Thursday, October 15, 2009
Old Market Woman
Something I discovered that was a real shock to me during my SCAD years was just how much I enjoyed Art History. There may have been the occasional naps when the rooms were cold and dark and the slides were running, yet if I could help it I would always remain intent on the speaker. Never did I have a bad Art Professor, infact I had fantastic professors. Dr. Butz, Dr. Benson, and Ms. Jefferys were all amazing women. Though it may not appeal to many there was so much I got from them and I thought I would post my last research paper, which I found out was on a subject seldom studied, so I felt I may have made a substantial theory and mini research thesis. It's a meek 8 pages long, but if you're interested in Maeneds, older women without inhibitions, and mad orgies where men were torn apart, then please read on.
Ancient Art History,
Old Market Woman
When we think of classical Greece and ancient Rome what likely comes to our minds are magnificent ordered worlds crafted of marble that were the building blocks to the model of the modern civilization we live in today. We also think of massive temples, pagan cults, and the aesthetic archetype of the human body. Like so much else in the world there is more to Greece and Rome than meets the eye. In their sculptures one can find millions of questions and answers to their greatest mysteries and secrets. One such statue to generate this is the Old Market Woman. The Old Market Woman ( figure 1) is nothing like what one would expect from a Greek statue. The Old Market Woman is an example of realism that evolved in the Hellenistic times, as well as a votive statue to the god Dionysus, and a woman that can be compared to a drunk.
To begin the evaluation first one should present the statue’s estimated history and physical descriptions. Old Market Woman is a marble sculpture that stands just under life size at 49 and 5/8 in. It was bought by the Metropolitan Museum in New York with the Rogers Fund in 19091. The Metropolitan reports that it was made in early imperial, Julio-Claudian time of the first century AD.2 This is just a speculation as other resources have suggested that it is very difficult to date and can only be assumed to have been made in the Hellenistic period that began after Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC.3 Old Market Woman is also still under debate as to whether it is an original or a Roman copy. What we see of the statue now is not entirely true. We see an old woman with a slight hunch that is missing both of her arms. One missing arm would be carrying her basket of fruits or vegetables and chicken. She also wears a wreath of ivy, thong sandals. a sleeveless chiton, and clasped over he shoulder a large himation or mantle.4 As Edward Robinson describes in his article: “ the head itself is preserved, and has never been broken from the body, it was found with the features sadly mutilated, not by accident, but by a willful act of vandalism...to make the statue more presentable, the face has been restored here in plaster.”5
In the Hellenistic age there was a sudden appetite for individuality and realism. Idealism began to fade in favor of attention to a variety of experiences, individuals, and attributes that made people unique rather then similar. This shift came about in the fourth century BC which began expressing ordinary human emotions; however, “ It was the Hellenistic period when social and political changes shattered many entrenched patterns of Greek cultural life, that realism began to show signs of superseding the idealism.”6 Old Market Woman is and example of this turn to what could be considered realism because of her imperfect features. Her hunched back, baggy eyes, sagging breasts, and wrinkled features are “an attempt to reflect one’s experience of the natural and human world without the intercession of some notion of an ideal or perfect form.”7 Wrinkles and older generations were in no way considered beautiful to the vain Greeks obsessed with youth, who had “Blatant disrespect for old age.” and “old age is feared and mourned beyond wont by the life-loving Greeks.”8
What is most interesting about Old Market Woman are the many interpretations of what she represents and why the statue was made. J.J. Pollitt disputes that the statue “is probably depicted in the act of hailing potential customers in a market square, hoping to sell the chickens and basket of fruits and vegetables that she holds in her left hand.”9 He also mentions her ivy wreath as a symbol that she is part of a religious Dionysiac festival, but fails to mention her fine clothes. E. Simon suggests the opposite: that she is probably a participant at a Dionysiac festival making an offering at an altar, rather than peddling her wares or supporting herself on a staff, as usually assumed.10 There is more evidence supporting the theory that Old Market Woman was a participant of a Dionysiac festival than there is for the theory that she was a peddler in the streets. Consider first the fact the Hellenistic sculptures could be very public and often set up in places such as theaters, sanctuaries, agoras, temples, and other public buildings. They were also publicly commissioned as objects with religious, political, or social functions.11 Relate this to the fact that Old Market Woman “was found near a public area,in this case the vicinity of the Forum Holitorium in Rome, and may have been displayed there.”12 If the public were to commission a piece of artwork to be put on display today, what do you think they would ask for? An old panhandler, or an old dignified woman making a charitable donation?
Dionysus was a relatively new god not accepted into the Olympian pantheon for quite some time.13 He was a favored Hellenistic deity because he answered to the needs of many levels of society. His followers were known as thiasoi and thiasos- those that inhabited the wild outdoors as an alternative, cohesive society that offered a happy escape from city life.14 Dionysus actually started out as Zagreus, the horned child of Zeus and Persephone. The myth goes that the jealous Hera ordered the Titans to kill him. Hearing the news Zeus disguised his much loved son as a bull, but Zagreus was still found by the Titans and torn to pieces. Athena discovered his heart and Semele was impregnated with it and gave birth to the new god Dionysus.15 This ritual was reanacted by Greek women that dubbed themselves the Bacchoi to celebrate his resurrection. Led by Maeneds, or mad women, a procession of women devoted to Dionysus marched in wild procession into the hills, drank for two days, and would dismember a goat, bull, or man to join their souls with the god.16 Old Market Woman does not represent this brutal ritual, but instead the later festivals adopted by Athens: “Rulers of Athens tried to keep the cult at a distance, but failed; all they could do was to adopt Dionysus into Olympus, Hellenize and humanize him, give him and official festival, and turn the revelry of his worshippers from the mad ecstasy of wine amoung the hills into stately processions, robust songs, and noble drama.”17
Knowing the myth of Dionysus and his festivals being the reversal of normal order, it is easier to identify Old Market Woman as a votive statue dedicated to Dionysus rather than an old woman peddling her farming goods. The author of Hellenistic Sculpture, R.R.R Smith, describes “votive statues were dedicated to gods in return for divine favour received or anticipated. Votives can span the widest range of scale material and purchaser.”18 Smith also says “ Dionysian statues, the votives of worshippers, naturally represent the positive, beneficent side of the god. They are concerned with joy, delight, and happiness.”19 Such information can easily explain the uniqueness of Old Market Woman. Though she is old it certainly would be a role reversal to what the Greeks considered beauty. As a Dionysian votive Old Market Woman would be making an offering to the god that still considered her sexually attractive. The dress slipping off her shoulders to reveal her breasts also indicate this free spirit and lack of the normal womanly inhibitions.
The statue most commonly related to Old Market Woman is, not surprisingly, the Drunk Old Woman, figure 2. Like Old Market Woman the statue of Drunk Old Woman should not be taken at face value. When we first look at the statue one would see a haggard old woman sitting in a fit after having too much to drink. She is quite the opposite. “ Drunken woman is not a destitute, but part of the upper class. This can be identified by her clothing, ring on her left hand, and earrings. She may have been a famous drinker.”20 The two Hellenistic statues depict upper class women wearing elegant clothes. They are both Dionysiac festival goers as well, which can be identified in their actions and ivy wreaths. The difference is Drunken Old Woman has already arrived at the festival and Old Market Woman is most likely making her way there. Smith also points out that “ The old women, were most likely Dionysian votives... the statues are to be seen rather as objective, neutral portrayals of poverty and old age. They were not designed to make moral or social class statements, either negative or positive. They were not studies in the dignity of human toil.”21 Both statues were thought to be emerging images in Hellenistic genre statues, but both are more likely to be a new breed of votive statues.
Old Market Woman is a shining example of so much that can be misunderstood in art. She represents an evolution in Greek art toward Hellenistic realism, where the much feared old body is crafted in place of the ideal Aphrodite. Rather than a genre sculpture she is a votive statue to the god Dionysus preparing to make an offering of her chicken, fruits, and vegetables during a Dionysian festival. Old Market Woman has her companion Drunk Old Woman to represent what may have been considered low class destitues, but were actually festival participants. The mysteries of Old Market Woman should clear up if we look closer and realize she is a woman of class. Old Market Woman represents a new age of realism, a comparison to the likewise misunderstood Old Drunk Woman, and how art can evolve even in votive statues dedicated to gods.