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Editor’s Letter: The Art of Mystery

2 February 2015

From the February issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

The Riace Bronzes have lost none of their enigmatic power since they were fetched up off the coast of Calabria in 1972. The warrior figures, known rather prosaically as ‘Statue A’ and ‘Statue B’, have been the subject of much scholarly attention in the intervening decades, as classicists and archaeologists have debated their origins, style, purpose and (above all) authorship. Were they in transit when lost at sea and, if so, where were they heading? Without wanting to ignore such questions, for me the potency of these objects resides partly in their inscrutability. This month’s cover image, which shows the head of Statue A, captures something that feels familiar and almost human in its drama; but the faintly pocked texture and bold details of the bronze hold the sculpture at bay, sustaining its tantalising foreignness.

In this issue, the Riace Bronzes feature in Peter Stewart’s article, which outlines the challenges that scholars have faced in interpreting the tradition of Greek bronzes when confronted with the limited evidence
of archaeology. The written record of antiquity, which celebrates many of the great classical and Hellenistic sculptors by name, has often functioned like a map of buried treasure, as the experts have tried to match the few bronzes that survive to the names that have become most resonant. Illustrated alongside Stewart’s article is a 4th-century limestone plinth, orphaned from the sculpture it once bore and carved with the name of Lysippos. It is an unusually evocative object in this context.

The collector Edward LaPuma, who is interviewed in these pages, talks of his desire to ‘get to the bottom’ of some of the more mystifying antiquities in his eclectic collection. From one perspective, this is about furthering his historical understanding of these objects, of their functions and styles, the better to appreciate them; but in the way that LaPuma relishes their tactility and capacity for surprise, he also seems to have a valuable sense of engaging fully with their strangeness. For the artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, also interviewed this month, the juxtaposition of prehistoric artefacts with his own photographs points to the perplexing nature of lives that can only be lived in time. Knowledge can be uncanny, and rewardingly so.

Though it may not be fashionable to say so, a feeling for mystery should be integral to how we look at art. I don’t mean that paintings or sculptures are puzzles to be cracked (although some may be), and
I’m certainly not suggesting that we eschew the contextual and historical resources at our disposal when we seek to understand works of art. It is more that, for many of us, the peculiarity of a work may be what draws
us to it in the first place; and that strangeness needn’t be excised from our way of talking or writing about it. However much one might decry the notion that art has an ‘aura’ these days, or some kind of intrinsic value, it feels like folly to reduce it to mere information or deny it all power of affect.

Having said that, modern artworks sometimes seem subdued when cut off from the ambient chatter that once accompanied them. The mystery of abstract art, for instance, might be said to occupy the gap that easily opens between a set of ideas and their realisation in art. To sense it, one needs access to the ideas as well as the object. As Rye Dag Holmboe suggests in an essay on the reception history of Malevich’s Black Square, the work easily appears reductive – even disappointing – without some knowledge of the political and metaphysical beliefs that contributed
to its conception. It is ironic that it should have the appearance of a work that has
deleted itself.

Elsewhere in this issue, Peter Stone addresses the urgent subject of how we might better protect cultural property in today’s conflict zones. As Stone suggests, the collateral damage that war inflicts on heritage sites
can be more than simply material: it can exacerbate resentment and create future hostility, in an apparent erasure of local
monuments and memories. We must do what we can to safeguard their mysteries.

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