Denton Jaques Snider.

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intensity surging in the throes of the might-
ily agitated body of Laocoon. Primarily
then w^e behold a domestic tragedy wdiich the
sculptor throbbed out of the depths of his
heart Avith such fullness that the overflow
passed directly into the outburst and contor-
sions of the marble. No man ever produced
such a work as this without pouring into it
his own personality at high tide. Thereby it
is not said that he in his own family must
have experienced a blow of this sort, but that
he must powerfully have felt the Fate of his
time to be impending over him and his own,
and involving his world in its coils.


(2) Hence rises the question what was
this world, or more specially, what was the
social and institutional condition lying back
of such a work of Art and calling forth the
same as an expression of itself! The Lao-
coon Group, supposing that its origin can be
placed some where about 100 B. C, is brought
forth at the close of a century of conflict and
despair for the Hellenistic w^orld. Between
200 and 100 B. C, the four Macedonian AVars
had shown the gradual advance of the Ro-
mans into the possession of Greece, which
meant the end of her most loved institution,
with which she believed her destiny to be
wrapped up, the autonomous City-State.

Rhodes for instance had sided with Mace-
donian Perseus in his revolt against Rome,
and had been severely punished for her de-
fection after the overthrow of Perseus at
the battle of Pydna (168 B. C.)- But the
fact indicates how deeply Rhodes must have
sympathized with the Greek aspiration for
communal freedom, which was slowly being
undone by Roman policy and arms. The
Achaean League made a valiant attempt to re-
cover the old libertv, but was in its turn
swallowed by the Western Monster from
Italy. Finally, after the battle of Corinth
(146 B. C), Hellas disappears into a Roman
Province. Still there remained the longing


and the hope for the return of their ancient
institutional world. Now this undercurrent
of aspiration in many forms runs through the
whole Hellenistic Period, but especially
through the mentioned hundred years of in-
most spiritual travail and outer defeat and
decadence. But the emphatic point now is
that the Art of the time springs out of this
strongest and deepest sentiment of the Greek
folk-soul, and brings to utterance the same
with all its tragic depth and intensity.

There is no doubt that the Hellenistic peo-
ple looking upon the Laocoon Group beheld
themselves, their country and its terrific
struggles. The artist has, therefore, em-
bodied the popular consciousness of an epoch,
and thus has fulfilled the supreme function
of his Art. Every Greek beholder could
hardly help feeling the fateful coils of those
serpents enringed around his own body and
limbs, with the constriction ever drawing
tighter till his own muscles would heave and
roll in responsive paroxysms. We today can
hardly conceive how the man's living organ-
ism would thrill in answer to the ominous
convulsions of the marble of Laocoon. For
they were his own, his Self, and much more ;
they were those of all Greeks, indeed of the
total nation, the contorsions of Hellas her-


Another fact may be mentioned in this
connection. The people today, who stream
through the modern Art-museums, will stop
longer before the Laocoon Group than be-
fore any other ancient statue. If we listen
to their off-hand observations, we shall find
that they grasp at once the central purport
of the work, the desperate conflict with a
demoniac inbreaking Fate. Many, perhaps
the most, will think- that it also shows some-
how the penalty of guilt, suggested doubtless
by the serpents of which they all have read in
the story of Eden. In the Vatican Gallery,
where the original stands, I have watched
the flow of visitors and noted their prefer-
ence; that was more than thirty years ago.
Onlv vesterdav I remarked the same phe-
nomenon in the sculpture rooms of the Chi-
cago Art Institute. So we have to think that
for our time also the Laocoon Group is the
most popular piece of statuary coming down
from antiquity. It has an instantaneous
smiting power which drives home on the spot
its first meaning, though the student may
have to dig for the second and even the third.
But how much more did it signify to the
Greek beholder who had its immediate his-
toric backbround as well as its Mythus not
only graven on his memory but throbbing in
his heart! Undoubtedlv the snakes exercise


hero their strange diabolic charm upon the
human soul, 1)ut just that is a part of the
artist's conception.

(3) As usual in Greek Sculpture, the
artist has seized upon a popular Mythus of
the. aforetime, in order to express the con-
sciousness of the present. For the Greek
folk had the tendency to conceive mythically
what lay next to its heart, and thereto the
artist made primarily his appeal. Laocoon
had become a familiar figure in the evolution
of the tale of Troy, though not known to
Homer. The later epos and tragedy had
elaborated the deed and fate of Laocoon, and
made his story popular, which thence passed
into the Aeneid of Virgil, whose account,
however, in a number of salient points dis-
agrees with the statue. This disagreement
has been the source of much discussion, which
we shall here pass over. The bare story runs
that Laocoon, priest of Apollo at Troy seeks
in the exercise of his sacerdotal office to pre-
vent the entrance of the wooden horse, the
stratagem of the Greek besiegers, into the
w^alls of his native city, and thus to rescue
it from impending destruction. But wdiile
in the full act of this patriotic service, the
Goddess Pallas Athena sends two prodigious
serpents from the sea nearby, which seize
him and his two young sons in their coils


a'lid crusli all three to death, seemingly upon
the very altar where he was performing sac-
rifice. Thus Laocoon himself became the
sacrifice to the higher Power that had de-
creed the destruction of his country, wdiich
he was with noble devotion trying to save.

The statue rises up before us as the cul-
minating moment of the legend and suggests
its supreme conflict, that between the outgo-
ing and incoming deities of an epoch. Truly
the old Gods of Greece are fated (as those
of Troy once were), in the presence of this
new Divine Order, here shown indeed only
in its negative manifestation. The statue of
course says nothing about the Greek God-
dess Athena of the Mythus, but it shows the
destroyer in the fearful deed of destruction.
Laocoon now is Hellas, and his two sons are
its children, all of them belonging to the Hel-
lenistic time; moreover he as priest invok-
ing his country's deities represents the re-
ligion of his people, dominated and undone
by a mightier Zeus than theirs. Olympus no
longer overcanopies with protection its na-
tion in face of the new Gods. The features
of Laocoon suggest those of Zeus in suffer-
ing; the serenity of the Phidian model is
changed into the agony of the highest God in
the throes of his final conflict. Prophetic
Homer, we remember, has repeatedly placed


Fate above even Zeus; behold, the poet's
forecast has become the tragic reality in the
Hellenistic world, and is expressed through
Art in the Laocoon Group. Thus the relig-
ious pathos of Art reaches its highest fulfil-
ment when the national deities are shown in-
volved in the time's conflict and going down
with their nation.

(4) The tendency of the modern school
of interpreters is to disparage the work by
declaring it to be largely or wholly a presen-
tation of physical pain without any inner or
ethical significance. It stirs to sympathy in-
deed, but such sympathy is similar to that
which one feels at the hospital when some
poor fellow is having his leg cut off on ac-
count of an accident. The artist reveled in
that stormy play of muscles in order to show
off his anatomical virtuosity. The bite of
the serpent is the sole cause of the body's
massive convulsions. Still such an explana-
tion always finds trouble with the head and
face and eves — with the countenance turned
toward Heaven amid all its pangs, with a
look of untold sorrow for what is going, yet
a gleam of recognition for what is coming.
In fact the face concentrates the supreme
spiritual struggle of Laocoon; he across the
last intensity of suffering catches a gleam of
the order that is to be, in the final flash of his


soul lie glimpses the new Gods, by whose
minister he is perishing. Such a glance of
recognition, though hardly of reconciliation
we must read in this woe-ridged face over all
the lines of its throeful resistance. His last
eye-shot sees what it all means — and the next
is death.

In this respect also the artist brought up
to light the far-down unconscious conviction
of the Greek folk-soul of his time. It had
been made evident in many a battle that
Rome had come to stay, that the Greek City-
State was gone, that Olympus itself was sub-
merged, its old Pantheon could only be saved
by being taken up into the new nation. Lao-
coon in his ultimate vision catches a glint of
the AVorld-Spirit of which he is indeed the
victim. Such is the elevation of this work of
Art at its loftiest point, it reflects a node of
the World's History. Physical suffering —
yes, of the intensest, make it as strong as you
choose; still it is the suffering of a whole
God- World in struggle and dissolution. From
this point of view we may call it still a di-
vine epiphany, the appearance of deity in
human shape, which is the creative fact of
Sculpture, as already often noted. Indeed it
is more, it is the plastic manifestation of the
passing of the old Pantheon with the intima-
tion of the new one dawning.


There is a line of comparison and also of
affinity between the Laocoon Group and the
Phidian sculpture of the Parthenon. In the
latter 's two pediments there w^as set forth
a double conflict between Athena on the one
side, the new incoming divinity of Athens,
and on the other the ancient Gods Zeus and
Poseidon, both of whom were transcended,
though not suppressed by the younger God-
dess. In this case, however, the struggle
took place within Olympus, not outside of it
and against it, and was confined to a single
Greek City-State, by no means involving the
whole Greek Nation. But in Laocoon all
Olympus and the entire Nation are the stake
and are indeed overwdielmed by a seemingly
external Fate which, however, is but the in-
strument of the rising higher Power. The
inner dualism of the Greek God-World, from
its start and conception, as already pointed
out, has now become the external fact, the
mighty historic scission of the age.

Very suggestive does the history of Poly-
bius become in the present connection. He
lived in the Hellenistic Period and is its su-
X^reme historian (204-122 B. C). He, as a
young man, fought to preserve the Greek
City-State in its Achaean form, which, how-
ever, lost its independence at the battle of
Corinth (146 B. C). Pohdjius was carried


as a captive to Rome where he stayed many
years and stndied at first hand the new in-
stitutional order which had arisen on the
banks of the Tiber, and was spreading thence
over the East and West. It may be said that
Polybins at Rome became acquainted with
the World-Spirit and recorded his new con-
viction in his History, which he wrote for the
instruction of his stubborn and hide-bound
countrymen. That conviction was in gen-
eral that Greece must henceforth recognize
the world-historical supremacy of Rome.
Now the Laocoon Group expresses this same
conviction as its last pulsation of life, as its
final look of recognition of the new divine
sovereignty. Such belief rose slowly to be
that of the Hellenistic folk-soul, though with
many protests, resurgences and inner revolts,
pictured vividly in the upheavals and contor-
sions of its typical work of Art.

Such is the Laocoon 's highest pathos, or
emotion sprung of a mighty institutional con-
flict, that of religion itself. This, however, is
not the only kind of pathos we feel in this
statue — two others are present, the domestic
and the political, the father's love for his
children and the Greek's love for his coun-
try's institution.

(5) When we pass to the numerous de-
tails of the work, reflections seem to chase


one another in an endless line. To be noticed
first is its pyramidal shape enclosed in a
somewhat triangular outline. It is a plastic
trinity yet in a complete unity, a triple chord,
yet a single note; it is three yet one, thus
showing that simple ultimate mathematical
harmony, very real, even if very abstract.
Each figure is decidedly individualized in
look, in act and attitude, still they form one
whole linked together externally and in-
ternally. Beginning, middle and end, we see
in one cast of eye and of soul ; the younger
son is already in the shadow of death, the
elder has been just ensnared and seeks to ex-
tricate one leg with the one free arm, but the
other leg and arm are already gripped in the
fatal coil, and he beholds with a brother's
sympathy, yet with terror, what is coming.
The father concentrates the action to an al-
most furious intensity, producing a very
maelstrom of outbursting emotion ; his
struggle is for himself directly yet for all in-
directly; if he could save himself against the
monsters, he could save his children in the
same deed.

The contemplation of the statue in its soul-
ful depths causes it to impart a sense of
movement, a round of action which goes
through the three stages. We begin to feel,
yea to see a process here embracing three


persons yet one spirit; the onter eye seems
to share in the inner vision ; the fixed marble
forms become fluid as if in response to the
movement of the soul throbbing through
them all. The trinity of three outer shapes
is there to call forth the one inner process of
the spirit. In this connection may be cited
a very suggestive passage of Goethe: **In
order to grasp aright the intention of the
Laocoon, let the beholder at a proper distance
take his position before it with eyes closed;
then let him open them and close them again
at once, and he will see the whole marble in
movement." Such is Goethe's experiment
by which he causes the eye from its outer
separative sight to pass over into the inner
vision of the process of the work, truly a
psychical process, or dramatic action of pre-
lude, culmination and conclusion.

Still we are not to forget the unity and fix-
ity of the statue whose peculiar power is to
make its soul move while its bodily shapes
are moveless. Then it is so instantaneous,
concentrated to a moment in which all is
rounded out and completed, a stroke of light-
ning suddenlv shot into crvstallization. It
smites outwardly, but also inwardly at the
same time; its first impress carries with
itself the inseparable oneness of the physical
and the ethical sides, the rudest spectator


feels at first glance that it is not merely a
desperate battle with two snakes. Here
again we may cite Goethe's hot remarks up-
on this subject, as if directed against some
transgressor: "Far be it from me to split
the unity of human nature, to deny to the
spiritual powers of this glorious man their
co-operation. Anxiety, Fear, Terror, pa-
ternal love seem to me to be moving through
these veins, to be swelling in this breast, to
be furrowing this forehead ; gladly do I con-
fess that along with the sensuous paroxysms
a spiritual suffering is represented at its
highest stage." Such is the great German
poet's last confession concerning this statue,
upon which he had reflected so long and so

(6) According to Roman Pliny the Lao-
coon Group stood in the palace of Titus on
the Esquiline, but when or how it was
brought to Rome w^e have no information. It
was doubtless a part of the plunder of Greek
statues in which the later Roman command-
ers freely indulged. " And the work flattered,
unintentionally of course, the pride of Rome
as the w^orld's mistress; she was in reality
the outer Fate which had overtaken Greek
Laocoon and had crushed him, thus furnish-
ing the age's dreadful theme to the artist,
even if she were represented as the victorious



serpent, like Egyptian Apopliis or Semitic
Satan. There can be no doubt that the
Roman looked upon this work with other
eyes and with very different feelings from
those of the Greek, To the one it meant tri-
umph, to the other the last humiliation. Evi-
dently it was a great favorite at Rome and
stood in a public place, in the palace of Titus
or, according to another tradition, in the
Baths of the same emperor. At any rate it
was a Greek confession, eternally fixed in
all its intense energy, of Rome's superiority,
yea of Rome 's new world-historical position ;
and it would strongly appeal, just in its dy-
ing convulsions, to the habitual spectator of
gladitorial agonies. Hence Pliny's overbal-
anced praise of this statue, "superior to all
the works of Painting and Sculpture,"
smacks more of the Roman than of the Greek,
has in it more of the victor's exultation than
s^Tiipathy with the pangs of the vanquished.
The Group disappeared in the long sub-,
mergence of Rome under the waves of bar-
barian conquest and medieval ignorance till
in 1506 it was again ])rought to light from
its Roman grave. A suggestive sychronism
lies in the fact that the new Italian Sculpture
had arisen and was then at its height in the
works of Michel Angelo. The right arm of
the father, Laocoon, gripping and thrusting


off a huge coil of the snake is a restoration of
Montorsoli. Many critics claim that it is in-
correct, though it is not without its defenders.
The surface of the statue has been worked
over by the modern sculptor, and doubtless
has lost not a little of ancient living fresh-
ness. A paper war starting with Winkel-
mann and Lessing has raged over the ques-
tion whether Laocoon utters "horrible
screams to the stars" — Virgil's Clamores
horrendos ad s'ldera — or whether only a
quicker breath or low sigh* or possibly an
audible groan pushes out of that open mouth
of his in the hardest wrench of Fate. The
latter would accord with classic moderation,
the famed self-restraint of the Greek hero
especially in Art. Let the reader take his
choice, for all such opinions are purely sub-
jective, and do not affect the real significance
of the work. Another famous discussion, set
in motion by Visconti, turns on the morality
of the Laocoon Mythus, which recounts how
a man defending his country meets death at
the intercession of the God.

Good man, wicked God, cries many a mor-
alistic interpreter. But such a view ignores
the main purport of the work, which rests
upon a conflict in the ethical world, between
two principles of an outgoing and incoming
institutional order, each of which has its rep-


resentative in the grapple. Morally, both
sides may be said to be both right and wrong,
each violates a right in asserting a right,
and hence morality has no solution for such
a world-historical problem. Laocoon de-
fends his country wdierein he is right, but he
fights against the new world-order, wherein
he is wrong, and gets punishment from the
Gods. It is an old dilemma, yet one of the
deepest of the human soul and of human his-
tory. In Laocoon 's Troy there was another
and greater character. Hector, who had the
same inner scission. If we look a little
deeper into our Homer, we are faced by a
similar problem in his most beloved hero:
Was Hector moral or immoral? He fought
for his native city against her foes — good,
we cry in approval ; but Hector believes and
says that Troy is wrong in keeping Helen,
and reproaches bitterly his brother Paris for
that deed of guilt, which, however, his coun-
try upholds. In fact the parallel cuts deeper,
to the very heart of the matter, when Hector
foresees Troy's destruction which he utters
in the gloomiest and strongest-worded proph-
ecy in the Iliad. He beholds Fate ap-
proaching in the Argive host on the plain
below, and involving himself, his wife and
child, as well as his country in its resistless
coils— still he resists with all his heroic


might. Very like Laocooii's is Hector's con-
flict, botli inner and outer, having the same
institutional elements in furious interplay —
Family, State, Gods.

There is now a good deal of Hellenistic
Sculpture, and its quantity has been rapidly
increasing; but it is scattered through the
galleries of Europe, and has yet received no
satisfactory ordering. The histories of Art
usually arrange it according to the supposed
cities of its various schools (Rhodes, Tralles,
Pergamum, etc.), which arrangement leaves
not a little of it without any place at all, and
what is worse gives no clew to its thought or
inner movement. As the Greek world, dur-
ing the Hellenistic Period, was in one long
struggle with its destroyers, outer and inner,
with its Fate, we may say in general, we
shall classify its plastic productions from
this point of view. This Art will still be seen
to be the expression of the God-conscious-
ness of the people who originate it and keep
it alive.

/. The Barbarian Fate. The Greek at his
height in the Hellenic Period, viewed all the
non-Greeks as Barbarians. The Persian was
such and the whole Orient, with which Greece
had its earliest historic conflict. The Per-
sian specially threatened Hellas from the
time of Cyrus who conquered iVsia Minor

166 MUHic Ayn the fine arts— sculpture.

(Anatolia) and its Greek cities. This may
be deemed the first Fate of Greece, which re-
mained for some two hundred years till it
was destroyed by Alexander the Great when
the latter subjected Asia. Still we are not
to forget that the mighty wrestle with this
Oriental Fate called forth all the powers of
Greek genius, and all the great works and
deeds for which we chiefly value her today.

Strangely, not long after the time of Alex-
ander a fresh destroyer begins to threaten
Greece from the outside, this time a real Bar-
barian, very different from the civilized Per-
sian of the East. The savage Gaul, of the
Celtic stock starts to break into the Greek
world from the North. It is the new Fate,
the Hellenistic, or one phase of it, and the
grand problem comes up : What is Hellas go-
ing to do with it f Will it evoke from her an-
other supreme efflorescence of greatness, as
did that first Hellenic Fate? Hardly, still
she is to be put to the test.

Already Alexander, before he started for
Asia, had felt the Gauls impinging upon up-
per Macedon, had made an expedition against
them, and driven them seemingly beyond the
Danube. But after his death they begin their
incursions again and carry terror into North-
ern Greece and into Asia Minor, where later
they will have their desperate conflict with


the Kings of Pergamuin, which coiitiict will
give rise to the Pargamene Art (soon to be
noticed). But another branch of these Ganls
will debouch from the mountains of Thessaly
and appear before Delphi whose rich shrine
they hope to plunder. Here they are driven
off by Greek Gods aided by Greek men, as
the legend runs.

(1) TJie Apollo Belvedere and Its Group.
As a memorial of this divine interposition,
there was set up at Delphi a group of the
three deities who had participated in the act
of deliverance — xVpollo, Artemis and Athena.
These statues were famous in antiquity, and
were carried off, doubtless, by Roman plun-
derers — the emperor Nero is stated to have
robbed Delphi of 500 statues at a stroke. The
three became separated far and wide: the
Apollo is the long-celebrated Apollo Belve-
dere of the Vatican, the Artemis is the al-
most equally renowned Diana of the Louvre,
the Athena has been identified as that of the
Capitoline Museum at Rome, but is the least
known and least satisfactory of the three.
Such is the modern re-construction of the
Group by a number of recent investigators,
but it should be added that some -archaeolo-

Online LibraryDenton Jaques SniderMusic and the fine arts; a psychology of aesthetic → online text (page 16 of 32)