Discobolus by Myron (Ancient Greek Art)

In any history, and above all in the history of art, there are two main aspects, from which the subject may be considered. The subject may be either studied from the point of view of general tendencies, the development of types and ideas, their national character, and the circumstances that surrounded and fostered their growth; or attention may be given to the achievements of individuals, their personality, and the contributions that they respectively made to the general progress.
It is true that in any comprehensive study the two must be blended, must supplement and confirm each other. Whichever principle is followed to guide the selection and arrangement of the facts, the study cannot follow it to the entire exclusion of the other. Yet the artist is no less dependent upon external circumstances for the occasion and the material of his works.
Had not the predecessors worked through generations of experiment and observation to improve the familiar types, to attain mastery over the stubborn substance of marble and bronze, and to acquire and perfect a skilled technique in the treatment of the nude and of drapery, no sculptor of the fifth century could have conceived or executed the bold yet symmetrical contortions of the Discobolus. Had Myron been born a century earlier, he could no more have produced these works than if he had lived at the present day.

Before the study approaches the work of this individual master, it may be advisable to take a more general survey of the character of Greek sculpture, as contrasted with earlier and later styles. No art, and especially that of sculpture, can make true progress unless it is constantly kept in touch with nature by observation. Here again the social surroundings of the Greek artist gave him an immense advantage over all others. The daily exercises in the palaestra or gymnasium and the frequently recurring athletic festivals gave him constant opportunities for observing the human form both in rest and in action.
This perfection of condition and of all-round muscular development with the help of a well-trained memory is one of the chief attainments of Myron. For the observation of drapery, too, he had constant opportunities in the figures that surrounded him in daily life. There he could see a variety and grace of texture and of folds such as no draping of a model in unfamiliar garments and materials could ever have suggested. It is true that the same opportunities for varied observation did not exist in the case of the nude female figure.
It is perhaps for this very reason that Greek statues of this type, however beautiful in form, rarely if ever impress us with the same breadth and nobility of conception as the corresponding male figures, whether of gods or men. The feeling of the Greeks themselves about the matter is well illustrated by the story of Zeuxis at Croton , how the people of that town, when they commissioned him to paint a picture of Helen, and wished to give him every opportunity for excelling himself in such a subject, allowed him to see a selection of the most beautiful of their maidens just as freely as he could see their brothers exercising in the palaestra.
This is evidently the meaning of the story, though it is misinterpreted by some later authorities in accordance with the eclectic spirit of their own age. Myron was a Greek sculptor. He is supposed to have been a pupil of Ageladas of Argos, but he worked largely in Athens. Sculpting in bronze, he was noted for his animals (of which no examples have survived) and for his athletes in action. His works are known through descriptions by ancient writers, such as Pliny and Pausanias, and two of them by copies, the Discobolus (Gr. discus thrower), the best copy of which is the Lancelotti Discobolus in Rome (Terme Museum), and Athena and Marsyas, of which there are also Roman copies . We know but little about Myron’s life. He was a native of Eleutherae, a town on the frontier of Attica and Boeotia. To judge from the list of his works and the places where they were set up, he must have enjoyed a reputation throughout Hellenic lands. The statues of athletic victors from his hand could be seen at Olympia and at Delphi. However, several of his most famous works were in Athens, and it is probable that his artistic career was mainly associated with that city.
He is recorded, however, to have been a pupil of the Argive sculptor Ageladas, who was for a long time the acknowledged leader of the Peloponnesian School of athletic sculpture; and it is said that his fellow-pupils were Phidias and Polyclitus. The dates of Myron’s artistic career can be fixed with certainty by the Olympiads of the victors whose statues he made; Lycinus won in 448 B. C. , and Timanthes in 456; Ladas probably in 476; but so famous an athlete may have had a statue set up in his honor some years after the event.
The traditional date given by Pliny, which makes Myron a contemporary of Polyclitus, is evidently wrong. His son Lycius was employed on an important public commission, the statues set up by the knights of Athens at the entrance to the Acropolis, about 446 B. C. We must, therefore, assign the artistic activity of Myron himself to the first half of the fifth century. His early manhood must have coincided with the period of the Persian wars. Of the great men of this period, our knowledge, after all, is most unsatisfactory.
Only one of the transitional sculptors who are mentioned by ancient writers, Myron, has a definite personality. He was clearly an artist of decidedly individual tendencies, who can hardly be called typical of any school. Though all of Myron’s works have perished, we have copies of at least two of them, from which we can gain a fairly clear idea of this ancient master. This is the first time that we have had to deal with copies, and it may be worthwhile, therefore, to digress for a moment and consider the nature of the copies on which much of our knowledge of ancient sculpture depends.
In the later days of antiquity, especially after the Roman conquest of Greece, there was evidently an enormous demand for reproductions of the famous works of Greek sculpture, and numerous artists devoted themselves to supplying this demand. Some seem to reproduce their originals with considerable exactness; others are obviously far inferior to them. Often one copy was made from another, and sometimes the copyists did not hesitate to alter the originals in details, so that many of their productions are reflections rather than copies, in any exact sense.
One very common alteration was the addition of a support in the form of a tree-stump or some other object. This was almost always employed when the copyist, as frequently happened, was working out a marble copy of a bronze original. Moreover, mutilated ancient statues, when they were dug out of the ground, were commonly handed over to a marble-worker for “restoration”, that is, for the addition of legs or heads or noses, whatever, in fact, was necessary to make the statue complete.
Thus, we have constantly to keep in mind that in dealing with copies, the problem often is to determine, from several widely divergent and differently restored copies, the general appearance and the details of an ancient statue. This method of procedure is excellently illustrated by the most famous of Myron’s works, the Discobolus, or Discus-thrower. The copies of this, which have been found, vary greatly in details. All are marred by the supporting tree-stump, though this was differently treated by different copyists.
Only one has a head, which has never been broken off and which shows the original position, as it is described by Lucian. One fragmentary copy was completely misunderstood by the sculptor to whom it was handed over and restored as a fleeing Niobid! The Discobolus is justly famous for its splendid suggestion of vigorous manhood, its bold pose, and its perfect balance. If it were not for the formal locks of hair, the rather expressionless face, and some ancient evidence, which fixes the career of Myron in the first half of the fifth century, the statue might well be regarded as a work of the great age of Greek sculpture.
As it is, we must probably assign the original to the years just before 450, and regard the unusual freedom with which it is conceived as proof of the originality of Myron rather than as evidence of a general adoption of such active poses by the men of the transitional time. Such an inference is borne out by some other works of the master, such as his group of Athena and Marsyas, and especially his Ladas, a statue of a runner poised on tiptoe just as he reached the goal, a work of which only literary accounts are preserved.
Moreover, down to the time of Alexander the Great such violent action as is suggested by these works was rarely represented by the Greek sculptors. These particular innovations, therefore, were little imitated by Myron’s immediate successors, but there can be little doubt that much of the progress made during the transitional period was due to his initiative. In compensation for this cooling of ancient enthusiasm, we may perhaps extenuate the one weakness noted by the ancients. He was accounted a master of anatomy and action, but weak in the rendering of the face.
Conceding that the faces are not very expressive, it may be doubted whether this is altogether a weakness. It is questionable whether the athletes whom he represents were very expressive of countenance, and it is altogether certain that their faces were not the subject of chief attention. In still further subordinating facial expression, Myron is but following the great law of concentration, which is recognized in all great art. Probably he could not in any case have been a master of psychic analysis, but it is more than doubtful if his themes would have gained by such mastery.
Other masters of the same theme long betray the same tendency. Myron was the earliest of the great masters of Greek sculpture. That is to say, he was the earliest sculptor whose works appeared, even to critics who were familiar with the whole range of later art, to be admirable alike for the boldness and originality of their design and the skill of their execution, and who was spoken of in the same breath with Polyclitus and Lysippus, with Phidias and Praxiteles. Quintilian himself declares that to find fault with the Discobolus argues a lack of appreciation of art.
The Dorian sculptor Myron specialized in athletes. A marble copy found in Rome demonstrates the way a sculptor may at the same time hold to conventions and reach out toward new forms. The Discus Thrower is really designed to be seen only from the front. Anyone who moves around to the side of this piece can see that it is all on a flat plane. The general line of the figure, which starts with the left foot and runs up through the arms, ending in the discus, suggests somewhat the tension of an opened spring, which will snap shut and propel the wheel into space.
The muscles appear about as natural as those in the contemporary Olympian pediment sculpture, and yet this is a single figure. Up to that time, single figures had always some religious significance and therefore remained columnar or geometric. This one is frankly realistic and may have been made pretty much for its own sake. It was no new departure in art for Myron to represent an athlete practicing the exercise in which he excelled. His great attainment, as exemplified by the Discobolus, was the choice of a subject and a moment that was suitable to representation in sculpture.
He appears to have been the first to realize the principle, never afterwards violated in Greek sculpture of the best period, that a statue or a sculptural group must be complete in itself, must possess a certain unity and concentration, so as to attract and contain the interest of the spectator within the work itself, and not to direct it to other extraneous objects, nor even to allow it to wander away. In the Discobolus, the self-contained completeness in the action finds its expression and counterpart in the lines of the composition itself.
It may be, as Quintilian says, labored and contorted, but the result is not, as might have been expected, restless in effect or tiring to the eye, because every part is in harmony with the whole, and the eye is carried on by an easy and pleasing succession of outlines round the whole contour of the figure . Beside this excellence of artistic composition, the clever choice of the right moment for representation and of an athletic exercise in which such a moment occurs must also be allowed their merit.
The disc or quoit was not aimed at any mark, but merely hurled as far as possible in a given direction, as in the modern competitions of putting the weight or throwing the hammer. Therefore, there was no need for the eye of the competitor to be turned towards a distant goal, but the head could follow the motion of the arm that swung the quoit, the position of the feet sufficing to define the direction of the throw.
A false restoration, which makes the thrower turn his head toward this direction, not only produces a painful and even impossible attitude, but also destroys the harmony of the composition, by breaking in upon the system of concentric curves in which every member of the body follows the swing of the extended arm. Athleticism, however, gave one important thing to the Greeks. It was from the models in the palaestra and the stadium that the sculptors of Greece drew their inspiration.
It was of course an immense benefit to that art to be able to see the stripped body at exercise in the sunlight, and that, coupled with the natural Greek sense of form, is the secret of the unchallenged supremacy of Greek sculpture. Perfect anatomy of the body was achieved even before the face could be properly rendered. The nude male figure was the favorite theme of fifth-century art, and extraordinary perfection was reached by Myron. Myron’s Discobolus is, of course, one of the best known of ancient statues. There are few statues of the fifth century, which thus select an instant out of a series of movements.
In the Discobolus, the clear lines of demarcation are not inconsistent with a correct and skilful modeling of the surface. The effect is perhaps somewhat dry, and suggests the appearance of a man in hard training, and even the tension of muscles that would not be exerted at the moment of action is portrayed. However, what convention is left is so thoroughly harmonized with the results of fresh observation as to give the impression of a living body, and to justify the criticism applied to Myron by ancient critics, that he “almost captured the souls of men and animals in his bronzes” .

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