Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 28, 2022
Sarah Betzer Animating the Antique: Sculptural Encounter in the Age of Aesthetic Theory University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2021. 272 pp.; 42 color ills.; 81 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780271088839)

When riding Line 1 of the Paris Metro you might encounter the Louvre-Rivoli station. As you exit the train you come face-to-face with antique statuary displayed in niches along the dimly lit platform. In the shadowy commotion of mass transit you may even notice the Venus de Milo stir to life among the crowd of Parisians and tourists. This contact between ancient sculpture (in fact, copies of works housed in the Louvre that were installed in the Metro in 1968) and that quintessence of modern life—taking the subway—has rich precedents, traced by Sarah Betzer in Animating the Antique: Sculptural Encounter in the Age of Aesthetic Theory. In this brilliant book, Betzer studies pan-European interactions with ancient Greco-Roman sculpture through the lens of visual art and aesthetic theory produced circa 1750–1900. Torchlit museum visits and the global diffusion of antiquities inform her vibrant exploration of how artists and writers engaged with ancient material culture (particularly its idealized form of white marble figurative sculpture) in the age of the Grand Tour, archeological discovery, and Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s art history.

Animating the Antique argues for continuity in the reception of antique sculpture during “the long modern period” (89, 203). The book encompasses excavations done at the Bay of Naples around 1763 to Aby Warburg’s concept of Nachleben der Antike (ca. 1891), or artistic revivals of the antique. Blurring the boundaries of periodization, Betzer contends that an intimately embodied experience of ancient sculpture that arose in the eighteenth century remained active deep into the nineteenth, across events—like the French Revolution—commonly used to distinguish the early modern from the modern period. This continuity determines the other part of her claim that ancient sculpture partook in modern life. For Betzer, “modernity” is understood “not in terms of iconographic and stylistic change” (4). Rather, the author situates its conception in what she terms an “eighteenth-century ontology of ancient sculpture.” This methodological framework of the book consists of three interrelated features defined in chapter 1: antique sculpture’s physical mobility through international travel and trade, its mutability through restoration and replication in diverse media, and its transformative capacity to affect viewers. In the following thematically linked, episodic chapters, Betzer brings this tripart ontology (which reads more as a kind of protophenomenology) to bear on scenes of sculptural encounter in museums, galleries, salons, studios, and archeological sites across Europe. From this landscape she cultivates an abundance of Pygmalion retellings and ghost-filled accounts in Pompeii as evidence of the at once enlivening and deadening effects of antique sculpture on its viewers. 

Betzer focuses her analysis on the translation of sculpture into flat forms of representation. For about 150 years, painters, printmakers, draftsmen, and early photographers accentuated the shadow and sidedness of freestanding statuary to communicate its three-dimensionality and tactile surface. The author originates this medial sensitivity in the paragone, a contest between the primacy of painting and sculpture as an art form since the Renaissance. This rhetorical debate later led critics including Diderot and Baudelaire to brand sculpture as archaic and static, eclipsed by “the painting of modern life” (17). Instead Betzer advances a “dialectic logic” (10) that more accurately captures the spatial resonance of ancient sculpture for graphic artists until the late nineteenth century when images of sculpture tended toward planarity. Her book is thus an exciting sequel to studies of intermediality in earlier periods, most recently the edited volume Sculpture in Print: 1480–1600 (Brill, 2021).

Interweaving Animating the Antique’s thoroughgoing discussions of artistic practice are theories of sensation and spectatorship by Herder and Vernon Lee, among others, who stressed the perceived reciprocity between an art object and its beholder. Betzer roots this “aesthetic turn” toward subjective, bodily responses to antique sculpture in Lockean epistemology and Jean-Baptiste Dubos’s Critical Reflections (1719). References to the “quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns” would have further contextualized her point about the volatile constitution of the antique in this age of aesthetic theory. The quarrel was a set of intellectual disputes that emerged in seventeenth-century Europe over the relative merits of ancient versus contemporary culture, which overlapped with the paragone and involved critics like Dubos. As Dan Edelstein and Joan DeJean have argued, it set the stage for the self-reflexivity about history contemplated by the Enlightenment and fin-de-siècle thinkers in Betzer’s narrative.

Chapter 2 investigates how the torchlit observation of sculpture in studios and museums manifests in contemporary images of marble in the round. Betzer probes shadow’s mediation of a preoccupation among artists and philosophers with the dual nature of antique sculpture as both animating flesh and mortifying stone. Examining lesser-known prints after Ingres, she extends her 2012 monograph on the painter’s studio practice to consider his designs for the publication of the French national art collections, Musée français (1803–12). These prints highlight antique statues with stark, eerie shadows reminiscent of phantasmagoria shows held at the couvent des Capucines during Ingres’s residence there. Winckelmann and Hegel similarly characterized antique sculpture in terms of an animating dynamic. In their foundational models of art history, they attribute the supremacy of classical Greek sculpture to its perfect poise and timeless beauty. Yet when understood to embody the historical remoteness of antiquity, these same qualities led countless critics to describe marble sculpture as corpselike and chilly. However, the association of marble with coldness has no scientific basis, as marble’s low thermal conductivity compared to bronze makes it relatively warm to the touch (31­–32). Thus, Betzer shows that under candlelight, marble’s smooth, rounded surface could enthrall viewers to the point of stimulating erotic desire. Following Whitney Davis, she asserts a queerness in the modern reception of antique sculpture that reflects the endurance of a “Winckelmannian homoaesthetics” in the nineteenth-century formation of classical art history. Accordingly, she harnesses gender nonconformity as an analytic throughout the book to reveal the recurrent power of ancient statues to “conjure unruly desire” (21).

The eighteenth-century recovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum encouraged these sensual responses. In chapter 3, Betzer targets the impact of archeology on the modern imaginary of ancient city life. Exhuming an unprecedented amount of sculptural and bodily remains, these digs transformed the distant past into a present reality. Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli’s work is one stunning inflection of this new material, immediate sense of Greco-Roman antiquity. In the 1860s, Fiorelli developed a technique for pouring plaster into the imprints left by Pompeiians buried beneath the volcanic eruption of 79 CE. The “sculptures” generated through Fiorelli’s casting process, and their widely circulated photographs, convey the perceived fluidity between sculptural and bodily animation occasioned by the mass excavations and uniquely enhance the book’s intermedial corpus.

Amid these excavations, visiting artists and writers revived Pompeii in the form of a female body. The famous “breast imprint” of an ancient woman’s torso, found at the Villa of Diomedes in 1772 and exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, became emblematic of the rediscovered city in travel writings. This motif also featured in Théophile Gautier’s short story set in Pompeii, Arria Marcella (1852), and in on-site sketches by the Romantic painter Théodore Chassériau (150–51). Chapter 3 assesses how firsthand observations of the Forum baths afforded Chassériau a more accurate, still highly imaginative, rendering of the ancient space in his painting Tepidarium (1853). Offering a queer rereading that transcends the Orientalized fantasy of male Salon critics, Betzer uncovers the creative potential of female homoeroticism in Chassériau’s bath scene. At the center one woman sits and stares in awe at another, who stretches her bare torso in a pose that echoes the Venus de Milo. Betzer forges a compelling comparison between this arrangement and images of the Pygmalion and Dibutades myths of amorous artistic creation. Still, one wonders how the hermeneutic of female spectatorship within the painting relates to actual female viewers in 1853 and their broader interactions with antique sculpture in Betzer’s study. Amelia Rauser, for example, has argued that women across 1790s Europe became living statues by appropriating styles of antique sculptural dress to fashion themselves as neoclassical tastemakers (The Age of Undress: Art, Fashion, and the Classical Ideal in the 1790s, Yale University Press, 2020). Relatedly, how does Tepidarium’s evocation of Dibutades point to women artists who studied antique models in museums? Betzer could have developed her discussion about artists sketching at the Capitoline (35–37) by incorporating Hubert Robert’s 1802 painting La salle des saisons au musee du Louvre (94), which spotlights a woman drawing from the antique sculpture in the room.

Chapter 4 does present women who bonded around antique sculpture. During their relationship from 1887–98, Vernon Lee and Clementine Anstruther-Thomson collaboratively wrote “gallery diaries,” published in their 1912 book Beauty and Ugliness in which they describe movement as essential for enlivening one’s sculptural encounter in the dry atmosphere of museums. Like Walter Pater, the couple advocated for antique sculpture’s affective relevance amid an increasingly scientific field of classical studies. This chapter parses Lee’s synesthetic views of ancient sculpture in dialogue with Winckelmann and Herder, the German empathy movement, and the studio exercise of drawing multiple views of a plaster or life model. In the coda, Betzer marks the twilight of a spatial understanding of antique sculpture with the rise of reproductive photography and partisans of planarity Adolf von Hildebrand and Wölfflin.

Effortlessly interdisciplinary, Animating the Antique deploys formal and visual analysis of art alongside fresher critical methods like queer theory and scientific data on marble’s materiality. Itself visually and intellectually stimulating, the book succeeds as a metarepresentation of sculpture in two dimensions. Its “accordion logic” (18) of organization is a model for those seeking alternatives to linear histories of art. Betzer executes this ambitious book with an ease that makes it a pleasure to read and a resource for anyone interested in the afterlives of antiquity.

Yasemin Altun
PhD candidate, Duke University