The Human Touch: Priam's Arm and Homer's Legacy
In last week's book review it was Melville's eyes, this week it's Priam's arm. What next you may wonder. Lincoln's beard? Einstein's nose? Tolstoy's big toe?
Not that there's a whole painting devoted to the King of Troy's right arm in the Princeton Art Museum's new exhibition, The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. This beautifully human, downright scrawny limb actually occupies only a small but central place in a large work, Priam at the Feet of Achilles.
The painting in question is by Joseph Wencker. Of course you've heard of this old master, a legend in his own time. Or maybe, like Molly Bloom, you're saying, "Who's he when he's at home?" I don't know much about Wencker except that he was born in 1848, later than any of the other painters (about 50) in Princeton's portion of the show being presented in partnership with the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York from now through January 15, 2006. What I do know is that I spent more time admiring Wencker's painting, and especially that old man's arm, than I did any of the other gods and demigods on view in the main galleries. If you want some comic relief from all the academy-resplendent pomp and circumstance, go into another room (apparently the curators realized that Daumier's send-up of Homer should be kept apart from the main exhibit) and have a look at Helen of Troy carrying a cigar-smoking Paris on her back in one of the Daumier caricatures collected under the title Homeric Laughter. But if you want to see a hint of unacademic reality Daumier might have appreciated, go gaze on Priam's arm.
The subject of Wencker's painting is more powerful than the title suggests. It isn't merely that Priam, the King of Troy, is at the feet of Achilles, the slayer of his son, Hector. It's not even that he's pleading for Hector's body, which Achilles had been dragging through the dust and promising the spirit of his beloved cousin Patroclus (slain by Hector) to feed to the dogs. In The Legacy of Homer each scene or subject comes with a commentary and the Homeric line that expresses the moment better than the painting's title is from Princeton Professor Robert Fagles's translation of The Illiad: "I put to my lips the hand of the man who killed my son."
One thing that makes Priam's arm stand out so starkly is that you come to it after a preponderance of smooth, finely formed and smoothly toned torsos (even in death, the flesh of Hector and Patroclus glows with the light of life). Here, the formal realm of airbrushed academy propriety has been violated by a real arm, a mortal arm. You can see the puckered flesh of the old man's knuckles, the veins, knots, and ridges, the wiry thinness of his movingly vulnerable arm, not to mention his soft white cloud of a beard, and the straining of his neck, the very tendons of which seem to be begging, and his star-bedecked black robe. As Priam rests a distended-looking hand on the knee of his enemy, his other hand clutching the hand he's kissing, the gesture is tender, almost devout: there's nothing merely studied or academic in the pose (in contrast to many of the other scenes on display): it's the highest essence of supplication, as eloquently expressed as the speech in The Illiad with which Priam moves Achilles to tears. At the painted moment, however, Achilles is looking haughty, even perhaps a bit repelled by the kiss, his other hand raised as if to push the old man away.
At least Wencker's version of Achilles appears capable of killing Trojans. The same can't be said for numerous other depictions of the Greek hero, certainly not the svelte Achilles in Achilles Receives the Ambassadors of Agamemnom by Ingres. This lyre-playing, bath-house sybarite would be a poor match for Tab Hunter, let alone the great Hector. Ingres painted his Achilles in 1801, Wencker painted his 75 years later. Looking on in the same painting, Patroclus, seen in all the glory of full frontal nudity, looks like just another sleek patron of the sauna.
A good way to enjoy The Legacy of Homer (and that of Virgil, who deserves second billing), is to imagine yourself walking into a huge storybook, a condensed Illiad and Aeneid with full-color illustrations big enough to live in. If you're tempted to turn up your nose at paintings where risk and daring seem conspicuously absent, if you're itching to exit in the direction of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, stay with it, enjoy the show, because it's handsomely and thoughtfully presented, with the aforementioned commentary accompanying each work followed by the relevant passage from the Fagles translation. Since my acquaintance with Homer after college has been mostly secondhand (like the line of the legacy that lives in 1904 Dublin in James Joyce's Ulysses), I enjoyed seeing Priam and Hecuba and Niobe, all of whom are alluded to in Shakespeare's Hamlet. In his first great soliloquy, for example, Hamlet laments his mother's shortlived grief ("frailty, thy name is woman"), bitterly recalling how she followed his father's body "like Niobe, all tears." And after one of the touring players declaims the slaying of Priam as witnessed by his wife Hecuba (Pyrrhus "mincing with his sword her husband's limbs" now we know the fate of poor Priam's right arm), it rouses Hamlet to deliver the "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I" soliloquy in which he attacks his inaction by marveling at how powerfully the actor performs a mere "dream of passion .... And all for nothing. For Hecuba!/What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,/That he should weep for her?"
The Legacy of Homer gives us Jean-Georges Vibert's The Death of Priam and Eugene-Ernest Hillemacher's Hecuba Discovering the Corpse of Her Son Polydorus. But the painting I found myself spending more time with was Pierre-Charles Jombert's The Children of Niobe Killed by Apollo and Diana. Niobe, whose pride in her numerous offspring roused the wrath of the gods, holds her beautiful garment as if to shield herself and her last living child from the arrows of Apollo and Diana, who are wonderful to see, especially Diana, whose blue garment matches the blue of Niobe's robe: she seems to be mounting and riding the dusky cloud rising from the carnage.
One of the most interesting pieces of sculpture in the show depicts Achilles at the fatal moment when Paris's arrow pierces his heel. Achilles makes a more potent figure in plaster than he does in most of the paintings. What makes this work fascinating is the expression on his face as he turns his head to gaze at the arrow. The posted note says "he seems to dream." In fact, his expression could be described in those terms only if brooding suggests his abstracted awareness of what he knows to be a mortal wound. He knows his heel is his life. He knows he's been killed. The only way to justify the idea that Achilles is somehow detached from the moment would be to see it in terms of fate and foreknowledge, something like what Hamlet is aware of as he enters the last scene of his life: "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now, if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all." Achilles doesn't look ready, however; he looks angry.
Homer himself makes an appearance in Clément-Amédée Bidot's Homer Requesting Hospitality. Like Priam's, Homer's admirably mortal arm has none of the polish of the academy about it, nor does the bearded, uplifted face of the blind poet, seen against a rich blue evening sky.