Arts Desk

Vitamin A: The Dying Gaul at the National Gallery of Art

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Students of Western art history generally appreciate the art of Greece and Rome as the pinnacle of achievement in the ancient world. The art of earlier civilizations was heavily stylized or idealized. The Romans tended to strip that idealization away, creating works that mirrored the subjects they represented. No one would describe the overweight portraits of the Flavian emperors or the frightening grimace of Caracalla as flattering.

Last Thursday, the National Gallery of Art put on display The Dying Gaul, a first century CE marble sculpture of a soldier, stabbed through the chest, seated on his shield, too weak to stand, broken bow and sword by his side. Unearthed at Rome's Villa Ludovisi between 1621 and 1623, like many Roman marbles, it is a copy of a lost Greek bronze made centuries before. Both cultures shared a common enemy in the Gauls.

Mark Twain briefly mentioned the work (as The Dying Gladiator) in his book The Innocents Abroad, comparing the pleasure of seeing this work to the pleasure of seeing the Laocöon. It’s an odd comparison. Though both deal, in some part, with death, The Dying Gaul deals with the very real depiction of the death of a soldier in war, whereas the Laocöon illustrates the mythical death by sea serpents of a priest and his sons for warning the Trojans against accepting a Greek horse. Laocöon is high drama, three people, and tangle of limbs and snakes—it cries out. The Dying Gaul is alone, quiet, contemplative, gasping, yielding. In mood and action, the two could not be further apart.

What little we know about the Gauls is from the Roman account of history. And though the Romans viewed the Gauls as barbarians—as did the Greeks before the Romans—at least they honored them enough to memorialize them, transcribing the Greek bronze into Roman marble. While it’s assumed The Dying Gaul symbolizes the power of civility over barbarism, centuries later we can look at it with some sense of warning. The barbarians eventually sacked Rome. That’s the power of this sculpture. As we look, filled with the pathos of watching this figure struggle with death, we can’t help but hope that he summons the strength to stand, even if it means our demise.

 The Dying Gaul is on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 16, 2014.

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Comments

  1. #1

    Dear John:

    Your review began smart enough and actually got better as it went along, until - you decided to inject your liberal bias into it. While, I'm not fan of ancient Rome (in fact I have an associate who impressed me with his genius by revealing how the Roman armies could be easily defeated by using brains over the brawn that foes like the Gauls applied) but you missed the point. Yes, the aesthetics of the sculpture you captured right on but then you ruined it all with your last remark, insipid as it was -

    "As we look, filled with the pathos of watching this figure struggle with death, we can’t help but hope that he summons the strength to stand, even if it means our demise."

    Even if it means our demise? Who actually thinks like that but some bleeding heart liberal? Worse than that - it's a damn lie. I guarantee most people, including liberals, would rather watch him die than have him be the cause of their own or their loved ones' demise, if not just walk over, pick-up the sword and put him out of his misery.

    Next time, try to actually think about what you're writing, or quit...

  2. #2

    Thurman, I don't understand how you read a "liberal bias" into this review of a two thousand year old sculpture. When the reviewer says we can't help but hope the Gaul summons his strength to stand, even though he might harm us, he means the Romans portrayed their defeated enemy with sensitivity and humanity, eliciting sympathy, though they knew the Gauls were dangerous, and in fact eventually the Gauls would defeat them. This is a poignant and poetic observation, but I don't see a "liberal" point in the modern sense. Rome created great art depicting the civilizations they enslaved with sensitivity, while nevertheless remaining a brutal and warlike empire that crushed it's enemies without mercy. This is a contradiction that reflects the complexity of history, politics, art, and human psychology, not a "liberal" point of view.

  3. #3

    Thurman, can you not separate the identity of the Gaul from his humanity? Can you not look upon that figure as the representation of man? You're a man, correct? Can you not see yourself as him? If you were him, you'd fight to get up, right? You'd want to find the will within yourself to stand, correct? Let's set motivation aside: to fight, to live another day, whatever. If you were him, you'd want to get up… right?

    That's the seductive power of art: to transport us, as we so often experience in cinema, theater, music. Sure, we can get lost in all of the formal qualities of the smoothness of the marble, or the craft to construct the figure. We can marvel at the veins, the life-like qualities, the muscle tone, the definition -- we could do that until we are speaking about the craft and figuration in nearly homoerotic tones and making people think we are on the D.L. But, that's a really superficial read, donchathink?

    Now… if we take a less superficial read and start arguing his humanity, and then begin empathizing with his humanity, then we might want him to live. Unfortunately, that might have a consequence: he… kills us. :(

    What I chose not to fill in was your point of view: which is valid, and which I thought about. But, I need to leave something to the reader. After all, CP likes these Vitamins around a few hundred words, and I like that you brought it up for discussion.

    Knowing that he might kill us, we should want him dead. But, I shouldn't want that too much, right? I mean, I'm not the soldier who slay him. Though, I mean, I am standing where he is standing--that Roman soldier--I'm not him. But, I need to be. I need to assume that role because that uncircumcised naked man with the porn stash is gonna kill me!

    But I can't, because I've never killed a man. I don't know what that feels like. I can't begin to imagine. Can you, Thurman? Can you?

    Thurman?…

    Wait…

    Have you?

    Thurman? Have you… Have you killed a man? Have you stood over another man, killed by your own hand, and watched him die and thought, "die. Just die. I want you dead!"

    Thurman. Oh! Thurman!!!! WHY, THURMAN!!! WHY?!?!?!?!

    See... all that thought about what I'm writing, and I did it without contorting it into some kind of bull shit political tirade. Seriously. Calm down.

    Thanks for reading! And thanks for trolling.

    (Bleeding heart… psshhh… http://youtu.be/5WlwCltYONc?t=2s )

  4. #4

    Art has a strong liberal bias. Apparently.

  5. #5

    As does truth.

    Truman, that's possibly the most convoluted attempt to turn something into liberal-bashing I've seen this year. Bravo.

  6. #6

    Matthew:

    You have poor reading comprehension. My comment wasn't about the Romans. It was about the last sentence where John says "we" not the "Romans". My point is that John is injecting his view about how people now should be looking at the sculpture and making a broad comment about it. Again, he said "we can’t help but hope that he summons the strength to stand, even if it means our demise", to which I say, "Really?". That is entirely John's sentiment. Why should I want him to stand if it means my demise? By injecting that feeling, John is projecting an emotional response into the issue which doesn't exist and then projecting that same sentiment on to others. If he had said that he felt that way himself, it would have been different, but instead he included the rest of us.

    Let me put it a different way...Let's say it's not Gaul, it's an Al Qaida member. You feeling the same way now? My response would be the same...

  7. #7

    John:

    I just read your contorted response and it explains why you wrote what you did. You're obviously an idiot. I didn't write a tirade, in fact I complimented you on your writing except how you ended it.

    Here is a good example of what I mean, in case someone else is following this, because I certainly don't expect you to understand it...

    "Knowing that he might kill us, we should want him dead."

    That's the point here. You injected that thinking into the sculpture when it doesn't have anything to do with it. After all, "we" the people viewing it could be seeing it as Gauls and not Romans or anyone else. The whole idea of this figure taking any action against "us" is a device that you injected.

    "But, I shouldn't want that too much, right? I mean, I'm not the soldier who slay him. "

    By injecting the unwarranted scenario you changed the focus. You did. Since you decided that the guy would be a threat then I was simply responding to your use of that scenario with a separate attitude - if the guy's now a threat to me, then I'm finishing him off, not standing there in awe of his humanity...

    "Though, I mean, I am standing where he is standing--that Roman soldier--I'm not him. But, I need to be. I need to assume that role because that uncircumcised naked man with the porn stash is gonna kill me!"

    That was the scenario that you wrote which was uncalled for, and that's all I said about it.

    "But I can't, because I've never killed a man. I don't know what that feels like. I can't begin to imagine. Can you, Thurman? Can you?"

    This just shows that you have a very poor imagination.

    "Thurman?…

    Wait…

    Have you?

    Thurman? Have you… Have you killed a man? Have you stood over another man, killed by your own hand, and watched him die and thought, "die. Just die. I want you dead!"

    Thurman. Oh! Thurman!!!! WHY, THURMAN!!! WHY?!?!?!?!"

    That is where you really proved that you're a true liberal idiot. Ever hear of the U.S. military?

  8. #8

    Thurman you lost me when you wrote that you weren't "a fan" of ancient Rome. Is that like being a fan of the Nats? Seriously? Is that how you evaluate history, and the cultural roots of our civilization?

    I think what the reviewer was going for was empathy; empathy for the loss of life, even that of an enemy. Soldiers, our literature tells us, often feel empathy for the enemy they vanquish. It's a human trait, not a liberal one.

  9. #9

    Rather than waste the energy trying to rebut with valid points laced heavily with biting sarcasm...

    Works within the Pantheon of art history are usually put there because they have multiple reads. The Dying Gaul possesses several, partly because it was thrice decontextualized: first when transcribed from the Greek bronze, second when it was unearthed and separated from any adjacent discovered marbles, third when it was crated and carted here. Long ago I embraced several reads of the work, probably when sitting in front of it for hours on the Capitoline Hill, back when Italy was on the Lira; I personally am not limited to looking at the work from only one angle.

    In a short post, after tossing out some facts about the piece, I picked one of those reads rather than present several; it's a "Vitamin" after all, not a dissertation. I chose a less conventional read because I posted Monday, not last week Thursday or over the weekend. There's little point to echo what else has been written by other critics, or by the NGA's press release. We should want critics to expand our understanding of a work, not simply repeat what you might already know.

    You are welcome to disagree with the position I took. The work of any art critic is like a shoe: try it on, walk around with it for a bit, and if the experience is uncomfortable, don't buy it. However, as you can see from the other respondents above, it's not that you disagreed with my closing statement (which, admittedly, could have been a bit tighter), it was HOW you disagreed with it: projecting an imaginary political bias into a read that, at its core, took a humanist position with a pinch of history wrapped in the subtext of formal appreciation.

    If I wanted to use the work as a political platform, I would have done so with unmistakable analogies. However, that would not be fair to the creation of the work, or the intention of its stay in the U.S.

  10. #10

    John:

    So you finally get around to a half-assed admission. However, no matter how you try to butter it up, the fact remains that I was right. If you don't want to see your last statement in the review as "liberal" minded, that's up to you. The fact remains that liberals conceptually would take a passive stance and in fact attempt to legislate pacifist dogma. Liberals look down on people who aren't afraid to defend themselves or fight as you yourself ignorantly exhibited when you made those snarky remarks about whether I had ever killed someone.

    Case in point - an associate of mine was walking at night on a dark street when he heard running footsteps coming up behind him. When the footsteps didn't deviate off to his side, indicating that the person running was going to pass him, he got the closed golf umbrella he was carrying ready and at the last moment, spun around ready to deploy it as a weapon. This jogger suddenly threw up his hands and screamed, "I'm just jogging" and only then deviated to give my friend the courteous path around him instead of just practically running him down.

    Flash ahead to a story that he told me about someone he knows. It's a bright sunny day and this person is walking down an alley when he hears someone running up behind him. He assumes it's a jogger and does nothing at all. Suddenly, he's banged up side the head and goes down. He's dazed and the mugger steal his wallet. It turns out the same mugger went on a crime spree mugging others before he was eventually caught. My friend's associate ended the story by saying that he could never do what my friend was ready to do and defend himself because he could never hurt anyone. Yeah, too bad my friend wasn't the one in the alley that day. The guy would've been stopped and his other victims never would have been mugged.

    My point being, my friend is a conservative leaning independent and his associate is a liberal democrat. Time and time again, liberal democrats play down the need for security, self-defense, and the threats that others pose to society. When you injected the idea that "we" should risk our own demise over this Gaul's humanity, you injected a clear an historical liberal bias into something that didn't need it. The fact that I called you on it is beside the fact. The fact that a number of weenies on this site are trying to defend you is irrelevant. The fact is that this was an action that you took, full of meaning, and you have to own it. Period.

    Maybe next time, don't assume that everyone is a naive as you believe them to be...

  11. #11

    Kob:

    You're a perfect example of someone is isn't half as smart as they think they are. Here's the proof: You said,

    "Thurman you lost me when you wrote that you weren't "a fan" of ancient Rome. Is that like being a fan of the Nats? Seriously? Is that how you evaluate history, and the cultural roots of our civilization?"

    First of all I stand by my comment because there are people who are "fans" of ancient Rome. Here's some - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGCG9SGZNy0 So it would appear that your knowledge base is woefully lacking, leaving you in no position to pass snarky judgement on me, Second, I evaluate history based on the actions of those involved. Although Rome brought many advances to Western civilization they were also brutal, hypocritical, and many other disagreeable things, thus my statement that I am not a "fan". They could have done all the positive things that they did without much of the brutality. Then again, perhaps you don't care about such things as rape, torture, crucifixions, etc. or is it that your knowledge of ancient Rome is set at the naive, pedestrian level...

    "I think what the reviewer was going for was empathy; empathy for the loss of life, even that of an enemy."

    Then you can't read. John Anderson injected the phrase, "even if it means our demise" which brings in an entirely different issue, which I objected to. Words have meaning and if John wants to be taken seriously as a writer, he better learn that and realize when his slip is showing instead getting all hung up over himself. After all, not everyone is as naive and effected as you Kob...

    " Soldiers, our literature tells us, often feel empathy for the enemy they vanquish. It's a human trait, not a liberal one."

    The point wasn't about empathy. John's screw-up was making it about empathy to the point of suicide by the enemy. That "we", whoever that's supposed to be, would empathize to the point of allowing him to then kill "us". That's where I balked. John thought he was waxing great emotion there, but it was actually pointless crap.

    You think you know about soldiers from literature? I know from knowing soldiers...

  12. #12

    I would just like to point out that the reviewer was not asking the reader to feel empathy for a wounded enemy soldier.

    Instead, he was describing a strong response to a chunk of marble...beautifully carved to resemble an idealized human form...referring to an entire ancient alien culture.

    Art and life can both elicit powerful responses, but they are not the same thing.

    If art were not complicated--if it simply invited us to reflect on how sensible it is to swing an umbrella at someone rushing up behind us--then it wouldn't be worthy of conservation and research.

    Art asks us to hold contradictory impulses in our heads, or to try to reconcile the ideal with the grimy and particular, or to venture outside of our own immediate experiences into unknown territory--not for the sake of winning hearts and minds, but for the sake of contemplation.

    Good art seldom asks us to have fight or flight responses, or to make simple distinctions between good and evil. That's agitprop, which requires a different kind of seeing and thinking.

    Basically, I don't think you guys are talking about the same thing.

  13. #13

    Oh, how I wish I had operated a more effective web search before first responding.

    "John Kerry is a bigger threat to American freedom than Saddam Hussein ever was."
    That's what Political analyst Thurman Boyd Hayes said back in October 2004.
    source: http://forums.prospero.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=1&nav=messages&webtag=kr-duluthgenera&tid=388

    Granted, we don't know who pays you to do your political analysis, not that it really matters. I think what does matter, as reflected in your comments above, is that you can't turn it off. Even in a moment where a critic obliquely references the myth of Pygmalion, and the likely consequence were that myth to come to fruition. (Clue - it ai'n't a peck on the cheek.)

    Also what matters is, by that quote, you likely possess a world view that is so alien to anyone in this thread (so black and white), that trying to argue that this work (like many great works of art) can elicit multiple interpretations is pointless. This is especially true since you have not given us your explicit perspective on the work. You've never told us. Your only comment has been to"guarantee most people, including liberals, would rather watch him die… and put him out of his misery." Every other comment can be categorized as vitriol, at times more insulting than your opening so-called compliment. If I may paraphrase, "John: Nice writing. Too bad it ended insipidly with your bleeding heart liberal bias. Try thinking, or quit."

    Jeffry is correct. We are arguing two separate things. We're talking about a work of art. You're investing waaaaay-right political analysis into rebutting something you've read into the art review.

    Let's see if we can put this back on track, because we're not here to argue liberal vs. conservative vs… whatever it is that you are, politically. This is ArtsDesk, not WMAL. Many of the above comments have some underlying need to try and understand your perspective of the art, not of your political analysis of my very brief review. And, since you have dedicated so much energy into hurling insult and defending your political analysis of my review, I think you not only owe it to us to tell us what you think about The Dying Gaul… I think you owe it to yourself to write it out and post it here. I know I have some gall to ask, but I'm dying to know.

    This is your chance to have the last word on the art, Thurman. This is the olive branch. Tell us what you think about the work. Then we can thank you and all go on with our celebrations of Christmas and the New Year.

    So, reflect on the art work, think it over, write it out, and get back to us when you're ready.

  14. #14

    Thurman appears to be one of those people so desperate to tell people about his political views that he'll shoehorn them in anywhere. Listen, Thurm, we've all stood next to the crazy person on the bus. We've heard these rants before. It's not novel, baby. It's boooooooooring. You're boooooooooring. I'm booooooooored.

  15. #15

    John:

    What can I say? You are truly an idiot. At least you provided the link to the article I was quoted in. So how many here want to be forced to carry a National ID card? That's what the quote was about. John Kerry wanted it mandated in 2004, it was snuck into an interview he gave and never mentioned again until NBC put said interview on the web. At a time when most liberals were saying we shouldn't be in Iraq and that Saddam had never been a threat to us, Kerry wanted us all tracked but kept that fact on the down low. I would say that certainly makes Kerry more of a threat to American freedom than Saddam Hussein, which makes you less than honest by trying to use that quote against me with thought that people will read that and not the article it comes from. Typical but painfully obvious. But I digress...

    Here's where you prove conclusively that you are dumber than material I flush down the toilet every day -

    "Also what matters is, by that quote, you likely possess a world view that is so alien to anyone in this thread (so black and white), that trying to argue that this work (like many great works of art) can elicit multiple interpretations is pointless. This is especially true since you have not given us your explicit perspective on the work. You've never told us. Your only comment has been to"guarantee most people, including liberals, would rather watch him die… and put him out of his misery."

    That last statement verifies that bad habit of projecting your thoughts onto others. In this case you've projected my comments about what to do about your statement of emotion if he were alive and a threat, to the reality that he is but a statue. You're the one that tried to bring him to life at the end of your article, I was simply dealing with that issue because you introduced it. Got that? YOU introduced it. The sculptor didn't, You did. If you had said "I" instead of "we", I wouldn't have bothered to comment because you would have been speaking for yourself, but nooooooo, you had to drag every reader into your feelings and make it as if we should feel the same way. Sorry, pal. That doesn't wash.

    You have also completely lost sight of the beginning of my original comment, which was -

    "Your review began smart enough and actually got better as it went along, "

    which means I was liking what you wrote, you frickin' moron. Didn't that ever sink into that brain of yours? Obviously not, which is a good indicator of your lack of real intelligence. You screwed up in the end and all you've been doing since is trying defend that ending, no matter what. My comments have never been a critique of the art but how your ending actually got in the way of your own critique of it by injecting emotions that were clearly politically motivated. It was beyond empathy for a wounded soldier, which has happened plenty of times through history and has even been depicted in military conflict paintings more poignantly than in the Wounded Gaul. It was when you projected on your readers the emotion that "we" would rather that he could stand even if it meant our own demise, which is total B.S. that went down the crapper, and you know the only reason you did it was to evoke some emotional 'cherry on top of the ice cream sundae' for your piece, to the point you didn't even bother to think about what you were really saying. I would ask if any of your defenders (who always avoid the direct dealing with the issue at hand) would they actually feel that way. In reality I doubt it, but here, where they can hide behind nom de plumes like Bloop and Bleep, and pretend that they're smarter than they are, anything goes.

    So again, I LIKED YOUR REVIEW UNTIL YOU SCREWED UP THE END.

    Did that finally sink in? I damn well doubt it...

  16. #16

    Thurman: I've been in museums on three continents, and I've seen people weep, laugh, and get beet-red frustrated by works of art on all three of those continents. I don't think the causes were dust in the rafters, constipation, or the giggle loop. I'm very confident those reactions were human emotions in response to the works.

    The luxury of being a critic (over a reporter) is that, at times, we get to apply those emotions to the analysis. Though, not too much emotion: it's a periodical, not a diary.

    I understood you liked the writing up until the end. Then I became a liar, and a bleeding heart liberal, and thoughtless, and whatever else. I think that's what's called a back-handed compliment. But, at least you haven't pulled your punches since. Now I'm excrement and an idiot. I'm still waiting to learn what you r-e-a-l-ly think of me.

    But first I'd like to know what you thought of the art. You said I missed the point, so I'm asking once again: I'd like you to clarify that point for me - the point of the art that I missed.

    I'll keep checking my spam box for that memo. For some reason ALL of your replies go directly to my spam folder (all other responses have gone to my inbox... so weird!). I guess that means an algorithm has determined, from your very first reply, that everything you have had to say is trash.

    Yet I'm still holding out for hope. It is Christmas, after all... the season of miracles. Maybe some divine spirit will intervene and direct your hands to compose a response that clarifies what emotionless interpretation I should have had for the work: what words I could have written that would not have screwed up the end.

  17. #17

    John:

    You know its rare to expose how self-obsessed your type is, but here you are, handing it to me on a sliver platter. You want me to write my own review of the sculpture because you think I can't. You would be wrong and stupid as well. How can I write a review of a 3D piece when I only have a 2D representation to look at? You're the one that allegedly saw the sculpture, not I. How am I supposed to write a review like or maybe you thought I wouldn't think of that. Remember? U told you people are as naive as you think.

    However, I'm not the issue here - you are. I said I had no problem with your article 'til the end which means I could understand your stated opinion about the art, until your injected emotion at the end. The fact that either you can't get that fact through your thick skull or you think you can play me into writing some art review that you can then do a snarky critique of, means you are a complete a waste of time. You are completely incapable of any intelligent conversation. You could have ended this dialog days ago by simply stating that you might have been overreaching by using the word "we" instead of "I" at the end of your review and that you have a right to your opinion in either case if you felt that way, but no. You had to try to defend your perceived right to tell *everyone* that they should feel like you.

    So John, I give up. Yes, it's all about you. How much smarter you are than everyone else, how your snarky comments make you look more intelligent, how much more you know about journalism and art criticism, and politics. Yes. It's all about you.

    Fortunately, you and your column, in the end, are completely inconsequential. All the rest of it is strictly in your mind, and you've done your damnedest to prove what a waste that is...

    See ya. Certainly glad I don't have to be ya.

  18. #18

    No: I genuinely wanted to know. I had no intention to attack it. Even if you were to only see it as a hunk of marble, beautifully carved, it is that, at least. However, you have not seen it in person: With that as your metric, I'll respect your decision to remain mum on the matter.

    All the same, I do encourage you to go see it... assuming you are in the area.

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