being disrupted by the addition of empty space. Additionally, his David Oblitere (2007) features the bronze head of Michaelangelo’s David wedged between two slabs of marble on each side. Sosno’s work reimagines Hellenistic sculptures as obliterated and absent in some way, allowing viewers to imagine the rest of their iconic image.
Another example of the reimagination of this ancient art form through the modern artist’s mind is Marc Quinn, a British artist exploring the meaning of being a human in today’s world. In the same way that ancient artists sought to uncover humanity through sculpture, Quinn focuses on embodiment and emotion in his sculpture. His series All About Love (2016-2017) creates an intriguing dialogue between various periods of art history and contemporary art. Each sculpture features fragments of casts in various poses, embraced in frozen moments of love. The movement and realism of each piece is reminiscent of Hellenistic intimacy.
Finally, as an interesting twist on Hellenistic idealism and sensuality, Léo Caillard plays with our relationship with time. His anachronistic multimedia pieces prompt viewers to reflect on our relationship with the past. The French artist’s series Hipsters in Stone and Hipsters in Stone II and III feature sensuous Hellenistic nudes dressed in modern garb from the 2010s. Using photo manipulation, Caillard dresses famous sculptures in the Louvre in sunglasses, t-shirts, and jeans. The ability to separate ancient works from their time and transform them into modern hipsters is a unique meditation on the ways in which the human form and its displayed emotions is universal through the centuries.
These artists’ reimagination of an ancient sculptural tradition proves just how vital the past is to our current lives. Reimagining Hellenistic sculpture allows the contemporary artist to reflect on our continuing relationship with the legacy of the past. It creates an interesting dialogue (and perhaps even a friendship) between the contemporary and the classical.
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