As Classicists, I wonder if we sometimes lose sight of the immense beauty of the ancient world. More often than not, the art work that survives antiquity is studied, dissected, and analysed for content, iconography, social meaning, and even the techniques of production. The focus becomes the hairstyle on a female portrait bust, the military dress of an emperor who saw no war, the myths depicted in a wall painting, the species of flora or fauna in a mosaic, or the choice of decorating your home with second versus third style frescoes.
Somewhere in the midst of all of that, we forget about the aesthetic, pass over the pleasing lines of the human form, or the expert use of colour and shading.
We forget to appreciate these works of art simply as art.
The current exhibit at the Estorick Collection in London (until 21st December), does much to rectify this. The exhibit presents works of art from Ostia Antica alongside the work of two modern Italian artists. One a sculptor, Umberto Mastroianni, has previously had his work displayed within the ruins of the ancient city itself:
The other artist, the painter Ettore de Conciliis, was specifically commissioned to create paintings of Ostia for this exhibit, in addition to providing some of his previous works. The paintings have an ethereal quality of light and shading, which seems to be a hallmark of his work, and one that lends itself incredibly well to the ruined milieu one encounters in an ancient city. Yet his attention to detail, especially in regards to some of the architectural features familiar to anyone who has spent time in Ostia, provided such a sense of familiarity it was hard not to imagine the building as if you were standing before it.
The juxtaposition of statues, wall paintings and mosaics from Ostia with the modern paintings and sculpture forces the viewer to remember that these ancient works are art – not just to be studied from an historical perspective – but always and still meant to be viewed for their inherent beauty. Parallel lines between the old and new art were drawn in the arrangement of the pieces. For example, in the corner of one gallery, next to a fresco from one of the tombs at Isola Sacra depicting a young boy and his horse, hung a mixed media piece by Mastroianni, Yellow, Black and White (1965), which bears some resemblance to an abstraction of the same animal.
Art in and of itself is a powerful and emotional form. The art of the ancient world is no less so simply because its many components also provide so much more information about another time and place. I am grateful for the hour or so spent in this collection, being reminded to appreciate art for art’s sake.