THE DISCOBOLUS

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“Discobolus”
Roman copy after a Greek original, c. 450 BC.
Lifesize
Marble
Museo delle Terme, Rome

It is an icon, some would even call it a cliché, one of the many great sculptures from the ancient Greeks that have been handed down to us through Roman copies.  It has, however, lasted throughout all of these years, and no doubt will continue.  It may not be relevant, but it was and is influential.  During all of its history artists have studied these pieces and writers have been inspired by them, including a most important San Francisco Bay Area poet.

From classical Greek sculpture to Goya, from Marc Chagall to Charlie Chaplin, and even from Morris Graves to Edward Hopper, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has always written about a variety of artists.  He also speaks of both the detail and the overall, both the immediate and the historical.  He notices the calipers in the hands of the sculptor as well as the ramifications for an articulated detail that carries us over the centuries.

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“Discobolus” or the “Discus Thrower” is of course a marble copy of the original bronze Greek sculpture by Myron.  And, at one time or another, it has made its way, through academic castings and copies, into almost every art school in the world.  This is where Vincent Van Gogh first encountered it in a drawing class in Antwerp in 1886.

“Students at the Antwerp academy were expected to work three or four days on a single drawing, so that during his six-week stay Van Gogh probably executed about a dozen sheets.  We know both from his letters and from eyewitness accounts that he copied several different sculptures, but this study from a cast of the Discus Thrower (ca. 450 B.C.) by Myron of Eleutherai is the only example to have survived.”[ii]

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Vincent Van Gogh
“The Discus Thrower”
1886
Black chalk on paper
22 1/8” x 17 1/2”
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Most recently, from Pop Art to the Post-Modern, we encounter themes and variations played out in an art historical context. Ned Rifkin in writing about the artist Robert Moskowitz’s borrowing of sculptural imagery from Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” to Rodin’s “The Thinker” and even to the Roman copy of the “Discus Thrower” has observed:

“Moskowitz reduced the barely recognizable image to a hard edged outline. . . . It becomes. . . its vestigal shadow and reads not as an experience of form in space but as a sign.”

“Certainly, the artist is making a statement about self-consciousness while also reinventing the form.  It definitely uses that known image and says, ‘What does it mean now?’” [iii]

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Robert Moskowitz
“Bowler”
1984
Pastel on paper
108” x 44 5/8”
Mr. and Mrs. Harry W. Anderson, San Francisco, California

[i] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; A Coney Island of the Mind; New Directions Publishing Company; New York, New York; 1958; p. 79.

[ii] Ives, Colta, Susan Alyson Stein, et al; Vincent Van Gogh:  The Drawings; The Metropilitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2005; p. 126.

[iii] Rifkin, Ned; Robert Moskowitz; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in association with Thames and Hudson; New York, New York; 1989; p. 42.

HOW TO PAINT LIGHT ON THE SIDE OF A BUILDING!

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Edward Hopper
“House by the Railroad”
1925
Oil on canvas
24” x 29”
Museum of Modern Art, New York. New York

“‘All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house,’ said Edward Hopper (or words to that effect), and there have been legions of poets and filmmakers obsessed with light. I would side with the irrational visionary romantic who says light came first, and darkness but a fleeting shadow to be swept away with more light. (“More light!” cried the great poet, dying.) Poets and painters are the natural bearers of it, and all I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life.”[i]

Painters and poets are indeed the natural bearers of light.  And, it would be difficult to overestimate the influence that Edward Hopper has had on later artists.  Gail Levin has explained this very succinctly in her essay “Edward Hopper: His Legacy for Artists.”  She writes:  “Many contemporary painters work on Hopperesque themes in a realist style that he would have respected.  Cape Cod scenes by both Philip Koch and John Dowd have been compared to Hopper’s work. . . . Walter Hatke’s Room of the Sun (1979) was one of many pictures in which he explored painting sunlight in interiors in a way suggestive of Hopper’s focus on light, particularly in the latter’s celebrated Sun in an Empty Room (1963).  Hopper’s themes reappear in the gas stations, street corners, and trains of George Nick, who studied with Hopper’s friend and admirer Edwin Dickinson….”[ii]

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Philip Koch
“Equinox”
1991
Oil on canvas
40” x 60”
Courtesy of the artist

Hopper has also had an influence on several contemporary writers such as John Hollander, Tess Gallagher, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand and especially Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  As a poet, Ferlinghetti has written about artists from every period.  He often uses the analogy for being an artist as ‘walking on a tightrope’ and applies this to everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Goya, from Morris Graves to Picasso, and from Marc Chagall to Edward Hopper.  In fact, he has paid great attention to Hopper in several poems and the two collections titled “Pictures of the Gone World” and “How to Paint Sunlight.”  In particular Ferlinghetti was inspired by a photographic portrait of Edward Hopper taken by Arnold Newman in front of Hopper’s house in Truro, Massachusetts in 1960.

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Arnold Newman
“Edward Hopper: Truro, Massachusetts”
1960
B & W Photograph
22 5/16” x 17 13/16”
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

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[i] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; How to Paint Sunlight; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2001; p. ix.

[ii] Lyons, Deborah and Adam D. Weinberg; Edward Hopper and the American Imagination; (including the essay “Edward Hopper:  His Legacy for Artists” by Gail Levin); W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1995; pp. 115-116.

[iii] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; “At the Hopper house” Pictures of the gone world; City Lights Publishing; San Francisco, California; 1995; #37.