The Invincible — Works about Hercules and Antaeus (2)

Legends of Greek classics have been explored in art through centuries, yet there is something special about the story of Hercules and Antaeus. In this section, we keep the exploration along the timeline.
The next three statuettes were all made during the 16th century. Interestingly, in all three cases, Antaeus is hold at much higher position than in Pollaiuolo’s work. Usually, Hercules lifts Antaeus up so that the giant’s buttocks are near or touching the hero’s genitals, but in these works Antaeus is lifted so high that the violence, which can be sensed more through horizontal body movement is much more restrained.

Antico (or Pier Jacopo di Antonio Alari-Bonacolsi) was court sculptor to the Gonzaga family, then rulers of Mantua in Italy. He trained as a goldsmith and developed a sophisticated method of reproducing bronzes.

Although by estimation, the work was finished only about 25-35 years later after Pollaiuolo’s work. Antico narrated the story from a totally different perspective. If violence can be used to summarize Pollaiuolo’s, then melancholy is what touches viewers with its immediacy and un-ambiguity. In this statuette, Antaeus is dying, with his body and head dangling in the air. Hercules, who was cast in a more masculine and bigger scale, holds the victim quietly and even may actually gently lower down the body. Although effort can still be sensed from his tipped right foot, his upper body is relaxed, arms loose. Heurcules here is not equipped with a club or wearing lion skins. The exposure of both male genitals indicates the artist’s intention to scale down the overpowering capability both men have possessed.

Even if one could resist the temptation of interpreting the gentle body contact of two males as a metaphor of homosexuality, he cannot deny Antico’s preference of beauty against violence. Here Antico made it clear his perception of Greek gods: they are human beings, both beautiful, one stronger, the other weaker. It is not a story about victory, but of tragedy and sympathy. Antaeus’ over-confidence and desire of honoring his father Poseidon may cost his life, but Hercules, having nothing to claim proudly, sees off a youthful life involuntarily and sadly, as do the viewers.

Jean Boulogne (1529-1609)’s work was estimated to be finished near the end of the 16th century. He was born in Douai in 1529, in what was then Flanders. As a fourteen-year old he was apprenticed to the sculptor Jacques Dubroecq. Having completed his apprenticeship, at twenty he left for Rome, to study the famous works of the Renaissance and classical antiquity. Therefore, it is not surprising that his statuette bears the same anger and struggle as shown in Pollaiuolo’s although violence has been reduced. On the other hand, Boulogne’s work shares more similarity with the one made in 16th century from Willem van Tetrode (1525-1580). In these two works, the physical difference between Hercules and Antaeus is not obvious. More importantly, the action is exposed in such a way that the tension is breathless but the match non-brutal. Holding and Leveraging are common techniques in Ancient Greek wrestling. Here in both works, Hercules is hold antaeus high enough to use his shoulder/head as the balance point of leverage. Antaeus, without stationing himself on the ground firmly, could not channel his strength efficiently against Hercules, thus a defeat is inevitable even from a tactic point of view, not to mention his spiritual support is also wearing out.

Bonus: A Broze statuette made in 16th century by an unknown Italian artist.

Also at the Toledo Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Art

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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